Democrat Wendy Davis said last summer that she would quit doing private legal work for her public sector clients if she ran for governor, but months after she kicked off her campaign, the Fort Worth senator continues to represent them.
On Friday, Davis’ gubernatorial campaign released a list of governmental or quasi-public entities she has represented since 2010, all of which had been previously revealed in news reports. Those clients are the North Texas Tollway Authority, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the Fort Worth Independent School District, the Tarrant Regional Water District and the Benbrook Water Authority.
The legal work has raised eyebrows — as it did during her 2012 state Senate race — because the entities could be affected by actions taken by the Legislature, and Davis has voted on bills that affect some of them.
Davis’ former Capitol aide Anthony Spangler, speaking for the campaign after releasing the client list Friday, said Davis has always voted in the interest of her constituents. He said she has never needed to recuse herself from votes because she has never allowed any of her private legal work to interfere with her work as a state senator in the Texas Legislature.
A run for major statewide office, however, puts the issue of a potential conflict of interest into a much brighter spotlight. Already, Davis’ opponent, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, has made legislative conflicts of interest a centerpiece of a far-reaching ethics reform proposal that would require more disclosure and much tighter recusal rules.
When Davis was asked by The Texas Tribune in August how she would handle questions about her legal work for public sector clients in a statewide race, she said she would put those duties aside should she run for governor.
“If I were to run statewide, I would have to put my law practice on hold,” she said. “I would still have my name there but I wouldn’t be gaining any financial benefit from that relationship. And if I were to win a statewide office I would not continue practicing law.”
However, Davis’ partner, registered Texas lobbyist Brian Newby, said Davis had not halted her legal business, and that includes work done on behalf of their public sector clients.
“We’ve had some discussion but we’ve not made any decisions on whether to put anything on hold, at least at this time,” Newby told the Tribune on Friday. “Obviously she is very, very busy with the campaign.”
Newby said it would not be appropriate for him to elaborate, in part because of attorney-client privilege protections.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about the private conversations we’ve had,” Newby said.
Davis spokesman Bo Delp confirmed the ongoing work but said the gubernatorial candidate still planned to give it up.
"She is not taking on any new clients, and she is seeking to wrap up those responsibilities with her existing clients’ workload,” Delp said. He said Davis’ private work does not present any current conflicts of interest and said if she’s elected governor she would "continue to fight for all Texans."
Spangler, who was speaking on behalf of the Davis campaign, said what Davis is doing is no different from what other Texas lawmakers have done for years under the Capitol dome. And he said Davis is going beyond the requirements of ethics laws by disclosing more about her private business interests than Texas law requires.
“Every single person under that dome probably has some sort of interest in some way — you know they’re voting on some issue under the dome that could potentially impact a business they own or a business that they work at and that’s just really the reality of having a part-time Legislature,” Spangler said.
Davis, like other Texas legislators, is paid $7,200 a year for her service as a senator, and it is indeed considered part-time work. Davis’ legal work has provided far more income, according to tax records she has released. It is not a requirement, but candidates for Texas governor generally have released their tax returns in recent years.
Davis partnered with Newby, Gov. Rick Perry’s former chief of staff, in 2010. According to her tax returns, her work with the Newby Davis firm became her most lucrative job in 2012. Davis’ adjusted gross income rose from $130,931 in 2010 to $235,428 in 2011 and $284,183 last year.
In 2010, Davis made $33,346 from the partnership with Newby. That rose to $52,691 in 2011 and hit $154,212 last year, the returns showed.
In the August interview, Davis said she could not provide an entire list of her public sector clients without seeking permission from them. Otherwise, she said it could violate privacy protections guaranteed by attorney-client privileges. She did seek that permission, which is what prompted the campaign to release a full list Friday.
As it turns out, though, all of the clients had already been revealed by news outlets, including the Tribune.
“I don’t have anything to hide in that regard, I’m an open book about it,” Davis said in the summer. “It’s never, ever been anything that’s connected to the work I do in the Legislature and it wouldn’t connect to it going forward either.”