City Manager David Cooke and his spouse flew to Aspen, Colorado, with Ed and Sasha Bass over Labor Day weekend in the Bass’ private jet, raising concerns about a relationship detractors say is too close for Fort Worth’s top administrator and a billionaire couple who control a large swath of downtown.
Reyne Telles, city spokesperson, confirmed the trip last week to the Fort Worth Report and said Cooke had taken a personal day off. It isn’t uncommon for city managers to build relationships with business leaders, Telles said.
In an interview last week, Cooke acknowledged the optics of the situation.
“I’m aware that those perceptions (of bias) are out there,” Cooke said. “So I’ve got to work even harder when there’s decisions regarding downtown, or Sundance … That might mean, you know, bringing other people in on the decision. So it doesn’t look like I’m the single decision-maker.”
City employees are not allowed to accept or solicit “any benefit from any person, group or business entity that might reasonably tend to influence the officer, employee or advisory board member in the discharge of his or her official duties,” according to the city’s standards of conduct.
What does a city manager do?
In Fort Worth, the city manager is the top administrative position, appointed by the City Council to lead the city’s departments, budgets and employees.
“The city manager is sort of an unusual position in the sense that it’s not an elected official,” Matthew Wilson, an associate political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said. “This is someone hired by the city to perform a managerial function. So we might therefore ask, if we’re going to restrict the city manager from doing something like this, what other employees would be prohibited from accepting gifts or debits from people in the private sector?”
City employees are required to fill out a conflict of interest disclosure form if they have a business or family relationship with a vendor that works with the city. They must explain the relationship and list gifts received from the vendor, if they add up to more than $100 over a 12-month period, per Texas law. It is unclear whether Cooke’s relationship with the Bass couple would require disclosure; the Report has submitted a public records request for employee disclosure forms, including the city manager’s.
The definition of a gift is up for debate, Wilson said. Texas law does not provide a specific definition of what constitutes a gift, other than specifying that food accepted as a guest does not count.
“What counts as a gift is one question, and who counts as a public official is the other question,” Wilson said. “Does public official mean every government employee, or does that mean only elected officials? I don’t know what the answer is.”
No formal complaints have been filed with the ethics review commission, a city board whose members are chosen at random from other boards when needed, Telles said. The ethics commission would meet only if a complaint is submitted to the city attorney’s office or if the City Council or city manager makes a specific request.
When asked whether she directed the city attorney to conduct a legal review of the trip, Mayor Mattie Parker said any discussions between herself and the city attorney regarding the trip are protected by attorney-client privilege. She did not respond to a follow-up request for comment on the trip after the city spokesperson confirmed it happened.
Cooke said the perception of a conflict is flawed.
“It assumes that everybody at City Hall is making decisions based on friendships and not the policies,” Cooke said. “There’s not a policy you’re going to find that says, ‘Hey, give better deals to the people that you hang out with.’”
SMU’s Wilson said the critical question is whether there is any credible allegation that the city manager made a decision or awarded public benefit as a result of having been treated well by private sector business people; friendships with wealthy individuals on its own is not a problem.
Cooke said he adheres to the International City/County Management Association’s code of ethics, which says in any instance where there is either a conflict of interest or appearance of a conflict, city officials should disclose the relationship to their city.
“Some of this is all about perception because we are friends,” Cooke said. “So we socialize together. And so it’s incumbent on me then on the decision-making part of the city to make sure that stuff is done aboveboard.”
An article written by Martha Perego, ethics director of the association, urged officials to err on the side of caution so as not to damage public trust or perception.
“They have to be cautious about their personal relationships kind of intersecting with work and official duties because they can create the appearance of a conflict of interest or call into question future business relationships or future decisions that the city might make with regard to the individuals,” Perego told the Report.
Council members Chris Nettles, Jared Williams and Alan Blaylock said they did not know about the trip before the Report contacted them and declined to give further comment. Council members Leonard Firestone, Gyna Bivens, Michael Crain, Elizabeth Beck and Carlos Flores did not respond to requests for comment.
Dispute between city contractor, Sundance Square leads to discussion of city manager recusal
Ed and Sasha Bass own Sundance Square, 37 blocks of retail and restaurant space in downtown Fort Worth. They took over full control of the area in 2019, after decades of the Bass family operating it in conjunction with one another. The area has long been considered an entertainment hub, but a rash of store closures since 2020 has garnered concern over the Bass couple’s management.
A dispute between the nonprofit Downtown Fort Worth Inc. and Sundance Square management over plant maintenance resulted in the city of Fort Worth stepping in to ask the two entities to come to a mutual agreement. An informal agreement to let Sundance Square maintain plants around its property fell apart after management refused to fill planter beds after the winter storm, despite requests from Downtown Fort Worth Inc.
