The Ethics Commission vs. Empower Texans: Who’s so nuts?

11/15/2013 6:07 PM

11/15/2013 6:07 PM

For half a century, lobbying the Texas Legislature was an outright crime.

Since 1957, direct lobbying to influence legislation is no longer a prison offense. Now, it’s reported, regulated and recorded for all to review by the Texas Ethics Commission.

That way, both lawmakers and all Texans know exactly who’s behind political advocacy.

When someone visits or emails the Texas Capitol, everyone should know whether that’s a professional lobbyist working on behalf of an employer or client, or a private citizen.

In recent months, the Texas Ethics Commission has taken a closer look at the mandatory lobbyist registration law and whether it also applies to anyone paid to visit or email lawmakers about legislation.

That includes advocates from 501(c)3 educational organizations such as Austin-based Empower Texans or its 501(c)4 political affiliate, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.

For the sake of transparency and accountability, you’d think anyone paid to influence the Legislature would want to register and report spending openly.

But when the Ethics Commission asked Empower Texans executive Michael Quinn Sullivan to register and pay a $1,000 penalty — after a two-day inquiry over whether he lobbied without registering — Sullivan responded in red block letters:

“Nuts.”

Sullivan is all but daring the Ethics Commission to set a public hearing on two complaints filed March 12.

State Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, and former state Rep. Vicki Truitt, a Keller Republican, both accuse Sullivan, a registered lobbyist in 2007-09, of visiting and emailing lawmakers in 2010-11 without registering or filing a report.

In a statement issued with the complaint, Keffer said it involves “important state ethics laws designed to let the public find out who’s lobbying and what they’re spending.”

In statements published online, Empower Texans has compared the inquiry to the politically one-sided IRS investigations of some Tea Party groups and called it an attempt to silence donors’ confidential free speech.

According to Sullivan’s online commentary, the “nuts” reply mirrored U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s 1944 reply to a German surrender demand during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge.

Another advocate from a 501(c)4 political group, Alice Linahan of Austin-based Women on the Wall and the Argyle-based business VoicesEmpower.com, no longer faces an ethics inquiry into whether she was paid for visits or emails to lawmakers but failed to register.

The Ethics Commission rejected that complaint on technical reasons. The commission has yet to call a hearing in the Empower Texans complaint.

But in a time when the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has given campaign donors more First Amendment freedom than ever, it is important for the Ethics Commission to uphold liberty and fairness but also promote openness and accountability.

Even the Washington-based American League of Lobbyists now calls for registration for anyone paid to visit or email lawmakers directly on behalf of an employer or client.

It’s not so nuts.

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