Empower Texans sues lawmaker to gain state House media credentials

By Emma Platoff

Months after being denied media credentials for the Texas House, the conservative organization Texas Scorecard — a product of Empower Texans, a Tea Party-aligned political advocacy group with one of the state’s best-funded political action committees — has filed a First Amendment lawsuit arguing that their rejection from the lower chamber constitutes “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

Before the legislative session kicked off in January, two employees of Texas Scorecard, Brandon Waltens and Destin Sensky, applied for media credentials in both chambers of the Legislature. In the Senate, their credentials were granted; in the House, they were denied. The two chambers follow similar rules about who is allowed special journalistic access to the floor, with both prohibiting lobbyists. But the chambers’ political atmospheres are different.

House Administration Chair Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth Republican who has sparred with Empower Texans and its PAC in the past, told the group in a January 2019 rejection letter that they were ineligible for media credentials because “the organization you are employed by, Texas Scorecard, has a close association with a general-purpose political committee (GPAC) and that the organization’s website prominently displays advocacy on policy matters before the legislature.” As evidence of the group’s affiliation with the PAC, Geren cited their shared address — but by the time Geren’s letter was issued, the lawsuit claims, the two organizations no longer shared that address.

Empower Texans PAC has backed primary opponents to Geren, and has given Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Texas Senate, more than $850,000 in the last five years.

In the lawsuit, filed this week in federal court in Austin, the organization alleges that its past history with Geren — who, the complaint says, “has routinely and openly expressed hostility” to the group “on account of their publications” — led him to engage in “bad faith viewpoint discrimination.” It asks a federal judge to force Geren to issue media credentials to the two employees.

Reached on the floor of the Texas House Wednesday morning, Geren said he had no comment on the lawsuit.

Empower Texans, which operates under several names, is a unique blend of political action committee, advocacy group and news outlet. During the session, it produces a bi-weekly newspaper and a weekday morning newsletter as well as a weekly podcast and video broadcast.

But the organization also directly advocates for specific votes on specific measures — releasing regular “vote notices” that call on elected officials to back their priorities — and ranks lawmakers on an A-F scale as either “pro-” or “anti-taxpayer.”

Though they do not have media credentials in the Texas House, Waltens and Sensky — like anyone else — can sit in the public second-floor gallery. Only journalists, lawmakers, staff and special guests are permitted on the chambers’ floors, where they enjoy easier access to elected officials. The lawsuit alleges that “by denying plaintiffs access to the hall of the House equal to that afforded to other media representatives, [Geren] is violating Plaintiffs’ rights to free speech and freedom of the press.”

The complaint claims that “no employee of Empower Texans is required to register as a lobbyist and the organization does not employ or contract with any person who is required to register as a lobbyist.”

The organization has presented itself as a journalism outlet before. In 2017, Geren pulled a press pass that had been issued for a different employee of the group, Cary Cheshire.

Waltens and Sensky are common fixtures at the press table in the Texas Senate, where their coverage sometimes reflects the conservative bent of their organization. They have also reported on goings-on in the Texas House.

This article originally appeared at The Texas Tribune.