Today, the Texas Transportation Commission announced the new Executive Director to head the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), former Secretary of State Phil Wilson. Wilson was also Governor Rick Perry’s designee for two of his corporate slush funds, the Texas Enterprise Fund and Emerging Technology Fund at that time. Wilson stepped down from Secretary of State in 2008 to become a lobbyist for Luminant, whose parent company is Energy Future Holdings Corp. (formerly TXU Corp.). Wilson also formerly served as Perry’s Chief of Staff and Communications Director.
Now we have two Perry political hacks running the highway department, one of the most criticized and broken state agencies in Texas. When Perry tapped Deidre Delisi to head the Transportation Commission in 2008, the move was highly criticized by many in the Texas Legislature. The Senate Transportation Committee Chair at the time, John Carona (R – Dallas), called Delisi a “political hack” with ZERO transportation experience. The same could be said of Wilson. Ultimately, Carona backed down when he got Perry to appoint Bill Meadows, former Board member of the North Texas Tollway Authority, to the Commission.
Flaming pay-to-play cronyism on display
The Transportation Commission wasted taxpayer money hiring Grant Cooper & Associates, an executive search firm based in St. Louis, Mo., to conduct a national search for a new director only to have Perry choose a crony from within Texas. Wilson’s former employer donated over $1 million to Perry through the Republican Governor’s Association when Perry chaired it. This newly released Texans for Public Justice report shows how Energy Future Holdings Corp. benefited directly with Perry appointing Wilson to five (now six) different state posts and four other employees snagging five state appointments in return for its generous donations.
For the first time, TxDOT will not be managed by a professional engineer, but rather a former politician and puppet of the governor. The628-page management audit done by Grant Thornton recommended new leadership at the top of the troubled agency due to its entrenched culture. It said: “TxDOT has significant leadership issues that impair staff and management effectiveness and morale.” The report also reveals: “Conversations with TxDOTʼs senior leaders reveal a deep-seated belief that TxDOT is doing all the right things and that criticisms leveled against the organization will decline when TxDOT is better able to demonstrate to people how right the organization is.”
The Sunset Advisory Commission also issued two scathing reviews of TxDOT and recommended the Transportation Commission be abolished. Perry’s choice of Wilson is a slap in the face to the sunset review process and will do nothing to convince the skeptical public that this agency’s waste, fraud, and abuse has been put behind them.
The Sunset Advisory Commission report from 2009 states: “Many expressed concerns that TxDOT was ‘out of control,’ advancing its own agenda against objections of both the Legislature and the public. Sunset staff found that this atmosphere of distrust permeated most of TxDOT’s actions and determined that it could not be an effective state transportation agency if trust and confidence were not restored. Significant changes are needed to begin this restoration; tweaking the status quo is simply not enough.”
Well, the appointment of Wilson is not only a move to keep the status quo, it wreaks of cronyism and puts Perry’s pay-to-play cronyism on display for the national stage. Texas transportation will no more be fixed under this new regime than the old one, and likely will only get worse for taxpayers, for transparency, and for accountability.
A new, much darker era at Perry’s highway department begins….
By Terri Hall, San Antonio Transportation Policy Examiner