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Keffer: On Ethics, Sitton is "Playing Roulette"

Ryan Sitton should fully respond to the ethics questions swirling around his candidacy for a spot on the Railroad Commission, a key state lawmaker says.

State Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland on April 10, 2013.

Ryan Sitton is headed "right into a buzz saw” — one that could further slice up the Texas Railroad Commission's reputation — unless he changes his response to the ethics questions swirling around his bid for a spot on the commission, a key state lawmaker said. 

“It’s a loaded revolver he’s playing roulette with here,” state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee, said in an interview Monday about Sitton’s plans, if elected, to stay involved with the oil and gas engineering firm he and his wife founded. “I think it’s going to become a negative issue for the whole commission.”

Sitton’s firm, PinnacleAIS, consults with some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, including those that appear before the commission, which regulates the industry in Texas. He has told The Texas Tribune that as commissioner he would keep an active stake in the business, though he would relinquish some of his day-to-day duties, focusing first on the public office. Former state Rep. Wayne Christian, the engineer’s opponent in the Republican runoff for the seat, is among those who have criticized that plan, saying it would cause inherent conflicts of interest. 

Sitton, who could not immediately be reached Monday night,  told the Tribune last week that he would not release a full list of his clients, but he would disclose any potential conflicts of interest as they arise and “adhere to the highest standards of disclosure of transparency.”

Keffer said he was not endorsing either candidate in the race, but said Sitton’s plans would jeopardize any progress the Railroad Commission has made in bolstering its reputation in the eyes of lawmakers and the general public and expose Sitton to withering scrutiny.

“People won’t let that stand,” he said.

Texas Energy Report, an online publication covering energy issues in Texas, was first to report Keffer’s concerns on Monday.

The race comes at a peculiar time for the agency, which narrowly avoided complete reorganization last session. Lawmakers — including those who have questioned some commissioners’ ethics and commitment to the office — ultimately left it as is during the "sunset" process, which periodically evaluates the operations of state agencies. But such debates will likely resume in the 2015 session.

Having a commissioner who is profiting from some of the same companies he regulates would not help the agency in its bid for more resources — and for survival, Keffer said.

“We have fought many wars on the floor of the House trying to get the Railroad Commission’s respectability back,” he said. “I really feel like we’ve got it on a very good pathway, and I hate to see something like this come about that’s not needed.” 

But Elizabeth Ames Jones, a former Texas state representative and railroad commissioner, has endorsed Sitton, calling the criticism of him “completely false” and an attempt to “make someone’s technical expertise and business success sound like a liability.”

Sitton has pointed out that Christian's ethics were scrutinized when he was a lawmaker. In 2009, for example, Christian unveiled draft regulations that would allow more public entities to invest in annuities. At that time, Christian was working for Woodbury Financial Services Inc., then a subsidiary of Connecticut insurance company The Hartford (Christian remains an agent for the company).

Keffer on Monday said Christian’s case was “far different from actually being in the business and ruling on a company that you have an invested interest in.”

The candidate who receives the Republican nomination for Railroad Commission will face Democrat Steve Brown, the former chairman of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party, in the general election. The commission hasn’t housed a Democrat in two decades. 

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