This story has been updated with comment from state Sen. Wendy Davis' campaign.
State Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth, on Wednesday called for a criminal investigation into his election opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and the North Texas Tollway Authority that contracts with Davis’ law firm.
Shelton sent a letter to Gregg Cox, head of the public integrity unit of the Travis County district attorney's office, requesting an “investigation into possible criminal activity by Texas State Senator Wendy Davis and the North Texas Tollway Authority.”
Newby Davis, the law firm Davis launched in 2010 with Brian Newby, Gov. Rick Perry’s former chief of staff, has drawn questions regarding whether the firm’s pursuit of contracts with public and quasi-public entities in North Texas conflicts with Davis’ work representing Senate District 10. Shelton's campaign is working to make the issue central to his campaign to win Davis' Senate seat.
In a statement, Davis’ campaign called Shelton’s letter an “absurd political stunt" and "clearly false."
Shelton’s letter mostly focused on two bills Davis worked on in the 2011 legislative session. The first one, SB 343, would have lowered the administrative fees the NTTA could charge toll scofflaws from a maximum of $100 to $50.
At a March Senate committee hearing, Davis withdrew support for her own bill and signed on as a co-author of SB 469, introduced by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. Days earlier, Davis’ law firm, Newby Davis, had signed a contract with NTTA to handle condemnation cases on the Chisholm Trail Parkway project.
Nelson’s bill lowered the amount NTTA could charge drivers for their first notice of nonpayment of tolls to $25 but increased the total amount the agency could charge the scofflaw over time to $200. Nelson’s bill also allowed NTTA to charge scofflaws “third-party collection service fees” the NTTA incurred in getting payment.
In August, the NTTA board approved the hire of Newby Davis and five other firms to handle the agency’s “collections litigation.” Shelton wrote in his letter that the contract is potentially worth $16.6 million for Newby Davis based on news reports of the extent of unpaid tolls NTTA is working to collect.
Shelton made clear in his letter that he believes there is a connection between Davis’ work on NTTA-related bills in the Senate and the business Newby Davis has been awarded by the tollway authority.
“Wendy Davis’ actions strongly suggest a gross violation of public trust and one of the most egregious acts of corruption by a state legislator since the Sharpstown scandal,” Shelton said, referring to a 1970s-era Texas banking scandal.
Davis’ campaign said she decided to support Nelson’s bill over her own because she believed it offered “a better solution.” The campaign also said that Nelson's bill did not give NTTA any new authority regarding the hiring of third-party collection agencies.
NTTA spokesman Michael Rey said in an email the agency had “no knowledge of the letter” and declined to comment.
Asked if there was a connection between the decision to hire Newby Davis in August and the bill Davis co-authored, Rey said there wasn't one. He noted that the NTTA hired collection firms before SB 469 passed. The bill simply allowed the agency to add a $29 collection fee to some bills.
"The firms work on a contingency basis. The NTTA’s ability to engage third-party collections has not been in any way affected by SB 469," Rey said.
Davis' campaign said that Shelton's campaign is trying to deceive voters because it knows their candidate is losing.
"Unfortunately, Mark Shelton doesn't trust SD 10 voters enough to tell them the truth," Davis said. "I intend to continue talking directly to SD 10 voters about my record of working to make sure that our schools are strong and our families are safe."
Earlier Wednesday, Davis described Shelton’s attacks on her ethics as a distraction.
"It's a diversion tactic,” Davis said. “I've been very open and transparent about what it is I and my law partner do. I have nothing to hide. His mischaracterizations and lies will speak for themselves. I don't intend to answer or respect that sort of a campaign tactic in any way."
Shelton’s letter also alleged that Davis “switched her vote” on a bill affecting NTTA toll projects that the agency supported last session. Davis’ campaign spokesman told the Tribune last month that Davis had opposed a similar bill in the 2009 legislative session but supported the 2011 measure because it improved upon its predecessor.
“The 2009 bill gave NTTA exclusive rights to any toll project in the area… even if they were incapable of completing it in a timely manner,” Davis spokesman Zac Evans said. “The 2011 bill had provisions that would deprive NTTA of that exclusive right to develop a project.”
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.