AUSTIN (CN) - The Texas Ethics Commission is twisting the laws that govern campaign contributions and lobbying to get its hands on constitutionally protected information, a nonprofit claims in Federal Court.
Empower Texans Inc. and its president, Michael Quinn Sullivan, sued the commission and Natalia Luna Ashley in her official capacity as interim executive director.
The complaint identifies Sullivan as a journalist and says that he and other staff members write about "fiscal and political issues involving the state of Texas."
"He relies on sources from the legislature and elsewhere in state and local government," the complaint states.
The plaintiffs seek to enjoin enforcement of two subpoenas that would require them to reveal privileged documents in alleged violation of their rights to free speech, due process and equal protection. They claim the commission is looking to reveal and silence their sources.
Empower Texans describes itself as providing "high-valued and very important endorsements of certain Texas state-level candidates that identify with, follow and promote a conservative fiscal agenda."
The nonprofit communicates with voters through weekly email newsletters, among other electronic and direct-mail methods and media outlets, according to the complaint.
It says it maintains a "scorecard system" that it established at the close of the 2007 Texas Legislative Session, grading legislators via a fiscal responsibility index, which the complaint describes as "a compilation of factors based upon bill authorship and each legislator's vote on legislation."
The complaint also notes Sullivan's formation of Empower Texans PAC, a general purpose political committee, which the commission allegedly confuses with the nonprofit.
While Empower Texans PAC has received contributions from the nonprofit for administrative and overhead expenses, it "complies with all state and federal campaign finance regulations," the complaint says.
In 2012 state Reps. Jim Keffer and Vicki Truitt allegedly filed four complaints with the commission, two against the nonprofit concerning direct campaign expenditures, and two against Sullivan as an individual for failing to register as a lobbyist.
The commission in turn has allegedly demanded the plaintiffs turn over documents that include emails from elected officials.
"Defendants are attempting, under color of state law, to enforce two new unconstitutional interpretations of its statutes and regulations," the complaint states. "The interpretations are being selectively enforced without prior notice to the plaintiffs or any other corporate entity in Texas. Defendants are attempting to deem any corporation which receives contributions and then uses those contributions for 'direct campaign expenditures' to be operating 'in concert with another person' so as to trigger the requirement that such a corporation register itself as a 'general-purpose committee,' with all the restrictions thereof, and file accordingly.
"Defendants are also attempting, under color of state law, to interpret legislative scorecarding as lobbying. In their attempt to enforce these two new interpretations, defendants have recently served plaintiffs two subpoenas which, if complied with, would provide defendants and political opponents of plaintiffs with information which is now constitutionally protected."
The plaintiffs are represented by James Trainor III of Beirne, Maynard and Parsons in Austin.