Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Parsing English for vagueness's sake

The Texas Ethics Commission has made an embarrassing admission: The English language says what we want it to say. Because that makes corruption easier.

The editorial board of the San Antonio Express-News weighs in:

The Texas Ethics Commission in the past year has twice displayed an appalling ignorance of the written word in its interpretation of state law.

For the official watchdog of the Texas Election Code, the third time wasn't a redemptive charm, it was a disgraceful embarrassment.

At issue is a statute that requires state officers to provide "the identification of a person or other organization from which the individual or the individual's spouse or dependent children received a gift of anything of value in excess of $250 and a description of each gift."

Most practitioners of the English language understand this section of the Government Code to mean that an officeholder or candidate must identify who gives them anything worth more than $250. ...

In March and again in September, a majority of the commission ruled that what the code says isn't what it really means. Disclosure in Texas merely requires the
acknowledgement of a gift in the most vague terms. ...

Even if some uncertainty did exist, the Government Code allows the commission to adopt rules to administer the disclosure statute, such as establishing that the precise value of a gift must accompany its description.

The linguistically challenged commissioners have called on the Legislature to provide a law with more clarity. Lawmakers should do more. They should clear out commissioners and staff who have such a fundamentally flawed understanding of ethics laws.

There are many times I do not agree with what the editorial board says, but this time I heartily concur. It's a shame that the watchdog that is supposed to keep state politicians somewhat honest is helping their corruption, and it's sad that they sacrifice the English language for that complicity.

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