Fact Check: Wendy Davis at the Democratic Convention

With help from The Washington Post’s fact-checking platform Truth Teller, we’re analyzing the speeches that Texas’ candidates for governor and lieutenant governor gave at their respective state political party conventions.

Here, we focus on some of state Sen. Wendy Davis' speech at her party convention. Watch below as Truth Teller analyzes her speech and incorporates fact checks aggregated by the Tribune and the Post.

 

Fighting the feds

 

“He has lost four legal battles with the federal government in just the past few days." — TRUE (via PolitiFact Texas)

Davis campaign spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña said that four recent judgments involving the attorney general’s office served as the basis for this claim. In the first, a state appellate court ruled that a former assistant attorney general can proceed against Abbott’s office in a lawsuit claiming that she was fired for being a whistleblower.

In the second, a federal judge ordered the state to pay almost $1.1 million in legal fees to lawyers who represented Davis and minority rights groups in a legal challenge to district boundaries drawn by the Republican-majority Legislature following the 2010 census.

In the third, a state judge denied Abbott’s attempt to remove a state district judge from presiding over the long-running public school finance case, in which the attorney general is defending the constitutionality of significant cuts state lawmakers made to the public schools budget in 2011.

In the fourth, the U.S. Supreme Court “largely dismissed” Abbott’s lawsuit against the federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to an analysis by The Texas Tribune.

Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the attorney general, told PolitiFact Texas that the judgments were not clear-cut losses. The whistleblower and school finance cases are ongoing, which means Abbott could still win the courtroom war. The AG’s office has also said it will also appeal the award of attorneys’ fees in the redistricting case.

But given that Abbott’s office sustained four legal setbacks, we rate Davis’ statement as true.

Payday lenders

 

"Greg Abbott takes hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from payday lenders and then clears the way for them to charge unlimited interest rates and fees, sometimes as much as 1,700 percent.” — IT’S COMPLICATED

Davis campaign spokeswomen Rebecca Acuña and Lauren Weiner pointed to documents filed with the Texas Ethics Commission that show Abbott has received at least $238,000 in campaign contributions from payday lenders since 2002. They also provided a 2006 letter from the attorney general’s office that said there is “no limit” to fees associated with payday loans.

More context is needed for Davis’ claim about high interest rates for payday loans, however. An analysis by PolitiFact Texas called a similar statement from Davis “half true,” saying, "The effective annual rate of such loans in Texas, taking into account uncapped fees, can exceed 1,000 percent, but that’s not been common.”

Bond deals

“Greg Abbott approves $20 million in bond deals from six law firms who gave him nearly a million dollars in donations.” — TRUE

Six law firms with $20 million in bond deals approved by the attorney general's office have donated nearly $1 million to the Republican since 2003, according to documents filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. This was reported by the San Antonio Express-News.

Representatives from Abbott’s campaign and the office of the attorney general say the situation is not unusual and does not present a conflict of interest. Abbott campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch told the Express-News: “The attorney general's role in the bond approval process is limited to a strictly legal review — bonds that comport with the law must be approved, while a bond proposal that does not comply with the law must be disapproved”

Hazardous chemicals 

When Greg Abbott sides with chemical companies and blocks communities, schools and hospitals from knowing about hazardous chemicals stored just blocks away, he’s not working to keep your families safe.” — IT'S COMPLICATED

Abbott’s office recently ruled that government entities can withhold state records that show the locations of dangerous chemicals. The ruling cited the Texas Homeland Security Act, saying the information could be used by terrorists to build bombs.

Abbott then told reporters that private citizens could still get access to that information by requesting it directly from the companies that store them."

“You know where they are if you drive around,” Abbott said. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not. You can ask them if they do, and they can tell you, well, we do have chemicals or we don’t have chemicals, and if they do, they tell which ones they have." 

Various news reports have documented the difficulties of that approach. In response to requests from the Houston Chronicle, at least two companies refused to disclose any information about the materials stored on site.

Days later, Hirsch clarified Abbott’s position in a statement: “He has put forth a proposal that will enable Texas families to access important safety information through their local fire departments, which are already required to have it on hand.”

Abbott's ruling has had the immediate effect of making information about the location of hazardous chemicals more difficult to obtain, but his campaign denies it has anything to do with "siding with chemical companies" and is instead about keeping the chemicals away from terrorists. Davis' claim deserves closer inspection.

Court contributions

“A report found that, as Supreme Court justice, Greg Abbott received 46 percent of his campaign contributions from those who were appearing before his court.” — TRUE

A 1998 report from Texans for Public Justice, a government transparency watchdog, found that 46 percent of Abbott’s campaign contributions in the second half of 1995 and all of 1996 — $324,000 of $690,000 — were from groups “linked to parties on the court docket.”

Technically, not all of those donors appeared “before the court,” as Davis claims — some were “employees (usually executives) of businesses with cases before the court,” according to the report.

Fired a whistleblower?

"Greg Abbott tries to force one of his own employees to lie under oath in order to tarnish the reputation of one of his political opponents, and she refused." — IT’S COMPLICATED

The Davis campaign has highlighted lawsuits against the AG's office by alleged whistleblowers, but the cases are either pending or on appeal. Here, Davis refers to a case filed by former Assistant Attorney General Ginger Witherspoon. She sued Abbott’s office in 2009, claiming she had been fired for refusing to lie under oath when she declined to sign an affidavit critical of David Hanschen, a Democratic Dallas County judge. A Texas appellate court recently ruled that Witherspoon can go forward with her lawsuit, which the AG’s office had tried to get thrown out of court.

Because it remains to be seen whether a jury will side with Witherspoon when her case goes to trial, this claim is more complicated than Davis suggests. 

CPRIT swindling, or not

"Greg Abbott served on the oversight committee of our Cancer Prevention and Research Institute and willfully looked the other way while donors who gave him $500,000 in contributions pilfered $42 million that was intended for cancer research." — FALSE

Davis’ accusation that Abbott “willfully looked the other way” is a criticism she has repeatedly lobbed at the attorney general, who sat on the oversight committee of the beleaguered Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. She says he failed to attend meetings of the oversight board, as first reported by The Dallas Morning News. Aides to Abbott have said that he did not attend because he assigned another person within his office to represent him.

But Davis’ “pilfering” claim deserves scrutiny. Asked about the figures, the Davis campaign provided a list of the Abbott donors in question: Jimmy Mansour, James Leininger, Edith and Peter O’Donnell, John D. White, E. J. Pederson and the Pfizer Ventures company. All are investors in various companies (Caliber Biotherapeutics and Peloton Therapeutics, among them) that received a combined $42 million in grants from CPRIT.

CPRIT has faced allegations of favoritism, and a Travis County grand jury indicted a former CPRIT executive on charges of deception. But it is misleading to suggest that Abbott donors personally “pilfered” money because they had some financial stake in the grant recipients.