This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
Ten years ago, the Texas Legislature passed laws to clamp down on lawmakers lobbying state agencies on behalf of private clients. Despite the reforms, some elected officials continue to find work lobbying, or something that resembles it in the eyes of critics.
In some cases, legislators have worked to help clients gain favorable outcomes from elected bodies in their legislative districts. In others, an elected official’s work as a lawyer has blurred the line between lobbying and legal advocacy.
Critics see those cases as symptomatic of bigger problems in Texas, where the part-time citizen Legislature faces criticism over weak disclosure rules, conflicts of interest and special-interest donations.
“When you’re a member of the Legislature that holds policy decisions, budgeting decisions or other decisions over local governments, you should not be able to represent parties before those governments,” said Craig McDonald, director of the liberal watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.
For companies or private citizens hoping to influence decision-makers at state agencies, hiring a well-connected elected official was a common practice until the efforts of two Republican lawmakers on behalf of an herbal supplement firm came to light in 2002.
The lawmakers, Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio and Rep. Rick Green of Dripping Springs, worked to persuade the state health department not to require prescriptions for Texans taking Metabolife International’s weight loss products that included ephedrine, a stimulant linked to various adverse reactions. Wentworth also visited state staff and board members involved in the decision.
Amid the ensuing scandal, Gov. Rick Perry signed an ethics overhaul package that barred lawmakers from representing private interests before agencies, except for a few situations like submitting paperwork.
Former Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, who has helped pass several ethics bills in the Legislature including the 2003 measure that addressed lawmakers acting as lobbyists, said that bill did not go far enough. Wolens said he remains troubled that state law fails to prevent lawmakers from being paid to influence the outcomes of measures before city councils, school boards or other local entities.
“It’s still problematic, since the state decides the fate of counties and cities for all kinds of things,” he said. “That should equally be prohibited. It’s like ‘What are we thinking allowing that still?’”
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, recently registered as a lobbyist in her home city on behalf of Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, an Austin law firm. The firm has debt collection contracts with public entities around Texas and has been tied to scandals involving the bribery of public officials.
Thompson, a lawyer who has done work for the firm for years, said a confidentiality agreement barred her from discussing that work. She and the firm did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who has held his seat since 1991, registered as a lobbyist in Houston in 2000 for several companies, including Enron and the Greater Houston Transportation Company, a cab provider. Two years earlier, he lobbied the City Council for Sprint PCS regarding regulation of cellular towers.
Coleman said he saw no conflict between his public service and his work as a private citizen.
“Clearly, this had nothing to do with state government,” he said.
Over the last decade, Coleman has not registered as a lobbyist, but he has worked as a consultant for companies hoping to gain a favorable vote from the City Council, including Southwest Airlines and Cigna. He said he stopped registering as a lobbyist because he no longer tries to directly influence council members.
“I don’t lobby the council,” Coleman said. “I advise clients.”
He said he had turned down clients he suspected wanted him to use his clout as a legislator for private matters.
“It’s not me that’s valuable,” Coleman said. “It’s my skills.”
Even when lawmakers are not lobbying in the traditional sense, their private-sector work can dovetail with their jobs as elected officials in a way that can raise conflict-of-interest questions.
Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, is a lawyer who has worked on behalf of charter schools that faced being closed by the Texas Education Agency over academic or financial issues. Dutton has been critical of the agency’s handling of charter schools, including ones he has represented. During a House debate on the budget during the 2011 session, he proposed an amendment to pull the agency’s financing. Dutton did not respond to requests for comment.
McDonald, of Texans for Public Justice, said state officials might respond to a lawyer’s public remarks differently and even handle a case differently if they know that lawyer will later help shape and vote on the agency’s next budget.
“There’s a lot of policy work that can happen behind the scenes or even in public that doesn’t meet the strict definition of lobbying, if you will, but that doesn’t mean it’s not lobbying,” McDonald said.
Some kinds of lobbying remain legal for state lawmakers, but then voters have an opportunity to weigh in.
Former Rep. Robert Miklos, D-Dallas, was a registered lobbyist in Dallas in 2010, the same year he lost his re-election bid to Republican Cindy Burkett. During the campaign, Burkett aired an ad highlighting Miklos’ ties to lobbyist work done by his firm.
Former Rep. Bill Siebert, R-San Antonio, had been in office for six years when news reports revealed that he had lobbied the San Antonio City Council for a private firm without having registered as a lobbyist. Siebert blamed the oversight on a miscommunication between his office and City Hall. But the issue dominated his 2000 re-election bid, which he lost.
“I felt it was a little bit unjust at the time,” Siebert said. “The issue of my being a conservative legislator in the district played no role. It was all based on my lobbying of City Hall.”
Siebert, who still works as a lobbyist, maintains that his work on behalf of private clients never conflicted with his work as a legislator.
“My job was to educate the couple of City Council people that I talked to,” he said. “These elected officials at the county and the city are very strong people. They represent their constituents, and I don’t think that a state legislator can apply undue pressure on them to do something they don’t want to do.”
Voters do not always view experience as a lobbyist as a strike against a candidate. Thomas Ratliff had worked as a lobbyist for more than a decade when he won a spot on the State Board of Education in 2010. Ratliff, a Republican, said that none of his clients had ever hired him to lobby the board and that he continues to avoid such work.
Ratliff said his openness about his lobbying work has protected him from criticism. On his campaign website, he links to the site for his lobbying business, which lists his clients.
“The vast majority of people in my district that I hear from think it’s an asset that I’m doing what I’m doing,” Ratliff said, “because I know how the process works.”