House Speaker Joe Straus used a Friday press release to bury the news about his appointments to a joint interim committee that will review state campaign finance (so-called “ethics”) laws. The laws, and the body that oversees them, the Texas Ethics Commission, are desperately in need of review and reform. However, the appointments by Straus have discredited the work of the committee before it even begins.
The conclusions that the appointees will reach are already obvious in light of their connections to Straus, their public comments, and their past unethical behavior. Each of the appointees has publicly supported subjecting non-profit donors to government scrutiny and intimidation, and all of them have conflicts of interest that seriously undermine their credibility on free speech issues.
Straus appointed State Representative Sarah Davis of Houston, a Straus loyalist who is widely considered one of the most liberal Republican members of the Texas House, to Co-Chair the Committee. In a testament to how seriously Davis takes her job as state representative, she appeared to many observers to be intoxicated while serving as the temporary chair on the House dais on multiple occasions last session.
We can expect Davis to wrap her attempts to subject donors to intimidation and scrutiny in language about “transparency.” However, when operatives connected to Straus and his political consultants circulated an (expensively produced) anonymous video earlier this year that attacked Empower Texans, Davis was one of a small handful of politicians to openly promote the video online. Davis not only pushed the attack on social media, she actually spent campaign funds to run ads aimed at the video.
Davis is joined by state representatives Ken King (R-Canadian) and Poncho Nevarez (D-Eagle Pass).
King is infamously connected to his former campaign treasurer, panhandle hedge fund trader Salem Abraham. Abraham brought frivolous lawsuits against AgendaWise Executive Director Daniel Greer and Empower Texans President Michael Quinn Sullivan following King’s 2012 campaign for State Representative. While the litigation was pending, King worked with Straus lieutenant Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) to place a change to the state’s journalist shield law in the Ethics Commission sunset bill. The change, which appears to have been intended to provide an advantage to Abraham in his litigation, was cited by Governor Perry as one of the reasons he vetoed the bill.
The Democrat Nevarez may be the most credible of the appointees by comparison. However, he has been vocal on social media supporting House leadership efforts to unconstitutionally require the disclosure of donors to non-profit organizations, and has egged on Trial Lawyer lobbyist Steve Bresnen in his filing of complaints against Empower Texans. He even offered his pro-bono legal services.
The most shocking appointment, however, is certainly Austin attorney Ross Fischer. Fischer has served as legal counsel to State Representative Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), and has assisted Keffer in pursuing ethics charges against Empower Texans and Michael Quinn Sullivan. Some of those complaints are still active. Fischer is a former Chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission and works now as a public law attorney representing government entities. He is employed at the Austin firm of Denton, Navarro, Rocha, Bernal, Hyde & Zech, P.C, which bills itself online as “www.RampageLaw.com.”
Fischer has most recently taken taxpayer funds from the Tarrant Regional Water District to research campaign finance violations on the political opponents of the District’s board members. Fischer’s report seems aimed at intimidating opponents to the board’s policies by developing ways to criminalize their dissent and opposition.
As a former Chairman of the TEC, Fischer is directly responsible for the current state of affairs in Texas election law. His practice is built around using the laws to set traps in order to criminalize political dissent. In fact he has worked with Jack Gullahorn, the head of the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas – the lobbyists’ lobbyists – to publish articles and make presentations defending existing lobby regulations, and to speak about how ordinary citizens can be “accidental lobbyists.”
Appointments by outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst seem less systematically aimed at increasing ethics corruption. However Senator Kel Seliger (R–Amarillo) made his way on to the committee. Seliger snuck Senate Bill 346 past his colleagues last session. The bill would have required most politically active non-profit organizations to unconstitutionally register their donors with the state while exempting labor unions.
Seliger is joined on the committee by Sen. Joan Huffman (R–Houston), Sen. Carlos Uresti (D–San Antonio), and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips. Huffman will Co-Chair the committee. If any of the needed reforms to Texas ethics laws are recommended by the committee, it will be up to Huffman and Phillips to make those recommendations happen.