Truitt's lobbying job draws fire from Davis

Posted Wednesday, Mar. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- State Sen. Wendy Davis raised ethics concerns Wednesday about former state Rep. Vicki Truitt for serving as a lobbyist for the payday loan industry that she oversaw as a lawmaker until recently.

Truitt, a Republican who was defeated for re-election last year, served as chairwoman of the House Committee on Pensions, Investments and Financial Services before leaving office in January.

"I think it gives the appearance of an impropriety and, obviously, appearances matter," Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, said of her former Republican colleague, who left the Legislature in January.

"The voters in Texas need to feel secure," Davis said. "They need to feel confident that when we're here representing them in the Capitol, we're not looking out for how we're going to turn a buck."

Truitt, a former state representative from Keller, is a now lobbyist for ACE Cash Express, a payday lending company based in Irving. As chairwoman of the committee, Truitt pushed a three-bill package in 2011 that she said brought needed regulation to payday lenders but that critics, including Davis, attacked as being industry-friendly.

Two of the bills were signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry. The third died in the Legislature.

"Just the appearance" of having an elected official who chaired a committee "that passed watered-down pieces of legislation last session now working for the very industry that she was tasked with overseeing in her committee, it just ... doesn't look good," Davis said in a telephone interview.

Truitt defended her work on the issue during the 2011 Legislature and said she has committed no ethical breach by becoming a lobbyist. She said that her work for the industry enables her to continue "unfinished business" that she wanted to achieve with the bill that failed to pass.

"I'm coming at it from a different perspective, but my interest is still the same, and the good operators want reasonable regulation," she said.

Truitt also fired a shot at Davis, who was accused of ethical lapses during her hard-fought re-election battle against former Republican Rep. Mark Shelton of Fort Worth. Shelton accused Davis of failing to disclose that employees of her law firm lobbied on "subject matter" interests that overlap committees that Davis served on.

"I like and respect Sen. Davis but ... she's had some ethical accusations thrown her way and nobody accused me of lobbying while I was still in office," Truitt said.

Davis dismissed Shelton's charges as "not true," saying that she "complied absolutely with every ethics law in the state of Texas." She also said that her law partner has never lobbied her on behalf of their law firm, adding that her conduct has been "open, honest and very transparent."

Payday lending

The exchanges between the two former colleagues came as lawmakers prepare to engage in a renewed debate over payday lending.

Critics have long accused unscrupulous lenders of subjecting consumers to usurious interest and fees by forcing them into continued debt. Industry officials say the most of the industry is comprised of ethical lenders who perform a needed service but say they welcome reasonable regulation to weed out bad actors.

Davis, who has made the issue one of her top priorities since entering the Legislature in 2009, has introduced a package of bills to toughen regulations and preserve cities' rights to pass local ordinances governing the industry.

"What I want to see is major reform," said Davis. "Last session, the quote unquote reforms that went through were ridiculously weak."

Sen. John Corona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, has also crafted a much-anticipated comprehensive bill after working with representatives on varying sides of the issue.

Corona described the two Truitt-sponsored bills from 2011 as "first steps" and said his measure is designed to break "the cycle of debt" incurred by consumers, which is also one of Davis' fundamental goals.

Truitt acknowledged that she and Davis had fundamentally differing positions.

"The difference between her position and mine on this is I believe there is a market and a need for these long term," Truitt said. "It is my opinion that her bills last session would have run these people out of business.

"My interest has not changed," she said. "I still want to see reasonable regulation of the industry."

Revolving door

Davis is calling for action to close the so-called "revolving door" in which legislators and agency officials become lobbyists for industries that they regulated as public servants. The Texas Tribune reported earlier this year that at least eight former lawmakers, including Truitt, are now lobbyists.

"I think we have to have a culture where we don't have a revolving door of legislators who leave the capitol where they've been able to influence legislation on behalf of clients who they then go to work for," she said. "And the same is true for people who are serving on boards and commissions.

"It just doesn't make sense at all," she said.

Davis endorsed the concept of legislation sponsored by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, that would bar legislators from lobbying for the two regular sessions after leaving office.

She also filed a bill on Wednesday that would extend the restriction to the bureaucracy by prohibiting former officers and executive in state agencies from lobbying for two years.

Truitt, who lost to current Rep. Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake in the 2012 Republican primary, said she sees nothing improper in her decision to become a lobbyist. "It happens all the time," she said. "I'm not unique."

In a filing with the Texas Ethics Commission, Truitt listed two clients - ACE Cash Express and the Texas Retired Teachers Association. She reported prospective compensation of between $25,000 and $49,999 for ACE, and between $50,000 to $99,999 for the teachers association.

Truitt said the payday lender approach her about the lobbying job and stressed that she made no attempt to get lobby clients while she was a legislator.

"I did nothing while I was in office to lift a finger to pursue business," she said. "I was very careful about not crossing that line."

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief, 512-739-4471

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