This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
No one entertains the Texas political glitterati like power-couple lobbyists Andrea and Dean McWilliams, and the Austin couple haven’t been shy about sharing details of their swanky soirees with society writers.
But they haven’t shared much with the Texas Ethics Commission.
Although it's legal to wine and dine legislators, state disclosure laws require lobbyists like the McWilliamses to report related expenditures each month to the Ethics Commission.
According to online records, neither of them reported any lobbying expenditures in October 2007, when Andrea McWilliams threw an extravagant surprise 40th birthday party for Dean at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum — an event to which numerous Texas Legislature members and staffers were invited. KVUE-TV reported last month that a more recent McWilliams party — held last year at a California winery — was lavish in every aspect except for the thin reporting delivered to the Texas Ethics Commission.
Andrea and Dean McWilliams recently amended their limited filings on the California winery event — for her own 40th birthday celebration — saying the couple had overlooked some expenditures. Regarding the 2007 party, she said in an email to The Texas Tribune that she and her husband broke no laws and "complied with the reporting requirements that were in effect at the time of the event."
Under current rules, lobbyists are required to report the name of the lawmaker if the spending exceeds $90 on any given day. In 2007, the threshold was about $84, according to published reports about the legislative per diem rate upon which the reporting requirements are based. Below that threshold, the law requires the lobbyist to list the amount of spending by category and the type of official being wined and dined.
Ethics opinions aren't conclusive about what constitutes reportable activity. The law requires lobbyists to report spending on lawmakers when they are made in connection with an intent to influence them. But "goodwill" communications — even when specific bills or issues aren't brought up — also count.
Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, now chairman of the Senate Public Education Committee, and state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, recall attending the 2007 party. So does state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, who once employed Andrea McWilliams in his Capitol office. The Laredo Democrat said he remembered being there with other lawmakers but could not recall which ones.
“There was music and hors d’oeuvres. It was not unlike receptions we have in Austin,” Raymond said. “It was a party for Dean’s birthday, that’s all I remember.”
The online Society Chronicles, which follows Austin’s high-flying social set, was far more effusive, calling the event “a surprise birthday party of epic proportions with a swinging Sinatra accompaniment.”
“A bandstand suitable for an 18-piece orchestra was put into place, with the guest of honor’s initials hanging over the stage, as well as multiple locations around the room from the façade of the 30-foot long bars and the eight foot ice sculpture that housed the shrimp bar, to the pocket square handkerchiefs handed to the male party guests,” the report said.
“Several hundred” were invited to the party, where guests were treated to a birthday cake measuring more than 5 feet tall, a performance by a Liberace impersonator and, to cap off the festivities, a fireworks show outside.
Andrew Wheat, research director of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, said the McWilliamses' thin reporting indicates they think they are above the law.
“Andrea and Dean McWilliams collectively report lobby incomes of up to $4 million a year. They are entitled to throw themselves lavish parties and to invite state officials — so long as they disclose what they spend wining and dining politicians,” Wheat said. “Yet the McWilliamses repeatedly failed to disclose such costs for their elaborate bashes. It's as if their lobbying has taught them that laws only apply to little people.”
Andrea McWilliams offered no explanation for the zeros on her lobbyist spending reports from July through December 2007. But she insisted that she and her husband had broken no rules, and that they made all the proper disclosures consistent with Texas law.
The power couple represents a variety of clients who could benefit from the close relationships their lobbyists have forged with Texas lawmakers and policymakers.
Among those represented by either Andrea or Dean McWillliams are the city of Laredo; K-12, Inc., the company that helps run online schools in numerous states, including Texas; Career Education Company, which offers online education services; and Ryan Inc., the tax preparation company headed by mega-contributor Brint Ryan.
The McWilliams’ 2007 fete didn’t initially spark much interest beyond the followers of bold-faced names. But that changed after the KVUE report last month about the winery party. Besides drawing movie producers and actor Don Johnson, the 2012 soiree featured rapper Tone Loc, a New York-style fashion show and gift bags for all the guests, according to an account of it in The Society Diaries of Austin.
Among the confirmed attendees were Patrick, Raymond and Hughes. Also on hand were Michael Williams, now the Texas Education Agency commissioner; Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee; Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Harlingen; and Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell.
The lobbyists initially reported less than $400 combined for the spending on lawmakers and government officials at the August 2012 party, according to KVUE. After the TV station began making inquiries, the lobbyists amended their reports, reflecting total expenditures of $2,092 for the two of them, the report said.
Andrea McWilliams said the ethics reports were amended after she read the January account of the party in The Society Diaries. "I did amend my report to reflect some expenditures that were overlooked from the original report," she said. "Our ethics filings also include other reportable expenditures in August that were not related to my party."
As of early this week, there were no such amendments made to the 2007 reports, according to online records.
Knowingly violating provisions of the state’s Lobbyist Registration Act is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. Civil penalties and fines may also apply.
Trent Seibert, founder of Texas Watchdog, a nonprofit dedicated to tracking the influence of money in state politics, said the lobbyist disclosure law was supposed to give the public some idea about the connections between special interests and the legislation and contracts they are getting from government. When nothing gets reported, he said, those connections are impossible to make.
"If there’s no disclosure, who knows what’s going on behind closed doors? The taxpayer and the voters don’t even have a chance to find out," he said. "You’ve got powerful lawmakers being wined and dined — and being wined and dined virtually in secret. Is it wrong? Yes. Am I surprised? Sadly, no, I’m not.”