When the General Investigating & Ethics Committee met to hear allegations a member of Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership team threatened to use redistricting as retribution against other lawmakers, Chairman Chuck Hopson didn’t ask the accused to testify oath. And that appears to violate state law.
According to the government code, section 301.022, titled “Testimony Under Oath”:
(a) All legislative committees shall require witnesses to give testimony under oath, subject to the penalties of perjury.
(b) The oath required by this section may be waived by any committee except a general investigating committee.
Chairman Hopson (R-Jacksonville) had the committee meet behind closed doors, out of public view, for two hours on Tuesday. When the committee finally met in open session, the chairman invited State Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) and State Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman) to give testimony. Mr. Hughes had to ask to be administered the oath; committee member Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) then administered it.
Mr. Hughes says Mr. Phillips threatened to use the power of redistricting to go after legislators and legislators-elect who didn’t sign on with Speaker Straus’ re-election bid. (Such threats, if true, could themselves constitute a felony under state law.)
At the time of the conversation between Mr. Hughes and Mr. Phillips, both men were publicly “pledged” to support Speaker Straus’ re-election. Mr. Hughes withdrew his support as a result of the threats he alleges Mr. Phillips made toward other members.
When Mr. Hughes went public about the conversation, he did not name Mr. Phillips — only giving the name privately to Mr. Straus. The speaker then insisted that his hand-picked investigator, Mr. Hopson, investigate the charges under the auspices of the general investigating committee.
Mr. Hopson, who has received tens of thousands of dollars from Speaker Straus, then let Mr. Phillips deny the accusation without being administered the oath as a witness to “tell the truth.” (Mr. Phillips’ statement can be broken down in two parts: first, praising Speaker Straus; second, flatly denying Mr. Hughes’ accusation. It’s unclear which part of his statement Mr. Phillips’ might not have wanted to make under oath.)
Mr. Hughes, Mr. Phillips and Mr. Hunter are all attorneys, and should understand the legal problems associated with lying under oath. Not only is that a crime in and of it self, it can also mean disbarment and an end to any legal career.
Why did Mr. Phillips, who just happens to also be vice chairman of the committee, not ask to be given the oath when offering his testimony; testimony in which he called his colleague a liar? If Mr. Phillips was telling the truth, why not make his statement under legal oath?
And why did the chairman not follow Texas law explicitly requiring the general investigating committee to administer the oath to all witnesses before the committee?
I’m told Mr. Phillips did not take an oath as a witness in closed session, either, when both men were being examined about the content of their conversation. Mr. Hughes did take the oath as a witness in the closed session, as was stated during the open portion of the hearing.
(The committee took no action on the allegations, because neither Mr. Hughes nor Mr. Phillips have a recording of their private conversation when the threats against other members were allegedly made.)
At best, it now appears that in Mr. Hopson’s rush to whitewash the situation and sweep an embarrassing episode under the rug for his boss, another state law may have been broken.
Back in January 2009, when Joe Straus was selected by 65 Democrats and 11 Republicans to unseat Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland), the San Antonio Republican promised he would be a different kind of speaker, letting the House members run the body. I’m not sure this is what most Texans had in mind…
So will Speaker Straus now call for an investigation of his investigator? It’s unclear what, if any, penalties might go along with failing to swear in a witness before an investigating committee.
One might be tempted to call the Keystone Kops, though it would appear their services are already being utilized by the Speaker.