The daughter of a Texas State Representative has withdrawn her registration as a lobbyist, after an outcry over the potential for conflicts of interest between her work lobbying for education clients and her father’s role as chair of the House Public Education Committee. The announcement was made on a Friday afternoon, just two days after a Breitbart Texas article describing the conflict.
As Breitbart Texas reported, it has been widely assumed that Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) will retain his position as chair of the Public Education Committee when Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) makes the official announcement of his committee appointments.
Aycock’s daughter, Michelle Smith, is a lobbyist for the Austin-based firm HillCo Partners, and works primarily on education issues. Two of Smith’s key clients include Raise Your Hand Texas, a pro-public education group that opposes private school vouchers and other issues supported by school choice advocates, and the Fast Growth School Coalition, which advocates for increased spending on public schools. Smith serves as the Executive Director for the Fast Growth School Coalition and Raise Your Hand Texas reported paying HillCo $350,000 for their lobbying work.
On Friday, Aycock released a letter, included at the end of this article, titled “Clarity on Conflict Comments,” which said that “issues have been raised” regarding his daughter’s lobbying work. Aycock said that both of them had filed all required disclosure forms, and he had announced he would recuse himself on issues related to her clients.
“Despite these measures, the comments have persisted,” wrote Aycock. As Breitbart Texas reported, the language Aycock used in pledging to recuse himself seemed targeted to only some of Smith’s work, and he had engaged in communicating the advocacy positions of Raise Your Hand Texas on at least one occasion during debate of an education bill.
Aycock’s letter continued, announcing that Smith “has chosen to withdraw her registration as a lobbyist and cease advocacy activities.” The letter also says that other employees of HillCo Partners will continue to lobby the Texas Legislature on education issues. “I applaud this decision and look forward to working vigorously on Texas’ many education matters now that my recusal will not be necessary,” wrote Aycock.
Aycock then went on the attack, writing that he “[found] it ironic that anti-education forces felt it necessary to critique a former teacher with a PhD in Education Improvement from Texas State University [his daughter] in order to apply pressure to me.” He also took a swipe at Empower Texans President Michael Quinn Sullivan, dismissing his critics as “a small group centered largely around Michael Quinn Sullivan.”
Breitbart Texas contacted Aycock’s office and spoke to Sam Nancarrow, his Legislative Director, who confirmed that the letter was authentic and from Aycock. Even though Aycock’s letter never mentioned Breitbart Texas, when this reporter identified herself, Nancarrow said sarcastically, “Thanks for the Breitbart article.”
Breitbart Texas mentioned to Nancarrow that Michael Quinn Sullivan had not been contacted for that article — the information was all pulled from publicly available media reports, chiefly The Texas Tribune and Watchdog Wire — and Nancarrow replied, “This started on the Watchdog group and then y’all piggy-backed on it.” He did not deny any of the information in the original Breitbart Texas report. Breitbart Texas asked him if there was anything else he would like to add or any other information their office would like to share, and Nancarrow said, “Nope, have a great day,” and hung up the phone.
As Sullivan was attacked by name in Aycock’s letter, Breitbart Texas reached out to him for comment. “I appreciate that Mr. Aycock has such a out-sized view of me and my organization,” said Sullivan with amusement. “However, the more important thing is that the citizens of Texas are becoming more and more aware of the importance of there not being conflict of interest among lawmakers.”
Sullivan mentioned a 2013 Houston Chronicle article that called conflicts of interests a “way of life in the Texas legislature,” and said that was a significant issue that Texans wanted to see reformed. “I’m glad to see that Mr. Aycock and his daughter are responding to the new reality of what Texans expect,” he said.
Contrary to Aycock’s description of his critics as a “small group centered around” Sullivan, there was a much larger and broader groundswell of conservative outrage, and not just in Austin or in Aycock’s district. The original Breitbart Texas article was posted on Twitter, shared on private email lists, and posted in Facebook groups by conservative activists and tea party leaders from Harris County, Montgomery County, in Dallas and San Antonio, and numerous others across the state.
Peggy Venable, the Policy Director for Americans for Prosperity – Texas, a group that advocates for school choice, took issue with Aycock’s implication that his critics were all part of “anti-education forces.” Venable told Breitbart Texas, “I would hope his thinking is not that narrow. I would contend that pro-school choice folks are pro-education and pro-child. They are simply not pro-monopoly education system.” Nonetheless, Venable called Smith’s withdrawal of her lobbying registration as “the right thing to do.”
Breitbart Texas also spoke with Jason Embry, Straus’ Communications Director. Embry confirmed they were aware of Aycock’s letter but did not comment on it except to say that “committee appointments will be announced soon.” When asked for clarification, Embry said that the announcement would not come Friday, as they were “still working on it,” but they anticipated that it would happen “next week or the week after.”
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.
[Disclosure: Michael Quinn Sullivan is a Breitbart Texas contributor.]