By Paul J. Weber
AUSTIN — Attorney General Greg Abbott on Monday defended old rulings by his office that critics say hid problems with the Texas Enterprise Fund and more recent decisions that keep tight wraps on how Texas uses taxpayer money to woo businesses.
The criticism has the Republican, the heavy favorite to win Texas’ gubernatorial race in November, facing fresh scrutiny about transparency and oversight heading into a final debate Tuesday night against Democratic opponent Wendy Davis. An Abbott spokesman called the accusations against his office “political posturing.”
A state audit last week found that Republican Gov. Rick Perry gave roughly $172 million to private companies that never submitted applications for lucrative economic development awards. The report will likely shadow Perry if he runs again for president in 2016, but the political repercussions are also falling on Abbott.
His office has previously denied portions of open records requests related to some of the Texas Enterprise Fund recipients that never formally applied. On Monday, Davis called that part of a “cover up” that prevented troubles with the fund — which Perry created in 2004 — from being exposed years ago.
“He looked the other way as hundreds of millions of our tax dollars were handed out without any accountability,” Davis said at a news conference in Fort Worth.
What went into recent failed efforts by Perry’s office to dole out even more money also remains withheld.
Abbott’s office last week denied a July public information request from The Associated Press for records related to the state’s courtship of Tesla Motors’ $5 billion battery factory. The company, which makes electric cars, instead picked Nevada after lawmakers approved giving the company $1.1 billion in tax abatements.
Nevada legislators made that decision on Sept. 11. Twelve days later, Abbott’s office told AP it was denying the records request, in part, because releasing emails or meeting minutes related to the Tesla recruitment would cause arm in a “particular competitive situation” — even though Tesla had already made its choice. Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland said Monday that the ruling followed the law, which only takes into account the circumstances at the time the request was originally filed.
He also more broadly defended Abbott’s earlier rulings surrounding the Texas Enterprise Fund.
“The State Auditor’s Office conducted a thorough audit investigation into the TEF, and the State Auditor found absolutely no wrongdoing by the Attorney General’s Office,” Strickland said in a statement.
State auditors identified Vought Aircraft, which received $35 million, among 10 enterprise recipients that never submitted a formal application, which lawmakers didn’t begin requiring until 2005. Abbott’s office has previously denied open records requests related the company’s award, but on Monday released a 2004 letter from Vought that the company described as its “application.”
Abbott has spent his year-long campaign for governor expressing unease about Perry’s signature economic development programs but has stopped short of saying whether he wants them to continue. Other conservatives, including Republican Dan Patrick, the favorite to become lieutenant governor, have outright called to dismantle the programs.
Davis, who in the state Senate last year carried the bill that led to the first-ever audit of the enterprise fund, says she wants the programs to remain but with more oversight.