Keeping Tabs on TAD
One hour into a recent board meeting of the Tarrant Appraisal District (TAD), five members and Tarrant County’s tax assessor, Wendy Burgess, were in agreement. Through public statements, the county officials who set property tax rates said homeowners in Tarrant County are misusing state homestead exemptions that lower property taxes on primary residences with certain restrictions.
“I have had many folks come to me and give personal testimony that they have had an over-65 parent die, and [the deceased parent’s children] did not give notice to the appraisal district of their death because they know their taxes will go up,” Burgess said, referring to a special property tax freeze afforded to senior citizens. “I believe that is against the law, and I believe that we need to make sure that we realize the actual exemptions based on actual facts.”
The declining use of obituaries has made tracking homeowner deaths difficult, one board member added. To address the problem, in March, the board requested proposals from qualified vendors to identify “erroneously granted homestead exemptions.” Three companies turned in timely proposals: LexisNexis Risk, Linebarger, and Tyler Technologies.
TAD staffers examined the proposals based on each company’s stated goals, work plan, qualifications, experience, and proposed costs, and the December board meeting was held, in part, to ratify TAD staff’s final recommendation — Tyler Technologies. As the agenda item to ratify Tyler’s contract was brought up, Burgess interjected.
“I will make a motion to approve Linebarger” for the contract, said Burgess, who serves on TAD’s board but is not a voting member. Burgess has accepted $17,000 in recent campaign contributions from Linebarger, the law firm that also has donated tens of thousands of dollars in recent years in local elections. County Commissioner Judge Glenn Whitley, District Attorney Sharen Wilson, and several current and past Fort Worth school district trustees are just a few of the beneficiaries of Linebarger’s political largesse.
TAD board member Joe Ralph Martinez seconded the motion, which forced a vote on awarding the contract to Linebarger — known fully as Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, the law firm that numerous news outlets (including the Weekly) have tied to allegations of elections meddling and intimidation for debt collection purposes.
Linebarger spokesperson Joe Householder said in an email that there is “no linkage between our political contribution and any action on the part of the tax assessor-collector or the appraisal district board. As we do in the communities we serve across the state of Texas and the United States, we make political contributions based on our assessment of those public officials who we believe best serve the interests of their communities. In all cases, those contributions are made in accordance with the law and are publicly reported.”
Audio recording of the ensuing discussion documented tension among the staff and board members present as Burgess appeared to try to circumvent TAD’s procurement procedures.
“I have extensive experience within Tarrant County and understand that Tyler Technologies has experienced many issues,” Burgess said.
Martinez shored up Burgess’ arguments.
“I’m going along with Ms. Burgess with my concerns with Tyler Technologies,” he said. “The recent ransomware [attack] they had as recently as September, there are some concerns there. If there is another glitch that takes place under our watch, that would happen to the people we are here to serve.”
Plano-based Tyler Technologies lost $4 million in sales due to a September ransomware attack, according to the technology blog CRN, but the company’s CEO said no client information was compromised.
As board member Gary Losada suggested a postponement of the vote to allow more time to evaluate Linebarger’s proposal, which was not available at the meeting, Burgess pushed on.
“As your tax assessor, it is my goal to receive the best information possible,” Burgess said. “I received the best information possible, and the best return on investment […] would be to go with the highest possible service with Linebarger.”
Board member Losada said Burgess’ last-minute push for Linebarger undermined the procurement process. By stating Tyler Technologies’ $380,000 bid publicly at the Dec. 11 TAD meeting, he argued, Linebarger was now positioned to undercut that offer. Losada recommended that the agenda item be tabled until January.
A review of documents from several municipalities shows that Linebarger charges $7 to $10 dollars per audited home. Householder said his firm is proposing a “per-account fee of $5.75” for the TAD proposal that includes a maximum cap, which he did not disclose. Linebarger has earned Texas appraisal districts a return on investment more than 5-to-1, he added. With 390,000 homestead exemptions in Tarrant County, Linebarger’s initial audit could cost the county millions.
The motion failed.