The nonprofit is responsible for maintaining plants within the downtown public improvement district through a contract with the city; it has argued Sundance management is not letting Downtown Fort Worth Inc. do its job.
Robert Sturns, economic development director for the city, wrote a July 29 letter to both parties asking them to agree on a formal, written contract moving forward. Cooke was among the parties CC’d in the letter. As city manager, he has final say on disputes around the operation of a public improvement district.
Cooke said there were discussions within City Hall about recusing himself if the dispute landed on his desk, but they did not come to a conclusion because Sturns instead recommended the parties handle it without city intervention.
“Yeah, frankly, I didn’t talk to Robert (Sturns) at all about how he was going to go about making that decision,” he said. “After I read it, I did support it, and I think it’s the right thing. I think both sides took it. We’ll see if that works. I’m not sure. But they’re going to try to make it work.”
Almost all community leaders contacted by the Report did not want to comment publicly on Cooke’s trip, privately citing the risk to their own business interests. Marie Holliday, who has owned businesses in Sundance Square for more than 30 years, said “it’s almost as if city officials are creating sides” when they should be unifying the community.
Holliday, who now runs a dentist’s office and Flowers to Go in downtown, said much of the criticism around Cooke’s relationship with Ed and Sasha Bass comes down to a perceived information gap. As relationships between some long-term tenants of Sundance Square and management have deteriorated in the past two years, those tenants have been left wondering about the extent of the friendship between Cooke and the Bass couple.
“There seems to be a lack of transparency, which affects the integrity of the relationship,” Holliday said.
Cooke said he would talk to those concerned about his relationship with Ed and Sasha Bass, but no one had reached out to talk except the Report.
Ed Bass previously largely funded a public-private partnership with the city to construct Dickies Arena; the city paid $225 million, while Bass and several other private donors contributed at least $315 million.
He is a frequent political donor in Fort Worth, where he, along with brothers Sid and Lee, donate to the Good Government Fund political action committee. The PAC has previously donated to Parker’s 2021 mayoral campaign, and another Bass-funded PAC, the PSEL, contributed to former Mayor Betsy Price in several campaigns.
Bryan Eppstein, spokesman for the Basses, did not respond to requests for comment.
Separate incident last year prompts outrcy
This isn’t the first time the close relationship between Cooke and the Bass couple has drawn scrutiny. In November 2021, Hotel Dryce owner Jonathan Morris posted a tweet thread outlining an incident he said happened when Cooke, two assistant city managers, and Ed and Sasha Bass came into the bar.
The thread accused the party of flouting bar rules, such as barring pets, and repeatedly referring to themselves as guests of the city manager to excuse their behavior to the bartender working that night. Cooke has denied Morris’ and the bartender’s characterization, and said he was the last in the party to arrive at the bar. During that time, he did not see any of the behavior described, he said.
“My version of that thing was nothing like what he was telling or other people are saying,” Cooke said. After reaching out to Morris via text to discuss the situation further, Cooke said they have not spoken since.
Despite his denial, the incident prompted calls for investigations — and potentially his resignation — from the public. Records obtained by the Report show several residents emailed Mayor Parker requesting Cooke apologize publicly; others emailed to throw their support behind dismissing Cooke entirely.
One email, from a visitor who came to Fort Worth for an event at Dickies Arena, said her favorite part of coming into town was seeing Hotel Dryce, which she called “a wonderful add to the city’s lineup of places to entertain or be entertained.”
She was dismayed, she continued, to see Morris’ tweet, and recommended Parker make Cooke apologize and remind Cooke of the decorum required of public officials.
Cooke has been Fort Worth’s city manager since 2014, following a national search to replace then-City Manager Tom Higgins. Cooke was previously a county manager in North Carolina and a finalist in the Dallas city manager search earlier in 2014.
In 2021, Cooke made a little over $375,000, including incentive payments, according to payroll records obtained by the Report through a public records request. In 2020, he made about $362,000, and in 2019, he made around $353,000.
Holliday said she first became concerned with Cooke’s friendship with the Bass couple after Morris’ tweets. Her concern grew as she saw development in Sundance Square that she felt wasn’t going through the process required of other developers.
“I think that if we saw more consistent collaboration, as opposed to divisiveness amongst the city and the Bass’, and those who maintain properties for the city, that would be an indication that the association was really on the up and up, as opposed to dividing us,” Holliday said.
Clarification: The jet used to travel to Aspen is a 2019 Gulfstream Aerospace Corp GVII-G500. A previous image used in this story showed a different plane model.
Disclosure: Jonathan Morris is a member of the Fort Worth Report Board of Directors. The Sid W. Richardson Foundation, of which Ed Bass is a board member, is a financial supporter of the Fort Worth Report. 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.
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter.