VisitDallas CEO Phillip Jones is an avid cyclist and triathlete. Jonathan Zizzo

Politics

How VisitDallas Money Funnels Into the Mayor’s Race

Execs have given top dollar to a PAC feeding contributions to just about all the mayoral candidates. Just about.

Troubled convention and visitor’s bureau VisitDallas would seem to hardly have a leg to stand on down at City Hall these days, having been taken to task by a blistering audit revealing unlawful and highly questionable activity. There was the commingling of its two main sources of city revenue, legally required to be kept separate. There was the abysmal lack of accountability for its performance and that of its employees. There was the expense it! attitude about super luxe Tumi backpacks, among other things.

It would behoove an organization in VisitDallas’ position to make some friends around the horseshoe. And, just like they teach in kindergarten, the best way to make friends is to give people money. With a hat tip to some citizen sleuths who brought this to my attention online, it appears that’s what VisitDallas executives are attempting to do.

Campaign finance records show chief executive officer Phillip Jones, chief financial officer Matt Jones, chief marketing officer Frank Librio, and chief experience officer Renee McKenney have each made donations to Hotel PAC, the political action committee of the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association. In fact, Matt Jones’ $25,000 gift in December 2017 is the PAC’s largest single gift since the beginning of 2015. He also gave $13,000 around the same time in 2018. The others gave $1,000 or $2,000 respectively, one or two installments each.

In an email, Librio points out that most of the money came during 2017, which is true, because that’s the timing of the $25,000. He said the state’s convention and visitor’s bureaus were at the time lobbying hard against the Bathroom Bill, and the money was supposed to help that fight.

He says these are personal contributions—not VisitDallas-funded—and maintains that “neither VisitDallas nor its staff had any say in the candidates the Hotel PAC supported.”

In the mayor’s race, these are the candidates the Hotel PAC has supported: Miguel Solis, Albert Black, Jason Villalba, Regina Montoya, and Mike Ablon. They each got $1,000. Eric Johnson received $500 in 2018, during his legislative primary (not as a part of his current mayoral campaign, as a previous version of this story incorrectly stated).

Notably missing from that list: Scott Griggs.

If you’re looking to confirm VisitDallas’ attempts to throw money into the race, Griggs’ exclusion tracks. He’s been the Council’s most fervent voice of VisitDallas opposition, calling for the city to cut all ties.

Griggs says that he has not had any discussions with VisitDallas or the Hotel PAC about a contribution. He did appear at a recent mayoral forum focused on the hospitality industry and attended by VisitDallas. Griggs describes VisitDallas’ presence at the event as a “shadow” sponsorship, with the bureau’s logo on official event stickers and Phillip Jones there shaking hands with attendees. By then, the contributions to mayoral candidates had already gone out.

Other candidates who’ve taken Hotel PAC money told me they’ve met with VisitDallas execs to ask questions about the audit but didn’t discuss the contribution. That was the case for Mike Ablon, according to his campaign manager, Brian Mayes. Ablon met with VisitDallas in late January and received an unsolicited check in March, Mayes says. I asked all the candidates who received Hotel PAC contributions about their interactions with VisitDallas and have included the statements I received below. I’ve yet to hear back from Black or Johnson, but I’ll update here if and when I do. (Update: comments from Black and Johnson have been added below.)

It’s worth noting that the Hotel PAC took an interest in local Dallas politics during the 2017 election, as well, which would’ve been before the big $25K drop from Matt Jones. But the timeline here provides more damning evidence of the nonprofit’s influence on Hotel PAC contributions. VisitDallas executives gave $4,000 to the PAC during April 2017. The Hotel PAC contributed, that same month, to the campaigns of Dallas city councilmen Rickey Callahan, Dwaine Caraway, Lee Kleinman, Casey Thomas, Mark Clayton, Adam Medrano, and Adam McGough.

Since 2015, the PAC’s largest single contribution to a Dallas politician went to Texas Senator Royce West—$2,500. Otherwise, they give in increments of $1,000 or $500.

In 2019, in addition to the gifts to mayoral candidates, the PAC has given to council candidates Paula Blackmon (District 9) and Jaime Resendez (District 5).

Statements below.

From Miguel Solis:

“Over the course of my campaign, I have taken the time to meet with anyone open to listening to my vision for the city. These countless meetings have included everyday citizens, activists and advocates, as well as associations and organizations instrumental to the future of the city. They have also included a myriad of topics related to arts, labor, immigration, education, apartments, real estate, and hotels among others. Any organization that supports my vision and ability to deliver results for the people of Dallas is welcome to support us in whatever way they can, and many have. It’s my belief that the Hotel PAC has chosen to invest in my campaign because they believe in my vision for our city and I am thankful for their support.

“Regarding Visit Dallas, I met with Philip Jones to gain an understanding about the vision of Visit Dallas as well as to discuss my concerns related to the recent audit that has been widely reported on. Philip was very open to answering my questions and concerns. During my time serving the public, I have found that when you have questions about a topic, it is better to go directly to sources to secure answers. I am still seeking answers to some questions and will continue to scrutinize the findings of the audit so that I am prepared for decisions related to the organization in the coming year.”

From Regina Montoya’s Campaign:

“The candidate, Regina Montoya, is acquainted with VisitDallas staff she met in the course of her work on the DFW Airport Board. She took a courtesy meeting with them early in the campaign. I personally reached out to the VisitDallas marketing team more recently with questions about how they select businesses and cultural activities listed on the VisitDallas website. My inquiry was spurred by an Oak Cliff constituent who asked me why very few southern Dallas businesses are listed. I also asked the VisitDallas marketing staff if they had any plans to create an easy-to-use smart phone app to help people plan their visits to Dallas. Regina is just as concerned as everyone else about transparency and efficient use of taxpayer dollars by VisitDallas and other city vendors.”

From Jason Villalba:

“As a supporter of the tourism and hospitality industries in Dallas (and throughout Texas), I have had the support of hotels and restaurants during my prior political campaigns and have been endorsed by the Texas Restaurant Association during each of my state house campaigns.In this current race, I have met with and discussed the economic benefits that Dallas receives from a robust and growing tourism and hospitality ecosystem and how I, as Mayor, might continue to support and bolster these vital economic engines.Like several of the other candidates, however, I also have concerns about the oversight and accountability of organizations like VisitDallas that has exhibited, through a city audit, some structural weaknesses in their accounting systems and controls.I do not, however, believe that such anomalies, without further analysis and scrutiny, should result in the termination of Dallas’ contract with VisitDallas.”

From Albert Black:

“We are raising money from a wide variety of donors. I doubt our contribution has anything to do with the interests of VisitDallas executives, because I have been a frequent critic of VisitDallas in multiple public candidate forums and have called for more oversight in the wake of the recently released, disturbing audit of VisitDallas’ finances.”
From Eric Johnson:
“I have not accepted any contributions from the Hotel PAC during my campaign for Mayor, despite what D Magazine reported. As Mayor, I will lead the effort to reform VisitDallas so that it better serves and promotes Dallas.”

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