AUSTIN, Texas – A federal district judge was told this evening that, after days of negotiations, attorneys for the Texas Ethics Commission had agreed to reconsider subpoenas issued to Empower Texans before the agency backed out at the last minute. Empower Texans is a grassroots group known for informing citizens about the actions of elected officials.
The TEC has demanded that Empower Texans reveal the names of its subscribers, donors and news sources through subpoenas of documents and records, despite finding there was “insufficient evidence” of any organizational wrong-doing. The tactic, similar to demands by the Obama Administration that non-profit conservative organizations reveal their donors’ names, comes after two years of closed-door investigations instigated at the behest of two Republican legislators and a lobbyist for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association.
At a hearing on the matter last week, Federal Judge Sam Sparks called the subpoenas “absurd” and “overbroad.” The judge also said he knew “of no courtroom in the land that those subpoenas would be approved.”
While an advisory statement to the court was to be jointly filed by Empower Texans and the TEC, the state agency backed out at the last minute late this afternoon. Instead, Empower Texans has filed its own advisory detailing the commission’s bad-faith negotiations.
Despite agreeing earlier in the week to advise the court that the parties wished for the court to retain jurisdiction while the commission looked to revise the “overbroad” subpoenas, attorneys for the TEC now say they are not able to make any agreements.
Attorneys for Empower Texans have been attempting to work with the agency in addressing the issues with the subpoenas. Earlier in the week, TEC attorneys said the commissioners would meet on April 3 to reconsider the original subpoenas, possibly revising them or issuing new ones.
“We’re still hopeful the commission will come back to us with reasonable subpoenas related to the scope of their investigation,” said Trey Trainor, outside counsel for Empower Texans. “The facts disprove the allegations and innuendo against my clients, but so far the commission has been attempting to use the case to further a political agenda they do not have the constitutional or statutory authority to prosecute.”
In 2013, legislation to force non-profit organizations to reveal the names of donors was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry after being opposed by a majority of Republican lawmakers. The legislation, which specifically exempted labor unions, was considered at the same time the public was learning about the Obama Administration’s IRS targeting of conservative groups.
In his veto message, Perry said the legislation “would have a chilling effect” on the freedoms of speech and association.
“At a time when our federal government is assaulting the rights of Americans by using the tools of government to squelch dissent it is unconscionable to expose more Texans to the risk of such harassment,” Perry added.
Earlier this year, commissioners voted to move forward with a rule that would do through regulation what was vetoed by the governor.
“The commission has repeatedly attempted to get at the donor and subscriber lists of Empower Texans, without having either the legal or regulatory power to do so,” added Tony McDonald, general counsel for Empower Texans.
Empower Texans filed the advisory this evening along with printed copies of the e mails exchanged between the organization’s attorneys and the lawyers representing the TEC.