Despite an apparent conflict of interest, State Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas) has voted on legislation helping clients to his Dallas-based law firm. One of moderate House Speaker Joe Straus’ closest associates, Branch is now running for Texas Attorney General.
Branch’s relationship with Straus has made him one of the most powerful members of the legislature, having been appointed to chair the House Committee on Higher Education.
In that position, Branch has oversight of the state’s system of higher education. It has also opened doors to lucrative contracts with state agencies and vendors.
“Conservatives spend a lot of time calling out Democrats on their cronyism,” Morgan Williamson of Empower Texans told Breitbart Texas. “It’s important that we not let it run rampant in our ranks, either.”
As was pointed out recently by former Republican Party of Texas chairman Tom Pauken, Branch’s law firm, Winstead, PC, has a half-million-dollar contract with Texas A&M University (TAMU).
Meanwhile, one of his firm’s clients — Pearson, the global education testing company — has a controversial contract worth nearly $500 million with the state. Branch’s law firm also happens to lobby the legislature on behalf of Pearson.
“Branch chairs the Higher Education Committee and has enormous influence over education policy in the legislature,” Pauken noted in a Feb. 16 posting on Facebook.
Yet getting at such potential conflicts of interest is nearly impossible for the average Texan. Despite having voted for budgets containing funding for Texas A&M — and budgets that included funds which ultimately went to his law firm and lobby clients — there is no record of Branch recusing himself from a vote in committee or on the floor of the Texas House.
While lawmakers are required to file financial disclosures with the state, those are not available in electronic format. Citizens must request paper copies of the documents.
In the case of Branch, none of his disclosure forms note his law firm’s contracts with state agencies or the contracts his firm’s clients have with state agencies.
That’s because Branch is not required to do so.
Daniel Greer, who heads the news and analysis organization AgendaWise, told Breitbart Texas that citizens deserve to know what contracts legislators have with government agencies.
“Politicians are very good at obfuscation,” he said. “They don’t want us to know about their self-dealing.”
In 2013, freshman conservative Giovanni Capriglione sought to advance a change to state law that would require lawmakers to disclose contracts they and their businesses have with state and local government agencies. The measure as a stand-alone piece of legislation was attacked by the Straus leadership team, and was bottled up in the House’s Calendars Committee.
Representative Branch confirmed to Breitbart Texas that he does maintain a minor ownership interest in Winstead, PC, a firm that holds contracts with TAMU and Pearson–but described himself as “an undisputed champion of open government reforms.”
On May 20, 2013, Capriglione attempted to attach the transparency measure as an amendment to a measure dealing with the state’s ethics commission. Branch “walked” the vote; that is, he was absent from the vote despite voting on the amendments immediately before and after Capriglione’s measure was considered.
AgendaWise’s Greer said legislators’ financial disclosures — including contracts they have with government agencies — should be in an easily searchable database, not “hidden on paper in obscure state offices.”
Follow Michael Quinn Sullivan on Twitter @MQSullivan