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A Private Battle Over Ethics Goes Public

What had been a private battle over whether and when a nonprofit political group has to register as a lobbyist — or list the donors to its political purse — is slowly edging toward public hearings.

Michael Quinn Sullivan, president and CEO of Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, at a 2012 Texas Tribune event.

Be careful what you wish for. The closed hearings into the political activities of a conservative group in Austin are slowly coming into the open.

That obliterates the excuse for not going — the notion that a secret hearing is a horrible thing and that we would otherwise line up to watch the truly fascinating inner workings of government.

Actually, we sometimes would. A formal hearing about the alleged lobbying activities of Empower Texans could clear up some questions, like whether someone who talks to legislators and gets paid for it should have to register and pay fees as a result. To pose it the other way: Should the state allow anyone to pay lobbyists without revealing who the lobbyists are and who is paying them for their work?

Groping around in the dark did not work on this one, and what had been a semiprivate matter — arguably for defensible reasons — is probably headed for a public hearing. A related question about the group’s electioneering, and whether a group of individual donors can legally hide their support behind a corporate veil, is still pending — in private.

At least this one will be open.

The closed proceeding over a political gadfly’s influence on lawmakers — and whether it constitutes illegally unreported lobbying or not — is on its way to open hearings that could set a precedent.

A couple of lawmakers complained about the group and its leader, Michael Quinn Sullivan, contending that because of his legislative activities (and his previous registrations as a lobbyist), he should again register as a lobbyist. They also complained that he should be required to report details of his political work. As you might guess, the complaints were from people who found themselves or their allies targeted by Sullivan’s efforts.

They made their complaints, which otherwise would have been secret, public. The Texas Ethics Commission called preliminary hearings on the allegations, informing the parties but not the public.

The idea is to let the commission decide whether something hinky has been going on before someone’s name is attached to a complaint. Sullivan and his lawyers, however, let the world know that the hearings were going on and tried to get the commission to open them so that the public could hear their side of the argument.

That did not happen, but the next step was interesting. The ethics commission suggested a settlement on the lobbying question: Sullivan would admit no wrongdoing, pay a $1,000 fine, register as a lobbyist and pay the fees for 2010 and 2011. The reason we know that is because he wrote “NUTS” on the settlement offer and sent it back to the commission, copying reporters and other interested parties.

As a procedural matter, that response sends it back to the commission, which will either drop things here — don’t bet on it — or call a full public hearing to air the question. The next step from there, if there is one, would be in district court, where it would all start over again.

The terms might be different, too.

The dark-money question — whether the donors to Empower Texans should be revealed — is still pending, and the commission has not proposed a settlement or reached any conclusions, at least none that it has shown to Empower Texans or the public.

This has all the appearance of two political dogs snarling over a bone, but there’s more to it. Empower Texans and its affiliates believe the law lets them talk to lawmakers without registering as lobbyists, saying who the clients are and what they’re paying. They also contend that the law allows corporations to take part in elections and that nonprofit corporations like theirs are not compelled to reveal the names of donors just because they are exercising their political rights.

If those arguments prevail, it will remake the advocacy business, both at the legislative and electoral levels. It would be easier to take an unpopular stand on a public issue without fear of reprisal.

If the complainers prevail, those who dabble in politics and lobbying will have to show their hands at least some of the time. It would be easier for the Little Red Riding Hoods out there — the public — to see when the Big Bad Wolf is posing as Granny.

Whoever wins, it will be a public fight.

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