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CliffsNotes on an Ethics Saga

When the typically vociferous Michael Quinn Sullivan kept quiet at a 12-hour hearing last week, it was the latest development in a saga pitting the leader of Empower Texans against the state’s ethics enforcers. And it’s almost a sure bet that many chapters remain.

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*Correction appended

The usually vociferous Michael Quinn Sullivan, leader of the conservative advocacy group Empower Texans, commanded headlines last week when he refused to answer questions from the Texas Ethics Commission at a 12-hour formal hearing. The ethics watchdog agency is investigating a complaint that Sullivan failed to register as a lobbyist in 2010 and 2011.

The hearing was just the latest chapter in an already yearslong saga pitting Sullivan against the state’s ethics enforcers. And it’s almost a sure bet that several chapters remain unwritten before the final denouement. Here, we provide the CliffsNotes on the story in progress:

•    In 2012, Republican state Reps. Jim Keffer of Eastland and Vicki Truitt of Keller filed complaints alleging that Sullivan acted as an unregistered lobbyist and that Empower Texans failed to file as a PAC. The second complaint is being treated separately by the Ethics Commission.

Empower Texans has targeted both Keffer and Truitt for defeat in recent primary election bids. An Empower Texans-backed candidate, Giovanni Capriglione, bested Truitt in the 2012 Republican primary. Keffer prevailed against a primary opponent this year and remains in the Texas House.

•    After a closed-door preliminary hearing held in the fall of 2013, the Ethics Commission proposed a settlement offer. Sullivan would pay a $1,000 civil penalty and file as a lobbyist for the 2010 and 2011 calendar years.

Sullivan emphatically rejected the offer, writing the word “NUTS” across the last page of the document in place of his signature. The gesture was an allusion to the response that the 101st Airborne Division gave to the Germans' demand for surrender at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.

•    The rejection of a settlement offer set the stage for a formal hearing before the Ethics Commission. Formal hearings — which only happen after a complaint goes unresolved — occur so rarely that the Ethics Commission doesn’t have procedural rules to govern them.

Joe Nixon, Sullivan's lawyer and a former state representative, argued that the lack of adopted rules made the process illegitimate. Jim Clancy, the ethics panel chairman, rejected that argument and said existing law on administrative practices gave him the latitude to hold a hearing.

•    But before the formal hearing could happen, Empower Texans sought in federal court to quash subpoenas that the Ethics Commission issued in advance of the hearing.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks heard arguments in March. He closed that hearing expressing irritation at both Empower Texans, which he said had no intention to negotiate, and the Ethics Commission, which he said had issued overly broad subpoenas.

Sparks threw out the case in April.

•    The Ethics Commission reworked its subpoenas. But Empower Texans said the new subpoenas were worse and continued to work to quash them, asking a state district court for help.

All of that set the stage for the rare formal hearing on June 25, an hourslong event highlighted by Sullivan’s repeated refusal to respond to questions from the commission.

No matter what the Ethics Commission decides, a final answer on the complaint against Sullivan likely remains far off. He is entitled to a de novo review of the commission’s ruling in state district court. If that happens, the court would review the complaint from scratch.

In other words, the two-year-old investigation into events that happened as many as four years ago might be closer to the halfway mark than to the end.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the nature of the complaint filed against Empower Texans. The complaint alleged that the organization failed to register as a PAC, not that it illegally solicited money.

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Politics Texas Ethics Commission