Central Texas fur is once again flying as Williamson County residents learn about a new round of lobbying activities costing taxpayers at least $170,000 and apparently performed outside normal procedural channels established to theoretically ensure government accountability and transparency.
In Commissioner Valerie Covey and the “Lobbygate” scandal – Part I, the Williamson County Employees Association Blogspot is reporting:
Precinct One Commissioner Lisa Birkman has stated that Precinct Three Commissioner Valerie Covey “led the effort locally” to enact “important legislation”. She also gave Covey “kudos” for her “hard work”. What Ms. Birkman once again fails to mention is that the “hard work” has cost YOU, the taxpayer, hundreds of thousands of dollars, as documented by invoices from and payment to professional lobbyists.
Commissioner Birkman details the merits of Texas Senate Bill 548 in Environmental process for roads improved yet no mention is made that this effort cost taxpayers $170,000 or more.
Commissioner Valerie Covey and the “LobbyGate” Scandal Part II provides copies of invoices from Smith, Robertson, Elliott, Glen, Klein & Douglas, L.L.P., the law firm seemingly hired to act as a “front” for the lobbying, and describes the action as follows:
This process circumvented public awareness and openness in government. By hiring Smith-Robertson, who then subcontracted for the lobbyists, the purchasing act was subverted by the county commissioners. In other words, it never had to be posted on the Commissioners Court agenda for the public to see that lobbying firms were being engaged, so the public and the media did not have a clue that this lobbying initiative was being deployed. Hiring lobbyists was never once discussed in commissioners’ court. It’s more than apparent this method was well thought out. Commissioner Valerie Covey would not have to put this on the agenda for the public to see and based on dates, Smith Robertson was hired, Dec 14, 2010 and vetting lobbyists began very soon after.
Commissioner Valerie Covey and the “LobbyGate” Scandal Part III discusses two other attorneys, Kerry Russell and Arturo Rodriguez , who also registered on January 1, 2011, as lobbyists for Williamson County although in response to a Public Information Act request, the county is reportedly disavowing knowledge of their registration. This posting additionally provides a clip in which County Judge Dan Gattis says this of the county’s taxpayer-funded lobbying activities:
“We’ve got one over there that we need to get capped, that’s at $140,000 now and that has to do with TX DOT and environmental. And we definitely got to get a handle on that particular one and I think now it’s at $170,000 and it’s a moving target that we’ve not be able in the office to know where we really are.”
Part IV of the Commissioner Valerie Covey and the “LobbyGate” Scandal tells how Williamson County officials claim they have no documentation related to the activities of professional lobbyists Mignon McGarry and Dick Brown who were subcontracted by Smith, Robertson, Elliott, Glen, Klein & Douglas, L.L.P. on behalf of Williamson County – all at taxpayer expense. And Smith, Robertson, Elliott, Glen, Klein & Douglas, L.L.P. claims that as an “LLP” and not a “government body,” it is exempt from responding to any Public Information Act requests. One might be reminded however, that the firm seems to have no problem cashing taxpayer-funded checks.
While the Williamson County Employees Association postings on BirkmanCare and the Covey Castle are less complicated issues, reporting on this taxpayer-funded lobbying situation is critical as it once again seems an illustration of cronyism and corruption transcending any pretense of taxpayer accountability or respect for legalities promoting transparent government.
A “Lobbygate” What we know and what’s to come. blog sums up Williamson County’s most recent troubling revelations:
What we know:
1. Williamson County engaged the firm of Smith Robertson to conduct “Legislative Initiatives” for the county on December 14 2010, but did not state anything about hiring “lobbyists” possibly violating the Texas Open Meetings Act; again.
2. Smith Robertson hired two professional lobbyist a few weeks later, Mignon McGarry and Dick Brown who charged $124,999.98 for unknown services performed in a period of 4 months, from January 2011 to April 2011.
3. Smith Robertson then billed the county not only charges from McGarry and Brown totaling $124,999.98, but also what their firm, Smith Robertson has incurred for “legislative initiatives” since December 14, 2010 placing the tab close to $200,000.00. The bills are still rolling in so we are far from seeing a final total.
