HOUSTON — Ryan Sitton, in the Republican runoff for Texas railroad commissioner, has changed his post-election plans in response to questions about potential conflicts of interest.
If elected, Sitton will step down as CEO of the oil and gas firm he and his wife founded and place its assets into a blind trust, he announced Thursday.
“I am going to be a full-time commissioner and I will step away from my role at my company,” he said in a statement. “I didn’t need to serve on the Railroad Commission for our company to be successful and I’m not running because I need a job.”
Sitton’s firm, PinnacleAIS, consults with some of the world’s largest oil and gas corporations, including those that appear before the commission, which regulates the industry in Texas. Sitton — who calls his industry experience an asset — said previously that he would stay involved at the company as commissioner, though he would relinquish many of his day-to-day duties. He argued it would not lead to conflicts because PinnacleAIS contracts with wings of companies separate from those that appear before the Railroad Commission.
Between 2007 and 2012, one of his clients, Valero, appeared four times on the Railroad Commission’s docket, with each vote concerning potential rules violations. Sitton has not released a full list of clients.
On Thursday, Sitton reiterated that such an arrangement would not be problematic, but he was changing his plans “to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.”
“Our research shows that in exactly zero cases in the last several years would I have been required to recuse myself,” Sitton said. “I am going to go beyond what is required by the statutes.”
Former state Rep. Wayne Christian, the engineer’s opponent, had fiercely criticized Sitton’s initial post-election plans, saying it would spur unavoidable conflicts. And earlier this week, Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland and chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee, told the Texas Weekly that Sitton was “playing roulette” with his reputation — and the Railroad Commission’s — unless he changed his post-election plans.
The race comes at a peculiar time for the Railroad Commission, 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.
Asked about Sitton’s announcement Thursday at a Texas Business Leadership Council energy policy panel, Keffer said, “I do feel like he made the right decision. I’m glad he made that decision.”
Also on the panel, Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman, who endorsed Sitton this week, echoed Keffer. “Railroad commissioner is a full-time job,” he said.
In his announcement Thursday, Sitton accused Christian of “manufacturing false claims to distract from his own abysmal record” and criticizing PinnacleAIS’ success.
“It’s disappointing that career politicians like Wayne Christian play these political games, especially since he has a concrete record of self-dealing and lining his own pockets at taxpayers’ expense,” Sitton said.
Travis McCormick, Christian’s campaign manager, denied the allegations.
“The problem isn’t that he owns a successful business, the problem is that other companies could be disadvantaged by any favoritism he plays with his clients,” he said.
McCormick called Sitton’s change of plans a “good step” but said it would not quash all questions about potential conflicts. “If you’d been running a company, you know who your friends are,” he said.