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Abbott, Davis Add More Fuel to Ethics Debate

As they put their focus squarely on the November general election, Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Wendy Davis are pushing the issue of potential conflicts of interest for officeholders into a brighter political spotlight.

As they put their focus squarely on the November general election for governor, Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Wendy Davis are pushing the issue of potential conflicts of interest for officeholders into a brighter political spotlight.

On Thursday, Abbott announced an addition to his far-reaching ethics policy proposal that would prohibit legislators and statewide leaders from serving as the bond counsel for any public entity. The proposal seemingly targets Davis, who has continued her legal work for several governmental or quasi-public entities that she has represented since 2010, while running for governor.

And the Davis campaign has continued to attack Abbott over his previous involvement with the embattled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which was found to have awarded millions of dollars in grants without proper peer review. Davis’ campaign says CPRIT awarded $42 million to Abbott donors.

“Elected officials shouldn't profit off of their positions and line their own pockets at the taxpayers’ expense,” Abbott said Thursday in a statement on his new policy proposal. “They are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents rather than their own self-interest."

Davis' law firm with Brian Newby, a former chief of staff to Gov. Rick Perry, has served as a minority bond counsel for the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and the Tarrant Regional Water District, advising the entities on issuing municipal bonds and ensuring that the bond meets all legal requirements. As The Texas Tribune has previously reported, Newby Davis has worked on more than $1 billion in bonds issued by the airport and at least $150 million in bonds for the water district.

The senator's legal work through the firm has drawn scrutiny from her opponents, who have questioned whether it creates conflict-of-interest issues because of the legal services it offers to cities and public entities. The entities could be affected by actions taken by the Legislature — some of which Davis has voted on.

"It is particularly reprehensible for lawmakers to profit from taxpayers as bond counsel for public entities that add more to the public debt of taxpayers," Abbott added. Under his proposal, violation of the rule would be considered a Class A misdemeanor.

In a call with reporters this week, Davis brushed off the Abbott campaign's criticism of her legal work, citing the release of a list of the public clients she represents.

“And I’ve done that not because the law required me to do so but because I think it’s the right thing to," Davis said. Campaign aides have also said that she is not taking on any new clients and is seeking to wrap up her existing workload.

Abbott’s new ethics proposal was announced hours after the Davis campaign criticized Abbott for his "potentially unethical behavior" while serving on CPRIT's oversight board.

The board was responsible for approving grants financed by CPRIT, which was created in 2007 to finance $3 billion in cancer prevention, research and commercialization projects over 10 years. It came under scrutiny in December 2012 after news reports exposed troubles within CPRIT, and a state audit later revealed that $56 million in grants had been approved without proper peer review.

In the Davis campaign's response to Abbott's proposal, communications director Zac Petkanas reiterated his earlier attack on the attorney general for remaining silent on the agency’s “shady activities,” indicating his involvement with the agency was "business as usual."

Abbott donors received $42 million in taxpayer money from CPRIT, according to a list provided by the Davis campaign and compiled by the Democratic Lone Star Project, which has provided consulting and research to the campaign.

“This politically motivated stunt is nothing more than a distraction from Greg Abbott’s potentially unethical behavior on the CPRIT board when his donors were funneled $42 million in taxpayer funds,” Petkanas said in a statement. “Wendy Davis has been a strong supporter of ethics reform that centers on transparency because that's the most effective way to shine sunlight into the business as usual culture in Austin.”

The Abbott campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Davis campaign's criticism.

Aides to Abbott have said that he did not attend any of the oversight committee meetings because he assigned another person within his office to represent him on the board. Davis has previously criticized Abbott over his absence from the oversight board meetings, calling it a “betrayal” to Texas taxpayers.

At the time the scandal broke in 2012, Abbott's office announced it would investigate some of the grants given without proper peer review. More recently, a spokesman for the attorney general's office said the office was assisting with whatever investigative assistance was necessary after a former CPRIT executive was indicted by a Travis County grand jury on charges of deception.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/03/13/candidates-governor-face-ethics/.

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