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Powerful Abbott appointee's lobbying sparks blowback in Legislature

In an ironic twist for Gov. Greg Abbott, who has made ethics reform an urgent political priority, the Texas House is taking aim at what critics call a "pay to play" culture among his appointees.

Houston billionaire Dan Friedkin is chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

When Gov. Greg Abbott tapped one of his top campaign donors to become chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, he didn’t get a part-time appointee who would merely draft rules and implement conservation laws passed by the Legislature.

In Dan Friedkin, the governor got a Houston billionaire — with a team of privately funded lobbyists — willing to use his influence to ensure his wildlife interests are taken into account by the Legislature before they pass those laws, interviews and records show.

On the receiving end of that influence, and not in a happy way, is state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall. Paddie said a lobbyist working for Friedkin’s business empire, which includes a massive South Texas hunting ranch, has been working against his deer breeder management bill, which many large ranchers oppose. The state Parks and Wildlife Department oversees deer breeding regulations in Texas.

“Many times these appointees are well-heeled, very influential people,” Paddie said. “Overall, I feel that it’s inappropriate for an appointee of a board or commission to have personal lobbyists lobbying on issues related to that board or commission.”

Under Texas law, state agencies are barred from lobbying the Legislature. But the powerful people who oversee them aren’t.

If Paddie and dozens of his colleagues get their way, that practice soon will be a Class A misdemeanor.

Last weekend, Paddie attached a ban on appointee lobbying — which would apply to any issues intersecting with their state responsibilities — to an ethics bill that already had powerful friends of the governor in its crosshairs. The provision was adopted unanimously and the bill sailed out of the Texas House on a 91-48 vote Saturday.

The ethics bill, authored by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, would bar big campaign donors from getting appointed by governors in the first place. Anyone who contributed over $2,500 would be barred from serving on state boards and commissions.

Larson pointed to news articles documenting the amount of campaign money appointees have collectively given governors. Last year the San Antonio Express-News calculated that Abbott had received nearly $9 million from people he’s picked for appointed office; before that, a widely cited report from Texans for Public Justice found former Gov. Rick Perry had received $17 million from his own appointees.

Larson said 20 years from now, Texans will be reading the same stories about a future governor unless the Legislature does something about it now.

“We’ve read that article for the last three decades,” Larson said during a brief floor speech. “This is your opportunity to say, 'We need to stop this.' The most egregious ethics violation we’ve got in the state is the pay to play in the governor’s office.” 

A prodigious fundraiser, Abbott has put plenty of big donors on prestigious boards and commissions. On the Parks and Wildlife Commission alone, he has installed three mega-donors — pipeline mogul Kelcy Warren, who’s given Abbott more than $800,000 over his statewide political career; Houston businessman S. Reed Morian, who has given $600,000; and Friedkin, who personally donated more than $700,000 — while his Gulf States Toyota PAC gave Abbott another $100,000, according to Ethics Commission records. 

Passage of Larson’s HB 3305 represents an ironic twist for Abbott, who for the second session in a row has made ethics reform an urgent political priority — resulting in a bill that's now taking aim at his gubernatorial appointments. Abbott, who has made a habit of ignoring tough questions, hasn't made any public statements about the bill, and his office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Friedkin — whose wealth is estimated at $3.4 billion by Forbes — is the owner and CEO of Gulf States Toyota, founded in 1969, which has had the exclusive rights to distribute new Toyotas in Texas and four nearby states. He’d also been a mega-donor to former Gov. Rick Perry, who first appointed Friedkin to the Parks and Wildlife Commission in 2005. Abbott made Friedkin chairman of the commission in 2015.

Requests for comment from Friedkin's office went unanswered.

In addition to his public role as parks and wildlife chairman, a perch that gives him significant influence over deer management issues, Friedkin has private wildlife interests. He owns the sprawling Comanche Ranch in South Texas, according to published news accounts.

The January 2014 edition of Texas Wildlife, published by the Texas Wildlife Association, described Friedkin’s Comanche Ranch as “privately owned and privately hunted” and said it’s “in the business to produce as many trophy bucks as possible, without damaging the native habitat.”

