Monday, February 7, 2011

Rick Casey's Last Word | February 4, 2011

You may have heard the expression, “The law is an ass.”

It comes from Charles Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist.”

One of the characters, Mr. Bramble, is accused of stealing a piece of jewelry from Oliver’s mother.

Mr. Bramble replies to the court that his wife had lifted it while he wasn’t looking.

A lawyer responded that "that is no excuse" .

"'You were present on the occasion” the lawyer said, “and indeed, you are the more guilty of the two, in the eye of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction."

"'If the law supposes that,' said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, 'the law is a ass — a idiot.”

San Antonio’s city ethics law has been invoked to deal with Councilwoman Jennifer Ramos for allegedly using her office to help her employer in its dealings with City Hall.

I’m not here to pass judgment on her, but I can report on an occasion when the city’s ethics law truly was, to quote Dickens, “a ass.” 

And it involved a husband being held responsible for his wife.

But unlike in “Oliver Twist,” she had done nothing wrong.

It was 1995 and the City wanted to buy a large amount of gasoline and diesel. 

It was a very simple, clean process.

Companies submitted sealed bids. The low bidder, at about $3 million, was Diamond Shamrock, whose director of investor relations was Mary Hartman, then the wife of Councilman Robert Marbut.

There was no evidence that Marbut had attempted any influence over the process, and he was prepared to abstain from the vote.

What’s more, there was no evidence that his wife would profit from the deal.

She had not lobbied for it and would receive no bonus.

Nevertheless, the city attorney stunned onlookers by announcing that if the City accepted Diamond Shamrock’s low bid, Marbut was automatically removed from the council.

Rather than cause that to happen, Diamond Shamrock withdrew its bid, and the taxpayers paid more than need be for the fuel.

There may have been some politics involved.

Marbut was on the outs with then-Mayor Bill Thornton.

But politics or not, when it came to a wife and gas, the law was a ass.

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