For the second consecutive year, a Texas Observer reporter is a finalist for the most prestigious award in magazine journalism.
The American Society of Magazine Editors announced this morning that Observer staff writer Emily DePrang is a finalist for a 2014 National Magazine Award.
Emily is nominated in the reporting category for her two-part series on police brutality in Houston. She’s a finalist along with reporters for The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Outside and The Atavist. The winner will be announced at a banquet in New York City on May 1.
The National Magazine Awards, or Ellies, are considered the Pulitzer Prizes of the magazine industry. This is the third Ellie nomination in the Observer’s 60-year history, and the second in two years. The Observer’s Melissa del Bosque was a 2013 finalist in the reporting category.
Emily’s stories—“Crimes Unpunished” and “The Horror Every Day”—published in the July and September issues of the Observer, were the result of eight months of reporting. The stories exposed that the Houston Police Department rarely disciplines officers for misconduct and abuse. Over a six-year period, officers who left crime scenes, falsified reports, mauled suspects and shot unarmed citizens were allowed to keep their jobs and are still patrolling the streets of the nation’s fourth-largest city. Emily found that between 2007 and 2012, Houston cops were involved in 550 shootings of people and animals. The department deemed every one of those 550 shootings justified, including the killing of a wheelchair-bound mentally ill double amputee who was armed with only a ballpoint pen.
Emily’s reporting was picked up by CNN, the Houston Chronicle and TheHuffington Post, among others.
Congratulations to Emily! This is one of the most prestigious honors in journalism and well-deserved recognition of her work.
And congratulations to our staff and everyone who helps this little magazine in Texas produce some of the best journalism in the country.
These are the folks who keep their kids out of school on test days, in protest of the public school system’s insatiable desire for test prep and data. To the opt-outers, it’s a form of civil disobedience in a system they say has made it hard to get their voices heard any other way. By depriving schools of their kids’ test scores, they’re hitting The Man where it hurts.
I covered that movement in the Observer‘s February 2012 issue, profiling Austin’s Edy Chamness, a mother and a former teacher whose frustration with Texas’ test love turned her into an activist on the fringes of the school accountability debate.
In Tuesday’s story, the News calls Chamness “perhaps the best known opt-out parent in Texas,” and she offers one explanation as to why her cause hasn’t exactly taken off: “Parents don’t want to teach their kids how to question authority.”
But the News‘ Jeffrey Weiss rounds up a few more notable tales of opting out, like this one:
Maeve Siano of Celina is one of the few North Texans who has quietly been willing to refuse the tests for her children. Last year, the mental health therapist decided the tests and associated preparation and stress were more likely to damage her son than help him. Celina ISD officials weren’t happy, she said.
“Their reaction was begging and pleading and threatening us that he would be held back,” she said.
Finally, she said, school officials put her son at a desk, placed a test in front of him and had him write “refuse” on it.
The highest-profile new case is certainly that of Kyle and Jennifer Massey, who announced their plans to opt their fourth-grade daughter out of the tests at Waco ISD, in a letter they posted online. In the letter, they list their concerns about the state’s testing regime, saying, “We are not making this decision simply to ‘avoid’ a test, but rather to exercise our rights to ensure that Hillcrest PDS does not force [our son] to take part in school activities that are contrary to our moral and ethical beliefs.” (Read the full thing below.)
The letter made the rounds among education bloggers and activists. The education historian Diane Ravitch, a leader in the responsible-testing movement, reposted the letter with this note:
[The Masseys] want for their child what “the best and wisest parent ” wants for his own children: a full, rich, creative, liberating education, one that prepares him for life in a democracy, not endless drill and practice for tests that are prepared thousands of miles away, whose sole purpose is to rate their child, his teachers, his principal, and his school.
Update at 12:20 p.m.: Austin education activist Mike Corwin passes along a note Austin ISD posted Wednesday reminding parents that, despite what they’ve heard, “Parents may not have students opt out of testing. While AISD and others might be empathetic to some of their feelings, by law there is no “opt out” for students.” Irate parents may take solace, at least, that the possibility of empathy might exist!
