Lawmakers duck open-records request on ‘bribery’ question

Texas State Capitol

Nine Texas House members have failed to respond to repeated open-records requests seeking the source of a “legislative bribery” allegation.

The state Republican Party last month sent letters to all 150 House members in an effort to identify who queried the Texas Ethics Commission about the party’s new House speaker commitment form. A legislator, not named, reportedly asked the commission if the voluntary pledge constituted “legislative bribery.”

Per its policy, the commission has kept the identity of the inquirer anonymous. No ruling has been issued.

As of Monday morning, nine representatives had failed to respond:

  • Joe Deshotel (D-HD 22)
  • Cesar Blanco (D-HD 76)
  • Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-HD 120)
  • Harold Dutton (D-HD 142)
  • Hubert Vo (D-HD 149)
  • Byron Cook (R-HD 8))
  • Phil Stephenson (R-HD 85)
  • Jason Villalba (R-HD 114)
  • Lyle Larson (R-HD 122)

Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, was also on the list of non-responders early Friday. But minutes after The Texas Monitor reached out to his spokesman for comment, Straus’s office contacted the party to say it had no “responsive documents.”

“We just received the request within the last couple of days,” Straus spokesman Jason Embry told The Texas Monitor.

The office of HD 140 Democrat Armando Walle returned a reply that “seemed to imply they either didn’t have anything relevant to our request, or if they did, it would be covered under some sort of exemption,” said state Republican Chairman James Dickey.

Texas law sets a 10-day deadline for response to open-records requests, with provisions for extensions, as well as exceptions with a ruling from the state attorney general. Penalties for non-compliance can apply in certain cases.

Dickey said party staffers followed up with all those who did not respond.

“We contacted each of these legislators’ offices multiple times,” Dickey told The Texas Monitor. “Perhaps we were overly optimistic, but it had not occurred to us that there would be multiple Texas lawmakers who would ignore the clear text of the law, as these have done.”

Dickey said the party has “not yet determined our next steps.”

The nine lawmakers could not be reached by The Texas Monitor’s deadline.

In a statement, Dickey said the anonymous query to the Ethics Commission “is clearly absurd and should be dispatched with quickly.”

Insofar as the Ethics Commission request pertains to activities and communications in a legislator’s official capacity, the state Republican Party maintains that all related records are official documents subject to Texas’s open-government laws.

“While Sec. 571.093 of the Government Code requires the Ethics Commission to maintain the confidentiality of the name of the person requesting an advisory opinion, the law does not authorize others, not affiliated with the commission, to withhold presumably public information in its possession,” Dickey wrote to the House legislators.

Dickey thanked the House members — Democrats and Republicans — who responded to the party’s request for records. He believes that a legislator made the Ethics Commission inquiry “because they’re the only ones with standing to make the request as worded.”

Dickey also thanked GOP lawmakers “who have not let this farce slow them down in showing respect to the voters who have asked them to work together to support the Republican caucus choice for our next speaker, whoever that may be.”

Response to the commitment process has been mixed. On Dec. 6, five days before the candidate filing deadline, The Texas Monitor reported that 48 of 111 House candidates had signed commitment forms pledging to support the speaker selected by the House Republican Caucus.

Straus announced last month that he would not run for re-election in 2018, ending his five terms as speaker.



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