Locke Lord adds another Texas elected official to public finance team

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For the second time in a year, the law firm Locke Lord has hired a recently elected Texas official to its public finance team.

Justin Rodriguez, a former Texas state representative and San Antonio Independent School District board member, was appointed Bexar County Commissioner Jan. 4, 2019, after the death of longtime commissioner Paul Elizondo. On March 3, he won the Democratic primary and faces no Republican opposition in the general election Nov. 3.

Justin Rodriguez, a Bexar County commissioner, joined Locke Lord as a public finance attorney.

Rodriguez, who earns nearly $134,000 per year as commissioner, is one of three San Antonio public finance attorneys from the firm Norton Rose Fulbright moving to Locke Lord.

Adam Harden, who specializes in federal tax issues, joins Locke Lord as partner while John Hill and Rodriguez rank as senior counsel. The three will report to Locke Lord’s Austin office, 80 miles north of San Antonio.

“They will prove to be vital assets amid expected growth in the public infrastructure arena as the economy rebounds from the current instability,” said Stephanie Massey, co-chair of Locke Lord’s Boston-based Public Finance Practice Group.

Like Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, who joined Locke Lord last summer, Rodriguez is in the thick of the COVID-19 battle that has hit the San Antonio area particularly hard. As of Monday, Bexar County, including San Antonio, accounted for 1,015 cases and 39 deaths.

“We’re on the front line of a lot of emergency response,” Rodriguez told The Bond Buyer. “It doesn’t seem like there’s an end in sight. I think the first concern is that people have food on the table, and access to services, such as rental assistance.”

Rodriguez was credited with bringing a proposed partnership with LiftFund to the Bexar County Commissioners Court for approval. The deal will provide interest-free loans and grants to support the county's small businesses that have suffered financial loss due to the pandemic.

The partnership includes a $5 million interest-free loan fund for small businesses as well as a $250,000 grant program for micro-business with five employees or fewer.

In his role as a public finance attorney, Rodriguez will advise clients on shoring up budgets and discerning how much federal stimulus funding they can expect and how to use it legally.

Rodriguez declined to say how much he would earn from Locke Lord, but characterized his role as a part-time job.

“I’m just coming in as senior counsel,” he said. “My responsibility is fulltime with the county, so my arrangement with Locke Lord is part time.”

Rodriguez noted that elected officials often maintain legal practices while in office. With fellow Democrat Johnson, Rodriguez served in the Texas House of Representatives when Republican lawmakers sought to bar public finance lawyers from the state legislature. The target of the bill was state Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor in 2014, whose work allegedly raised conflicts of interest.

Davis’ Republican opponent, then-Attorney General Greg Abbott, now governor, sought a ban on state officials serving as bond counsel.

"Elected officials shouldn't profit off of their positions and line their own pockets at the taxpayers' expense," Abbott said in a prepared statement at the time. "They are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents rather than their own self-interest. It is particularly reprehensible for lawmakers to profit from taxpayers as bond counsel for public entities that add more to the public debt of taxpayers."

The proposed ban never materialized, and Abbott easily won the first of his two terms in office.

Johnson’s hiring at Locke Lord came two months after his election as mayor of Dallas in a runoff against fellow council member Scott Griggs. Johnson had resigned his job as a lawyer at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe before running for mayor. Orrick served as disclosure counsel on Dallas general obligation bond issues in 2018 and 2019.

“To Dallas’ residents, I want to say that my duties as mayor will always come first,” Johnson said after his hiring at Locke Lord. “As a practicing lawyer in my early 40s, however, it is also important that I maintain my law license and continue to practice law as time allows. And I will always do so in accordance with all applicable laws, as well as the ethical standards of the legal profession, with respect to conflicts of interest.”

In Dallas, where the city manager runs day-to-day operations, the mayor is paid $80,000 per year, $20,000 a year more than Johnson's predecessor, Mike Rawlings, earned.

In response to questions from The Bond Buyer about an elected official such as Rodriguez drawing salary from a law firm in public finance, Locke Lord responded: “Justin has joined a large, full-service law firm as a member of a nationally recognized public finance team, which advises clients across many offices. We thoroughly vet client matters to identify conflict of interest issues, and when appropriate we institute strict firewalls.

“When an elected official joins the firm, we add additional internal procedures to strengthen our process. Justin was a highly regarded state legislator and held his current position as Bexar County Commissioner for Precinct 2 while practicing the same type of law at another large law firm and therefore understands the requirements of the law and our rules of professional responsibility. Locke Lord will continue to always ensure no ethics are violated and no conflicts exist. We both have excellent reputations and would not jeopardize those.”

Locke Lord, one of the world's largest law firms, has about 300 lawyers in its Austin, Dallas and Houston offices.

According to The Bond Buyer’s 2019 National Rankings, Locke Lord ranked fourth nationally as bond counsel for competitive deals, with 175 issues, the highest number of competitive issues of any firm in the top 10. The firm ranked 13th overall among bond counsel firms and 11th overall among underwriters’ counsel firms. In The Bond Buyer’s 2019 Northeast Yearend Review, the firm ranked fourth overall in the Northeast and was top bond counsel in Massachusetts and Vermont.

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Career moves Law and regulation Texas County of Bexar, TX State of Texas City of Dallas, TX