HOUSTON - During a political rally on Feb. 20 in Houston, Gov. Greg Abbott echoed his long-standing position on legislator ethics with a statement that has become a cornerstone of his ethics reform campaign, when he said: "We need to end the revolving door of former legislators cashing in by going and becoming lobbyists."
Nearly a month later, the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics convened in Austin to discuss the findings of a Channel 2 Investigates report about state Rep. Jim Murphy.
Murphy was invited to attend the March 22 hearing, said state Rep. Sarah Davis, the chair of the committee.
"I did reach out to the speaker’s office to let Rep. Murphy know that he was welcome to come and testify," Davis said.
However, Murphy failed to show up.
This comes after an email he sent to Channel 2 Investigates on March 8, in which he stated, "I’m pleased to discuss the AG’s opinion and the facts with my colleagues, Chair Davis and Senator Bettencourt about these matters."
The committee's focus at the hearing can primarily be focused on one key question. In fact, it was asked bluntly by Davis: Can legislators legally lobby?
Channel 2 Investigates revealed Murphy, who represents the 133rd Legislative District on Houston's west side, is also employed by the Westchase District, a taxpayer-funded agency.
Murphy makes more than $312,000 a year as general manager. He is also able to receive thousands more in bonuses if he can secure state money for Westchase District projects.
So, how does he do it?
He lobbies, according to an ethics experts Channel 2 spoke to in Austin. His own legislative colleague, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, said, "If somebody has a contract like this and they are going to meetings and they are going on the phone, that has to be lobbying, any way that I understand it."
Highly respected and nationally known ethics attorney Buck Wood had this reaction: "Under that contract, he is being retained as a lobbyist, whether he likes it or not.”
But not so fast, said a lawyer for the State Ethics Commission who testified at the hearing.
There's nothing wrong with a legislator being hired by one government agency to lobby another, according to the Texas Ethics Commission.
When asked by state Rep. Chris Turner, of Arlington, if there were any kind of prohibitions, Ian Steusloff, of the Texas Ethics Commission, weighed in.
"That’s right," he said. "Chapter 572 would not include a prohibition on those sorts of communications."
"Wow! That's incredible!" he said.
Following the hearing, Channel 2 Investigates asked Davis, "What struck (you) here as the most interesting thing to emerge from the hearing?"
"I always assumed it was illegal for elected officials, like state representatives and senators, to actually be paid to lobby," Davis said. "You know, it doesn't smell good. It really doesn't."
If her investigation shows Murphy was exploiting a lobbying loophole, Davis told Channel 2 Investigates that she will draft new legislation so it does not happen again.
Last month, Abbott -- who, only minutes earlier, spoke to the end of the revolving door policy in Austin -- declined to offer an opinion on Murphy’s contracts.
However, in 2005, as attorney general, Abbott was clear in his position.
He wrote that the Texas Constitution prohibits an employee of a management district from serving in the legislature.
Abbott did leave an opening, allowing Murphy to act as an independent contractor for Westchase.
However, Channel 2's investigation found Murphy's title is general manager. He uses a Westchase email address and has a long-term continual arrangement dating back more than a decade. All are factors the IRS considers when determining whether someone is an employee versus a contractor.
After weeks of requests, Abbott's office this past Wednesday finally responded through a spokesperson, saying, "These allegations deserve to be reviewed to ensure that all laws governing the employment of elected officials are being followed."
It should be noted that the legislative ethics committee doesn't have the authority to determine if there is a criminal violation of state law. Channel 2 Investigates has been asking Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg if her office is investigating.
Ogg sent Channel 2 a letter stating she has seen the reports, but she would not confirm if there is an investigation underway.
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