TURF COURT HEARING: AG admits more taxpayer money to be spent on ad campaign

TxDOT attorney admits ad campaign is ongoing
Austin, TX, December 20, 2007 – Today in Travis County District Court, Judge Orlinda Naranjo did not sustain TxDOT’s objection to the requested material’s merits to the case, but ruled TURF’s document request was worded too broadly and needs to be resubmitted as part of the discovery phase of TURF's lawsuit against TxDOT for illegal lobbying and use of taxpayer money to sell the public on toll roads.

“After tweaking the wording of the request a bit, we’ll be back in business. The Judge clearly agreed we have a right to get access to this information. She wanted to be sure we weren’t buried in piles of irrelevant documents,” notes a positive Terri Hall, Founder of TURF.

The court also granted TURF another 30 days to give them time to reword the document request and to depose witnesses based on the information discovered.

The most significant admission from the State was that the Keep Texas Moving ad campaign does have multiple phases (as the documents we presented to the court show that the State tried to deny), and that TxDOT is obligated to hand over any new documents related to any current lobbying or that relate to spending public money to promote toll roads.

“That’s HUGE! We went from a sworn affidavit saying the ad campaign is over therefore the case is moot, to an admission the campaign has multiple phases and is ongoing. We believe TxDOT is in the midst of rolling out Phase II or III of the Keep Texas Moving campaign since the public hearings for Trans Texas Corridor (TTC) 69 project start in February and are the target for the next phase of the campaign. The State admitted it MUST turn over any current information related to these allegations. It keeps the case alive and means we have a real shot at stopping the use of taxpayer money to promote the TTC!” Hall predicts.

The Attorney General Counsel representing TxDOT, Kristina Silcocks, tried to attack the merits of the case once again stating there is no ongoing lobbying of Congress and argued the Forward Momentum report sent to Congress in January that asks for legislation to allow them to buy back and toll existing interstates is in the past and cannot be explored in this lawsuit.

“Once again, TxDOT is wrong. An appropriations bill before the President RIGHT NOW includes an amendment PROHIBITING TxDOT from buying back interstates. There is CURRENT legislation pending as a direct result of TxDOT’s lobbying (in this case, as a backlash to TxDOT’s lobbying efforts). So for the State to tell the court TxDOT isn’t currently engaged in efforts to effect the outcome of legislation or support for toll roads, they’re quite mistaken,” notes Hall.

This lawsuit is brought pursuant to § 37, Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. TxDOT’s expenditure of public funds for the Keep Texas Moving campaign is illegal, and an injunction prohibiting any further illegal expenditures in this regard.

TxDOT has violated § 556.004 of the Texas Government Code by directing the expenditure of public funds for political advocacy in support of toll roads and the Trans Texas Corridor, and have directly lobbied the United States Congress in favor of additional toll road programs as evidenced in its report, Forward Momentum as well as the Texas Legislature when it tried to defeat HB 1892, a private equity toll moratorium bill.

October 18, 2007, Judge Naranjo granted TURF a 90 day continuance and allowed them to move to discovery and take depositions. On Monday, September 24, Judge Naranjo did not grant a temporary restraining order (TRO). TxDOT unearthed a law that says they can advertise toll roads (Sec 228.004 of Transportation Code) and the citizens invoked another that says they can’t (Chapter 556, Texas Government Code). The burden to obtain a TRO is higher than for an injunction.
“TxDOT is waging a one-sided political ad campaign designed to sway public opinion in favor of the policy that puts money in TxDOT’s own coffers. School Boards cannot lobby in favor of their own bond elections, and yet TxDOT cites its own special law to line their own pockets at taxpayers’ expense,” says Hall.
Hall also notes that TxDOT’s campaign goes beyond mere advertising, “It’s propaganda and in some cases, the ads blatantly lie to the public! In one radio ad (scroll down to radio ad “continuing maintenance”), it claims it’s not signing contracts with non-compete agreements in them and yet last March TxDOT inked a deal with Cintra-Zachry for SH 130 (read about it here) that had a non-compete clause (which either prohibits or financially punishes the State for building competing infrastructure with a toll road).”

On August 22, 2007, TURF filed a formal complaint with Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle to investigate TxDOT’s illegal lobbying and asked him to prosecute TxDOT for criminal wrongdoing. See the formal complaint here. The petition seeks immediate injunctive relief in a civil proceeding to prevent any further lobbying or expenditure of public funds to promote toll roads.

To read about TURF’s victory in court October 18 and to read TURF’s amended petition and supplemental affidavits go here. (Scroll to the bottom for links to the petition and affidavits)