in Houston, Texas

State Sen. Royce West's firm earned $1M from public agencies, many aided by his legislation

Thursday, May 21, 2009, 08:46PM CST
By Matt Pulle
blind justice

State Sen. Royce West can count on Dallas County voters for two things: Their steadfast support and their tax dollars.

The Democrat provides legal counsel for a series of local governments and agencies including Dallas Area Rapid Transit, the city of Dallas and the Dallas Community College District. In 2008, the state senator's 10-person law firm West and Associates, where his son works as a paralegal, billed at least five public-sector clients in his home county close to $1 million, a review of bond and legal records by Texas Watchdog reveals.

Royce WestWEST

West has authored legislation that would affect -- and, in some cases, help -- the cities and school districts that make up his client base, a fact that raises questions about whether he has maintained a bright line between his role as lawmaker and his private lawyering work.

West's work for public agencies, while legal, also may help him lure and retain public-sector clients, one critic says. After all, state senators and representatives have the kind of influence that can give them a decisive advantage over regular citizens who may like to bid on the same contracts.

"He's in a completely different position from other attorneys," says Sharon Boyd, who runs the popular blog Dallas Arena and is a former Dallas planning commissioner. "He's in a position in Austin to do service for his clients."

Texas Watchdog's reporting on West and Associates tallies, for the first time, the law firm's earnings from agencies funded by the taxpayers. And because of the lax requirements on lawmakers' financial disclosure statements, the public would not know by looking at West's disclosure form who he works for, and whether those clients have business with state government. The same is true for all Texas lawyer lawmakers.

In a short but agreeable interview, the ever-composed West said his prominence in Dallas and beyond does not land him an advantage over other less-connected attorneys. He also told Texas Watchdog that if we find any lawyer upset about his public-sector work to call him back, which, given how reluctant lawyers are to criticize one another may not happen soon. Finally, West noted that his situation is hardly unique.

"I'm not the only senator who works for a law firm that does work for local entities," he says.

The Ties that Bond

West makes a good point. In fact, just about every lawmaker who works as an attorney at a large firm likely has a link to a public agency. State Rep. Dan Branch, a Highland Park Republican, is an attorney at Winstead PC, a business law firm that has its own government relations practice. With offices all over Texas, Winstead lobbies state officials on a range of issues from healthcare legislation to toll roads. No doubt Branch may have bumped into some of his partners roaming the corridors of the state capitol as they meet with state officials.

Dan BranchBRANCH

But however his partners make a living, Branch is a real estate lawyer. If his practice intersects with the public sector, it's only incidentally. By contrast, West can boast of a series of longstanding and lucrative contracts with city governments and school districts, largely nestled in his home county, where he ranks as one of the most well-known politicians in the city.

Virtually every client West represents could be helped or hindered by his votes in the legislature. The 16-year incumbent and Houston law grad can shape policy for governments, school districts and transit agencies through nearly all his committees. He sits on committees for Education and Higher Education, Finance, Health and Human Services and Intergovermental Relations -- which he chairs.

He sponsored a plan to create a public law school in Dallas as well as a dropout program to help local school districts keep students in school:

  • The law school measure, SB 956, sailed through the Senate and now looks like it will become law. Nearly the entire Dallas political and business establishment has endorsed the plan to create a state-funded law school, including Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, who traveled to Austin to testify on behalf of the measure. If West succeeds, he'll have capped the city's long-running efforts to revitalize its downtown. His effort will, as gifts to clients go, rank a little more memorable than a pair of tickets to a Rangers game.
  • At an annual cost of $150,000, the bill to establish a "dropout prevention assistance center" could arguably provide public benefit, and it fits the senator's record of helping disadvantaged students. Still, it's hard not to consider that the bill, SB 1726, would also benefit West's number one client, the Dallas Independent School District, which is plagued by one of the highest dropout rates in the country.

One high-profile critic says it's hard to believe West's influential position was not a factor when prospective clients sought his legal aid.

"He obviously has a right to make a living, but it's hard for somebody to argue that the clients that he has did not consider the fact that he is a sitting state senator," says Eric Opiela, the executive director of the Texas Republican Party.

CONTINUES:

> Read about West's job as bond counsel and the various public-sector clients of his firm. On page 2.
> Read about West's work for the now-defunct Wilmer-Hutchins ISD and his plans not to work on the convention center project. On page 3.


Photo: Representation of Justice on the former Norwich Union building, now the 3 Serjeants' Inn Chambers building, in London, England. Relief by A. Stanley Young; photo by flickr user mira66, used via the Creative Commons license.

Comments
Barbara Senter
Tuesday, 05/26/2009 - 05:18PM

The main problem is that there is no "penalty" for "conflicts of interest." This can be verified in the Texas Attorney General Opinions. The law states that conflicts of interest are violations, but without a penalty, there are no consequences. How does the public get the Texas legislature to pass legislation with penalties, when it applies to them?

Hardrightrepublican
Saturday, 05/28/2011 - 09:19PM

Thank Senator West for your tireless efforts and support of property owner's rights in regards to HOA reform.

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