Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is playing a potentially awkward role in the ongoing political tussle over whether prominent conservative activist — and Abbott ally — Michael Quinn Sullivan can keep some documents secret.
Sullivan, who heads the group Empower Texans, was in federal court in Austin on Thursday to fight officials with the Texas Ethics Commission who are seeking access to many of his emails and documents. The commission — backed by Abbott’s attorneys — is seeking to prove that Sullivan was acting as a lobbyist in past legislative sessions, but not registering as one, as required by law. Sullivan’s lawyers denied the allegation and questioned the constitutionality of the Ethics Commission’s request.
While nothing ultimately was settled at the hearing, it did reveal the conundrum for Abbott.
Abbott, who is running for governor, has benefited from campaign contributions from Empower Texans’ political action committee, according to reports filed with the Ethics Commission.
Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Abbott’s state office, said in a statement that the attorney general’s office “is constitutionally responsible for representing state agencies regardless of who may be on the other side.”
Sullivan didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The hearing Thursday was called to address a motion by Sullivan’s lawyers for a temporary injunction to prevent the Ethics Commission from getting access to the emails.
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks denied the motion. But Sparks also said that the commission’s subpoenas for Sullivan’s documents were too broad, ordering lawyers from both sides to agree to narrow the scope of the documents that would be overturned.
But Sparks withdrew the order when it became clear that Sullivan’s lawyers might not be willing to cooperate.
And before abruptly ending the hearing, Sparks ordered that briefs be filed within a week to explain why the federal court should be involved in the matter at all.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said that Abbott is regularly called upon to enforce state laws, and he is simply doing his job in this case.
But Sullivan — who, Jillson said, can be “vengeful” and “is famously short-tempered” — might imagine that Abbott is persecuting him.
But if there are any initial feelings of betrayal, they should soon be abandoned, Jillson said.
“At the end of the day, even Sullivan is going to remember — probably sooner than later — that this is the next governor of the state of Texas,” Jillson said.