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Texas ethics regulators cracked down Thursday on a loophole in a revolving-door lobbying law, potentially exposing one prominent ex-lawmaker to fines.
The 2019 law says a former lawmaker cannot register to lobby until two years after they last used campaign funds to donate to another politician. Former state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, sought to get around that earlier this year by reimbursing his campaign account with personal money to cover political donations that were implicated by the law.
But the Texas Ethics Commission plainly disapproved of that tactic Thursday as it signed off on a new advisory opinion. The vote was unanimous.
“[The law] does not permit a person to cure a past violation or reduce the two-year waiting period by reimbursing his or her campaign with personal funds,” the opinion said.
The opinion did not name Paddie and does not carry any immediate consequences for him. But it strengthens a complaint that was filed against him last month, and it makes clear he could face fines of $5,000 or triple “the amount at issue,” which could be at least six figures in Paddie’s case.
The commission declined to define “the amount at issue” for now, but its discussion suggested the amount could be the value of the political contributions in question or the value of an offender’s lobbying contracts.
The 2019 law passed without any opposition in the Legislature, and Paddie was a co-author of the bill.
Paddie’s lobbying has been under scrutiny for months. The lawmaker, who did not run for reelection after the 2021 session, initially registered to lobby in May 2022 but suspended his registration after The Texas Tribune inquired about how the 2019 law applied to him. He had doled out political contributions as recently as late 2021, meaning the law prohibited him from lobbying until the end of this year — long after the regular legislative session.
He registered again in December after personally contributing $55,500 to his campaign account in an effort to cover the amount of political contributions that disqualified him from lobbying under the 2019 law.
All the while, he has drawn fierce criticism from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick over his client list, which includes some of the power companies he was previously tasked with scrutinizing as a committee chair following the 2021 grid failure.
The commission can issue advisory opinions either in response to a complaint or on its own initiative. Its executive director, J.R. Johnson, said Thursday that the commission chose to explore the issue on its own after media reports about Paddie’s lobbying and multiple inquiries to the commission.
But appearing before the commission Thursday, Paddie’s lawyer, Ross Fischer, acknowledged that the facts in the opinion are “directly analogous” to Paddie’s situation and revealed that a complaint was filed against Paddie on Jan. 30. He did not say who filed the complaint, and the commission does not publicize or otherwise comment on complaints until they are resolved.
“It has always been Mr. Paddie’s intent to comply with the law and we continue to maintain that he took appropriate action to ensure compliance,” Fischer said in a statement after the commission meeting. “As I indicated at this morning’s Ethics Commission meeting, Mr. Paddie has had a sworn complaint filed against him. Fortunately, that process affords him due process and the opportunity to explain his efforts to comply with the law.”
Fischer added that he and Paddie would “seek formal guidance from the Commission on how Mr. Paddie can best comply with this new opinion.”
The commission appeared unfazed by Fischer’s arguments during the meeting.
“The Legislature was very clear that this was the behavior they were trying to prohibit and that there was no cure because the goodwill from the contribution — the benefit of it has already been received,” said the commission’s vice chair, Randall Erben.