Attorney General Ken Paxton has put the kibosh on a key piece of information we were seeking through an open records request. The denial is a win for the Fort Worth school district’s protectors of secrets and scuttlebutt and a loss for government transparency.
School district board members are elected to serve their constituents by establishing goals and visions, setting policies, overseeing budgets, and installing a competent superintendent. Sometimes, board members seem more intent on scratching the backs of campaign donors and school district vendors. Our most recent effort to spotlight ethical lapses by board members (“Ethics for Sale?,” May 2018) involved the Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson law firm that donates heavily to local, state, and national elections.
Linebarger partner Stephen Meeks rebuked claims of wrongdoing at his firm, which enjoys an exclusive contract to collect delinquent property taxes for the school district. In 2015, the year before Linebarger was awarded its current six-year contract, political donations from Linebarger to some Fort Worth school board trustees spiked, according to public records.
Then came the 2016 vote.
Tobi Jackson, the school board president at the time, voted in line with her colleagues — except trustee Ashley Paz –– to award the lucrative contract to Linebarger. Shortly after, watchdog groups and newspapers cried foul, stating that Jackson should have recused herself from the vote because of a conflict of interest. At the time, she was earning a salary as executive director of SPARC, a nonprofit that provides after-school programs within Fort Worth. The connection between SPARC and Linebarger is partner Barbara Williams, who volunteered on SPARC’s board at the time, meaning the Linebarger lawyer was contributing to Jackson’s salary in a roundabout way –– nonprofit board members are expected to contribute financially or through in-kind services to the charities they serve, according to standard nonprofit board practices. (Williams has since stepped down from the SPARC board.)
Not so fast, Jackson told reporters at the time. She said she had obtained a legal ruling from Leasor Crass, a local law firm that had no affiliation with the school district at the time, saying her work with SPARC did not constitute a conflict of interest. In early 2017, Jackson brought on Leasor Crass as legal counsel for the school board. The school district maintains its own cadre of lawyers independent from the board.
In December 2017, as part of our reporting on Linebarger, we requested Jackson’s legal ruling of non-conflict. Leasor Crass appealed citing attorney-client privilege. The AG upheld the appeal. We called the AG’s office recently and were politely but firmly informed that our only remaining recourse was to appeal through the courts — something this penny-ante operation simply can’t afford.
Jackson maintains that the as-of-yet-undisclosed legal ruling clears her of any wrongdoing. Because the AG’s office sided with Crass, we can’t confirm or deny otherwise. No one can.