Abbott has signed off on contracts for big campaign donor

Link to DMN story here.

Wendy Davis is under investigation by the FBI for conflicts of interest with her private law firm representing the North Texas Tollway Authority while also a member of the Transportation Committee that oversees NTTA legislation,  so this appears to be written from a press release by the Davis campaign to deflect her own troubles to try to make Greg Abbott appear to be involved in shady dealings approving a NTTA contract that benefited a campaign donor.

However, by law the AG has to review and sign-off on such contracts, and it’s important to note his office does not determine who gets the contracts, the state agencies who submit them to his office choose the contractors. So there’s no way those campaign contributions could have influenced Abbott’s office. State agencies put out the contracts to bid and select the contractors, so they serve as a third party buffer between the AG and the contractor in this case. We’re no fans of Linebarger and its corrupt practices of trying to buy influence, but in this case, the story seems like an attempt to smear when there’s no real money trail of undue influence to the AG here.

Abbott has signed off on contracts for big campaign
Austin Bureau
Dallas Morning News
June 16, 2014

AUSTIN — The attorney general’s office under Greg Abbott has approved more than $3 million in state contracts for a law firm that has been a generous political contributor — providing $200,000 to Abbott’s campaigns in the past 12 years.

Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson collects delinquent debts for several state agencies, including the North Texas Tollway Authority. The firm has also faced legal problems, with two partners facing criminal charges of trying to influence public officials in separate incidents.

Abbott’s office has repeatedly endorsed contracts for the law firm, but aides said there’s no conflict because other agencies initiated the agreements. State law dictates that the attorney general must approve the contracts.

 A spokesman for the law firm said the donations were never intended to help Linebarger win business.

In his campaign for governor, Abbott, the Republican nominee, has made ethics a priority. He has pounded his challenger, Democrat Wendy Davis, for voting as a state senator on issues that affected government agencies she worked for as a private attorney.

There are few limits on lawmakers voting on legislation that affect their livelihoods, and there are no limits on state officeholders accepting contributions from those they regulate.

Craig McDonald, director of the campaign finance watchdog Texans for Public Justice, said both candidates should pledge to do more to avoid potential conflicts and fortify integrity in the system.

“It would be my hope that anyone with a state contract should not be able to give campaign money to the officer who can oversee that contract,” McDonald said.

He noted that Abbott has criticized Davis for making money as a bond attorney for public projects. And in his own case, “the problem is that Linebarger appears to be paying for access to contracts,” McDonald said.

“He’s never talked about crossing the line into the conflicts inherent in campaign contributions. Those are just as serious, if not more so,” McDonald said.

AG’s defense
Abbott’s state spokesman said there is no conflict because another agency hires the debt collector.
“The office of the attorney general has no say in which firms are selected by other state agencies,” said spokesman Jerry Strickland. “The very premise of your story is ridiculous because it totally ignores the fact that the OAG does not select this or any other firm.”

The attorney general signs off on about 15 to 25 debt collection contracts a year. Strickland said contracts are occasionally rejected because they don’t meet state requirements. He said he was unaware of contracts being refused for other reasons.

In 2012, a Fort Worth grand jury indicted Linebarger partner Mario Perez on charges that he falsified campaign reports to hide contributions to an Arlington school board member. At the time, Perez was trying to secure contracts for Linebarger to collect debts owed to the Arlington and Fort Worth school districts. The case is pending.

And in 2004, Linebarger partner Juan Pena pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges for paying two San Antonio City Council members for their votes on a contract. Both council members pleaded guilty the next year.

Joe Householder, a spokesman for the firm, said that in both instances, Linebarger provided full cooperation with investigating authorities.

“Those two individuals are in no way representative of the firm’s 1,200 employees and partners who do their work with integrity and professionalism every day,” Householder said.

One of the biggest
Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson is one of the biggest delinquent-debt collectors for the state. Among the Linebarger contracts that the attorney general ultimately approved was one worth $2 million from the tollway authority.

Some state contracts are put out for competitive bids. But others, such as with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Department of Aging and Disability Services, were negotiated as add-ons to existing federal contracts. The environmental agency’s contract is worth as much as $300,000 annually. Under the disability department’s contract, the firm collects a 25 percent fee added to each account collected.

The firm also makes frequent campaign contributions, totaling $2.6 million in the past 10 years to state and local officials — including $214,000 to Abbott, state records show. Included in that total is use of the firm’s corporate plane.

Householder said the firm is active in Texas communities, supporting charities along with political candidates.
Asked if the contributions were meant to gain access to decision makers, Householder said: “We engage politically by supporting candidates and elected officials whose service we believe would be most beneficial to the constituents of the office they seek or hold.”

Zac Petkanas, a spokesman for the Davis campaign, said the approval of contracts for campaign contributors adds to concerns over Abbott’s dealings. He cited a Houston Chronicle report showing that the attorney general, whose office also must approve bonds issued by local governments, has collected $200,000 in contributions since 2012 from law firms that served as bond counsel on those projects.

“This is yet another example of Greg Abbott — the ultimate Austin insider — looking out for other political insiders instead of hardworking Texans,” Petkanas said.