Fort Worth school district school board President Tobi Jackson was advised in a written opinion from an attorney in April 2016 that if she had a business relationship with an employee of one of the district’s most important vendors, she needed to disclose it.
But she ignored the advice and a month later cast a vote to give that vendor, the powerful law firm of Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, a six-year tax collection contract.
Jackson filed none of the documentation required by state ethics laws to disclose such a conflict. District officials, meanwhile, refused to release the legal opinion, which had been requested by news reporters under the state’s public information law. The requestors, including The Texas Monitor, sought to clarify Jackson’s relationship with Linebarger. The Texas Monitor received a copy of the opinion from another source.
Jackson is executive director for SPARC, a nonprofit that coordinates after-school programs in Fort Worth. She formed the group with former SPARC President Barbara Williams, an attorney at Linebarger.
In a letter seeking legal guidance, Jackson, a charter board member of SPARC, asked Mansfield attorney Rhonda Crass what her (Jackson’s) obligations are with regard to reporting her relationship with Williams and Linebarger.
“It is my opinion that a business relationship will exist between you and Ms. Williams only when SPARC converts to a 501c3 status, generates taxable income to you that exceeds $2,500 and Linebarger seeks or plans to seek additional contracts with FWISD,” reads an April 20, 2016 letter to Jackson from Crass.
If those things were to happen, “this will trigger the reporting requirements of Chapter 176 of the Texas Local Government code,” Crass told her, referring to the law that requires public officials to file a conflict of interest form before casting a vote when they have an interest in a party to a transaction.
SPARC was created as a 501c3, paid Jackson $24,000 in 2016, according to SPARC tax records, and Linebarger was vying for the FWISD contract Jackson approved.
Crass did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
Jackson, in a brief interview with The Texas Monitor, said she was not paid by SPARC in 2016 and that the tax return is incorrect.
“That $24,000 is not accurate,” Jackson said. “I was paid by the city.”
Jackson, as executive director of SPARC, is required to affirm that the group’s tax return is “true, correct, and complete.”
The accountant who completed the return, Walter Hatter of Hatter & Associates in Fort Worth, did not return a call.
Jackson said her contract for 2016 was with the City of Fort Worth, which she said paid her from January 2016 through August 2016. Jackson insists that since the minimum pay requirement from SPARC was not met, she had no obligation to file a conflict of interest statement.
Jackson has insisted to her board colleagues that she was advised legally that she did not need to file a conflict of interest form.
“I have had never seen [the legal opinion],” board member Ashley Paz said. “Even the superintendent has never seen it, and he said it was up to her. The district wasn’t going to get it and release it unless she said it was OK.”
The school district referred public records requests for the document to the state attorney general’s office, which ruled the letter could be withheld under attorney-client privilege.
However, the legal opinion was released by the district to Travis Parmer, a Fort Worth political consultant who was doing leg work on behalf of a client, Chad McCarty, who is trying to unseat Jackson, a two-term incumbent, in the May 4 election.
“We made requests for document production from Fort Worth ISD for different things,” Parmer said. “One of the things I requested was this opinion. I did not expect they would produce it. I think someone must have made a mistake.”
The money Jackson says she was paid with came from a $765,000 grant paid to the city by the Wallace Foundation, a major education funding institution, in 2012.
Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke in early 2016 announced to the city council that the grant would be handled going forward by Jackson through SPARC.
In August 2016, the city council approved a payment of $170,000 to SPARC from the Wallace grant. Cooke did not respond to an email seeking comment.
SPARC was formed specifically to handle part of the Wallace grant money; a Fort Worth council memo from Cooke’s office in September 2017 noted that the program was created “through a four-year $765,000 grant in 2012 between the City and The Wallace Foundation.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].