State Rep. Dan Branch has described himself as a champion of transparent government in his party’s runoff for Texas attorney general.
“I’m a transparency guy,” Branch said at a recent campaign event, where he drew a contrast to his opponent, Ken Paxton, a McKinney senator who has been forced in recent weeks to acknowledge a series of ethics and regulatory disclosure lapses. “I have a record of advancing open government. You all have to know what’s going on.”
But during his freshman year in the Texas House, while employed as an attorney for a firm that hires lobbyists, Branch was the driving force behind an effort to prevent the disclosure of conflicts of interest that can arise when lawmakers work for firms that lobby the state Legislature.
Branch, who still works for the firm today, said through campaign aides that the 2003 measure "was redundant and overly bureaucratic" — which is why he and his Republican colleagues voted against it.
Critics aren’t swayed. More than a decade after Branch moved to strip that added transparency provision from an ethics reform bill, they say robust disclosure of those lobbyist-lawmaker ties is needed more than ever.
“A member of the Legislature cannot be the handmaiden for their employer on a matter for which the employer is being paid,” said former state Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas. “This is just smelly and horrible and ought to be stopped.”
It is not uncommon for lawmakers to work for firms that employ or hire lobbyists: The law partner of state Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, is a registered lobbyist. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, works for a law firm that has won awards for its lobbying prowess. And Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, is the CEO of a big company that hires an entire team of lobbyists in Austin.
In 2003, Wolens wanted to prohibit legislators from sponsoring or voting on bills that their employers were lobbying for or against. Failing that, he said, disclosure of it — at the time a bill is introduced or comes up for a vote — should be mandatory.
When Wolens' ethics overhaul legislation came to the floor, then-state Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, offered an amendment designed to shed even more light on the relationship between a lawmaker’s employer and the special interest lobby. Dunnam said the amendment was aimed at ensuring that lawmakers publicly disclose whether they shared an employer with lobbyists who were trying to sway the legislation before them.
Branch, who was and still is a lawyer for Winstead PC, a large firm that has a thriving lobby practice, spoke out against Dunnam's amendment. In a video recording of House proceedings, Branch, who at that time was also registered as a federal lobbyist for Winstead, voices concerns with the more robust disclosure, saying the amendment required transparency measures that were redundant.
“We already have two places to disclose” that information, he said at the time, referencing the income and shared-business reporting requirements on lawmakers' personal financial disclosure forms. What Branch didn't say is that there was no provision tying disclosure to the measures being voted on.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, challenged him. “I think in law firms that have members of the Legislature and who does lobbying that they’re going to be required to disclose that," she said at the time, adding, "If there are any loose ends out there, I believe this amendment is going to do that, don’t you think?”
“Well, if there were loose ends, I would want to shine more light on them,” Branch responded.
The House ultimately voted to kill Dunnam’s amendment; both Branch and Paxton voted to remove the provision.
In a recent telephone interview, Dunnam recalled how it went down.
“I didn’t know where [Branch] worked,” he said. “To me, it was just once again, here comes somebody shooting down real disclosure, and everybody except the public knows what’s going on. It avoided the central issue, and that’s why don’t we tell the public the core thing they want to know.”
Neither Branch nor representatives from his campaign would agree to an interview about the 2003 legislation or the candidate’s views on transparency.
Enrique Marquez, Branch's campaign manager, said in emails that the 2003 disclosure amendment Branch opposed would have been superfluous and irrelevant to Branch’s situation, because Winstead already had policies in place to prevent conflicts of interest. Marquez allowed The Texas Tribune to view a two-page policy memo from Winstead but declined to make it available for publication.
Marquez also pointed to a 2003 determination by the Texas Legislative Council that Winstead’s special rules for its employees in the Legislature “in many respects … exceed any legal requirements." Branch's legislative office authorized the release of the legislative council's analysis on Monday.
According to the policy, Winstead prohibits its employees in the Legislature from owning more than a 1 percent interest in the firm, bans them from lobbying state or county governments, and subtracts from their salaries a “fraction that represents the amount of revenue received by the firm” from lobby work.
Kevin Sullivan, the firm’s CEO, confirmed in an emailed statement that Winstead has “strict written policies in place to ensure we avoid potential conflicts of interest.”
Branch's ties to Winstead have made other headlines in the attorney general's race.
Branch is chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education, which gives him special influence over academia in Texas, and he has sponsored many bills affecting colleges and universities. Winstead provides legal services for numerous universities, including the University of Texas System, the Texas A&M University System and Rice University, according to its website.
An emailed statement from Sullivan, the Winstead CEO, indicated that at least some of the firm's services for institutions of higher education might include lobbying, though “virtually all our work for those clients is not lobbying or political.”
Tom Pauken, the former chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission and a onetime primary opponent of Republican gubernatorial front-runner Greg Abbott, criticized Winstead’s 2013 contract with Texas A&M — a half a million dollars for legal services associated with the redevelopment of a football stadium — in light of Branch’s position as higher ed chairman. “Legislators should not represent directly or indirectly clients with business before the state,” he wrote in a February post on his Facebook page.
Marquez said Branch had no conflict of interest because he did not benefit financially from the contract.
The winner of the contest between Branch and Paxton will face Democrat Sam Houston in the fall. Transparency will likely remain a central issue in the race, as the attorney general's office settles most disputes over open government.
Dunnam, the Democrat who sponsored the 2003 amendment, said that in the Texas Legislature, there has "always been almost an institutional resistance to real disclosure.”
“People vote for things and they file disclosures," he said, "but for practical purposes they can keep things hidden.”
Disclosure: Winstead PC founder Pete Winstead is a donor to The Texas Tribune, and Rice University and the Texas A&M University System are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. The Winstead Civic Trust was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2010. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.