At TxDOT, a boss with political clout

A fixture on the Lone Star State political scene, Phil Wilson is a Republican closely tied to White House hopeful Rick Perry. He will inherit a department with a pipeline of public-private partnership activity and a troubled past.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has a thriving public-private partnership (PPP) programme and, as of last Thursday, a politically connected official in charge of it.

Phil Wilson was named TxDOT executive director. Wilson, 44, is best-known for serving as Texas secretary of state under current governor and presidential contender Rick Perry. Wilson is replacing John Barton, who had been acting as interim executive director and will remain with TxDOT, according to a TxDOT spokeswoman.

Wilson, who will earn $292,500 annually, will join in mid-October from Luminant, a Dallas-based electric utility where he has been working as a lobbyist. In a statement from the Texas Transportation Commission, Wilson enthused about his role to “build infrastructure.” The statement went on to note Wilson had worked with TxDOT as secretary of state.

The five-member Texas Transportation Commission is charged with selecting an executive director, according to its webpage. Deidre Delisi, who has worked as a campaign manager for Perry in 2002 and was his chief of staff from 2004 to 2007, is commission chief. Delisi, now 39, is a close Perry adviser.

As for Wilson, he has also served as deputy chief of staff as well as a spokesman for Perry. Well-established in the Texas Republican Party, he has also served as a longstanding aide to US senator Phil Gramm.

His current employer, Luminant, is owned by parent company Energy Future Holdings Corporation. A report by Texas for Public Justice suggested Energy Future benefited from its affiliation with Perry.

Legislation passed in 2009 nixed a requirement that TxDOT must have a professional engineer as its executive director, enabling the selection of Wilson. Engineer and former executive director Amadeo Saenz retired in August. Saenz had replaced Ric Williamson, who died in 2008.

Wilson, who studied political science in college and has a business background, is the first-ever non-engineer to lead TxDOT.

The Texas Transportation Commission paid Grant Cooper $62,000 to land an executive director, explained the TxDOT spokeswoman. Asked why an executive search firm was needed, she said the commission was “sensitive” to concern that political favouritism might factor in its executive director appointment and wanted to ensure that a “rigorous” process was used in its selection.

Under Perry, Texas has embarked on an ambitious public-private partnership campaign, focusing on toll road concessions. TxDOT had come under past criticism as poorly-run. In 2008, the department revealed a $1 billion internal accounting error.

In addition, separate research by both Grant Thornton and the Sunset Advisory Commission have called for “significant” change at TxDOT, with the suggestion that the department, which relied on promoting internally, bring in outside business personnel.