What is lurking in Bill White’s federal financial disclosures

12 Jul

If you’ve been following the Texas governor’s race much at all since the primary, you may have heard some talk about Democrat nominee Bill White’s taxes.  The discussion started shortly after the March primary, when a Houston Chronicle reporter asked what he surely thought was one of those standard, boiler plate type of questions of a major party nominee – will you release your tax returns?  Bill White gave a somewhat surprising answer – no.

RATCLIFFE: Will you release your income tax returns back to 2003?

WHITE: We’ll give you and others information that you ask for about, boy, since 2003, I’ve had most all of that in the financial statements. But I have been, there has been, during much of that time a partnership interest and a partnership return attached to the tax returns. But I’ll provide the various adjusted gross income and stuff like that, and a lot of it, but not those schedules.

RATCLIFFE: Try to explain that to me. Why not?

WHITE: I’m a partner, we’re, other people are partners in those businesses, and those tax returns are proprietary.

That was White’s stock answer for weeks, and he took a deserved daily drubbing for it.  But eventually, after getting pounded for his stubbornness on transparency, White relented.  Sort of.  He released financial information from the years he was mayor of Houston, 2003-2010.  And that disclosure showed perhaps why White had been so reluctant to release his taxes: There was a previously undisclosed payment plan coming his way, for the next 10 years, which included the time when he would be governor in the unlikely event that he wins in November.  That failure to communicate earned White an ethics complaint from the state GOP.

Isn’t that interesting.  If you wonder, by the way, why I’m linking an obviously political site above, well, it’s because the press didn’t find the fact that Bill White was hiding a potentially conflict of interest-causing payment scheme all that interesting.  The press, in fact, barely covered it at all.

Well, move forward a few weeks, and the drum beat to get White to come a little cleaner with the people of Texas continues.  He’d disclosed some, but not all, of his financial info when he was mayor, but left out in the unknown zone was all information pertaining to his other years in public service – when he was chairman of the Texas Democrats, and perhaps more importantly, when he worked in the Clinton-era Department of Energy.

After a bit more pressure, White discloses more info from his time as mayor – and another scandal erupts.  This time, it concerns how White dealt with Hurricane Rita.  That emergency response is supposedly White’s calling card, the top bullet point on his resume.  But the people of Texas learned from his own financial records that he’d profited from a company he hired to provide generators after the hurricane.

White’s counter argument to this relevation was that he didn’t own any interest in the company at the time.  But that really isn’t the case: White had an interest in an outfit called the Wedge Group, which in turn had an interest in BTEC – the company White hired during Rita.  And later on, White would invest in BTEC, and would also push government mandates that would have benefited BTEC.  Meaning, he used his position in government to push mandates that would have benefited Bill White’s bank account.

Isn’t that interesting.  Are we seeing a pattern here?

Well, the press did care about the BTEC story for a while, but has essentially dropped it over the past couple of weeks – even though it fits an obvious pattern of White stonewalling financial disclosure, only to relent under pressure, and once that happens the people of Texas learn about yet another shady deal in White’s financial past.

All of this brings me around to two last data points.  One, if you go back a couple of years into White’s past, you find what for all the world looks like the makings of a serious land scandal.  The gist is that White used his mayoral powers to bring eminent domain to bear to benefit a major donor to his political activities.  The Houston Chronicle reported on this back in December 2008.  It all centered on a “pocket park,” a crummy little piece of land less totalling less than an acre.

Mayor Bill White and council members insist they condemned the land last year as a matter of good faith to taxpayers. The city needed some of the land to widen San Felipe and will turn the rest into the park.

But documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle show the move also helped BLVD Place developer Ed Wulfe, a major donor to White, seal the deal on a $12.5 million land sale related to his ambitious mixed-use development.

A legal battle that ensued after the city began condemnation proceedings now has landed squarely at the mayor’s door. White is resisting a deposition request in the case.

Councilman Peter Brown also is fighting a deposition regarding a possible conflict of interest in his vote for the condemnation. Brown’s wife is an investor in BLVD Place.

The complex case, involving a series of land transactions and a web of relationships between elected officials at City Hall and developers, raises the question of whether the city abused its power in taking land it now is hard-pressed to prove that it needed, land that a developer was seeking to control.

“It looks as if the city of Houston was all too eager to bulldoze the people — and condemn the property — that prevented a powerful political donor from realizing his ambitions,” said Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, a nonpartisan watchdog group that has conducted several studies of the use of eminent domain law in Texas.

That last quote is interesting, in that it comes from a George Soros-funded liberal interest group.  I suppose they have to hit a lefty once in a while just to keep up appearances.  In any regard, the donor, Ed Wulfe, apparently liked to spread his wealth around.

Ed Wulfe has given White $10,000 in campaign contributions since 2005, while Hanover executives have donated at least $21,000 to the mayor. Councilman Brown, whose wife is an investor in the BLVD Place development, received at least $3,500 from Wulfe and $6,500 from Hanover executives during the same period.

Brown did not recuse himself from the condemnation vote; he voted for it. Councilwoman Pam Holm, who documents show was intimately involved in the decision to seize the land, has received $2,000 from Wulfe and $10,000 from Hanover employees.

And apparently, he got something for his efforts.

The Collins brothers, along with leaders of some government watchdog groups, contended the park was a pretext for providing a landscaped entrance to Wulfe’s development at public expense. Documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle last year showed that the condemnation helped Wulfe close a $12.5 million land deal for a planned residential tower within the development, although plans for that project have been delayed because of the recession.

So there’s that, which evidently hasn’t gotten much press attention in about a year and a half, even though White is now one of the top two competitors for the top office in the state. 

And then there’s this.  Every time White discloses a piece of his financial history, a scandal results.  In spite of his protestations that he’s laid all his card on the table now, he’s still hiding a significant piece of his history.  Bill White hasn’t disclosed anything from the years he served Bill Clinton in the Department of Energy.  During the confirmation process, White had to produce financial disclosure forms.  White served Clinton’s DoE for about two years.  White has thus far disclosed nothing at all from this period, even though it’s already well known that he’s a major investor and corporate board member in the energy industry.

Why hasn’t White, to this day, been totally straight with the people of Texas?  And why isn’t the press asking him this question every chance they get?

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Posted by on July 12, 2010 in bill white, media, politics


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