Nice Work if You Can Get It, Huh, Wendy Davis?

by Jim Geraghty

From the Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt:

Nice Work if You Can Get It, Huh, Wendy Davis?

Good morning. An epic addition to my collection of jaw-dropping hypocrisy: anti-gun California Democratic state senator Leland Yee was indicted for conspiring to commit wire fraud and traffic firearms. Oh, and the mayor of Charlotte was charged with bribery, and the FBI raided the office of a New York state legislator.

That’s direct and straightforward bribery. But have you ever noticed how many elected officials have private law practices? Particularly those at the local or state levels, with jobs that aren’t necessarily year-round or full-time?

It would be tough to ban these practices entirely, but it always seems like a potential back door for bribery, or at least relationship-building. If you want to get a lawmaker or local official on your side, hire him as your lawyer. There are limits on campaign donations in most places, but the only limit to the number of billable hours is the number of hours in the day.

Some states notice the potential for trouble here. The Montana Bar Association, for example, issued an official opinion that “an attorney elected to full time state-wide public office must dissolve an existing law partnership.” By contrast, in Texas, a city attorney is not considered an officer for purposes of constitutional dual-office-holding limitations, and thus an attorney working for one portion of the government can hold an office in another part of the government.

That’s good news for Wendy Davis, who is doing legal work for various Texas public agencies and entities while being a state legislator. Davis and her law partner, Brian Newby, at Newby Davis, a two-person firm, work as bond counsel, most recently on a $109 million bond issue for Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport, and on a nearly $319 million bond sale for the Tarrant Regional Water District.

If you’re sniffing a whiff of potential conflict of interest for local-government entities to be paying a state legislator to do legal work for them . . . well, you’re not the only one:

Only last month, Davis’ firm worked on two deals that were brought to market: a $201.5 million bond issue for the airport and a nearly $319 million bond sale for the Tarrant Regional Water District.

The bond issues Newby Davis worked on for the water district had this twist: the agency’s financial director is Sandra “Sandy” Newby, Brian Newby’s wife.

In total, the various transactions for which Newby Davis served as co-bond counsel on have represented at least $6.3 billion in new securities and refinancings.

Convenient, huh? “Hey, we need a lot of highly compensated legal work done? Good news, my husband’s a lawyer!”

You are probably unsurprised that Greg Abbott, the current Texas attorney general and Republican nominee for governor, is deeply troubled by this, contending, “When legislators, through their private work, become intimately involved in the financial process of local entities, ethically problematic situations develop wherein legislators find themselves with a personal incentive to increase local debt.”

He wants to ban these sorts of cozy arrangements:

The recommendation would prohibit legislators, including the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House, from serving as bond counsel for any public entity. Violation of this requirement would be a Class A Misdemeanor.

“Elected officials shouldn’t profit off of their positions and line their own pockets at the taxpayers’ expense,” said Greg Abbott. “They are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents rather than their own self-interest. It is particularly reprehensible for lawmakers to profit from taxpayers as bond counsel for public entities that add more to the public debt of taxpayers. My ethics reform plan puts an end to this unethical practice.”

Is she gunning for more legal work with local government entities?

The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.