Saturday, May 10, 2008

Texas officials criticized for cozy relationships

By BRETT SHIPP - WFAA-TV - Friday, May 9, 2008Are Texas Railroad Commissioners too cozy with the oil and gas industry operators they are supposed to be regulating?

It's a question being raised in the wake of a News 8 investigation into deadly natural gas fittings, fittings that some say Commissioners should have forced gas companies to remove years ago.

For most it's tragedy long forgotten. Three elderly people killed in a house explosion in Garland in January, 2000. Investigators ruled that a small gas pipeline had cracked and leaked, causing the explosion that killed Albert and Lillian Holbert and her sister Callie Hickerson. But the Holberts' daughter, Sydna Gordon, will never forget.

Still etched in her mind, the moment she found out that the faulty pipe that killed her parents had a legacy of failure and death in Texas dating back to 1983.

Only after her parents died, did State Railroad Commissioners order the faulty pipe removed from the ground. “The Railroad Commission is the governmental agency in this state that has the responsibility to make sure we are all safe and they don't do it," said Gordon.

West Texas rancher Jay Marcom is a frequent critic of State Railroad Commissioners. His ranch land is crisscrossed by a corroded, 80 year old natural gas pipeline which spring six leaks last year, polluting his soil and his wells.

When he tries to get Railroad Commissioners to protect him and his land he says they almost always side with the gas company... and he thinks he knows why. “As long as the Railroad Commission of Texas is funded and influenced by the oil and gas industry of the state of Texas there will never be a change," said Marcom.

According to the government watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, all three commissioners campaigns are heavily funded by the people they regulate.

Of the $1.6 million dollars raised by Victor Carrillo in 2004, 46-percent came from individuals connected to the oil and gas industry.

Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones raised just over $2-million dollars in 2006. Of that, 35-percent was oil and gas money.

And a News Eight analysis of Commission Chairman Michael Williams January campaign report shows of the $400,000 he raised, 42-percent came from individuals with ties to the oil and gas industry.

Critics say those percentages are hard to ignore. "With the Railroad Commission we don't know who these people are, nobody knows what they do for a living, except the oil and gas industry that they are supposed to regulate,” said Andrew Wheat, director of Texans for Public Justice. “But, at the same time that's the very industry that is paying for their political careers."

Chairman Williams says contributions do not buy influence. "I reject that notion,” said Williams. “I am very confident that I make decisions based on facts and based on good sound policy and based on what I think is the best interest of my fellow Texans."

Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones told News 8, "I've always called balls and strikes the way I see them, and I don't ever intend to stop doing that."

Commissioner Victor Carrillo rejects critics claims as well. "My personal integrity dictates that the decisions I make are based on sound legal, policy, and scientific reasoning and not based on who has contributed to my campaign," said Carrillo.

All three commissioners reacted quickly to our investigation into faulty gas couplings that led to two deaths in Wylie in 2006, and two more in Cleburne last year.

Just days after our reports aired Commissioners ordered the couplings removed from the ground.

But in the cases of the faulty couplings and the cracked pipe which killed the Holberts, past and present Railroad Commissioners had access to years of evidence that potentially deadly problems existed.

And for years no action was taken to force the removal of the potentially deadly products, a removal that would have cost industry officials millions of dollars.

To this day Gordon believes had Railroad Commissioners done their jobs her parents would still be alive. “The Railroad Commission is only interested in protecting the gas companies not the rest of us asleep in our beds," said Gordon.

Late last year a state audit criticized Railroad Commission inspectors for being too cozy with and accepting small gifts from the oil and gas operators they are supposed regulate.

Railroad Commissioners have pledged to discontinue that practice.
See more of News 8 Investigative Report

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