Monday, March 02, 2009

First bills up in House Public Safety Committee today

The House Public Safety Committee will meet this afternoon and begin to hear legislation for the first time. Here are some highlights from today's short agenda:

Reimburse for police pursuit damages
HB 453 by Gonzalez-Toureilles is a good bill which would authorize funds from auction of abandoned vehicles to be used to compensate people whose property is damaged in a police pursuit.

Candidates need not apply
Myra Crownover has HB 590 up today that would disqualify anyone who's filed a campaign treasurer's statement with the Texas Ethics Commission from appointment to a Crimestopper's Advisory Council. I'm sure there's some specific backstory to this one that will likely come out at the hearing.

Closing public data about public servants
These I don't like so much. HB 120 by Joe Heflin and HB 598 by Hughes remove home address information from drivers license data for peace officers and judges respectively. This is problematic from a public accountability standpoint (as are proposals to remove date of birth information from public records for the same classes of public servants) because addresses and dates of birth are key identifying information to help investigators, reporters, etc., make sure they've identified the right person in the records, particularly when performing background checks or researching public corruption cases that involve personal finances. I'm not aware of incidents where such information has been misused, though perhaps some specific examples will come out at the hearing. But I know for a fact that closing that information makes public integrity investigations more difficult for reporters and interest groups, while achieving IMO little, tangible public safety benefit.

In fact, for judges in particular, I can give an example from my days as a political opposition researcher how that address information can be useful for investigating shady deals. In a Democratic primary race, I was hired to perform a background check on a challenger who, in the town where he'd practiced previously, had gotten in trouble for using his attorney's escrow account to pay for major home improvements - a big ethical no-no since that's the clients' money, not his. This fellow had a very common name, and knowing his address and date of birth was the only way I could have possibly followed the paper trail to uncover those key facts which ultimately knocked him out of the race. Had they not been discovered, there's a real chance this guy could have been taken seriously as a candidate and conceivably been elected to sit as a district judge. We're talking about critical, identifying data, and you need the same baseline information to investigate incumbents as for challengers.

I'm afraid that, with the corporate media weakened and fewer in number, such anti-open records bills will have an easier time of it than just a few years ago when the MSM more aggressively fought for open records at the capitol.

Who will stand up for the merits of transparency? Where is the constituency for openness? We've seen some positive expressions in Washington by the new administration, but right now I'm not sure I see a strong faction at the Texas Legislature, in either party, supporting greater government openness, and that's a little scary.

UPDATE: I forwarded this post to Reps Hughes and Heflin, and Rep Bryan Hughes responded thusly:

Thanks, man. I'm pretty big on open government - but I guess everyone thinks they are.

The judge's family in Chicago killed a few years back got my attention, and there are other news stories of threats federal and state judges and their families.

I suppose my experience with Judge Steger and his concern for his family had an effect on me as well.

I appreciate your point about the background information you picked up on the primary candidate, and I acknowledge that the information might have been otherwise been missed.

But I think to be independent, the judiciary must have a somewhat predictable level of safety.

In the balancing of interests, I am willing to let open government yield here.

I appreciate what you do, and I'm glad you and I agree much more than we differ.

That was a nice note and I appreciate the repesentative taking time to respond. Certainly Hughes and Heflin's bills are borne out of good intentions, and this is a matter on which reasonable people may disagree. But I fear the damage to investigative reporting and restricting tools for background checks on public officials may be a significant unintended consequence that's more serious, in the end, than the problems they're trying to solve.


Anonymous said...

It's pretty obvious that the only danger public officials would face by having their addresses in the public record is accountability.

If someone really wants to hurt public servant, they can easily follow them home. They'd have to initiate personal contact in order to do the harm feared - and the public official's work site is usually public information (a DA's office, a police department).

Where's the safety benefit? I don't see it.

Anonymous said...

Another taser death in Texas:

Anonymous said...

The threat of violence keeps them honest.

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of [prosecutors].

Anonymous said...

yeah, but putting the lives of innocent spouses and children aren't a big deal right?

The registry publishes the information on where ex-offenders reside and in many cases there is a spouse, and children there to receive an attacker in the door as well. What happens when some Gibson chick hits an 8 year old with a bat meant for mom or dad, as they open the door? is Texas responsible for it? Heck no, they Do a W, and wrote in they are absolved from guilt before harm is done...

Anonymous said...

Grits the last poster is a PORN site. can't read it, but if you click anything in there you get a surprise. Just wanted to let you know

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sorry, it was comment spam. I deleted the same crap off about 20 different posts this a.m. :-(