Texas taxpayers paid bill for Warren Buffett trips in auto repair deal

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A commissioner with the Texas Department of Transportation crusaded for a change in the state’s auto repair law that would benefit Warren Buffett with the taxpayers picking up the tab for his trips.

TxDot commissioner Victor Vandergriff traveled to Austin in 2015 during session to advocate for a law to permit insurance agencies to own body shops, a boon to someone like Buffett, who owns Geico as well as a portfolio of car dealerships.

“The law was designed to keep insurers from steering auto repair claims to body shops they own,” according to a report from the Texas Tribune.

The report found that Vandergriff, appointed to the TxDot board in 2013 by Gov. Rick Perry, has been reimbursed for travel expenses between Austin and his base in Arlington, representing advocating for and against a host of auto-related issues on behalf of clients he represents as a consultant for the auto industry.

His penance? A promise to reimburse the money the Tribune found he spent on issue unrelated to his commissioner role.

“I can’t imagine why I would have done that,” Vandergriff told the Tribune. “They should be corrected. I’m going to do that.”

From the report:

Each round trip Vandergriff took between Austin and Arlington cost the state about $200 in mileage reimbursements, and in the past two years Vandergriff has generally billed taxpayers between $225 and $275 a day for lodging, meals, parking and taxes during overnight stays.  

Auto dealers and franchise owners, including Buffett, are a fierce lobbying force in all states.

Vandergriff, a former president of an automotive group, has wedged himself into a variety of influential roles regarding the industry over the years, including a three-and-a-half year stint as chair of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles.

Records show that in December 2016, he billed the state for his time at a meeting of auto industry representatives in Austin at the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. On his reimbursement form, he claims to be on “commission business.”

Vandergriff has advocated for numerous actions that would benefit auto dealers, most significantly his work on behalf of Berkshire Hathaway Automotive. His relationship with Berkshire is, at the least, a solid business connection.

According to the Tribune, Vandergriff’s former employer is Van Tuyl Group, the largest privately-held dealership operation in the U.S,, which was purchased by Berkshire in 2015.

From the Tribune report:

In early 2017, Vandergriff sent an analysis to top DMV officials — including the general counsel and head of enforcement — arguing that state law allowed Berkshire Hathaway to keep its Texas dealerships without the need for new rules or legislation, emails obtained by the Tribune show.

“Hopefully, you and your staff can verify the analysis and reach your own level of comfort,” Vandergriff said.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected]

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