Friday, March 14, 2014

One's Conflict is Another's Expertise | Last Word

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is taking flak these days for her legal work.

She should seek counsel from San Antonio mayor and fellow Harvard Law School grad Julian Castro on what to do about it – though she might not like his advice.

Nearly five years ago, Davis formed a law partnership with Brian Newby, a former chief of staff to Gov. Rick Perry and a registered lobbyist.

They immediately sought work from a variety of public entities in her hometown of Fort Worth.

Last week she released the names of some of the firm’s clients.

They included the North Texas Tollway Authority, the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the Fort Worth Independent School District, the Tarrant Regional Water District and the Benbrook Water Authority.

The potential for conflicts are obvious.

As a state senator, Davis votes on and can help shape water bills, toll road bills, public school bills and airport bills. 

How can voters be sure she is voting their interests rather than the interests of her clients?

Also disturbing is that Davis said she was releasing only the names of the clients she personally does work for, not the clients of her partner.

And she refused to release the names of private-sector clients, who may or may not have business before the Legislature.

She said she did more than was legally required and she was right.

The laws of the Legislature are exceedingly lax when it comes to requirements for legislators.

Julian Castro found it was different when he was a baby lawyer at the mega-firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and a fledgling City Council member.

He was told he couldn’t vote against the controversial PGA Village development over the city’s major water supply.

The firm, without any involvement from him, had drafted the law the Legislature passed providing the developer massive potential tax breaks.

Not long after, in 2002, Castro would quit his $75,000 Akin Gump job, reduced from $98,000 to give him time to work at his $20-a-week council job.

The final straw: He was prevented from voting against giving a contract for the collection of unpaid fines to the controversial back-tax collection firm of Linebarger, Goggan Blair Pena & Sampson.

Castro was supporting a staff recommendation of another firm.

Linebarger, it seems, had hired Akin Gump.

Not so ironically, two council members were convicted of taking bribes from a Linebarger partner for their votes on the contract.

Julian Castro’s brother, now-Congressman Joaquin Castro, was also hired by Akin Gump right out of Harvard Law School.

But Joaquin quit the firm when he was elected to the Texas Legislature.

He thought there would be too many conflicts.

Perhaps he was naïve.

Legislators in Austin swim in very different ethical waters.

It’s not only okay to work for people who have issues before the Legislature. It’s okay to have your own personal money at stake.

State Sen. John Carona of Dallas is president and CEO of Associa, the largest homeowner association management company in the nation.

Yet as chairman of the Committee on Business and Commerce, Carona has – and has exercised -- outsized influence over legislation attempting to regulate the sometimes abusive practices of these associations.

Rep. Gary Elkins of Houston has worked hard in the Legislature to protect the right of payday lenders to charge outrageous interest and fees.

His occupation: He’s a payday lender.

To the rest of us these men have conflicts of interest.

To the Legislature, they have expertise.

There are many more examples.

Wendy Davis’ conflicts are in the mainstream – but the stream is polluted.

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