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Slaton episode highlights the system Texas legislators use to manage misbehaving lawmakers

State Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, sits at his desk on the House floor at the state Capitol in Austin on April 25.
Evan L'Roy
The Texas Tribune
State Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, sits at his desk on the House floor at the state Capitol in Austin on April 25.

The Texas House of Representatives General Investigating Committee has a low public profile - except when the unusual happens.

Bryan Slaton got into a heap of trouble among his Texas Legislature colleagues because he chose to have sex with an intern.

The Royse City Republican quit the House on May 8, but the body voted anyway to expel him, per the recommendation of the House General Investigating Committee. Slaton became the first lawmaker to be kicked out of the Legislature since 1927.

So … what about the panel that made the recommendation? According to University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus, the panel – a bipartisan group of legislators – is a “powerful body” with a wide-ranging set of issues it can investigate.

“They investigate a lot of different things,” Rottinghaus told KETR-FM. “The committee is charged with investigating all manner of government and the way legislators operate.”

He said that “no one seems to want to serve on this committee.” Rottinghaus said half of its members are appointed by the speaker of the House, with the other half being seated according to seniority.

“The past two or three legislative sessions have been pretty busy for this committee,” Rottinghaus said. “The committee looked at the Uvalde school shooting,” he said, “and whether the Department of Public Safety did all it could do” to stop the carnage at Robb Elementary School, where 19 children and two educators were slaughtered. The panel looked at former House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and the “quid pro quo” issues that caught up with him involving his targeting of certain Republican legislators.

As for Slaton, Rottinghaus said the former legislator was done in largely because he had few “friends in the House. He had alienated a lot of people” during his brief time in the legislative body. Slaton was elected to the House in 2020 and was re-elected in 2022. He ran both times as a strong “Christian conservative,” espousing “traditional family values.”

“If you don’t have any friends or political allies,” Rottinghaus said, “it’s tough to survive the kind of scandal that caught up with Slaton.”

The House panel comprises five members, three Republicans and two Democrats. The current chair is Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction.

The committee, according to legislative documents, “has all the powers and duties of a general investigating committee and shall operate as the general investigating committee of the House, according to procedures prescribed by the government code and the rules of the House.”

The committee is empowered to investigate state government, any agency or subdivision of government, expenditure of public funds, and “any matter the committee considers necessary for the information of the Legislature or for the welfare and protection of state citizens.”

Harvey Kronberg, who writes the Quorum Report political newsletter, calls the committee “mostly dormant,” except when “ethical behavior issues come up.” That was the case involving Slaton, he noted.

“The committee has subpoena power,” Kronberg said, “but most of what they do amounts usually to wrist-slapping. If someone misbehaves, the House speaker usually gives them a heads-up” in an effort to get the offending House member a chance to repair his or her behavior.

Kronberg said that the 2021 session included an allegation of date rape involving a lobbyist. That complaint “went straight to law enforcement,” he said, explaining that the committee “didn’t get involved,” but added that “as a result, the House rules were rewritten to include allegations of a sexual nature.”

Kronberg said the Slaton expulsion “was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen here.” He said that Slaton’s refusal to show any remorse or “repentance” over his sexual conduct “likely was the driving force that made the committee recommend expulsion.”

What made the Slaton case worthy of far more than a slap on the wrist, Kronberg said, was the mountain of physical evidence the committee had collected. Kronberg said that “not only did they have witnesses, they had documentation” to back up the allegation that was made against Slaton.

The House District 2, which Slaton represented, will be without any representation for the remainder of the regular legislative session, Kronberg said, “but they could have someone seated in time for a special session” if Gov. Greg Abbott decides to call one. Only the governor has the authority to call for a special election, and Kronberg thinks that since Texas House District 2 is a “strong Republican district” that the GOP governor is likely to act soon on calling for the election to find a replacement for Slaton.

“I can recall that (then-Republican Gov.) Rick Perry waited almost a year to call for an election after a Democratic representative was killed in a car accident,” Kronberg said. “I don’t expect that to happen this time,” he added.