Dallas businessman donated more than $235,000 to Tarrant Regional Water District candidates

Posted Saturday, Jul. 19, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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In a 2011 letter to the Tarrant Regional Water District, Dallas businessman Monty Bennett vowed to “vigorously fight” a TRWD pipeline from going across his East Texas ranch.

The latest TRWD campaign finance reports show he is continuing to back up that pledge with his checkbook.

Bennett, chairman and chief executive of Dallas-based Ashford Hospitality Trust and Ashford Hospitality Prime, has contributed more than $235,000 to board member Mary Kelleher and two other candidates.

Bennett, who has sued the water district and fought eminent domain proceedings, has tried to compel the water district to reroute the $2.3 billion integrated pipeline around his East Texas ranch in Henderson County. The pipeline is designed to bring more water for Tarrant Regional and the city of Dallas. TRWD has said rerouting the pipeline would cost $6 million to $8 million.

In her campaign filings, Kelleher reported three donations from Bennett’s MJB Operating LP totaling $83,960.88. Craig Bickley and Melissa McDougall, who both declared themselves candidates in February in anticipation of a May election that was never held, received more than $75,000 each from Bennett.

Both state and federal lawsuits were filed against the water district to force it to hold an election in May to replace board members Jim Lane and Marty Leonard, whose terms had expired that month. But the U.S. Fifth Circuit of Appeals and Texas Supreme Court both declined to order an election.

In another ruling, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor said Lane and Leonard could serve “after the expiration of their terms until their successor is qualified.”

Kelleher questions board

This week, Kelleher accused her peers on the board of ignoring O’Connor’s ruling to appoint replacements for Lane and Leonard. The water district contends that state law allows Lane and Leonard to serve as holdovers until the board takes action, most likely at its August meeting. But Lane and Leonard would have served nearly three months as holdovers by the August meeting.

Kelleher, who has missed the last three meetings, said she believes the board, with Lane and Leonard, is operating without a quorum.

“By allowing unqualified (unelected or appointed) people to vote and participate in executive sessions the remaining members of the board could be violating the law and once again, be betraying the public trust,” Kelleher said in news release. “I remain ready, willing, and able to faithfully represent the people of Tarrant County once the board agrees to address this issue.”

Ross Fischer, a former chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission who has been retained by the water district, said Kelleher’s interpretation of O’Connor’s ruling is incorrect.

“Director Kelleher’s legal theories regarding the alleged lack of a quorum and compliance with Judge O’Connor’s opinion are inaccurate,” Fischer said in a statement. “We will be providing a legal analysis and proposed course of action to the TRWD Board at its August meeting.”

Kelleher or Bennett?

Kelleher was censured by the board in April, and board President Vic Henderson said one of the reasons the board took action was “directly tied to her conflicts of interest with Dallas County resident Monty Bennett.”

Kelleher said her votes are her own and she is not acting on Bennett's behalf.

“My in-kind contributions went to lawyers I needed to assist me in my request for records, to defend my right to express my individual board opinions, and to protect me against TRWD attacks,” Kelleher said. “I don’t have the bankroll the TRWD does, and I gladly accept contributions from anyone who shares my passion for transparency and accountability.”

But Lane said he still believes Kelleher is acting as Bennett’s proxy.

“This isn’t about Mary Kelleher vs. the Tarrant Regional Water District; this is all about Monty Bennett vs. the Tarrant Regional Water District,” Lane said. “Monty should just come over here and run. It’s as simple as that.”

Other finance reports

This week, Lane, Henderson and the two other incumbents also filed campaign finance reports.

Henderson and board member Jack Stevens both reported $1,000 campaign contribution from the Clean Water Committee, which has historically backed water board incumbents. Those were the only contributions both reported.

Lane reported no campaign contributions and a balance of $172.13, and Leonard reported a balance of $11,743.16 but no new contributions. Lane and Leonard’s seats — even if someone else is appointed to those positions — will be up for election next May since the water district moved the election date back one year.

John Basham, who ran as a candidate last year, did not file a post-election campaign finance report by the July 15 deadline. Basham, as head of Texans for Government Transparency, was involved in one of the two election lawsuits earlier this year against TRWD that was trying to force them to call an election in May. In a Facebook message, Basham didn’t say if he intended to file a campaign finance report.

Timothy Nold, who ran as a candidate last year on the same slate with Kelleher and Basham, reported no contributions and a balance of zero.

Legal maneuvering

Bennett filed suit against the water district last year, claiming it violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it approved parts of the pipeline project. His lawsuit said the board “rubber-stamped” a decision by water district staffers and committees without obtaining public input.

In February, the water district voted to start eminent domain proceedings for two parcels of land totaling about 11.6 acres that run through Bennett’s ranch in Henderson County. In December 2012, Bennett conveyed the parcels to the Lazy W District No. 1 municipal utility district that he helped form.

On Tuesday, Bennett’s representatives appeared before Henderson County Commissioners with a request to create a Fresh Water Supply District on his ranch, but the proposal was voted down 4-1. Bennett, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, told the Athens Daily Review that he has designated portions of the ranch near the pipeline route as a cemetery plot in an attempt to protect his 1,000-acre ranch.

“I don’t know anyone who is happy with the pipeline coming through their property,” Bennett told the Athens newspaper.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna

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