Congresswoman Kay Granger’s (R–TX) faction of the Fort Worth establishment is facing off against attorney Dee Kelly Jr.’s faction, as the two vie for control of the city and influence on the regional water board.

Both sides are advocating to finish Panther Island by either lobbying for federal taxpayer dollars or through a partnership between local governments and businesses (with local taxpayers possibly footing the bill). Meanwhile, an outsider is advocating for “accountability, transparency, and integrity” as the path forward.

The Players

As explained in a 1995 D Magazine article, the Fort Worth establishment resembles a “pyramid” made up of four tiers.

The article reported that at the very peak of the pyramid are the powerful Bass brothers—Ed Bass being the first one mentioned—and their attorney Dee Kelly Sr., who died in 2015 and was considered a “gatekeeper.” His son, Kelly Jr., is a partner at his dad’s law firm—Kelly Hart & Hallman—and is listed as the treasurer of a number of political action committees that receive donations from the Bass family.

Granger, who was mayor at the time of the 1995 article, was described as being in the “second tier” of the Fort Worth establishment pyramid of power.

“When these people want something to happen, it will nearly always happen—unless it contradicts something the top tier wants. These people are nearly always allowed to act as if they were top tier,” the article states.

Source of Conflict

Sources say Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Congresswoman Granger have not been on speaking terms for some time, stemming from an alleged promise by Granger to step aside so Price could run to replace her in Congress. Granger—who has been in Congress since 1997—is apparently preparing to run for yet another term.

Now add Panther Island into the mix.

Panther Island is a taxpayer-funded real estate redevelopment project disguised as flood control that is near the Trinity River. Congresswoman Granger’s son, J.D. Granger, was hired to run the project despite having no prior experience for a job of such size and scope.

J.D. ran the project with Jim Oliver, general manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District, one of the local governments that manage Panther Island. Oliver is retiring this year.

The City of Fort Worth is one of the project’s “stakeholders,” and in 2003, the city council created a Tax Increment Financing District (TIF)—a public financing tool to use increased property tax revenue for development projects—to raise money for it.

In 2015, the Bass-funded PACs backed establishment members of the TRWD board, who were being challenged by citizen candidates campaigning on more transparency.

By 2018, Panther Island wasn’t anywhere near completion; cost estimates exploded from 2006’s $435 million to more than $1.1 billion, and the Trump administration denied federal funding. Mayor Betsy Price responded by calling for an “independent review” of the project.

A programmatic review Riveron published in 2019 found that after more than a decade and $383 million of taxpayer money spent, no aspect of construction was finished, and J.D. Granger and Oliver kept others in the dark over how the project was managed. That same year, it was reported the project was running out of money.

Riveron made a series of recommendations, including separation between Granger and Oliver, which the city council unanimously endorsed. At the time, J.D. Granger and Oliver both spoke in defiance, with Granger saying he’ll still report to Oliver, and Oliver saying Granger will still run the project.

Last year, the Trump administration again denied federal funding, giving only $1.5 million for the project to undergo a feasibility study, which the TRWD board later rejected. Congresswoman Granger told Texas Scorecard a flood study of Panther Island had been done, but The Texas Monitor published an investigative report in October 2018 that revealed federal funding to Panther Island was halted specifically because no sufficient study had been completed. Records also show that Granger, her son, and Panther Island’s employees knew the study hadn’t been done; in fact, they fought the requirement out of fear that it would tank the project.

Sources told Texas Scorecard the Trump administration allegedly would not restore federal funding until J.D. Granger and Oliver were removed.

The Battle

When Mayor Price announced in January she wasn’t running for re-election, it was expected that Dee Kelly Jr. would run. He shocked everyone by backing out at the last minute.

Later that month, Price’s former chief of staff, Mattie Parker, announced her candidacy for mayor, rolling out an eye-popping list of endorsements that included Price, Sid and Lee Bass, and other local power players. Sources allege Parker’s list of endorsements was originally meant for Kelly Jr., who has also endorsed Parker.

Parker’s campaign treasurer is Leah King, one of TRWD’s board members running for re-election this year. She has received money from one of the Kelly Jr.-controlled Bass PACs, as has fellow incumbent James Hill, who also on the ballot this May.

Mere hours after Parker’s announcement, Granger appeared to declare war against Kelly Jr.’s faction by endorsing Councilman Brian Byrd for mayor. Jack Stevens, another TRWD board incumbent on the ballot this Saturday, has received donations from Congresswoman Granger and her campaign fund.

Former board member Mary Kelleher, who fought for more transparency and better water management, is seeking a return this election.

“I’m just saying simply that I think Congressman Granger, because of the conflict between she and Betsy, has a fear that the mayor’s administration possibly under me would be persona non grata about what she wants to do or what she wants to fight for, and that’s not the take I’m having,” Parker has stated.

Citizens should note that neither of these factions is advocating to end the Panther Island project, but they appear to be advocating two different paths to complete it: either through local taxpayers and businesses or just lobbying for more taxpayer dollars.

Parker and Price both are advocating local governments partner with business, saying “no plans for [Panther Island] should move forward until the private sector is brought to the table to help create a working plan.” Sources have told Texas Scorecard the Basses could be tired of the eyesore and embarrassment that Panther Island is today, and are perhaps plotting to take over the project and finish it using local taxpayer dollars.

For Byrd, whom it’s reported Panther Island is “a key economic development project,” lobbying for federal taxpayer money appears to be his approach. “We’re also going to do any sort of lobbying that we need to do to help out our delegation. [We’ve] got to get it done,” he said.

Sources have told Texas Scorecard that Congresswoman Granger has apparently made a deal with the Biden-Harris administration to restore federal tax dollars to Panther Island.

Another player in this mayoral campaign is candidate Steve Penate, who is advocating a third option. “The people do not work for [politicians]. Accountability, transparency, and integrity must be at the forefront of everything we do, and that includes Panther Island,” he has stated.

While the mayoral election is widely expected to go to a runoff, if either Parker or Byrd are eliminated, their proposed avenue of resolving Panther Island would likely be discarded as well.

Citizens will decide on May 1.

Robert Montoya

Born in Houston, Robert Montoya is an investigative reporter for Texas Scorecard. He believes transparency is the obligation of government.