- Associated Press - Saturday, March 1, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A conservative Texas political group is waging an intense legal battle to try to keep the names of its donors secret by taking the Texas Ethics Commission to federal court.

The Texas Ethics Commission has demanded that Empower Texans, an influential conservative group, register as a lobbyist and follow rules that apply to those entities, the Austin American-Statesman reported Saturday (http://bit.ly/1oeq3Nh .) But the group refused, and the commission issued subpoenas last month demanding Empower Texans release a private list of donors as well as emails and other communication regarding the group’s support and opposition to candidates and political positions.

Joe Nixon and Trey Trainor, attorneys representing the group’s leader, Michael Quinn Sullivan, said the commission’s subpoena violates the First Amendment, which guarantees citizens the right to participate in politics and to do so privately through organizations.

Nixon compared Empower Texans‘ situation to a 1956 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the judges ruled the NAACP did not have to provide the state of Alabama its membership roster. The court ruled the list was protected under the First Amendment.

“These subpoenas do the exact same thing,” Nixon said. “Disclosure is good, but not to the point where it prohibits free speech.”

Sullivan’s lawyers refer to him as a journalist in court filings, citing his weekly newsletter, blog postings and social media communications.

But those fighting Empower Texans say the group should register as a lobbyist because its body of work is used to influence legislation and politicians.

Lawyer and lobbyist Steve Bresnen had been leading the effort against Empower Texans.

“We should all be playing by the same rules,” Bresnen said.

He was ready to lodge an official complaint with the state ethics commission, when two Republican lawmakers, Rep. Jim Keffer and Rep. Vicki Truitt, beat him to it.

According to campaign finance reports, Sullivan’s group and another organization he runs - Texans for Fiscal Responsibility - have financially supported candidates running against Keffer and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican from San Antonio. Between Jan. 24 and Feb. 22, the two groups and their political action committees spent nearly $1.2 million together.

A hearing on some of the issues will be held March 20 before U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks. Normally, the Texas attorney general represents state agencies in court, but this case could pit Attorney General Greg Abbott against Sullivan, who has been one of his most loyal supporters in his gubernatorial bid.

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Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com