Dallas businessman keeps up fight against Tarrant Regional Water District

04/26/2014 12:00 AM

04/25/2014 1:51 PM

On Jan. 28, 2011, Monty Bennett laid down the gauntlet in a letter to the Tarrant Regional Water District.

At the time, the water district was seeking entry to his property, East Texas Ranch LP, in Henderson County to survey for the $2.3 billion integrated pipeline that is now under construction to bring water to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Bennett wanted no part of it.

He warned Tarrant Regional that he would do everything legally possible to stop them.

“Be advised that I will vigorously fight any attempt to place any portion of your pipeline on or under the Property,” Bennett wrote in 2011. “I therefore respectfully suggest that public funds would be better spent locating an alternate route for your pipeline than fighting an extremely long and costly battle with me on this issue.”

In the past three years, Bennett’s battles with the water district have taken him from the courthouse to the court of public opinion. Besides fighting eminent domain proceedings, Bennett has filed a lawsuit against Tarrant Regional claiming it violated the Open Records Act and supported a slate of three candidates who were trying to oust the incumbents and change the course of the project.

Last year, Bennett met with state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, at Lucille’s Restaurant in Fort Worth and told him his position hadn’t changed.

“I think he’s incredibly passionate about it,” Geren said last week. “He made it clear he doesn’t want this pipeline going through his property.”

Bennett, chairman and CEO of Dallas-based Ashford Hospitality Trust, Ashford Hospitality Prime and Ashford Hospitality Prime, has a different recollection.

“Mr. Bennett remembers the meeting and exchange quite differently,” said Elise Chittick, a spokeswoman with Ashford Hospitality Trust. “Mr. Bennett believes that elected governmental bodies need to be accountable and transparent to voters and citizens and that he is dedicated to articulating and supporting this principle.

“Given the TRWD’s track record of declining to honor even legal open records requests, it appears citizens of Ft. Worth and environs have work to do,” the statement continued.

Lawsuits and

election challenges

At the heart of the dispute is the massive pipeline that is being built in a partnership with Dallas Water Utilities.

The project, known as the IPL, will essentially double the amount of water that can be pumped to Tarrant County from the district’s Richland-Chambers and Cedar Creek reservoirs in East Texas. It would also allow Dallas to bring water from Lake Palestine, also in East Texas.

The first phase of the project is expected to be completed by 2018.

But when the water district laid out a path for the pipeline, it went right through Bennett’s exotic game ranch. Re-routing the pipeline would cost an additional $6 million to $8 million and would effect as many as 30 property owners, the water district said.

Last year, Bennett filed suit against the water district, 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 another sign of how he wanted to change the course of the pipeline and the agency, Bennett supported a slate of three candidates against three incumbents in last year’s elections. One of those challengers, Mary Kelleher, won a seat in the May 2013 election. Bennett contributed $125,000 to a political action committee that supported their campaigns.

Kelleher’s was the lone vote against the water district’s decision to start eminent domain proceedings in February on 11.6 acres that run through Bennett’s ranch. The land is now part of the LAZY W District No. 1, a municipal utility district created by the Legislature in 2011. Court documents show Bennett as its president.

But to keep the political pressure on the water board and hopefully changes its makeup, there have also been legal attempts in state and federal court to force Tarrant Regional to call an election this May after Geren, a former water board member, filed the legislation in 2013 that moved the election date back from May 2014 to May 2015.

One of those lawsuits involved John Basham, one of three candidates who challenged the incumbents last year and was supported by Bennett. But the Texas Supreme Court and the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld lower-court rulings and denied requests to call the election.

A new request for

same information

The water district also faces challenges from Bennett partisans outside of Tarrant County.

Earlier this month, state Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, jumped into the fray, filing an Open Records request on April 17 that asked for many of the same Tarrant Regional records that Kelleher has been seeking since last November.

Gooden, who lost the March primary election to Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman, has received more campaign contributions from Bennett than any other candidate since 2011, according to Texas Ethics Commission filings.

Since 2011, Gooden has received $90,000 in campaign contributions, including $56,000 of in-kind mail this year, from Bennett.

Gooden, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, also filed HB 3864 that became law in 2011 and created the LAZY W District No. 1.