I’d reached out yesterday to hear more from Edy Chamness, and only just heard back. She confirms her son, who’s next to her in the photo from our story last year, won’t be taking the 6th grade STAAR this year. Her daughter, she says, has opted out of public schools entirely—in favor of a private school where, she writes, “Everyday starts in a circle with a tap of the gong, lighting of a candle and a moment of silence. We love it.”
It underscores a larger point about the recent resistance to standardized testing here in Texas: lawmakers only really responded to criticism of the state’s testing regime after they started hearing from wealthier and suburban parents. The resistance—and even a lawsuit—from minority groups go back decades.
Greg Abbott’s campaign has more money than God and an ample talent pool—but he may want to check on his IT department.
For more than a week, senior members of Abbott’s campaign staff have been trying to get the word out about a new attack website they’ve paid for—WhereIsWendyDavis.com. Attack websites—repositories of opposition research that campaigns will build separately from their own pages—are common. They’re usually sleek, well-designed, and well-stocked with mud ready to be slung.
The better ones are designed to “go viral,” with compelling content that your politically active aunts and uncles will feel compelled to forward to you. Supporters of John Cornyn made a great one in his campaign against Steve Stockman (though, alas, it now looks like it’s been taken down.) Lieutenant governor hopeful Dan Patrick has been lighting up the campaign with his attack sites, which are some of the best and strangest of the cycle so far.
It came to be Abbott’s turn. His communications director, Matt Hirsch, announced Abbott’s new site’s launch last week. Click on the link—and it’s an unfinished, grey, shapeless blob with virtually no information. That’s weird. A “Full site coming soon” tag is on the page’s top left. OK, so they jumped the gun. The site wasn’t finished, but they wanted to get it out there. That’s unusual, but Abbott was having a rough week, so it’s understandable.
Since Hirsh first tweeted about it, Abbott’s campaign and many of its senior staffers have been tweeting and making a lot of noise about the site. They really want people to see it. But it’s still unfinished. On Wednesday afternoon, the site was still mostly blank. “Full site coming soon,” the top left says. “Copyright 2013 Texans for Greg Abbott.” (The site was created in 2014, some two weeks ago.)
The look of the thing—monochromatic, heavy on text—may evoke the old-school Netscape internet, but the content isn’t great either (yet?). There’s an embedded Google Maps app with pins across the United States where Wendy Davis has held fundraisers, but it’s so small and cramped that you can’t tell what you’re looking at.
None of this would be too weird, except the Abbott campaign keeps pushing it. As I was writing this post, Abbott’s campaign tweeted it out again. Is this inside baseball? Kind of. Will it matter in November? No. But, man, it’s weird. It’s kind of a rookie move. Hell, even the site somebody made for hapless no-money Democratic Ag Commissioner hopeful Jim Hogan is in better shape.
The next few weeks will bring a slew of writers to Austin and San Antonio, but don’t expect the usual staid readings. Instead, authors will do battle for the sale of honor, glory, and the competitive literary spirit.
This Wednesday, March 26, at Austin’s Whip In, How Best to Avoid Dying author Owen Egerton will face off against Manuel Gonzales, author of The Miniature Wife and director of Austin Bat Cave, in a duel of writerly wits, or, more formally, a Lucha Libro. Co-sponsored by the Texas Book Festival and the Whip In, the event will feature authors competing for the title of best short-story writer in a series of cutthroat challenges, including (but not limited to) reciting their books’ sexiest sentence and reading their most offensive passages.
Steph Opitz, literary director of the Texas Book Festival, will act as referee. The Lucha Libro is free and open to the public, whose votes will determine the victor. The event aims to celebrate the releases of Gonzales’ and Egerton’s recent work with an evening of beer, readings and good-natured competition.
Though one author will go home defeated, hard feelings can’t last long, since Egerton and Gonzales will reunite on April 3 for another authorial battle. This time Egerton will sit on panel of “celebrity judges” and Gonzales will be one of four contestants in an American Idol-esque Literary Death Match at Austin’s Alamo Draft House-Ritz. Egerton will be judging alongside Austin musician Bob Schneider and Texas Literary Hall of Famer Sarah Bird as Gonzales takes on Jennifer DuBois, author of Cartwheel, A Partial History of Lost Causes and teacher at Texas State’s MFA program; Neal Pollack, author of Downward-Facing Death, Jewball, and certified yoga instructor; and Elizabeth McCracken, author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination and holder of the James A. Michener Chair in Fiction at the University of Texas at Austin. Each author will read a 7-minute selection from their work and then submit to a ruthless critique from the judges, after which the winner will be chosen in a game show-style final round. You can buy tickets here.
