Engineering firms funding campaigns in $447 million road, parks bond

Investigations

Investigative Summary:

In one week, Williamson County voters will decide whether to take on another $447 million in new debt to build roads and parks. This investigation delves into the businesses funding the campaign to convince voters to approve the bonds. Those campaign dollars also ended up in the campaign pockets of the politicians who’ll award the contracts. This Position of Power investigation found the same thing happened in Williamson County in 2013, too.

Editor’s note: The time frame for the contributions associated with each commissioner’s campaign totals have been included in this report.

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, TX (KXAN) – This month marks the sixth anniversary of David Wofford’s decision to take a stand against the Williamson County Commissioners Court.

With a $447 million total bond hanging in the balance, Wofford wants commissioners to disclose everything about who’s funding their campaigns. State law doesn’t require that, though.

“These are the letters and columns I wrote regarding this issue,” Wofford said while holding a stack of newspaper clippings.

“Here’s one: old dogs, same tricks.”

David Wofford noticed the same businesses financing the political campaigns in the Williamson County 2019 bond election were at work in the 2013 bond.

That was the editorial Wofford seemed the proudest of as he rattled off the headlines while flipping through the clippings.

Wofford got interested in the financial ties between Williamson County’s top elected officials and the businesses that could stand to benefit from no-bid contracts under the bond. It happened after he uncovered lucrative links between those politicians and those businesses when the county put up a $275 million road bond in 2013.

The bulk of contributions came from companies that would stand to benefit from work on the bond projects: engineering firms.

Those businesses not only funded the public campaign effort to pass that bond, they also dumped thousands of dollars into the campaign accounts of the people who would approve the contracts to engineer and design the bond projects.

Wofford’s quick to tell you he doesn’t oppose the bond. Instead, he’s opposing what he believes is a lack of transparency in this process.

And, Wofford believes it’s intentional.

EXCUSE THE CLICHÉ, BUT FOLLOW THE MONEY

If you’ve driven through Williamson County in the last few weeks, you’ve seen the signs. Vote “Yes,” is the demand. Yes, to approve $412 million in road construction and another $35 million for parks and trails.

In May, a political action committee formed to convince voters to approve the $447 million bonds. The PAC is almost exclusively funded by engineering firms; firms that could be awarded no-bid bond contracts.

If you’re wondering who’s paying for those signs, you have to read the fine print at the bottom: Citizens for Safety, Quality Roads and Parks. It’s a Specific-Purpose Committee formed May 28, 2019.

The SPAC’s treasurer is listed as Mike Robinson. Robinson is also listed as the business development manager for Halff and Associates, a Dallas-area engineering and consulting firm.

Calls and emails to Robinson and Hall and Associated were never returned.

Within four months, the pro-bond SPAC raised $161,050 to convince voters to approve the bonds. The entities contributing the most: engineering firms. Campaign finance reports show the largest contribution came on August 20 when HNTB Corporation – a Missouri-based engineering firm – gave the SPAC a $20,000 check.

Out of 24 contributions, only one did not involve engineering, construction or surveyor interests. Rifeline, LLC, an Austin-based public relations firm, gave the SPAC a $1,000 contribution in September. Rifeline “has an affinity for facilitating public buy-in,” according to the firm’s web site.

Most of the money raised by the SPAC came from firms headquartered outside of Central Texas. Those firms dumped $137,000 of the $161,000 raised by the SPAC in the past four months.

Wofford’s concern centers on whether those campaign contributions have a way to influence who ends up with the multi-million-dollar contracts that would come if the bonds pass.

One way to test that: the Williamson County Commissioners’ campaign finance reports.

CAMPAIGN CASH HAS TOUCHED EVERY COUNTY COMMISSIONER

Not a single Williamson County Commissioner turned down campaign cash from engineering firms during the time the commissioners court was considering whether to ask taxpayers to pass the bonds between 2018 and 2019.

In fact, campaign finance reports show all four commissioners—plus county Judge Bill Gravell—accepted a total of $55,046 from firms that could share in the benefits of the $447 million bond.

The total dollar figure represents the contributors we could confirm were connected to these particular business entities. The totals also included individual contributors who are employed by engineering firms.

Judge Gravell’s campaign finance filings show he accepted the highest dollar amount from these entities with $23,276 in political contributions between 2018 and so far in 2019. Those contributions accounted for 53% of all Gravell’s campaign cash during the period we reviewed.