4. Smith Robertson refused to produce bills from McGarry and Brown for the services they provided. A possible violation of Open Records Act. An appeal is being drafted to the AG.
5. Williamson County Commissioners have never seen any bills from McGarry and Brown and paid the invoices totaling over 124,999.00 for unknown services performed from January 2011 to April 2011, without seeing a single invoice from those entities.
6. Alan Glen, a partner with Smith Robertson has donated thousands and thousands ($4,500.00 to Lisa Birkman alone) to current Williamson County Commissioners.
7. Kerry Russell and his law partner Arturo Rodriguez, two attorneys based in Georgetown Texas are registered as lobbyists for Williamson County.
8. Williamson County said they did not approve or authorize Russell or Rodriguez to register as lobbyists for Williamson County.
9. The firm of Russell and Rodriguez billed and was paid over $96,000.00 in legal fees from 07-08 to 05-09.
10. Kerry Russell and Arturo Rodriguez combined have donated thousands and thousands of dollars to current Williamson County Commissioners.
11. Kerry Russell, in conjunction with the Williamson County Commissioners filed a complaint with the State Bar of Texas against the County Attorney in February that was dismissed by the State Bar as having no merit.
The posting further discusses “What we do not know” and “What’s to come.”
Over the last year, Williamson County taxpayers have witnessed a parade of expensive, confidence-negating actions emanating from their County Commissioners Court. The Court’s decision to receive legal counsel from an unelected attorney of their choosing and accountable only to them opposed to utilizing the services of duly elected, accountable to taxpayers County Attorney Jana Duty was a first signal that taxpayer interests could be at risk.
The filing of a federal lawsuit against Williamson County alleging sexual harassment and other misconduct on the part of former County Court at Law No. 3 Judge Don Higginbotham exposed the appearance of a “good ol’ boy” culture in which cronyism and corruption seemingly trumped any sense of legal propriety, taxpayer accountability, employer/employee responsibilities or basic decency and respect toward parties having the misfortune of contact or other business with county officials or their operations. And of course, it resulted in taxpayers funding a $375,000 legal settlement.
The dismissal of a lawsuit seeking to remove County Judge Dan Gattis from office on grounds of incompetence and official misconduct provided another interesting view into county government and the legal system. Bell County District Judge Rick Morris’ ruling to dismiss was made not based on any evidential review but instead on a technicality called the “forgiveness doctrine” which says “An officer may not be removed from office for an act the official committed before election to office.”
This “free pass” ruling provides an important discussion opportunity which will hopefully become more prominent with the approaching election season so that current acts of official misconduct aren’t again – and with the utmost of administrative casualness – swept aside.
Shortly after the Gattis’ official misconduct dismissal, the Williamson County Commissioners filed a grievance against County Attorney Jana Duty with the State Bar of Texas. Though 18 of the original 24 counts have been dismissed, the six counts moving forward to the next stage of the process are already providing new insight as to the Williamson County officials’ interest in open government and transparency. Duty has now asked for a public trial on the grievance filed against her by the Williamson County Commissioners Court and in a written statement said this:
The members of the Commissioners Court requested a private hearing. They want the hearing to be private, so the true facts of this case and the evidence will be presented behind closed doors and will remain secret. By my election to proceed in District Court, the public will be given the opportunity to hear and see all of the evidence, not just the limited portions that members of the Commissioners Court want them to hear.
Advocates – and practitioners – of open government are needed more today than ever. Though a controversial figure in her own right, County Attorney Jana Duty seems a lone Williamson County elected official willing to have her record and actions publically scrutinized.
The Williamson County Employees Association Blogspot recently posted a ranking that listed Williamson County’s nearly $1.17 billion debt as number three in Texas General Obligation Tax-Supported Debt Service. And the tab (or proposed tab) for Commissioners Court-supported, taxpayer-funded expenditures continues to grow.
Bottom line. As the 2012 election approaches, how much more of this “leadership” can Williamson County voters afford?
Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com, a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity Foundation – Texas and a Director of Women on the Wall. Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.