When is an influence peddler not a lobbyist?

Recently, the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) unanimously agreed to fine Michael Quinn Sullivan $10,000 for failing to file as a lobbyist. You can read a Texas Tribune story about it (“Ethics Commission Slaps Conservative Activist With Fine“) or read the original TEC order (pdf). The debate has drifted over to press relations as legislators try to decide who should be counted as media in the Texas Capitol (“Analysis: A Conundrum for Texas Capitol Gatekeepers‘).

Sullivan heads Empower Texans. It is widely recognize that Empower Texans has become one of the most influential organizations in the state and Sullivan was paid well over $100,000 a year to head the organization. The law specifics requires you to register as a lobbyist if you get paid to communicate directly with legislators in an attempt to influence legislation. Part of Sullivan’s defense is that he merits an exemption from the registration requirement because he is “media.” Some of that argument is spelled out in a Empower Texans statement (“Why Every Journalist Should Care About the Michael Quinn Sullivan Case“). The argument seems very weak to me and I’m not surprised that they lost on a unanimous vote.

Empower Texans has attacked the TEC process (as spelled out by spokesman Joe Nixon) and the TEC certainly merits scrutiny. However, it’s worth pointing out the TEC is not some liberal bureaucracy. Four of the commissioners were appointed by Governor Perry, two by the Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, and two by Speaker Joe Straus. That group seems unlikely to form the kind of malicious kangaroo court described by Sullivan’s defenders.

Sullivan has become living proof that the hubris so common in Austin and Washington is not limited to those in office. It’s unfortunate that a group committed to transparency in government would spend so much time and money undermining transparency in the massive lobbying industry. Anyone who has read the vague spending reports filed with the TEC (lobbyists don’t report precise payment, they report a range of contract costs), seen the massive amount given to candidates, and obscene amounts spent on feeding legislators and staff would have trouble believing that restrictions in Texas are too tight. Over 1,000 lobbyists register every legislative session (1,663 managed to do so in 2013). It’s clearly not a burden that unreasonable.

Empower Texans donors can look forward to seeing their contributions go to an expensive bank of lawyers attempting to squeeze Sullivan through loopholes in the law. That doesn’t seem like a fiscally responsible thing to do.

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