Commissioner Valerie Covey accepted $21,020 from those firms in 2018 and so far in 2019, which accounted for 80% of all of Covey’s political contributions during the time period we reviewed.

Commissioner Cynthia Long’s finance reports show 42% of her contributions came from engineering interests, which equaled $7,250 during the time frame we examined for this report.

Commissioner Russ Boles’ 2019 campaign finance records show 60% of his political contributions came from people tied to the same engineering firms listed as contributors on the other commissioners’ campaign reports. Boles’ campaign report listed husband and wife names as contributors. Boles did not list any contributions in his July 2019 report; the latest report posted to the county’s web site.

Boles’ 2019 campaign forms lists the occupation of one contributor as “engineer,” but do not list the occupations of any of his other contributors. Texas law does not require county commissioners to disclose that information on the reports.

But, that law does not prohibit politicians from listing that information.   

In only a few instances did any of the Williamson County Commissioners list the occupation and employer in their campaign finance reports. Our investigation used internet searches, prior campaign finance reports and business searches to connect the names to engineering firms.

Commissioner Terry Cook’s latest campaign finance filings show she never accepted political contributions from engineering firms. Her latest report, however, which is not due until January 2020—two months after the November bond election—shows $1,500 from engineering entities made its way to Cook’s campaign.

“You have accepted contributions from engineering firms,” KXAN investigator Jody Barr asked Cook before the Oct. 22 commissioners court meeting, “I have accepted two for this year,” Cook confirmed in the interview.

Cook is the only member of the Williamson County Commissioners Court to agree to answer questions about her campaign finance filings.

Cook said the contributions came from two separate firms she described as political action committees.

Judge Bill Gravell’s July 2019 filing shows contributions from two engineering firms and two other contributors whose job titles and employers are not identified and one whose is.

“What it helps me with is staying on my job and not campaigning as hard or try to do everything myself with limited resources. It allows me to keep doing the work as a commissioner and I don’t have to sweat: how am I going to get one flyer out,” Cook explained.

Her campaign finance records show only one contribution in the last two years. It was a $1,000 contribution from an Austin health care attorney.  

Cook acknowledged she did not know the extent of the contributions made to the other three commissioners and Judge Gravell until we presented her with our findings during our Oct. 22 interview.

“You’ve taken very little money at all and now in the 11th hour of this bond process, now engineering firms–you have accepted those contributions,” Barr said to Cook. “When you lump everything, we’re going to report together, can you see how some people may scratch their heads and go, man, this doesn’t feel right?”

“I absolutely see that, and I welcome them to come see me, email me, come visit–we’ll talk through it. What I do–now I can’t speak for anyone else,” Cook said.   

Cook said she’s never witnessed any influence in the closed-door discussions with her fellow commissioners in the past when it came time to approve past no-bid contracts, “I haven’t seen it,” Cook told KXAN.

County Judge Bill Gravell was not at the Oct. 22 public meeting. Gravell would not schedule an interview with KXAN to discuss his political contributions, instead issued this statement:

“As members of the commissioners court, we have been advised by our legal counsel that the Election Code prohibits us from advocacy for or against speaking about the bond election. As KXAN has declined to provide us with any specific questions, we are not able to review with legal counsel and cannot comment.”

Judge Bill Gravell, Williamson County

We attempted to question Commissioners Long, Covey and Boles before and after the Oct. 22 public meeting inside the Williamson County Courthouse. None of the three would stop to answer question and would not schedule interviews to talk about their political contributions.

Commissioner Cynthia Long would not interview with us during this Oct. 22 public meeting. She later agreed to interview with us on Oct. 28, but her office canceled the interview hours before we were scheduled to meet.

Commissioner Long’s office scheduled an interview for the afternoon of Oct. 28, but hours before the interview, Long’s office sent an email to KXAN cancelling the interview.

“She is not available this afternoon. Sorry for the inconvenience,” Long’s assistant Tammy Smith wrote in the email.

Commissioner Russ Boles also never responded to emails sent to his county address requesting an interview. Boles would not stop to talk about his campaign report during the Oct. 22 public meeting.

Commissioner Valerie Covey also never answered any of the emails we sent requesting an interview. Covey would not take the time to answer any questions before or after the Oct. 22 public meeting at the courthouse.

