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With rampant instances of malfeasance characterizing business as usual at the Tarrant Appraisal District (TAD), Tarrant County family courts, and pretty much every large county government group, affordable housing projects have admittedly avoided scrutiny by our magazine and many others.

That’s about to change. The timing of nearly half a million dollars in payments from Tarrant County to a Dallas law firm without a really good explanation reeks of good ol’ boy dealings. Recently released government records and new reporting by the Dallas Morning News indicate that officials with the Tarrant County Housing Finance Corporation, which works to provide safe and affordable housing here, may have bought the influence of a board member at the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) who voted to approve more than $30 million in public funds for two Tarrant County housing finance projects as recently as three years ago.

Whether the board member, Paul Brayden, actively swayed votes from fellow board members remains unclear, but the name and influence of the national Norton Rose Fulbright law firm for which Brayden works as an attorney appear to be enough to have earned the firm $2 million in legal fees from various sources over the past several years in Texas alone.

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At issue are two county invoices dated Nov. 29, 2018, and May 15, 2019, that show payments to Norton Rose Fulbright of $282,200 and $217,000 for “legal services” tied to the financing of the two construction projects. The firm’s influence at TDHCA until recently lay with Brayden, who was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to the department’s seven-member board in 2017 and recently stepped down following the DMN’s reporting.

Although state ethics laws require government officials to disclose potential conflicts of interest, Brayden never publicly acknowledged the fees that his firm earned from his votes on the board during the five years that he and other board members approved or rejected TDHCA funding for affordable housing projects across the state.

A spokesperson for Norton Rose Fulbright told us in an email that the firm provides “bond counsel services” to groups that issue affordable housing bonds like Tarrant County’s housing finance corporation but did not comment on whether contracts with Norton Rose Fulbright came with the expectation of favorable votes by Brayden. The law firm publicly said it believes Brayden never acted unethically while serving on the state housing board.

A county spokesperson ignored our multiple requests for comment, which is a shame because local taxpayers deserve to know if their hard-earned dollars bought undue influence at a state department.

The minutes of a state housing board meeting document that Brayden voted on Oct. 11, 2018, to award nearly $18 million to the then-proposed Sansom Bluff Apartments, a $32 million project in northwest Fort Worth. Brayden also voted on Nov. 8, 2018, to award just over $16 million in tax credits and a $3,600,000 direct loan to the Sphinx at Sierra Vista Senior Villas, a $42 million development on the South Side.

Following the money is difficult because Tarrant County does not disclose the names of contractors in ledgers of construction costs. One ledger released by the county through open records requests lists “construction lender fees” ($460,537), “construction lender counsel” ($172,500), “developer fee” ($1,045,442), and “soft costs” ($1,184,264), among others.

Norton Rose Fulbright apparently knows to get paid for services rendered once tens of millions in funding has changed hands. Several months after the Sphinx was funded by the state, Norton Rose Fulbright invoiced Tarrant County’s housing finance corporation $217,000 for “delivering construction costs” to the county which amounted to roughly half the Sphinx’s building expenses. The firm also invoiced Tarrant County’s housing finance corporation $282,200 a few months after helping the state partly fund the Sansom Bluff Apartments.

Still, the timing of state funds being awarded to the two local projects after state board member Brayden voted to approve them raises questions about whether local taxpayer funds were misused to address a serious affordable housing shortage.

Tarrant County’s population grew nearly 17% between 2010 and 2020, based on U.S. Census data, to just over 2 million. Tara Perez, the director of Directions Home, a city program devoted to addressing local homelessness, recently told the Fort Worth Report that the city needs at least 24,000 affordable housing units to meet demands for the lower third of wage earners here.

Neither the county nor the law firm would comment on whether there are any current or upcoming agreements between Tarrant County’s housing finance corporation and Norton Rose Fulbright, so we requested copies of any new or recent contracts between the two entities. If any are found, we will update our readers accordingly.

This story is part of City in Crisis, an ongoing series of reports on unethical behavior and worse by local public leaders, featuring original reporting.

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