Is this what Texas House leadership had in mind when they tried to pass laws banning the release of undercover videos in the Texas Capitol?

The American Phoenix Foundation has finally released one of their long-awaited undercover videos taken of legislators during the recent legislative session. The organization is headed by Hannah Giles and her husband Joe Basel. The pair worked with James O’Keefe on his video takedown of ACORN before moving to Texas to start their own organization.

The new video is even more shocking than expected, and might explain why powerful House lawmakers hijacked Governor Abbott’s ethics legislation in an attempt to prohibit the release of the tapes.

In the video, State Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat appointed to Chair the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee by House Speaker Joe Straus, shares a story involving an Austin lobbyist, billionaire attorney Joe Jamail, a Texas sheriff, organized crime, and a solicitation to commit murder.

Dutton’s story centers around his interaction with powerful Austin lobbyist Nick Kralj. Once the owner of the swanky Quorum Club, a restaurant and nightclub near the Capitol frequented by lobbyists and state lawmakers in the 70s and 80s, Kralj is now a consultant and lobbyist who works out of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association Building. Infamous left-wing political columnist Molly Ivins once called Kralj one of former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock’s “reprehensible friends,” and shared a story of the two drunkenly shooting roaches with pistols in the basement of the Quorum Club.

Dutton calls Kralj his “forever friend,” and explains on the video that Kralj owns dozens of firearms and has given a number of guns to Dutton as gifts. “Nick has a fifty caliber machine gun, aimed at the Capitol, with all the bullets on it,” Dutton told his companions on the video.

Dutton recounts on the tape that when he asked billionaire attorney Joe Jamail who employed Kralj, Jamail told him he believed Kralj worked for the Joe Bonanno crime family of New York – one of the “five families” of the New York mafia. After sharing that tidbit on the video, Dutton nodded, and then said, “that makes sense.”

In his story, Dutton and Kralj traveled together by private plane to Galveston where they were picked up and personally chauffeured by long-time Galveston County Sheriff Joe Max Taylor.

According to sources in Galveston, while serving as Sheriff, Joe Max Taylor was privately employed by the Moody family before “switching sides” to work for billionaire restaurateur Tilman Fertitta. The Moodys and Fertitta have had a very public feud in Galveston over such issues as the location of the local convention center and are rumored to be the two competing interests likely to operate a casino on the island if pro-gambling interests are ever able to pass a broad expansion of gambling through the legislature.

After dropping off Kralj at a location in Galveston, Dutton claims Taylor told him, “Riding with me you can do just about anything you want to. Let me know what you want to do.” Dutton responded, “I don’t have anything special I want to do.” And then Taylor replied, “Riding with me you can even kill somebody if you want to.”

To that, Dutton laughed in disbelief, and told his companions on the video, “I thought, I don’t want to kill anybody either. I just – I was just trying to get back to Austin. I had no idea what was going on.”

When first confronted about the video by The Daily Caller, Dutton initially claimed he had never met Joe Max Taylor. Then, after seeing the video, Dutton changed his tune, claiming he made the whole story up as a joke.

In his interview, Kralj agreed that the story must be a joke, and called Jamail’s claims he was connected to organized crime “pure bullshit.” Joe Max Taylor refused to comment.

When it was revealed in April that the American Phoenix Foundation had been filming legislators in the Capitol and in the bars and restaurants around Austin, it was alleged that the organization had collected over 800 hours of video. This video is the first of what may be many videos released showing the relationships between legislators, lobbyists, and powerful interests in Austin and around Texas.

After House lawmakers learned of the undercover video project, they proceeded to try to bully the American Phoenix Foundation into silence.

State Rep. Byron Cook (R–Corsicana), the chairman of the powerful State Affairs Committee, hijacked Governor Abbott’s comprehensive ethics legislation – Senate Bill 19 – and inserted a provision in it designed to ban citizens from filming legislators in the state capitol building.

The anti-filming provision would have given lawmakers the right to sue citizens who film or record them in the Capitol without their consent, get an injunction against release of the tapes, and secure a $10,000 statutory penalty and attorneys fees from the citizen. Even worse, the provision would have been retroactive to 1985, the year of Basel’s birth, and would have effectively made the release of videos shot by the organization illegal.

It is unclear whether Cook and other House lawmakers knew about the tape involving Dutton, Kralj, Jamail, Taylor, and the comment about getting away with murder when they passed the amended version of Senate Bill 19. The bill was destined to be struck down as unconstitutional for its blatant violations of the Texas and US constitutions, but thankfully Senate Republicans did not allow the measure to pass.

Click here to see how your lawmaker voted on Senate Bill 19 and its anti-filming provision.

Undoubtedly more videos will be released by the American Phoenix Foundation in coming weeks and months.

Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel to Texas Scorecard. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony specializes in the areas of civil litigation, legislative lawyering, and non-profit regulatory compliance. Tony resides in Austin with his wife and daughter and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.