Supporters of telecom bill are mum on conflict of interest questions

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Jan. 10, 2017, lobbyist Mindy Ellmer tweeted a picture of her with long-time boyfriend Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, standing next to the Mayor of Fort Worth, Betsy Price. The caption read, “Happy to kick off the 85th with two of my favorite peeps.”

More than four months later, Rep. Geren is a driving force for a bill critics say will save the telecommunication giant AT&T hundreds of millions of dollars while taking needed revenue from city coffers in Austin and beyond.

Ellmer has an interest in the company’s success in Geren’s Texas House of Representatives. She holds a contract from AT&T worth up to $99,999 to try and influence lawmakers to vote on issues favorable to AT&T.

“I don’t have any comment at this point in time, thank you,” Rep. Geren told KXAN in a brief phone call after repeated requests for his thoughts on if the relationship was a conflict of interest. The experienced lawmaker guided SB 1004 through the Texas House Thursday after Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills wrote the bill and easily passed it through the Texas Senate.

Adrianna Bernal from AT&T Public Affairs wrote via email, “Chairman Hancock filed SB 1004 and requested that Chairman Geren file the companion.” When asked to clarify if they thought the Geren-Ellmer relationship was a conflict of interest, she responded, “we stand by our statement.”

Senator Hancock’s office has not responded to repeated requests for an interview or statement.

SB 1004 would create statewide rules and fees for public right of way use for network nodes, small devices similar to cell towers that help wireless internet connectivity and 5G. Dave Nichols, President of AT&T Texas wrote KXAN in a previous story, “Senator Kelly Hancock has worked with all parties, including the wireless industry, cities and other interested parties, to craft a bill that will bring tomorrow’s technology to Texas quickly.”

The Texas Municipal League says they’re being cheated. In an email blasting the bill as a “taxpayer rip-off”, the organization wrote once 5G is up and running across Texas, cities would lose out on $750 million a year in fees.

Right now, the City of Austin has an agreement with major telecommunication networks. Companies including AT&T will pay the city $1,500 per node per year. According to TML,Houston and Dallas negotiated a rate of $2,500.

SB 1004 would cap that fee at $250.

“Now those companies want a state law to cut those negotiated fees in many cases to just one-tenth of what they had agreed to pay,” wrote TML Executive Director Bennett Sandlin. According to state records, the cities of Dallas, Frisco, Houston, Corpus Christi, Baytown, San Antonio, El Paso, Plano, College Station, McAllen, Schertz, Irving, Denton, Austin, Sugarland, and Arlington opposed the bill in the Senate committee.

Every session, AT&T ranks at the top for number of lobbyists and amount they pay. Andrew Wheat from Texans for Public Justice says it’s been that way since the company was Southwestern Bell decades ago. This year AT&T contracts with more than 100 lobbyists for $7.7 million, including Ellmer.

“The average person looking at that, it doesn’t sit right,” said Wheat describing how there are many relationships in the Texas capitol; children lobby parents, siblings lobby siblings.

“There’s a very incestuous relationship between the Texas legislature and the Texas lobby that is almost dizzying,” said Wheat.

The Texas Ethics Commission lists Ellmer having a contract with AT& T up to $99,999. The state’s database is updated daily. She has not responded to repeated emails and phone calls over several days requesting comment.

The Geren-Ellmer relationship has come up before when he pushed another bill backed by AT&T. In an April, 2015 Houston Chronicle article, Rep. Geren said his relationship with Ellmer was no secret and confirmed the two bought a downtown Austin condo together.

“I don’t work for Mindy,” Geren told the Chronicle, “I vote with some of her clients. I vote against some of her clients. Some of them I don’t even know who they are.”

The Texas House passed SB 1004 Thursday.

For the second session in a row Governor Abbott has deemed “ethics” an emergency item. KXAN is waiting on a response for comment. Senator Van Taylor, R-Plano, is carrying the ethics package in the Senate.

Rep. Geren is carrying the ethics package in the Texas House.

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