Drive nearly 2,000 miles northwest of Texas, and you’ll find yourself in California's wine country.
It’s also the recent site Andrea McWilliams’ 40th birthday bash - one of Texas’ highest paid lobbyists.
Austin’s Society Diaries wrote an eight-page spread on the August soiree. At least 150 guests attended, including actor Don Johnson, a Hollywood producer, and some of the most powerful lawmakers in Texas.
“Everything about this might be summed up in one word – lavish,” explained Andrew Wheat after reviewing the article. Wheat works for Texans for Public Justice, a government watchdog group that tracks lobbyist spending.
While 10 lawmakers were included in McWilliams’ 54-page invitation book, at least six state lawmakers confirmed to the KVUE Defenders they traveled to California for the party.
Senator Dan Patrick of Houston
Rep. Jim Pitts of Waxahachie
Rep. Lance Gooden of Athens
Rep. Bryan Hughes of Mineola
Rep. Eddie Lucio III of Harlingen
Rep. Richard Raymond of Laredo
Rep. Pitts is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, arguably one of the most powerful positions in the Texas House of Representatives. Senator Patrick heads the Senate’s Public Education Committee.
“The invitee list is all about politics and power,” Wheat reacted after the Defenders provided him the invitation book obtained by KVUE.
Rep. Bryan Hughes is the only lawmaker who agreed to be interviewed on camera. “It was nice. I had a meal, pretty casual,” Hughes said about the party.
Wheat argues the magazine’s pictures show it was more than casual, pointing out the fashion show, the party’s ice sculpture and a surprise appearance from 90s rap artist Ton Loc.
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams attended too, just 16 days before Governor Rick Perry appointed him head of the state’s education agency.
When Williams saw the rapper on stage, he tweeted, “Ton Loc makes surprise visit to Andrea McWilliams’ birthday party. Crowd goes wild over wild thing.”
“This party in Sonoma appears to have been an extremely lavish event that would have trigged enormous expenditures," contended Wheat.
State law requires lobbyists to report money spent on lawmakers within a month to the state’s ethics commission.
McWilliams is married to Dean McWilliams, also a state lobbyist. When the KVUE Defenders checked the August reports for the McWilliams, both showed they spent $195 each on all six lawmakers - combined.
Wheat suspects the McWilliams’ under-reported expenses. “I’ve gone over it a number of ways, a number of times, and I don’t see an out. I don’t see any wiggle room for them,” he explained.
After requests for an interview with the McWilliams went unanswered for nearly a week, Andrea emailed KVUE, “After reading the magazine's release last month, I amended my report to reflect some expenditures that were overlooked from the original report.”
But, even McWilliams admits not all of her expenses were related to the party, writing KVUE in a separate email, “My filings include other reportable expenditures in August that were not related to my party. Additionally, some legislators did not attend every event and some are non-drinkers.”
While Texans for Public Justice says the reported expenditures raises eyebrows, it’s more concerned with the lawmakers who attended the party. He says their attendance sends the wrong message to voters.
According to Followthemoney.org, the Defenders found that the McWilliams and the clients they represent contributed at least $206,694.21 to the campaigns of the six lawmakers who attended the party over the past several years.
“I think there is a perception problem. A lot of people see it for what it is. It’s relationship building that creates a need for reciprocity,” said Wheat.
Wheat also suggests that some of McWilliams' clients could benefit from her close relationships with key lawmakers like Representative Bryan Hughes -- a member of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.
McWilliams represents companies like Appriss, a software company that creates programs for law enforcement, and Interceptor Ignition, which sells technology that can prevent drunk driving.
Both companies are clients that could benefit from legislation passed in Hughes’ committee if a bill required law enforcement use their technology.
Rep. Hughes didn’t see an issue with attending the party. “No, I really didn’t,” he explained in his office earlier this month.
Rep. Hughes says he’s long-time family friends of the McWilliams. He also said part of his job is to talk to everyone who could potentially impact his North Texas district.
“I’m really not sure what the alternative would be. You wouldn’t want your politician to be put off on an island somewhere, isolated from the real-world or their constituents, so I don’t really think it’s that unusual,” Hughes argued.
Over the phone, Sen. Patrick said he was already in California during McWilliams’ party, so he decided to attend.
Financial records show Rep. Raymond used campaign donations to pay for his flight to California. Expenditures show a $923 purchase with JetBlue on July 5, 2012. Over the phone, Raymond said he considered the party a political event and saw his campaign donations qualified to pay for his trip.
All six Texas lawmakers said the McWilliams did not pay for their flights or hotel accommodations. Guests who attended the party were required to confirm their attendance on a special website created for McWilliams’ birthday. On one of the Web pages, lawmakers were reminded “a registered Texas lobbyist is prohibited from paying for out-of-state lodging…” The website is currently not working.
Long-time lobbyist Jack Gullahorn says he doesn’t seen an issue with lawmakers attending parties hosted by lobbyists just as long as everyone accurately reports the expenditures. “The goal is to make sure we follow the law,” he explained.
Gullahorn teaches aspiring lobbyists as president of the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas. He says lobbyists help lawmakers make informed decisions on thousands of bills each session that they wouldn’t have time to research on their own.
“I look at a lobbyist as someone who is engaged in the profession trying to bring information, education, in both sides of the story that are people who are making the laws,” said Gullahorn.
Wheat says lawmakers should not be learning about potential policy thousands of miles away in California’s wine country. “It’s the special interests that hold the day, that sell regular Texans down river on special interest deals,” Wheat said.
According to the Texas State Ethics Commission, the McWilliams have never faced any ethics violations.