One of the most powerful lawmakers in Austin is hoping to develop a new “niche” market for his real estate services: his fellow legislators.
State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, the Kerrville Republican who heads the tax-writing House Ways & Means Committee, blanketed the state Capitol this week with flyers advertising his real estate business. He's urging legislators to use his company to help them find temporary housing when they return to work in January.
Hilderbran, a top lieutenant of GOP House Speaker Joe Straus, enlisted the help of an unpaid legislative intern, Logan Skinner, to distribute the advertisement and to become his “associate” in the venture. He said Skinner has a real estate license and plans to transition away from his duties at the Capitol and into the new role.
“Please let us help you find a prime location in Austin that will suit your wants and needs,” Hilderbran says in the flyer that was hand-delivered at the Capitol this week. “We can find you the best options, at the best price in town and facilitate everything for you.”
Hilderbran said he saw nothing wrong with the arrangement. But one longtime advocate for state ethics reform, Austin lawyer Fred Lewis, said Hilderbran should do more to keep his official duties separate from his private business.
“It is not a good idea to comingle public official duties and private work. If Chairman Hilderbran wishes to make his services available, then he needs to do it from his private office, with his private staff, on private letterhead, to their private address,” Lewis said. “As a powerful committee chair, he has influence over a lot of things that affect each and every state representative. And by delivering it at the Capitol, by using his staff, it makes it appear that it is something that is interrelated with his public duties.”
Hilderbran said he instructed Skinner not to use any state equipment in the distribution of the flyer. Hilderbran said he got a few lawmaker-clients before the legislative session two years ago but decided to get started earlier this time.
“I’m looking at a niche, a seasonal niche,” Hilderbran said. Legislators, considered to be part-time state employees, make a flat $7,200-a-year salary and another $21,000 in per diem payments during regular sessions every other year.
Members with at least eight years are entitled to lucrative pensions when they retire — about $70,000 a year for veteran legislators with as many years of service as Hilderbran, who was first elected in 1988.
“I’m a citizen legislator. I have a right to make a living, and I’m in the real estate business,” Hilderbran said. “Why wouldn’t I let people know about the service around here?”
Another realtor in the Legislature, Rob Orr, R-Burleson, said he sees nothing wrong with the advertisement, which his Capitol office has received. He said legislators who arrive in Austin for the session could get better service from a familiar face who understands their needs when they go apartment hunting once the session rolls around.
“You always like to deal with somebody that at least you know,” Orr said. “He wasn’t hustling my business or anything.”