Tell Me Who You Hang Out With and I’ll Tell You Who You Are

Dime con quién andas y te diré quien eres is an old Mexican proverb. Basically it states that those you choose to frequent with reveal who you truly are. Criminal conspiracy investigations normally include a matrix of who the connections are between individuals in order to see how the criminal enterprise is structured. Those who have read the court filings for the FBI’s public corruption investigations will notice that the investigators start with one individual and from there connect the dots with other persons involved in the conspiracy. And, investigators will normally look to the history of an individual they are interested in, in order to develop a profile.

As many of you already know, María García of KVIA reported on Monday about an allegation made by Armando Rodriguez in regards to the strong-arm tactics being used by a lobbyist working for Forma Group. The allegations, made by Canutillo ISD Board President Armando Rodriguez, allege that lobbyist Mark Smith allegedly lobbied the Canutillo School District, through Rodriguez, for $13,500 a month in fees for having “Marisa [Marquez] run interference” at the State level.

According to García’s news report, Marisa Marquez denied “ever contacting Rodriguez and suggesting hiring Smith”.

As you might remember I wrote a blog about the Forma Group and Mark Smith’s political activities with Steve Ortega and other politicians. You might also remember that Smith has ties to Hunt. As political image builders, the Forma Group has been very secretive in the way they operate. You will also remember that the Forma Group had an issue keeping its operation properly registered with the State of Texas.

In other words the Forma Group is secretive in how it operates, it has handled at least $1.1 million is state races while at the same time it was operating while suspended from doing business in the State of Texas.

And this brings us back to Mark Smith.

Although Smith seems to have no direct ownership interest in the Forma Group he nonetheless has stated that he and the Forma Group have “managed over 25 campaigns at the local, state, and federal” together since 2000. Some of Smith’s clients include Rick Perry, the Romney Presidential Campaign, the Medical Center of the Americas and the Hunt companies and family. As a matter of fact, Smith worked for Hunt Companies in government affairs from 2003 through 2010.

From my previous post you might remember also that I pointed out that a PAC organized by Hunt preferred that PAC contributions go directly to the Forma Group, rather than allow each politician they support to manage their own finances.

I am not sure the legality of controlling how political candidates are allowed to spend the monies they raise however strictly from the perception of government transparency it is very unseemly that a politician is dictated to on how they should spend the monies they generate through political contributions. Remember that the ongoing public corruption scandal involves political contributions.

According to the Texas Tribune’s online lobbyist database, Mark Smith had three clients in 2013: Forma Group, LLC ($25k to $50k), Hunt Companies, Inc. ($100k to $150k) and Investment Builders, Inc. ($25k to $50k).

Also according to the Texas Tribune database, Smith listed as lobbying expenses for 2011, the last reported year, a total of $1,192. Of that amount $812, or 68% went towards Dee Margo and other individuals connected to him. The balance went to Carlos Uresti, a Texas State Senator, which represents a small portion of El Paso.

There is an educational nexus between Dee Margo, who is serving on the EPISD board of managers and the evolving scandal around the issue of transparency in the school boards. Marisa Marquez was the architect of House Bill 343 that is at the center of the current controversy. The connecting individual to all these people is Mark Smith.

According to public records, on September 9, 2013 an Application for Protective Order was filed against Mark Smith by the County Attorney’s office on behalf of Emily Loomis. Online records seem to indicate that Loomis worked for Smith’s office sometime after 2009. It is unclear when she ended her working relationship with Smith. According to the information I have, Emily Loomis also lists her business activities as a lobbyist although I could find no records of her registration at the state level. There is also no lobbyist with that name listed at the city. Prior to working for Smith, Loomis appears to have worked at two law firms, for the Office of the Governor of Texas and the office of the Lieutenant Governor, also of Texas.

The court filing states that the application for protective order was based on an allegation by Loomis that Smith “engaged in acts that constitute stalking against her”. The court records show that on September 16, 2013 the court denied the application for protection.

For his part, besides the activity reported earlier at the top of this piece, Smith lobbied John Cook on behalf of the Forma Group and Hunt according to his October 2012 report. He met with Cook twice to lobby for the 2012 Bond Election. Interestingly, according to his report, both times he met with Cook he was representing both Forma Group and Hunt.

In his January 2013 report, Smith reported meeting four times with John Cook and once each with; Ann Morgan Lilly, Susie Byrd, Michael Noe, Cortney Niland, Carl Robinson and Steve Ortega. Each meeting was to lobby for the 2012 Bond Election on behalf the Forma Group.

