Politics & Government

Mayor Eric Johnson’s Next Big Conflict of Interest

Exactly how is he supposed to do two jobs again?

Last week, we got a taste of the problems that Mayor Eric Johnson’s side hustle can cause. When he was named a partner at the law firm Locke Lord, he said he had quit his old firm because it had a direct conflict of interest with the city. He said, “Today I joined one that does not.” Then, eight days after saying that, Mayor Johnson, Esq. had to recuse himself from a closed-door executive session with the Dallas City Council because the conversation involved a federal lawsuit over control of gates at Love Field, and, as it turns out, Locke Lord represents American Airlines.

So where might the next conflict arise?

Well, let me clear up one thing: there won’t be a conflict with the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System. The Morning News misreported that Locke Lord represents the Pension System. If it did, that would seem to be a problem, as the mayor appoints six of the 11 board members for the Pension System. But that’s not the case. Kelly Gottschalk, the executive director of the Pension System, told me that when the board was reconstituted in 2017, it dropped Locke Lord. It now exclusively uses HillCo Partners for legislative work, and Gottschalk said Locke Lord is out of the picture.

HOWEVER. Locke Lord does represent the city of Dallas’ Employee Retirement Fund (ERF). Stefan Smith is general counsel. Councilman Lee Kleinman, who is an ERF trustee, told me that Smith is good at his job. Fair enough. The thing is, though, Kleinman and two other members of ERF’s seven-member board occupy the three seats that are filled by a nomination from the mayor of Dallas and a confirmation from the Council. And, don’t forget, the city and the ERF are duking it out in court to determine whether the other trustees should have term limits.

All of which leads to the following two questions: when the time comes, how can Mayor Johnson, Esq. nominate ERF board members when those board members make decisions that impact Locke Lord’s business? And how can he lead the city’s legal fight with ERF when his own law firm represents the city’s opposition? The answer to both questions is the same: he can’t.

He told us his mayoral duties would always come first. But his side hustle says otherwise.

UPDATE (1:03) Tristan Hallman, the mayor’s chief of policy and communications, tells me that the mayor doesn’t have to nominate ERF board members. A council member could do it. Hallman couldn’t point to any ERF board member who has ever been nominated by someone other than the mayor, but it’s theoretically possible. So when the next opening pops up, I expect the mayor will remove himself from the process. He will neither nominate a board member nor vote on the confirmation. Easy fix.

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