'We will absolutely look at it:' House Ethics Committee to probe Rep. Murphy

HOUSTON – The fallout from what Channel 2 Investigates uncovered regarding state Rep. Jim Murphy has hit the Capitol. "It seems pretty shocking,” said state Rep. Sarah Davis.

Davis, who chairs the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee in Austin, said, "I think it's definitely something we are going to be taking a look at."

Channel 2 Investigates caught up with Davis immediately following a committee meeting on Thursday, and she made it clear she has questions, "We will absolutely look at it. I have no problem doing investigations," she said.

Earlier this month, Channel 2 Investigates shined a light on Murphy, who for years has been holding down two government jobs. He represents the 133rd District as a state representative and he is a general manager of Westchase District, a public agency whose interest overlap the area he represents. The arrangement appears to violate state law. Contractually, however, Murphy calls himself a consultant. When Channel 2 Investigates asked Murphy if he was an independent contractor, a consultant, or a general manager, Murphy chuckled, saying, “I appreciate your interest and I know you are working hard.”

Channel 2 Investigates identified several reasons why it appears Murphy is an employee of the Westchase District.

First, he has  had ongoing yearly contracts with Westchase for more than a decade, with his current deal paying him over $312,000 a year. Next, he has a Westchase email address. Finally, Murphy has an official Westchase title.

Employment attorney Todd Slobin knows the rules well. "Having a title, an email address and holding yourself out as part of that employer would show that you're an employee. An independent contractor wouldn't do that," he said.

Channel 2 Investigates found more potential conflicts. In Austin, Murphy chairs the committee that oversees special purpose districts. That's right, he has a catbird seat from which to make the rules for agencies including the one that pays him over $26,000 a month.

There are also bonuses.

Murphy has been paid tens of thousands in taxpayer dollars for special projects within the Westchase District, not projects for the vast majority who elected him. One of the bonuses listed as a “top priority” with $6,000 compensation, reads as follows: “Secure $1 million or more in new TXDOT funding for highway projects.”

What is Murphy’s take on who he is representing? “Well, clearly, we are representing the district when I am doing district stuff or the state when I am doing state stuff."

When asked whether or not she thought the bonuses were ethical, specifically a bonus paid for Texas Department of Transportation funding, Davis said, “I think what we would need to do is have a hearing on it."

Ethics attorney Buck Wood was astonished. "I'm flabbergasted," he said. "I've never seen anything like this."

Wood, who is highly respected on both sides of the aisle, questions the incentives in Murphy's contracts --primarily those in which he is paid bonuses for securing state funding and approvals. "Under that contract, he is being retained as a lobbyist, whether he likes it or not," Wood said.

All of this comes nearly a year to the day Gov. Greg Abbott made ethics a focus of his State of the State speech. The governor said the following in the Capitol: "The faith that people have in their democracy is linked to the trust they have in their elected officials. That trust is eroded if they perceive that elected officials are acting in anything other than the people's best interests."

We wanted to ask Abbott for his reaction to Murphy's situation. He was in Bellaire on Tuesday talking ethics reform at a get-out-the-vote rally. The governor told supporters, "We need to end the revolving door of former legislators cashing in by going and becoming lobbyists."

Minutes after receiving applause for that statement, Channel 2 Investigates opened the door for the governor to weigh in on Murphy’s contracts and the bonuses within them. "These appear to be legal documents," Abbott said. "As the good lawyer I am, I don't comment on legal documents until I read them. I haven't seen these before."

Davis is not the only Republican willing to ask questions. On Wednesday, Channel 2 Investigates will have an interview with another Republican who is willing to take up the issue in the Senate.

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