Friday, February 02, 2007

TXDoT pays $1.5 million to D.C. lobbyists

Democrats rip state agency for hiring D.C. lobbyists

Feb. 2, 2007

Washington Bureau
Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

WASHINGTON — The dispute between Democrats and Texas Gov. Rick Perry over the hiring of Washington lobbyists for the state appeared to have ended last month when the governor canceled the controversial contracts.

But Democrats' anger has returned with their discovery that the Texas Department of Transportation has engaged its own lobbyists to advance the agency's interests in Washington.

TxDOT will pay more than $1.5 million in lobbying fees during a 13-month period that began in December.

The contracts, at $117,692 a month, are almost five times the cost of those that Republican Perry canceled in January with two well-connected Republican firms after an outcry in last year's campaign from Democrats and gubernatorial rival Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Republican who ran as an independent.

"Obviously, that's ridiculous that they would pay $1.5 million for five lobbyists in Washington, D.C.," state Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, said Thursday. "It just really is an outrage."

Dunnam questioned whether other state agencies have hired lobbyists. It's traditional for universities and cities to hire lobbyists but less common for state agencies.

A Houston Chronicle review of several state agencies that have significant dealings with the federal government found no other outside lobbying contracts.

Fight for gas tax funds

The Department of Transportation defends the contracts as necessary to the state's years-long campaign to bring back more of the gasoline taxes paid by Texas motorists into the federal Highway Trust Fund. The state gets 92 cents for every dollar it pays into the trust fund while some other states get well more than they contribute.

"Our position is: Until we receive all the gas tax funds that Texans send to Washington we are going to need to have every voice we can get to help us," said TxDOT spokesman Randall Dillard. The department has "not hidden the fact that we use federal consultants."

Democrats on Capitol Hill said, however, they learned of the existence of the TxDOT lobbying contracts only last week when two of the lobbyists — former Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro and William K. Moore of the lobbying firm ViaNovo — visited their offices.

The pair's longstanding Democratic ties did not mollify Texas Democrats who were dispatched by voters to Washington to represent the state's interests and who contend it's a waste of taxpayer money to hire lobbying firms.

"I like Garry Mauro, but I don't need Garry Mauro to talk to me about Texas transportation issues," said U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston.

Green was one of the most outspoken critics of the now-canceled contracts with Republican-connected lobbying firms.

Mauro lost the 1998 gubernatorial race to George W. Bush, and Moore was for years a Democratic congressional aide and campaign strategist.

Dillard said the current $1.5 million TxDOT contracts cover a deal with Rodman Co. worth slightly more than $1 million and $461,500 to be split among four subcontractors hired by Rodman — Mauro, ViaNovo, Chad Bradley & Associates and the Federalist Group.

Significant increase

The contracts are a significant increase over the department's prior two-year contract, for $850,000, with Association Strategies and two subcontractors, the Federalist Group and Chad Bradley & Associates.

The Federalist Group has proven most controversial to the Democrats because one of its lobbyists made sizable contributions to Republicans, including for an unsuccessful challenge to U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, the lone Texas Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

The contracts canceled by Perry, worth a total of $25,000 a month, were with the Federalist Group and Cassidy & Associates, which had ties to former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Dunnam, the state representative from Waco, this week wrote Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson asking for copies of all documents involving the Federalist Group and other lobbyists hired by TxDOT.

Spokesmen for the Texas Education Agency, Texas Health and Human Services Commission, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs and the Texas Workforce Commission said that rather than use lobbyists, they relied on the Texas Office of State-Federal Relations, a taxpayer-funded agency that reports to the governor.

The General Land Office signed a $24,000 contract with a Washington law firm for research of federal activities, not lobbying, spokesman Jim Suydam said.

The governor has significant sway over TxDOT because he appoints all five members of the Texas Transportation Commission that oversees the department.

Perry spokesman Robert Black said the Department of Transportation contracts were signed at the department's discretion and that Perry had nothing to do with them.

But Black also defended the contracts: "The fact of the matter is the transportation bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., is incredibly extensive and to have people on the ground who can traverse that bureaucratic maze is highly valuable."

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE