METRO lobbyist meets with judge on pending case

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- A METRO lobbyist's conversation with a judge could cost him thousands of dollars, and delay a pending court case against METRO.

Lawyers will be in court Friday morning, but we're taking a look into how your money was spent by a lobbyist who says he spoke to the judge handling the case.

METRO Gilbert Garcia says METRO lobbyist Fred Zeidman should never have reached out to a sitting judge this summer.

"He shouldn't have done it on METRO's time," Garcia said.

It will likely cost Zeidman thousands of dollars, but to understand why and how your money paid for it, you need a little background.

METRO needs lots of financial help from the federal government to run buses and trains. And to keep that cash coming to METRO, the agency spends thousands of your dollars every month to hire lobbyists to sing METRO's praises to a sometimes-reluctant congressional delegation.

"We are regularly under attack in Washington," Gilbert said.

Zeidman is on METRO's team. He's a big deal in Washington D.C., and he sits on boards of businesses and charities alike.

On top of that, METRO says he does a pretty good job for them. Zeidman's contract is clear, unless directed "in writing" Zeidman is supposed to represent METRO "before the federal government, federal agencies and officials of the executive branch."

According to the lobbyist's own invoices, month after month he met with all sorts of Houston leaders - a mayoral candidate, the Greater Houston Partnership, City Council, and one day in July one local judge, Debra Ibarra Mayfield.

Texas rules are clear, lobbyists are not supposed to argue legal cases and judges aren't supposed to have private talks with one side in a pending case.

Just weeks earlier, a lawsuit against METRO and other defendants landed in Judge Mayfield's court, and if METRO lost, it could've slowed or stopped progress on the uptown bus lanes.

"He was not authorized to do it," Gilbert said.

"So why did he do it?" we asked.

"I don't know. I haven't asked him, but he shouldn't have," he said.

Zeidman included the conversation on his monthly $10,000 bill.

METRO paid Zeidman's invoice, but didn't notice his entry with the judge until just a few weeks ago, when a member of the public asked to see the lobbyist's bills under open records law.

That's when METRO says they alerted the court. The judge took herself off the case "to avoid even the appearance of impropriety," writing in court documents, if there was a conversation, it was about unrelated matters.

She didn't respond to our request for more answers. Neither did Zeidman.

Later this month, METRO will consider docking Zeidman's fee as a punishment.

"He bills $10,000 a month, I will be recommending less," Gilbert said.

Zeidman is a longtime lobbyist for METRO. His current contract runs through 2016 and no one is suggesting this episode will end his work with the agency.
Copyright © 2022 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.