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Texas Supreme Court refuses to hear ethics lawsuits brought by conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan

Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans speaks at a conservative grassroots rally for property tax relief and reform at the Texas Capitol on Tuesday, April 16, 2019.
Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans speaks at a conservative grassroots rally for property tax relief and reform at the Texas Capitol on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. Credit: Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday declined to hear two lawsuits in which a prominent conservative activist and his political advocacy group challenged the state ethics commission’s regulatory powers.

The suits were filed by Michael Quinn Sullivan and Empower Texans — a powerful group that was led by Sullivan and pushed Texas lawmakers to adopt right-wing policies until it was disbanded in 2020. They asked the high court to review 2022 rulings in which two appeals courts refused to toss fines imposed on Sullivan by the ethics commission for failing to register as a lobbyist.

Sullivan’s attorney and the ethics commission did not respond to requests for comment Friday afternoon.

The Friday ruling all-but ends a 10-year legal dispute in which Sullivan and Empower Texans sought to undermine the ethics commission’s ability to assess fines or other punishments for campaign finance law violations.

In 2014, and following a two-year investigation, the Texas Ethics Commission fined Sullivan $10,000 for failing to register as a lobbyist, saying that he and his staff had “direct contact with members of the Texas Legislature and their staffs to influence the outcome of bills, nominations and other matters that were subject to legislative action.”

In a separate complaint, the ethics commission said that Empower Texans had failed to register as a political action committee.

Since then, Sullivan and Empower Texans have repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to have the fines tossed, and argued that the commission had no constitutional authority to levy fines or other punishments for campaign finance law violations — claims that, if upheld, would have effectively gutted the agency of its powers.

Their fight was aided by Attorney General Ken Paxton who, despite his office’s duty to defend state agencies in lawsuits, declined to have his office represent the ethics commission in the disputes. Paxton is a key ally of Sullivan and Empower Texans — the group was funded primarily by two West Texas oil billionaires, Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, who are also Paxton’s biggest donors.

Paxton’s hands-off approach in the lawsuits ultimately cost the commission more than $1 million to pay for outside legal representation.

In 2022, two Texas appeals courts ruled against Sullivan and Empower Texans in their lawsuits, reaffirming that the agency had the authority to enforce election laws. The Supreme Court’s Friday ruling effectively ended the dispute — though Sullivan is still entitled to have a jury trial to decide the size of his fine.


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