Ignorance is bliss

Two supposed champions of open government are pushing hard to keep campaign finance records off the Internet. What don't they want you to know?

"Debra should be one of our champions on electronic filing," Smith says. "But I guess out of misinformation or out of concern that the data will be misused, she has decided to drag her feet."

He says the same about Wolens, the Oak Cliff Democrat who co-chaired last year's campaign finance reform panel with Danburg. Wolens, too, opposes the concept of mandatory electronic filing and says Texans couldn't care less about whether a politician's contributions are available to them instantaneously on the Internet. The only people who give a rip, he says, are newspaper reporters and Smitty.

Danburg, 47, says she thinks Smith wants the bill passed so he and his government-watchdog comrades--her former comrades--can more easily carry out their agenda "to make it look like we are all bought and paid for by outside interests." She says the "Mortgaged House" report didn't faze her, because "the people in my district are smart enough to see through that bullshit."

Supporters of mandatory electronic filing think Texans ought to see through hers.

Danburg maintains she hasn't one iota of concern that she and her colleagues could be sullied if their contribution reports became easily accessible on the Internet. She says her opposition to the bill is based solely on the principle that the state should not dictate to candidates how to spend their campaign money. She believes it is unfair to require candidates, especially those who run campaigns on shoestring budgets, to purchase computers and maintain computer programs to satisfy a state law.

What she doesn't mention is that the bill exempts those who run low-budget campaigns or are willing to sign affidavits saying they're not equipped with a computer.

Those exceptions do little to mollify Danburg, a lawyer, who finds the affidavit insulting. She says it's like asking candidates to declare, "We're too incompetent to represent you. We're idiots."

Absurd reasoning being the biggest insult of all, supporters of mandatory electronic filing think Danburg, Wolens, and other legislators who oppose the idea are playing the public for idiots.

"Danburg's stated reasons for opposing electronic filing don't pass the laugh test," says Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice. "Her opposition more likely stems from a desire to protect her own self-interest or that of her colleagues who don't want voters to track where their money comes from."

Danburg represents some of Houston's more liberal and eclectic neighborhoods, including Montrose, The Heights, and Memorial Park. Her seven-page vita advertises that she belongs to the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood and that she lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment. Two of the seven pages are devoted to awards she's received in areas such as animal rights, environmental protection, gay rights, and human rights.

Yet her campaign treasury has been fattened by PACs and individuals who would make her constituents see red.

Although Danburg faced a Republican challenger in 1998, that party didn't target her for defeat. Her race, as a result, was a slam dunk. Danburg nevertheless raked in about $208,000 in campaign contributions in 1997 and 1998, according to an analysis of her contribution reports by Texans for Public Justice.

About $100,000, or 47 percent of her total, came from PACs or businesses such as law firms. And that $100,000 doesn't reflect contributions from individuals with ties to the businesses, trade associations, and law firms that routinely lobby the Legislature.

"Danburg's fundraising practices are like those of many legislators: A large chunk of her money comes from Austin," McDonald says. "Businesses and PACs chip in more than real folks, and small donors account for very little of the money."

Among Danburg's donors is the PAC for Service Corporation International, the Houston-based funeral-services giant currently involved in a fight with the state's Funeral Services Commission over its alleged illegal embalming practices.

Some of her individual contributors appear to run counter to Danburg's stated philosophy of protecting the environment. Bill Messer, a lobbyist whose major clients include the American Plastics Council, the Texas Chemical Council, and the Association of Chemical Industry of Texas, gave her $1,000. She also received $1,000 from Charles Hurwitz of Houston, the CEO of Maxxam, a subsidiary of which owns the last privately held redwood forest in Northern California. Logging has increased since Hurwitz bought the land in 1985, sparking rallies, sit-ins, and other spirited protests from environmentalists who want the forest set aside as a public preserve. Last September, a 24-year-old Earth First! activist from Austin who was trying to block logging on Hurwitz's property was killed when a falling tree hit him in the head.

In order to analyze Danburg's most recent contributions, Texans for Public Justice had to get her reports from the ethics commission, which is on the 10th floor of a building connected to the Capitol by an underground tunnel. Visitors can review campaign finance reports during regular office hours. The agency charges a reasonable 10 cents a page for copies.

For people not in the Austin area, however, obtaining reports is often costly and inconvenient. They have three options: trekking to Austin to review the documents in person; having the commission fax the report at $2 a page (Danburg's 1998 reports, which also list her campaign expenditures, would cost $384 by fax); or having the commission send copies by mail at 10 cents a page plus postage. Copying, however, is not always a thrifty proposition. Gov. George W. Bush tried to be cute by filing a 12,797-page contribution and expenditure report in January 1998, putting only two contributions on each page in an effort to deter people from copying it.

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