Conflict of Interest? Texas GOP Lawmakers Serve on Boards of Taxpayer-Funded Fake Clinics.

Rewire has identified at least half a dozen state lawmakers and officials who are board members or are otherwise connected to anti-choice fake clinics that receive funding today or could qualify to receive state funding.

An anti-choice protester stands outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in October. Lauryn Gutierrez / Rewire

Texas’ GOP-held legislature has gradually increased funding for a state program directing money to crisis pregnancy centers, also known as anti-choice fake clinics, which try to dissuade people from seeking abortion care. 

Rewire has identified at least half a dozen state lawmakers and officials who are board members or are otherwise connected to fake clinics that receive funding today or could qualify to receive state funding, including one Republican lawmaker who authored amendments to bolster state funding to fake clinics.

The Texas Alternatives to Abortion Program (A2A) is administered by the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) through the Texas Pregnancy Care Network (TPCN), a nonprofit that distributes funds to subcontractors the network selects and oversees.

The TPCN distributes funding to 50 approved subcontractors that operate 115 locations throughout the state, according to a list of subcontractor providers submitted to HHSC monthly. There are 29 subcontractors operating 52 fake clinics, including three so-called mobile clinics.

Rewire reviewed personal financial disclosure forms, tax returns, and other related documents to identify relationships between lawmakers and organizations. At least one state lawmaker and their spouse serve on the board of directors of a TPCN subcontractor, and at least three other lawmakers and a state official have direct connections with organizations that could qualify to receive state funding as a subcontractor. 

Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington) serves on the board of advisers of Metroplex Women’s Clinics, an Arlington nonprofit that offers pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, and counseling servicesZedler’s wife, Ellen, serves on the nonprofit’s board of directors. 

Metroplex Women’s Clinics, formerly known as Arlington/Mansfield Pregnancy Center, has been a TPCN subcontractor since January 2016. It operates four facilities and a mobile clinic. 

At least three other state lawmakers and one statewide office holder have similar relationships with anti-choice fake clinics that could qualify as TPCN subcontractors.

Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) serves on the board of directors for Prestonwood Pregnancy Center, which offers pregnancy tests and ultrasounds at the organization’s Richardson clinic. Prestonwood Pregnancy Center is a ministry of Prestonwood Baptist Church, an influential megachurch in Plano that claims a congregation of more than 40,000 members. 

Shaheen was among several GOP lawmakers who filed budget amendments to increase funding for A2A. He submitted two amendments that would have each doubled the program’s funding.

State Attorney General Ken Paxton also served on the board of directors of Prestonwood Pregnancy Center. The center refused to answer questions sent by Rewire.

Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) serves on the advisory board of Grace House Ministries, which operates the Options Clinic, a Weatherford facility offering pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, and counseling services. Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches) is a sponsor of the Heartbeat Pregnancy Center, a Nacogdoches nonprofit organization that offers pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, and adoption agency referrals.

Critics have charged that fake clinics in the state use deceptive tactics and disseminate misinformation, and a Rewire investigation found that state-funded fake clinics provide limited services to clients and measure success only by the number of clients served. Public health programs are typically evaluated on measures of health care outcomes of clients or cost savings incurred by the state.

Alexa Garcia-Ditta, communications and policy initiatives director for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told Rewire that Texas is funding “deception, coercion, and lies” by funneling taxpayer money to fake clinics across the state.

“The tactics that crisis pregnancy centers use to lure pregnant people into their facilities, they use scare tactics, peddle fake medicine, and bad science,” Garcia-Ditta said. “In funding crisis pregnancy centers, Texas is supporting that.”

State lawmakers this year passed a budget that more than doubled the A2A program’s funding, and TPCN will distribute more than $38 million during the 2018-19 fiscal year. 

In response to the budget increase, HHSC has “identified additional need and several key opportunities to expand services, increase the effectiveness of the A2A program, and improve the lives of A2A clients and their children,” according to an agency report. The HHSC plans to use the increased funding to extend services for new parents until the child’s third birthday, connect pregnant people to programs such as Medicaid, and expand job training and placement programs.

Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, told the Texas Tribune that the program will save the state money because the new mothers will not need to rely on government assistance. 

“If they’re self sufficient through the process of childbirth and afterward, that saves the state money and makes for much happier women and children and families,” Pojman said.

When TPCN was awarded the contract to administer the A2A program, the organization was required to file a 1295 disclosure form that identified interested partiesindividuals who have financial interests. However, organizations are only required to file 1295 disclosure forms for contracts valued at at least $1 million, and subcontractors are not required to publicly disclose interested parties.

John McNamara, executive director of TPCN, told Rewire that the amount of funding each organization receives “vary by subcontractor and the time period in question,” and the TPCN submits monthly and quarterly reports to HHSC that include the funding that each subcontractor receives.

State lawmakers do make inquiries to TPCN, according to McNamara, about how potential nonprofit subcontractors in their districts can become subcontractors and how current subcontractors can expand the services they offer.

“In such situations, TPCN informs lawmakers about the requirements of the program to become a subcontractor and/or the requirements for an existing subcontractor to expand the program services they offer,” McNamara said.

Texas state ethics laws only prohibit apparent conflict of interests in very narrow circumstances,

McNamara noted according to the IRS sample conflict of interest policy, if a lawmaker or their spouse serves on a board of directors of a 501(c)(3) and has a financial interest, it “is not necessarily a conflict of interest,” unless the governing board or committee could determine it qualifies as a conflict of interest.

“TPCN is not aware of any Texas lawmaker or his/her spouse that serves on the board of directors of a subcontractor and has a conflict of interest,” McNamara said.

Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) told Rewire that several state lawmakers have served on the boards of a variety of nonprofit organizations that have received state funding, but that it is important for the Texas Ethics Commission to clarify what may constitute a conflict of interest.

“I don’t have any problem with any individual legislator advocating for causes and groups and issues that they care about and that they think will make a difference,” Howard said. “But I do believe that we have to be cautious about crossing the line of actually being on the board of an organization that is soliciting funds and will be considered in some kind of a procurement process to make sure we are not unduly influencing the awarding of those funds.”