in Houston, Texas

Rep. Chuck Hopson, who chairs ethics panel investigating allegations against Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, received $42K this year from Straus

Monday, Nov 22, 2010, 09:34AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Capitol

The chairman of an internal investigating committee meeting Tuesday to discuss allegations of intimidation and retribution by House Speaker Joe Straus received campaign donations totaling $42,000 from Straus and a political action committee he helped found.

The Joe R. Straus III campaign account and the Texas House Leadership Fund made four donations between February and September to the campaign of Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, who Straus appointed in February of 2009 to chair the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee, according to records kept by the Texas Ethics Commission. The Straus and Leadership funds also made two donations totaling $5,000 to the vice-chairman of the committee, Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, the Ethics Commission records showed.

Neither Hopson nor Phillips faced a serious challenge and were elected this month by wide margins.

Hopson and Phillips and the rest of the investigating committee are scheduled to meet Tuesday with Rep. Bryan Hughes, R- Mineola, and an as-yet-unnamed fellow House member, who allegedly told Hughes that Straus planned to use redistricting as a threat to keep House members shifting their support to challengers for his speaker's seat.

Joe StrausSTRAUS

Hopson told Texas Watchdog he was taking Hughes' statements seriously enough that he has asked a member of the Travis County District Attorney's office and the state Ethics Commission to attend. Intimidation of the kind described by Hughes might be unethical or illegal, Hopson said.

Straus has vigorously denied any planning by him or staff to redraw House district lines to marginalize or take away the districts of recalcitrants.

However, the question of Straus' campaign gifts raises questions of fairness and impartiality of a hearing.

Tracy Young, a spokesman for Straus, said Monday morning Straus' contributions to Hopson were several among many to Republican candidates who have helped build a 99-member House majority. " It is the responsibility of Chairman Hopson and all members of the committee to look at this matter and Speaker Straus has confidence they will handle it in a fair and impartial way," Young said.

When asked if he was aware of Straus' donations to Hopson, Hughes said he believed it would be inappropriate to comment on it prior to meeting with Hopson's committee. When asked if he was concerned that Straus' support for Hopson might interfere with the impartiality of the hearing, Hughes again said he thought commenting would be inappropriate.

After being contacted by Texas Watchdog, an assistant for Hopson said she would try to locate him Monday morning, but he did not return a call before deadline.

Further clouding the hearing is Hopson's decision to conduct it in executive or secret session. Hopson said he exercised the option to conduct a closed hearing because the allegations were not made by formal criminal charge or in an ethics report. House Rule 4, Section 12 says:

"The General Investigating and Ethics Committee or a committee considering an impeachment, an address, the punishment of a member of the house, or any other matter of a quasi-judicial nature may meet in executive session for the limited purpose of examining a witness or deliberating, considering, or debating a decision, but no decision may be made or voted on except in a meeting that is open to the public and otherwise in compliance with the rules of the house."

Hopson says neither Straus nor any member of his staff was asked to come to the closed hearing.

"We want the public to know we are taking this seriously," Hopson says. "We realize the public hasn't the greatest opinion of political bodies anyway, and so we are here to protect the reputation of the Texas House."

Asked whether he supported having his hearing closed to the public, Hughes once again said he thought prior comment was inappropriate.

Joe Larsen, a member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas board of directors, says Hopson made a mistake to keep the meeting secret, in spite of his legal right to do so. Larsen, a First Amendment specialist and media lawyer, said Hughes owes it to the public not to shield his colleague.

"It's pretty clear House rules are going to trump the state open meetings laws, but it is in the public interest to have this out in the open," Larsen says. "I think this person needs to be making these allegations to the people of Texas, not just to other inside baseball players."

Had Hughes not issued a press release on Nov. 10 and followed it by meeting with reporters, Hopson says it is unlikely the meeting with his committee would have been necessary. In the release Hughes said he had a private conversation with a legislative colleague who had heard from a member of Straus' leadership team. The colleague said the team member told him he would be safe as long as he remained on Straus' list of supporters, which was said to have been 120 at one time.

However, the climate around Straus and his pledge list began to change dramatically with the results of the Nov. 2 election. House Republican membership jumped to 99 from 73, many of the newcomers swept in with small government Texas Party conservative support. One of them, Republican Charles Perry of Lubbock, had defeated longtime state representative Delwin Jones, who was one of 10 Republicans to join with Democrats to elect Straus speaker in 2009.

The conservative surge was followed by the announcements by conservatives Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, and more recently, by Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, that they intended to challenge Straus for speaker. Paxton and Hughes are in the vanguard of the Texas Conservative Coalition in the House, a group opposed to and critical of Straus' leadership.

Coalition members referred to Straus and the other Republicans as "the cardinals," a pejorative reference to a private meeting in which the names of prospective candidates to challenge then-Speaker Tom Craddick were written on secret paper ballots and then burned in the fireplace.

In a story by the Austin American-Statesman near the end of the 2009 session, coalition members including Paxton bridled at the passage of legislation objectionable to conservatives. "It seems like Democrats seem to stick together better than Republicans," Paxton said at the time. "We don't have the momentum."

