Unethical, Illegal or Neither? A State Lawmaker Helping Businesses Influence Local Policy
An influential Texas lawmaker has a new side gig that’s raising a few eyebrows in capital circles.
Rep. Jason Villalba is helping launch LightSwitch Solutions, an Austin-based public relations and consulting firm with plans to shape opinion about local policy, mostly on behalf of businesses and other private entities.
“Whether you are seeking to marshal to passage a controversial school bond package, shape public opinion on an important initiative, effect a change to the county’s rules for online cab service, or amend the city’s charter,” the company’s website said Friday afternoon, “LightSwitch is uniquely qualified to get you the results that you seek.”
Villalba was listed as the firm's CEO.
That and all other information was scrubbed from the website shortly after the Tribune interviewed the Dallas Republican and one of his partners at the company: Trey Newton, a longtime political operative and former chief of staff to Land Commissioner George P. Bush.
Ashley Juergens, Villalba’s chief of staff at the Capitol, was listed as the company’s chief operations officer on the site, which included a picture of the state Capitol.
Newton called LightSwitch a “really slow-development type of thing,” incorporated just a few weeks ago. It does not yet have any business and has only met with one potential client, he said. It won't do any lobbying, but will be trying to influence public opinion.
Newton said the firm’s website — which originally listed services including public relations, polling and managing political action committees — probably should have been “stamped draft” or put on a private server.
“Half the content still needs to be changed,” he added.
First elected in 2012, Villalba has largely focused on economic development, infrastructure and public safety in his legislative career. He most recently served on the House committees on Business & Industry and Economic & Small Business Development.
In his new private-sector job, Villalba does not appear to violating any state ethics rules — those set up to ensure part-time lawmakers don’t use their office for private gain. But government watchdogs said he should tread cautiously.
“If they stay away from state policies that the Legislature would have to address, I don’t see a problem with it,” said Buck Wood, a prominent ethics attorney in Austin. “But they’re going to need be careful about what issues they get involved in because there may be issues that impact not only locally but also as far as the Legislature’s concerned.”
The Texas Constitution prohibits lawmakers from voting on bills if they have a “personal or private interest." State law also bars them from voting on measures that will directly benefit a specific business transaction if they have a controlling interest.
Questions about whether private legal or consulting work conflicts with public duties frequently pop up under the Capitol dome.
For instance, critics of former state Sen. Wendy Davis — the Democratic 2014 gubernatorial nominee — frequently asked whether her role at a law firm that offered legal services to public and quasi-public clients conflicted with her legislative duties (she maintained it didn’t).
Villalba, who is also a partner at the high-profile law firm Gardere Wynne Sewell, said he would maintain a firewall between lawmaking and his interests at LightSwitch, where he would serve “almost as a figurehead, really — to be able to attract some relationships.”
The firm won’t touch any statewide issues or local matters that could percolate up to the Legislature, he said. The lawmaker also agreed to disclose his clients, once he had some.
“We want to make it very clear that we’re going comply to the letter of the law with every requirement,” he said. “My thinking is, if we’re close to not passing the smell test, we’re not going to take it on. We’re only interested in helping private corporations achieve their objectives by shaping public opinion.”
Newton said the firm would prefer to work exclusively with private entities, but he wouldn’t rule out taking on a public client. “It might be a school board or a city, maybe,” he said.
Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of liberal watchdog group Public Citizen, said he was glad to hear the assurances but added that they could be difficult to keep.
“It’s seldom that a local issue is only local,” he said.
One example: Austin’s battle with ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft over city requirements that included fingerprint background checks for drivers. After local voters defeated a proposition to replace the rules with those that the companies preferred, several lawmakers — including Villalba — said they would push for company-backed legislation to rescind local restrictions.
Villalba said he recognized such possibilities and would recuse himself from any votes “if there’s even the appearance of a nexus” between his jobs.
The biography that initially appeared on the scrubbed LightSwitch website said Villalba has a “peculiar understanding of and ability to shape public opinion. That is an asset that Jason didn’t learn in business school, but in the rough and tumble works of Texas politics.”
Smith said he found the salesman-like description of Villalba's public office job problematic.
“He’s using his position as a state legislator as part of the reason why you should hire him, which raises both eyebrows,” he said.
Newton said he understood how the initial description of the firm might set off ethics alarms.
“Reading the website the way it is today,” he said, “if we put a press release out that said ‘this is what we’re doing,’ I could see — huh, this might be a conflict of interest. That’s not exactly what we’re doing.”
He added: “There’s nothing hidden, nothing secretive, nothing weird here.”