Good day Austin:
I sat with Joe Basel last night in the House Gallery as the Texas House voted to render his behavior a violation of state law.
He had a front-row seat he had occupied for some seven hours waiting for his “moment of truth.”
From the Statesman’s Tim Eaton.
The hours-long debate over an ethics reform bill in the Texas House on Tuesday offered another chance to see the deep divisions among legislators.
Senate Bill 19, which was tentatively approved 96-48, provided the opportunity for the House’s most conservative members to bicker with Democrats and mainstream Republicans over financial disclosure, drug testing of political candidates and how to deal with the band of operatives who have been collecting video of lawmakers and lobbyists.
Cook also added a provision aimed at the American Phoenix Foundation — which claims to have collected 800 hours of footage of lawmakers and lobbyists behaving badly. Cook’s version of SB 19 now has a provision that says members of the Legislature or the lieutenant governor cannot be recorded at the Capitol without their consent.
“This is a dark and evil force that is upon us now,” Cook said.
Joe Basel, CEO of the foundation, and some of his employees watched the debate from the House gallery and snickered when lawmakers argued about the provision to outlaw taping in the Capitol without consent.
“If they’re going to vote to make me a criminal, I want to see the vote,” said Basel, who had claimed his front-row seat in the gallery at noon and was still there when the House debated his behavior that evening.
(note: I have been advised since originally posting First Reading that the measure approved last night does not create a criminal offense, but rather a civil cause of action against that conduct, so perhaps it is an overstatement – though perhaps within the bounds of poetic-legal license – for Basel to say the House had voted to “make me a criminal.”)
“Suddenly, after all these years,” Cook told his colleagues, “this Legislature suddenly has people running around chasing people. The worst part is we don’t know who’s funding them.”
Cook’s version of the ethics legislation would require that anyone recording a conversation with a legislator, either in the Capitol or in the legislator’s district office, have the permission of all the parties to the conversation. Basel’s crew have been taping surreptitiously.
Also, as Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, noted, in backing an amendment by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, to strip that language from the bill, it would retroactively censor the recordings that American Phoenix has made in violation of the new restriction by prohibiting the publication of tapes after the effective date of the bill even if the tapes were made before the bill was enacted.
“It’s Orwellian stuff,” Schaefer told me later.
They’re making me a criminal and I’ll win the constitutional suit and I probably won’t even have to hire a lawyer.
Every piece of media footage that’s ever been released of the Legislature, you guys are subject to lawsuit and jail from now on, unless you have everyone signed on. It’s kind of fascinating that the media is cheerleading this on
It’s not going to survive any constitutional challenge and I think it’s important that they know that l’ll just release their footage first and if they want to arrest me they can arrest me, I’m not going to slow down.
I’m fine. I’m still going to do what I was going to do. I’m still going to release all the footage as appropriate after legal review and vetting. If they want to make me a criminal that’s fine, I’ll turn myself in and raise a lot more money from jail.
There’s kind of an understanding, a respectful relationship between the press (and legislators), but I think that misses a lot. I think you guys have to do what you and have to do to have the access.
But we look at this differently. We think legislators and lobbyists should be wearing body cams and we’d all be better for it, including the media, because the footage we have very clearly shows the system is broken, that it’s stacked against the individual, it’s stacked against an open and free media and we’re going to show that.
Basel said most of their video was done beyond the reach of the new measure, even if it became law.
The majority of our footage is outside this building.
Basel said he doubts Cook’s language will survive a conference committee with the Senate.
It’s my understanding that the Senate would never vote for this bad, this unconstitutional a bill. I would be surprised if the Texas Senate or the governor was willing to support something this blatantly unconstitutional.
I think I was encouraged by the (Shaefer) amendment just now. The language is still in there, but there are a lot of people who think they have selfish reasons to make us criminals right now and stop the release of the footage that still voted to constitutionally uphold our rights.
Here was the vote on Schaefer’s amendment:
Bill: SB 19 – 2nd Reading Amendment 20 by Schaefer
Disclaimer:This vote has not been certified by the House Journal Clerk. It is provided for informational purposes only. Once the vote is certified, it will be recorded in the journal according to Rule 5 of the House Rules and made available on this web site.
