A contract between state Rep. Jim Murphy and the Westchase Management District provides bonuses for the state representative if he secures state funding for various projects, flirting with a state law that forbids lawmakers from lobbying, Murphy’s opponents and legal experts say.
Under the annual one-year contract between Murphy’s District Management Services and Houston-based Westchase, Murphy would receive $6,000 if he were to “secure TxDOT approval to construct one or more priority projects from the [Westchase District] Plan.” The item is one of 14 in the contract that would give Murphy a bonus on top of his $26,478 a month fee.
For years, the Houston Republican’s arrangement has been the target of speculation from his opponents and news reports periodically appear, questioning if a state lawmaker should work for a taxpayer-funded entity.
Murphy’s defense is a 2005 ruling from then-Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office saying “the Texas Constitution does not prohibit a member of the Texas Legislature from also working for compensation as an independent contractor for a municipal management district.”
“He can clearly work as a consultant,” said Joe Nixon, the former state lawmaker who asked for the AG opinion on behalf of Murphy. “As of now, I don’t know what the relationship is and [any pursuant arrangement] would be a separate issue. Hopefully he has had someone look at it.”
The current contract differs from those of past years in that it specifies addressing a state agency as one of Murphy’s incentives. TxDOT was also part of the incentive package in 2015.
“There are a lot of ways to get funding through TxDOT, “ said Philip Schneidau, board chairman at Westchase. Matching funds and grants are continually sought from TxDOT by municipalities, he said.
“Jim’s function is to supervise,” Schneidau said. “These are just some special projects he is working on with staff, which is responsible for day-to-day operations. He is not personally involved with that.”
He added that “lobbying is not what we do…that’s a bold statement to make.”
Murphy did not return a call requesting comment.
The contract stipulates that Murphy’s firm cannot assign duties without the permission of the board. The contract also makes clear the incentive bonuses go directly to Murphy.
“It really sounds like lobbying to me,” said Hugh Brady, director of the Legislative Lawyering Clinic at the University of Texas Law School.
He pointed to a provision of the state constitution that forbids lawmakers from having an interest, “directly or indirectly,” in a contract involving the state or a county.
“There is an Attorney General opinion that says he cannot be involved in any contract if it involves state or county funds,” Brady said.
There are also specific provisions in Texas law that prohibit legislators from representing another person before a state agency, all the way up to lobbying.
“And if he’s contacting TxDOT, someone should investigate that further,” Brady said.
Whether lobbying is implied or not, “the whole arrangement is a conflict of interest,” said Bill King, a former Houston mayoral candidate.
While the AG ruling allows Murphy to work for Westchase, “it never says anything about lobbying,” King said.
Each of Murphy’s contracts for the past four years include incentives for pay beyond his basic monthly fee, mostly for site procurement and roadway construction on behalf of the 4.2 square mile special district.
The state’s part time legislature allows for members to hold full time jobs. Many elected officials belong to or preside over committees specific to their occupational expertise. Murphy, for example, chairs the special purpose districts committee.
These members often vote in issues that, in a broad sense, can affect their occupation. But the same issue may benefit a much larger community.
Murphy’s arrangement has brought criticism from adversaries and the media, questioning his status as a contractor. Murphy was president of Westchase up until his election in 2005. The AG opinion that Murphy and Westchase rely on has been assailed as flawed. While it has been subject to widespread criticism, no one has legally challenged it.
A website called “How to Succeed in Government” was created by Murphy’s 2012 primary opponent, Ann Witt.
“Double Dipping. Skirting the Law. Bilking Taxpayers. Rewarding Cronies,” a banner at the bottom of one page claims.
The site also implicated contractors of Westchase to Murphy, which drew a libel lawsuit from one, marketing firm Rehak Creative Services.
The case was dismissed, with Rehak ordered to pay Witt’s legal fees.
Witt’s daughter and campaign manager, former state AG counsel Ellen Witt Ortiz declined to comment.
Murphy has been a successful, lauded lawmaker and is seeking his fifth consecutive term. Last year, he was recognized as the Texas Municipal League “legislator of the year” and has in the past received high marks from the conservative Americans for Prosperity. Murphy is endorsed by the Texas Right to Life PAC.
His critics remain irritated by what they contend are poor legal reads and inertia on the part of law enforcement.
“I’d like to know what kind of action [Harris County District Attorney] Kim Ogg will take,” said King, the former mayoral candidate. “How can all this be going on and the DA just sits on its hands?”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected]