By Chris Tomlinson
AUSTIN — Two prominent Republican legislators filed state ethics complaints against one of the most influential conservative activist groups in Texas on Tuesday, alleging the organization and its president did not obey lobbying laws.
Rep. Jim Keffer, chairman of the powerful energy resources committee, and Rep. Vicki Truitt, chairwoman of the pensions committee, filed the complaint against Empower Texans, also known as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. The lawmakers allege that the group’s president, Michael Quinn Sullivan, failed to register as a lobbyist and that the nonprofit failed to file a required campaign finance activity disclosure.
Such complaints by Republican lawmakers against a conservative organization, which routinely supports conservative policies in the Legislature, is highly unusual and demonstrates a schism between veteran politicians and new activists taking more conservative tea-party positions.
Sullivan has registered with the Texas Ethics Commission as a paid lobbyist in the past, but he said he is not currently working as a lobbyist and denied any wrongdoing.
Sullivan has been a vocal opponent of increasing state government spending and he speaks regularly at conservative political rallies. Empower Texans maintains a scorecard based on lawmaker’s voting records on conservative issues and has recently supported candidates in primary challenges to several of incumbents, including Keffer and Truitt.
According to The Empower Texans website, the group exists to Empower Texans exists to “create and sustain a system of strong fiscal stewardship within all levels of Texas government, ensuring the greatest amounts of economic and personal liberty… ”
The lawmakers said Sullivan is acting as a lobbyist and that the Empower Texans scorecard represented a campaign activity that required registration with the Ethics Commission.
Keffer said the failure to file disclosure forms hid the group’s activities and the fact that a wealthy Texas family is the main backer of the organization.
“Sounds like its political grandstanding by some entrenched incumbents who tend to not like conservatives,” Sullivan said, adding that he had not seen the details of the complaints.
Empower Texans has repeatedly challenged long-serving Republicans who the groups says are not conservative enough, including House Speaker Joe Straus.
Keffer accused the group of trying to obscure the nature of the organization and who is behind it. The complaint alleges that the group is controlled by a wealthy conservative political donor in Texas and his family.
“Taken together, the ethics complaints filed against Empower Texans and Michael Quinn Sullivan reveal violations of important state ethics laws designed to let the public find out who’s lobbying and what they’re spending, and what special interests are spending money to help or hurt candidates,” Keffer said.
“When lobbyists don’t register and file reports, and when powerful organizations spend money on campaigns but don’t report it, they hide their true identities and conceal their activities from the public.”
During last year’s legislative session, many lawmakers complained about Empower Texans and the way they score lawmakers voting patterns and the inordinate influence the group can have on voters in the Republican primaries.