Literary Death Match will then make its way to San Antonio on April 5, where Egerton will compete with Roxana Robinson, author of Sparta; Antonio Sacre, author of My Name is Cool: Stories from a Cuban-Irish-American Storyteller; and Malin Alegria, author of Border Town #4: No Second Chances—all under the inscrutable judgment of Texas Monthly editor in chief Jake Silverstein; Siempre Mujer Magazine editor in chief Maria Cristina Marrero; and chief of engagement for San Antonio nonprofit SA2020 Molly Cox. Produced by the San Antonio Book Festival, the event will be held at the end of the festival itself, which features free public readings from more than 70 national, regional and local authors. San Antonio Death Match tickets can be purchased here.
Both Literary Death Matches will be hosted by Adrian Todd Zuniga, founding editor of Opium Magazine and co-creator of the Literary Death Match Series, which he, Elizabeth Koch and Dennis DeClaudio premiered in 2006. Since then the event has traveled from Seattle to Beijing. Now it’s Texas’ turn.
At a meeting of the Capital Area Democratic Women, Davis supporters smell blood in the water over Equal Pay. March 20, 2014.
We’re entering the second week of real conflict between Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis over equal pay, and Davis’ camp is doubling down in a big way. Now’s the time in an issue’s media life cycle when observers turn contrarian, so let’s ask ourselves: How well will this issue suit Davis going forward?
A brief recap: Davis authored a bill last session that would have made it easier for women who’ve experienced pay discrimination to sue their employers in state courts. A version of the narrowly-tailored bill received bipartisan support and passed the Legislature with relatively little fanfare. In what seemed like a strange move, Gov. Perry vetoed the bill. For weeks, Davis tried to draw Abbott into a debate on the issue. He finally relented, making it clear that he, too, would have vetoed the bill, after a week of some fairly bizarre utterances from supporters. (And on the same day that the San Antonio Express-News raised substantive concerns about pay equity at Abbott’s own office.)
Abbott handled the issue badly, and he’ll be dogged by it for a while. Think about it this way: As a well-funded Republican running in a red state, Abbott has a substantial margin of support over Davis to play with here. Moreover, blocking a state Lilly Ledbetter Act is not a priority issue for movement conservatives. Hell, tea party idol Donna Campbell voted for Davis’ bill. If you’re Abbott’s campaign manager and thinking about this in a purely tactical light, saying “yes” to a hypothetical version of Davis’ bill gives your candidate a little bit of moderate cred, a little bit of goodwill with women, doesn’t hurt you with your base and deprives Davis of an important issue. The business community that opposes the bill might not like it, but it’s not at the top of their issue list. It shuts down the whole issue, likely for the duration of the campaign.
For whatever reason, Abbott didn’t do that. And the Democratic machine hitting Abbott on the issue early last week has kicked into overdrive, approximating a jackhammer. On Monday, Davis appeared at Scholz Beer Garden in Austin to talk about the event, and the Express-News‘ story. It was the most aggressive she’d been since she declared her run—a pretty remarkable reversal after months of playing defense on small-ball issues.
“I have a message for Greg Abbott today: Stop hiding behind your staff members. Stop hiding behind your surrogates. This Texas gal is calling you out,” she told the crowd. “Act like a Texan and answer this question for yourself: What on earth is going on at your Attorney General’s Office? Why do you think it’s okay to pay women in your office less than men when they do the same work?” (Abbott has stayed pretty far away from the media lately, and as long as he does, Davis will be able to criticize him for “hiding.”)
Democrats up and down the chain have got the message. Last Thursday, Grace Garcia, the executive director of Annie’s List, joined Austin state Rep. Donna Howard to speak at a meeting of the Capital Area Democratic Women. Underlining the sense of political opportunity, the event took place at a Joe’s Crab Shack, underneath an enormous hanging shark.
