Chad’s Morning Brief: Wendy Davis Voted on Legislation That Aided Clients, Breitbart Texas Reports on the Bundy Ranch Situation in Nevada, and Other Top Stories
Here is your Morning Brief for the morning of April 14, 2014. Give me your feedback below and tune in to The Chad Hasty Show for these and many more topics from 8:30 to 11am. Remember, you can listen online at KFYO.com or on your iPhone/Android with the radioPup App.
Wendy Davis and Ethics
The Dallas Morning News reported over the weekend that as a State Senator, Wendy Davis voted on legislation that would have benefited her clients.
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 Davis, the state senator who is the Democratic nominee for governor, has voted on bills affecting clients and her law firm’s bottom line.
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.
Both Davis and Republican opponent Greg Abbott have made ethics an issue in the race for governor.
Davis has accused the Republican attorney general of cronyism in which big-dollar political donors have gotten taxpayer subsidies. Abbott has raised questions about Davis’ work helping public entities issue bonds.
“I have never done anything in a way that represents a conflict in my voting and something that would benefit me personally,” Davis said in an interview. “If you look at my legislative work and see what I’ve done in terms of transparency and ethics to make sure that government officials, elected officials, are held to a standard they should be, I think it shows where I come from.”
Davis has said that if she’s elected governor, she would not continue to practice law and would terminate ties with her Fort Worth law firm, Newby Davis.
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.
Six days later, during a meeting of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, Davis dropped her legislation to cap fees for drivers who skip tolls. She said she was supporting another bill sponsored by Flower Mound Republican Sen. Jane Nelson, which NTTA preferred.
Davis said the Nelson bill was a compromise with NTTA that still protected drivers from being hit with exorbitant fees.
“They had worked out with her office a compromise on what she had originally filed on that bill. It hurt them less than her originally filed bill was going to hurt them,” Davis said in the interview.
Davis’ bill would have set a $50 cap on administrative fees that a toll road authority could charge for the collection of an unpaid toll. Nelson’s bill created a tiered system of fees capped at $200 per invoice. It established a structure for all future toll collections.
The bill did something else. Language approved by a Senate committee added a third-party collection fee to the amount drivers owed. It also said a justice of the peace couldn’t waive the tolls, fees and penalties against the scofflaw driver.
“I don’t even know why it got put in there. I wasn’t even aware it was in there when it was voted off the floor of the Senate,” Davis said in the interview.
Nelson aides say the NTTA asked for the language.
Previously, the NTTA hired collection agents, not litigation firms, to pursue overdue tolls. The agency always had authority to hire lawyers to go to court but chose not to, said NTTA spokesman Michael Rey.
“That was not something we allowed at that point,” Rey said.
After the passage, NTTA decided to hire law firms with expressed agency authorization to go to court, if necessary, on 7,500 cases involving the biggest toll offenders.
“These are the bigger fish in terms of what they owe,” he said. “The difference is that the collections firms before didn’t enter into civil litigation,” but now, law firms “could take a matter to court.”
The agency subsequently hired six law firms for collections litigation, including Newby Davis.
The starting point for the litigation firms was the amount established in the bill — the accumulated tolls, fees and penalties from initial debt collection efforts, and they could not be reduced by a local judge.
It was a potentially lucrative pool. And it was an incentive for law firms to bid for the work to get settlements with the threat of legal action.
Petkanas said that the bill’s main effect was to curb the fees that firms like Newby Davis could pursue when they were hired. Davis supported it, he said, because it capped what drivers might be charged.
When the Legislature considered a bill in 2009 to establish new guidelines for developing toll roads, including rules giving public entities the first crack at projects over private firms, Davis voted no. She said it allowed public entities like NTTA to sit on projects without developing them.
The bill died. Sen. Robert Nichols reintroduced it in 2011 with NTTA’s support, and this time, Davis voted for it. She said the new bill included a key change.
“The change was in terms of how long a tolling entity could hold a project before they had to let it go. And if you look at those two bills, you’ll see that’s a unique difference between the two of them, and that’s how he earned my vote,” Davis said.
Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said he was pleased that Davis supported his revised bill.
“In 2009, there was an antagonistic relationship [with NTTA] that was no longer there in 2011,” he said. “Did I know Davis had been hired by NTTA? Did I know she had a contract? At the time, I did not.”
Nichols said he always thought Davis’ primary goal was to move the Chisholm Trail project along for the good of her community. One problem: Although Davis was already working on land condemnation, NTTA lacked the financial capacity to complete the project.
Davis sought the help of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and repeatedly called Delisi, the Transportation Commission chairwoman.
“I had to take phone calls at meetings, and she was yelling to get this project done,” said Delisi, a former chief of staff to Perry who supports Abbott in this year’s race but whose consulting firm does not work for the GOP nominee. “And we at [the Department of Transportation] take extraordinary steps to get the project done.”
