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Wed October 19, 2011
Audit Finds NTTA Practices Create Distrust
By Shelley Kofler
Dallas, Texas – A long awaited audit of the North Texas Tollway Authority says there's a wide perception of conflicts of interest. KERA's Shelley Kofler reports the lack of an ethics policy may be a big part of the problem.
The audit, nearly four months and $470,000 in the making, brought the NTTA, some welcome news: auditors found nothing illegal and agency finances are sound.
Less welcome were findings that weak management practices and numerous activities "create distrust among stakeholders" and the public.
Auditors from the New York firm of Alvarez & Marsal found, for example, that board members in 2010 had inappropriate discussions with consultants while they were in the midst of bidding on lucrative Tollway contracts.
They found a lack of financial oversight as one consultant with Tollway contractor HNTB approved payment invoices for another HNTB consultant.
More recently Board Chairman Kenneth Barr drew scrutiny when he acknowledged his brother is a lawyer with the firm awarded millions of dollars of legal work by the NTTA.
Barr: I have voted when I didn't have a conflict and I haven't voted on the few occasions when I have had a conflict
Barr says he did nothing wrong, and he was not part of the report. But auditors say a lot of the suspicion surrounding NTTA practices and relationships might be eliminated if the NTTA adopts a clear ethics policy that board members and executive staff are required to sign and follow.
Ron Orsini, who led the audit team, says that's the standard practice among similar agencies.
Orsini: Ninety-five percent of them do have their own conflict of interest policies to make it crystal clear what they are able to do and not do.
Kofler: What are some of the things you think need to be addressed in this?
Orsini: Business transactions and the perception of participating in votes when in fact they or a related party or relative could benefit.
The audit team was hired after the NTTA narrowly escaped the legislature's effort to investigate the agency under its sunset review process. Lawmakers wanted to know why the NTTA had awarded multi-million dollar contracts to the same handful of companies for decades.
Auditors have now made recommendations for how to create a more open bidding process. The four county judges who commissioned the audit want the recommendations followed and they want the NTTA to implement an ethics policy within six months.
Auditors note the NTTA has heard most of these findings before and done little or nothing about them. Collin County Judge Keith Self says the difference this time is the posse of state lawmakers breathing down their necks.
Self: It's like everything else. A crisis produces results.
NTTA Cover Letter and Report