A prominent conservative political group is suing a Republican member of the Texas House, claiming that he unfairly denied the group a media credential.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Austin, Empower Texans accuses Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, chairman of the Committee on House Administration, of “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination” and the trampling of free speech and free press rights.
Other plaintiffs include Brandon Waltens and Destin Sensky, correspondents for Texas Scorecard, described in the lawsuit as the news magazine of Empower Texans.
Geren, whose committee oversees the distribution of media credentials, told the Austin American-Statesman he had no comment on the lawsuit.
The suit, filed Tuesday, once again lifts the lid on a long-simmering fight between the conservative and moderate wings of the Texas Republican Party.
The suit says that Texas Scorecard “is focused on covering news related to local, state, and national government, and has recently ventured into covering local sports as well. The publication’s motto is ‘Someone’s always keeping score. We think it ought to be the taxpayers.’”
The suit says Empower Texans’ Fiscal Responsibility Index “reports the voting records of legislators to Texans interested in knowing how the legislators they elected voted on fiscal and role-of-government issues.”
That score-keeping has long been the bane of moderate Republicans, who have accused Midland-based Empower Texans of misguided purity tests that leave little middle ground for compromise in policy-making.
The organization has wielded clout by donating to conservative candidates, sometimes those running in primaries against GOP incumbents, and through the widely distributed voting scorecard.
The last couple of election cycles have seen Republican intramural, scorched-earth battles, as Empower Texans tried to outflank, on the right, what its CEO, Michael Quinn Sullivan, called “crony establishment” Republicans, such as Geren and other allies of former House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.
“Empower Texans’ news products contain editorial content, and writers for Empower Texans often take positions on candidates and legislation,” the suit says. “However, no employee of Empower Texans is required to register as a lobbyist, and the organization does not employ or contract with any person who is required to register as a lobbyist. Likewise, Empower Texans is editorially independent from any outside person, entity, or organization.”
In the lawsuit, Empower Texans calls itself a “non-profit media organization” whose employees “report on the proceedings of the Texas Legislature.”
In early January, Waltens and Sensky submitted media credential applications to the Texas House and Texas Senate, which handle media credential applications separately.
Waltens, Texas Scorecard’s Capitol bureau chief, was chief of staff last session for Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, a member of the Legislature’s Freedom Caucus — and helped engineer Cain’s runoff election campaign in 2016.
The Senate issued media credentials to the group. The credentials give Empower Texans, whose political action committee contributed $75,000 in August to the reelection campaign of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, access to state senators not enjoyed by members of the general public.
But Geren decided the group was not eligible for House credentials.
Under House rules, “no media representative shall be admitted to the floor of the House or allowed its privileges unless the person” works for publications “editorially independent of any institution, foundation, or interest group that lobbies the government or that is not principally a general news organization.”
Geren wrote that Texas Scorecard “has a close association with a general-purpose political committee and that the organization’s website prominently displays advocacy on policy matters before the Legislature. Based on this information, I believe that you are not eligible for a media credential.”
That letter was similar to one he sent in January 2017, in which he revoked a press pass for Cary Cheshire of Empower Texans that had been issued less than a month earlier.
The lawsuit cites the language similarities in the letters as “a demonstration of bad faith on Geren’s part.”
The lawsuit also quotes from Geren’s tweets over the past half-dozen years that are critical of Empower Texans.
“Geren’s distaste for Empower Texans may stem from its endorsements in his races for reelection and his performance on the Fiscal Responsibility Index,” the lawsuit says. “Geren has regularly earned grades of ‘F’ on the Index. Accordingly, Empower Texans has repeatedly endorsed Geren’s challengers in the Republican primary election.”
In one of the ugliest primary races of 2018, Geren fended off a challenge from Bo French, an Empower Texans-backed candidate.
The group sent out a mailer purporting to come from the “Texas Ethics Disclosure Board,” an official-sounding name that Empower Texans registered with the Secretary of State’s Office in January 2018, the Texas Tribune reported. The mailer, under the word NOTICE, draws attention to a “relationship with a lobbyist” — Geren’s wife.
“They’re trying to deceive my constituents,” Geren told the Tribune last year.
“It looks like it’s coming from a state agency, and it’s not,” Geren continued. “A guy at church handed it to me and said ‘what is this.’ I said it’s another lie by Empower Texans, and he said, ‘Well it looked real.’”
The suit claims that heading into the current legislative session no other applicant for a media credential was denied one. It asks the court to order Geren to issue media credentials to Waltens and Sensky for the Texas House and to cover attorney fees.
Geren, who was sued in his official capacity, will be represented by the Texas Attorney General’s Office, agency spokesman Marc Rylander said.
Attorney General Ken Paxton last year declined to defend the Texas Ethics Commission from a lawsuit filed by Empower Texans seeking to strip the agency of much of its power to regulate campaign finance. Empower Texans is a large contributor to Paxton.