The board of a municipal taxing district overseen by state Rep. Jim Murphy is exploring its options regarding his tenure, including obtaining a new state attorney general opinion on the legality of the arrangement.
Murphy, R-Houston, was general manager of the Westchase District for years before being elected to the statehouse in 2006. At that time, concerned over the legality of working for a government entity while serving as a member of the state legislature, he obtained an opinion from the office of then-AG Greg Abbott, which ruled the arrangement was lawful, provided he was a consultant rather than an employee.
Getting a new AG opinion is “something we are trying to do right now,” said Westchase board chairman Philip Schneidau. “Laws do change, and we’re not saying that the laws that the [Abbott] opinion relies on have, but we are aware it can happen,” Schneidau said.
The district is looking at its practices as part of an overall evaluation, he said. In doing so, with regard to Murphy’s status, “we are reaching out to some lawyers.”
Westchase lawyer Jeanne McDonald declined an interview request.
In an email, Murphy said, “before I took office in 2006, Civil Practices Chairman Joe Nixon requested an AG’s opinion in 2005. AG Abbott found that an independent consultant who serves in our part-time Legislature can do work for a municipal management district. I have multiple clients and pass all the independent contractors tests.”
He added that he had not heard of any move at Westchase to obtain another AG opinion.
Murphy has for years been criticized by foes for working a lucrative government contract at Westchase while serving in the state Legislature. According to documents obtained through the Public Information Act, Murphy has received $2 million since 2010 through an annual no-bid contract to manage Westchase District in Houston.
Newly obtained financial audits for the district show that Murphy’s annual pay increased 40 percent between 2010 and 2017, from $249,000 to $350,194.
The pay includes $78,600 in incentive payments since 2014. The incentive work includes securing funding for various projects in the 4.2 square mile district.
Some onlookers claim that the incentives, which include securing approval from state agencies for projects, are a platform for lobbying.
Murphy’s incentive payouts in the past three years are:
- 2014: $17,100
- 2015: $27,500
- 2016: $34,000
The incentives are capped at $45,000 a year. The no-bid contracts reflect Murphy’s knowledge and experience, according to Schneidau.
“He is the right person for us,” he said. “He worked for the district 10 or 12 years before he was elected, and he has this background knowledge that no one else has. And we review the contract on an annual basis through the board.”
The contracts since 2014 have been signed by board members who are also donors to Murphy’s political fund.
Signees include Schneidau, who has given $2,500 to Murphy since 2010, and Mark Taylor, who, along with Murphy, is an original board member from the district’s creation in 1995.
The majority of the board members who approve Murphy’s contract have donated to Murphy’s campaign either directly or through PACs.
Nine of the 15 sitting board members at the end of the fiscal year 2016 have donated to Murphy’s campaign. Nine of the 13 current board members are Murphy contributors, and most of them are individuals who have been on the board for at least a decade.
Murphy’s Westchase work flows through District Management Services, a company he launched in December 2006 — a month after he was elected and a year after the AG opinion.
Unlike Montrose Management District, where a cadre of malcontents and gadflies dissolved the entity this week after years of legal battles, Westchase has thrived without discord.
The Westchase district is a success in both real estate and reputation. It has seen triple-digit growth in values since it began, much of it from new construction and annexations.
Murphy lost his reelection bid in 2008 and worked as a lobbyist before being elected again in 2010. He has not lost since and is considered a reliable and effective Republican vote.
He ran unopposed in this month’s primary and faces Democratic opposition in November.
Murphy’s work for the district is a gift when it comes to campaigning said Marty Schexnayder, a Houston attorney who is running against Sandra G. Moore in the May 22 Democratic runoff to face Murphy.
“I bring it up,” Schexnayder said. “And I have no idea if it has any impact.”
If a new AG opinion were to confirm Murphy’s stance on his day job, it would probably put a stop to the news coverage as well as the issue as a campaign talking point, he said.
“If the AG clears it, I guess the issue would be dead,” Schexnayder said.
“But I really don’t see how [Attorney General] Ken Paxton could bless this as proper.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].