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Ethics Commission Slaps High-Profile Activist With $10,000 Fine

The Texas Ethics Commission has ordered Michael Quinn Sullivan, leader of the conservative advocacy group Empower Texans, to pay a $10,000 fine for failing to register as a lobbyist in 2010 and 2011.

Republican activist Michael Quinn Sullivan visits at the State Republican Convention trade show on June 6, 2014.

The Texas Ethics Commission ordered Michael Quinn Sullivan, leader of the conservative advocacy group Empower Texans, to pay a $10,000 fine on Monday for failing to register as a lobbyist in 2010 and 2011.

The order is the culmination of a two-year investigation by the Ethics Commission into Sullivan’s political activity, stemming from a 2012 complaint filed by Republican state Reps. Jim Keffer of Eastland and Vicki Truitt of Keller 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.

“The evidence revealed that part of Mr. Sullivan’s regular employment involved making direct contact with members of the Texas Legislature and their staffs to influence the outcome of bills, nominations and other matters that were subject to legislative action,” Ethics Commission Chairman Jim Clancy wrote in the unanimous order. “Accordingly, Texas law required him to register as a lobbyist.”

Joe Nixon, Sullivan's attorney, said by phone that they were "pleased the Ethics Commission finally, after almost 30 months of inactivity, issued a final ruling." 

"It is our intent to appeal the ruling to the district court where it will be heard 'de novo' meaning new from the beginning," he added. "The commission knows that its ruling will have no permanent effect, and we are excited to be in a court of law where the rules of evidence and procedure will predominate." 

Sullivan had been fighting the investigation, arguing that his activities with Empower Texans should be viewed as journalism and thus exempt from the lobbyist registration requirements. The commission determined that Sullivan's defense was "baseless," pointing to dozens of communications between Sullivan and lawmakers related to the outcome of pending legislation.

"Advocacy is indisputably legal, but being paid to directly advocate without registering as a lobbyist is not,” Clancy wrote. “The communications reviewed by the commission advocate passage or defeat of specific legislative action on behalf of a special interest group. Regardless of political orientation or message, no paid advocate who engages in direct communications with Texas legislators is above the disclosure laws of the state of Texas.”

The commission also accused Sullivan of having "destroyed or lost thousands of emails sent to members of the Legislature during 2010 and 2011, despite having received written requests for such information in 2012." Sullivan has denied destroying any documents.

Sullivan has decried the Ethics Commission investigation as a "witch hunt" instigated by "cronies" of House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican who Sullivan has long criticized as insufficiently conservative to lead the chamber. 

The commission hasn’t yet decided exactly what it is I do that’s illegal, but they have decided I must be found guilty of something,” Sullivan wrote in an email to supporters last month. “They want to define me as an ‘illegal lobbyist’ because I exercise my First Amendment rights as the head of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility: I write about the goings on in the legislature and publicize a rating of how fiscally responsible (or irresponsible!) legislators are with your money.”

The commission is made up of eight members, four appointed by the governor, two appointed by the lieutenant governor and two appointed by the speaker of the House.<

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