Mary's Scarlet Letter

Poss needs to pony up details on her ethics finding

Schmidt, who is now suing the commission, says in his suit that Harrison and Lundquist were sitting on the letter because they knew Gwinn would infer from it that Poss was not un-guilty and that he would use the information to embarrass her. Schmidt charges in the suit that illegally keeping the letter from Gwinn was a favor to Poss and to Poss' lawyer, who was the executive director's buddy and a friend of the governor.

I tried by phone and by fax to reach Harrison, the former executive director, but I was unable to raise him. Current officials of the ethics commission declined to discuss the Poss case or Schmidt's suit. But they did confirm that the commission only proposes a "resolution" of a complaint when it believes there is merit.

Schmidt says he went to Harrison and Lundquist and warned them they were breaking the law by withholding the letter from Gwinn. Two weeks later, Harrison and Lundquist fired him. They said he was being fired because he had omitted one document from a long list provided to another agency in an unrelated matter. Schmidt says he did omit the document in error; the omission was discovered immediately; the document was provided; it was a no-harm, no-foul clerical error and not the real reason they were firing him.

Schmidt is suing the commission on the grounds that his firing "constitutes a blatant violation of the Texas Whistleblower Act...which prohibits a state government entity from retaliating or otherwise discriminating against a public employee who in good faith reports a violation of law to an appropriate law enforcement authority."

At the end of 2002--one week after Schmidt filed his suit--Gwinn finally received an update. It told him that the commission had proposed a resolution of the complaint almost a year before, in November 2001, and that Poss had not accepted the proposal.

Immediately, Gwinn posted a Web page with a banner headline saying, "Poss Found Guilty!" or words to that effect. He says it was his interpretation of ethics commission rules that, "In order for the commission to have got to where they got to now, the commission would have had to have voted by a super-majority to find her guilty, to find that a violation had occurred."

Gwinn says he would treat Mayor Miller the same way if she broke the law. But it needs to be said that he is a longtime antagonist of Poss. And calling somebody guilty just because that's what you infer from the process is not a practice of mainstream journalism. The law, however, still applies: If Gwinn was entitled to the letter, he was entitled to the letter.

Even though Schmidt no longer works for the ethics commission, he is still bound by its confidentiality rules and won't discuss some details of the Poss case. But Schmidt is emphatic on one point: What Gwinn did, by publishing that headline on his Web page, was exactly what Poss and her high-powered Austin friends were afraid of.

"It was the exact thing that I believe the ethics commission and Tom Harrison and Ken Anderson did not want to happen," Schmidt says, "and it is why they kept his status letter back in the first place."

Which was illegal. The Poss complaint, by the way, is still unresolved and pending before the ethics commission, because Poss won't agree to the proposed resolution.

Gwinn thinks Poss should clear the air on the matter before the May 3 mayoral election by making public the commission's letter to her proposing a resolution. That letter would contain a description of what the commission believes she did wrong. Toward that end, Gwinn has commissioned 100 T-shirts that say, "Mary--Show us the Texas Ethics Commission letter!!"

So far Poss and her people aren't talking. I called her office and her campaign and received no response. I called David Pittman, her treasurer, who was nice enough at first but slammed the phone in my ear the minute he heard the words "Texas Ethics Commission."

The original offense here may have been small, even technical. But that just makes the situation worse, in terms of Poss' judgment. If this was all over a minor bookkeeping error turned up by a Web page gadfly, why couldn't Poss simply have 'fessed up, taken her licks and paid the $100 fine with which the ethics commission typically slaps people's wrists?

Why did this have to turn into a bunch of high-powered arm-twisting in Austin, whistleblower suits, a firing and allegations of criminality? How would Mary Poss handle a situation in which she had made a serious mistake?

Or is that what this has become?

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