Fri June 19, 2015 8:32 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Missouri speaker texts

Hannah Giles and Joe Basel of The American Phoenix Foundation may now be wishing they had focused their undercover hidden camera investigation on the Missouri legislature instead of the one in Texas. As you’ll recall, the Texas House spent much of the final weeks of the legislative session grinding its collective teeth over the Phoenix Foundation teasing that secret video will reveal Texas legislators acting badly in the bars after hours.

But, relying on nothing more than one of the all time best police reports, today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a tawdry tale of Show-me State Legislators Gone Wild!

“The culture allows for a lot of immature, sort of sophomoric behavior,” said former Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue. “There are a lot of people who revisit the college years, the fraternity years, while they’re down there, and everybody knows it.”

Jefferson City, Missouri, is a sleepy little town on the banks of the namesake river, 30 miles south of my alma mater, the University of Missouri at Columbia. I got my first experience covering state government and politics there as a student reporter, but I never saw anything like this. In fact, someday, I’ll tell you how I ended up in a prayer circle with John Ashcroft. But I did know that there were places where legislators and lobbyists went at night, including a bar called The Library. Sorry, honey, I won’t be home for dinner; I’m at the library.

To get the full impact of the Missouri scandal, you’re going to have to read the story, but here’s the tease:

Nine vodkas mixed with sugar-free Red Bull served in plastic cups.

A lobbyist for the Democratic governor having an affair with the Republican House whip.

Her nickname for him? Fifty, as in Fifty Shades of Grey.

The lobbyist rats out her Democratic boss, allowing her Republican lover to orchestrate a House override of the governor’s veto of an income tax cut.

The Republican whip becomes speaker but resigns after revelations of sexy text messages with a 19-year-old college intern.

Piggyback rides in a bar.

The story originally started breaking in the Kansas City Star, with a focus on the intern and the text messages, as displayed above. After weeks of fighting the newspaper behind the scenes, the speaker made a swift departure once the text messages became public. 

“I have acknowledged making a serious error in judgment by sending the text messages. It was wrong and I am truly sorry,” Diehl said in a written statement Thursday afternoon. “Too often, we hear leaders say they’re sorry but are unwilling to accept the consequences. … I am willing to face the consequences.”

A question for the American Phoenix Foundation: Hannah, Joe, can you beat this?
Thu June 18, 2015 2:06 pm By Erica Grieder

Earlier today R.G. and I sat down with Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune for a live conversation about our picks for Best & Worst Legislators. The discussion covered some of the questions that commenters have raised since we announced the picks, so if anyone else is wondering about Jane Nelson, you might want to take a look. 

The video is available here. I enjoyed the discussion overall, but a particular highlight from me was the question, around the 43-minute mark, from an audience member who asked about the untimely demise of HB 984, which would give adult adoptees the option of tracking down their original birth certificates. Really, it was an assassination: the measure, by Joe Deshotel, received unanimous support in committee, and passed the House on a 138-1 vote. It then received unanimous support in the Senate State Affairs Committee, and would almost certainly have passed on the floor– the Senate sponsor, Brandon Creighton, had lined up 14 co-sponsors, ranging across the ideological spectrum from Jose Menendez to Brian Birdwell—if it hadn’t been taken off the intent calendar for reasons that were never specified.

At the time, I had heard the reason: Donna Campbell is against the idea, and this year scuttled the effort by asking the lieutenant governor to remove it from the intent calendar. She succeeded, apparently, and no one really noticed: the bill hadn’t attracted much attention in the first place, and it was removed from the intent calendar in the final days of session. Still, taking a bill off the intent calendar as a favor to a pal is a total breach of process values, and it was obviously unfair to the bill’s many supporters and the advocates who had worked to build support for the issue. And, as it happens, I had heard about the episode from my sources; it helps explain why Campbell appears on the worst list. But as you’ll see in the July issue, it’s not mentioned in her write-up–all of the write-ups are too short to be comprehensive–and it hadn’t come up during our discussion with Evan. The questioner, however, turned out to be an advocate for adoptees, and therefore one of the people who had been trampled by Campbell. If she hadn’t been there, this probably would have been one of the many episodes of any legislative session that are lost to the shifting sands of time.

