Saturday, October 22, 2011

"No assurance that the investigation will be limited to the matters described above or that the NTTA will not become a target at a later date."

Tollway authority says its officials questioned by FBI


By Barry Shlachter
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2011

The North Texas Tollway Authority, on the eve of a $674 million bond offering to help fund the Chisholm Trail Parkway, disclosed Friday to potential investors that the FBI has questioned several of its officials over possible conflicts of interest by past and present board members.

The disclosure, made in the lengthy preliminary bond offering statement, stressed that the authority had "no reason to believe" that it was under investigation.

The brief statement did not indicate which current and former board members might be under scrutiny. The authority said it was cooperating fully with the FBI and stressed that the inquiry should not materially affect the authority or its bond offerings.

But it cautioned bond buyers, "There can be no assurance that the investigation will be limited to the matters described above or that the authority will not become a target at a later date." The authority did not detail what sort of possible conflicts of interest were being looked into.

Asked whether the inquiry might affect the Chisholm bond sale, scheduled for Nov. 2, authority Chief Financial Officer Janice Davis replied, "I don't believe it will and if it does, it will be very little."

JPMorgan Chase, the bond's lead underwriter, discussed the FBI inquiry with the authority and did not seem particularly concerned because, Davis said, "the authority itself is not under investigation."

A fraction of a point of added interest could mean millions in extra costs for the tollway project.

A person close to the board, who spoke only in exchange for anonymity, dismissed the inquiry as a "fishing trip" by the FBI.

Davis said she was surprised by the FBI move but rejected the notion that the inquiry might have been prompted by a whistle-blower in the authority.

Board Chairman Kenneth Barr, a former Fort Worth mayor, said the authority's council advised him not to comment beyond the disclosure statement. Asked whether the FBI had questioned him, he replied, "No."

The federal move follows the Oct. 14 resignation of Allen Clemson as the authority's executive director. Clemson publicly complained that he was thwarted in efforts to change the way the authority awarded contracts to engineering and legal firms.

The authority has faced some criticism for overreliance on firms that have been under contract for years. Some board members cautioned against severing such ties while work is about to begin on the long-planned Chisholm Trail Parkway.

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