IRVING - A North Texas lawmaker is under an ethics cloud.
State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown (R-Irving) and her husband are driving cars owned by a highway contractor doing millions of dollars of business with the state. All the while, Harper-Brown sits on the influential House Transportation Committee. Her husband claims the deal is pay for work he does separate from his wife, but others question the arrangement.
Harper-Brown lives in a modest house in Irving that has been appraised at $132,000, yet she drives a 2010 Mercedes Benz sedan valued at about $55,000. She and her husband own the house, but not the car.
The car has raised questions from the Texas Values in Action Coalition, a political action committee that supports Democrats in state races.
“No where could we find any evidence of an automobile lease where she's treating it as a gift or a benefit from anyone," said Ed Cloutman, the attorney for TEXVAC. "And yet, she's driving a very expensive automobile.”
While researching Harper-Brown, TEXVAC discovered she doesn't own the Mercedes she drives with state official plates. State records show since her 2002 election, Harper-Brown has driven cars purchased by Durable Enterprises Equipment, a company owned by Jeffrey Bryan, of Arlington.
Bryan also owns Durable Specialties in Grand Prairie and Paradigm Traffic Systems in Arlington. The state comptroller's office shows that over the last three years, they've done $12 million in work, like installing and managing highway cameras, for TxDOT. In one campaign picture, Harper-Brown can even be seen wearing a Durable Specialties jacket as she stands next to Bryan.
Harper-Brown sits on the House Transportation Committee. After she amended the law in 2003 to allow cities to put in red-light cameras, Paradigm got into that business, too, although it says with little success.
Neither Bryan nor Harper-Brown would comment to WFAA about the car arrangement or their relationship regarding legislation. Cloutman said he doesn’t like the relationship.
“Causes us to believe that there may be a problem with her activities being partisan in favor of that particular business interest, which is not permitted by Texas law," Cloutman said.
Not only does Harper-Brown drive a vehicle provided by Durable, but so does her husband, William Brown. He drive a 2004 Chevy Tahoe.
Brown told WFAA by phone that Durable has been his accounting client since the 1980s, from which he arranged to accept vehicles as compensation instead of cash.
“I choose to allow my wife to drive one of the cars that's mine, just like I buy her supper,” Brown said.
He also said he pays taxes on the cars but would not turn over records as proof.
Brown and his attorney claim there's no need to disclose the cars on the Harper-Brown financial disclosure statement required by the state.
“She does not control any part of my business," he said. "It's my business; it's my income.”
But, Irving city records show that when she sat on the city council from 1997 to 2002, she abstained from votes on Paradigm bids, citing a conflict of interest.
“That was a direct vote on a contract, and at the state level there are not direct votes," Brown said.
But, at the state level, she does have potential influence that some say should require disclosure.
“Does this look right; does it smell right?" said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at SMU. "If it doesn't and you've got an election coming up, you've got to get that aroma out of the room. You've got to explain how this is a legitimate acquisition of a $55,000 automobile.”
TEXVAC has turned over what it found to the U.S. Attorney in Dallas and state prosecutors in Austin.
“It is a simple matter of public integrity," Cloutman said. "Do we have a right to know what our public officials are doing and why are they getting something of benefit for doing it, or are they just doing it because it's good government?”
Harper-Brown, who’s running for her fifth term in the Texas House, faces Democrat Loretta Haldenwang in November.