All this by way of saying that we really do appreciate those of you leaving thoughtful comments, and all the sources we talked to over the course of the session. The list can’t cover everything that happened, or address every legislator’s involvement, or corroborate and relay every good observation. We are paying attention, though—so thanks, and thanks for reading.  

Thu June 18, 2015 1:56 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

If the legislation to move the prosecution of state officials in ethics cases from Travis County to their hometowns becomes law, it could usher in one of the greatest eras of public corruption in the state since gamblers controlled Galveston and Dallas and the political bosses ruled in South Texas.

Republican lawmakers—apparently afraid of the heavily Democratic grand juries and petit juries of Travis County—sent Governor Greg Abbott HB 1690 by Representative Phil King and Senator Joan Huffman to move the Public Integrity Unit out of the Travis County district attorney’s office and into the Texas Rangers, with any resulting prosecutions occurring in a state official’s home county. The bill is awaiting Abbott’s signature or inaction to become law, or his veto.

While HB 1690 would apply to members of the Legislature, a proposed state constitutional amendment on the November ballot, SJR 52, effectively would extend this to statewide officials. Since 1876, they have been required to live in Austin under the state Constitution, but the new language would allow them to live anywhere in the state—in other words, in any county where they would not face a hostile, partisan grand jury. 

If you think I am exaggerating when I say this will lead to political corruption, then I will point you to the cases of former state Representative Ismael “Kino” Flores and former state Senator Carl Parker. Flores, a South Texas politician known as “Mr. Ten Percent,” was brought to the bar of justice for failing to fully comply with state financial disclosure laws. Parker was an innocent politician who had two sets of indictments brought against him by grand juries under the control of a vindictive local prosecutor.  

Read More
Thu June 18, 2015 9:59 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

The U.S. Supreme Court today upheld the State of Texas power to reject a request for a state vehicle license plate that includes an image of the Confederate battle flag. The request had been made by the Sons of Confederate Veterans as part of the state’s specialty plate program. The court ruled the plates are government speech and not individual free speech. We discussed this at length back in March on Burkablog.

Wed June 17, 2015 10:34 am By Erica Grieder, Dave Mann, R.G. Ratcliffe, Brian D. Sweany

Ever since its founding, Texas Monthly’s coverage of the Legislature has culminated in a biennial list of the Ten Best and Ten Worst legislators. This year was no exception, although the Eighty-fourth Legislature was marked by transition at the Capitol—the leadership nearly entirely turned over—and at our office—senior executive editor Paul Burka retired this year. Despite big changes, some things remain the same, like our committment to holding our legislators accountable for their actions throughout the session. So, without further ado, here are our picks, in alphabetical order:

BEST

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)

Rep. César Blanco (D-El Paso)

Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton)

Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler)

Rep. Stephanie Klick (R-Fort Worth)

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio)

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio)

Rep. John Otto (R-Dayton)

Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound)

Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston)

WORST

Rep. Cecil Bell Jr (R-Magnolia)

Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels)

Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston)

Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston)

Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound)

Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso)

Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler)

Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown)

Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford)

Rep. Molly White (R-Belton)

The Best & Worst Legislators 2015 includes write-ups for each of these picks—and in some cases, the reasons may surprise you. The feature also includes honorable and dishonorable mentions; Furniture; assessments of Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Joe Straus; and a look at Representative Charlie Geren, our biennial Bull of the Brazos. All of that, plus Brian Sweany’s post-session interview with Abbott, is in the July issue of Texas Monthly, which will start appearing in mailboxes over the weekend and on newsstands next Thursday.

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)