The association, which advocates for private landowners and hunting rights, has locked horns with deer breeding interests at Parks and Wildlife and the Capitol. They compete against each other in the lucrative trophy deer hunting market — and the battle between them perennially spills into the rule-making process at the Parks and Wildlife Commission.

One of their battles centers on how captive deer are tagged so that game wardens and others can distinguish them from native deer. Current law requires a combination of tags and tattoos, and the ranchers and large landowners want to keep it that way. The breeders, meanwhile, favor tagging deer with microchips, which they contend are more accurate and foolproof. 

The Wildlife Association said in a Facebook post that removing visible tag or tattoo requirements and allowing microchip tracking “creates real biosecurity risks and blurs ethical lines in the hunting community, as captive deer breeders are allowed to transport and release these animals to be co-mingled with pasture-born deer.” Proponents of the current system say tough rules on breeders are needed to keep out imported deer that may carry Chronic Wasting Disease, which has been found in Texas.

On the other side of the issue is the Texas Deer Association, which represents breeder interests. Executive Director Patrick Tarlton said opposition to his $1.6 billion industry stems less from environmental and health concerns and more from wealthy ranch owners who want to boost profits from trophy-seeking hunters. He notes that Chronic Wasting Disease has been found in both free range and captive deer.

Paddie sided with the breeders by filing House Bill 2855, which would allow breeders to track their deer with microchips instead of relying on physical tags that they say can be torn off.

No one identifying themselves as a Friedkin corporate lobbyist opposed the deer breeding bills during public hearings, according to House and Senate committee records published online.

Behind the scenes, it was a different story. 

Paddie said his chief of staff reached out to Laird Doran, one of several lobbyists for Friedkin’s Gulf States Toyota, after hearing that he was trying to convince other legislators to help defeat Paddie's deer microchip bill.

“My chief called him and said, 'Hey, if you’ve got a problem with our bill why aren’t you talking to us?’ ” Paddie said. “He said he represented the Friedkin Group when that happened.” 

According to an email from an aide to Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, who is carrying the deer breeding bill in the Senate, Doran also identified himself as a representative of the “Friedkin Group.” That’s the name of the consortium that contains Friedkin's Gulf States Toyota, according to the company’s Linked-In page. He told Estes’ aide that the Friedkin group was opposed to any bill that would “remove requirements for (deer) ear tags,” the senator’s office confirmed. 

It’s not clear exactly which Friedkin interests Doran was advancing. Doran is registered at the Texas Ethics Commission with a single entity — Gulf States Toyota — and the agency has no record of a lobbyist working for an entity or individual with the name Friedkin in it, the commission confirmed Wednesday afternoon.

However, Doran checked a variety of non-automotive subject areas in which he is lobbying during this legislative session on behalf of Friedkin’s lucrative distributorship, including “animals,” “parks & wildlife,” “state agencies, boards & commissions,” “environment” and more, his detailed lobby disclosures show.

Doran, director of government relations and senior counsel at the Friedkin Group, did not return phone and email messages left by The Texas Tribune.

Estes said he didn’t have a problem with a governor's appointee engaging in lobbying on issues that affected their private interests, as long as they keep that separate from their state roles.  

“I don’t think they should be barred from expressing their views as long as they’re careful to say these are my views, not the views of the agency I’m representing,” Estes said.

But Tarlton, the deer association director, said Friedkin’s use of lobbyists to oppose deer breeders in the Legislature gives the breeders' opponents a huge advantage.

“I think that if the commissioner of Texas Parks and Wildlife is actively lobbying against an industry which his department directly oversees, it absolutely sets up an unfair and closed system of government,” Tarlton said. “The commission is supposed to be the unbiased and equitable oversight for everything wildlife.”

Paddie hopes his amendment to Larsen's ethics bill will even the playing field. He referred to the wealthy Parks and Wildlife chairman (see the 2:29:00 mark in this recorded exchange) when he tacked the appointee-lobbying provision onto Larson’s bill.

Paddie said he’s not singling out anyone. He said it would apply to other powerful gubernatorial appointees in a position to do the same. 

“I could have named any number of examples as far as the agencies in particular,” Paddie said. “I want to stop it if anyone serving on any agency is doing this.” 

Ryan Murphy contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Texas Wildlife Association, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Gulf States Toyota have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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