Former Texas Transportation Commission member Victor Vandergriff represented a private employer before state government and worked as a mediator in transportation disputes for at least two years during his tenure but failed to disclose those potential conflicts of interest in filings required by the state.
He also used taxpayer money on several occasions to pay for expenses related to his personal work, a practice that apparently went undetected for at least two years. Because of a trust system in policing the actions of political appointees, no one caught the problem.
“Because there is such limited enforcement of these disclosures, there are a lot of people skidding around the edges of legal requirements,” said Andrew Wheat, research director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based government watchdog group. He noted that the filings are generally not publicly posted, usually requiring an open records request to spot conflicting activity or other potentially unethical behavior.
“You have to remember who is designing this kind of system,” Wheat said. “It’s the legislature, and they don’t want to make this easy.”
Vandergriff served as a commissioner and board chairman with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles from 2009 to 2013 and stepped down from that role in April 2013 to accept the TxDOT commission appointment from then-Gov. Rick Perry. He resigned from that post in January, shortly after The Texas Tribune reported he had on at least one occasion billed expenses to TxDOT that were actually incurred for his outside work with Berkshire Hathaway.
Additional records recently obtained by The Texas Monitor show that Vandergriff, while on the TxDOT board, also failed to list his income from Berkshire Hathaway and as a mediator in issues for auto dealers on his financial disclosure forms, disclosures required by state law.
Vandergriff, who could not be reached for comment, represented Berkshire Hathaway Automotive before the Senate Business and Commerce Committee in April 2015, introducing himself to the committee as being in favor of SB 1553. The bill sought to allow auto insurance companies to own auto repair shops. Existing law prohibits such an arrangement to ensure consumers are not steered to those shops by their insurance agencies.
In addition to his work on behalf of Berkshire, Vandergriff also served as a mediator for the Department of Motor Vehicles, while serving on the commission that oversees TxDOT. In 2013, lawmakers voted to transfer squabbles between auto dealers and manufacturers from the State Office of Administrative Hearings to mediation at the DMV. Vandergriff had been appointed to his TxDOT slot six weeks earlier but represented the DMV in a hearing that led to the mediation procedure.
“The [DMV] advocated that it could save money and bring efficiencies,” Ken Roche, an auto industry lobbyist, told a committee. The measure passed.
As with his Berkshire Hathaway income, Vandergriff never mentioned his mediation role on his financial disclosure filings until June, several months after his resignation. The forms are filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.
During his time with the DMV, Vandergriff also failed to disclose that his wife, Kristin, was a member of the Tarrant County College Board of Trustees, to which she had been elected in 2002. Disclosure of all board positions held by a spouse and outside income earned by either the state official or the official’s spouse is required on personal disclosure forms, according to a spokesman at the ethics board. Even a retainer fee for an official employed as a consultant must be disclosed.
Kristin Vandergriff first showed up on her husband’s financial disclosure forms in 2013, as serving on the TCC board and then, beginning in 2016, as district director for U.S. Rep. Kay Granger (R-Fort Worth).
TxDOT officials did not respond to a call and email seeking comment on how — or if — it verifies financial information provided by commission members.
The Texas Tribune’s report in January alleged that Vandergriff had repeatedly billed taxpayers through TxDOT for his travel expenses to Austin to carry out personal business, “blurring the lines between his role as a gubernatorial appointee and his paid consulting gigs.”
Vandergriff said at the time he would reimburse the state for the expenses.
Records obtained by Texas Monitor show that Vandergriff repaid the state $610 for those expenses. In two instances, according to an email Vandergriff sent to TxDOT officials, he had been in mediations and “transitioned” to TxDOT business on the same day.
In another instance, he said, he was in auto industry meetings in the middle of a four-day stay in Austin for TxDOT.
State laws are weak regarding policing of former officials who may have committed transgressions during their tenure. After two years away from their appointment or office, they can request that their past financial disclosure records be destroyed.
At the time of Vandergriff’s appearance at the committee hearing, Berkshire Hathaway Automotive had three registered lobbyists. It’s unclear why none of them handled that appearance.
According to the Tribune story, “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.”
The records show that six days after he resigned from the board, Vandergriff repaid the state for expenses connected to three trips that he had previously described in his expense reports as “commission business.” He did not include any payment related to his 2015 committee testimony for Berkshire.
Despite the report of repeated trips between Arlington and Austin, Vandergriff’s repayment covered some expenses related to three visits, but did not include mileage reimbursement. He reimbursed the state for $205 for meals, $324.30 for two nights of lodging and $81.19 for parking.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].