Fort Worth ISD taxpayers last fall were smacked with a series of conflicting sentiments regarding a proposed ethics policy for the school board. The policy was approved by board members in April, rescinded in August, then replaced with a less onerous plan in December, but not before questions were posed regarding the delay.
The debate revealed that board president, Tobi Jackson voted in 2016 to extend the district’s lucrative tax collection contract with law firm Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson. She did so while serving as executive director of a local nonprofit headed by Linebarger partner Barbara Williams, also a contributor to Jackson’s campaign funds.
Jackson, though, never filed a disclosure statement revealing her connection to the firm before that vote.
The district, in response to an open records request from The Texas Monitor, said that none of the board members had filed either a substantial interest affidavit or a conflict of interest statement since at least the end of 2015.
“No records, documents,” was the response from the district.
Board member Ann Sutherland, however, said the filings are required for the district’s annual audit.
“These are filed every year for our auditor,” Sutherland said this week. “We have to turn these in.”
The most recent conflict filings available online are from 2010.
Jackson insisted last year, as the ethics policy was being debated, that she had no need to disclose her connection to Linebarger, which was given the contract in 2010.
Jackson claimed she had a letter from an unidentified lawyer that said her failure to disclose was in keeping with policy.
Critics continue to be convinced that the reason for the initial resistance to the new ethics policy is that it would hamstring connections to generous donors — such as Linebarger — via limits on contributions, and force more precise and timely disclosures.
“The president of the board is beholden to Linebarger and she maneuvered behind the scenes to get the first ethics policy killed,” said Lon Burnam, a former state representative and local gadfly. “And that’s because she was elected thanks to Linebarger. The proposed policy would have hobbled some of its activities.”
Jackson did not respond to a request to produce the legal letter that said she did not need to disclose her Linebarger connection. Board member Ashley Paz, who headed the district’s ethics policy quest, also did not respond to an interview request.
Linebarger is a prolific political contributor statewide, said former state Rep. Glenn Lewis, a Linebarger partner.
“They are our clients, and we typically give money to our clients,” Lewis said. “They ask us for contributions. We don’t go around handing out money because we feel like it. We respond to solicitations of campaign contributions. Are we supposed to say no?”
Jackson was elected in 2010, and no campaign finance records are available to check donations in the years of her initial election. Jackson, in 2010, reported a $4,000 loan from a Linebarger lawyer, which she quickly amended, claiming it never happened.
Fort Worth’s policy of limiting campaign finance records up to five years back — the minimum under state law — is among the briefest in the state for districts that have over 85,000 students.
Dallas ISD provides online access to forms back to 2009, while Austin ISD provides links to finance forms for board races back to 2011. San Antonio goes back to 2012.
The district has for years grappled with transparency issues. In 2012, board member Sutherland had to file an open records request on her own district to obtain information during her first term in office.
She ran for office in 2010 to force the district to make public an outside audit on the heels of an internal audit that pointed out problems with a new payroll system that the district sought to keep quiet. That led to a whistleblower lawsuit in which the district paid $135,000 to an employee who reported the problems.
“They didn’t reform anything until about two years ago,” Sutherland said. For a while after her election, she was forced to file more open records requests, for which she was billed like any member of the public.
“I would pay for the records, then get reimbursed from the district as an expense of my office,” she said. In recent years, a state law was passed requiring a school district to respond to requests for information from trustees within ten days.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].