Peppered with questions about his interaction with Texas legislators, conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan repeatedly declined to testify Wednesday during a frequently testy hearing before the Texas Ethics Commission.
“On the advice of counsel, I’m not going to be testifying today,” Sullivan said again and again in the same calm tone.
Lawyers for the commission had called Sullivan to the stand as part of the agency’s investigation into complaints that he failed to register as a lobbyist while working to influence the fate of legislation and the election of a House speaker in 2010 and 2011.
Joe Nixon, Sullivan’s lawyer, said the complaints were revenge by two cronies of House Speaker Joe Straus: state Rep. Jim Keffer and former Rep. Vicki Truitt, both Republicans who also had been targeted for criticism by Sullivan and his organization, Empower Texans.
“You’ve got two people who were upset, and their political consultants told them, ‘You ought to go file a complaint,’” Nixon said. “The speaker’s lieutenants filed a complaint in retribution. This commission is being used for a political vendetta.”
But Ian Steusloff, assistant general counsel for the ethics commission, referred commissioners to almost four dozen letters, emails that memos that Sullivan had sent to legislators containing, he said, specific instructions on how to vote on bills and amendments.
State law is clear, Steusloff said: Registration as a lobbyist is required if you are paid at least $1,000 in a calendar quarter to communicate directly with legislators with the purpose of influencing a legislative matter.
“This is a case about disclosure. It’s about transparency in government and it’s about allowing the public to know who is being paid to influence public servants,” Steusloff said.
Nixon urged the commission to dismiss the complaints, arguing that the legal definition of influence is unconstitutionally vague.
Nixon also argued that state law exempts journalists from lobbyist registration requirements.
“Mr. Sullivan indisputably fits into the media exception,” he said, noting that the Empower Texans website disseminates news and editorial content.
Nixon called one witness, 34-year journalist Mark Lisheron, deputy editor for the online news organization Watchdog.org, to testify as an expert on new media. Lisheron also was an American-Statesman reporter for 10 years.
“Empower Texans is a bona fide news medium,” Lisheron said, calling the group part of the new media that emerged with the advent of the Internet and frequently use original reporting as an advocacy tool.
Steusloff, however, said the media rule is not a blanket exemption but applies to those who disseminate news in the “ordinary course of business” — a standard Empower Texans cannot meet, he said.
Commission Chairman Jim Clancy closed the daylong hearing by criticizing Sullivan’s refusal to testify under subpoena, saying he did not cite a valid privilege for doing so. Nixon told the commission that Sullivan was not invoking his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, saying without elaboration that his client declined to testify under the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments.
Clancy gave no estimate on when the commission would rule, saying that a final written order would be issued “promptly.”