Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional comment.
In the latest twist of a long-running dispute between the state's ethics watchdog and conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, a state appeals court has overturned a lower court's ruling and sent the case back to Travis County.
Sullivan and the Texas Ethics Commission have been sparring for years over whether Sullivan's past political activity makes him a lobbyist under state law. Following a 2012 complaint filed by Republican state Reps. Jim Keffer of Eastland and Vicki Truitt of Keller, the commission ruled last year that Sullivan acted as an unregistered lobbyist in 2010 and 2011 and fined him $10,000.
Sullivan, who has long claimed that his actions communicating with lawmakers as head of Empower Texans do not qualify as lobbying, filed for a judicial review of the commission's action in Denton County, where Sullivan claimed to reside. The appeal favored Sullivan, prompting the Ethics Commission to appeal.
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The Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth focused its ruling Thursday on the Ethics Commission's argument that Sullivan was a Travis County resident and that the transfer of the case to conservative Denton County was based on the false claim that he had moved there. The commission offered evidence from a hired investigator, including Sullivan's repeated claiming of a Travis County property as his primary residence for a homestead exemption.
The appeals court sided with the commission, making clear it did not buy Sullivan's arguments to establish his residency in Denton County, including the "routine travel" he made to North Texas on behalf of Empower Texans and his “complete right of access” to his parents’ Denton County home, according to Thursday's ruling.
"Sullivan wholly failed to supply any underlying facts to support his vague and summary assertion of routine travel to Denton County to work in North Texas," the court ruled. "There was no probative evidence supporting the trial court’s legal determination that venue was proper in Denton County, and no rational inference could have been made placing venue in Denton County at the time the claim accrued."
Eric Nichols, an attorney for the commission, called the ruling "indisputably correct."
"The court’s decision upholds the basic rule that a person in Texas cannot manufacture venue in a county after he or she has a claim to pursue in court," Nichols said. "The Commission looks forward to pursuing this matter in a court of proper venue in Travis County.”
Empower Texans spokeswoman Morgan Williamson said the group disagreed with the ruling and was exploring its legal options.
"No matter what motions they file, and no matter what intermediate rulings are issued, the rogue Texas Ethics Commission will ultimately have to face a court and have that court examine the constitutionality of their actions," Williamson said. "We are absolutely confident that the courts of this state will uphold the First Amendment."