“I’ll make sure to share with any of the callers who call into our call center who are concerned about the homestead exemption or any exemption” that this board caused those problems, Burgess said, referring to the failed effort to award the contract to Linebarger.
Board members Kathryn Wilemon and Martinez voted in favor of the measure, while Rich DeOtte, Losada, and Tony Pompa voted against the last-minute proposal. The board will discuss the contract at TAD’s next board meeting on January 15.
According to some detractors, Linebarger has a history of using political contributions to obtain lucrative government contracts. Since 2005, the firm has been under contract with the City of Fort Worth to collect delinquent property taxes. A 2009 lawsuit filed by the previous contract holders — Perdue, Brackett, Flores, Utt, and Burns — claimed that Linebarger gained the contract by making false claims against Perdue and associates to city councilmembers during a closed-door meeting in late 2004. The lawsuit failed, and a Linebarger spokesperson told me in 2018 that his firm had been “vindicated” from accusations of wrongdoing.
Fort Worth school district trustee Ashley Paz believes the law firm ordered the gutting of the school district’s ethics policy in 2018 (“ Ethics for Sale?” May 2018). Such policies are designed to limit the influence of outside interests in school dealings. Linebarger began an exclusive six-year contract with the school district in 2016 and earns just under $2 million a year by collecting delinquent property tax debt for the district. The ethics policy was gutted in 2017 when then-school board president Tobi Jackson slipped destructive language into a 214-page agenda packet that was approved during an August school board meeting.
Between 2010 and 2018, Fort Worth school district’s current and past board members have received $18,550 in campaign contributions from Linebarger, according to financial disclosure reports.
Jackson said in an email that year that she scrapped the ethics policy because it was “difficult for administrative staffers to handle.” A Linebarger spokesperson said no one with the firm asked the school board to “rescind, review, or pull the ethics policy.” Many of the provisions of the original ethics policy were restored in December 2018.
Linebarger is a massive donor in local elections. Statewide, the law firm doles out more in lobbying monies than corporate giants like ExxonMobil, American Airlines, and Halliburton, according to a 2015 CNN article. Campaign disclosure forms show that Linebarger has made at least four recent contributions to Burgess: $7,000 (May 2018), $2,500 (September 2018), $2,500 (October 2018), and $5,000 (September 30, 2020). The September 2020 donation occurred during the mandated non-communication period between competing vendors and TAD leadership.
On Oct. 13, Linebarger sponsored an event, October Virtual Stockyards Happy Hour, that was supposed to feature Burgess as a guest speaker despite language in TAD’s procurement policies that forbids communications between potential vendors and TAD leadership while potential bids are under review. Householder said Linebarger did not organize the event. Conversely, he added, Linebarger was invited to sponsor it, and “we chose to do so because we find such events informative for the community,” he said. “While Wendy Burgess was invited to speak at the event, she ultimately did not attend due to a scheduling conflict. Furthermore, none of the partners or employees of the Linebarger law firm attended.”
Without commenting specifically on the donations made to Burgess, J.R. Johnson, general counsel at the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC), said that “while there are some limits to what can be given, campaign finance law in Texas generally emphasizes disclosure over prohibition because the U.S. Supreme Court has held that political contributions are protected speech under the First Amendment. As the court wrote in Citizens United, ‘Transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.’ ”
Where elected officials find themselves running afoul of ethics laws, he said, is when they do not report campaign contributions or underreport them.
Burgess and TAD’s five board members did not respond to my requests for comment on the December 11 board meeting. Householder said he cannot speak to Burgess’ efforts to reject the staff recommendation.
“Should you listen to the recording, you will hear, very clearly, concerns she and others expressed regarding that staff recommendation and her views as to why Linebarger’s proposal is superior,” he said. “We were honored to have been invited to participate in the [request for proposal] process, and we put forth a proposal that will pay for itself. Among the three responsive bidders, Linebarger has the most experience in this area, having provided the same service to numerous counties across the state of Texas. We are also part of the Tarrant County community, having served local taxing entities for over 40 years. The taxpayers of Tarrant County are our neighbors. We know them, they know us, and we treat them with the respect that they deserve.”