A Denton County, Texas judge has once again tossed out a ruling by the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) against Empower Texans President Michael Quinn Sullivan that claimed that he had improperly failed to register as a lobbyist. The court’s ruling, affirmed the previous dismissal of the case by another Denton County judge, 158th District Court Judge Steve Burgess, finding that the TEC’s actions against Sullivan violated the Citizen’s Participation Act.
Last June, after pursuing a case against Sullivan for nearly two years, the TEC finally held a public hearing. As Breitbart Texas reported, the TEC failed to properly authenticate evidence it presented against Sullivan, allowed witnesses to violate procedural rules, and failed to counter arguments offered by Sullivan’s attorneys, chiefly several challenges they made regarding vagueness issues with Texas’ lobbying law.
Nevertheless, after meeting behind closed doors, the TEC ruled against Sullivan, imposing a $5,000 civil fine against Sullivan for two years of violations they claimed (2010 and 2011), for a total fine of $10,000.
Sullivan challenged the TEC’s ruling in court, filing his appeal in Denton County, his new residence, where he had signed an apartment lease and voted in the elections last fall. Under Texas law, TEC rulings can be appealed in either Travis County or in the county where the appellant resides, at the appellant’s choice. The TEC then took the extraordinary step of not only challenging Sullivan’s claim of residence, but hiring a private investigator to dig up information on Sullivan.
Judge Burgess was not persuaded by the TEC’s arguments, and after a five hour hearing in February, ruled that venue was proper in Denton County and then dismissing the entire case against Sullivan, as Breitbart Texas reported.
The TEC then moved to have Burgess recused from the case, citing a tweet by Bud Kennedy, a Fort Worth Star Telegram reporter, that Burgess followed Sullivan on Twitter. Judge Jeff Walker, a senior district judge from Tarrant County, was appointed to handle the recusal motion, and ruled that Burgess should be removed from the case because following Sullivan on Twitter “caused and will cause Judge Burgess’ impartiality in this case to be reasonably questioned.” Burgess later publicly commented that his campaign had set up the Twitter account and he had not been aware of its content.
The latest hearing on Thursday with the newly appointed judge lasted about an hour, and resulted in a ruling confirming the same decision reached by Burgess: that the TEC’s actions against Sullivan violated the Citizen’s Participation Act and were therefore invalid. The court dismissed the case against Sullivan in its entirety.
“Twice now a court has ruled that the Texas Ethics Commission violated Sullivan’s First Amendment rights,” said lead counsel Joe Nixon in a statement released by Empower Texans. “The commission was flat-out wrong, which has now been twice affirmed.”
Trey Trainor, another one of Sullivan’s attorneys, celebrated the victory with a picture of Sullivan and the legal team posted on Twitter.
— Trey Trainor (@txelectionlaw) March 18, 2015
Breitbart Texas interviewed Sullivan by phone Thursday afternoon about the court’s ruling. “What I have seen through all of this, is that the TEC is going to make the process the punishment,” said Sullivan, describing the TEC as having “demonstrated an absolute vindictiveness” and only respecting due process rights for those who “do what they want.”
“It’s very troubling, very sad, to see a state agency act this way,” continued Sullivan, but “we’re pleased with the victory…what we said all along would happen, happened…the case was tossed out.”
Sullivan told Breitbart Texas that the judge had not awarded attorneys’ fees, even though the Citizens Participation Act directs that the court “shall award” attorneys’ fees to a citizen who prevails under its provisions, but that issue can be resolved at a later date.
Sullivan also said that he had just heard that the TEC had filed an immediate appeal of the court’s dismissal of the case against him. The Quorum Report confirmed this, in a report later Thursday that noted that the case will now move to the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth.
[Disclosure: Michael Quinn Sullivan is a Breitbart Texas contributor.]
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.