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New Lawmakers Asked to Testify Against Consultant

They haven't been sworn in yet, but three candidates newly elected to the Texas House have been asked to testify on the eve of their first legislative session in a lawsuit filed against their political consultant.

Vote sign outside of Pan AM Recreation Center in Austin, TX on July 31, 2012.

A skirmish between a conservative political group and a Republican consulting firm outlasted the election and could spill into the legislative session that starts in January.

In late October, lawyers for Empower Texans asked a handful of new legislators and at least one candidate who didn’t make it through the primaries to testify in a lawsuit against their political consultant, Murphy Turner Associates, before the legislative session starts.

To make it even more complicated, one of the lawyers who would be deposing them is a lobbyist who’ll be working on legislation during that session.

“It’s been a very convoluted introduction to the Texas Legislature,” said Rep.-elect Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia.

Empower Texans, which does some of its work under the Texans for Fiscal Responsibility masthead, sued after seeing a group with a name like its own helping Republican candidates during this year’s primary elections — candidates who didn’t have the support of Empower Texans. That lawsuit, set for trial next summer, accuses the other group — Texans for Fiscal Accountability — of infringing on its brand by using that similar name in campaigns for several Republican legislative candidates. The treasurer of TFA is the brother of the spouse of one of the principals in Murphy Turner Associates — an Austin-based political consulting firm. All of them — Brad Turner, Holly Turner and Murphy Turner Associates — are named in the lawsuit. 

Republican Reps.-elect Bell, Ken King of Canadian and Chris Paddie of Marshall, along with former candidate Steve Nguyen, who lost in his Republican primary, were asked to appear for legal depositions starting next week. Bell’s wife, JoAnn, was also served with a deposition notice. Those requests have been quashed for now, but the attorneys who asked for the testimony on Empower Texans' behalf said they are negotiating to set times and dates for those conversations.

Those lawyers include former state Rep. Joe Nixon, R-Houston, Laurence Kurth of San Antonio and James “Trey” Trainor III of Austin, a former legislative staffer who now lobbies and practices law.

They originally asked to depose the former candidates starting next week — the week that freshman lawmakers report to Austin for orientation in advance of the legislative session that starts in January. Trainor said the requests were quashed but that his side is trying to get the depositions set for a time that works for everyone.

"I have a little bit of trouble understanding what this has to do with me," Paddie said. "It's frustrating at a time when I'm focussed on the session coming up to have distractions like this.

"Based on what it appears the case is about, that's going to be a short deposition," he said.

Not everyone wants it to work out. Paddie says he really doesn't have anything to contribute.

“I have no reason to be deposed,” Bell said. “It is a political battle between warring factions that were at it in Austin long before I was elected. It is beyond bothersome. It is troublesome to me.”

He reads the lawsuit and the depositions as part of a larger ongoing battle between various factions in the state’s conservative political movement, in this case, between House Speaker Joe Straus and Empower Texans, which is one of several outside groups agitating for a more conservative replacement.

Straus aides declined comment, as did Murphy Turner. Bell said he is still trying to find out whether he will have to be involved.

“My toes were not in the aisle and I can’t see any benefit to coming in the pew to step on them,” Bell said. “I do believe there are better things to do with my time.” 

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