Michael Quinn Sullivan and the influential conservative group he leads, Empower Texans, haven't filed required disclosure reports on their lobbying and campaign activities, two Republican state legislators said in formal complaints filed today with the Texas Ethics Commission.
In one complaint, Reps. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, and Vicki Truitt, R-Southlake, said Sullivan lobbied in 2010 and 2011 without filing the required lobbyist disclosures that he had filed up until that time.
In their filing, they said Sullivan and his employees lobbied lawmakers during the last quarter of 2010 and into 2011, when lawmakers began their most recent legislative session. "That direct communication included written communications directed to elected members of the Texas House of Representatives and staff employed by them expressing the action on legislation preferred by Mr. Sullivan's employer," they wrote.
They attached several letters, emails and other documents to buttress their complaints, including Sullivan's efforts to keep lawmakers from using the state's Rainy Day Fund to balance its budget, directing House members to oppose the re-election of House Speaker Joe Straus, a list of the group's legislative priorities for the session, and expressing support for various proposals and versions of bills before the Legislature.
In a second complaint, the two House committee chairmen say Empower Texans — which they say includes Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and the Empower Texans Foundation — didn't file required campaign finance disclosures for the last six months of 2011. During that time, they said in their filing, the group was engaged in campaign activities against them and other legislative candidates.
Either the group was acting alone and contributed to campaigns without filing proper disclosures with the state, the complaint said, or they made contributions "in concert" with others and thus operating illegally as a general purpose political committee.
"You can allege people kick their puppies all day long," Sullivan said before he'd had a chance to read the complaints. "Complaints to ethics commissions can be filed by anyone, anytime, about anything. I think this is just typical incumbents trying to throw around power and throw around big fancy words when, you know, at the end of the day, they just don't want to talk to people about their record."
On Wednesday, he issued a statement after talking to lawyers and reading the complaints. An excerpt:
It is telling that this political stunt comes 60 days before an election, not during or after the legislative session. It's because these baseless claims are politically motivated.
Having met over the years with attorneys on these issues, including a meeting with counsel this morning, there is no doubt that what I do at Texans for Fiscal Responsibility is not lobbying.
At TFR, discussions with legislators are secondary to our work informing Texans about the activities of their lawmakers. Frankly, we’re a lot less interested in what politicians think than in what the citizens of Texas think – but I doubt that matters much to a legislator or consultant clinging to power.
Our communications with legislators are an extension of our discussions with Texas’ citizens.
He also said his group didn't make any calls into Vicki Truitt's district after the 2010 primary was under way — that those calls went out at the end of the 2009 legislative session and into the fall of that year. Candidates filed for the primaries late in 2009 and in the early days of 2010. We wrote about that race and those calls during the primaries that year, and at that time, Sullivan said his group hadn't made an endorsement. They have done so this year: Truitt's returning challenger, Giovanni Capriglione, announced in a news release this January that he'd won the endorsement of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.
The Ethics Commission handles such complaints privately, releasing detailed information only if and when a complaint results in action against a person or group.
Generally speaking, the lobby reports require people who advocate in the Legislature on behalf of others to name their clients and, within broad ranges, their compensation for the work. Campaign finance laws, with some exceptions, require those who are contributing to campaigns or ballot efforts to identify themselves, their sources of money and the beneficiaries of their efforts. In a press release, Keffer and Truitt said both of their allegations would be Class A misdemeanors with fines of up to $5,000 per violation. The campaign finance complaints, if proven, can also entail financial penalties, in some cases, of treble damages to the candidates targeted by the donations — in other words, they could be personally entitled to three times the amount spent against them.
These complaints come less than 60 days before the May 29 Texas primary elections — contests that are already dotted with endorsements and other expressions of support and opposition by Sullivan and the groups he runs. And they come in the wake of a state district court decision against a Houston group — the King Street Patriots — that said the organization was operating as a political organization in violation of its nonprofit status.
Sullivan was deeply involved in the 2010 primary against Truitt, supplying yard signs and sponsoring "robo calls" that were critical of her and supportive of her opponents. She won without a runoff, but one of those opponents is back again and so, she said in an email, are Sullivan and his group.
People filing ethics complaints with the state have to identify themselves as Texas residents; both Keffer and Truitt used their concealed handgun licenses for proof of residency.