When meetings of the Texas House stretch late into the night, some legislators take breaks from the action by walking out the back of the House chamber, taking the elevator down to the basement and enjoying some food or a drink in what’s known as Club Geren.
In Room GW.15, the office of state Rep. Charlie Geren, lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists mingle behind closed doors as the people’s business is conducted two floors above. Sometimes Geren pays for the food and alcohol. Sometimes the lobbyists pay, Geren said.
The Fort Worth Republican, who first took office in 2000, is a trusted lieutenant of House Speaker Joe Straus, counted on to move legislation. But after he was tasked with quarterbacking a package of ethics reform bills demanded by Gov. Greg Abbott and swiftly approved by the Senate, three measures never made it to the House floor for a vote.
Straus “trusted Charlie Geren to do what the members would tolerate. No more, no less,” said Craig McDonald, director of the left-leaning ethics watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. “There’s no evidence that they went to bat for these bills.”
Geren said the bills that appear likely to become law are a significant step forward. “We’re further along than we were when we got out two years ago, and I’m pleased with that, and I think some of the measures that we passed are very important,” he said.
The three proposals landing in the legislative trash bin would have created a two-year ban on retiring lawmakers becoming lobbyists, prohibited local elected officials from becoming state-level lobbyists and made it more difficult for lobbyists to hide which officials they are wining and dining.
The three bills that appear likely to cross the finish line would strip state pensions from elected officials convicted on corruption charges, require candidates and officeholders to disclose whether their businesses get government contracts and prohibit recently retired lawmakers who become lobbyists from making political donations from their old campaign fundraising accounts.
For government watchdogs like McDonald, who had reason for optimism at the beginning of the legislative session, the deaths of the three bills in the House is an echo of 2015, when Abbott first called for ethics reform but the House killed a far-reaching omnibus ethics bill.
“It’s the second session in a row that Abbott’s emergency call for reforms has been largely ignored,” McDonald said. “Out of those six (bills), three of them survived. I don’t think those are the most significant.”
Geren, who carried four of the six bills in the House, including two that died, deflected blame to the committee where his measures got bottled up: the Calendars Committee, which determines which bills come to the floor and when. “You would have to ask the chairman of the committee where the bills died,” he said.
Calendars Committee Chairman Todd Hunter, another top Straus lieutenant, said he couldn’t remember why in particular the other ethics bills didn’t pass.
“Bills come into the committee. Not all of the bills come out,” Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, said. “There’s really nothing more to say.”
Carol Birch, legislative counsel for the Texas chapter of the good government group Public Citizen, said that Geren, who sits on the Calendars Committee, was well-positioned to ensure the bills moved forward if he wanted them to.
“When a powerful member on the House Calendars Committee does not get his priority bills out of Calendars, it’s pretty safe to assume that that was the desired result,” she said.
‘Boot camp for the lobby’
The fundamental dynamic of this legislative session is the conflict between the Straus-led House, which reflects the business-friendly and moderate GOP of the George W. Bush era, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a former talk-radio host who is a social and Christian conservative.
While Patrick, who leads the Senate, has drawn plenty of criticism from outside of his base for pushing proposals such as the measure restricting transgender bathroom use, he gets high marks for tackling ethics reform. The ethics reform package, authored by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, was the first legislation passed by the Senate this year.
“Some elements of the tea party or the more conservative politicians these days are more supportive of good government reform and ethics reform than some of the older-school legislators and moderates,” McDonald said.
In part because lieutenant governors have more direct control over the Senate than speakers do over the House, the Senate is dominated by the personality and priorities of Patrick. The House, on the other hand, reflects Straus’ decentralized leadership style and his willingness to accommodate big business.
Straus’ chief of staff, Patricia Shipton, is a former lobbyist, and his previous chief of staff, Jesse Ancira Jr., is a current lobbyist. Five Straus-appointed House committee leaders who retired after the last legislative session are now lobbying their former colleagues and have earned $775,000 to $1.7 million from clients in the first four months of 2017, according to a recent Texans for Public Justice report.
“It’s a boot camp for the lobby,” McDonald said of the House leadership. “The past would show you that the leadership has an interest in returning as lobbyists and because of that, it’s no surprise that the leadership didn’t go to bat for these bills.”
A spokesman for Straus didn’t respond to a request for comment.
For Geren, the issue of regulating lobbyist activity hits close to home: He is in a long-term romantic relationship with lobbyist Mindy Ellmer, which has led to conflict-of-interest questions. A recent KXAN investigation found that Geren this year sponsored a bill that would help one of Ellmer’s clients, AT&T, and has been approved by both chambers.
“I have not tried to hide that for the 12 years that we’ve dated,” he said. “She doesn’t lobby me. Never has, never will.”
Asked if he thought the lobby’s influence on the Legislature was a problem, Geren said, “No.”
After promising to address the issue on the campaign trail in 2014, Abbott has twice listed ethics reform as an emergency item in his State of the State address, which allows lawmakers to fast-track bills on that subject and builds political pressure on them to address it.
In 2015, a far-reaching omnibus bill by Taylor died over disagreements about the issue of so-called dark money, political spending by nonprofits that aren’t required to disclose their donors. Geren and other members of the House leadership, who have been targeted by conservative dark money organizations, supported increasing disclosure of spending by those groups, but Abbott and Senate Republicans did not.
Taylor and Geren didn’t propose addressing dark money this year to increase the chances of passing other measures.
Taylor’s Senate Bill 500, which strips pensions from officials convicted on felony corruption charges and makes it easier to remove them from office, has been sent to Abbott. Both chambers have approved and will likely soon send to Abbott House Bill 501 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, which strengthens reporting requirements for state politicians who make money from contracts with local governments through their private businesses, and Geren’s HB 505, prohibiting lawmakers-turned-lobbyists from using their campaign coffers.
Asked about the defeat of the other half of the package he authored, Taylor would say only that he was proud of his Senate colleagues.
The House this year also generated its own ethics reform measures, including ones that targeted the executive branch, that never got the blessing of Abbott or Patrick. HB 3305 by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, would prohibit the governor from appointing his big-dollar campaign donors to state agency boards, which the Texas Tribune reported Abbott has done 71 times since taking office in 2015. The House approved the measure, but the Senate hasn’t taken it up.
Patrick and Abbott didn’t respond to requests for comment.