Hutchison critics see conflict

AUSTIN, TX Critics on both sides of the political aisle say that's a conflict of interest, even if neither Hutchison has ever been accused of wrongdoing. Both Hutchisons say their dealings are entirely ethical and bristle at any suggestion otherwise.

But with Hutchison preparing to leave the Senate early after 16 years to challenge incumbent Gov. Rick Perry in next year's Republican primary, her work bringing home the federal bacon and her husband's work representing Dallas, Houston's mass transit agency and other government agencies getting a slice of it is moving into the bright lights of a potentially nasty campaign.

"There seems to be a coincidence if you will, or something beyond that -- I don't know -- of an interrelationship between the earmarks that she has sponsored in the past and the client base that he services as a lawyer," said William B. Canfield, a Republican lawyer and former senior staffer with the Senate Ethics Committee. "I think there is at least the appearance of a conflict."

Canfield and others believe the senator's pursuit of federal funding for public works projects has the potential to benefit Ray Hutchison's work as an attorney on behalf of those same projects, creating a conflict of interest.

Among the examples cited is the Trinity River Corridor Project in Dallas, a project for which Sen. Hutchison claimed credit for winning more than $50 million in public infrastructure improvements dollars. While she was seeking approval for that money in Congress, Ray Hutchison was representing Dallas to fend off a 2001 legal challenge to the project.

"What you feel when you're opposing a project that a senator's husband is involved with, it just feels like you're not being heard," said environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, who opposed Ray Hutchison in the lawsuit. "It makes you feel like you're beating your head against the wall when you've got that type of tight relationship going against you."

Still, Blackburn said that he knew of no specific wrongdoing. Ray Hutchison dismissed Blackburn's complaint as predictable "mouthing" from a loser in a lawsuit, and in an interview with The Associated Press he angrily dismissed the suggestion he has ever crossed an ethical line. He said the debt financing issues he works on do not depend on federal funding.

"I don't have any obligation to go and check on what's she's doing. Why should I check up on what she's doing? It doesn't affect me one way or the other," he said. "There is no conflict of interest."

Sen. Hutchison's spokesman David Beckwith said the couple doesn't talk about their day jobs and stressed that many of Ray Hutchison's clients signed on with him long before her 1993 election to the Senate.

"What you have here are two professionals, each pursuing their duties -- in Ray's case to his clients and in Kay's case to the people who elected her," Beckwith said. "There is no conflict."

But the couple has considered the idea that one might exist. Two years after his wife was elected to the Senate, Ray Hutchison asked the Senate Ethics committee for advice on whether his professional activities might "infringe upon Senator Hutchison's official and ethical duties."

The response, which the Hutchison campaign gave the AP, said that "consideration should be given to the appearances that may be created if a public finance project that you are involved with requires application for federal funds" or involves an agency over which the senator exercises oversight authority.

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Hutchison has shaken loose hundreds of millions in earmarks, the discretionary spending members of Congress request on behalf of their districts and state. Ray Hutchison, 76, is a former legislator who played a major role in the crafting of a key 1979 state public finance law and is considered a pioneer in the field. He has helped structure debt financing deals across Texas and in places as far flung as Alaska and Guam.

In his most recent high-profile project, Ray Hutchison helped put together the $747 million debt-financing package that Dallas County will use to replace its Parkland Hospital. This year, Sen. Hutchison got a $143,000 federal earmark to help pay for renovations and equipment for the Parkland system.

"Clearly, there isn't just the potential for conflict," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the Washington, D.C.-based liberal watchdog group Public Citizen. "There is a clear conflict of interest going on here, where the senator is responsible for promoting and drafting appropriations and perhaps even earmarks that go to benefit businesses her husband works for."

In a preview of the campaign to come, Ray Hutchison bluntly accused Perry stirring up the issue. So did David McCall, a Hutchison supporter who is the former chairman of Dallas Area Rapid Transit, an agency for which Hutchison and his firm retain the title of "bond co-counsel." Sen. Hutchison has taken credit for helping DART win $700 million in federal funding in 2006 and has repeatedly championed the agency in Washington. McCall called the suggestion the agency benefited from an improper conflict a "slur."

"Any allegation of impropriety is one hundred percent baseless," McCall said. "It has more to do with the upcoming election than anything else."

Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the questions are valid. "The facts speak for themselves," Miner said. "Connect the dots."

As governor, Hutchison would no longer be in position to secure federal funding, but she could potentially influence state and local government, as well as laws governing public finance. Ray Hutchison was required to retire as a Vinson & Elkins partner at age 65 in 1997, but still goes to the office every day and continues to dispense advice.

"I don't want to mislead you. I'm available to do business," he said. "If I get a call from the city of Dallas tomorrow, if they have a question about the Trinity River, I'm going to respond."

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