Ed board member criticized for also being lobbyist

January 21, 2011 7:18:42 PM PST
A brand new member of the Texas State Board of Education already is facing criticism for keeping his lucrative lobbyist practice even after being sworn in as an elected state official. Republican Thomas Ratliff, hailed by moderates as a welcome addition to the ideologically divided board, defended the relationship Friday but said he recused himself from a committee vote this week and is asking both Travis County prosecutors and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to look into the matter.

Ratliff was sworn in Wednesday after beating conservative former chairman Don McLeroy last year.

The conservative Texas Eagle Forum is calling on the education board, which oversees the $24 billion Permanent School Fund, to launch its own investigation into any possible conflict of interest arising from Ratliff's dual roles as lobbyist and board member. The group's president, Pat Carlson, said the law prohibits board members from being lobbyists when they represent companies with business "related to the operation of the board."

Among Ratliff's clients is Microsoft, which is one of the major stocks held by the Permanent School Fund. Carlson called that a "glaring conflict of interest."

Ratliff, appointed to a committee that decides how investments are made, said he recused himself from a vote Thursday in case there was any implication for the fund's Microsoft holdings and possibly other companies he represents as an Austin lobbyist.

He said he put Microsoft and five other publicly-traded companies, including insurance giant AIG and telecommunications company T-Mobile, on a "potential conflict of interest" form submitted to the board Friday.

Ratliff blamed the flap on conservative outrage over his victory. The board has garnered national headlines for its cultural divide -- with conservatives trying to prevent the teaching of evolution in public schools, elevate the treatment of conservative figures in history lessons and emphasize the superiority of U.S. capitalism.

"I've been labeled as a moderate. I am the enemy," Ratliff said. "Nobody is pure enough anymore."

Ratliff said he sees no problem with wearing two hats in Austin. He said when he calls members of the Legislature on lobbying matters he doesn't use his position on the board to get in the door faster.

Ratliff also said he was prepared to give up some of his clients if the attorney general determines there is a conflict. He said he found it "hard to imagine" a scenario requiring him to give up either his seat on the 15-member board or his lobby practice.