Just days after we published the contents of county documents that appear to tie the Tarrant County Housing Finance Corporation (TCHFC) to unethical payments to a Dallas law firm, an anonymous letter full of new accusations landed in our office.
“Thank you for your story and exposing a portion of Norton Rose Fulbright and Paul Brayden’s apparent scheme to use political influence to enrich themselves with public dollars,” the whistleblower wrote.
In our September article, we connected two county housing group projects worth nearly $100 million to the Dallas law firm Norton Rose Fulbright. The Dallas Morning News recently found that Paul Brayden, a Norton Rose Fulbright partner who until recently sat on the board of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA), may have used his position as a board member for that department to award housing contracts to groups that then paid lucrative legal fees to Brayden’s firm (“ To the House,” Sep 14).
Our reporting found the Tarrant County housing group, which works to provide local affordable housing options, paid Norton Rose Fulbright around $500,000 in consulting fees after Brayden approved public funding for two Tarrant County projects. The author of the anonymous letter lists an additional eight projects that may be tied to consulting fees paid to Norton Rose Fulbright.
From an open records request, we received an invoice that indicates that the county housing group paid $236,837 to Norton Rose Fulbright and Kelly Hart and Hallman, a Fort Worth law firm, for legal services tied to funding the Gardens of Haltom City Apartments. The county housing group document does not disclose how those legal fees were split, but the two law firms’ services resulted in more than $24 million in state and federal bonds for the apartment that is not yet under construction.
One of Brayden’s tasks before he recently stepped down from the state housing board, the whistleblower alleges, was to ensure that deals went through.
“If a deal dies, an attorney in Mr. Brayden’s position would not be paid,” the whistleblower says in their letter.
The county housing group did not return our requests for comment.
In the DMN’s reporting, a spokesperson for Norton Rose Fulbright denies Brayden did anything illegal or unethical while serving on the state housing board.
Another recent Norton Rose Fulbright contract highlights the lengths Brayden allegedly underwent to close deals, especially when a client had only one proposal before the state housing group.
The deal involves the Palladium Port Aransas housing project in Port Aransas. Closing the deal, the whistleblower alleges, was an “all or nothing” proposition. Otherwise, Norton Rose Fulbright might not have been paid.
With a deadline of 67 days before the deal expired, minutes from a state housing group board meeting on April 23, 2020, show Brayden seconded a motion to award around $9 million to the project.
Missing from the minutes is evidence that Brayden abused his power as a board member to push the item onto the agenda, but the whistleblower alleges the timing of the vote as the deadline approached suggests inside help.
“A quick approval was critical to a successful closing,” the whistleblower writes.
The whistleblower ends their letter by warning that Norton Rose Fulbright attorneys may be misusing their connections to steer large Texas Public Finance Authority (TPFA) bonds toward personal clients. When asked whether TPFA plans to hire Norton Rose Fulbright for legal consulting, a spokesperson for the group that finances state construction projects did not answer.
The Tarrant County Commissioners Court recently allocated $32.5 million in public funds to increase the number of affordable housing units in the county. County Judge Glen Whitley recently told the Fort Worth Report that he is excited to see which contractors bid on the Request for Proposal.
After our recent reporting on tax dollars potentially being misused to buy board votes at the state housing group, county leaders should take steps to ensure that no more tax dollars are used to curry favor with well-connected law firms who may have unduly leveraged their power and influence to earn consulting fees.
This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. Submissions will be gently edited for factuality, concision, and clarity.
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.