In Some Cases, Government is All Relative

Bidness as Usual


This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.

John Pitts has a provision in his lobby contracts that tells his clients they are hiring him to lobby everyone at the Texas Capitol — except for the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

That’s his twin brother, Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie.

“When I have a wet umbrella in my hand at the Capitol, I don’t leave it in his office,” the lobbyist said. In his estimation, the appearance of a conflict wouldn’t do either one of them any good.

“I do get approached by clients who want me to lobby him, and I probably lose some business because of it,” he said. “Some of them take a walk.”

In a state capital where moving from the Legislature to the lobby — and, sometimes, the other way — is unremarkable, it’s also common to find the relatives of lawmakers working with state government.

John Pitts got the idea for the contract clause from Thomas Ratliff, whose family is sort of a Petri dish for relatives in and out of office.

Thomas Ratliff is an elected member of the State Board of Education and a lobbyist by trade. His father, Bill Ratliff, now lobbies everyone except family members for Raise Your Hand Texas, a public education advocacy group, and is a former lieutenant governor and state senator.

Bennett Ratliff — Thomas’ brother, and Bill’s other son — is a freshman member of the Texas House, serving as a Republican from Coppell.

Bill Ratliff and Thomas Ratliff developed a system. Thomas would let an aide to his father know what legislation he was lobbying, and the aide, without being specific, would keep his father out. When Bill Ratliff was lieutenant governor, the Senate parliamentarian was the gatekeeper, alerting him to hand the gavel to someone else — a senator — when legislation Thomas Ratliff was involved in was up for debate.

“You almost have to try to be Caesar’s wife — you don’t want anything that even looks like a conflict,” Bill Ratliff said. “Had we not handled this correctly, it would have been a problem every time.”

The Ratliffs aren’t the only ones dealing with this particular challenge.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, is chairman of the House Public Education committee, and his daughter, Michelle Smith, is an education lobbyist. Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, has a brother, Keith, who lobbies. Chris Keffer, son of Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, the chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee, is registered. So is Whitney Whitmire, whose father, John Whitmire, D-Houston, is chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Aycock said he would rely on his vice chairwoman, Alma Allen, D-Houston, when his daughter’s clients have something in his committee. “I will probably hand the gavel to Alma and go have a cup of coffee,” he said, adding that he wants to make sure people know his daughter “doesn’t have an inside track.”

Sometimes the appearance of things that could go wrong is stronger than the things that actually do go wrong. Most legislators with these kinds of apparent conflicts — as opposed to those who have actually taken advantage of their relationships — are up front about it. For one thing, the names offer a form of disclosure; it’s not hard to track, say, a Ratliff back to his or her home base.

“I don’t talk about clients with him or about issues,” Adam Goldman, a lobbyist, said of his brother, Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth. “And my clients know there’s one officeholder I can’t touch.”

It’s not only the officeholders with reputations to protect. Several of the lobbyists with lawmakers in their families said they have been contacted from time to time by clients trying to get close to their relatives. It’s best to turn those offers away, they said.

“I wanted to be careful not to embarrass my dad,” Thomas Ratliff said. “I didn’t want to be the Billy Carter of the family.”

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