Businesses hoping to curry favor with Denton Municipal Electric employees have offered hunting and fishing trips; tickets to the World Series, Super Bowl and Indianapolis 500; luxury box seats to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo; a chance to ring the trading bell on Wall Street, and more.
Two former employees connected to the deal to bring Denton a new $265 million power plant accepted two of those offers , according to recorded interviews from July 2017. The Denton Record-Chronicle obtained those recordings after multiple attempts using state open records laws to secure documents in the matter.
Mike Grim, DME’s former executive manager for power supply and legislative and regulatory affairs, went quail hunting with a representative from Burns & McDonnell, but only after the company had won a $100 million contract to build the plant, he said. Former DME employee Jim Maynard, energy project development manager, went on a salmon fishing trip with representatives from both Burns & McDonnell and Wärtsilä, the engine manufacturer that won the other $100 million contract in the project. The fishing trip occurred before DME solicited bids to build the plant. Maynard said he paid his own way.
The two men were interviewed for several hours by Deputy City Manager Bryan Langley and an outside attorney, Julia Gannaway. City leaders brought in Gannaway, a contracting expert, to help investigate the timeline of events leading up to the contract awards. After the interviews, the two men sued the city claiming they did nothing wrong and then amended their claim to include wrongful termination after they were fired. Langley terminated both men following the recorded interviews, citing an inability to trust them. Their case was scheduled for trial in January, but they have asked a Dallas District Court judge for an April 2019 trial date instead.
Their attorney, Robert Goodman, of Dallas, did not return a message requesting comment. Grim and Maynard also did not return calls requesting comment.
Beginning in late 2015, DME touted the $265 million project as one that would allow the city’s electric department to negotiate better renewable energy contracts for ratepayers while also being able to sell electricity to the grid when demand — and prices — was high. Hundreds of residents wrote cards and letters opposing the power plant. They cited concerns about the cost and the environmental impact of reinvesting in fossil fuels after walking away from coal-fired power. In summer 2016, the City Council narrowly approved the project in a 4-3 vote.
The power plant began operations in July. Located west of Denton Enterprise Airport on Jim Christal Road, the plant is expected to make money this year, but the latest financial projections show the plant operating in the red once bond payments begin.
For most of his four-hour interview in 2017, Grim fielded questions about how the project was developed, including how contract specifications were determined, how confidentiality agreements were negotiated, how the contracts went out for bid and how the bids were scored. Near the end of the interview, Gannaway asked Grim whether he had accepted gifts from vendors. Grim gave a long list of items he had refused, including tickets to major sporting events and a chance to ring a trading bell on Wall Street. He did not acknowledge going on a quail hunting trip with Brian Elwell, a business development officer with Burns & McDonnell, until Gannaway specifically questioned him about it.
In the recording, Grim said he took a day off after the contract was awarded and went on the hunting trip with another former DME employee. Grim said he couldn’t recall the hunting property name or who owned the lease. He said the owner provided the shotgun and that he paid Elwell for his share of the excursion, but he couldn’t remember how much.
“There was no contract at stake,” Grim said.
He called the outing “just a business relationship.”
“I did it on my own time,” he added. “I don’t think there’s anything the matter with it.”
Grim didn’t share that view of Maynard’s salmon fishing trip on the Columbia River, however. He said he was angered that Maynard joined Elwell and a Wärtsilä employee before the project specifications were developed and DME sought bids for the power plant.
Elwell did not return a call for comment.
In his two-hour interview, Maynard said he, too, had refused other offers of tickets, box seats and hunting trips. When Langley pressed Maynard about the fishing trip, Maynard offered some details.
The excursion came at the end of a Wärtsilä business conference in Portland, Oregon, in August 2015.
“I went fishing with a couple of guys who already had a boat rented,” he said.
He said he paid for his share and that he told Grim about the trip when he got back.
He said he didn’t see the harm, indicating he wanted to go salmon fishing because he didn’t think he would ever be back in the area again.
“The fishing trip didn’t sway anybody’s opinion on anything,” Maynard told Langley and Gannaway.
Both employees were placed on leave at the end of their interviews and were subsequently fired.
In the wake of the discovery, the city overhauled its purchasing department and its employee ethics policy. Today, vendors risk losing any business relationship with the city if they offer gifts to city employees.
City Manager Todd Hileman said it’s important that the city government be clear with its employees and vendors alike about what’s expected in the new ethics policy. This is particularly true when it comes to sending projects out for bid, evaluating those bids and awarding contracts, he added.
“We owe it to our employees and our vendors to understand what the rules are — with the public’s trust being the end goal,” Hileman said.
Employees are reading the policy and asking questions about whether they can accept thank-you gestures or other support from the community, such as bottled water on a hot day.
“If someone brings water, that’s customer service,” Hileman said.
But the city draws the line when it becomes product promotion. Employees are not allowed to endorse products, Hileman said.
At the same time, the policy doesn’t need to be written so tightly that employees aren’t able to use common sense, Hileman said, although he considered it a good thing that employees are studying the policy and asking questions of the city’s new compliance officer.
“They want to know exactly where the lines are, and that’s very positive in terms of our [workplace] culture,” Hileman said.
New issues are still emerging, including things he and the City Council hadn’t thought of when the policy was first drafted, Hileman said.
He said he plans to bring the city’s purchasing and employee ethics policy back to city leaders for further refinements in December.