AUSTIN, Texas -- Since George P. Bush took over the Texas General Land Office in 2015, the agency has awarded about $164 million worth of state contracts to 12 companies with employees or political committees that have donated to Bush's campaign, public records show.
Together, the 12 companies and their employees have given at least $129,000 to Bush's campaign.
Companies seeking state business frequently give money to Texas politicians involved in contracting decisions, which is allowed under state law. At least seven of those companies, for instance, also did work for the land office before Bush's tenure, and at least eight of the companies or their employees have given money to his predecessor, Jerry Patterson, who is running to reclaim his old job from Bush in the March 6 GOP primary.
Ethics watchdogs have long contended that the confluence of political contributions and state contracts undermines the public's confidence in state government.
Bush spokeswoman Brittany Eck said there was no connection between the donations and the land office's decisions to award the contracts and stressed that the agency takes great lengths to ensure the integrity of its procurement process.
Recent scrutiny of contracting at the land office, which is handling the state's emergency housing services after Hurricane Harvey, began when the Texas Tribune last week revealed that more than two dozen employees of the Horne LLP consulting group gave Bush a combined $27,500 in political contributions three days after the agency awarded the firm a $13.5 million contract to assist with financial oversight of Harvey-related projects.
The Houston Chronicle last Friday reported that James W. Turner Construction won a $20 million land office contract in October -- a month after its president and CEO gave Bush $5,000 -- and that Florida-based Windstorm Mitigation won a $9 million contract to install temporary housing units two weeks after its president gave Bush $2,500.
At least nine other companies tied to political contributions to Bush have won contracts from the land office during his tenure, according to an Austin American-Statesman analysis of contracting records from the agency and the Legislative Budget Board and campaign finance data from the Texas Ethics Commission.
The single biggest group of contributors came from the high-powered Bracewell law firm. Its attorneys and political committee have combined to give $34,500 to Bush over the past few years. In September, the land office awarded the firm a $239,000 legal services contract.
The Statesman excluded instances in which the contractor's employees gave less than $500.
Bush's campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but Ash Wright, his political director, told the Chronicle that the issue was "the biggest nonstory in the history of nonstories." He noted that the relatively small amount of campaign cash in question is "a very small piece of Commissioner Bush's massive $3.3 million cash-on-hand."
Andrew Wheat, research director for the left-leaning ethics watchdog Texans for Public Justice, said that Bush's prodigious fundraising is one reason why he should decline to take donations from land office contractors.
"You're undermining your own reputation on the cheap," Wheat said. "Maybe he should make it his business to know (who's giving to his campaign) because the credibility of the state government and his own credibility is at stake."
Texas, Wheat noted, has a long history of contracting scandals.
"Unfortunately, I don't think he's all that unusual," Wheat said. "People in the business of contracting are very interested in developing relationships with people who dole out contracts."
When Bush entered office in January 2015, the Capitol was reeling from a contracting scandal at the Health and Human Services Commission that led to several officials being fired and the Legislature overhauling the state's procurement practices.
In July 2015, the State Auditor's Office criticized the land office's handling of contracting for a five-year period almost entirely under Patterson's tenure and found that the agency failed to address conflicts of interest, used untrained contract managers, threw away invoices and vastly underestimated project costs.
Two months later, Bush announced that he had created a Contracts and Grants Review Committee to ensure the integrity of all land office contracts.
"The contracting and grant approval process must include layers of checks and balances to ensure fairness, value and transparency," he said in a press release.
The committee process, however, does not apply to emergency or disaster relief contracts, such as the one awarded to Horne LLP. Eck said that Bush was not involved in the bidder review process and did not sign the contract. Horne, she said, had the highest score among four applicants that were judged by "three senior staff members from the Community Development and Revitalization program that are managing the implementation of FEMA's direct housing programs for the state of Texas."
"These are the staff members who must work with the company who will be fulfilling the contract, so they have a vested interest in ensuring that the most qualified and capable applicant receives the contract," Eck wrote in an email.
Horne LLP executive partner Joey Havens said in a statement that the contributions were not connected to the contract and noted that the company has worked for the agency under Patterson and Bush.
"We regret the inconvenient timing of our partners' recent political contributions, as they have no connection to our recent contract or our existing contracts already in place under former Commissioner Patterson," Havens said. "Horne is proud to have provided disaster recovery services to Texas since 2010."
Some of the contracts in question are related to projects that have given Bush headaches in his rocky first term.
San Antonio-based Pape-Dawson Engineers, for instance, won a $251,000 contract to work on Bush's controversial plan to revitalize the Alamo on April 25, 2016 -- four days after CEO Sam Dawson gave Bush's campaign $2,500. Sam Dawson and Eugene Dawson, the company's director, also gave Bush $5,000 each in late 2014.
Most of the other contracts involve the agency's Hurricane Harvey response, which has become a campaign issue because Patterson has accused Bush of being slow to act and criticized him for taking out-of-state trips after the disaster.
DSW Homes owner Steve Mataro gave Bush $5,000 in 2013, early in his first campaign, and won a $20.4 million contract in 2017 as part of the Harvey effort.
Sullivan Land Services, or SLSCO, last year won four Harvey-related contracts from the agency totaling $23.6 million. John, William and Todd Sullivan have donated to Bush's campaign nine times from 2013 through last year for a total of $16,875, including an in-kind contribution for "venue rental for fundraising event."
H2Bravo, a Louisiana-based disaster recovery firm, won a $47 million land office contract in October. In 2013, the company's program planner, Baton Rouge lawyer Reid Bruce, gave Bush $3,000. Reached by phone, Bruce declined to comment.
Tegrity Homes' Chief Financial Officer Jason Franks in 2014 gave Bush $500. In November of last year, it won a $20.4 million land office contract.
None of the contractors identified by the Statesman responded to a request for comment except attorney Pete Winstead, a frequent political donor whose firm won a $40,000 legal services contract from the land office last year. Winstead and others at his firm have donated $6,250 to Bush in a series of contributions over the years.
"We do work for a number of governmental entities and do work for the city of Austin and people like that, and we don't see political contributions and participating in elections as any kind of quid pro quo," Winstead said. "We try to support all politicians whether we have any kind of government contract with them or not."
Four lawyers for the Kemp Smith law firm, including Ken Slavin, who previously represented the land office in court, gave money to Bush in September 2017, about a year after the firm won a $925,000 contract.
Jeff Anon, chairman of Cavallo Energy, gave Bush $5,000 during his first run. Cavallo is the longtime vendor for the land office-operated Texas State Power Program, which sells electricity to local governments.
Bush -- the grandson and nephew of former presidents and the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- is a prodigious fundraiser, despite having faced little opposition in his first run for office in 2014. That year, Patterson ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor rather than seek re-election, and Bush had a cakewalk into the General Land Office, the oldest state agency in Texas.
This year, he faces primary challenges from Patterson, Davey Edwards and Rick Range. Miguel Suazo and Tex Morgan are running in the Democratic primary.
(Staff writer London Gibson contributed to this report.)
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