Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Legal council for Central Texas toll road authority loses license for professional misconduct in land speculation deal

Toll road agency lawyer resigns after bar suspension

Tom Nielson served on Round Rock City Council for six years before joining Central Texas Mobility Authority as general counsel in 2006


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2010

Tom Nielson, a former Round Rock City Council member and general counsel of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority since 2006, quietly left the toll road agency several weeks ago after the State Bar of Texas suspended his law license.

The five-year suspension of Nielson's right to practice law, for "professional misconduct," grows out of a 2000 land deal that went awry several years before he became the toll authority's lawyer, according to a six-page suspension judgment by the bar. Nielson, according to the judgment, falsely claimed to have put $25,000 in a trust account and gave a "false document" to a partner in the deal purporting to show that the money had been deposited with a title company.

Nielson, 49, who officially left his $164,388-a-year position at the toll authority Jan. 15 after his license was suspended Jan. 1, said that although there was a "discrepancy" involving a document, "I still contend there was no issue with it." The charges confirmed in the Dec. 28 judgment were of the "he-said-she-said" variety, Nielson said.

"Hey, I've lost my career," Nielson said. "But I'm not a bad guy. It's not like I made off with millions."

Instead, Nielson said that he and Byron "Dick" Wilson, of Hutto, were "squeezed out" of the sale of land on U.S. 183 near Anderson Mill Road, well south of where the mobility authority would later build the 183-A toll road. Then Wilson sued in 2006, and Nielson said he paid about $50,000 in a settlement in which he didn't admit guilt.

He also must pay the State Bar almost $6,000 in attorney fees.

Wilson, who in August 2008 filed the grievance with the State Bar that led to the license suspension, could not be reached for comment.

Mobility authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein, whose friendship with Nielson goes back two decades to when their children played youth sports together, said he knew nothing about the disputed land deal between Nielson and Wilson.

"It was never brought up during his employment, or before that during the interview process," Heiligenstein said. "He obviously thought it had been worked out."

Nielson told Heiligenstein in mid-December about the bar complaint and that he was resigning, Heiligenstein said. Nielson's picture and his position with the agency were still posted on the agency's Web site Monday afternoon. Agency spokesman Steve Pustelnyk , alerted to this, had the post removed later in the day.

Nielson, who graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1986, according to the bar, served on the Round Rock City Council from 1999 to 2005. He became general counsel for the mobility authority several months later, in effect replacing private attorney Brian Cassidy, who had been doing legal work for the agency on a contract basis almost since its creation in 2002.

Cassidy, who had continued to provide some services for the authority, including lobbying at the Capitol, was back in the counsel's chair when the mobility authority board of directors met Jan. 27.

The bar decision said that Nielson, representing a landowner, in late 2000 had approached another person, identified in the original grievance as Wilson. Nielson and Wilson, anticipating a $100,000 profit on what Nielson described Monday as a "land flip," agreed that Wilson would put up $25,000 "earnest money." Two years later, according to the judgment, the partner questioned Nielson about when they would see the profits. Only at that point, the document says, did Nielson reveal that the deal had soured and returned the $25,000.

It was unclear Monday whether that $25,000 was a part of the $50,000 settlement of the lawsuit.

Heiligenstein is interviewing candidates for general counsel, he said Monday.

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