Dewhurst’s TXU ties are criticized
By R.A. DYER
STAR-TELEGRAM AUSTIN BUREAU
March 22, 2007
AUSTIN — Over the last four years as his chief of staff, Bruce Gibson worked at the right hand of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst advising him on all manner of policy.
Now Gibson has gone directly from the lieutenant governor’s office to a job as a legislative consultant for TXU, a company seeking big favors from Dewhurst and other Texas lawmakers.
And while Gibson insists he does not lobby on behalf of the North Texas utility, the opposite is true of another former associate of the lieutenant governor.
Dennis Thomas, a former Public Utility Commission chairman, was once a consultant to Dewhurst’s Falcon Seaboard company and also teamed up with Dewhurst during the 1990s on the sale of cogeneration facilities in Florida and New York.
Thomas is listed as one of TXU’s highest-paid independent lobbyists. He was in Dewhurst’s office last week lobbying on behalf of Texas Pacific Group and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the investment firms proposing to acquire TXU in a $45 billion buyout.
Public advocacy groups are crying foul over the coziness of the relations between the lieutenant governor and top company representatives. They note that TXU has major business before the Texas Legislature, much of it dealing with the controversial buyout.
“Mr. Thomas and Mr. Gibson are being paid by TXU, at least in part, for their insider knowledge and personal ties with government officials,” said Andrew Wheat, a policy analyst for Texans for Public Justice, a political watchdog group. “This undermines the public’s confidence in their government. The public starts to wonder whose interests are being served.”
Dewhurst, a Republican, said that he has not been lobbied by Gibson. He said that Gibson recently came by his office on personal business, and that Gibson declined his request to discuss utility matters.
Dewhurst does acknowledge speaking with Thomas about utility legislation. But he insists that he has maintained his independence.
He described both men as good friends.
“I have a well-deserved reputation for doing what I think is best,” he said. “I’m friends with all the senators, and I treat everybody with respect. At the end of the day, I do what I think and the majority of the senators think is in the best interest of all Texas.”
Although a TXU spokeswoman said Gibson’s contract began on Jan. 1, 2007, records show he was a state employee until Jan. 5. The spokeswoman also said the company’s top lobbyist, Curt Seidlits, approached Gibson in December with a suggestion that he come to work for TXU.
Nonetheless, Gibson and the company said there was no overlap between his state employment and his TXU work. Neither he nor TXU would disclose the value of his contract, which they say is for consulting and not for lobbying.
Help with connections
“We brought someone in who knows Austin politics and knows the right people and to help with the connections we need to have — but he has not been asked to talk to legislators about the transaction or any of the legislation that is pending,” said TXU spokeswoman Lisa Singleton.
Records show that Gibson, 53, made $13,390 per month as Dewhurst’s chief of staff. The lieutenant governor also said he used his own money to supplement Gibson’s state salary with bonuses totaling between $200,000 and $300,000 over Gibson’s four years in his office.
Before working for Dewhurst, Gibson was a top official at Reliant Energy of Houston. He said he does not discount the possibility of eventually lobbying for TXU or other companies but does not do so now.
“I help them with strategy — it’s for messaging, what is the right thing to say, and how to position the company for the best,” said Gibson. “The lieutenant governor wasn’t involved at all [in his getting a job at TXU]. . . . This is just a way to make a little money.”
Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of the advocacy group Public Citizen, said the public should be concerned whether he works as a consultant or a lobbyist.
In either case, “The former chief of staff to an elected official is going to know how to move the elected official in ways that no outsider will understand,” said Smith. “If TXU didn’t think it would pay off, they wouldn’t have hired Gibson as soon as he walked out the door.”
As for Thomas, the former Public Utility Commission chairman says he worked for several years as a consultant to Dewhurst’s oil industry company, Falcon Seaboard. He also acknowledges partnering with Dewhurst on a deal involving cogeneration plants in New York and Florida.
Falcon Seaboard paid Thomas about $10,000 annually until January 2003 for consulting work, according to Dewhurst. But the lieutenant governor says he has no involvement in the operations of Falcon Seaboard and that his ownership interests are held in an arm’s-length trust.
He says he now has no business relationship with Thomas.
“I consider Dennis Thomas a friend,” said Dewhurst. “Dennis knows that I’m not going to do anything for anybody that I don’t think is in the best interest of Texans. I will tell you that I always found Dennis Thomas to be squeaky clean and brutally honest.”
For his part, Thomas acknowledges meeting with Dewhurst last week to discuss several bills by state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, which have drawn opposition from TXU. “Right now, as a lobbyist, I’m engaged to help clients, and I advise clients about what they need,” he said.
Highly paid lobbyist
According to Texans for Public Justice, Thomas is one of highest-paid independent lobbyists contracted by TXU, with a contract worth between $100,000 and $150,000. Thomas also has a lobby contract with the partnership formed to purchase the utility.
TXU’s other top independent lobby contract is with former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who also reports payment of between $100,000 and $150,000 from TXU, according to the watchdog group.
A recent report by Texans for Public Justice said TXU spends more on lobby contracts than any company except AT&T. The group reports that TXU has spent up to $24 million on 674 state lobby contracts since 1993. It also said that the company spent up to $3.3 million on 60 lobbyists by late February 2007, which already exceeded what it spent in any previous year.
The organization said that after Gov. Rick Perry, Dewhurst received the most campaign cash from the company, $62,250, during the most recent election cycle.