GOP Railroad Commission Hopefuls Trade Ethics Barbs

Candidates for Texas Railroad Commissioner, Ryan Sitton, left, and Wayne Christian.
Candidates for Texas Railroad Commissioner, Ryan Sitton, left, and Wayne Christian.

A former Texas Railroad Commission chairman is helping Ryan Sitton fight back against conflict-of-interest allegations in the Republican primary runoff for an open seat on the commission.

Meanwhile, Sitton is redirecting ethics questions at his opponent, former state Rep. Wayne Christian, who led Sitton by 12 percentage points in the party's initial vote last month.

On Monday, Elizabeth Ames Jones, a former Texas state representative who served on the Railroad Commission from 2005 to 2012, endorsed Sitton, an oil and gas engineer, calling his experience an asset. She said Christian’s claims of a looming conflict of interest were “completely false.”

“It is very exciting that someone like Ryan is willing to put his business interests aside and serve as our railroad commissioner,” Jones said in a statement. “Unfortunately, his opponent has lifted a tactic from the same playbook used by Obama and the rest of the liberal elite – namely trying to make someone’s technical expertise and business success sound like a liability.”

If elected, Sitton does not plan to fully put his business interests aside. He says he will stay involved with the engineering company he and his wife founded, though he will focus first on public office and will relinquish many of his day-to-day duties. In his campaign materials, Sitton said his firm, PinnacleAIS, consults with some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies. That includes those that have appeared before the Railroad Commission.

Christian, of Center, has criticized Sitton’s post-election plan in recent weeks, saying it could force him to recuse himself from certain cases or make rulings or vote on decisions that affect PinnacleAIS’s clients.

“Siding with the client benefits his business. Deciding against the client has the potential to harm his business and the jobs of all the people who work for PinnacleAIS,” Christian's campaign said last week in a press release.

In her endorsement, Jones called Christian’s accusations an “attempt to tarnish a successful entrepreneur who is a great Texas success story.”

“Wayne is exposing his lack of understanding of what the Railroad Commission actually does,” she said.

In an interview on Monday, Sitton declined to share a full list of PinnacleAIS’s clients, but said his clients rarely appear before the commission. He did list a handful of long-running clients: ChevronPhillips, Mosaic Company, Phillips 66 and Valero.

Between 2007 and 2012, Valero appeared four times on the agency’s docket, with each vote concerning potential rules violations.

If elected, Sitton would disclose any potential conflicts of interest as they arise, he said. “I will adhere to the highest standards of disclosure of transparency."

Sitton said Christian is simply trying to distract from his own lack of experience in the oil and gas industry — and from long-running questions about his own ethics.

“He has a whole slew of conflicts in his background that nobody is talking about,” Sitton said.

In 2009, for example, Christian unveiled draft regulations that would allow more public entities to invest in annuities. At that time, Christian was working for Woodbury Financial Services Inc., a subsidiary of Connecticut insurance company The Hartford at the time (Christian remains an agent for the company).

Christian acknowledged that the legislation could “certainly” benefit his company, but said his intent in backing the idea was “not for that purpose," according to 2009 Austin American-Statesman article. "It's to give smaller (governments) another tool for investing," he said.

In an email on Monday, Travis McCormick, Christian's campaign manager, noted that the bill was never filed and “was just something discussed in the State Affairs Committee during an interim hearing.”

“Had the legislation been filed or even passed it wouldn't have had any effect on Wayne's business as he has only ever sold to individuals, not governmental entities,” he said.

Also in 2009, some Texas officials — including Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson — accused Christian of shaping an amendment that would have loosened restrictions in the Open Beaches Act, allowing him to rebuild his Hurricane-ravaged vacation home on a public beach.

The narrowly tailored provision applied to beachfront properties on the Bolivar Peninsula, near Galveston — where Christian’s home stood.

Christian did not pitch the amendment himself, but he signed on, telling the Houston Chronicle at the time that he “approved of the concept” because it would pump tax dollars into the state treasury.

McCormick downplayed that controversy, noting that lawmakers passed the bill in question nearly unanimously, and that Christian didn’t write it.

“It’s really something that people try to make a controversy when it’s not,” he said.

McCormick refuted Sitton’s claim that Christian was trying to deflect attention from questions about his legislative ethics as by attacking his opponent.

“This is a completely different situation in a completely different race,” he said.