Report: Wendy Davis business relationship ‘just smelled’

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Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
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Texas Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis opposed a tollway agency until it hired her law firm, the Dallas Morning News reports.

The firm has reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars from the relationship.

As a member of the Fort Worth city council and during the early part of her tenure in the state senate, Davis opposed the North Texas Tollway Authority on several key votes.

In 2007, Councilwoman Davis supported Cintra, a private transportation developer, over the publicly-funded NTTA.

And as a state senator in 2009, Davis voted against a bill backed by the NTTA that would have given them rights of first refusal on toll projects. In early 2011 she introduced a bill that would have limited to $50 the fees that the NTTA could charge for delinquent toll payments.

But Davis’ stance on NTTA-related matters has changed in recent years, skewing in favor of the agency ever since they hired two law firms she works for, Newby Davis and Cantey Hanger, the Dallas Morning News reports.

In Feb. 2010, Davis’ senate office wrote the Texas Department of Transportation asking about qualifications needed for designation as a minority-owned firms in highway contracts. Days later, Davis was hired by Cantey Hanger, a Fort Worth law firm.

Three weeks after that, Davis partnered with a Cantey Hanger attorney, Bryan Newby, who is black, to form the firm Newby Davis.

From there, in June 2010, Davis sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, seeking federal support for an NTTA project, the Chisholm Trail Parkway.

In 2011, six days after Newby Davis was chosen to work on condemnation projects for the NTTA, Davis dropped a bill she had proposed to cap fees on toll-skippers. Instead, she shifted her support to another fee-cap bill preferred by the NTTA.

The NTTA held a meeting on March 17, 2011 to discuss firms to perform property condemnation work for the Chisholm Trail Parkway project. Kenneth Barr, the agency’s chairman, pushed for Newby Davis, though several NTTA board members had never heard of the start-up firm, the Dallas Morning News reported.

In that meeting, according to the Dallas Morning News, Barr cited Newby Davis’ status as a minority-owned firm as well as Cantey Hanger’s expertise in land acquisition.

It later came to light that Barr’s office shared quarters with Newby Davis in Cantey Hanger building in Fort Worth.

On March 23, 2011, Davis threw her support behind the NTTA-backed fee-cap bill sponsored by Sen. Jane Nelson. a bill which paved the way for new business for Newby Davis.

Nelson’s bill capped toll-jump fines at $200, a hefty increase over Davis’ $50 limit. It also charged toll-jumpers a new collection fee. (RELATED: Men on Wendy Davis Texas Senate staff outearned women)

Because of the new structure in how toll-jumping fines were assessed, the NTTA began pursuing absconders through litigation, something the agency had generally avoided up to that point.

Newby Davis was one of six firms hired to litigate the cases, work which has generated $410,000 in payments. Of that, Texas law allows Newby Davis to keep one-third.

The firm has also collected $342,000 for the land acquisition work on the NTTA’s Chisholm Trail project, the Dallas Morning News reported.

“Looking back on it, it may have been perfectly legal for Wendy Davis and Bryan Newby to have this business. But it just smelled,” Victor Vandergriff, a Republican who was a former NTTA chairman, told The Dallas Morning News. (RELATED: Report: Texas Democratic candidate’s real ‘Texas story’)

Though Davis’ working relationship with NTTA and her votes in their favor may not be illegal, the Dallas Morning News noted that the Texas constitution bars lawmakers from voting on laws in which they have “a personal or private interest.”

It may also violate a personal pledge Davis once made.

“It’s not my intention ever to represent someone on an issue that will put me in a recusable position,” Davis told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2010. “I will not represent anyone on any issues that will come before the state.”

Davis denied that there was a conflict of interest between her work in the senate and that on behalf of NTTA. “I have never done anything in a way that represents a conflict in my voting and something that would benefit me personally,” Davis told the Dallas Morning News.

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