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SBOE Member's New Client Reveals Small World of Texas Politics

Thomas Ratliff, a lobbyist and State Board of Education member, has taken on exoneree Michael Morton as a client for the 2013 session. It's a decision that is sure not to warm the frosty relations between Ratliff and fellow SBOE member David Bradley.

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Michael Morton and Thomas Ratliff hit it off the first time they met for lunch in Longview to talk about the 2013 legislative session.

“It’s just that connection you have sometimes with people,” Morton said. “And you think, ‘This is going to work.’”

Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison for his wife’s murder before being exonerated last year, hired Ratliff to lobby legislators to pass new laws that hold prosecutors accountable for misconduct.

It turns out, though, that the two men have more than their affiliation with the GOP and a criminal justice cause in common. They both have had nemeses named John Bradley — and the two John Bradleys are brothers: outgoing Williamson County District Attorney John “Marty” Bradley and State Board of Education member John “David” Bradley.

Morton, who said he is a conservative Republican, spent about seven years fighting with the Williamson County district attorney to obtain the DNA testing that ultimately proved his innocence and resulted in his exoneration. 

Ratliff, who is also a member of the SBOE, has spent the last two years fighting with the district attorney’s brother, David Bradley, on education issues.

Morton and Ratliff, who both live in East Texas, were introduced through a mutual friend. The Bradley connection, they said, was something they both noted, but it wasn’t a factor in their decision to work together.

“We mentioned it a little bit,” Morton said, “but I think political conflict is just part of the landscape there in Austin and just politics in general.”

In 1987, Morton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife, Christine Morton. John Bradley objected to DNA testing that ultimately proved Morton's innocence and publicly derided Morton’s theory that a “mystery killer” committed the crime. In 2010, an appellate court ordered the testing.

Morton's lawyers, though, found evidence in the files of the former sheriff and the former district attorney, John Bradley’s predecessor Ken Anderson, that they say pointed to another killer all along. Morton and his lawyers are pursuing criminal charges against Anderson, who they say withheld evidence that could have proved his innocence from the start.

Morton hired Ratliff to help persuade lawmakers to pass a bill that would impose fines on prosecutors when they commit misconduct, such as withholding evidence, and in serious instances allow the revocation of state lawyers' licenses.

“The bulk of people think this is a good thing,” Morton said. “It adds integrity to the system.”

Voters already decided how John Bradley should be held accountable. The district attorney said he regretted opposing DNA testing for Morton, but voters rejected his bid for re-election during the Republican primary this spring. His opponent’s campaign hammered him for his role in extending the time Morton spent wrongly imprisoned. John Bradley did not respond to an emailed request for comment for this story.

John Bradley’s brother David Bradley has regularly butted heads with Ratliff since the Mount Pleasant Republican joined the education board in 2010.

They've been on opposite sides of issues like withdrawing money from the $25 billion Permanent School Fund to bridge the state-funding gap for public schools, requiring amendments to curriculum to be laid out at least 24 hours before a vote, and handing more authority to school districts for textbook purchases.

But their rivalry goes deeper than policy differences. In the 2010 primary, Ratliff defeated Don McLeroy, a close ally of David Bradley's. Ratliff has also become one of the primary forces pushing back against the board's bloc of social conservatives, of whom David Bradley is a vocal member. 

Since then, David Bradley has been Ratliff's most frequent detractor, arguing that the lobbyist's work disqualifies him from serving on the board. 

The conflict came to the point where the board’s chair, at Ratliff’s prompting, asked Attorney General Greg Abbott to weigh in. His office issued an opinion last August that said state law prohibits lobbyists who are paid to represent clients on matters related to the board from serving on it. But it declined to rule on whether that means Ratliff, who maintains his lobby contracts avoid any conflict with his board duties, is ineligible.

That did not satisfy David Bradley, who told The Texas Tribune last November that he would be "actively working" to oust Ratliff during the primary election. Both Ratliff and David Bradley attracted primary challengers. But both incumbents won, leaving them poised to serve together once again. 

Despite his criticism of Ratliff's lobbying work in the past, David Bradley said he didn't have an opinion about his choice to represent Morton, though he did question Ratliff's motives for being on the board. 

"Mr. Ratliff — he is a lobbyist, he's a lobbyist and he's a lobbyist," he said. "He represents whoever's paying him. He has no core convictions."

Ratliff is working for Morton pro bono. He said the idea that people might draw the connection between the Bradley brothers and his new client had crossed his mind. But he said the role of his rival's brother in upholding Morton's wrongful conviction was not an issue in his choice to take him on as a client.

"It's interesting color commentary, but it really doesn't factor into why I decided to do it," said Ratliff. He said he typically takes a pro-bono client each legislative session and Morton's goals aligned with work he's done in the past on other criminal justice issues. In 2011, Ratliff successfully lobbied for organizations that were promoting a bill to require law enforcement to conduct more testing on rape kits.

When asked whether his new client would affect his working relationship with the elder Bradley brother, Ratliff had a quick reply. 

"What relationship?" he said. "I don't know how it can get a whole lot worse. We don't have much to salvage there."

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