RV# 1539 — Unofficial Totals: 66 Yeas, 74 Nays, 3 Present, not voting
Yeas – Anderson, C.; Anderson, R.; Ashby; Bell; Bohac; Bonnen, G.; Burns; Burrows; Canales; Craddick; Crownover; Cyrier; Dale; Davis, S.; Fallon; Fletcher; Flynn; Frank; Goldman; Gonzales; Guillen; Gutierrez; Huberty; Hughes; Keough; King, P.; King, S.; Klick; Koop; Krause; Landgraf; Larson; Laubenberg; Leach; Lozano; Metcalf; Meyer; Miles; Murphy; Murr; Paddie; Parker; Paul; Phelan; Price; Rinaldi; Rodriguez, E.; Sanford; Schaefer; Schofield; Shaheen; Simmons; Simpson; Smithee; Spitzer; Springer; Stickland; Thompson, E.; Tinderholt; Turner, E.S.; VanDeaver; White, J.; White, M.; Wray; Zedler; Zerwas
Nays – Allen; Alonzo; Alvarado; Anchia; Aycock; Bernal; Blanco; Bonnen, D.; Button; Clardy; Coleman; Collier; Cook; Darby; Davis, Y.; Deshotel; Dukes; Dutton; Elkins; Faircloth; Farias; Farrar; Frullo; Galindo; Geren; Giddings; González; Guerra; Harless; Hernandez; Herrero; Howard; Hunter; Isaac; Israel; Johnson; Kacal; King, K.; King, T.; Kuempel; Longoria; Lucio; Márquez; Martinez; Martinez Fischer; McClendon; Miller, D.; Miller, R.; Minjarez; Moody; Muñoz; Naishtat; Nevárez; Oliveira; Otto; Phillips; Pickett; Raney; Raymond; Reynolds; Riddle; Rodriguez, J.; Romero; Rose; Schubert; Sheffield; Smith; Thompson, S.; Turner, C.; Villalba; Vo; Walle; Workman; Wu
Present, not voting – Mr. Speaker; Sheets(C); Turner, S.
Absent – Burkett; Capriglione; Farney; Keffer; Morrison; Peña; Stephenson
Republicans were split on Schaefer – Greg Bonnen for, Dennis Bonnen against. A couple of Democrats voted “aye.”
“I don’t like what’s happened any more than anybody else, I don’t like it at all,” Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said during the debate. But he felt Cook’s language was an overreach, and not the way to deal with it.
Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, also voted for Schaefer’s amendment, explaining later:
There’s cameras everywhere. There’s cameras around every corner. If they want to drug test me then drug test me. I don’t have anything to hide from anybody.
You know, you join this circus at your own peri if you think you’re going to be able to hide and people are not going to be able to follow you. What’s the difference. While you’re in session you’ve got a paparazzi, and when you’re not , you’ve got your own press that will beat you up back home.
If they want to waste their team filming me on the couch watching Ancient Aliens, they can come share a burger with me.
But, Cook said later last night:
The public needs to be aware of what’s going on here. This is really bad behavior. I hope this doesn’t become the norm. Why would anyone want to come here and put up with this. It never happened before.
He gestured up toward the gallery where long lenses have been trained down on them for weeks.
They’re shooting us over and over and over again. It’s a sad business to be honest with you.
Half of the fun, half the object is to see if you can get to your office without somebody harassing you.
Does his remedy go too far?
Once again, It shouldn’t even be necessary should it.
You’ve got to send a message. You’ve got to send a message or then it’s going to be the norm.
And if you think about it, if every single member was facing this then, let me tell you, every one of them would be indignant about it. But because some of them are in on the game, it’s not a big deal to them. If they had to put up with it every single day, if the Senate had to put up with it every single day ….
Basel said he understands the sense of discomfort..
We know full well. We’ve had reporters at our private homes in the last couple of weeks because of this story, so we know full well that there’s a line there that’s uncomfortable.
This happened after my wife’s ACORN project. (Basel’s wife, Hannah Giles, did the ACORN sting with James O’Keefe). This happened after what happened with me in New Orleans. (Basel was arrested, along with O’Keefe and two others in Sen. Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office, during another operation.) We became the story.
But, he said, this is only the beginning, in Texas and elsewhere.
We’re not going to stop We’re going to do this on a permanent basis and we’re going to do it better, harder, more prolific. This is the new normal for the Texas Legislature and a lot of legislatures around the country that we’re going to be starting (taping in).
Basel said the original idea was to target Congress.
I think Erica Grieder from Texas Monthly and maybe Brandon (Darby of Breitbart Texas) had heard me spitballing the idea. We had been talking about doing this federally for the longest time. And now, after this success, we’re going to be taking it to every Statehouse in the country, and federally.
If you look at all the journalistic awards for the last 100 years, this has obviously been done. Journalists who chose more politically correct targets to do hidden video will be getting major journalist awards this year.
Basel denies a political agenda.
I think it’s all fake perceived dichotomies. Its right vs. left, Republican-Democrat.
We didn’t let ourselves fall for those dichotomies.
This was a dragnet. This was every single member and every single lobbyist.
This had nothing to do with an agenda. We have no agenda.
We’re not asking for any bills. I guess technically we’re asking not to be made criminals this afternoon, but besides that, there’s nothing that we’re asking for. We’re asking for transparency, we’re asking for sunlight.
