After initially defying calls for his resignation, one long-time commissioner on the Texas Ethics Commission resigned late Friday. The resignation comes as evidence mounts that he may have been violating state lobby laws while serving on the commission.
Tom Harrison, a Democratic Party appointee on the Texas Ethics Commission (“TEC”) and the commission’s vice chairman, submitted his resignation to Gov. Abbott on Friday. Harrison was appointed to the TEC in 2004 after working as the agency’s executive director.
Despite a constitutional prohibition on TEC Commissioners serving more than two four-year terms, Harrison had continued to “hold-over” on the commission since his term expired in 2011. He is not alone. Three of the other seven TEC commissioners are also continuing to act despite having expired terms.
The situation drew the ire of conservative groups who have been under attack by the rogue agency in recent years. On May 31st, Grassroots America, the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, the Texas Home School Coalition, Texas Right to Life, Texas Values, and Empower Texans sent a joint letter to Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick, and Speaker Straus urging them to make appointing new commissioners a priority.
But documents uncovered through open records requests sent to the legislature by Texas Scorecard suggest that Harrison did not resign because of the holdover problem alone.
Indeed, in a fax to State Sen. John Whitmire on June 2nd, Harrison forwarded a copy of the coalition letter and defiantly pointed out that he had “met with the Chairs of the Senate [Democratic] Caucus every year to determine if they want to replace [him] and all have said ‘no.’”
Harrison has known for five years that he has been acting as a TEC commissioner contrary to a constitutional prohibition. So why resign now?
That answer is becoming more and more clear as documents are produced by legislative offices following an open records request by Texas Scorecard.
Tom Harrison works as the Deputy Director in charge of governmental affairs for the Texas County & District Retirement System (“TCDRS”), a quasi-governmental entity set up by the legislature to manage the pensions of government employees. According to TCDRS’s website, Harrison “serves as the liaison to both the Texas Legislature and associations of county and district officials.”
In other words, Tom Harrison is a lobbyist. But state records indicate Harrison has not registered his lobbying activities with the agency he oversees.
Had Harrison registered, he would have revealed himself to be violating Tex. Gov’t Code §571.0231, which prohibits lobbyists from serving on the TEC. But by not registering, Harrison is guilty of the greatest hypocrisy.
Under Harrison’s direction, the Texas Ethics Commission has pursued years of litigation against Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans, accusing the conservative leader of being an “unregistered lobbyist” due to Empower Texans’ publication of the Fiscal Responsibility Index.
Yet documents uncovered by Texas Scorecard show that Harrison has this month invited legislators to a TCDRS event including “dinner and entertainment” at the Touchdown Club located at Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium.
Harrison will have a hard time arguing that his activities don’t constitute lobbying. Earlier this year, he and the other TEC commissioners approved an advisory opinion holding that merely accepting a meeting to discuss legislation, even at the request of a legislator, could cause a person to be forced to register as a lobbyist.
Not all legislators have yet responded to the open records requests, so the full evidence of Harrison’s lobbying activities is not yet known. As more records come in, it may be proper to pursue an ethics complaint against Harrison with his former agency.
Although Tom Harrison has resigned, there are still three TEC commissioners serving past their proper terms – Wilhelmina Delco, Paul Hobby, and Bob Long. All three should resign, and be replaced. In fact, because the three commissioners have served a full term plus part of a second term, they are ineligible to be reappointed according to the Texas Constitution.
Tom Harrison’s replacement will be appointed by Gov. Abbott upon the recommendation of the Senate Democratic Caucus or any individual Democratic state senator. By law, the new commissioner must be affiliated with the Democratic Party.