Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Road Rustlers and Lot Lizards

Lobbyists Pay Way for Texas Travel

New Report Outlines Expenses of Officials

April 25, 2007

The Bond Buyer
by Richard Williamson
Copyright 2007

DALLAS — Lobbyists have spent thousands of dollars sending Texas transportation officials to events related to public-private financing of toll roads as the state prepares to launch more than $7 billion worth of projects, according to an Austin-based public-interest research group.

“There’s jockeying to get a foot up in this market, and it’s a huge market,” said Andrew Wheat, spokesman for Texans for Public Justice, the group that investigated spending by lobbyists and their clients on travel for state officials.

Lobbyists paid travel expenses for 83 Texas lawmakers and officials on 363 occasions between January 2005 and November 2006, according to TPJ data. Many of those 83 officials worked in transportation-related departments or on legislation involving highways and toll roads, Wheat said.

Although the trips were not illegal, TPJ questioned the propriety of lawmakers and agency officials traveling to events at the expense of lobbyists for clients doing business with the state.

“Following Congress’ lead, Texas should ban lobbyists, lobby firms, and their clients from giving any gifts of more than a nominal value to candidates, public officials, or their staffs,” the TPJ report said. “Similarly, candidates, public officials, and their staffs should be prohibited from flying on non-commercial aircraft furnished by outside private interests.”

Among the top travelers was Senate Transportation Committee chairman Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, some of whose $1,167 of travel expenses were provided by contractors on Texas toll road projects.

Among the trips highlighted in the report was Krusee’s trip to New York for The Bond Buyer Deal of the Year Award. Travel expenses were paid by Locke Liddell & Sapp LLP lobbyist Brian Cassidy, TPJ said. Cassidy represents the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which won the Southwest regional deal of the year award for the $238 million financing of a 12-mile roadway with bonds under Krusee’s legislation.

Krusee, who is playing a key role in this session’s debate over private versus public financing of toll projects, took other trips paid by lobbyists for Trans Texas Corridor and other toll projects.

In a prepared statement, Krusee defended the trips, saying that they informed him about innovative transportation processes in other states.

“I vote and advocate for the people of my district,” Krusee said. “I don’t even know who funds these trips. People can criticize if they want; they do it every day.”

Lobbyist J. McCartt of Austin-based HillCo. Partners LLC flew Krusee to Las Vegas for the keynote address at a toll summit hosted by engineering firm PBS&J Inc. a week before the 2005 regular session ended, according to the TPJ report. PBS&J has worked on several toll projects. McCartt represents PBS&J and Trans Texas Corridor contractor Fluor Corp.

PBS&J was embroiled in a controversy over campaign contributions to U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Florida, in 2005 and was blacklisted from doing business with the Texas Department of Transportation, according to the TPJ report.

“Yet, the North Texas Tollway Authority awarded PBS&J a five-year contract to work on a joint project with TxDOT just three months later,” according to the TPJ report.

McCartt did not return a call requesting comment by press time yesterday.

Associated General Contractors, an industry trade group in Alexandria, Va., paid for five TxDOT officials to attend AGC’s summer conference at the Sheraton South Padre Island Resort in 2006, according to the report. AGC sent 10 state officials to its annual conference in 2005 and 2006, the report said.

AGC did not return a phone call requesting comment by press time yesterday.

Other transportation-related interests whose lobbyists paid for travel for state officials included HNTB Corp., a toll-road design firm, and the San Antonio Mobility Coalition, an advocacy organization funded by public and private money.

David S. Zachry of San Antonio-based Zachry Construction contributed $4,554 to travel expenses for a state official, the report said. Zachry Construction is partnering with Spanish toll road developer Cintra on the Trans Texas Corridor, envisioned as a $150 billion system of roads and rail lines from the borders of Mexico to Oklahoma.

Top Texas officials topped the list of travel recipients. Gov. Rick Perry received $205,460 worth of expenses and Attorney General Greg Abbott received $166,583. Comptroller Susan Combs received $87,788.

House Speaker Tom Craddick reported $4,146 of travel expenses while Lieut. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, reported none.

The conventional way for state officials to travel is through TxDOT, which maintains a fleet of state planes. The officials then file expense reports through TxDOT. However, legislators are allowed to travel at lobbyists’ expense to events related to their jobs.

In the wake of its report, the TPJ is “fielding quite a few hostile calls from people right now,” Wheat said. “There hasn’t been a lot of disclosure on this in the past. This is not popular.”

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