The Trinity River Vision Authority hired consultant Mark Mazzanti in 2019 to help bring the controversial Central City Flood Project, better known as Panther Island, out of federal funding purgatory.
Mazzanti provided inside knowledge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because he was recently employed by the agency that oversees federal infrastructure projects, including the construction of the 1.5-mile bypass channel needed to achieve the goals of the Central City plan. To supporters of the Central City Flood Project, his presence was an asset. To critics, it was a conflict of interest.
On Tuesday, the fate of Mazzanti’s contract will be determined at the Tarrant Regional Water District Board meeting. The board will vote to extend Mazzanti’s contract two weeks after the Trinity River Vision Authority, which coordinates the flood control portion of the Panther Island project for the Water District, recommended the contract be extended so that Mazzanti can continue to coordinate with the corps on other project partners.
Members of the Water District Accountability Project, an activist group that has pushed for a financial audit of the district, have raised concerns about the legality of Mazzanti’s hiring since 2019. Former state Rep. Lon Burnam said the group is concerned with the legality and ethics of Mazzanti leaving the corps in November 2019 and immediately joining the water board as a consultant.
At a Jan. 27 board meeting, both Lee Christie, general counsel of the Trinity River Vision Authority, and Mazzanti indicated they weren’t aware of any violations of legal restrictions. There likely were some restrictions on Mazzanti for a year after he left the corps, but no documents obtained by the Report showed violations of communicating with the federal government.
A required no-contact period applies to any senior-level employee in the executive branch of the federal government. It is meant to prevent federal employees from leaving their employer and accepting lucrative lobbying jobs that take advantage of their connections with the federal government.
“He has insider knowledge about how things work,” Burnam said. “The question is the ethics of it at the time, and we have not been able to get an answer.”
The policy restricts former employees from seeking official action from their former employer, in this case the corps, but does not prevent them from lobbying Congress or its members. On Tuesday, when the water district board votes on Mazzanti’s contract, he will be well beyond any restrictions on his communications with the federal government.
The Fort Worth Report spoke with Mazzanti prior to the vote, but he referred any questions about his role or contract with the water district to Dan Buhman, the water district’s general manager. Buhman said Mazzanti’s experience with the corps will be an asset as the water district transitions into the next phase of the project.
“The Trinity River Vision Authority is the really the place where we coordinate,” Buhman said. “So keeping that body understanding of the risks and what is happening at the federal level and at the local level helps continue the local support of the project.”
Mazzanti’s growing role within TRWD
Mazzanti spent a 35-year career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers working on civil works projects. He advanced to oversee the corps’ civil works program in Washington, D.C., in 2011 before moving to Dallas to manage civil and military projects in the Southwestern Division.
When Mazzanti joined the Central City Flood Project as a consultant in 2019, he signed a contract with the Trinity River Vision Authority Board for $25,000 a month. Since then, he has received over half a million dollars in compensation for his services, according to records obtained by the Fort Worth Report.
In August 2020, the contract moved out from under the authority of the Trinity River Vision Authority to become an agreement between Mazzanti and the Tarrant Regional Water District.
The Fort Worth Report obtained Mazzanti’s contract, which outlines the scope of his duties. He coordinates between project partners, including the city of Fort Worth, the water district and the corps. His main objective was keeping the stalled project eligible for federal funding.
Buhman, who was named general manager last year amid controversy over his predecessor, said Mazzanti and others were an important part of communicating with the corps to convince leadership at all levels that the Central City Flood Project should remain a priority.
“He has been an important part of the team to keep (the corps) on the same page internally, to help (the corps) understand the project and to ensure that they continue to see it as a priority,” Buhman said.
Now, the project has received $403 million in federal dollars. It’s not the full amount of federal money required to complete the project, but it will go far enough to complete the design for the Central City Flood Project and construct the bypass channels, which will be the centerpiece of the long-awaited Panther Island revitalization project.
Reports written by Mazzanti for the Trinity River Vision Authority board described where coordination breakdowns were putting the project at risk and what steps the board could take with its project partners to keep Panther Island moving forward.
Buhman said these reports helped keep the project eligible for federal funding because they kept local people invested and engaged with the success of the project. Federal funding is contingent on local support, which can be demonstrated verbally or through actions like acquiring land, relocating utilities and environmental remediation.
“All of that is us saying to the federal government, ‘We’re serious about this,'” Buhman said. “And Mark was one of the players that helped us understand risk, understand where we need to coordinate and therefore keep local support alive.”
When the Central City Flood project received federal funding in January, it was described as shovel ready. Reports from Mazzanti to the water board show that as late as Nov. 10, there were still several coordination issues affecting the project. In November, the city of Fort Worth still hadn’t completed utility relocation, which must occur before construction of the north and south bypass channel can begin.
Fort Worth is responsible for relocating city utilities, and they will have to be moved before the corps can begin construction on the channel. The reports tracked project challenges back to July 2020, when the water board had not completed the demolition necessary to begin environmental remediation at four different sites.
Along with the identification of possible causes for delay, Mazzanti recommended strategies to mitigate, avoid or transfer the problem.
His role going forward
Although the focus is often on the funding for the project, Buhman said, implementation is also important to the success of the project. He added that Mazzanti’s role going forward will be “massive amounts of coordination” between the water district and the corps.
“And because of Mark’s background, I think he’s in a good spot to help us as we coordinate not just on funding but on project execution,” Buhman said.
Critics and watchdogs of the water board asked why a consultant has such a central role in the fulfillment of a taxpayer-funded project. Linda Christie is the community and government relations director at the water district. She has held the role since 2005. Burnam asked why she wasn’t serving as a liaison between the water district and other government agencies.
“Basically, this guy’s just a glorified lobbyist,” Burnam said, referring to Mazzanti.
Mazzanti’s $25,000 monthly paycheck is considered a project cost paid through the Tarrant Regional Water District. Critics have long raised concerns about the transparency of the water district’s budget, calling for a forensic audit of the government agency.
“There’s consistently been issues and concerns about the transparency of the budget, and how things work,” Burnam said.
Mazzanti’s experience as upper management with the corps gives him a unique understanding of their processes, their resources and how they execute projects, Buhman said.
“That understanding will help us work well with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” he said.
Jessica Priest contributed to this report.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.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.