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Texas ethics panel: Disclose the check, but not its size

It's the thought that counts, not the size of the gift, the Texas Ethics Commission has ruled, saying public officials don't have to tell anyone how much money they get as presents from political donors.

One legislator said that violates the intent of state law and called the commission spineless.

Texas law requires public officials to file personal financial disclosure statements describing any gifts they get that are worth more than $250.

However, the ethics commission voted 5-3 to approve a staff advisory opinion that said describing such a gift simply as a "check" is enough.

The case stems from a June 2005 disclosure filed by Dallas businessman Bill Ceverha, a member of the State Employees Retirement System board, which oversees a nearly $20-billion fund for 250,000 retired state workers.

Ceverha reported a gift, described only as a check, from Houston home builder Bob Perry, the largest Republican donor in the state. Both men later said the check for $50,000 was supposed to help cover legal fees Ceverha incurred defending himself against a lawsuit related to his role as treasurer of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay's Texas fundraising operation.

State Rep. Lon Burnam, who sued the ethics commission in April asking that "meaningful" descriptions of gifts be required, said the panel's opinion "clearly, obviously violates the intent of the law. They deliberately, I think, misconstrued it and they are showing how utterly spineless and useless they are as an ethics commission."

Four legislators have filed bills that would change the law's wording to require disclosure of the value of a monetary gift.