A Tarrant County grand jury is investigating the Tarrant Regional Water District. 

District Attorney Sharen Wilson sent a letter to board members informing them she had received a complaint about the Sept. 29 approval of a settlement with former general manager Jim Oliver.

The letter, dated Oct. 5 and obtained by the Fort Worth Report on Wednesday, instructs board members not to alter, conceal or destroy records related to the settlement. Wilson wrote that evidence in this matter may include, but is not be limited to, records of all closed board meetings; records related to actions taken by the water district related to personnel, paid leave policy changes and grants of paid leave; and any communications or evidence made in furtherance of a felony.

“Furthermore, as the investigation progresses, we would like to hear from individuals with knowledge related to actions by TRWD, or with knowledge related to the location or storage of evidence,” Wilson wrote. “As such, we invite you to meet with us. Without making any assertions as to criminal liability, we invite you to bring an attorney to these meetings with you. We will be in contact with you in order to arrange a time for such a meeting.”

Oliver threatened to sue the water district after the board on June 29 revoked former board president Jack Steven’s March 8 direction to staff to give Oliver more paid time off than he had earned. The other board members said they did not know nor approve of this. 

Current board president Leah King said Oliver could have cashed that time out for an additional year’s salary or about $300,000. 

Oliver announced in February that he would retire after leading the agency for more than three decades so Dan Buhman could become GM. He proposed remaining an employee of the water district until 2022, however. Buhman did become GM, but the board didn’t keep Oliver. Oliver’s last day was June 30.

Oliver hired a lawyer, Jason Smith, who argued that revoking the PTO violated the Texas constitution. King said it violated the Texas constitution to give public funds for no public benefit.

Smith also claimed the water district board had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act and had discriminated against his 72-year-old client because of his age.

Although no lawsuit was filed, the board voted 4-1 on Sept. 29 to give Oliver $161,647.20 in exchange for dropping his complaints, as well as $95,674.28 for his actual, unused vacation time and a 401k contribution payout. The details of this agreement became public last week.

DA spokeswoman Anna Tinsley Williams declined to comment about the letter or the investigation Wednesday, but said there are two grand juries in Tarrant County.

“Grand Jury A and Grand Jury B. Each meets three days a week. Members serve three months at a time. A grand jury is made up of 12 grand jurors and there’s a quorum when nine members are present,” Tinsley Williams said.

Longtime board member Marty Leonard said Wednesday that she had made Buhman aware she received the DA’s letter.

“I don’t know any more about it other than what I saw in the letter,” Leonard said.

Buhman could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but water district spokesman Chad Lorance sent this statement Wednesday afternoon:

“TRWD is aware of this inquiry. TRWD hired independent, outside counsel to review these matters and provide their advice and counsel. TRWD’s Board acted in accordance and based on the advice of legal counsel. The Board followed established legal authority in compliance with state and federal laws. We are in consultation with legal counsel regarding next steps.”

The board is meeting at 8:30 a.m. Thursday to “discuss and consider the approval and adoption of a proposed board governance policy.”

When asked Wednesday what she thought was the most significant policy change the board was considering, board member Mary Kelleher said, “I would have to say the removal of the exception clauses. I think that helps significantly.” Leonard could not think of any specific steps, but said, “It’s a good thing we’re doing. I think it is an improvement over what we had.” 

It is district policy not to pay employees more than $10,000 for unused paid time off, but there’s currently a line at the end that says, “Exceptions to this policy may be made by the General Manager, Deputy General Manager, Assistant General Manager, or Board Members at any time.”

Oliver’s attorney, Jason Smith, said that line meant Stevens did not need the rest of the board’s approval when he made an exception for Oliver.

This story was updated Wednesday afternoon to add the statement from Lorance.

Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at jessica.priest@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jessica Priest was the Fort Worth Report's government and accountability reporter from March 2021-January 2022. Follow more of her work at www.jessicapriest.me.

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