Afterwards, Howard told me she thought the Legislature should take a deeper look at pay equity in state agencies next year. “If we’re doing things that are discriminatory, that’s against the law. If we’re aware of something that’s discriminatory and could result in a lawsuit,” she said, “I would think that it would be our responsibility to put a stop to it in any fashion we can.”
The effect of the whole thing has been to give the Davis campaign—and the Democratic ticket generally—a burst of energy after what had seemed like a long and demoralizing slide. But can it sustain the momentum on this issue alone?
There’s a specter hanging around this year’s governor’s race—that of Clayton “Claytie” Williams. Williams, the good-old-boy oil magnate who ran against Ann Richards in the 1990 gubernatorial contest, started the campaign with a 20-point lead. He lost the election by 3 points. The reversal was thanks in large part to an unbelievably crass rape joke, which was in turn leveraged by the Richards campaign to make Williams look like an out-of-touch dinosaur. That, together with other critical errors, doomed him, even though he outspent Richards 2-to-1.
Why are Democrats thinking about Clayton Williams? The implication is that the Davis campaign doesn’t just need to run a tight ship themselves—they need Abbott to slip. But Abbott hasn’t seemed like the kind of guy to do that, at least not in the grotesque way Williams did. Since early in the cycle, Democrats had talked about the possibility that hip-shooting state Sen. Dan Patrick, who doesn’t seem to have much respect for either immigrants or non-Christians, would win the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, and spent the next six months alienating moderate voters. He seems likely to win, which will cheer some Democrats.
In truth, the memory some have of Williams—he lost because of the rape joke—is a bit too simple. The rape joke played into a bigger narrative that Richards was able to construct about Williams: a glad-handing, reckless, good-old-boy wildcatter who didn’t belong in state office. Davis will need to build a narrative like that for Greg Abbott if she’s going to retain the traction she’s experiencing right now. But Abbott isn’t as soft a target as Claytie. In public he seems relatively thoughtful and likeable.
The equal pay fight is the second strike against Abbott, after February’s sordid Nugent affair. The Davis campaign is doing a pretty effective job right now in defining their opponent—but they’ll need more unforced errors from the Abbott camp to carry this through.
Last week, I think we can all agree, was pretty rough on Greg Abbott. After weeks of Wendy Davis pushing the fair pay issue, it finally went down like a vending machine: slow, then fast, then with treats for everyone. But Davis and the media weren’t the only ones giving Abbott a hard time. On Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals got into the act, issuing a response directed at Abbott that could also legally be considered a burn.
It went like this. In October, the court threw out a 2005 statute banning sexting between adults and minors because the language was too broad. It could criminalize constitutionally-protected speech, the court said, and besides, everything about such exchanges that could be illegal already was: harassment, obscenity, sharing pornography and soliciting sex. The 2005 law made sexually explicit online contact with minors for sexual gratification a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but the court overturned it 9-0.
Greg Abbott was displeased. He asked for a rehearing, citing a 2011 law that requires the court to notify the attorney general’s office and give it 45 days to respond whenever the constitutionality of a Texas law was challenged.
But instead of reconsidering its ruling on sexting, the court threw out the notification requirement on Wednesday. Not our job, they said. Tipping off Abbott’s office is “not only non-judicial but would operate solely for the apparent benefit of the attorney general,” reads a footnote to the unanimous opinion. “And to what extent the attorney general would benefit from receiving such notice is elusive, given that the attorney general has no authority to appear in criminal cases before this court.”
In a concurrence, the presiding judge, Sharon Keller, called the requirement a violation of the separation of powers. Moreover, “during the last fiscal year, this Court disposed of well over nine thousand matters,” many of which addressed constitutionality, Keller wrote. If the Attorney General wants to know about them, the list is “available on its website.”
Noted tea party activist Sun Tzu, depicted during a women's outreach campaign.
Oh, what a week of WTF.
Last week, the Observer’s senior WTFologist Patrick Michels devoted this space to a revealing, deep-dig look at the relationship between one Texas man and a beaver. This week, we start, instead, with women. You know women, right? They’re like men, but different.