In the April 2013 lobby report, Mark Smith reported two telephone calls and one email regarding an issue on his behalf. The two telephone calls were one each to Ann Morgan Lilly and Steve Ortega regarding speeding on Hague Street. The email was to Mathew McElroy regarding the replacement of a water fountain at Madeline Park. Smith also reported for that period a telephone call regarding ArtSpace multi-family housing on behalf of IBI, Inc.

In his last two reports, Smith reported to lobbying activity although he listed Hunt, Investment Builders, Inc. and Forma Group as clients.

As you review those activities consider who and what companies keep coming up. Remember that Hunt’s PAC representative has stated that they prefer having candidates they support doing business with the Forma Group.

However you look at it, that’s political contributions with strings attached.

The issue that has just entered the current public consciousness involves government transparency. On one hand we have an allegation levied by a government official; Armando Rodriguez against a group of individuals who are involved in political lobbying. Rodriguez for his part has been accused of using this issue to deflect attention away from the new state law requiring financial disclosure by school board members.

On October 14, 2013, Canutillo ISD issued a press release on behalf of Rodriguez in response to the allegations levied on KVIA’s news cast. Rodriguez does not address why he does not want to comply with the disclosure requirement however he states in the release that “politics and not the wellbeing of students – and constituents were behind many of the recent efforts and laws aimed at bringing transparency to school districts”.

Armando Rodriguez goes on to detail a timeline.

According to the press release, on December 6, 2012, after the results of an audit the school district begins the process of terminating its superintendent.

The release goes on to state that on December 8, 2012, Mark Smith texts Rodriguez offering to “run interference” with the help of Marisa Marquez for a $13,500 monthly fee. It then adds that sometime between December 8 and the 13th, Rodriguez allegedly receives a telephone call from Marquez “urging” him to hire a lobbying firm.

The press release then closes by stating that on December 13, 2013, Rick Armendariz of the Forma Group emails Armando Rodriguez asking to meet to see how the Forma Group can help.

In the email referenced by Rodriguez, Armendariz writes that Marquez had contacted him and informed him that Canutillo did not currently have a lobbying effort and added that Marquez had indicated that Rodriguez did not have “any immediate intention” to get a lobbyist.

As with any conspiracy the actions are purposely clouded in rhetoric and evidence is purposely obfuscated. At the moment all we have are allegations of wrong doing.

In the case of Armando Rodriguez he has publicly stated that he is against public financial disclosure for school board members. That looks bad and it goes against the quest for government transparency.

On the other hand, Rodriguez provides two pieces of evidence that is hard to ignore. Although the evidence does not by itself indicate wrong doing, their contents are difficult to ignore.

The timing of Mark Smith’s request for $13,500 a month via a text message is very suspect. Tie that into the information I have previously gathered about the Forma Group and it seems even worse. Now add the profile that I have developed about Mark Smith and the dots seem to start connecting.

As if none of that wasn’t bad enough, now add to all of that the fact that shortly after the FBI started investigating public corruption a certain political faction started publicly organizing public events around the notion that they were not corrupt. Remember that Steve Ortega was one of the clients that paid substantial amounts of money to the Forma Group. This is the same Steve Ortega that first signs a “government transparency” pledge and turns right around and admits to having public records in his possession yet he refuses to release them.

All of these actions together do not show an ethic for government transparency, in fact they show the exact opposite. In a community that is embroiled in a public corruption scandal the last thing it needs are current and past government officials working and enabling a lobbyist asking for $13,500 a month via a text message.

Think about that for a minute, who sends a text message informing a government official that the fee is $13,500 a month?

Where is the government transparency in that?

More importantly, notice how Armendariz, Marquez and Smith all gloss over the content of the information provided by Armando Rodriguez and instead accuse him of “deflecting the issue” with allegations? Notice how Rodriguez provides evidence and the other three only provide political rhetoric. Marquez said she called the Texas Attorney General asking to investigate the allegations however she doesn’t directly address Rodriguez’ allegations and instead provides rhetoric. Remember how former EPISD superintendent Lorenzo Garcia welcomed investigations from Texas agencies? Remember how Steve Ortega signed a pledge for government transparency and yet unilaterally decides that public information in his possession does not belong in the public realm?

As I always write, connect-the-dots.

You can view the Smith Application for Protective Order at this link: