Dated April 17, 2014, the open records demand from Gooden to the TRWD was like none the district had seen before.
Bold, demanding, and sprinkled with accusations, Gooden’s message brusquely commanded the rendering of a voluminous amount of documents that would finally bring the inner workings of the TRWD into the public eye.
“As you are aware, TRWD has hired multiple lobbyists with taxpayer dollars and submitted numerous special requests to the Texas legislature over the years regarding various issues, including the request to move the dates of the TRWD election and to broaden TRWD’s power of eminent domain for ‘economic development,’ ” wrote Gooden, who penned the letter just over a month after he lost the Republican primary after two terms in office. “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.”
You could almost picture the writer stewing, tiny specks of froth at the corners of his mouth, as he wrote the caustic missive.
The lame duck Republican from Henderson County requested, under the color of his soon-to-be vacated office, many of the same things that Kelleher had fruitlessly asked for six months earlier: check registers, expense allowances, credit card bills, e-mails, contracts, and most things dealing with J.D. Granger.
Kelleher had received little save for a public reprimand and the enduring enmity of her colleagues on the district’s board.
Gooden gave them two weeks to get him the materials.
He never got his information. By September, Gooden sat in front of a grand jury in Henderson County. The prosecutor there, Scott McKee, like Gooden, has been on the receiving end of political money from Bennett, a $1,000 donation in February 2014 and in-kind contributions of $255.96 for meeting space and a dinner.
The money spent by Bennett on supporting challengers of the district is not connected to his lawsuits against the district, said Bill Brewer, of Bickel & Brewer, the Dallas law firm representing Bennett.
“What others might be doing, I’m not involved in any of that,” Brewer said. “I’m not surprised that one of the people associated with the case might be impacted by decisions made by the water district. I would support people who are for good government and transparent government.”
Gooden, who did not return calls or e-mails for this story, would have no political career if not for the benevolence of Bennett. Between 2011 and 2013, Bennett gave $104,000 in contributions and in-kind donations to Gooden’s short-lived political career.
For his part, Gooden wrote legislation in 2011 to form the Lazy W District No. 1, a municipal utility district.
Bennett received a letter in December 2010 from the TRWD, requesting access to his property. He knew it was the first shot in a bid to take some of the Lazy W for a planned water pipeline. In January 2011, he fired back a pointed note, asking the district to go away.
Gooden filed the legislation in May 2011, and Bennett claimed that the land being sought for a TRWD pipeline could not be seized under eminent domain as it had governmental immunity. The ensuing legal action is still being fought in appellate courts.
Then there are the other pals and associates Bennett has tapped. His old college friend from Cornell, Larry Meyers, is an accomplished Los Angeles-based finance writer and businessman who also penned an occasional column for the conservative website Breitbart.
When Bennett called him to tell him about the TRWD and his struggle with the agency, Meyers agreed to help.
“There was no official request,” Meyers said. “What he did was tell me what was going on, and I said, ‘I don’t like that any of this is going on,’ taking his ranch and so on. But then as I investigated some more, it wasn’t just the ranch. It was tons of other properties everywhere. I’m a big anti-corruption guy, and I said, ‘I know this is really worth pursuing, and it will happen to help out a friend.’ ”
In addition to two stories that Meyers wrote for Breitbart, he also completed a 7,000-word report that included full background assessments on sitting board members and included a section that begins, “You’ve stated your two primary goals are: Establish a criminal investigation and/or indictment, [and] remove Lane and Leonard in a 2014 election.”
Among other recommendations for the criminal investigation, it suggests, “have an experienced and reliable private detective surveil Jim Oliver and J.D. Granger, dig through their garbage, the TRWD’s garbage, see who they meet with,” and so on.
The report was submitted to Texans for Government Transparency, a group operated by failed district board candidate John Basham, who is part of the district’s opposition.
Many of the public records requests have also been part of Bennett-connected efforts to usurp the district in one way or another.