Gooden’s letter said he was asking for the Tarrant Regional documents because his district includes parts of Henderson and Kaufman counties through which “your operations extend.”

Gooden’s request includes correspondence and expense reports of some staff and board members, including general manager Jim Oliver, as well as communication with TRWD’s lobbyists. He also asked for any documents “reflecting payments or reimbursements to Jim Oliver or his Family Members, e.g. if the TRWD were to pay Jim Oliver’s mortgage, his credit card bills, his utility bills, his car payments, vacation expenses, etc.

“As an elected Texas State Representative, these special requests, coupled with your refusal to permit access to TRWD books and records requested in writing by a member of your own Board of Directors, create concern that the TRWD is not being operated in compliance with the laws of the State of Texas,” Gooden wrote.

In a prepared statement, the water district said: “We will address Rep. Gooden’s public information request in accordance with the laws of the state of Texas.”

Kelleher appreciates

Gordon’s request

Kelleher said in an email that she welcomed Gooden’s efforts because she has been stymied in her efforts to obtain information.

“I applaud and appreciate … Gooden’s recent request for the same financial records I requested months ago and look forward to TRWD general manager Jim Oliver’s and my fellow Director’s responses to this elected official’s request for financial records,” Kelleher said.

“It should be a criminal offense and is just plain wrong to refuse any elected official the right to review the financial records for the public agency they have taken an oath to oversee,” she said.

But fellow board member Jim Lane said many of the allegations in Kelleher and Gooden’s request are baseless.

“Some of the things she asked for don’t exist,” Lane said. “She wanted copies of checks that paid mortgages for the board members. That’s just crazy.”

But Lane has little doubt why Gooden filed the request.

When asked if Gooden filed the request on Bennett’s behalf, Lane said: “Oh sure. Of course. We’ve just been worn out with the same requests over and over, and everything has shown we have been following the law.”

Kelleher, who filed an Open Records request Nov. 5 against the water district, had her request withdrawn on Jan. 15 when she failed to respond within 61 days to a letter asking her to clarify or narrow it. She then filed a lawsuit Jan. 17 seeking records and depositions from TRWD staff, but dropped that suit April 21.

Ross Fischer, an Austin attorney and former chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission who has been retained by the water district to help with its Open Records requests, said a legislator can ask for certain confidential documents but “the district can apply our confidentiality agreement” to the request and “the representative will have to specify the legislative purpose for which he or she” is asking for the records. The matter could ultimately could end up being decided by the Texas attorney general’s office.

Request for

official inquiry

Lane said he has become tired of the campaign of innuendo against the district.

In March, he sent a letter to Melissa McDougall and Craig Bickley, who had both announced their intention to run for the water board if an election were held this year, inviting them to report any allegations of “political corruption, bribery or improper influence” to the Tarrant County district attorney’s office. He has made the same offer to Kelleher and said he has received no response.

“I don’t think she knows what’s she’s looking for,” Lane said referring to Kelleher. “I think it’s just a fishing exhibition.”

But Lane said Tarrant Regional’s two high-profile projects — the integrated pipeline and the $909 million Trinity River Project — now have people paying attention to the water district.

“It’s all about the integrated pipeline and the Trinity River Vision Project,” Lane said. “People woke up and said ‘What’s going on out there?’ ”

In his 219-page response to the eminent-domain proceedings in Henderson County, Bennett’s lawyers accused the water district of having a vendetta against him.

“The COURT should note that TRWD appears to be targeting LAZY W due to a long-running dispute with LAZY W’s president, Monty Bennett,” the filing said “In addition to filing the lawsuit referenced above, Mr. Bennett supported candidates who challenged three incumbent TRWD board members in the May 2013 elections. During the elections, two current TRWD board members mailed thousands of flier to voters attracking Mr. Bennett personally."

While Tarrant Regional has argued it would be too costly to re-route the pipeline, Bennett has shown he is unlikely to give up the fight.

Based on their meeting, Geren said the dispute likely won’t end anytime soon.

“He told me how important that ranch was to his mother,” Geren said. “He said she cries every time she thinks about that pipeline going under or through their ranch. He wants to keep that from happening.”

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