In response to calls for him to lift government restrictions he has imposed on Texas businesses, Gov. Greg Abbott has appointed a “Strike Force to Open Texas” to study the issue and make recommendations. But his appointment of a lobbyist to serve as chief operating officer of the strike force has drawn questions from Texans concerned about conflicts of interests.
Abbott appointed taxpayer-funded lobbyist Mike Toomey to serve as the COO of the strike force. As a partner of Texas Lobby Group, Toomey earns upwards of 3 million dollars per year lobbying on behalf of more than two dozen clients, including Walmart, pharmaceutical giant Merck, and local governments like the cities of Houston and San Antonio.
According to his website, Toomey has taken a “leave of absence” from Texas Lobby Group, deregistered as a lobbyist, and has assigned his clients to his partner, Lara Keel. However, it appears that Toomey maintains a financial interest in the firm and expects to return to his private-sector lobbying gig when his work on the strike force is complete.
This raises serious concerns that Toomey’s obligations to his clients may cause conflicts of interest as he recommends actions to Gov. Abbott to reopen Texas businesses.
For example, Gov. Abbott, local mayors, and county judges have frequently issued conflicting orders regarding stay-at-home policies. Toomey’s immediate past duties to the City of Houston and City of San Antonio certainly raise concern here about conflicts for him on the strike force.
But his business partner’s present duties to such clients arguably present an even greater issue. Can Toomey be a neutral and effective member of a strike force to reopen Texas if he has a direct financial interest in competing interest groups and parties? Will Toomey represent Texas and the strike force, or the cities of Houston and San Antonio?
At a news conference on Tuesday, one reporter asked Gov. Abbott about the appearances of appointing a lobbyist to head up the project. Abbott defended his choice, noting that Toomey had deregistered as a lobbyist and defending him as a person who “knows the nooks and crannies” of state government and who could “deliver quick results.”
But when the reporter attempted to ask Abbott a follow-up about Toomey’s remaining connections to his lobby firm and clients, he was cut off; Abbott did not even acknowledge the question.
Texas Scorecard reached out to Toomey to ask about the terms of his leave of absence and whether he would be implementing any policies to guard against conflicts of interest or perceived conflicts of interest on the strike force, but he failed to respond prior to publication.