In 2013, someone named Andrew Ludwig began a long and convoluted effort to obtain records from the TRWD, materials that are in most cases public. Ludwig, though, lacked the finesse of a savvy reporter in his requests, firing them off one after another, a parry of communications, each one asking for something different.
Most requests wrap everything into one, making it a single request to track on each end, making the process simpler for everyone. Ludwig’s requests seemed unduly aggressive, almost harassing.
He used his e-mail address but avoided the common practice of attaching his phone number to the request. As his home addresses, he showed an apartment in northeast Dallas in a middle class neighborhood. LinkedIn also shows a profile for an Andrew Ludwig who worked for the investment arm of Ashford Hospitality.
Monty Bennett’s company was using a lackey to rapid-fire requests to the district.
In a five-minute period on March 15, 2013 –– a Friday –– Ludwig filed five requests via e-mail for various 2013 budgets. Ludwig sent one more, two hours later, asking for “the water rates that TRWD charges the City of Fort Worth going back to 1990 as well as the tax rates TRWD charges its residents over the same time period.”
Ludwig did not return several e-mails asking for a comment.
Meyers, the Breitbart writer, did much of the same, although most of his queries were more tempered.
Still, Meyers e-mailed three open records requests in a one-minute period in 2013, asking for e-mails between various members of the district. Meyers filed 27 requests in 2013 or 20 percent of all requests.
Board member Stevens said Bennett’s bitter fight is “selfish.”
“When we put the pipeline through,” Stevens continued, “we tried to miss the most people and going through other property. To go around him would cost $3 million and impact 30 to 40 other properties, which would include other homes instead of his. He has the means to mess with us, but what about those other people?”
Bennett, who declined to be interviewed and insisted only on communicating via e-mail, said that Stevens was wrong.
“This is absurd,” Bennett wrote. “If they ran the pipeline under [U.S. Highway 175] like I suggested four years ago, then no property owners would be affected. Even if they didn’t do that, why can’t they follow along some of the dozens of existing water, gas, oil, and power easements between East Texas and the Metroplex? The reason is that it’s just easier for them to trample on private citizens’ rights by taking our land.”
Bennett’s framing of the dispute as private citizen against a powerful government agency is hardly apt, said board member Lane. Besides, any beefs the public has with the system can be addressed by a state lawmaker, Lane said. Legislators have determined the duties of the district.
“We’re charged with developing water plans,” Lane said. “They need to talk to legislators. All we’re doing is playing by the rules.”
The TRWD hasn’t been reluctant to talk to legislators. For the current legislative session, it employs a stable of 11 lobbyists or lobbying firms, three of them making between $50,000 and $99,999 per year. In 2013, 13 lobbyists reported working for TRWD, four of them making between $50,000 and $99,999.
In Washington last year, the TRWD spent $310,000 on four different firms and lobbyists.
Such big spending creates at least the perception of a political Goliath that can often be out of reach of the public.
In January, William Wright, a critic of the district over the years, sent identical letters to every member of the TRWD board.
The missive concerned water levels on Eagle Mountain Lake, where they had receded to expose tree stumps that Wright believed were creating a hazard to boaters.
In a familiar scenario, Wright, an elderly gentleman who has claimed he has sent open records requests that have been ignored, didn’t receive a single response. None of the board members acknowledged the letter.
At the board’s March meeting, Wright showed up and explained that he had received no response.
“Having received no answer, I thought I’d come here” Wright said, clutching his letters.
The letter “fell through the cracks,” said District General Manager Alan Thomas, “and I apologize. I thought one of our staff members was going to call you … ”
“I didn’t send you a copy of the letter,” Wright replied.
Once again, another resident was left wondering if the district cared a whit what the public thought.
Once again, thank you Weekly for speaking truth to power. The mere escalation of “open records requests” should have been concerning to current board members to review their behavior and operations as a board. They are a body of public citizens who are charged with responding to public concerns….not obstruct. I hope citizens of Fort Worth will read this article becoming more aware of the need for change. These are tax dollars being wasted on legal contracts versus being responsive to citizen inquiries. Oops your letter fell between the cracks is not reflective of a public entity taking care of public concerns.