As Republicans nationally are fighting to stop the Obama Administration’s IRS from imposing new rules limiting political speech by conservative groups and forcing them to reveal their donors, a state agency in Texas is trying to impose a similar restraint in the Lone Star State.
To fight the effort, a lawsuit has been filed against the Texas Ethics Commission by Empower Texans, a watchdog group that focuses on state spending issues under the name Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. The group is led by Breitbart Texas contributor Michael Quinn Sullivan.
In 2013, left-leaning Republicans and their allies in the Texas Democratic Party pushed legislation that would force conservative non-profits to reveal the names of their donors but exempted labor unions from the requirements. The legislation was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, who described the measure as “unconscionable” and designed to “expose more Texans to the risk [of] harassment.”
Yet two weeks ago, the Texas Ethic Commission voted to post for public review in the Texas Register new rules that would do, under their assumed regulatory powers, what the governor vetoed.
Since mid-2012, the Texas Ethics Commission has been pursuing Empower Texans. It is a matter of public record that the two legislators who have filed complaints against Sullivan’s group have been committee chairs appointed by Texas House Speaker Joe Straus.
The lawsuit asserts that the legislators’ complaints and the subsequent Ethics Commission action were taken in an attempt, according to the lawsuit, to silence conservative critics.
The Texas Ethics Commission’s tactic is similar to demands by the Internal Revenue Service nationally that non-profit conservative organizations reveal their donors’ names despite clear US Supreme Court precedent protecting that information.
Over the course of two years, Sullivan’s lawsuit notes that the Commission has held two closed-door hearings against the organization, and that commission staff have demanded that information on Empower Texans’ donors be provided to them.
Earlier this month, as noted in the lawsuit, the Texas Ethics Commission ruled that they had “insufficient evidence” of wrongdoing against Empower Texans, yet voted for a formal hearing nonetheless.
The Commission then issued subpoenas requesting information–including documents listing the names of donors–that would be made public at the hearing. Echoing the demands of the IRS to conservative groups last year, the Texas Ethics Commission is also demanding that Empower Texans print “[a]ll written communications” regarding endorsements, policy positions, and articles published on the organization’s website, according to Sullivan’s lawsuit.
Due to the scope of information requested, and the harm to the constitutional privacy of the donors, the organization has filed suit in federal court against the Texas Ethics Commission. The suit asserts the agency is violating the constitutionally protected speech rights of Sullivan and the organization, while invading the constitutionally protected privacy of the donors.
The lawsuit claims the Texas Ethics Commission’s abused the due-process right of Sullivan and Empower Texans, disregarded constitutionally protected speech, and has attempted to circumvent the legislative process by enacting rules and precedent outside the scope of state law.
Follow Brandon Darby on Twitter @BrandonDarby