Ethics complaint filed on campaign cash in water district races

Posted Thursday, Oct. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Campaign contributions were improperly handled with the intention of hiding the identity of a major donor during the hotly contested Tarrant Regional Water District board election in May, according to Texas Ethics Commission complaints filed this week.

Jerry Jenkins, who operates a machinery business in Azle, filed the complaints Monday alleging that contributions totaling $125,000 to a political action committee from Dallas businessman and rancher Monty Bennett were improperly reported on campaign forms before the money was distributed to three board challengers, according to the complaint.

Mary Kelleher, who won a board seat, received money that originated from Bennett as did John Basham and Timothy Nold, who both lost, the complaint states. Bennett, Nold and Kelleher ran on a slate known as “BNK.”

Kelleher, Basham and Nold said in separate interviews Thursday they had been notified of the complaints against them during telephone calls from the Texas Ethics Commission. They said they were told a paper copy of the complaint would be mailed to them within about a week.

Bennett didn’t return messages left at his Dallas office this week seeking comment.

Basham said in an email he will “look forward to happily providing any and all information the state ethics commission might request.”

“I truly do believe in open, honest government, and that includes the people who run for office, including me,” Basham said. “I will address any valid complaints openly and honestly.”

Writing checks “willy-nilly”

Jenkins said he doesn’t have ties to the candidates but followed the election closely as a private citizen and objected to the way the campaign contributions were handled.

“Once you donate money you are responsible for how you disclose it,” Jenkins said in a phone interview. “You and I can’t write checks willy-nilly, and not be responsible for it.”

Bennett owns a ranch east of Dallas, and has filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the water district’s effort to build a pipeline across his property to bring water to the Metroplex.

In April and May, Bennett made four contributions totaling $125,000 to an Austin political action committee, HillCo PAC, the ethics complaint alleges. HillCo then made three contributions totaling $125,000 to Basham.

Basham, Nold and Kelleher ran together as a slate, with a “BNK” logo on mailings, signs and online publications. Basham then contributed $38,716 to Kelleher’s campaign and $39,515 to Nold’s campaign, the complaint states, citing state campaign disclosure reports.

Tim Sorrells, ethics commission chief counsel, said his agency does not discuss ongoing investigations, or even acknowledge a complaint has been filed. Complaints are only made public if the allegations are upheld after an investigation, he said.

Another complaint

It’s not the first batch of complaints stemming from the high-profile May election, during which the three newcomers nearly unseated long-time board members in an unprecedented campaign.

In April, complaints were filed against each of the then-water district board members — Vic Henderson, Hal Sparks, Jack Stevens, Marty Leonard and Jim Lane — accusing them of using public dollars on a campaign mailer.

That case is also still pending, said Fort Worth businessman Adrian Murray, who filed the complaint.

Murray, who supported Basham, Kelleher and Nold but didn’t actively work on their campaigns, said he filed those complaints because he objected to the use of water district funds to pay for a mailed newsletter touting the water district’s accomplishments. The mailer was a glossy, 10-page document, he said.

“It extolled the virtues of the board members, and it was paid for with public money,” Murray said in a phone interview.

Henderson, who was re-elected and is board chairman, said the mailer was a legitimate effort to inform residents of the goings-on of their water district, and not a piece of campaign material in disguise.

Nold said that after his loss in the water district election he intended to go back to private life, and until he heard about the ethics complaints he had hoped the bitter politics were behind him.

“I was kind of content to be done with the whole thing,” he said.

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

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