Story by James Barragan, State government reporter
Dallas Morning News
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AUSTIN — Days after former Dallas City Council member Carolyn Davis pleaded guilty to taking bribes from a real estate developer, a state lawmaker running for mayor said he will file legislation to "combat and hopefully eradicate corruption" in the awarding of affordable housing tax credits.
Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, said elected officials and developers who seek their favor "have repeatedly abused their role" in the state-run affordable housing tax credit award process.
"We saw it again last Friday when a former Dallas City councilwoman pleaded guilty to taking some $40,000 in bribes in exchange for her support of an affordable-housing development," he said.
Davis' plea says she — as chair of the council's housing committee — helped get city approval for developer Ruel Hamilton's application for 9-percent tax credits to his Royal Crest Apartments. The state later rejected the application. Hamilton was also indicted in the case, but attorney said his client will plead not guilty. Davis will face up to three years in prison as part of her plea.
"Sadly, she is not the first elected official who's been caught trying to profit from their role in the affordable-housing tax-credit award process," Johnson said.
Johnson's predecessor in the Texas House, Terri Hodge, was also sent to prison for tax evasion related to bribes for her votes in an affordable housing tax credit deal. She was one of more than a dozen people indicted in what was called the largest public corruption investigation in Dallas history.
Johnson said his bill, which he has not yet filed, would remove all elected officials — whether on the state, county or city level — from the affordable housing tax credit award process. His office said the bill will be filed before the Friday bill-filing deadline at the Legislature.
"The affordable housing tax credit has become the mother’s milk of political corruption in Dallas," Johnson said. "It needs to be reformed swiftly and comprehensively. We need affordable housing in Dallas, but not like this."
Johnson said Friday if elected mayor, he will "lead a complete reform of our city's Code of Ethics with a renewed emphasis on enforcement." But he said Monday he had "no intention of conflating" his mayoral campaign with his state-related work on fighting corruption in the awarding of affordable housing tax credits.
"This is a state law issue," he said. "As a state representative who represents Dallas in the Legislature and who has had a long track record of working on ethics reform this is squarely within an area of law that I’ve been legislating in for nine years now ... This is part of a legislative career dedicated to making sure that elected officials never use their office to enrich themselves and are always putting the public’s interest first and never abuse the public trust."
Johnson said his bill would put the award process back into the hands of locals by removing elected officials from the scoring system. Only support from community organizations and neighborhood associations would count toward receiving a tax credit from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.
"It’s a shame that some elected officials cannot resist the temptation to abuse the public trust in order to enrich themselves," he said. "But since they cannot, we must remove that temptation when it comes to Texas’ affordable housing tax credit program. It’s past time to end the corruption that surrounds affordable housing tax credits."
Johnson was joined by Garland lawmaker Angie Chen Button, a Republican who chairs the urban affairs committee, where such bills would likely be referred.
She has already filed two bills aimed at addressing the issue. One would remove state representatives from the tax credit awarding process unless the proposed project is in an unincorporated urban area. The other would remove state representatives from the process altogether.
Button said she wants to keep the decision on whether to support a tax credit program in the hands of locals and pointed out that state senators have already removed themselves from the process, which the Legislative Reference Library said happened in 2013.