Group says it secretly collected 800 hours of video of state lawmakers

Using both hand-held and hidden recording devices, a local nonprofit has amassed about 800 hours of video footage of state lawmakers and lobbyists that the group’s leaders said Tuesday will be released to show the hypocrisy and bad behavior they found in and around the Texas Capitol.

The footage — none of which has been released — was recorded over the past six months with hand-held video recorders, detachable lens cameras and hidden recording devices, said Jon Beria, a spokesman for the Austin-based American Phoenix Foundation. The group’s “citizen journalists” recorded members of the Legislature at the Capitol as well as at bars and restaurants around Austin, he said.

The group will document sex, violence and corruption among lawmakers and lobbyists when its recordings are released, Beria said.

“With 800 hours, we can afford to show these people for what they really are,” Beria told the American-Statesman.

Beria refused to detail which lawmakers will be highlighted — or exactly what the footage will show — when the pieces emerge in the coming weeks.

Targeted lawmakers said they’re offended by the group’s harsh accusations — lobbed without any evidence so far to back them up — and the use of hidden cameras (which is legal in Texas).

Of the several lawmakers who were questioned and recorded, many reported being asked about their support of the House leadership, in-state tuition for Texas graduates not legally in the country and other hot-button issues. Some mentioned that they suspected cameras were hidden on clothing and in briefcases.

State Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, was confronted recently while eating dinner at Benji’s Cantina on West 6th Street with his wife, who is eight months pregnant. A man seated near the couple pulled up a chair and peppered him with questions, Landgraf said. It wasn’t until later that Landgraf learned that he was likely being recorded.

The freshman legislator said his role as a public official comes with some expectation of being approached in public, but, he added, “My wife shouldn’t have to live in fear.”

State Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, said he was approached in the Capitol, called by name, and at the time didn’t know he was being recorded. He said the American Phoenix Foundation shouldn’t make allegations without substantiating them.

“I think folks come here, they work hard,” Rodriguez said of the members of the Legislature. “I have not seen anything that has crossed the line.”

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said he was approached three times by “sleazy people” who he believes were covertly recording him and asking him whether he supported House Speaker Joe Straus, who for years has been criticized by some conservative groups for not being conservative enough.

Beria said the footage might show how some members were critical of Straus, R-San Antonio, on the campaign trail, but supportive of him in Austin.

Some members — both Democrats and Republicans — also reported being asked if they pay male and female staffers at the same rate.

“It’s just a basic gender equity question,” Beria said. “They need to be confronted by a team like this, so they are forced to explain themselves.”

The American Phoenix Foundation doesn’t endorse one particular political persuasion, Beria said. Rather, the group is “anti-incumbent” and dedicated to exposing public officials who are too cozy with lobbyists and speak one way on the campaign trail but act differently when they come to the Capitol, he said.

But the group’s CEO, Joe Basel, is a partner in a political consulting firm, C3 Strategies, that has done work for some of the most conservative members of the Legislature, including Sens. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, and Konni Burton, R-Colleyville.

Basel was arrested with conservative activist James O’Keefe for allegedly trying to tamper with communications of then-U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in 2010. O’Keefe also posed as a pimp in a widely publicized 2009 undercover video that showed members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, appearing to give him and a “prostitute” — Basel’s wife, Hanna Giles, who is vice president of the Phoenix foundation — advice on tax evasion.

They were not convicted of charges related to wiretapping or tampering with the phone system, but ultimately, O'Keefe and Basel — along with American Phoenix Foundation officer Stan Dai — pleaded guilty to one-count of entering U.S. government property under false pretenses.

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