And until every lobbyist and every lawmaker wears a body camera, we’ll wear it for them.
But what about some of the big donors whose names have been revealed?
From Tim Eaton:
At least three donors to the group that has been collecting video — sometimes secretly — of Texas legislators and lobbyists are tied together by a couple of common threads: connections to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, and a dream to see House Speaker Joe Straus removed from his post.
A foundation headed by prominent conservative donor Jeff Sandefer gave the American Phoenix Foundation $100,000 in 2011 and 2013. Sandefer, a former oilman, is a board member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and gave $100,000 last year to state Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, who unsuccessfully challenged Straus for the speaker job at the beginning of the session.
Last night, Basel said of Sandefer:
He’s an old donor. We’re fighting. We’re not friends right now. That (contribution) was from years ago, many years ago. He hasn’t donated for years. He had nothing to do with any of this (the filming) and he hasn’t donated in years.
We made it very clear to our donors that we don’t do directed donations; they’re giving to the mission statement.
I’m sure some of our donors, like Jeff, will be pissed off about some of his friends getting hurt in this dragnet, but I think the dragnet’s healthier– a full dose of sunshine is healthier than me getting a few more donors.
I don’t want people who are afraid of little fascists like Byron Cook giving to it.
I want people who believe in freedom of the press, people who believe in the First Amendment and believe that the investigative budgets have been cut at all the corporate media, all the legacy media and somebody needs to do this work, and I think there are lots of people who are ready for that and if we can take up that mantle and help revolutionize journalism …
Wrong, said Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, during the debate on Schaefer’s amendment.
These aren’t people concerned with the public interest, she said, “they are paid guns for hire.”
Wrong, said lobbyist Steven Bresnen, who has tangled with the American Phoenix operatives.
“There’s nothing grassroots about these people,” Bresnen told me last night. Rather, he said, they are the creatures of a “handful of rich guys dabbling in politics.”
The punks that are doing this claim to be employed by “the people.” You ask them who they work for and they say, “the people.” That’s bullshit. It’s a lie and I fully intend to show it’s a lie. They work for a handful of rich guys who want to be oligarchs.
Basel had mentioned Bresnen to me.
I think some people are acting a lot more guilty than others. Steve Bresnen, for one, is acting really, really guilty for no reason I think.
Just after I left Basel last night, Bresnen took my place visiting with him in the House Gallery, albeit briefly.
From Scott Braddock at Quorum Report: American Phoenix Foundation faces legal action if it will not produce tax records; Longtime lobbyist Steve Bresnen confronts the head of the group, Joe Basel, with legal documents in the House Gallery
The group that claims to have done hundreds of hours of covert surveillance on Texas lawmakers will need to cough up its tax records or they’ll be hauled into court, its president was told on Tuesday evening.
Steve Bresnen, a longtime lobbyist and former aide to Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, confronted American Phoenix Foundation CEO Joe Basel with a written demand that the group disclose its 990’s.
In the letter presented to Basel, Bresnen reminds him that “Federal law makes the federal tax returns of The American Phoenix Foundation, Inc. a matter of public record” because of its status as a nonprofit.
“If I have not been supplied with the requested information before 5 p.m. on June 5th, I will initiate an action in the appropriate court for a judicial order that such information be supplied at once, along with attorneys fees and court costs,” Bresnen wrote.
“In addition, I will request the appropriate prosecuting attorney with Travis County investigate and take appropriate action,” he said.
Basel told Quorum Report “it’s a joke.”
Basel told me the 990s would be posted on the American Phoenix website soon, maybe this weekend.
While Basel has given Breitbart a copy of all its footage, the Texas Tribune’s Terry Langford reported:
Undercover video of Texas lawmakers made by the American Phoenix Foundation will not be published by Breitbart Texas after the legislative session ends, according to the conservative news organization’s managing director, Brandon Darby.
“At this time, I am not publishing it, correct,” Darby told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday.
Darby did not elaborate on why he has changed his mind about the supposed 836 hours of video the American Phoenix group has been made of lawmakers since the group began filming in and around the Texas Capitol last December.
Two weeks ago, Darby told the Tribune that Breitbart had a copy of the video footage and had planned to publish it after the legislative session ends on June 1.
Breitbart has a copy of the entire archive for safety reason. That’s an older relationship because of the ACORN stuff.
We have dozens of national media partners. We have so much content we’d like to work with local papers, local TV, based on that sate rep (in the particular video)/
We’ll be working with probably dozens of media outlets and making sure they have enough context to meet their journalistic standards.
Basel said there was never any intention to release anything during the session.
We don’t want to interrupt session. We were never going to say anything during session.
