Wendy Davis, the Democratic Party Nominee for Governor of Texas, is having another problem with the truth. When Wendy Davis chose to work for local government agencies as a lawyer, she promised she would “not represent anyone on any issues” that came before the state. But she has broken that promise by voting on bills affecting clients and her law firm’s bottom line.
Dallas Morning News Senior Political Writer Wayne Slater revealed over the weekend:
Records show Davis supported legislation governing a toll-road project for which the North Texas Tollway Authority hired her firm. She backed changes governing the collection of unpaid tolls that preceded an NTTA program in which law firms — including Davis’ — were chosen to carry out the collections. And as a state senator, she sought federal money for a transportation project being handled by her law firm.
During the 2011 legislative session, Davis was billing the tollway authority for condemnation work on one project the same day she was voting for toll-collection legislation backed by the NTTA.
Davis says no conflicts of interest have occurred. There’s no evidence she’s broken any laws. And under the state’s relatively loose ethics laws, few lawmakers recuse themselves from legislation affecting their livelihoods.
Ethics happens to be one of Davis’ campaign issues. She has accused her opponent State AG Greg Abbot of cronyism in which big-dollar political donors have gotten taxpayer subsidies.
Being a state legislator is a part-time job. The Texas Constitution prohibits lawmakers from voting on measures in which they have “a personal or private interest,” though only if it affects a lawmaker’s specific business. It doesn’t apply to measures affecting entire industries or issues.
For example, Republican Sen. John Corona of Dallas, founder of the nation’s largest homeowners’ management association, has written legislation benefiting those groups. Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis’ Houston firm has represented local governments on bond issues. Former House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Republican from Midland with significant oil and gas investments, regularly sponsors bills boosting the industry. And Republican Rep. Gary Elkins, a payday lender, has supported efforts in the Legislature to protect such firms.
For Davis, the issue is the line between public service and private legal work for public entities, including an airport, school district, water agencies and the tollway authority.
In February 2010, Davis’ Senate office sent an email to the Texas Department of Transportation asking what qualifications companies must meet to be certified as a minority-owned business. Because it was a senator asking, “we got right on it,” said Deirdre Delisi, a Republican who is the former chief of the commission that oversees the department.
Within a week, the Fort Worth law firm of Cantey Hanger announced it had hired Davis to specialize in “public law, with an emphasis on assisting clients in regulatory, public policy and legislative issues.” The news release listed Davis’ Senate office as the contact.
Three weeks after that, on March 22, Davis and colleague Bryan Newby filed papers with the secretary of state forming their own minority-owned firm, Newby Davis, while remaining at Cantey Hanger. Newby, a former general counsel for Republican Gov. Rick Perry, is black. He had worked at Cantey Hanger for several years.
Davis indicated at the time that one of the new firm’s goals was to help NTTA with “spreading [legal] work around Dallas-Fort Worth, and using minority-owned firms.”
On Senate letterhead, Davis wrote in June 2010 to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood seeking federal funds for an NTTA project — the Southwest Parkway/Chisholm Trail Parkway, a 27-mile toll road to extend from Fort Worth to Cleburne.
The law firm on the project was Cantey Hanger. Davis spokesman Zac Petkanas said she was acting as a senator, not a lawyer, in making the request.
The funds were denied, but the federal government allocated money for another NTTA project that had the effect of freeing up money for the Chisholm Trail Parkway.
In 2011, the Legislature took up two issues of importance to the NTTA and Cantey Hanger — the governance of local toll-road projects and the collection of unpaid tolls.
As a member of the Fort Worth City Council and the regional transportation authority, Davis had a history as an NTTA critic. She voted as a state senator in 2009 against an NTTA-backed measure to give the agency first right of refusal for building road projects in the region. As the 2011 legislative session opened, she introduced a bill to sharply cap the fees NTTA could charge on delinquent tolls.
At the time, NTTA was looking for a law firm to handle condemnation work for the ongoing Chisholm Trail Parkway project. At a March 17 meeting, the staff of the authority’s legal services committee proposed three firms.
Chairman Kenneth Barr recommended a fourth firm that some other board members had never heard of. According to the transcript, Barr had to spell it out for his colleagues: “Newby, N-E-W-B-Y … Davis.”
Barr, whose tenure as Fort Worth mayor overlapped partially with Davis’ time on the City Council, said the firm was a minority-owned business. He cited its connection to Cantey Hanger, which he said had expertise in land acquisition that Newby Davis could rely on.
Barr made no mention that the state senator was the partner behind the firm. Barr also didn’t say that he shared office space with Newby Davis in the Cantey Hanger building.
The full board approved the hiring of Newby Davis that day.
Davis contends she did nothing wrong (except of course breaking her promise).