Abbott kept dealings of Texas Enterprise Fund under wraps

By Wayne Slater
The Dallas Morning News
Originally published Sept. 28, 2014

AUSTIN — A decade ago, Attorney General Greg Abbott invoked a cloak of secrecy around the Texas Enterprise Fund.

When The Dallas Morning News requested, under the Texas open-records law, a copy of the application of a company seeking taxpayer subsidies, Abbott said no. He ruled that the applications for money from the $500 million job-creation fund might contain confidential corporate information.

The company was Vought Aircraft, which wanted a $35 million subsidy to expand in the Dallas area.

But as it turns out, there was no application, a state audit released last week found.

Had the attorney general responded to the newspaper’s open-records request in 2004 by disclosing that Vought — and other businesses with their hands out — were getting millions in state money without submitting applications or specific promises to create jobs, it might have been an early signal of problems bedeviling the fund.

Last week’s scathing audit of the enterprise fund found it riddled with problems. It gave out money — in some cases to political contributors — while failing basic record-keeping and project evaluation.

According to the independent audit, the fund championed by Gov. Rick Perry to boost job growth awarded $222 million to entities that never submitted a formal application or agreed to create specific numbers of jobs.

Abbott, who as attorney general ruled on the public records law and denied access to the applications, has received at least $1.4 million in campaign contributions from investors and officers of businesses that got millions in Texas Enterprise Fund money.

Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland says the attorney general was just following the law in denying records to the public. In an email Saturday, Strickland said: “The open records ruling in this case concluded that Vought Aircraft met its burden to withhold confidential, proprietary information contained within the submitted items under” state law.

Abbott is the Republican nominee for governor. The Abbott campaign did not respond directly to the question of why he formally blocked release of an application that didn’t exist. His Democratic opponent, Wendy Davis, sponsored the bill asking for the audit of the problem-plagued business-subsidy fund.

In 2004, when The News initially sought the Vought application, Perry’s chief of staff at the time, Phil Wilson, said the governor’s office didn’t object to releasing the applications. But he pointed to the Abbott ruling and said that “we would be in violation of the law if we released the document to you.”

Last week’s audit found that in the case of Vought, which was acquired by Triumph Aerostructures in 2010, auditors couldn’t determine how many jobs actually were created. What they did find is that at least 450 of those jobs should have been disqualified, including eight jobs in Everett, Wash., 144 posts that were empty for more than a year, 110 that weren’t full-time jobs and 174 contractor positions.

Under terms of the agreement, the recipient paid back some money but undercalculated the amount owed the state.

Abbott has said that he has concerns about the use of state money in job-creation exercises such as the enterprise fund. If he’s elected governor, he could start addressing those concerns by working to make the fund’s operation much more transparent.