Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis (D), one of the top three officials in the state government, has been indicted by an Austin grand jury on two misdemeanor charges of taking a gift from a high-powered law firm and failing to disclose it.
The grand jury, which is investigating alleged ties between Texas legislators and lobbyists, returned the indictments Friday, and the speaker's attorney, Allen Hill, said Lewis would plead not guilty because "the speaker had not accepted a gift."
Lewis is accused of accepting from the San Antonio law firm of Heard, Goggan, Blair & Williams a $5,000 payment for part of a tax bill he owed and for not including the alleged gift on his financial disclosure statement. If convicted of both charges, Lewis could be sentenced to 18 months in jail and fined $3,000.
Lewis has denied any wrongdoing, called the investigation "a rabbit chase" and refused to appear before the grand jury.
Most attention has focused on allegations also being investigated that in 1987, Lewis, an Austin lobbyist and four partners of Heard, Goggan were accompanied by six women, including a topless dancer, on a trip to Mexico. Lewis, whose wife did not accompany him, has said he does not remember a topless dancer.
The indictments do not allege that Lewis did any official favors for the law firm in exchange for the tax payments or other gifts. But investigators reportedly have focused on Heard, Goggan's use of a revision in state law that allows a private firm hired by local governments to collect a 15 percent fee on delinquent tax bills. Records show that bills that would have diminished Heard, Goggan's tax-collecting business died in House committees.
Lewis, who has been speaker for eight years, controls the House by assigning bills to committees, naming their chairmen and directing floor debate.
Lewis is not the only state house speaker under an ethical cloud. New York state Assembly Speaker Mel Miller (D) pleaded not guilty Dec. 20 to federal mail fraud charges stemming from an alleged real estate scam. And, California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D) reportedly is being investigated following allegations that he steered legislation to help a garbage company avoid local restrictions on landfills.
Despite the grand jury investigation and a history of ethical controversies, including being fined for not disclosing business holdings, Lewis is expected to be reelected to a fifth term as speaker next month.
Meanwhile, Texas Gov.-elect Ann Richards (D) has promised that ethics reform will be a priority when the Legislature convenes Jan. 8.