Links between campaign contributions and kickbacks are nothing new in politics, and in Texas, those exchanges rarely result in ethics violation enforcements. The state’s ethics laws “generally emphasize disclosure over prohibition,” one director at the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) recently told me, meaning public office candidates and officials typically have little to fear once donations are publicly disclosed. In recent years, local examples of ethically precarious election gifts have involved members of Fort Worth school district’s board of trustees (“Ethics for Sale?” May 2018) and Tarrant County’s current tax assessor-collector (“Keeping Tabs on TAD,” Jan. 6).
Following Mayor Betsy Price’s January announcement that she would not seek reelection, many wondered how and when the influence of special interests would aim to unduly influence the race for Fort Worth’s top elected position. During our research into donations made to four frontrunner candidates for mayor, contributions to Councilmember and mayoral candidate Brian Byrd stood out. Large campaign gifts made to Byrd over the past four years were frequently followed by the awarding of millions in city contracts to those same donors. Even a hefty donation doesn’t guarantee that a contract will be awarded — one councilmember cannot determine or account for all nine councilmember votes — but, in politics, money buys relationships. And even modest political offerings garner a returned phone call.
The contributions date from his first term as District 3’s city councilmember (2017) to more recent contributions in support of his current race for mayor. An April campaign finance report discloses a $10,000 donation made by one local with direct ties to companies that were recently awarded almost $5 million in city contracts: $460,607 (July 2020), $1,582,207 (June 2020), and $2,737,888 (April 2019), according to city documents.
City records show that a 2017 donation of $2,500 given to Byrd by a local developer was followed by a city contract worth $2,737,888 (April 2019) and a contract that allowed the donor to develop 733 acres of land in Tarrant County and four in near or neighboring counties. One local construction company owner who donated $6,000 to Byrd through three contributions over the past four years has received contracts worth more than $9 million from the city, according to government documents I reviewed.
Byrd did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Our reporting found that tens of millions in taxpayer-funded contracts have been awarded to companies that have ties to major donors of Byrd’s past city council and current mayoral campaigns. Several very recent donations of $2,500 and more were connected to individuals who work for current and past city vendors. Around half of his major donors are real estate investors, commercial property owners, and homebuilders who reasonably have vested interests in city dealings.
Campaign disclosure reports show that Byrd’s campaign had $502,934 on hand on April 1, making him the top candidate (based on the size of his war chest that includes a personal $300,000 loan) at the time. Frontrunner mayoral candidates Mattie Parker, Ann Zadeh, and Deborah Peoples respectively reported $466,221, $134,420, and $41,034 on hand during that disclosure period. We reviewed major donations made to the four frontrunner mayor candidates and cross-referenced companies tied to those individuals through the city’s online vendor database. Parker’s and Zadeh’s donations showed few if any potential conflicts of interest, and, with an average donation size of around $60, Peoples’ records did not suggest unethical behavior.
After five years as chief of staff for Fort Worth City Council and the mayor, Parker is seeking her first elected office. One February donation made to Parker’s campaign came from the owner of a business that is a vendor with the City of Fort Worth. A $10,000 gift to Parker by the owner of Conatser Construction mirrored donations made to Byrd that were followed by large city contracts. Parker’s donations largely come from donors who made their wealth in oil and gas. Since Parker did not have direct influence on the awarding of contracts when she was chief of staff — her focus was on planning and managing the day-to-day duties of the elected officials — the contributions cannot be directly linked to kickbacks.
Donations to Zadeh, who has spent the past seven years as a city councilmember representing District 9, revealed a single tie to city contracts — a $2,500 contribution from the president of an architecture firm that was awarded a $419,138 city building design contract in 2019, one of dozens of contracts awarded to the firm since 2000, according to city documents, long before Zadeh sat on council.
Peoples’ early April campaign disclosure lists nearly 1,000 donors, according to her released documents.
While no single councilmember holds the power to award large city contracts, it would defy belief that Byrd was unaware of the direct ties that his donors had to tens of millions of dollars in city contracts that were, at the time, being reviewed by city staffers. Byrd’s campaign ad that lists “stopping corruption” as his top priority stands at odds with his track record of repeatedly accepting funds from self-interested individuals. — Edward Brown