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Empower Texans Escalates Battle With Ethics Commission

The influential conservative group Empower Texans is escalating its long-running battle against the Texas Ethics Commission, accusing a former member of improperly seeking to influence state legislation.

Michael Quinn Sullivan at the Texas Tax Day Tea Party Rally at the Texas Capitol on April 15th, 2015

The influential conservative group Empower Texans is escalating its long-running battle against the Texas Ethics Commission, accusing a former member of the state watchdog agency of improperly seeking to influence state legislation.

Empower Texans President Michael Quinn Sullivan on Thursday lodged a criminal complaint against Tom Harrison, who abruptly resigned in June as the commission's vice chairman. The complaint, filed with the Travis County district attorney's office, alleges that Harrison illegally gave gifts to lawmakers in his role as deputy director of the Texas County and District Retirement System, one of the state's largest pension funds.

Sullivan says that activity should have required Harrison to register with the state as a lobbyist. And even if Harrison did register, he still would have been in violation of another rule saying lobbyists cannot serve on the ethics commission. 

"For more than a decade, an appointed member of the Texas Ethics Commission issued fines and promulgated rules designed to silence citizens while lavishing legislative offices with gifts on behalf of his 'day job,'" Sullivan wrote Thursday morning on the Empower Texans website. "That’s illegal, on multiple fronts, and for it Tom Harrison should be held accountable." 

Reached Thursday afternoon, Harrison said he was still reviewing the complaint but denied any wrongdoing. 

Empower Texans officials are using the complaint to renew their criticism of Texas' ethics regulators, who have repeatedly clashed with the group over the years, as corrupt and hypocritical. Sullivan argued Thursday, for example, that Harrison has signed on to a commission opinion tightening lobbyist registration requirements but has allegedly failed to follow the same kinds of rules himself. 

Sullivan has faced his own questions about whether he should be required to register as a lobbyist for his actions on behalf of Empower Texans. The ethics commission ruled in 2014 that Sullivan acted as unregistered lobbyist in 2010 and 2011 and fined him $10,000, a decision he has since been fighting in the courts.

Harrison, who was originally appointed by Senate Democrats in 2004, has previously been in the crosshairs of conservative groups who believe he overstayed his time on the commission. Before he stepped down, he was one of four commissioners — half the panel — who were holdovers because their terms expired without state leaders immediately moving to replace them. 

Empower Texans and other conservative groups have long wrangled with the eight member commission, which has been investigating Empower Texans' political activity since 2012. Empower Texans is set up as a 501 (c)(4) nonprofit, which lets it make independent expenditures without being required to disclose donors. 

On Tuesday, the group got some good news when the office of Attorney General Ken Paxton, which is representing the commission, effectively ended its pursuit of subpoenas in the investigation. The ethics commission, however, told the San Antonio Express-News it is not letting up on its probe of Empower Texans and Sullivan. 

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