Friday, December 31, 2004

Perry Aide met "at least five times" with Transportation Commission on Cintra's behalf

Account of aide's role at Cintra contradicted

Before joining Perry, lobbyist met TxDOT officials several times

December 30, 2004

by Pete Slover and Tony Hartzel
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2004

AUSTIN – A former lobbyist who is now a top adviser to Gov. Rick Perry met at least five times with state transportation officials on behalf of a Spanish construction company months before it won a multibillion dollar road deal, state records show.

Those documents contradict the previous account of state Transportation Commission chairman and Perry appointee Ric Williamson, who said he recalled only one instance in which Dan Shelley had visited the department on behalf of Cintra.

Mr. Shelley, the governor's legislative director, declined to comment on the meetings. A spokesman for Mr. Perry said that Mr. Shelley's activities did not constitute lobbying, and he reiterated that Mr. Shelley and the rest of the governor's staff had no role in the awarding of the $7.2 billion contract.

Mr. Williamson said Thursday that he'd had just one meeting with Mr. Shelley, while the other meetings were with Transportation Department staffers.

The question of whether Mr. Shelley's activities amounted to lobbying is unclear. He has never registered as a lobbyist for Cintra, which state law can require for those seeking specific actions from state officials on someone else's behalf.

Mr. Shelley began consulting for Cintra a year ago, working on a contingency that paid him solely based on how much business Cintra secured in Texas, the governor's office said. Contingency fees are banned for most lobbying contracts, with some exceptions.

Upon joining the governor's office as staff liaison to the Legislature in September, he gave up any right to that fee – which would have been paid upon the eventual signing of the contract, the governor's staff said. The governor's aides said they did not know the amount of the fee.

Robert Black, the Perry spokesman, said that the meetings – documented in visitor sign-in sheets for the Transportation Department's Austin headquarters – do not alter the governor's support of Mr. Shelley.

"Dan's role in these meetings was to introduce Cintra to TxDOT and to get out of the way and let them talk," said Perry spokesman Robert Black. "These meetings were informational only. ... There was no lobby effort made."

"Cintra had hired Dan not specifically for any project, but to determine if there were business opportunities in the state," Mr. Black said, adding that Mr. Shelley also talked to local officials in Dallas and Houston on behalf of the company.

Corridor project

The Trans-Texas Corridor is the cornerstone of Mr. Perry's transportation policy, overseen by a five-member board he selected.

"I don't think anyone from any of the three bidders had undue influence," said Mr. Williamson, a longtime friend of the governor. "In the end, they were all graded on how much money would have to come from the state and when they could start construction."

Mr. Williamson said his meeting with Mr. Shelley occurred late last year. The visitor logs show that since then, Mr. Shelley met with Transportation Commission staff five times, for a total of six hours between January and June. The logs did not include some meetings described by participants that occurred at outlying buildings.

The logs indicate that for all but 35 minutes of the six hours, no competing bidders were present. Cintra executives accompanied Mr. Shelley on all of his visits but one, a five-minute stop that fit the description the governor's office gave of a time when Mr. Shelley picked up a package for delivery to Cintra officials in Spain.

Records of meetings between Transportation Department officials and bidders for the corridor contract were not available late Thursday, but a department spokeswoman said that each of the three finalists had about a dozen sessions with department staff about their proposals for the Trans-Texas Corridor.

"Mr. Shelley's role was no role," said spokeswoman Gaby Garcia. "He was just another player and another member of the Cintra team."

Sitting quietly in corner

She added that Transportation Department officials at the meetings said Mr. Shelley did nothing more than sit in a corner quietly during the discussions.

Mr. Williamson said the one meeting he had with Mr. Shelley did not appear designed to affect the road pick.

"He didn't have four to five meetings with me," said Mr. Williamson, who distinguished between meetings Mr. Shelley had with department staff – who recommended Cintra – and the final decision-makers on the Texas Transportation Commission. "We erect a wall between the department staff and us. We have no idea who comes and who goes. And to tell you the truth, I don't want to know."

Mr. Shelley's work with Cintra also extended to at least one meeting with North Texas transportation officials. Representatives of the three competitors met Feb. 26 with Michael Morris, transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, and Mr. Shelley signed in as the sole representative of Cintra.

Mr. Morris said he sought the meeting so that the bidders would understand the region's concerns about the corridor's path. Mr. Shelley handed a copy of a presentation to Mr. Morris, but that was the extent of their direct contact.

"No one was really lobbying us," Mr. Morris said. "He had a presentation, but it's hard for me to conclude that was lobbying."

The general counsel of the Texas Ethics Commission would only discuss the issue hypothetically. But given the circumstances in this case, such activities could fall outside the technical requirements for lobby registration, in part because they cover "a purchasing decision."

Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen, whose watchdog organization advocates for tougher lobbying regulations, said such legalities can obscure the obvious benefit of contact with state officials.

"Lobbying is not only promoting a particular piece of legislation or contract," Mr. Smith said. "It's opening doors."

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© 2004 The Dallas Morning News Co