Lawmaker spoke to grand jury after making open government complaint

By Bill Hanna
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Originally published Nov. 23, 2014

A state representative said last week that he testified before a Henderson County grand jury after bringing a complaint against the Tarrant Regional Water District because of the way it conducts business.

State Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, said he took a complaint to Henderson County District Attorney Scott McKee last summer. Gooden told the Cedar Creek Lake Area Chamber of Commerce this month that he had been contacted by a private citizen concerning allegations about the water district, according to the Athens Daily Review.

“I wanted to know how they are spending their money and I still don’t know that after a pretty thorough open-records request,” Gooden said.

McKee confirmed that a complaint was brought to his office but declined to say more or to say whether Gooden testified.

“I, along with any witness that testifies before a grand jury, is under a legal obligation to not divulge any testimony, questions or things that they have observed before a grand jury,” McKee said. “I take this obligation seriously and therefore can never divulge things that occur before them without a court order. Based on this legal and ethical obligation, I simply cannot comment on any matter or subject regarding the grand jury.”

Athens is the seat of Henderson County. The water district owns Cedar Creek Reservoir in Henderson and Kaufman counties.

The water district, which provides raw water to 98 percent of Tarrant County, is also building part of the $2.3 billion Integrated Pipeline Project through Henderson County, which will bring water from East Texas reservoirs to Dallas-Fort Worth.

Gooden said he testified before the grand jury in September. He said that he cannot talk about his testimony because of grand jury rules but that he believes the water district tried to block his access to some information. The grand jury’s term ends Dec. 31 but could be extended.

“There’s just a general feeling of frustration of elected officials of all parties of not receiving straightforward answers from TRWD,” Gooden said.

Water district spokesman Chad Lorance declined to address any grand jury investigation.

“ ​​Because of the confidential nature of grand jury proceedings, we do not know the details of the testimony, if any, Rep. Gooden says he gave in September,” Lorance said. “In addition, commenting or speculating on such proceedings would be a violation of the law.”​​

The document debate

Both Gooden and state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, have complained about the water district’s handling of their open-records requests. Burnam said the district’s response to his request, which was similar to Gooden’s, was “totally unsatisfactory, totally evasive.”

Lorance said both state officials asked for documents that do not exist.

“TRWD has responded in full compliance with applicable law and in fact had provided Mr. Gooden with almost 20,000 pages of documents to date,” Lorance said. “Rep. Lon Burnam also submitted a letter asking for copies of what was provided to Mr. Gooden and Mr. Burnam has now received almost 20,000 pages of documents. TRWD has fully complied with applicable law in responding to these requests though, as noted, it cannot provide documents which do not exist, as many of the requests sought.”

Gooden lost his bid for re-election to Stuart Spitzer in the GOP primary. He received $62,000 in campain contributions from Dallas hotel investor Monty Bennett, who has been embroiled in a legal battle with the Tarrant water district over a section of the pipeline routed through his Henderson County ranch.

Bennett sued the water district, accusing it of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act when it approved parts of the pipeline. His lawsuit said the board “rubber-stamped” a decision by water district staffers and committees without obtaining public input. Eminent domain proceedings have begun on that section of property.

But Gooden said obtaining information about the water district’s operations should not be tied to any political support he received from Bennett.

“There’s nothing political about open government,” Gooden said.

Last spring, Burnam lost the Democratic primary to Ramon Romero Jr. Like Gooden, Burnam received a campaign contribution from Bennett — his was $5,000 — that he said was for helping Gooden get drone legislation passed.

Burnam said he has a good working relationship with Bennett but disagrees with the Dallas businessman’s legal fight to stop the pipeline from going through his ranch.

“It’s a little self-serving on his part,” Burnam said. “We’ve got to have the water.”

Board member complaints

Water district board member Mary Kelleher has made similar requests for documents from the district and said at Tuesday’s board meeting that she has not received what she wanted.

“It’s been over a year since I made requests for records, and I still don’t have it,” Kelleher said.

Lorance said Kelleher made five separate open-records requests to the district. Her Nov. 6, 2013, request was sent to outside counsel Ross Fischer of Austin, who requested clarification on several items.

When Kelleher did not respond to Fisher after 61 days, the request was considered withdrawn. She then sued Jan. 17, seeking records and depositions from the water district staff, but dropped the lawsuit April 21.

Gooden and Burnam were asking for many of the same documents as Kelleher.

In April, fellow board member Jim Lane accused Kelleher of conducting a “fishing expedition” against the district.

“Some of the things she asked for don’t exist,“ Lane said. “She wanted copies of checks that paid mortgages for the board members. That’s just crazy.”

As for a grand jury investigation, Kelleher said she couldn’t comment.

“Regarding the grand jury investigation, I have been instructed by TRWD legal counsel not to discuss this,” Kelleher said.

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