1) Attorney General Greg Abbott got lured into a debate over equal pay, so our state’s fourth estate got to go around asking Republican women what they thought about it. In normal circumstances, this would have been as perfunctory an exercise as you could imagine: Republicans generate talking points. They speak those talking points into a camera or microphone. C’est fini.
Making this even easier, a friend pointed out recently, is that our generation’s foremost/most insufferable political scribe, Aaron Sorkin, wrote out a pretty good response to this question some 13 years ago, when he had Republican Woman character Ainsley Hayes of The West Wing, a long-running political tutorial for Millennials on NBC, argue against the Equal Rights Amendment. Women don’t need “special” rights and protections, redundant laws are bad, etc.
Instead, Texas Republican Party Executive Director Beth Cubriel put her Netflix subscription aside and took a different tack. Women are paid less in Texas because they’re too soft and timid—unlike Beth Cubriel.
Men are better negotiators. I would encourage women instead of pursuing the courts for action to become better negotiators.
Putting aside the fact that Cubriel is only talking to women in professional fields—Lilly Ledbetter, the inspiration for the federal equal pay act, worked in a tire factory, presumably a place where most workers have little ability to “negotiate” the size of their paychecks—and the fact that women are held to different standards than men when it comes to being assertive in the workplace, Cubriel’s response was, at least, cogent.
Then there’s Cari Christman, the Executive Director of the RedState Women PAC. Christman gained national fame for arguing that women were “too busy” to use the court system, but it’s worth quoting in full:
If you look at it, women are extremely busy. We lead busy lives whether we are working professionally, working from home. And times are extremely, extremely busy. It’s just a busy cycle for women and we’ve got a lot to juggle.
Happy Friday, ladies.
2. Michael Q. Sullivan, the conservative powerbroker in the middle of a years-long brawl with the Ethics Commission, likes to present himself as a happy warrior connecting the people—the ones that matter, anyway—with the Midland oil zillionaire who can finance their aspiration to dismantle much of state government. But it does seem like word is getting out. When a policial scientist at Southern Methodist University told the Austin American-Statesman that MQS was “vengeful” and “short-tempered,” it was eye-catching.
But that’s just the view of an outsider. Sullivan’s groups are staffed by a small and close-knit crew, and I bet they feel differently about their enterprise. Just look at this heartwarming Sullivan tweet, recounting a playful exchange between Empower Texans’ Executive Director Dustin Matocha and Development Director Nathan Ofe:
3. When state Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) was forced into a primary runoff to defend his seat, it was something of a surprise—few saw it coming. Who was this newcomer Bob Hall, this “strong conservative leader” who could shock a longtime incumbent like this? This bold new tea party warrior must have a future with the party—what’s his story, Dallas Morning News?
Hall and his former wife, Jane E. Hall, had been divorced four years when they took their allegations against each other in July 1994 into Florida courts. In seeking a protective order against Hall, she said in a document filed in Okaloosa County that she asked Hall to leave her house during a confrontation over alimony. She said he began screaming and threatened to quit paying.
“Asked to leave my house, he refused and became more violent, physically attacking me,” she said. “During our twenty-three years of marriage, he was prone to furious rages. I was physically, sexually and verbally abused for most of our marriage.”
In response, a judge prohibited Hall from “assaulting, battering or otherwise physically abusing the petitioner.”
Hall owned a Florida-based company, Professional Proposal Management Inc., that assisted businesses in obtaining federal contacts.
He racked up nearly $165,000 in federal tax liens on his Florida properties over a 20-year period because of unpaid federal taxes, according to court records in Santa Rosa County, Fla.
4. Let’s play a game: Militia leader, or probable state representative? Today’s contestant is lawnchair warrior Phillip Eby. Eby’s real, real mad, he told a conservative gathering in Bosque County this week. Tyranny washes over our state, sickening the body politic like one too many Lone Stars:
The truth of the matter is that we’re in a war for conservative principles, and we’ve been losing that war. The question is: why are we losing? I’m tired of losing. I don’t know if y’all are tired of losing, but I’m tired of watching freedom lose every time and tyranny take control.
Wait for it:
Sun Tzu said in his classic work, The Art of War, that if you know yourself, and you know your opponent, you will never lose. [...] The question is, who is our opponent?
