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Ethics Commission: Texans Have Right to Know Who Funds Campaigns

The Texas Ethics Commission on Monday afternoon reaffirmed its position that it has a right to investigate Empower Texans for possible violations of state ethics laws. That prompted complaints, though, from Empower Texans’ attorney who directed a barb as well at the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott.

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

The Texas Ethics Commission on Monday afternoon reaffirmed its position that it has a right to investigate Empower Texans for possible violations of state ethics laws. That prompted complaints, though, from Empower Texans’ attorney, who directed a barb as well at the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott.

After noting that the Ethics Commission is represented by Abbott  — as all state agencies are — a press release from Empower Texans quoted its counsel, Joe Nixon, as saying:

“After the hearing, the staff lawyer for the Attorney Generals’ office told me that the state has a right to know the names of donors and subscribers to non-profit entities. It will be interesting to see what the legal basis for that claim is, since it flies in the face of constitutional precedent and state law.”

A spokesman for Abbott’s office said he could not comment on pending litigation.

Empower Texans has filed a federal lawsuit against the Ethics Commission in an attempt to halt subpoenas issued for communications, including emails, from the conservative advocacy group and its president, Michael Quinn Sullivan, that talk about their political activities.

The subpoenas are related to an investigation into complaints filed in 2012 by state Rep. Jim Keffer, former state Rep. Vicki Truitt and lobbyist Steve Bresnen. The complaints allege that Empower Texans illegally solicited money for its PAC and that Sullivan acted as an unregistered lobbyist.

Nixon has said repeatedly that the subpoenas and investigation violate Empower Texans’ constitutional rights and are an attempt to get the group to disclose its donor list. He cites a 1958 case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court protecting the NAACP as a precedent that allows Empower Texans to protect the identity of its donors.

A hearing on a request by Empower Texans for a temporary restraining order against the Ethics Commission is set for Thursday morning.

The state agency convened Monday for a closed-door session with its counsel to discuss the pending litigation. After commissioners reopened the meeting, they voted to issue a formal statement.

“The Texas Ethics Commission intends to vigorously defend the federal lawsuit and intends to continue to investigate sworn complaints,” the statement read. “Texans have the right to know who is funding political campaigns and who is being paid to lobby the legislature. The laws requiring transparency in the political process have been upheld as constitutional by the courts for decades.”

The statement said the Ethics Commission would be asking the federal court to confirm its authority to conduct its investigation. The agency also said it would put a formal hearing on the Empower Texans investigation — currently scheduled for April 3 — on hold until the federal court decides how to proceed.

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