State of Paranoia: Dark Money, Ethics, and Sine Die

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Some people are creeped out by spiders, and other appreciate the fact that they eat roaches.

That’s one way to sum up the view of American Phoenix Foundation, a group of “guerrilla journalist” claiming to have over 800 hours of “secret video” of legislators that has put capital watchers on edge. Words that have already been thrown around include “lawsuit,” “stalking,” “scumbags,” and “blackmail.”

From the perspective of political drama, it’s about as good as it gets. But, here is why it’s “disrupting the narrative,” — because it is easy. Imagine picking up a large rock that hasn’t been moved in years. You’ll find that lots of creatures have made their home there, and yes, too much sunlight will kill them. Now let’s put it back down for now, remembering that some of those crawly things serve a greater purpose.

For years a dear friend who is close to the Legislature has told me the secret to success under the dome, that was passed down to him from the late Betty King, is to remember the Capitol code: “If everyone’s protected, then everyone’s protected.” What he meant in part, was that we all have our failings and as long as we don’t exploit that, everyone can work together. In practical terms though, what it means is that: what happens in Austin, stays in Austin.

Many legeheads will remember “Tuffy Tuesday’s,” and the successful ads by a Tea Party opponent that followed “exposing” the get togethers to project a sense of disconnect between the voters and their representative. Well that was just a taste of what’s to come.

APF, young and idealistic like the gang behind the wheel of the Mystery Machine, is threatening to flash a light on all of that and breach the sacred trust. Unlike traditional journalist who they view as in on all the fun parties, they are embracing their outsider status and it’s spreading paranoia all though every facet of the legislative industrial complex.

Power is about control, and around the Capitol information is power. The root of concern by many is the lack of knowledge of what the videos contain and the complete lack of control of its dissemination. But there are other legitimate reasons to be concerned about a group with questionable ethics questioning others’ ethics, and talking about transparency without disclosing donors and of course frequent use of the most abused word in politics, “hypocrisy.”

A good argument can be made that the group itself is using information to exert control over the process without holding themselves to their own ideals. Certainly the paranoia hasn’t escaped them, having submitted open records requests to offices seeking, “all documents, reports, memos, emails, and notes containing the word ‘Phoenix’ your office has created or received.”

That’s the thing, until we see the final cut, we just don’t know. But, it does beg the question why it’s so important to keep donors secret if it is so important to expose others’ personal relationships. Especially, because when Texas Monthly’s R.G. Ratcliffe asked founders Joseph Basel and Hannah Giles about this obvious discrepancy in accountability regarding their own donors, Basil replied that it was, “just a stupid story: trying to divine motives through projection with a name.”  Basel went as far as to say that potential conflicts of interests regarding their own relationships at the Capitol would only “increase our scrutiny.” So we must trust, but we are unable to verify.

But for those in the know it matters, and not just because one of the group’s apparent targets is Rep. Charlie Geren, a Straus Lieutenant, and advocate of getting dark money out of state level politics. As proof they’re allegiance is to the ideals of good journalism and not to individuals or politicians, Giles criticized Senator Bettencourt — a donor to her legal defense fund — for pushing to make Texas a “two-party consent state” when it comes to secretly recording individuals.

Here is what we do know about the APF’s founders. Hannah Giles was the “prostitute” to James O’keefe’s “pimp” that took down ACORN and the Joseph Basel, her husband, was charged with entering a federal office under false pretense. O’keefe has been known to purposefully alter video and audio to sensationalize or outright mischaracterize his political targets.

Giles told Ratcliffe that APF was trying to distance themselves from O’keefe’s reputation and tactics. One thing’s for sure though, whatever comes out likely starting next month, will be heavily scrutinized for context. They claim to have 16 recruits on the beat and many of them have been seen lurking in the hallways or outside either legislative chambers waiting to ask “follow up questions.”

APF’s mission statement includes training, “select young potential leaders to transcend the traditional media by becoming independent truth-seeking truth-seeking journalists who relentlessly pursue truth with courage and creativity.” But many have seen that creativity as intimidation tactics, including some female members who reportedly no longer walk the halls without staff. One of these trainees approached my father, Rep. Joe Deshotel with a question about whether he thought Republicans were “racist,” or if the word “coonass” was racist. I can only assume this gumshoe thought it was my father that wrote my piece in the Burnt Orange Report about Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s “coonass” comment about teaching Katrina refugees. All this makes me question the real journalistic value of what they are up to.

I can however see some benefit for Democrats if APF plans to expose Republicans who say, beg Democrats behind closed doors to kill bad bills they don’t want to take a vote on like with the case of the anti-marriage equality bill HB 4105, but again who knows.

Members of the group were embraced by Conservatives early on for their take down of ACORN, but they quickly learned that many on the right’s personal behavior wasn’t consistent with the values they campaigned on.  Giles told Ratcliffe, “They probably invited us into the back rooms way too quick. What we saw there made us so cynical of the American right…”

That cynicism and Basel’s connection to hard right is why so many observers assumed this project was formed to take down moderate House Speaker Joe Straus. It also made some journalists ask if there was a connection to Michael Quinn Sullivan, the principal of Tea Party High. He checks the grades on legislators’ report cards issued by his group Empower Texans. He has been in an ongoing battle with the Ethics Commission for not registering as a lobbyist.

He also been a regular contributor at Breitbart. Back in March, Breitbart had a story on an email sent by the newly elected Chair of the Texas Republican Party, Tom Mechler, that seemed to target Sullivan. The Chairman responded that the intent was to get “conservative” groups who attack Republicans to “reconsider their tactics, their approach, and work to be a part of the Republican team.”

In its opening Breitbart’s Sarah Rumpf describes Sullivan as being “known for criticizing Republican elected officials when they stray from conservative principles.” If that sounds a lot like the mission statement of the American Phoenix Foundation, you’d be right. But what does it prove? Nothing. Because a group using intimidation tactics in the name of transparency and ethics don’t have to disclose their donors. It’s free speech, where you constitutionally bound to hear the unsolicited message but the solicitor remains anonymous. The Austin American-Statesman’s Jonathan Tilove chased the money down a few rabbit holes and came up a few hares short of the answer.

But Sine Die, the biggest party of the year, which has been the subject of many legendary stories still lies ahead, and so waits APF with a hand on the light switch ready to show who’s dancing with who when the music stops. Republicans, Democrats, staff, and lobbyists all celebrating the end of another hard slog together? And just think, they would have gotten away with it — if it weren’t for these meddling kids.


About Author

Joe Deshotel

Joe was born and raised in Beaumont, Tx, but live music and politics brought him to Austin. He has worked in and around government and elections for over a decade including for a member of US Congress, the Texas Legislature, the Mayor of Austin. He currently serves as Communications Director for the Travis County Democratic Party. He is most interested in transportation, energy and technology issues. He also likes Texas Hold'em and commuting on his electric skateboard. Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

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