The Ector County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on Tuesday to reject $15 million from a rider amendment in the state transportation budget that was passed without the county’s knowledge or consent this past legislative session.
The amendment, which was allocated to lengthen the runways at the airport, caught county officials by surprise when they learned of its passage in mid-June after a tip led Odessa Headlines to contact county officials and inquire about the funding.
State Rep. Brooks Landgraf (R-Odessa) told the county that the funding was part of a DPS plan to run border security surveillance planes from the airport, but both Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and Department of Public Safety officials debunked that story, saying their departments did not request the funding nor did they have plans for the airport.
This news, among other reasons, prompted the Ector County Airport Board to pass a resolution opposing the funding, pointing out the numerous problems the expansion would cause including placing unfunded mandates and potential tax increases on Ector County taxpayers, and wrote that the funding was based on “a lie regarding DPS.”
During the June 17 Airport Board meeting where Landgraf addressed a room of inquisitive county officials, he denied meeting with anyone during the session regarding the provision and claimed he didn’t have anything to do with getting the provision passed.
Later, after DPS officials shot down the border security story, Landgraf then admitted that he did meet with the airport flight base operator (FBO) Texas Aero, who solicited his support of the provision, but he still maintained he wasn’t the author.
It was during that time, Landgraf has stated, he was told the DPS border security story, implying that Texas Aero is the originator of the tale.
Landgraf has also refused to answer after being pressed multiple times if he had met with any lobbyists from Hillco Partners lobbying firm in Austin regarding the funding.
Public records provided by Transparency USA indicate that Texas Aero hired Hillco Partners to lobby the Texas Legislature, and may have paid Hillco as much as $199,870.00.
A public records request has now revealed emails between a lobbyist at Hillco Partners, Kelly Barnes, and Texas Department of Transportation officials, with Barnes claiming he worked to secure the $15 million amendment “for Ector County” this session with Texas Aero “in tandem.”
“I worked on a project for Ector County this legislative session in tandem with the FBO out there (Texas Aero) and had a few quick questions,” Barnes wrote to TxDOT, writing further saying “[w]e secured $15M in the budget for runway improvements and just wanted to clarify how this will work moving forward.”
The emails also reveal that Hillco Partners was planning a meeting at Schlemeyer Airport on June 21, and that they would have Landgraf, State Senator Kel Seliger, and Ector County officials in attendance.
Odessa Headlines was told by the Ector County Judge that morning the event was to be a joint press conference between Hillco Partners, Texas Aero, and Landgraf.
But shortly after arriving ahead of the event, our reporters were informed that it was canceled.
Later that afternoon, Landgraf told reporters that he denied having any knowledge of the event.
Ector County officials stated publicly during today’s commissioner’s court meeting that neither Kelly Barnes nor Hillco Partners ever represented Ector County, and were not authorized to lobby on behalf of the county.
Multiple attempts have been made to request comments from both Texas Aero and Hillco Partners for comment regarding this story. Both entities continue to decline to comment.
The only remaining question regarding the origin of the $15-million rider provision in the state budget for Ector County is which lawmaker is responsible for it.
Landgraf continues to maintain that while he supported the amendment, he was not the author, and has pointed to members of the appropriations committee, including Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Angleton) as the responsible members.
Bonnen’s office has declined to comment regarding this story.
Ector County Judge Debi Hays told Odessa Headlines that she intends to direct the county attorney to review the airport contract with Texas Aero and relevant state laws to see if any possible actions can be taken against Texas Aero for their actions.