Dallas millionaire donates more than $100,000 to challengers for water board

Posted Tuesday, May. 07, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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A wealthy rancher based in Dallas contributed more than $100,000 to a political action committee supporting a candidate leading an effort to toss out three veteran members of the Tarrant Regional Water District board.

Monty Bennett contributed $105,000 to HillCo Partners, an Austin-based PAC that turned around and donated money to the campaign of John Basham, according to a campaign finance report released Tuesday by the Texas Ethics Commission.

Bennett, who owns a ranch in Henderson County in East Texas, is suing the water district, contending that the administration illegally approved a $2.3 billion pipeline that cuts across his land.

His contribution — along with $100,000 from Bennie Bray, who also owns a ranch in East Texas that’s in the path of the pipeline — has turned what is usually a sleepy race for a seat on the five-member board into a high-profile affair. The election is Saturday.

Campaign fliers show Basham running with Timothy Nold and Mary Kelleher on a slate known as B N K. They and a fourth challenger, Dwayne Herring, are seeking to unseat incumbents Vic Henderson, Hal Sparks and Jack Stevens, who have more than 60 years of service among them on the board.

Basham previously denied receiving campaign contributions from Bennett, saying the funds came from HillCo Partners.

“I have donors who are affected by TRWD decisions across their 11-county service area,” Basham said. “Their only say in any election is by supporting open and honest challengers.”

The incumbents also reached far and wide to get campaign cash, he said.

“My opponents have received donations from four different states — from as far away as Arizona and Colorado,” Basham said. “Voters should decide which is worse: out-of-state TRWD contractors giving kickbacks or normal landowners affected by TRWD decisions.”

But Henderson, the board’s president, said the contributions are small by comparison and come from many individuals, including some from out of state.

“We are not talking about hundreds and thousands of dollars in donations,” Henderson said.

The individuals supporting Basham “are trying to buy the elections,” he said. “They may be successful.”

Fancy fliers

The Tarrant Regional Water District is one of the largest raw-water suppliers in Texas, with operations spanning 11 counties from Jack County to Freestone County.

The board oversees more than 150 miles of pipeline and maintenance of dams at its four reservoirs, and it also maintains 27 miles of floodway in Tarrant County.

Bennett is suing the water district, saying the board repeatedly violated the Open Meetings Act. The district is building a pipeline that would bring water from East Texas to Dallas and Fort Worth. The pipeline would cut across Bennett’s ranch, which has a wildlife preserve.

The money from Bennett and Bray has helped Basham afford a campaign that includes slick fliers that accuse the district of wasting money on luxury helicopters and private hunting leases. And robocalls featuring the fictional child “Captain Clean” criticize the board for not doing enough to maintain a good water supply and guarantee an adequate water supply.

Running on record

Henderson said he and fellow incumbents Stevens and Sparks are running on their qualifications and history of providing quality water and flood control. The district has also denied that the helicopter is luxurious, saying it’s used to inspect pipelines.

The Clean Water Committee, a political action committee supporting the incumbents, raised slightly more than $35,000 and spent more than $21,856 during the most recent reporting period. Among the firms contributing to the PAC were local engineering firms Freese and Nichols ($1,000) and CDM Smith ($3,000).

The PAC also lent Henderson and Stevens $15,000 each, according to campaign reports.

Otherwise, no incumbent reported raising more than $3,550 or spending more than $15,502 in the last month.

Henderson, who said he is reluctant to go on the attack, said his opponents have not stated how they would handle future water needs for North Texas.

But he is afraid of what might happen if they win the seats.

“Can you imagine if they got three on the board and stopped the contracts? That would be disastrous,” Henderson said.

Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696 Twitter: @fwstliz

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