“It’s absolutely worth looking into; it’s worth scrutinizing that, absolutely worth scrutinizing that and speaking up about it,” Cook said.

“It’s influence, certainly. You’re trying to influence in some way, shape, or form,” Wofford told KXAN when asked if he believed the contributions were influencing the process. “If you look at the process, it appears to be,” Wofford said.  

THE NO-BID CONTRACTING

The concern for Wofford if the bond passes next week, the engineering firms that end up with the multi-million-dollar contracts will be awarded the Williamson County bond contracts without going through the traditional competitive bidding process.

A hallmark of taxpayer-funded purchasing is the competitive bidding element used to hire contractors. If a contractor wants to do business with a government, they submit a bid and a price to do the job. The government entity then looks at the lowest—and best—bid, then issues a contract.

“I don’t doubt the integrity of the people involved, but if there’s not influence coming from the county commissioners, then why are the engineering firms funding their campaigns,” Wofford asked.

Under Texas law, engineering, architect and surveyor services are considered “Professional Services” and counties are not allowed to competitively bid those jobs. Instead, counties have to issue a Request for Qualifications, then choose the firm “on the basis of demonstrated competence and qualifications to perform the services,” according to the Texas Government Code.

A governmental entity may not select a provider of professional services or a group or association of providers or award a contract for the services on the basis of competitive bids submitted for the contract or for the services, but shall make the selection and award:
(1) on the basis of demonstrated competence and qualifications to perform the services; and
(2) for a fair and reasonable price.

Texas Government Code Sec. 2254.003

The county commissioners get the final say in awarding the engineering contracts.

However, the county argues it has a process in place to assure the best firm is selected and that political influence isn’t the deciding factor.

Once the county collects the qualifications from firms interested in performing the work, the county’s Evaluation Committee—made up of county employees—reviews the qualifications, then ranks the firms. The committee negotiates a price and contract with the highest-scoring firm, then presents that package to the county commissioners court.

But, the commissioners do not have to accept the recommendation, according to Williamson County Public Information Officer, Connie Odom.  

“The money is the problem and the people who are willing to accept the money is the problem,” Wofford told KXAN, although he acknowledged there is nothing illegal about engineering firms giving money to—or in commissioners accepting it.

2013 BOND CASH

“I received a lot of ugly stares from them,” Wofford recalled after he stood before the Williamson County Commissioners Court in an October 2013 meeting.

Wofford asked the commissioners to consider voluntarily listing where their campaign contributors worked and their job titles on their campaign finance reports. Texas election law requires executive branch, legislative and judicial candidates to disclose that information.

David Wofford first spoke out against the engineering firms’ campaign financing during the 2013 bond election. Wofford wants more transparency in who’s funding campaigns.

The law does not apply to county commissioners in any of the 254 counties in Texas, however, the law does not prevent commissioners from telling the public that information.  

Wofford also asked the commissioners to pass a requirement to list on every engineering contract whether a commissioner accepted a contribution from the firm, the amount of the contribution and whether any family members connected to any engineering entity also gave.

Instead of adopting Wofford’s transparency suggestions, he says the commissioners appeared to take offense.

“I think they definitely took it personally, they had too high of an opinion of themselves — even though if they looked at the facts, they shouldn’t. They obviously missed the message because the same thing is going on today that was going on in 2013,” Wofford told KXAN.

Our analysis of the engineering firms that gave campaign cash to county commissioners leading up to the 2013 bond shows nearly every firm that gave a political contribution ended up with an engineering contract.

The commissioners’ and then-county judge’s campaign reports show 17 difference engineering firms gave tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions to the court. The county’s latest bond status report shows 14 of the 17 firms ended up with a 2013 road bond contract.

Most of those firms also funded the $91,150 public campaign to convince voters to pass the $275 million bond in November 2013.

Since the 2013 Williamson County road bond election, Wofford’s continued using the power of his pen to write editorials railing against the way campaign cash has funneled into the last two road bonds in Williamson County.

“I’ve questioned some of the commissioners and they fluff up and it’s like –how dare you question my integrity? Well, there’s no questioning to it anymore. I mean, you look at the facts, you look at the documentation. There’s no questioning their integrity, their integrity’s shot,” Wofford said.

“They need to take some steps to reclaim that integrity.”

Photojournalist Chris Nelson, Producer Phillip Robb, Investigative Producer Anthony Cave and Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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