Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Under Fire for Possible Violations of State Law

Texas Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick was the keynote speaker at the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers at an annual meeting in Wichita Falls, Texas, Wednesday, April 20, 2016. (Torin Halsey/Times Record News via AP)

Very few people in Texas, let alone the United States, understand what the Texas Railroad Commission does. In spite of its name, it has nothing to do with railroads. It is the powerful oil and gas regulatory body that oversees energy production in the largest oil and gas state in the country. And its chairman, Christi Craddick, appears to be going rogue. The Texas Railroad Commission is led by three statewide elected commissioners. Craddick is the chairman, and Ryan Sitton and Wayne Christian are the other two commissioners. The chairman has no special authority or power; all three commissioners are supposed to have equal responsibility for running the agency.

In a recent highly publicized open meeting, Chairman Christi Craddick clearly sought to avoid discussion regarding unilateral actions she had taken to force out the agency's executive director, Kimberly Corley. In the video, Craddick repeatedly tries to shut down questions from Sitton, who was apparently perturbed that neither he nor Christian had been consulted prior to the action she took to remove Corley.

Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, government bodies are required to notify the public prior to taking official action such as firing the agency's top staff person. In response to Craddick's unilateral action, Sitton requested an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. In that request, Sitton asks:

Under Texas Law governing the conduct of state agencies and official action, can a Railroad Commissioner unilaterally terminate the Executive Director without consultation with the other two commissioners in an appropriate setting?

Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, can a Railroad Commissioner unilaterally terminate the Executive Director without taking such action at a properly posted open meeting of the Railroad Commission?

Under Texas and Federal Employment Law, does giving an employee the โ€œchoiceโ€ of resigning or being fired constitute termination, and if so, does that constitute official agency action?

Can the Chairman of the Railroad Commission unilaterally appoint an acting Executive Director without consultation in an appropriate setting with the other two commissioners?

Does non-verbal, written communication attempted by one Commissioner at an open meeting on the dias constitute a violation of the letter and spirit of the Texas Open Meetings Act?

These questions make clear that Sitton and Christian knew nothing about Craddick's plans to fire the executive director. The Dallas Morning News editorialized that, "at the very least, Craddick's action violates the spirit of a public body. It may also violate the Texas Open Meetings Act, which prohibits backroom deals."

This isn't the first time Craddick has come under fire. Her father is the longest-serving member of the Texas House of Representatives, and a former speaker of that body. When her dad was speaker, Christi Craddick got paid over $625,000, prompting the filing of ethics complaints with the Texas Ethics Commission. And the former executive director of the state Employees Retirement System said Craddick's dad passed a special law to allow his daughter to receive special insurance:

Back in 1997, when she was 26, the law allowed the children of legislators to be covered until they turned 28. According to news reports, Christi Craddick had a pre-existing condition that made it very difficult for her to find insurance. So, the Legislature passed a bill allowing the children of legislators and all state employees to be covered as a dependent as long as they remain single. At this point, according to an agency spokeswoman, 117 adult children of state officials and employees are on the program. They pay about $368 a month, which the spokeswoman said covered the full costs of the Employees Retirement System of Texas.

Tom Craddick, who was not Speaker in 1997, denied that he had played any role in passing the legislation. But Sheila Beckett, then-executive director of the Employees Retirement System, said flatly, "He initiated it."

The sum total of Craddick's professional experience prior to her election to the Texas Railroad Commission was that of a lobbyist and political operative. The Texas Tribune's ethics tracker lists the following notable information:

In 2003 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported on allegations that Tom Craddick pushed legislation designed to get his daughter, Christi, on state health insurance under a program that fewer than 100 people qualified for as of 2002. Though the executive director of the Employees Retirement System at the time told the paper that the elder Craddick had initiated the measure, which allowed his daughter, then a 26-year-old lobbyist, to stay on state health insurance, a Craddick representative denied it.

The Texas Observer reported in 2009 that from 1995 until 2002, Christi Craddick billed 28 lobbying clients a total of up to $665,000. The Observer also reported that in 2009, Craddick was slated to be paid up to $25,000 to lobby for Scythian Ltd., a Midland-based energy company.

Midland-based Cap Rock Electric Cooperative, one of Craddick's former lobby clients, credited Craddick and her father with passing a 1999 bill giving the company the power to set its own rates, plus protection from would-be competitors. When the details of the deal made headlines in 2002, Tom Craddick, who was vying for House speaker, wrote members of the lower chamber, telling them Christi Craddick was dropping out of the lobby, and praising her "professional sacrifice to dispel any appearance of a lack of integrity in my speakership."

That website also mentions that Craddick owns mineral interests, which is interesting since she regulates oil and gas companies that might be developing those minerals. More on that later.

For now, it seems Craddick plans to address the action she took on Corley at the next open meeting of the Texas Railroad Commission on October 10th. There could be more fireworks.