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Regulating Texas Political Campaigns and Lobbying, the Seen and Unseen

State ethics regulators are weighing complaints about lobbying that already took place and elections that are already over — a case that started with a persistent activist who methodically irritates the Republican establishment in Texas.

Michael Quinn Sullivan

State ethics regulators are weighing complaints sparked by the political campaigning and legislative influence of the conservative gadfly Michael Quinn Sullivan, Empower Texans and related organizations. But you won’t get a chance to watch most of it.

Two lawmakers accused Sullivan and his organizations of breaking the state’s election laws while inveighing against moderate Republicans in the 2012 primaries, and of violating the state’s lobby reporting laws in their conversations with lawmakers.

The Texas Ethics Commission has scheduled a confidential hearing for Tuesday — its second — as it decides whether the complaints have merit. It could drop the whole matter, recommend penalties or hold more meetings. If it recommends penalties, the fight could move to court or end, as these often do, in a settlement and fines.

Don’t bet on the latter. Joe Nixon, a lawyer and a former legislator, said his clients had not done anything wrong and were asking the commission to drop everything. They don’t believe they have to show where all of their money comes from. They do believe they filed all of the reports required by the law. And, Nixon said, sending emails and meeting with lawmakers does not mean any lobbying has taken place.

It’s a good fight. It would be interesting to dig through all of the documents and go to the hearings.

But that’s not possible, because this is a secret proceeding. We only know as much as we do because the two lawmakers who started this made their initial complaints public, and the objects of those complaints aired their defense publicly. They also tried to get the commission to open its hearings to the public. The commission declined. They asked to record the proceedings. The commission declined. They wanted to bring witnesses and call the complainants to testify. Nope.

It’s not all sunshine on that side. Sullivan runs a political action committee that files campaign finance reports, but he also operates some nonprofits that aren’t required to reveal their backer or backers.

You can hear the dog bark, but you don’t get to find out who is on the other end of the leash.

Ethics cases like this often turn into autopsies of political actions that can’t be undone. The prosecution of the former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay over activities during the 2002 election cycle took place well after those elections, well after the state Republicans elected that year had drawn new and decidedly conservative political maps, and after the maps had been litigated and used in several elections, including one that gave DeLay’s Republicans control of the U.S. House.

Earlier this year, DeLay’s conviction was overturned, and the legal battles are down to an appeals-court decision or two. But the lesson here is that the battle over the things he did during that decade-old campaign continued long after he had achieved his political goal.

To an observer seeing DeLay as nothing more than a soldier for his cause, that was a pretty nice piece of work. Rough for him, but good for his party.

It is the same with Sullivan. Politics doesn’t have a permanent resting place; nobody so far has managed to obtain permanent control. Instead, political contestants win a little at a time and then try to hold onto power long enough to get some of their ideas baked into the system, whether they are after limits on the growth of government or universal health care or something else.

Sullivan’s side has been winning lately. The Texas House turned red when DeLay did his thing back in 2002 and reasserted that tendency when the 2010 election — with its Tea Party influence, its backlash against the Obama administration and close-to-the-ground work by people like Sullivan — turned the Legislature solidly Republican. It also opened up the current rift in the Republican Party of Texas, with establishment conservatives on one side and populist insurgents like Sullivan on the other.

Both cases could have lasting impact. DeLay was on the front end of what became a long civic conversation over corporate money in politics. This case is an offshoot about “dark money” and about disclosure and could write new rules for future players to break.

And if it ends up in court, the public may actually get to watch.

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