Tarrant water district incumbents benefitted from donations

Posted Saturday, Jul. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Some of the biggest movers and shakers in Fort Worth donated feverishly to three long-time Tarrant Regional Water District candidates in the final days before the hotly contested May 11 election in a late push to help them keep their positions.

A group known as the Clean Water Committee spent $103,333.88, much of it on mailings, newspaper and radio advertisements, telephone messages and neighborhood outreach in support of the three incumbents, a review of campaign finance records shows. The expenditures are included in campaign finance reports that candidates were required by state law to file by Monday, covering expenditures and contributions May 2 through June 30.

The Clean Water Committee accepted donations from numerous current and former elected officials as well as business owners to launch a campaign in support of incumbents Hal Sparks, Vic Henderson and Jack Stevens. The incumbents faced a surprise opposition from a slate of candidates backed by a pair of Dallas property owners who opposed the Tarrant Regional Water District’s plans to build a pipeline in East Texas. Henderson and Stevens were re-elected, but Sparks was defeated.

Mary Kelleher was the lone challenger to win election, garnering the most votes of any candidate for the water district, which is responsible for securing long-term water supplies for Fort Worth, Arlington and many other cities in the western part of North Texas. Kelleher ran on a slate with John Basham and Timothy Nold — all of whom benefited from at least $225,000 in campaign contributions from the Dallas landowners.

During the campaign, the incumbents criticized their challengers for taking such large sums of money for their campaigns. But the latest finance reports show that the incumbents benefited from big contributions, too.

“They made statements that were eye-catching, and that caused us to have to spend some money to respond,” said Henderson, who serves as board president.

Among those contributing to the Clean Water Committee during the nine days leading up to the election were: the campaign fund of Congresswoman Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, $5,000; lawyer Dee Kelly, $1,000; the Good Government Fund, $7,500; the Greater Fort Worth Real Estate Council political action committee, $1,000; Mike Moncrief campaign, $250; former Fort Worth Mayor and current North Texas Tollway Authority board Chairman Kenneth Barr, $250; Brian and Sandra Newby, $350 and Friends of Mark Shelton, $1,000.

The final weeks of the campaign featured numerous fliers mailed to residents of the water district. Fliers mailed by the challengers accused the incumbents of being too entrenched in the water district and spending lavishly on items such as a helicopter and hunting lease at Lake Bridgeport.

But in the final days of the campaign, the incumbents fired back with mailers of their own, essentially accusing the challengers of being puppets of Dallas landowners Monty Bennett and Bennie Bray, both of whom oppose the water district’s plans to build a pipeline possibly cutting across their property to bring water to Tarrant County.

The incumbents argued that the pipeline connecting the Metroplex to Lake Palestine in East Texas was crucial to the region’s ability to secure enough water for its booming population.

The huge expenditure to get the incumbents re-elected apparently leaves the Clean Water Committee with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. The Clean Water Committee raised $38,400 in contributions during that time, and also had a balance of $28,907.36 on the last day of the reporting period, according to the report. But the group also had $30,000 in outstanding loans.

The committee treasurer, Eric Fox of southwest Fort Worth, couldn’t be reached to elaborate on contributions and expenditures. A call to Fox’s phone number listed on the report yielded a recorded message saying Fox was “unreachable.”

The candidates also filed individual campaign reports. Henderson, Sparks and Stevens each reported $13,415 in in-kind political contributions from the Clean Water Committee during that period.

Less clear was the final tally of expenditures and contributions for the slate of challengers. Basham, Kelleher and Nold missed the Monday deadline to file their campaign reports, although Kelleher and Nold filed their reports a few days late.

Kelleher’s report was delivered by hand on Friday afternoon, water district spokesman Chad Lorance said.

Kelleher said Wednesday and Thursday that she was unaware that she had to file a post-election campaign finance report and said she planned to file it belatedly.

Kelleher’s report showed only one additional expenditure of $750 — a campaign loan repaid to Travis Teselle of Benbrook.

Nold’s report arrived by mail Friday, Lorance said. Nold reported spending $70.10 on district travel since the last filing period. He maintained a balance of $262.75 in political contributions, according to the report.

“The majority of our printing and expenses occurred in the previous filing period,” he said in an email.

Basham said Thursday that his report has been sent to the water district.

“I mailed my report; I complied with the law. I’m done,” he said, declining to elaborate.

Campaign reports showed that Basham received $125,000 from Bennett through HillCo Partners and $100,000 from Bray. HillCo reported contributions of $20,000 in June and $105,000 in May from Bennett — and $125,000 in expenditures totaling $125,000 to Basham’s campaign, according to the reports on file at the Texas Ethics Commission.

HillCo reported no further contributions or expenditures involving Bennett or Basham in its most recent report July 5.

Bennett and Bray oppose a major pipeline the water district is building to bring water from Lake Palestine to the Metroplex because it may cut across their land. The pipeline is needed because of rapid population growth, officials said.

The campaign featured slick campaign fliers on both sides. The challengers accused the long-time board members of buying a luxury helicopter and owning a hunting lease that they could use. They also questioned whether the board had properly approved the purchase of the land needed for the pipeline.

The incumbents fired back with robocalls from civic leaders and full-page ads in the newspaper saying the challengers’ accusations were false and erroneous.

The election was extremely tight, and in early voting it appeared all three challengers might pull off an upset. The top three vote-getters among seven candidates were awarded seats on the board, under the water district’s rules.

Ultimately, Kelleher received 8,942 votes, followed by Stevens with 7,884 votes and Henderson with 7,525 votes. Basham finished in fourth place with 7,435 — just 90 ballots fewer than Henderson — followed by Speaks with 7,432 votes. Nold received 6,464 votes, followed by another challenger, Timothy Herring, who received 2,864 votes.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson

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