in Houston, Texas
legal fees
Texas windstorm agency withholds records that would shed light on consultant costs
Wednesday, Dec 05, 2012, 01:19PM CST
By Lee Ann O'Neal
Hurricane Ike

A state agency so troubled that regulators took it over is complaining the costs of that oversight have become burdensome.

The $6.4 million a year, in part for outside consultants charged with helping turn around the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, is a “sore subject” for board members of the agency and state lawmakers, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports. The agency’s general manager, John Polak, points out that TWIA has no control over the hiring of those consultants and so cannot be held responsible for those costs.

Board members must have forgotten the fears of insolvency and allegations of mismanagement that led to oversight in the first place. All this outside meddling was brought about by the agency’s own bungling of claims following Hurricane Ike, which brought charges of fraud and a torrent of lawsuits.

Ongoing litigation costs stemming from Ike are expected to reach $2.5 billion, the paper reports -- or nearly 400 times the annual cost of the management consultants, who have recommended a restructuring of TWIA, reviewed legal bills and given legal advice to the board.

While board members are miffed about the mounting consultants’ costs, their agency could help shed some light on them by releasing invoices sought by the paper for Alvarez & Marsal, the costliest consultant of them all. TWIA joins the North Texas Tollway Authority, Lehman Brothers and the Central Bank of Cyprus on the firm’s client list.

But as one board member put it: “I still wonder what we are getting for the money.”

TWIA has appealed the newspaper’s request to the attorney general, saying the information may be proprietary -- a common but flawed argument when private companies do the public’s business.

Records released so far list six-figure costs for vague reasons like “special projects” and “additional services.”

By releasing the records swiftly and in full, TWIA would take a step toward rebuilding the public trust and maybe, just maybe, eventually being allowed to operate on its own.

***
Contact Lee Ann O’Neal at 713-980-9777 or leeann@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of Hurricane Ike by flickr user NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, used via a Creative Commons license.

Latest blunder by state housing agency: Texas discriminated by putting too much affordable housing in poor, minority areas, court finds
Wednesday, Mar 21, 2012, 10:55AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
houses

Over the past three years, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs has placed new emphasis on embarrassment in the phrase embarrassment of riches.

On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled the department’s interpretation of a crazy quilt of federal and state guidelines has led to systematic, but somehow not deliberate, discrimination in its distribution of tens of millions of dollars in federal tax credits to build affordable housing in Texas.

Sounds complicated? Maybe that’s why the department needed $1.6 million of our tax money for legal representation to help them keep everything straight, according to a story today by the San Antonio Express News.

It seems that Housing and Community Affairs, which is expected to dispense $55 million of these tax credits in 2012, keeps giving them to builders to put up affordable housing in poor and minority neighborhoods.

The goal of the program, if we’re following this correctly, is to build a certain percentage of this housing in more affluent, or in the government vernacular, “high opportunity,” areas.

The department is doing woefully little high opportunity building and has 60 days to deliver a plan to change that, U.S. District Court Judge Sidney Fitzwater ordered.

The original lawsuit filed in 2008 by Inclusive Communities Project, a Dallas non-profit also supported by our federal tax dollars, claimed the department had been picking projects with race bias. Fitzwater’s ruling placed the burden on something at least as pernicious, hopelessly clotted bureaucracy.

One could very nearly empathize, but the Department of Housing and Community Affairs hasn’t had much luck doing one of its core jobs of handling our federal tax dollars.

The department parted company with its executive director, Michael Gerber, last August over its inability to disburse nearly $3 billion in federal relief funds to Texans who lost property to Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Gerber’s oversight of $327 million in federal stimulus funds to weatherize low-income homes and apartments, the subject of dozens of Texas Watchdog stories, didn’t help in his performance review.

The Weatherization Assistance Program was beset by allegations of fraud, bad workmanship, and, like the hurricane funding, an inability to push the windfall out its doors.

After getting its deadline extended by six months to the end of last August, the department’s weatherization program still had not spent almost $78 million of the $327 million Congress granted them in February of 2009, according to the department’s weekly reports.