One of those Democrats was Hopson, who Straus rewarded with the chairmanship of the Investigating and Ethics Committee. The committee is thought to be a little obscure because its purview is internal house business, the chairmanship not exactly a plum.
Chuck HopsonHOPSON


However, when Hopson decided to switch parties, Straus' Leadership Fund contributed $15,000 on Feb. 4 in a Republican primary Hopson won handily. Straus and the fund made donations totaling $27,000 in contributions in May, June and September, according to the Ethics Commission records.

Hopson became part of a Republican stampede into the House, much of it conservative. Paxton has joined with Chisum in an alliance to oust Straus. Pressure has increased with the allegations from Hughes, whose press release was explicit about the conversation with his unnamed colleague.

"More specifically, this member told me that maps were already being drawn to get rid of Representative-elect Erwin Cain and Rep. Dan Flynn because they were not on the speaker's list of supporters," Hughes said in the release. "I was then told that I had nothing to worry about in redistricting so long as I stayed on the Speaker's list. This conversation first saddened and then disgusted me. Using the redistricting process for retribution reminds us of all that is wrong with politics. The Speaker's race should be decided not based on threats of punishment and not on promises of power, but on principle."

Straus followed with a press release of his own. “These allegations are outrageous," the release said. "I did not and would never authorize, allow, or condone linking redistricting in any way with the Speaker’s race, and anyone who knows me knows better than to give that assertion any credence."

Hughes disclosed the name to Straus and the information was turned over to Hopson.  Neither Straus nor Hopson has made the name public

Straus' spokeswoman Young acknowledged that Straus had not been summoned to appear at Tuesday's meeting. She was also told not to discuss details of the allegations prior to the meeting.

Hughes also told Texas Watchdog he would not divulge the name of the colleague with whom he spoke. He declined to discuss what he planned to say to the investigating committee, except to tell them what he had been told.

"We want to bring this to resolution," Hopson says. "This week we sent every legislator a copy of the rules, the penal code and the ethics code, telling them to be mindful that this kind of thing is serious. And if they start any shenanigans, well, then, we'll be calling another meeting."


Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org.

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Comments
Peggy Venable
Monday, 11/22/2010 - 11:08AM

I agree with the Freedom of Information Act of Texas and the hearing should not be held behind closed doors. Additionally, it would make sense that the Chairman should recuse himself, as should any member who has received funding from Straus. These are serious allegations. The article quotes Chrmn Hopson as saying:

"We want the public to know we are taking this seriously," Hopson says. "We realize the public hasn't the greatest opinion of political bodies anyway, and so we are here to protect the reputation of the Texas House."

We wonder why the public doesn't have the greatest opinion of political bides, Chrmn Hopson... your job is not to protect the reputation of the Texas House. In any case, the public's right to know trumps "protecting the reputation of the Texas House"? The public deserves better than this. I am not assuming that Speaker Straus is guilty of any wrongdoing, but shouldn't he also be part of this hearing so he can publicly exonerate himself?

And the final quote from Hopson appears to further trivialize this hearing: "We want to bring this to resolution," Hopson says. "This week we sent every legislator a copy of the rules, the penal code and the ethics code, telling them to be mindful that this kind of thing is serious. And if they start any shenanigans, well, then, we'll be calling another meeting."

"Shenanigans" - really? These are serious allegations that further erode the public's confidence in the political system. These aren't shenanigans, and they deserve to be investigated in public view, not behind closed doors.

Chrmn Hopson... your job is not to protect the reputation of the Texas House. It is to protect the people.

Morris Woods
Monday, 11/22/2010 - 01:57PM

Lets be clear. The speaker Joe Straus helped many Republicans get elected. This is a good thing. Chrmn Hopson has a reputation for fairness. I have not seen statements from Paxton questioning Chrmn Hopson. I for one will give a lot more validity to what elected members say than unelected people who wish to speak for all of us. I agree with Peggy on many matters, but in this case the elected members speak for the people.

Outside groups would like to control the process and nullify the vote of the people. Obama did not listen to the voice of the people. The election results are in, Obama lost. I do not know but I would bet that most voters feel like I do. Let the people that were elected do what is good for Texas and next election we will vote again and until then we will think for ourselves and keep an eye on them and the outside groups that wish to speak for the voter.

ECrawley
Monday, 11/29/2010 - 02:13PM

Why did Phillips not take an oath? Was he worried that he could be prosecuted for perjury if it is later found that he did in fact threatened Hughes?

B
Saturday, 12/11/2010 - 10:53AM

Great! So the ethics committee of Texas, headed by Republicans, is corrupt. Sounds about right.

What's the percentage of Republican investigations as opposed to Democrats and others? And the results of those investigations?

God I am sick of the abuse of these self-rightious criminals. It's all about them not the country. They are the cause of the coming revolution and it's going to be bloody.

John McIntyre
Friday, 12/24/2010 - 01:25AM

I pledge allegience to Joe Straus,and to the Racetrack for which he stands;one video poker terminal and slot machine kiosk,under the god of greed and avarice with licentious addictions and free drinks for all.John McIntyre

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