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Analysis: It Can Be a Fuzzy Line Between Government and Politics

Voters used to be more sensitive to even a hint that taxpayer money might be used for political purposes: Even when it’s not criminal, it’s sleazy.

Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter.

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In this episode of cops and robbers, ethics division, we present the case of Texas Railroad Commission Chairman David Porter, who has taken to issuing wildly political news releases on state letterhead as he enters a re-election campaign where he faces a Republican primary opponent.

Voters used to be more sensitive to even a hint that taxpayer money might be used for political purposes: Even when it’s not criminal, it’s sleazy.

Porter’s latest missive is not railing against the sitting federal administration like so many of his fellow statewide officeholders do (see Abbott, Greg; Paxton, Ken; Patrick, Dan; etc.). Porter is railing against a candidate of the other major political party who does not hold an office that has anything to do with the subject he’s addressing or the industry he is supposed to be regulating.

The headline: "RRC Chairman Porter Warns Against Job-Killing, Frivolous Oil & Gas Lawsuits — Says Suits Inspired by Hillary Clinton’s Radical Climate Change Agenda".

The news release is about a letter Porter sent to the Texas attorney general asking him to “be wary” of the sorts of “frivolous state lawsuits and investigations currently being carried out and considered by other state attorney generals.”

While it’s refreshing to see a government functionary writing in something other than the predictably rancid prose of the bureaucracy, Porter is using a polemicist’s pen under his agency’s official state seal: “Radical environmentalist ideology is increasingly masquerading as scientific fact and causing a chilling effect on credible climate science and free speech. In reality, it’s nothing more than an effort by liberal ideologues to punish entities that do not share their religious zeal on the issue, and ultimately force the energy industry into a position in which its own resources are unjustly and unfairly used against itself in the war on fossil fuels.”

Great stuff, to be sure, and other campaigns would be wise to study it. But this comes off as an official, if heated, edict from a powerful regulator.

It’s not the letter — it’s the letterhead.

Ethics in government moves in cycles. Right after big scandals come reforms, and right after reforms come periods of sanctified prudery. People in politics and public office can’t get away with much. People count stamps. They pay for their own drinks. They buy their own tickets to concerts and sporting events. They carefully avoid conflicts of interest. They don’t act like they own the offices they hold.

Ronnie Earle, a former Travis County district attorney and onetime state legislator, once prosecuted one of his former colleagues for typing campaign letters on a state typewriter. He tried — and failed — to prosecute former Comptroller Bob Bullock and former State Treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison on charges related to using state resources for political gain. Bullock went on to two terms as lieutenant governor. Hutchison went on to win three full terms in the U.S. Senate.

Even as those two were prevailing, the underlying idea — that there is something wrong with using public resources for political or personal gain — was firmly established.

And then there are times like the present, where the main difference between news releases coming from some public officials and the emails and letters from their political campaigns is in the last paragraph: The campaigns ask for money.

Lawmakers are generally sensitive about the use of state resources for campaign purposes, even if it’s an indirect appeal. The Legislature included a special provision in the state’s lottery statute, for instance, to prevent the people in charge from using the advertising budget to make their names known. At the beginning, the lottery was part of the state comptroller’s office, and state comptrollers, as a rule, often have their hearts set on higher office. That’s why this is on the books:

Sec. 466.109. PUBLICITY OF INDIVIDUALS PROHIBITED. (a) A state officer, including a commission member or the executive director, or an officer or employee of the commission, may not appear in an advertisement or promotion for the lottery that is sponsored by the commission or in a televised lottery drawing. An advertisement or promotion for the lottery may not contain the likeness or name of a state officer, including a commission member or the executive director, or an officer or employee of the commission.

You’re not supposed to use other state resources for political reasons and causes, either. But political people can be sneaky people, and they do what they can to get their names in front of voters, even when they’re not asking for votes. A recognizable name is an asset on a multi-page ballot. In politics, especially in a year with a noisy, attention-grabbing presidential race at the top of the ballot, it pays to advertise.

Porter beat incumbent RRC chairman Victor Carrillo in a GOP primary more than five years ago. Now Porter is the chairman, facing a challenge from attorney John Greytok, a longtime Republican activist.

Maybe Porter is afraid lightning will strike twice.

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