Republican challengers are calling Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller dishonest to his face, too

The three Republicans running for the Texas agriculture commissioner sat next to each other behind a wooden table, all wearing white cowboy hats, none of them speaking.

In the middle, State Rep James White stared straight ahead at the crowd that had gathered for the candidate forum at Sirloin Stockade, hosted by the Williamson County Republican Women. His arms were crossed.

For weeks, White has attacked incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller for his history of run-ins with the Texas Ethics Commission and the Texas Rangers, saying it is evidence of a lack of personal integrity and a culture of misconduct within his office. White has also attacked Miller for his political record, describing him as a “fake conservative,” accusing him of jacking up fees on farmers to fund his pet projects at the department.

The other challenger, rancher and economics professor Carey Counsil of Brenham, has blasted Miller as “just not an ethical person.” Counsil launched his candidacy after Miller’s top political permit was arrested on theft and bribery charges last year.

“I told you it was going to get sporty,” one spectator near the back whispered as Counsil attacked Miller as dishonest.

In an interview after the forum, Miller said that the aid’s indictment — and the years of ethics complaints his office and campaign have faced — are all completely baseless, part of a political witch hunt that was drummed up either by Democrats, his campaign opponents, lt. Gov. Dan Patrick or Gov. Greg Abbott, whom Miller is not supporting in his reelection bid.

“I’ve been through this before. Just with other issues that come from the past. They did it to me, you see what they do? The penalty is not getting convicted, the penalties, the process. All they need is a headline, so now these guys have got headlines,” Miller said.

Miller — a Trump ally endorsed by the former president — is well known in the state. He runs a Facebook page with 842,000 followers, and he said his team posts on it sometimes 50 times a day, drawing tens of millions of impressions each month, a social media reach far greater than that of any other state office holder. Miller last year considered a run for the governor, but he instead decided to seek re-election.

Now he faces two aggressive primary challengers, and one whose campaign has garnered significant media attention and fundraising. White has earned praise from state lawmakers and at the end of January reported almost $300,000 cash on hand, more than Miller.

The challengers face an uphill battle, polling has shown, despite the corruption charges filed in January against Todd Smith, a top aid to Miller who worked with him for decades.

Scandal centers on $100 hemp licenses

Smith is accused of soliciting tens of thousands in cash bribes from farmers in exchange for hemp production licenses that are supposed to cost $100 under state law. He has been charged with theft between $50,000 and $150,000. Miller was not implicated in Smith’s indictment, although Smith was his employee at the time and was allegedly soliciting the cash for the campaign fund.

Upon the indictment, the two men “mutually decided the best thing for the campaign is for (Smith) to, you know, exit,” Miller said.

Lawyers can argue about whether the payments amount to illegal bribes or legitimate donations, White said, but the facts are that Miller has allowed a toxic culture at the agency, and he is untrustworthy and unreliable for Texas farmers.

For instance when the Legislature wouldn’t raise the department’s budget past a certain point, Miller increased fees on farmers so he could fund other programs, White has said. Miller later described those increases fee as a “hard political decision” that he “overshot,” while White has defined it as contrary to conservative ideology.

White is messaging himself as an aggressive opponent of the Joe Biden Administration, and he was quick to claim credit for right-wing policies passed by the Legislature: He trumpeted his support for increased border funding while in the Legislature, as well as his actions shepherding the permitless firearm through the House.

At one point, someone in the audience asked what the agriculture commissioner could do to help incentivize farmers to stay in their industry.

“This is why I fought against critical race theory in the Legislature,” White said, going on to emphasize the importance of educating Texas youth with the right values.

But again and again, Counsil and White returned to the topic of Miller’s integrity and the Smith indictment, offering it as the main reason to hoist Miller from office.

Miller said that grand juries like the one that indicted Smith are inherently unfair — “it’s really something we ought to look at” — and that virtually anyone could be indicted if a local district attorney were out to get them. He says that he was vetted by the FBI when former President Donald Trump considered him for the post of agriculture secretary, and that he could not have passed such a background check if there was anything “shady” in his background.

He insisted that there has never been any finding of wrongdoing from him or his campaign and that he was instead “totally exonerated” by all subsequent investigations.

This is not true, as Miller has been fined on several occasions by the Texas Ethics Commission for various financial violations.

“Only an idiot would pay someone $25,000 to get a hemp license,” Miller said. “The bill stated that it could cost no more than $100.”

edward.mckinley@chron.com

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