A Texas Rangers investigation released Tuesday found that the staff of state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, filled out witness registration forms for people who were not in the Capitol but that no one committed any prosecutable offenses.
House leaders have long said that legislative rules require witnesses who want to participate in a hearing to be physically in the room. Participants are asked to register through electronic kiosks outside the hearing rooms.
The Rangers’ report is the latest twist in a state investigation that began immediately after an April 30 House Transportation Committee hearing at which Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, accused Stickland of breaking the law by listing witnesses who were not in Austin as supporters of his bill to ban red light cameras. He then ordered Stickland to leave the hearing.
The House General Investigating and Ethics Committee, which launched a probe into the hearing and requested assistance from the Texas Rangers, met for nearly two hours Tuesday, almost entirely in executive session. The closed-door portion of the meeting featured testimony from Rangers involved in the investigation, according to Chairman John Kuempel, R-Seguin.
Kuempel said afterward that the committee members will need time to review the report before deciding on the next step.
“The Rangers’ investigation is closed,” Kuempel said. “Ours is still ongoing.”
The committee also voted unanimously to request that the House Administration Committee plan training sessions for House members and staff on House rules and operations.
“I think it is an absolute victory for Rep. Stickland that the DPS investigation is done,” said Trey Trainor, Stickland’s lawyer, after the hearing. He added that he was frustrated that the committee’s investigation wasn’t closed and that Stickland and his staff had been unfairly targeted.
Though Stickland wasn’t at the hearing, he did appear to comment about it on Twitter.
“Texas needs more transparency not more secret meetings,” he tweeted while the committee was in executive session.
Asked later about the Rangers’ findings, Trainor said every witness who was registered for the hearing by Stickland staffers on behalf of someone else knew they were being registered and supported doing so. He disputed that such actions violate any rules.
“I find it shocking, the level of investigation that went into this, to criminalize private citizens’ participation in the political process,” Trainor said.
State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat and a member of the Ethics Committee, said it was clear that Stickland’s staff violated the spirit of the House rules by signing up people to testify at a hearing when they weren’t at the Capitol.
“It’s gaming the system and there’s no need for it and it need not happen again,” Turner said.
The office of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said in a statement that the House Rules were too vague to view what Stickland’s staffers did as a criminal offense, even though it was clear they signed up witnesses who had no plans to testify at the hearing.
“Attorneys from the Public Integrity Unit have offered to assist with revisions to the affirmation forms and the language of the House Rules to prevent this conduct from occurring in the future,” the office said in a statement.
The Rangers interviewed 79 of 89 people who registered to testify for Stickland’s bill. Those 79 people either registered as witnesses in person or told Rangers they knew that someone was registering for them. The remaining 10 witnesses — including four Stickland staffers — refused to cooperate with the investigation, according to the report. Trainor said those staffers did not want to be questioned by the Rangers without their lawyer present.
The Rangers found 29 people were registered through IP addresses that traced to Stickland’s office, according to the report. Stickland’s legislative director, Murphy Simpson, told the Rangers that she and other members of Stickland’s staff registered people — including her parents — who called the office and supported Stickland’s bill but couldn’t make it to the Capitol.
“Simpson emphasized her belief that neither her nor the other staff members had committed perjury, as she had permission” to register them, the report states.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/09/15/rangers-found-stickland-staffers-falsely-signed-wi/.