Lawmaker's land deal now raising eyebrows
Lisa Sandberg-Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express
May 18, 2007
AUSTIN — Few people knew or cared about Rep. Robert Puente's decision 18 months ago to purchase 101 acres of undeveloped land a mile or so east of Interstate 35 near Buda.
Puente, a disarming Democrat from San Antonio, dabbles in real estate. His decision to set up a partnership, Tope Development Corp., with three friends and put $140,000 of his own money into a real estate deal fell under the radar screen in the Capitol, where he's held public office for 16 years and has been chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee for four.
An uncontested bill that passed through Puente's committee, though — legislation that even he acknowledges could significantly boost the value of his land — has people around the Capitol now taking notice.
Senate Bill 1661, authored by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, and sponsored in the House by Rep. Patrick Rose, would create a special utility district in Hays, Travis and Caldwell counties — an area that encompasses Puente's property. The bill passed both chambers and is on its way to Gov. Rick Perry's desk.
The creation of such an entity would allow local officials there, subject to voter approval, to issue revenue bonds to update infrastructure. That could mean the building of roads or sewer lines to property owned by Puente.
Puente said he did nothing wrong in allowing the bill to pass through his committee. While he set a hearing for the bill and forwarded it to the Calendars Committee, Puente recused himself from voting both when the bill landed in committee and when it landed on the House floor.
"I didn't hear the bill. I didn't vote for the bill. I excused myself from the committee room when it was heard and when it got to the floor," Puente said.
He said similar bills regarding utility districts for rural areas pass through his committee each session, and none is voted down.
While that may be true, some in Austin questioned whether Puente did enough to distance himself from any potential conflict of interest.
Kelly Fero, a Democratic strategist, said Puente didn't.
"It fails the smell test," Fero said. "This is a case of a lawmaker's personal interests being a little too close to the legislation under consideration."
He and Andrew Wheat, a researcher with the campaign-finance reform group Texans for Public Justice, said Puente should have informed Speaker Tom Craddick of the issue and asked the bill be bumped to another committee.
"It would have been an extra step of caution," Wheat said. "A chairman wields influence over his committee members. If you're sitting on his committee and you have bills pending and you know something is going to benefit his land, that could cloud matters."
Rose said he knew nothing of Puente's business dealings when local officials approached him last year and asked him to file the legislation.
Puente, meanwhile, said he and his partners bought the land in question because they thought they'd make some money, having no idea a special utility district soon might be created.
The mini-uproar over Puente's official and personal business created one more question for him to answer Friday: namely, the fact that one of his longtime friends and a partner in the Tope Development land deal, Marc Rodriguez, is a lobbyist who often appears before his committee.
"We go back at least 20 years," Puente said Rodriguez. He then asked if it wasn't permissible for him to have friends who do business in Austin.
Rodriguez couldn't be reached for comment.
Fero said the whole thing seemed created at least an appearance of impropriety. "Some lawmakers have had a fuzzier idea of what's ethical then voters and taxpayers feel comfortable with," he said.