Questionable Ethics at the Ethics Commission?

A whistleblower lawsuit and a gubernatorial appointment raise questions about the state of ethics at the Texas Ethics Commission

Questionable Ethics at the Ethics Commission?
Illustration By Doug Potter

It's been more than a year since former Texas Ethics Commission lawyer Robert Schmidt filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against his former TEC bosses – alleging that his bosses acted unethically, playing political favorites with a complaint pending before the agency – and not much has happened with the suit, still pending in district court. Meanwhile, a lot has happened at TEC and with one of Schmidt's former bosses, the agency's former Executive Director Tom Harrison. Indeed, Harrison's recent appointment as the agency's newest commissioner has sparked a new round of accusations that the Ethics Commission is ethically challenged.

Schmidt filed suit in November of 2002 against Harrison and the TEC, when he was fired after raising questions about the manner in which the agency was handling a complaint filed by Dallas activist Allen Gwinn against former council member and mayoral candidate Mary Poss (who lost the mayoral race to former Dallas Observer reporter Laura Miller). Poss, the complaint alleged, violated state law by failing to report campaign expenditures; Schmidt was assigned to investigate the complaint.

According to Schmidt's suit (which, in accordance with TEC's confidentiality requirements, does not name Gwinn or Poss or anyone else involved in the complaint), he was fired in April 2002 after expressing his concern to Harrison and General Counsel Karen Lundquist that the two officials, in violation of commission rules, had knowingly failed to mail a legally required "status letter" to Gwinn and Poss. "The reason given for my termination was that I made two errors on a specific job assignment," Schmidt wrote in a complaint to the TEC's human resources department. "I firmly believe, however, that Mr. Harrison actually terminated me because of recent conversations I had with him and Ms. Lundquist, general counsel, in which I questioned the propriety and legality of Mr. Harrison's conduct in connection with a sworn complaint."

According to the lawsuit, Poss hired as her attorney Ken Anderson, a friend of Harrison's who had previously represented numerous clients – including "a major political party" – before the commission. Schmidt alleges Harrison violated agency procedure by communicating directly with Anderson and that he then advised Schmidt that the complaint needed a "quick resolution" because Anderson was about to leave private practice for a political career. Schmidt says he presented a summary of the complaint to the commission in November 2001 and that the commission subsequently proposed a resolution to Poss and Anderson. Poss had three weeks to respond but never did so. (Last summer, Poss paid a $5,000 fine to resolve the complaint but was not required to admit to any wrongdoing.)

While Schmidt's lawsuit slogs slowly forward, things at the TEC – and with Harrison – have moved forward more quickly. Harrison left the agency shortly after Schmidt's suit was filed, taking a job as head of legal and governmental relations for the Texas County & District Retirement System. And Anderson did leave private practice for a political career: He is now appointments secretary for Gov. Rick Perry. Harrison has denied any wrongdoing in the Gwinn-Poss affair in general, and in particular has denied playing favorites with Poss through attorney Anderson or retaliating against Schmidt for voicing his concerns. "I knew [Anderson] and maybe in our lifetime, I think we've been together socially twice," Harrison told the Dallas Morning News. "He would never ask me to do anything improper, and I never did."

The court has not yet evaluated those claims, but in the meantime, Harrison's apparent commitment to ethical standards has earned him a nod of approval from Anderson and Perry. On April 19, Harrison became the newest appointed member of the Texas Ethics Commission, where, for the next three years, he will be asked to make decisions on the validity of ethics complaints pending before the agency – an arrangement that Schmidt calls a clear conflict of interest as long as the whistle-blower suit is pending. "Essentially I think it raises some serious questions about ethics in Texas government," he said.

The timing is especially interesting, Schmidt contends, since a complaint currently pending before the agency alleges that Perry illegally used campaign money to pay for a trip to the Bahamas that he, wife Anita, and several staffers made in February, in the company of several high-dollar contributors, ostensibly to "discuss educational issues" in preparation for the special legislative session that ended last month. "That's where this all dovetails together," Schmidt said.

The governor's office did not return numerous phone calls requesting comment for this story.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

state government, Texas Ethics Commission, TEC, Robert Schmidt, Rick Perry, Tom Harrison, Mary Poss, Allen Gwinn

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