Saturday, September 18, 2004

Boiling Point

Charges fly as toll road rage boils over

September 18, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

The Great Toll Road Debate of 2004 has had its ugly moments almost from the minute sponsors unveiled the plan and its spider web of turnpikes in April.

But conflicting interests, and possible conflicts of interest, this week elevated the occasionally foul odor of the discussion to the sulfurous range. The wave of accusations, threats and insults at Monday's Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board meeting reached a level that participants later called unprecedented in their experience.

In the aftermath, even the notoriously blunt Gerald Daugherty, a Travis County commissioner who was on the losing side of the toll road question, was calling for an infusion of civility.

"It is time for us to put some decorum back into this community with regards to what we do with mobility and transportation," Daugherty said Thursday, drawing pounding applause from a packed Real Estate Council of Austin luncheon audience, many of its members at odds with Daugherty's toll road stance. "I will tell you that if there is another meeting that is conducted like the one Monday night . . . that I will absolutely walk out. We need to pull together in this community."

The CAMPO board's 23 members, all but two of them Central Texas legislators, county commissioners and city council members, clashed throughout the nearly six-hour meeting, at times getting into impromptu arguments with members of the public commenting on a proposal to alter the seven-tollway plan approved in July. But the situation boiled over when Sal Costello, a Circle C Ranch resident who has led a recall attempt against three Austin City Council members who voted for the toll road plan, came to an audience microphone and leveled conflict-of-interest charges against state Rep. Dawnna Dukes and state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, the board chairman. Both are Austinites and Democrats and both voted for the toll road plan.

Costello had made similar, but inaccurate, charges on his recall Web site earlier this summer, pulling them down after Jim George, a lawyer representing Dukes, sent him a letter threatening legal action. This time, with his facts better aligned, Costello said he wanted to get "on the record" his concerns about the propriety of Dukes voting on the toll road plan given that her sister Stacy Rhone is a subcontractor for the agency that will run the toll roads, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. Costello also pointed out that Barrientos is a long-time employee of Centex Beverages, owned by former Austin City Council member and former University of Texas regent Lowell Lebermann. Lebermann is vice chairman of the mobility authority board, an unpaid appointive position.

Dukes shot back at Costello: "I'd like to say, for the record: Jim George."

Rhone, according to records and interviews with mobility authority officials, has been doing public relations work since February for the mobility authority under a contract with HNTB, the mobility authority's general engineering contractor for its first project, the U.S. 183-A toll road. That tollway, already under construction, was unrelated to her sister's vote in July.

But Rhone also worked on public outreach on the seven-road plan in the runup to the July 12 vote. Her contract allows her to receive as much as $44,400.

According to Richard Ridings with HNTB, the lead engineer on the project, she has been paid $26,000 so far and has billed an additional $6,000.

Her contract specifies her start date as Feb. 1 this year, and the agency, in a letter to Barrientos released Friday, said Rhone has worked for the authority since Feb. 18. But Rhone did not sign the contract with HNTB until July 7. Ridings signed on July 13, the morning after the toll road vote.

Dukes has said she did not decide to vote for the toll plan until about a week before July 12. Ridings and the authority's executive director Mike Heiligenstein said the proximity of the contract signing and the toll plan vote is a coincidence. Ridings' company has certain insurance requirements that Rhone had to work out with his corporate bosses, he said, but Ridings allowed her to begin work without a signed contract while that matter was pending.

"Why the contract was signed in July, I have no idea," Ridings said, adding that the insurance problem was solved in June. "It should have been signed in June."

Heiligenstein said Rhone's hiring was not done with Dukes' CAMPO vote in mind.

"Not at all," Heiligenstein said. "I can tell you that I assumed that (Dukes) was not going to be on our side. . . . I never asked Stacy to approach her, and I don't think she did. There was never any kind of quid pro quo."

At least two of Dukes' CAMPO colleagues, after Dukes and Costello's testy dialogue, jumped in with questions about the connection.

State Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin, said he had a "parliamentary inquiry" of Barrientos. "What proper way is there to determine if a member of the board had a conflict of interest?"

After Barrientos deflected the inquiry, Stick pressed the issue, raising the idea that perhaps he would have to bring the matter to a prosecutor. Eventually Dukes entered the fray.

"I don't believe that I am on trial here," she said. "There is no judge or jury here."

Before long, Rhone came to an audience microphone to answer questions from Stick, who said Dukes has "potentially a serious and potentially illegal conflict of interest."

Stick quizzed Rhone about her arrangements with the mobility authority. Rhone, who has a master's degree in civil engineering, said she had a right to seek any work she is qualified to do, and that she does not discuss the toll project with her sister. She said there had been a lack of respect in the LBJ Auditorium that evening.

"If you look at the faces that you have been disrespectful to, look at the color of their skin," said Rhone, who is black. Toll opponents, most if not all of them white, reacted with boos.

Rhone is among at least eight consultants -- at a total authorized cost of about $700,000 -- who have done public relations work for the mobility authority this year. Heiligenstein said Grier-Bankett Consulting, Rhone's company, is part of a team, led by the TateAustin public relations firm, that is among five bidders seeking a longer-term marketing contract.

No state laws seem to apply to potential conflicts of interest on the CAMPO board, which is created under federal law and includes both state and local officials. State law does require a "local public official" with a "substantial interest" in a pending vote, or with a parent or child with that financial interest, to file an affidavit setting out that interest and, potentially, to abstain from voting. That law, even though it does cover legislators serving on CAMPO, would not apply to siblings.

The rules of the state House require a member with a "personal or private interest" in a pending bill to disclose that interest and not vote on the matter. But the rule applies only to actions at the Capitol, and it does not define what constitutes such an interest. The rules leave that determination to the House member.

The day after the meeting, Dukes' office issued a statement saying that Stick and state Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, had made "a baseless charge. This is trash politics and mean-spirited."

In an interview, Dukes said Stick has launched a "vendetta" because she participated in a campaign event for Stick's Democratic challenger Mark Strama, and later appeared in a photo on Strama's campaign Web site. She went on to say that Stick had been to public meetings on the toll plan, including one in Pflugerville, where Rhone was on hand doing public relations duties, and that she had given him materials and talked to him. Stick remembers the encounter but said it was a different woman he talked to and that she identified herself as a Texas Department of Transportation employee.

As for the propriety of voting on the toll plan, which would have passed easily without her vote or that of Barrientos, Dukes said Rhone's employment by the authority "was no secret. It was disclosed to everyone. . . . I've always made it very clear I'm going to do what's best for my (House) district."

Barrientos, for his part, has said in past interviews that his long-standing connection to Centex is well-known, disclosed every year on personal financial statements filed with the state, and that he is paid a minimal amount for the periodic consulting services he provides the beer distributorship. Barrientos pointed out Lebermann's past service on the board of regents and said that by the logic of his critics in this case, he would have been unable to vote on anything involving the university system.

By later in the week, Stick and Keel -- while continuing to maintain that Dukes and, to a lesser degree, Barrientos had a genuine conflict of interest -- had turned down the volume.

"They should have disclosed," Keel said, "and then a decision could have been made if it was appropriate for recusal. The failure to disclose makes it worse."

Stick had dropped any plans about contacting legal authorities.

"I'm sure that Rep. Dukes is familiar with the ethics rules, and I'm confident that if there is any conflict that she will disclose that promptly," he said.; 445-3698

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