While federal officials had at the time the stimulus bill passed threatened to take back funds not spent by the deadline, Housing and Community Affairs dribbles on with $13.7 million not yet stimulating anything.

(Please see the weekly report from Sept. 26, 2011, for the end of August totals and the latest report from March 5, 2012 by scrolling here.)

It is unclear from the most transparent and accountable program in our lifetimes whatever happened to all the talk at the outset of the stimulus of “use-it-or-lose-it.”  Navigate the federal government’s $27.7 million stimulus website and try figuring out what’s been used and what’s been lost.

Don’t feel bad. We’ve been trying for years.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo 'Building Houses' by flickr user Images_of_Money, used via a Creative Commons license.

Mind-boggling redactions at TWIA: State windstorm agency's well-paid attorneys purge 'on,' 'and,' other such words from open records
Wednesday, Jan 18, 2012, 11:35AM CST
By Steve Miller
TWIA graphic

Open records lawyers for the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association toiled for hours writing up a challenge to an open records request that was largely unsuccessful.

But the records they fought to withhold were often single words, including “re,” “and,” “draft” and “on.”

The newly released records also include correspondence to former employee Bill Tassin, who was fired in July. In a letter to TWIA from Tassin’s lawyer, he alleges his firing violated TWIA policy.

Tassin had moved to Austin from Lafayette, La., to work for TWIA. Tassin still represents himself as a TWIA employee.

But most records showed very little change and nothing apparent that would compromise or violate the state’s open records laws.

For example, this newly released version of billing from law firm Mitchell Williams simply includes the words, “with implementation amendment” and shows preparation for a meeting with the “lieutenant governor’s staff and senate business and commerce committee.”

The words, “redraft of amendments for” are also added, as well as “and review of latest draft of” regarding a meeting with interim General Manager John Polak.

In another revised document, also billing for Mitchell Williams, the words “with draft” are added, as well as the phrase “and revision of.”

Based on records, it takes nearly three hours, at $545 an hour, for the Vinson & Elkins law firm to draft a request for an open records letter ruling from the attorney general. Following a ruling, lawyers spend more ratepayer-supported time excising the redactions from the documents. The agency spent $415,000 on open records legal fees between November 2010 and October.
 
***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of boat by flickr user Linda_Bisset, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Texas state windstorm insurance manager: Ike settlement and $39 million bill on legal fees "came out as well as it could"
Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011, 12:04PM CST
By Steve Miller
Hurricane Ike

The Texas Windstorm Insurance Association settled close to 2,800 total loss claims for $189 million in July because “we had to do our best to curtail legal costs and get it done and put it to bed,” said TWIA General Manager Jim Oliver.

“I’m fully aware that some people are going to disagree with what we did,” Oliver said in an interview Monday with Texas Watchdog. “But we’ve really been over this, and I would say it came out as well as it could.”

 

TWIA spent almost $39 million in legal fees defending Ike-related cases, including $5.2 million on the cases that were eventually settled for the $189 million, Oliver said.

 

The episode was the subject of a comprehensive public information request by state Rep. Larry Taylor last fall. Taylor said he was seeking the records in his role as co-chair of a legislative panel overseeing TWIA. His request was opposed by Houston attorney Steve Mostyn, who claimed that granting the request would reveal private information regarding the litigants. The state Attorney General's office ruled the records were public.

 

Oliver said that reform of the settlement process is difficult, and that such a payout could happen again after a future storm.

 

“There’s no simple answer to settling these,” Oliver said. “We could improve things by requiring flood insurance and by having some kind of potential settlement set up in advance. But you have to be flexible because each storm is different.”

 

Oliver sent state lawmakers a letter in December 2009, disparaging the legal efforts of some claimants and defending the work of TWIA agents in the field.

 

Were some of the claimants overpaid?

 

“We have evidence that we shouldn’t pay more than we paid previously, and on the other end we had evidence that we owed more than that," he said.


Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.


Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feed in your newsreader. We're also onMySpaceDiggFriendFeed, NewsVine and tumblr.


Photo of Hurricane Ike by flickr user NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, used via a Creative Commons license.

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.

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