Dark Money or “Free Speech?” The Michael Quinn Sullivan Saga Continues

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In the latest chapter of the ongoing Michael Quinn Sullivan saga, Sullivan found his day in court, but things did not necessarily go his way.

Judge Sam Sparks denied a temporary restraining order sought by the attorneys of Michael Quinn Sullivan against the Texas Ethics Commission. Judge Sparks also gave Joe Nixon, the leading attorney for Michael Quinn Sullivan, 15 days to prove that this state ethics case should continue in federal court.  

Sullivan is seeking to sue the Texas Ethics Commission in federal court claiming that his free speech has been violated since the Texas Ethics Commission is asking him to report certain donor information.  

Michael Quinn Sullivan and the Texas Ethics Commission also have 15 days to reconcile the scope of the information requests from the TEC. If this happens, meaning that if Sullivan decides to actually cooperate and disclose some amount of information, this whole case can go away.

But, the question that Michael Quinn Sullivan is ultimately getting at is if dark money is free speech in Texas, and if Judge Sam Sparks decides that this case can continue in federal court, possibly in the United States.

See more about what Judge Sparks decision could mean for the future of elections in Texas below the jump.  The organizations that Sullivan runs are a state PAC, a 501c3 and a 501c4. Empower Texans is a PAC, which can do all the political and social engagement and advocacy it wants for any given candidate. Texans for Fiscal Responsibility is a 501c4, which is knowns as a “civic engagement” non-profit. By law they cannot primarily advocate for any one candidate, but the law is strangely vague because c4s may however endorse a candidate, if it is not the “primary purpose” of the non-profit. This 501c4 is also not required to disclose its donors on reports. Finally, the Empower Texans Foundation (which is the last in the three pronged part of Michael Quinn Sullivan's operation), is a 501c3, which is the traditional model of a non-profit, and gets its money from individual and corporate donors. All of these donors should be disclosed, but the issue is when MQS raises money from the c3, the traditional non-profit, to fund the political activities and operations of the other two entities.

Again, MQS insists that because of some of these reporting requirements, as well as the fact that he has to register as a lobbyist, his free speech rights are being violated. While Sullivan asserts his free speech is violated because he has to report certain information, Michael Quinn Sullivan is actively exercising his free speech rights elsewhere, as a reporter for Brietbart News as I reported last week.

Quorum Report's Scott Braddock reported last week that MQS was not happy with the Branch Campaign for publishing an email Sullivan sent to the campaign, asking for a quote for a story MQS was writing for Brietbart News. Braddock noted:

“Also after the hearing, Sullivan said it was wrong for the Dan Branch campaign to release an email this week in which the conservative agitator had passed himself off as a reporter. He also said it was “slimy” for media to report on the email because the email contains Sullivan's “personal email address.” Sullivan called it a “personal email address,” it should be noted, even though he was using it to ask questions for his “job” at Breitbart News.”

While there are a lot of moving parts to the Michael Quinn Sullivan saga, some more relevant to the court case than others, all raise very interesting questions about the role of disclosure in this brave new world of online media, political super PACS, and scorecard lobbying. Whatever happens in the end, it will no doubt directly affect the way elections are run in Texas, or at least the way the Texas Ethics Commission deals with reporting requirements for state PACs, 501c3s, and c4s.  


About Author

Chaille Jolink

Chaille Jolink was born and raised in Austin, Texas and has more than a decade of experience working in Texas politics. Her interest began when she was a Senate Messenger in 2003, and she's since worked for several different legislators and candidates. She started reporting in 2007 for GalleryWatch.com, and has been a contributor to several different publications. Chaille is a graduate of the University of Texas and enjoys fashion, baseball, and playing any team sport. Chaille tweets @ChailleMcCann.

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