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Miers family received 'excessive' sum in land case

 

Knight Ridder Newspapers
Monday, October 22, 2005
Jack Douglas Jr. and Stephen Henderson

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Harriet 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 was 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 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 President 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 un-reviewable 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, which were handled through its political action committee.

She also said that the money her family must repay the state is being 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 Harriet 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. It is vacant and brush-covered.

The state wanted to build an off-ramp from I-30 onto Westmoreland Road 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 that 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 Miers’ condemnation case appeared in Evans’ court.

Evans declined repeated requests for an interview. “He has too many things he has to do. … He just wouldn’t have time right now,” said his court coordinator, John Warren.

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, which supports her nomination to the high court.

“Mrs. Lundy’s late husband, Judge Nick Lundy of Dallas, attended Southern Methodist University Law School with Harriet Miers and they have known each other for years,” the group said in an Oct. 3 press release.

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

“That’s where I got to see her up close and see how terrific she is,” Lundy said.

Lundy said the work on the judicial commission inspired her to become active in judicial campaigns in the 1990s, work that led her to call frequently on Miers for advice about candidates. “I had a nice, professional relationship with her.”

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. She said she didn’t remember whether Miers ever gave her advice about Evans.

Evans also appointed one of his campaign contributors, Cathie Adams, to work on Miers’ case. At the time, she was president of the Dallas Eagle Forum, a politically active conservative organization that touts its “pro-family movement.”

Adams said in an interview on Thursday that she believes Evans picked her as a commissioner because of her strong views against the government’s “taking of land.”

“I don’t like it,” she said of condemnation, or eminent domain, proceedings. Such cases should be “rare,” Adams added, and only if the government is willing to pay a stiff price.

Adams said that she first met Miers in 1989, when Miers ran for Dallas City Council, and she had several inconsequential dealings with her during her two-year term on the council.

The two women have never been political allies, however, and Adams said that she and other conservatives feel “betrayed” by Bush for choosing Miers for the Supreme Court.

Lundy, Adams and another commissioner, Patricia Calderon, who couldn’t be reached for comment, made their decision on Oct. 13, 1999, declaring that the Miers family should be paid $106,915 for the half-acre they were ceding to the state.

The state objected to that award, saying it was “excessive” and that the panel hadn’t used “the proper measure of damages” in determining the amount to be paid.

Eventually, the state reached a settlement with the Miers family over the lot, agreeing in 2003 to reduce the amount by about $26,000.

But Scott Young, the Dallas lawyer who represented the Miers family in the case, never signed the settlement papers, and Miers never repaid the difference.

“I don’t know why … it has been as long as it has,” Young said. And, he said, “the state hasn’t been pressing us” for the money.

Tom Kelley, a spokesman for the Texas Attorney General’s Office, said the state hasn’t complained about the delay in the reimbursement because Sally Miers had “insisted” that her daughter look over the mediation agreement papers before signing them.

Kelley also said the state had no knowledge of the two commissioners’ prior relationships with Miers and the judge.

“The judge appointed the commissioners. Our attorneys here … had no knowledge of the commissioners one way or another and assumed it would be a fair hearing,” Kelley said.

Commercial real estate experts in the area say the nearly $107,000 awarded in court for the land was unusually high.

“Industrial land in that area is generally sold around one or two dollars per square foot,” said George Roddy, the owner of Roddy Informational Services, which has researched commercial real estate in Texas for 35 years. “That’s closer to five dollars per square foot.”

One 3.8-acre parcel a few miles east sold for $2.07 per square foot in 1999, Roddy said. Another lot in the area sold for no more than $2 per square foot, he said.

Roddy added that the Miers property’s assessed market value is a strong indicator of its worth. At $244,890 for 18.74 acres, the land was assessed at about 30 cents per square foot.

“Assessed values tend to be pretty accurate, within about 10 or 20 percent depending on the county,” Roddy said.

The market value of the Miers’ land may have been depressed because it is located within a federal Superfund site that had been contaminated by an old lead smelter. The smelter crushed and recycled batteries - and spewed toxic lead dust on surrounding properties - for 50 years until it closed in 1984.

The Miers’ property is about a mile away from the site of the smelter, which has since been torn down. An Environmental Protection Agency map shows that the Miers land is within the 14-square-mile site’s boundaries, but records available Friday didn’t indicate whether there is contamination on the parcel.

Lundy, the Miers associate who helped evaluate the land’s value for the court, said the panel based the value on “how it was appraised” and because of potential redevelopment of the area. “It was valuable,” Lundy said.

Lundy said she didn’t know until she received the papers explaining the case that it involved Miers’ mother. “I looked and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I think this is Harriet’s mother,’” Lundy said.

But she saw no conflict in continuing to do the work.

“I wasn’t the arbiter. I was just one of three,” Lundy said. “I mean, everybody knows who Harriet Miers is.”



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