Editorial: Public privateering — Wendy Davis said she wouldn’t, but did it anyway
Dallas Morning News
April 14, 2014
Wendy Davis isn’t the first Texas politician suspected of confusing public duties with private income. Elected and appointed officials from both parties have dipped their beaks, and, sadly, Davis won’t be the last as long as Texas legislators write their own laws.
Except Davis insisted she would be different, that “Texans deserve better than failed leaders who dole out favors to friends and cronies behind closed doors … [a governor] who knows that quid pro quo shouldn’t be the status quo.”
So it was disappointing to learn Sunday, in another excellent bit of journalism from senior political writer Wayne Slater, that Davis, as a state senator from Fort Worth, profited from her day job as legal counsel to public entities while also voting and twisting arms in ways that benefited her clients, including the North Texas Tollway Authority.
“Everyone does it” isn’t much of an excuse when it’s exactly what you told voters you wouldn’t do. It’s one thing for an attorney to aggressively represent a client and something else when that lawyer sits on the powerful Senate Transportation Committee. A bureaucrat’s dilemma: Is that angry caller Wendy Davis, state senator, or Wendy Davis, NTTA attorney?
In 2010, Davis launched a law firm with Brian Newby, Gov. Rick Perry’s former chief of staff, to serve public entities and companies trying to do business with them. She insisted she would not have to recuse herself from votes, as required by the Texas Constitution in case of conflict. “I will not represent anyone on any issues that will come before the state,” she told the hometown Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
In 2011, Davis maintained that her firm’s work for NTTA was aboveboard with “absolutely no conflict whatsoever.”
But as Slater detailed, Davis supported legislation governing a toll-road project for which NTTA hired her firm. She backed changes governing the collection of unpaid tolls that preceded an NTTA program that selected law firms, including hers, to make collections. And as a state senator, she sought federal money for a transportation project also being handled by her law firm.
During the 2011 Legislature, Davis was billing the tollway authority for condemnation work on one project on the same day she was voting for NTTA-backed toll-collection legislation.
Nonetheless, in August 2013, Davis told the Texas Tribune that if she decided to run for governor, she would put her law practice on hold and “wouldn’t be gaining any financial benefit from that relationship.” That didn’t happen. Newby Davis revenue made up an increasing share of her gross income, topping $150,000 last year, according to the Tribune.
No one disputes that members of our “citizen Legislature” must earn income far in excess of their modest state pay. Davis’ problem is repeatedly saying one thing and doing another. Instead of fighting the good ol’ boy system, she has embedded herself in it.
Legal conflict or just looks bad?
“It’s not my intention ever to represent someone on an issue that will put me in a recusable position. I will not represent anyone on any issues that will come before the state.”
— State Sen. Wendy Davis, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 2010
“If I were to run statewide … I would still have my name there, but I wouldn’t be gaining any financial benefit from that [law firm] relationship. And if I were to win a statewide office, I would not continue practicing law.”
— Davis, Texas Tribune, August 2013
“I have never done anything in a way that represents a conflict in my voting and something that would benefit me personally.”
— Davis, Dallas Morning News, April 2014
“Looking back on it, it may have been perfectly legal for Wendy Davis and Brian Newby to have this business. But it just smelled.”
— Former NTTA board chair Victor Vandergriff, Dallas Morning News, April 2014
Link to article.
FBI probe of NTTA includes Wendy Davis file, Travis DA’s office says
By WAYNE SLATER
Senior Political Writer
Dallas Morning News
April 17, 2014
AUSTIN — Documents related to Sen. Wendy Davis’ work as a lawyer for the North Texas Tollway Authority are part of an FBI inquiry of the agency, Travis County officials say.
It’s not clear whether Davis’ work for the tollway authority is a focus of the FBI or only part of the material collected in connection with its look into tollway agency operations.
The Travis County district attorney’s office said last month that details from its review of a 2012 complaint that a rival filed about Davis’ legal and political activities were “the subject of an open investigation” by the FBI.
The district attorney’s office closed its review last year without taking any action.
Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor, has said her legal work for the agency posed no conflicts with her legislative duties.
Zac Petkanas, a Davis spokesman, said the FBI has not questioned her. He said Davis was told in August by her legal counsel that others were interested in the information gathered in the Travis County investigation, but she didn’t know it was the FBI until this month when contacted by The Dallas Morning News.
“We are not aware that Wendy Davis is the subject or target of any investigation,” he said.
The NTTA disclosed in 2011 that the FBI was investigating potential conflicts of interest among current and former board members. Davis has never served on the board. No one has been charged, and an attorney for one former director said last year that federal authorities had cleared his client.
FBI officials in Dallas declined to comment.
Davis faces Republican Greg Abbott, the attorney general, in the November general election.
Her work as a lawyer on land condemnation and delinquent toll collections for the tollway authority has come under scrutiny in the race. Both Davis and Abbott have emphasized ethics.
Travis County prosecutors, in a March 24 letter, told the attorney general’s office that the FBI had informed them that release of files from the district attorney’s now-completed 2013 review of Davis’ legal work for the agency “would interfere with the FBI’s prosecution of the crime underlying the information.”
The county’s letter came in response to The News’ open-records request for the files. The county cited several potential justifications for withholding the files, including the ongoing federal inquiry.
The attorney general’s office later said the county did not have to release the information, citing a provision that allows an entire file to be withheld in a case that did not result in charges or a conviction. Abbott’s office issued a brief opinion April 1 that did not mention Davis by name.
The News reported last week that Davis had voted for a law governing a toll-road project for which the NTTA hired her firm to handle the condemnation. She also backed changes in collecting unpaid tolls that came before the NTTA hired law firms — including Davis’ — to carry out the collections. And as a state senator, she sought federal money for a transportation project being handled by her Fort Worth law firm.
There’s no evidence that Davis’ legislative actions violated state or federal law. Under Texas’ relatively loose ethics rules, few lawmakers recuse themselves from voting on bills affecting their livelihoods.
Davis told reporters Monday that her priority is the people in her district. “I am a fighter for my constituents,” she said.
In her re-election race in 2012, Davis was challenged by former state Rep. Mark Shelton. The Republican filed a complaint with the Travis County district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, asking for an investigation of Davis’ ties to the NTTA.
After that office closed the case, The News sought its file under the state public information law. It is routine for public agencies to ask the attorney general if they are required to release certain records.
Elizabeth Winn, an assistant Travis County attorney, said in an interview that her office had confirmed with the FBI that the material from the county’s review of the Shelton complaint was now part of a federal investigation. “We did confirm by telephone … they still have a pending investigation,” she said.
Greg Cox, who heads the district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, told The News that in looking into Shelton’s complaints about Davis, his office exchanged information with the FBI.
“They shared information with us, and that information was in our files,” he said. “We ultimately closed our investigation. When the open records request came in, we felt a need to protect the information in our files that we had learned from the FBI.”
In a letter to Shelton in September, the district attorney’s office said it had conducted legal research into his complaint against Davis but had been “unable to accumulate sufficient evidence to support a prosecution” for any offense that might have occurred in Travis County. Much of what the allegations deal with occurred elsewhere, in Tarrant County. “Thus we do not have proper venue to prosecute any criminal conduct that occurred,” the letter said.