A lawsuit by a former agent for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission alleges that state Sen. Joan Huffman asked state officials to back off an investigation of a bar owned by her husband.
Marcus Stokke, a former agent for the TABC, says in a lawsuit filed against the TABC in Travis County that Huffman used her position as a legislator to ask officials at the agency to halt the investigation of the Graham Central Station in Longview, which has been the scene of numerous problems over the year.
“Plaintiff was instructed to discontinue an investigation of the bar for up to 15 violations…” the lawsuit claims. “including, specifically, the failure of the bar to disclose as required by law, multiple…aggravated breaches of the peace which had occurred on or near its premises.”
Breaches of the peace are most commonly fights.
Stokke was fired in October and claims in the lawsuit that his termination stemmed from his contention that Huffman, a Houston Republican, was involved in the investigation. He reported his allegations to the FBI, an assistant US attorney, and the commission’s office of professional responsibility.
In a statement to the Longview newspaper, Huffman denied the allegations.
Huffman’s husband, Keith Lawyer, runs a series of country-western nightclubs in several states with an emphasis on “the successful marriage of entertainment and (responsible) alcohol service,” according to his management company.
Graham Central Station in 2002 was fined $45,000 by the TABC for a fight on the premises. In 2012, a military veteran was injured in a fight at the bar, prompting Lawyer to issue an extensive apology on Facebook, saying “the treatment of the young soldier was absolutely not in keeping with our practices and far beneath the standard of hospitality for our patrons and our abiding respect for all members of the U.S. military.”
The bar was sold in 2015 and became part of the Electric Cowboy series of western-themed bars.
But even as Huffman launched her political career in 2008, opponents had their eye on her connections to the bar industry.
Herbert Graham, who owned the string of Graham Central Station bars, was a major donor to Huffman’s campaign, including a $100,000 contribution in 2008. A story in the Houston Chronicle in 2008 noted an attack from a Huffman political foe who claimed that “it is important to follow the money. Approximately 60% of Joan Huffman’s contributions are tied DIRECTLY to gambling, liquor, and nightclubs.”
For over a decade, Huffman failed to report her husband’s income on her financial disclosure forms. She also successfully added an amendment to ethics legislation in 2015 to shield spouses from being included on the disclosures. The legislation was vetoed by Gov. Abbott.
Over the years, Huffman, who chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee, has paid $21,964 to entities connected to her husband, who also operates a bookkeeping business.
Huffman was also part of Texas Monitor investigation last year examining excessive spending of campaign funds. She spent over $9,000 from her campaign funds to furnish her mid-town Austin apartment for the 2014 session and stayed at the Four Seasons at an average nightly rate of $521 for a series of pre-session meetings.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected]