Tuesday, Aug 18, 2009, 09:35AM CST
By Matt PulleState Sen. Royce West, who is considering a run for Texas attorney general, has until recently made it almost impossible to follow his money and figure out how he earns a living.
Although the Dallas Democrat and his small law firm have raked in well over $1 million in recent years billing local governments for legal services, West hardly mentioned any of his public sector lawyering on his personal financial statements, which are public records, required by law, that detail a legislator's investments, holdings and sources of income. The senator's omissions constituted either a violation of Texas law or are barely covered by an obscure loophole.
Either way, West himself must think he made a mistake. Just days after Texas Watchdog asked him about several of the gaps in his financial filings, the senator turned in three corrected reports to the Texas Ethics Commission. (Click here and here for the 2009 amendments and here for the 2008 amendment.)
The state's official ethics watchdog requires that lawmakers disclose any fee they've received from either a lobbyist or an entity who employs a registered lobbyist in Austin--think energy companies, insurance firms and developers. The intent of this provision is clear: If an elected official is doing business with a firm that itself does enough business with the state to enlist a hired gun, we should probably know about it.
"It seems plain that the reason for this inquiry is to assist the voters with their efforts to hold legislators accountable for their responsible conduct," says Daniel Rodriguez, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. Voters have "a statutory right to know the financial connections between lobbyists and elected representatives."
But West didn't list many of those connections until he received an e-mail from Texas Watchdog. In the senator's initial 2008 and 2009 personal financial statements, on file with the Texas Ethics Commission, the 16-year incumbent didn't identify the public agencies and governments he and his firm have billed, even though many of those outfits, like other deep-pocketed industries, retain registered lobbyists in Austin.
West's most notable omissions:
Dallas Independent School District: West and his firm have collected $3.8 million dollars in fees from Dallas ISD, helping defend personnel cases for the district. Last year, West and his firm billed DISD more than $600,000. But even though Dallas ISD retained six lobbyists in Austin during this past legislative session and another nine during the two prior years, West did not initially mention DISD on either his 2008 or 2009 personal financial statements.
Dallas Area Rapid Transit: In 2008, West's firm billed the Dallas Area Rapid Transit almost $260,000 and has collected more than $500,000 in fees from the public transportation agency since December 2006. But West didn't list DART on either his original 2008 and 2009 personal financial statements, even though DART retained six lobbyists last session and ten during the previous two years.
The city of Dallas: In 2007, West's firm billed the city of Dallas $32,067 for serving as the co-bond counsel on the city's municipal debt sales. In 2008, he billed more $73,000. Though Dallas, like most major municipalities, has a heavy lobbying presence in Austin with 12 this past session and 41 over the two years prior, West only disclosed his work for the city in his most recent personal financial statement.
West corrects the record...after we ask about it.
On July 9, Texas Watchdog sent West an e-mail asking him specifically why he didn't list his public-sector clients on his personal financial statements. The senator never responded nor did he return repeated phone calls to his office. But less than a week after our e-mail, on July 14, West sent three amended reports to the Texas Ethics Commission noting in each one that "Part 15," which asks for the disclosures in question, "had not been completed."
In his corrected report for 2008, West now discloses that he received $25,000 or more from Dallas ISD, DART and the city of Dallas--all three of whom employ lobbyists and all three of whom were referenced in our original e-mail to the senator. West also adds that he was paid $25,000 or more from several other clients who have hired guns in Austin including Texas Instruments and the Dallas Cowboys Company. Here the veteran pol is correcting a report that he turned in nearly a year-and-a-half earlier.
West also made two corrections to his 2009 personal financial statement, again adding Dallas ISD and DART to his list of clients who lobby the legislature. (He had already included the city of Dallas.) West also added the city of San Antonio and CPS Energy in that same section.
Did West violate Texas Law?
It's not entirely clear if West broke the law by failing to note that some of his best clients just happen to lobby him and his colleagues in Austin. An ethics advisory opinion from 1996 looks at a case very similar to the situation with West--a state officer who works for a business that provides services to local governments. The opinion states that if most of the fees are paid to the business--and not state officials--the official does not have to disclose this work on his personal financial statement.
So does this opinion exonerate West?
In the contracts Texas Watchdog reviewed between the state senator and public agencies, West's law firm, West & Associates, is listed as the vendor--not the state senator himself. But West and Associates, located just off I-35, south of downtown Dallas, is a relatively tiny firm in which the state senator is the only partner. It's hard to envision many scenarios where the fees paid to West's law firm don't end up in the hands of West himself, which may be why he ultimately chose to amend his reports.
West isn't the only lawmaker who doesn't disclose his politically-connected clients on his personal financial statements. Take Houston state Sen. Rodney Ellis.
His company, Rice Financial Products, works with the Dallas bank First Southwest on the Houston Independent School District's bond sales. Both First Southwest and Houston ISD have lobbyists working for them in Austin--and yet Ellis does not list either the district or the bank on his personal financial statement filed in 2008.
It's possible that Ellis, like West, might be exempt from the state's reporting requirements because his company collects the money, instead of the fees going directly to the lawmaker. But the Houston lawmaker doesn't exactly have a low-ranking position with Rice Financial Products. He happens to be a partner. (Ellis did not return repeated requests for comment.)
Even if an old advisory opinion exempts West and Ellis from telling voters who they're working for--and that's an open question--there's nothing in the state law that prevents them from simply disclosing more information than the minimum legal threshold. In fact, why not err on the side of caution in the first place? The stakes are high in state politics and when lawmakers grab money from some of the same heavy hitters who try to sway their votes, they might want to tell us about it.
"When a legislator does business with or gets paid by entities that lobby the state, it opens a huge number of potential conflicts of interest," said Craig McDonald, the executive director of Texans for Public Justice, a left-leaning watchdog group. "Those relationships need to be disclosed to determine if the potential for conflict turns into a real conflict."
Contact Matt Pulle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 713-980-9777.
This investigative report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
The photo of money is from TW Collins' flickr photostream, used via the Creative Commons license.
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