Most people today say that the Democrats are our opponent. And they’re right, they are. But in some ways they’re wrong, also. Our opponent is not a person, or a group. Our opponent is an idea. And that idea is the idea of Collectivism.
In Texas, we’ve been winning for years, as Republicans, yet we’re still losing the battle of conservative values so often. It’s because we have Republicans who are infected by the idea of collectivism.
The difference between Eby and other white dweebs who’ve built an ethos around Sun Tzu is that he’s currently the favorite in a primary runoff to replace retiring state representative Rob Orr. He won 40 percent of his primary, and is floating toward the Capitol, where he’ll help preside over collectivist endeavors like the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Education Agency. So make hay while the sun shines, fellow WTFers.
Best’s first foray into the business of public education was a well-timed tutoring firm just as George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law began funneling money to private tutors, and in 2007 he got into the online college business to help his alma mater, Lamar University, recover from a big enrollment drop after Hurricane Rita. Over the years as his business has grown, Best’s model hasn’t changed much: Best helps recruit students and provides a pre-fab online platform to deliver the classes; universities provide the course material and lend their good name to the cause. The public schools collect tuition from the students, and turn over around half of it to Best.
In 2011, Best held a coming-out party of sorts at the Four Seasons in Las Colinas, inviting top officers from public universities nationwide to a comfy summit on “The Future of Higher Education.” Best never appeared onstage, nor did he hard-sell the crowd on hiring Academic Partnerships, but big names like Jeb Bush and thought leaders like Harvard’s Clayton Christensen and Khan Academy founder Salman Khan described a digitized, globalized future of learning that fit neatly with Best’s ambitions. Best closed a few big contracts just after the conference, including one with the entire University of Texas System.
And as impressive as Best’s last lineup was, he’s outdone himself this time. Jeb Bush is back on board, but so are Hillary Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Dunan—it’d make for some amazing photo ops, except the conference is apparently closed to the press (reporters can sign up for access to a video feed instead). Speaking of journalists, Thomas Friedman’s on the bill too, along with CNN’s Fareed Zakariah.
The “globalization” theme makes a lot of sense as a follow-up to Best’s last shindig.
Even before he started Academic Partnerships (first known as Higher Ed Holdings), Best was thinking globally—he’d bought a number ofuniversities in Latin America and was working on building their online programs. In just the last few months now, Academic Partnerships has been busy contracting with private universities outside the U.S. Using the same model they apply to public schools in the U.S., they’ve partnered with two schools in Mexico, and one each in Peru, Colombia and the Philippines.
But Best ambitions for a “globalized” higher ed scene reach into America’s public universities too. When he and I spoke in 2012, he described a happy future in which students from all over the world had access to prestigious degrees from America’s state schools, without the mess and cost of getting a visa or moving to the U.S.
Foreign students, paying full out-of-state tuition, are a key income driver for America’s public universities while states cut back on public higher ed funding. And online degree programs are a pretty low-impact way for schools to grow their enrollment, especially in Best’s model, where Academic Partnerships does the logistical work and a spinoff firm—Instructional Connections—hires low-cost teaching assistants to answer students’ questions. Best-backed online degrees have been a key to UT-Arlington’s enrollment explosion over the last few years, driving big improvements on the physical campus too.
The drawbacks to all this are a little tougher to quantify, like the worry that faculty are forced to cede control when the courses they teach turn into pre-fab products with indefinite digital lives. Or the concern that a school trading on its good name might lose some prestige if it’s branded as an online degree mill.
In honor of next week’s conference, I’ve updated our map of public universities that have contracted with Academic Partnerships for their online degree programs. Though it’s surely not a complete list, I’ve cobbled together details on deals with 33 public schools. (Without naming them, Forbes pegs the total at 40 in the U.S.) New additions to the map don’t include copies of the contracts (yet!), but I’ve linked instead to stories or press releases about those recent deals. Most of the new additions are in AP’s most common degree areas like business, education and nursing—though the University of Miami made a novel addition last month, with an online master’s in music.
