Agriculture appointees connected to waived political fees

A political consultant for Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller donated nearly $40,000 worth of his services to the candidate during the Stephenville Republican’s run for the office last year — and then was appointed to a $180,000-a-year job Miller created when he took office.

A second political consultant donated $76,000 worth of his services during Miller’s campaign, even though he was experiencing personal financial stress at the time. His wife was appointed to another newly created $180,000-a-year job when Miller took office.

The first consultant, Walt Roberts, is Miller’s new assistant agriculture commissioner for legislative affairs and external relations, who the American-Statesman revealed last week appears to have lobbied without registering. A second new position was filled by Kellie Housewright-Smith, wife of longtime Miller campaign consultant Todd Smith. She was dismissed after less than four months on the job for improperly contacting state officials and missing too much work, agency personnel files show.

Miller said that he had appointed the best possible candidates to the new positions and that the donations of campaign services had nothing to do with the hires. “They’re totally unconnected,” he said. “I found people I thought would be the best in their fields.”

Experts and others in the business disagreed on whether the free work leading to a new, well-paid executive position was unremarkable or was a particularly naked example of the sort of back-scratching common to Texas politics.

Allen Blakemore, a Houston-based consultant who counts Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick as a client, said it was unusual for a campaign professional to give away his time and expertise. “I won’t say that it’s never done,” he said. “But I’ve been at this for 30-plus years and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve known it to happen.”

Although campaign consultants occasionally work for discounted fees or on victory contingency, he added, “We’re not in business as a public service.”

And for a professional consultant to donate his time and then take a job with his newly elected candidate is “not common to me,” Blakemore said. “If you’re not being paid in the campaign, there’s more of an appearance of a quid pro quo.”

But Heidi Lange, a Dallas-based political consultant for 25 years, said businesses such as hers occasionally donate services either as a favor to a longtime client or as a way to keep their name circulating among other potential clients. “You hedge your bets and take a chance on someone you believe in,” she said. “It’s a business decision, really.”

Lange, who state records show donated $34,000 worth of her services to one of Miller’s primary opponents, Tommy Merritt, added that political workers often hitch their wagons to a campaign in the hopes of landing a government job after the election.

Ed Shack, an Austin attorney who frequently advises candidates, said the arrangement is important to the new officeholder wanting to surround himself or herself with loyalists: “These are the people they trust and believe in.”

Under certain circumstances, exchanging a political contribution for a specific official favor that wouldn’t otherwise have been contemplated would fall under the state’s bribery statute. But ethics attorneys said such cases would require proof that a formal deal had been struck beforehand, making prosecutions extremely difficult and rare.

In an interview, Miller said that while he created four new assistant commissioner positions at $180,000 each — “I’ve got good people there, and they’re compensated accordingly” — he had eliminated three other management jobs.

Miller said he had to persuade the appointees to leave their previous jobs. Assistant Commissioner for Enforcement Terry Keel was director of the Texas Facilities Commission. Dan Hunter, the new assistant commissioner for water and rural affairs, was director of the Texas Institute for Applied Environmental Research at Tarleton State University.

Miller said he appointed Roberts to the new position of assistant commissioner for legislative affairs because “he was the best person I could find for that” and specifically for “his ability to work the Capitol.” According to election expenditure reports, Roberts’ political consulting company, W.L. Roberts & Associates, reported billings for only one client — Miller’s agriculture commissioner campaign.

Records show the Texas Auctioneers Association Political Action Committee paid Roberts a series of “lobbying fees” in 2014. The American-Statesman last week reported that Roberts appears to have received three of the payments at the same time he was collecting a paycheck from his new job at the Texas Department of Agriculture, a potential conflict of interest.

He also appears never to have registered as a lobbyist, even though his work as described by an official for the auctioneer association — he was hired to meet with lawmakers in an attempt to influence — appeared to meet the legal definition requiring registration. Roberts explained he worked only as a consultant offering “legislative advice” so wasn’t required to register.

Miller said he’d also been impressed by Roberts’ work as an advocate for Lutheran Social Services of the South. The agency couldn’t provide details of his employment there; a spokeswoman said it was “some time ago” that Roberts worked on behalf of the agency.

Todd Smith said he made his in-kind campaign donations because he strongly believed Miller would make an excellent commissioner. “I’m a friend of Sid Miller, I love Sid Miller,” he said. “He’s basically been type-cast to be agriculture commissioner.”

While election records show he hadn’t volunteered his services to Miller previously, Smith said the agriculture campaign was run on a shoestring due to modest donations. He added he hoped his good work on it would bring more clients.

Smith, who is also a business partner of Miller’s, said he believed in Miller so much he donated his services even though he was struggling financially, eventually declaring bankruptcy earlier this year. He has billed Miller more than $1 million for consulting services since Miller first entered state politics in 2000 as an elected representative.

Making a formal or informal deal for his wife to be hired after the campaign “was never, ever even contemplated,” Smith said.

Housewright-Smith, a registered nurse and most recently a health care consultant, was named a member of Miller’s transition team in November. Six weeks later, he promoted her to assistant commissioner for operations.

She didn’t last long in the position, however; her last day was March 13. Housewright-Smith said she quit her new job to attend to family medical concerns. Newly released personnel files show she was terminated after refusing to sign a disciplinary memo charging her with excessive absenteeism and violating the agency’s legislative contact policy requiring all communications to be channeled through the external relations commissioner.