SAN ANTONIO — Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush’s $450 million plan to “Re-imagine the Alamo” involves a marriage of public funds through his General Land Office, private money raised by the Alamo Endowment, and the Remember the Alamo Foundation — and secrecy.
The ambitious proposal involves buying up adjacent buildings to the Alamo in downtown San Antonio, reorienting the historic site, and relocating the Cenotaph memorial.
But the plan is also cloaked in secrecy, and Bush’s office has fought to keep basic records from the public, such as audits and meeting minutes, records and interviews show.
By directing three not-for-profit “private partners,” Bush has effectively assigned competing fiduciary duties to himself — an arrangement that’s raised fiscal and ethical questions about Alamo operations.
All the while, Bush has maintained the plan is fiscally transparent.
In the middle of the public-private network sits Alamo Complex Management. Recently renamed the Alamo Trust, it is “the official partner of the Texas General Land Office to manage the Alamo complex,” according to TheAlamo.org website.
“That’s where state operating money is spent. Alamo Complex Management spends the money and submits to the GLO for reimbursement,” explains Alamo CEO Douglass McDonald.
Auditing The Audit Trail
Bush spokeswoman Brittany Eck says all three of the GLO’s nonprofit partners “are audited annually by an independent CPA firm.”
But the GLO has not released the audits for public inspection.
Bush’s office has begun to comply with requests to divulge ACM’s meeting minutes while continuing to bar the media and the public from the sessions. The last set of ACM minutes provided to The Texas Monitor ended with a Sept. 7, 2016, meeting. There, Bush’s title was changed from board chairman to president.
The land commissioner assured the House Appropriations Subcommittee last February that meetings are conducted in accordance with open-meeting requirements, though notifications of the sessions were not publicly posted.
When The Texas Monitor inquired about a rescheduled meeting of the Alamo Endowment on Wednesday, AE executive director Becky Dinnin affirmed that the meeting was closed, and asked how the reporter heard about it.
Later, McDonald emailed to say there was no Alamo Endowment meeting. “There were meetings of the Alamo Trust and Remember the Alamo Foundation boards,” he said.
In a March 14 letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, the GLO asserted that proceedings of the ACM board are not public.
The AG ruled that insofar as ACM is a creation of the General Land Office, and GLO maintains its records, “we conclude the information is subject to the [public records] act.”
Explaining Bush’s public-private arrangement, Eck said, “Under the current system, both the GLO and ACM are required to maintain a full set of books. This duplication requires handling the money and the accounting twice, which in turn requires numerous reconciliations to ensure all the revenue and expenses are properly accounted for on the GLO’s books.”
Jerry Patterson, former land commissioner, said it would be cleaner and more transparent for the GLO to administer Alamo operations directly. After Bush laid off Land Office staffers upon taking office in 2015, ACM took on some 70 employees, who are still paid with state money through GLO accounts.
Patterson said Bush’s creation of and delegation to the ACM fuels suspicion of “laundering money and hiding employees.”
The GLO said all of its contractual partnerships were established on the advice of legal counsel.
Joseph Larsen, an attorney working with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said Bush’s office cannot legally shield ACM from public-records queries.
“It appears to me that ACM is a governmental body in its own right,” Larsen said.
The Texas Supreme Court last year ruled in a similar case involving a private partnership. But unlike the Greater Houston Partnership, which the court determined to be an independent entity, ACM is “sustained” by public funds, Larsen said.
“It’s ultimately [performing] GLO’s duties,” the attorney said.
Dueling Fiduciary Duties
While appointing board members to the three nonprofit groups — all composed of the same individuals — Bush signs contracts and memoranda of understanding with the GLO. “This creates a potential conflict of interest, and competing fiduciary duties,” Patterson asserted.
“In the event of a dispute between the parties, Bush cannot possibly fulfill his obligation as chair/board member, nor can he fulfill his fiduciary duty to either party,” Patterson charged.
Alamo CEO McDonald says GLO legal counsel signed off on the arrangement since the contracts are between “entities,” not individuals.
Amid the overlapping duties, identical board composition and redundant books, Patterson wonders: “Why is the ACM needed at all?”
The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to meet Dec. 5 to review Bush’s stewardship of the Alamo project.
The committee, chaired by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, is tasked to “monitor the expenditures of state funds appropriated to the General Land Office for the preservation, maintenance, and operation of the Alamo historical site.”