When lawyers representing conservative powerbroker Michael Quinn Sullivan were last dragged in front of the Texas Ethics Commission, they adopted an unusual strategy. Instead of negotiating with the commission and accepting what would probably amount to a slap on the wrist, Sullivan went to war. The whole Ethics Commission—both how it operated and what it was trying to do—wasn’t just unconstitutional, it was un-American, tantamount to the Nazi army, he argued. His lawyers, led by former state Rep. Joe Nixon, intended to put the whole of the Ethics Commission on trial, preferably in federal court. They had their first chance today, and U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks was having none of it.
The hearing today was a continuation of a long-running fight between Sullivan—who leads a set of closely-related groups under the banner of Empower Texans or Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and has used so-called dark money to gain outsized influence in the state Republican Party—and the Ethics Commission, which is considering several complaints against Sullivan filed by Republican state Rep. Jim Keffer and former Republican state Rep. Vicki Truitt. To evaluate those complaints, the commission hoped to subpoena information about Sullivan’s groups, a move Sullivan appears intent to fight at any cost.
Sparks, a veteran jurist with a legendarily low tolerance for bull—recently, the FBI rounded up members of the Zetas cartel who tried in vain to bribe him—denied Sullivan’s request for an injunction to halt his disciplinary proceedings after an occasionally contentious hearing. But Sparks also characterized key aspects of the case in a way that would seem to discourage Sullivan’s aspirations to upturn the whole commission.
Then, at the end of the hearing, Sparks sought to find a middle ground between Sullivan and the commission—then angrily revoked his proposal and left the chamber when Nixon objected. The case is still in limbo, and likely will be for some time—but today was not a result Sullivan might have wanted.
The hearing was characterized by the same everything-but-the-kitchen-sink legal tactics Nixon employed in front of the Ethics Commission. For example: recently, Sullivan’s been “reporting” for the “journalism” site Breitbart Texas, an event met by astonished, laughing incredulity by both the state’s media and political establishment. Why was Sullivan, who has an enormous power base of his own, trying to join the lowly ranks of the fourth estate?
One possible answer was provided today: Sullivan’s lawyers invoked constitutional protections for the press. If Sullivan’s groups were forced to turn over information about their political activities, it could compromise Sullivan’s “sources.”
“We’re just kind of wasting time,” said Sparks, sweeping aside most of the constitutional concerns Nixon raised, leaving them for a later date. The judge was interested in only one thing: the scope of the subpoenas. He wasn’t sure if they were unconstitutional, he said, but he hoped to narrow them by consent of both parties.
“I know of no courtroom in the land where subpoenas this sweeping would be approved,” said Sparks. “This is asking for the cattle in the pen by asking for everything in the pen—the dirt, the mosquitos, the ticks.”
He asked the commission’s lawyer, Gunnar Seaquist: “Why couldn’t a meeting have been made and reasonable minds worked out what was necessary” instead of asking for everything?
Seaquist’s answer: Sullivan’s team was not willing to negotiate. “The sticking point has been that they feel the whole process is unconstitutional.”
So Sparks turned to Nixon. “You haven’t got much help from your clients in limiting these subpoenas,” he said. Nixon returned to the idea that the subpoenas were, on their face, a violation of the rights of Sullivan’s organizations.
“Our 100,000 subscribers,” Nixon said, referring to Empower Texans’ supporters, would be “subject to threats, abuse, and intimidation. My client is the same size as the Austin American-Statesman.”
Sparks appeared unmoved. “Frankly, I find the Austin American-Statesman a very thin paper,” he said.
Still, Sparks hoped to work out a compromise between Sullivan and the commission. He wasn’t bound to, he said, but it would save everyone a lot of time and money. So he told the courtroom he would be declining to issue an injunction to halt the commission’s proceedings—Sullivan’s primary aim—but proposed that the two sides meet and produce a proposal for Sparks about narrowing the scope of the subpoena process. It wasn’t what Sullivan wanted, but it was something to take home.
But that wasn’t enough for Nixon, who rose again to condemn the process. Piqued, Sparks withdrew his olive branch. There would be no report. “I see how this is going,” he said. Instead, Sparks gave Sullivan seven days to prepare an argument regarding the unconstitutionality of the Ethics Commission’s requests. Then he left the courtroom.