Coziness among city officials, advisors, and the drilling industry is making some folks hold their noses.
By JEFF PRINCE photos Naomi Vaughan
Fort Worth residents who have watched gas rigs grow in number in recent years are concerned about what they see as conflicts of interest among city staff and elected officials. One of urban drilling’s leading opponents, Don Young, refers to what’s going on at City Hall as “hanky panky” – probably not illegal but certainly troublesome and unethical.
Examples: Former Mayor Ken Barr helped draft the city’s early urban gas drilling ordinance in 2001, left office, and eventually went to work for Chesapeake Energy. Mike Moncrief replaced him as mayor and oversaw subsequent ordinance revisions, and yet he votes regularly on gas drilling issues even as he rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from investments in those same drilling companies. Danny Scarth served as a neighborhood representative on the 2006 task force, then took money from drillers to help fund a successful campaign for a city council seat.
“There’s something wrong when you’ve got lead city officials that … sold their souls to the industry,” said Gary Hogan, a member of the 2006 and 2008 gas drilling task forces.
From Austin to Washington D.C., lobbyists are paid to influence the government for the benefit of special interest groups, and the ethical lapses involved are often glaring. Somebody works for the government one day shaping the rules, the next day they’re representing a private company that exploits those rules. The practice was so rampant among Pentagon officials and military contractors that a federal “revolving door” law was passed that requires government officials who make contracting decisions to wait a year before going to work for military contractors in related fields.
The Texas Ethics Commission recommends a two-year “revolving door” waiting period for former board members and executive directors of state regulatory agencies. State law, however, doesn’t prohibit lawmakers from becoming lobbyists overnight.
President-elect Barack Obama has promised to tighten ethics practices in his administration, saying he will exclude lobbyists from helping to pay for his transition to power and ban them from working for his team in areas in which they’ve represented clients in the past year.
By those measures, Barr has no ethical conflict in his gas drilling work. More than four years passed between the time he stepped down as mayor and when he began working in community and government relations for Chesapeake Energy.
David Lunsford, on the other hand, served as the city’s lead inspector for gas wells beginning in 2004. Part of his job was screening complaints from the public and providing information to the 2006 task force and city council. He resigned in June and is now working at Universal Ensco Inc., an oil and gas pipeline survey company working in the Barnett Shale.
“One of his jobs was to keep track of complaints on gas drilling, and he said repeatedly that nobody was complaining about this. Yet when I’ve said that to other people, they’ve said that’s bullshit – we’ve called him a hundred times to complain about the noise,” Young said. “One day he’s working for the city, next day he’s working for a pipeline company. There’s something wrong there. It looks like his sentiments lay with the industry, and he may not have represented the public in his job. And now he’s working for the other side.”
The appearance of unethical behavior might be diminished if former city employees were required to wait at least a year before joining the industry, Young said.
“But he jumped right in and used his connections in the industry to get a job, and now he knows how the city operates and can use that knowledge to help pipelines get put in,” he said. “Taxpayers paid for his education in the gas drilling industry, and now he’s using it against us.”
Lunsford did not return calls seeking comment.
Skeptics also question the city’s hiring of a California-based sound mitigation expert to consult on a noise ordinance, when the same company works for drillers. In 2006, Dale Resources, one of the area’s top drillers, hired Don Behrens to advise the city task force on sound mitigation issues. Behrens is president of Behrens & Associates’ Environmental Noise Control Inc. of Hawthorne, Calif.
Behrens explained the process of muffling sound at drilling sites, and his comments helped shape the ordinance that the task force and city officials created to regulate a noisy industry. At the same time, Behrens’ company established an office in Aledo and began providing noise mitigation materials – barriers and sound blankets – to drillers in town.
Later, the city of Fort Worth hired Behrens as a consultant, paying him $82,040, to advise city staff on establishing a comprehensive noise ordinance. Drilling critics again yelled about a conflict of interest.
Assistant City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider was ever-present at gas drilling task force meetings in 2006 and 2008 and dealt frequently with Behrens. Fort Worth Weekly asked her if it was a conflict of interest for Behrens to receive money as a city consultant on sound mitigation ordinances while also being paid by the industry for similar consultations, all while selling sound mitigation services to local drillers.
“He doesn’t sell the products as far as I know,” she said. “My understanding was he was a noise consultant and does not sell blankets or any type of equipment. If he’s branched out since we’ve hired him, I don’t know that.”
Fort Worth resident Jim Ashford scoffed at her claim. Ashford said he has repeatedly complained about Behrens’ potential for conflict of interest in meetings attended by Fullenwider.
“Behrens is telling them how to write the ordinance, how to interpret sound and what all the words mean, and they don’t want to listen to anybody else but him,” Ashford said. “For a city being aboveboard and trying not to have a potential conflict of interest, this is bizarre. It’s been going on for more than two years.”
Behrens insists no conflict of interest occurred. During the 2006 task force meetings, “I was never hired by the city, I was paid by industry,” he said. “I did not write the language for the individual ordinance. I was a technical advisor.”
The city offered Behrens a consultant contract in 2007, but that was for a general noise ordinance, not a drilling-specific ordinance, he said. The gas drilling task force didn’t meet in 2007.
“Our work was focused on Sundance Square and the citywide noise evaluation and to provide the city of Fort Worth with a summary of comparative noise ordinances throughout the United States in similar-sized cities,” he said. “There was absolutely nothing to do with oil and gas at all.”
Or was there?
Ashford recalled complaining to the city about noise coming from a gas compressor near his East Fort Worth neighborhood in 2007. A short time later, a city inspector and Behrens arrived to do a sound study. Their survey, in Ashford’s opinion, leaned heavily in favor of the drilling company.
“Behrens has been involved in some of the sound studies near me, and virtually everything he’s been involved with – I don’t know how else to say this – stinks,” he said. “There is a very strong potential for conflict of interest.”
During the 2008 task force meetings, Behrens offered advice on sound mitigation and cooperated with city staff on noise studies. Asked who paid him in 2008, Behrens said he was paid by the city through money left over from the 2007 contract – a “nominal amount” he couldn’t recall off the top of his head. In other words, he was being paid by the city to advise on sound mitigation issues in the drilling industry while also being paid by the industry, something he had denied just minutes before.
While an appearance of impropriety might exist with Behrens, some in the industry say he hasn’t exactly been helping their cause. His consultation spurred the city to add costly noise restrictions at drilling sites, Barr said.
“The noise requirements that have been added under the just-revised ordinance are really going to make a difference to our neighborhoods in Fort Worth,” the former mayor said. “The companies that were involved went along with them because they were practical solutions, but there is an enormous price tag to the industries for those restrictions. Most of those recommendations came from Mr. Behrens.”
A city ethics review committee theoretically could weigh in on these matters, such as the oil-rich Moncrief’s insistence on voting on drilling issues affecting companies from which he profits. But the committee hasn’t met in years. In 2004, shortly after Moncrief was sworn in, city council members Clyde Picht and Chuck Silcox asked the mayor to reactivate the committee. Moncrief refused, and then began his current ethics-challenged reign at city hall.