The duplicitous Texas Ethics Commission and Empower Texans

Today the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) is scheduled to finally hold a hearing to consider its case against Empower Texans and Michael Quinn Sullivan.  David Rauf of the SA Express News has a story, though it doesn’t touch on some key points and background to put this whole sad affair into context.  I’ll fill in more of that as this overreaching investigation continues. The investigation, which was initiated by bare allegations lodged by two sitting state legislators with an assist from a registered lobbyist (and based on “information and belief,” rather than personal knowledge), focuses on two issues: (1) the allegation that Empower Texans, a 501(c)(4) organization, meets the definition of a “general purpose political committee” and therefore should be disclosing donors to the TEC; and (2) that Michael Quinn Sullivan, its director, meets the definition of “lobbyist” under Texas law and therefore should have registered, and paid an annual lobbying fee to the state, before advocating policy to the Legislature.

There is much that needs to be said about all of this, which the news media (like the TEC) is totally oblivious to. This morning, I at least thought it would be appropriate to point out the TEC’s duplicity on the issue of nonprofit disclosure.

The TEC has led a two-year-long witch hunt against the nonprofit Empower Texans, including the issuance of subpoenas for financial records, calendars, internal communications and the like, which a federal district judge described as “absurd.”  All of it aimed at determining whether Empower Texans meets the definition of “political committee,” which would require donor disclosure.

Now shift gears for a second. In a case called Catholic Leadership Coalition v. Reisman (as in David Reisman, former Exec. Dir. of the TEC), I’m representing three “general purpose political committees” in a First Amendment lawsuit challenging a Texas law (Elec. Code 253.037(a)) that requires general purpose committees to wait 60 days before spending $500 on political speech. Two of those groups have related nonprofit arms associated with them. This is common practice–a group of people want to engage in discussion, advocacy, and political action, so to comply with the law they set up a nonprofit to do what nonprofits do and a PAC to do what PACs do.  Realizing that there is no substantive argument that can sustain Texas’s two-month ban on spending by general purpose committees, the TEC decides to argue all the way through district court that my two clients with associated nonprofits should have just funded their election speech via the nonprofits, rather than having the gall to come into court to challenge Texas’s $500 speech limit. Citizens United–the TEC argues–validated the rights of independent nonprofits to spend on electioneering, so nonprofits should just do that, rather than set up a general purpose committee and complain about a two month blackout period.

We argued Catholic Leadership April 30 in the Fifth Circuit, and the TEC continued the same theme throughout its appellate briefing and even at oral argument (audio here).  (A decision could be released any day.)

Make no mistake: my clients in Catholic Leadership are not in the same category as Empower Texans.  The Catholic Leadership groups challenging the waiting period on PACs are undeniably PACs–they specifically solicit funds for express advocacy communications about candidates, which means those funds are “political contributions” and the group soliciting them is a PAC. Empower Texans does not do that.  In fact, it has a related PAC that exists for that purpose.

This situation reveals the true motivations and duplicity of the decision-makers at the TEC. Suspend your disbelief and consider the TEC’s positions in these two concurrent cases over the last two years:

  • In Empower Texans’ case, TEC pursues an aggressive investigation to determine whether a nonprofit became a political committee and violated the law by failing to register and disclose donors.  But:
  • In Catholic Leadership, TEC tries mightily to hoodwink two federal courts into believing that my clients–who have loudly proclaimed all along that they had to, and in fact did, solicit political contributions to fund their speech–should have simply spent the money through their nonprofits (which don’t disclose donors).

Where is the media to pick up on this blatant inconsistency? If my clients had taken the route the TEC has suggested in litigation, they would have found themselves in the chair next to Empower Texans today. Except that they would have deserved to be there, while Sullivan does not. Much more to come on this.