AUSTIN — There are much bigger and more colorful crooks in the long history of Texas politics, but there are few stranger cases than that of State Rep. Ron Reynolds.
Earlier this week, the Missouri City Democrat continued a cat-and-mouse game with the Texas Tribune, as they repeatedly tried to contact him about his failure — for nearly two years — to file his legally required campaign finance reports.
The Texas Ethics Commission has so far fined Reynolds $52,000 for his failure to file the reports, according to its records. His nearest competitor for the title of most-fined delinquent filer is a district judge candidate from Alpine at $30,500. There are, at best, a handful of fines over $20,000 among the more than 60 delinquents.
On the day before the Tribune story ran, Reynolds, who is running for reelection in spite of a criminal conviction he is appealing, filed a report that was required of him 30 days before the March 6 primary. He also filed a second report report 20 days late that has not yet been posted by the Ethics Commission.
After publication, Reynolds contacted The Texas Tribune but continued to evade the issue of the missing campaign finance reports or the fines, telling a reporter, “This is old news.” Instead, he inferred the questions were part of the “smear campaign” of his Democratic primary opponent, Wilvin Carter, a Houston attorney.
In a way, Reynolds’ latest scrape is old news, at least six years old. In December, The Texas Monitor disclosed that through a quirk in the Texas Election Code — Sec. 141.001 to be specific — Reynolds would not be forced to resign if he were re-elected because his convictions are misdemeanors and not felonies.
Should the court uphold any or all of the five misdemeanor counts of soliciting clients for his personal injury law practice illegally, he might be legally conducting state government business while serving part or all of his one-year sentence in the Montgomery County Jail.
That Reynolds has no intention of giving up his political career in spite of all this is yet another reflection on the Texas Ethics Commission, which for years has been criticized as “toothless.” The Commission may continue to fine Reynolds endlessly, but the State Legislature, in creating the agency, has never granted it punitive powers.
A decision on the appeal, however, could determine Reynold’s future in the legal profession. On May 2, 2016, following his conviction, the state Board of Disciplinary Appeals upheld the suspension of Reynolds’ law license pending the outcome of his criminal appeal.
The State Bar of Texas directory lists Reynolds as not eligible to practice in the state. His license was suspended for “disciplinary reasons.”
It isn’t as though Reynolds wasn’t aware the state officially frowns on lawyers who use hard-sell methods to drum up business. Colloquially referred to as ambulance chasing, it’s legal term is the Dickensian-sounding barratry.
Reynolds single-handedly resurrected the term when he was charged in 2012 with being part of an elaborate scheme to use a marketing firm to encourage chiropractors to send auto accident patients to Reynolds’ law firm.
Charges were dropped in early 2013 against Reynolds and 125 other cases, not because the cases had no merit, but because two investigators for the Harris County District Attorney’s office compromised them.
Named Freshman Legislator of the Year by the Texas Democratic Caucus in 2011, he made Texas Monthly’s list of the worst legislators of 2013 for a new set of barratry charges and for running up more than $10,000 in fines for failing to file campaign finance reports with the Ethics Commission.
Convicted in 2015 and facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in claims from former clients, Reynolds in September 2016 declared bankruptcy. The state’s 8th Court of Appeals upheld his conviction in November. He now awaits a review of that decision by the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, the last stop up the judicial ladder in Texas.
Regardless of the outcome of the appel, Reynolds fully intends to seek a fifth two-year term and the $7,200 yearly salary he would be eligible to collect in or out of jail.
While once Reynolds breezed through his Democratic primaries and general elections, he failed to get a majority in the 2016 primary and won with just 53 percent of the vote in the runoff. He won the general election, however, with 68 percent of the vote.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected]