Miers got windfall on sale to state

She had ties to those deciding amount of payment for Dallas parcel

October 23, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers collected more than 10 times the market value for a small slice of family-owned land in a large Superfund pollution cleanup site in Dallas where the state wanted to build a highway off-ramp.

The windfall came after a judge who received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Miers' law firm appointed a close professional associate of Miers and an outspoken property-rights activist to the three-person panel that determined how much the state should pay.

The resulting six-figure payout to the Miers family in 2000 came despite the state's objections to the "excessive" amount and to the process used to set the price. The panel recommended paying nearly $5 a square foot for land that was valued at less than 30 cents a square foot.

Mediation efforts in 2003 reduced the award from $106,915 to $80,915, but Miers, who controls the family's interest in the land, hasn't reimbursed the state for the $26,000 difference, even after President Bush appointed her to the Supreme Court.

The case raises new questions about Miers' judgment at a time when her nomination is troubled by doubts about her qualifications for the nation's highest court and accusations that she was chosen mostly because of her close friendship with Bush.

Nothing indicates that Miers sought out the judge or engineered the appointments to the panel, but there's also no indication that she reported the potential conflicts of interest in the case or tried to avoid them.

Supreme Court justices, unlike other government officials, define potential conflicts of interest for themselves and are responsible for policing their own ethics.

"If Harriet Miers is confirmed, she'll be entrusted to make a large number of unreviewable decisions about which cases to sit on," said Doug Kendall, the executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, a public-interest law firm in Washington. Kendall said the fact that Miers raised no red flags in the face of "clearly disturbing facts" in the land condemnation case doesn't say much for her ethical acumen.

Through a White House spokesperson who declined to be identified, Miers said that she considers the case a "straightforward condemnation matter."

Even though Miers was the president of her law firm, the spokesperson said, she didn't know the specifics about the firm's campaign contributions to the judge.

She also said that the money her family must repay is held in an account in her mother's name. The funds will be released when the settlement papers are finalized.

The land is owned by Miers' mother, Sally. But court documents granted Miers authority to represent her mother's interests in the case, and all the paperwork was sent to Miers' law office.

The condemnation case in Dallas began in April 1999, after the Miers family rejected the state's initial offer of $5,900 for a half-acre of their land and a subsequent offer of $27,000.

The land, at the corner of North Westmoreland Road and Interstate 30 in west Dallas, was one of several parcels that Miers' father purchased in the area after World War II. The market value for the entire 18.74-acre lot, according to state tax records, was $244,890.

The state wanted to build an off-ramp from I-30 onto Westmoreland and needed the northeast corner of the Miers lot to do it.

Texas law says that in condemnation cases, a judge must appoint three "disinterested" special commissioners to hear evidence, determine the "injury or benefit" of the state's action to the property owner, and rule on what, if anything, the state should pay for the property.

But there was an accumulation of shared interests - dating back years - among several of the parties who assembled in state District Judge David Evans' courtroom to settle the Miers case.

Campaign finance reports in Dallas show that Miers' law firm, Locke Purnell Rain & Harrell, had contributed at least $5,000 to Evans' political campaigns between 1993 and 2001. That included a $3,000 contribution in 1998, the year before the condemnation case appeared in Evans' court.

Evans declined repeated requests for an interview.

One of the three commissioners whom Evans appointed to hear the case was Peggy Lundy, a close professional friend and political ally of Miers.

Lundy is listed among Miers' "personal friends" by a conservative interest group, Progress for America.

In an interview Thursday, Lundy said she and Miers worked closely together on a commission set up to restructure Dallas' municipal court system.

Lundy said that she recruited Evans to run for judge and served as the treasurer of his first campaign and as an adviser to several others.

Evans also appointed one of his campaign contributors, Cathie Adams, to work on the case. Adams said in an interview that she believes Evans picked her because of her strong views against the government's "taking of land."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.