DALLAS — Two former aides to Texas Gov. Rick Perry now hold top positions at the Texas Department of Transportation after former energy lobbyist and secretary of state Phil Wilson was named the agency’s executive director.
Wilson, whose appointment was approved in a closed-door unanimous vote by the Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday, will draw a salary of at least $292,500, which is $100,000 higher than that of his predecessor, Amadeo Saenz.
Saenz, unlike Wilson, was a civil engineer who took legislative criticism for accounting errors at TxDOT and defended the agency against efforts to dismantle it during its sunset review.
The department came out of the review intact this year. Wilson is its first executive director since legislation was passed in 2009 that removed the requirement that the executive director be a professional engineer.
The TTC, one of the largest issuers of bonds in Texas, is chaired by Deirdre Delisi, who at 32 was named Perry’s chief of staff in 2004 while Wilson was deputy chief. Delisi, who directed Perry’s 2002 campaign, was named policy and strategy director for Perry’s presidential campaign in August. She will continue to chair the commission.
One of the criticisms of Perry in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination is his close association to appointees. Appointment to regulatory boards is the governor’s primary power. As Texas’ longest-serving governor, Perry has made more appointments than any in state history.
“Now we have two Perry political hacks running the highway department, one of the most criticized and broken state agencies in Texas,” wrote Terri Hall, a tolling critic and founder of the San Antonio Toll Party and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.
Perry has denied any favoritism based on campaign contributions.
Delisi, who worked on the presidential campaign of Perry’s predecessor, George W. Bush, replaced Perry’s former roommate and legislator, Ric Williamson, after Williamson died of a heart attack in 2007 at age 55. As TTC chairman, Williamson was the major promoter of Perry’s massive toll project known as the Trans-Texas Corridor, a network of roads and rails from the Texas-Mexico border that has been shelved.
With $12.8 billion of bonds outstanding, the Transportation Commission last year issued $2.5 billion of general obligation and revenue bonds. In addition to awarding contracts for underwriting and related business, it awards billions of dollars in construction contracts for transportation, including roads and rail. The board also selects private developers for tollways.
Wilson, whose new job at TxDOT will begin Oct. 17, was previously senior vice president of public affairs for Dallas-based Luminant, the power generation business for Energy Future Holdings Corp.
According to a study the organization Texans for Public Justice issued this year, Energy Future Holdings donated more than $1 million to Perry and the Republican Governor’s Association between 2006 and 2011.
That includes contributions by political action committees and executives of EFHC and its predecessor company, TXU Corp., according to the study.
Wilson also worked on the staff of former Texas U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm.
As secretary of state, Wilson was responsible for elections and acted as the governor’s chief liaison on the Texas-Mexico border and issues with Mexico. He has also was chairman of the Governor’s Competitiveness Council, which promoted public-private partnerships, expansion of inland ports, repair and maintenance of the state’s existing infrastructure, and rail relocation efforts.
“Phil’s experience as a public servant and member of the Texas business community has prepared him well to lead the department as it continues to modernize,” said Ted Houghton, chairman of the TTC’s executive search committee.