The eventual solution was a plan that pledged state taxpayer money to back the Chisholm Trail project without NTTA relinquishing control. Davis testified before a Senate committee in support.
“Do I think she was pushing the project so she could get the right-of-way acquisition business? No, I’m not saying that,” Delisi said. “But I think she took advantage of a political situation at NTTA and set herself up in a position to do that business on a project that she personally intervened on.”
Victor Vandergriff, a Republican who served as NTTA board chairman, said that in retrospect, he wishes the agency had avoided questions about potential conflict of interest by not hiring Newby Davis.
“I wondered openly at the time, is it right for a public official who sits [on the Senate transportation committee], who votes for primacy on projects, for example, and votes on things that give [NTTA] tools to compete for projects or protect their ability to keep projects — as a matter of public policy, is it right to do that?” he said.
“Looking back on it, it may have been perfectly legal for Wendy Davis and Bryan Newby to have this business. But it just smelled,” he said.
According to NTTA records, Newby Davis has been paid more than $342,000 for work on the Chisholm Trail project. Davis began billing NTTA on May 27 for preparation work on land acquisition — the same day she voted for Nelson’s fee-collections bill, which Perry later signed into law.
Under her toll-collection contract with NTTA, Newby Davis can keep 33 percent of what it collects. The firm subcontracted with a Chicago collection firm operated by Arnold Scott Harris to do “pre-litigation collection efforts.”
“They had specific legal expertise for this kind of work,” Petkanas said.
NTTA records show that Newby Davis has reached settlements of $410,000 with delinquent drivers, one-third of which the firm can keep and divide with its subcontractor.
Follow Wayne Slater on Twitter at @wayneslater.
Nov. 5, 2008: Wendy Davis is elected to the Texas Senate.
April 6, 2009: Davis opposes a North Texas Tollway Authority-backed bill to give local tollway authorities right of first refusal to build toll projects.
Feb. 25, 2010: Davis’ Senate office asks the Texas Department of Transportation for information about qualifications for certification of minority-owned businesses for highway contracts.
March 2, 2010: Fort Worth-based Cantey Hanger law firm announces it has hired Davis.
March 22, 2010: Davis and Bryan Newby, a former chief of staff to Gov. Rick Perry, form a minority-owned law firm, Newby Davis.
June 10, 2010: Davis writes to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood seeking federal funding for the Chisholm Trail Parkway project. The law firm handling the project is Cantey Hanger.
Feb. 1, 2011: Sen. Jane Nelson introduces a bill to cap fees charged to drivers with unpaid tolls.
March 17, 2011: NTTA’s legal services committee approves hiring Newby Davis to do land-condemnation work for the Chisholm Trail Parkway project.
March 23, 2011: Davis drops her version of a fee-cap bill and signs onto Nelson’s bill, which has NTTA support. The bill sets the fees regimen that would be the starting point that law firms subsequently hired by NTTA would use to seek settlements.
March 29, 2011: The Senate approves a measure supported by NTTA to give local tollway authorities right of first refusal to build toll projects. Davis votes for it, saying it’s better than the version she opposed in 2009.
May 27, 2011: Newby Davis begins billing NTTA for work on the Chisholm Trail project. In the Senate, Davis votes for Nelson’s fee-cap collection bill, which goes to the governor, who later signs it.
Aug. 15, 2012: NTTA chooses Newby Davis as one of six litigation firms to collect fees and delinquent tolls.
Aug. 30, 2012: Davis subcontracts with a Chicago collection agency to handle delinquent toll and fee settlements.
The Saga of Bundy Ranch
There exist a number of elements to the story that inject shades of grey into the dominant media narrative. Perhaps hundreds of Bundy supporters have already shown up to the ranch area to “protect” the family and their land—which is federal land—but federal land such usage was promised to the family in the government’s efforts to get people to settle the West after Mexico ceded the land to the U.S. Court documents—discussed later in this article—reveal that the Bundy family decided at some point that the federal government was illegitimate and that they no longer had to give heed to the federal courts. The Bundy family patriarch has openly stated his willingness to use force against federal agents if they take his cattle off of the federal lands; the federal agents stand ready to use force against the family or their supporters if they interfere with the cattle removal. Both sides are armed, both sides are frustrated, and the rhetoric and hyperbole surrounding the entire matter has left many onlookers from around the world confused as to what is actually happening.
I encourage you to read through the story and the material published by Breitbart Texas. This is the most in-depth reporting I’ve seen on the whole story.
After reading through the material, I found myself torn both ways on the story. I agree with Cliven Bundy on some things but disagree with him on others. Seems to me there are no winners in this story.
Brandon Darby will join me today to talk about what he witnessed in Nevada.
Other Top Stories:
These and many more topics coming up on today’s edition of The Chad Hasty Show. Tune in mornings 8:30-11am on News/Talk 790 KFYO, streaming online at kfyo.com, and now on your iPhone and Android device with the radioPup App. All guest interviews can be heard online in our podcast section after the show at kfyo.com.