I haven’t seen seen the majority of the footage. It will be released over the next twelve months, starting here in a month probably. It will probably take at lest 12 months to go through all this, and there are separate stories.
(For example), the idea that it’s OK for a lobbyist with a bill before a member’s committee to have a romantic or physical relationship with a person, that’s a separate debate.
One of the other issues with some of our investigations is these abusive, sexually and otherwise, abusive relationships that legislators have with their staff. That’s’ an important conversation we’re having in this country, is are they abusing their positions of power?
I said that I wasn’t sure there was a public appetite for videos of legislators having sex.
Hopefully I don’t have any footage of them having sex, but we certainly have footage proving that they are having inappropriate sexual relationships.
If a legislator is taking one of his staffers into a bathroom and locking the door, they shouldn’t be doing that. It’s inappropriate. Well follow-up and ask the staffer and we’ll ask the lobbyists and ask the legislators what they think those videos mean.
I told Basel that this kind of video suggests that he has people working undercover on members’ staffs.
“We would let you believe that suggestion,” he said.
Several female legislators, including Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, said they felt like they were being stalked by Basel’s operatives, and found it intimidating and inappropriate.
Of the stalking charge, Basel, speaking generally (I did not specifically ask him about Davis), said:
That’s bullshit and they know it and that’s my official position – its bullshit and they know it.
They need to be careful. I realize that these legislators and some of these lobbyists lie for a living ,but lying to the cops, filing a false report, is a crime.
What fascinates me is we’re the only real feminists in this whole operation, treating females the same as everyone else. And what’s interesting to me is that we’re the only ones giving people equal treatment.
As I talked to Basel, the House was debating another provision in Cook’s version of the ethics bill.
As Tim Eaton described it:
— A so-called dark money requirement that would make 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations publicly report contributors’ names if the money is being used for campaign purposes. Empower Texans — led by conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, a frequent critic of House Speaker Joe Straus — and its lawyers have staunchly opposed such legislation.
Rep. Rachel Anchia, D-Dallas, was discoursing on a 1958 Supreme Court decision often cited by defenders of “dark money.”
Here from a TribTalk last year on the subject, Joe Nixon, general counsel for Empower Texans:
Fifty years ago, the state of Alabama wanted to prevent the NAACP from helping citizens to vote. Alabama attempted to force the NAACP to produce its membership lists, thereby making donors subject to intimidation or retribution. The NAACP resisted and the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the rights of speech, assembly and petition, and protected the efforts of the NAACP in Alabama to inform and engage citizens.
But, Chase Untermeyer, a member of the Texas Ethics Commission, replied:
Advocates for groups that may now have to make such disclosures claim that this will chill free speech. They point to a 1958 U.S. Supreme Court case called NAACP v. Alabama that they say protects their donors from harassment by letting them keep their names secret. But it’s ludicrous to compare those who are among the most influential forces in modern Texas politics to the small and truly endangered Alabama NAACP of the 1950s.
That was Anchia’s point in taking the mic. He told me:
It was to differentiate what they’re doing from what the NAACP was doing. You can distinguish between people who are scared of the Klan from people who are hiding corporate money. They’re definitely distinguishable.
Basel agreed that the two situations were distinguishable. But the principle remained, he said.
We’re following the law. Our donors are following the law, If we said in the future, just like the Tribune publishes donors’ names,if you give us a check, nothing will change. They would still donate and we would still release the videos.
But, he said:
Inasmuch as people have been harassed, I agree with the ruling of the NAACP case that it is undue harassment and it’s a violation of our donor’s constitutional rights.
If they identified their donors, Basel said:
I have no doubt that reporters would have been at their homes, harassing them, scaring their families. If someone gave us a larger check this body would seek to criminalize or hurt that individual, so that NAACP ruling is right.
None of our donors would compare themselves to that kind of persecution, but the point stands. In this country you have a right to assemble, you have a right to speech, hopefully that’s always the case.
We went above and beyond, our journalists are very well-trained in their rights, in other’s rights, in legislators’ rights. We went above and beyond to make sure there no gray areas in the law, and now they have to pass a law retroactively to try to make us criminals. That’s them admitting we didn’t break any laws and there is nothing they can do.
Basel smiles a lot. His operatives don’t. They are a grim bunch. A few of them were manning the exit to the House floor during the debate yesterday, catching lawmakers on their way out with questions about ethics.
I told Basel that they don’t seem to know when to quit. I’ve seen them late on a Friday – before the recent crush – when there was hardly anyone left in the building. I told one it was time to knock off work, go home, nothing left to see here. He ignored me.
“They’re definitely going to get sick,” Basel said. “They’re working too hard.
Anchia — It was to differentiate what they’re doing from what the NAACP was doing You can distinguish between people who are scared of the Klan from people who are hiding corporate money they’re definitely distinguishable.