Naked City

Mayor's Aide Makes Bad Bet on Toll Roads

In the latest fracas of the Toll Road Wars, toll opponents are accusing mayoral aide Matt Curtis of attempted "bribery" – although the would-be target of the alleged "bribe" is less adamant about that charge than his colleagues at Austin Toll Party, the leading group opposing the toll road plan adopted by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. According to Toll Party organizer Sal Costello, last Friday outside BookPeople, volunteer Jimmy Gardner was gathering signatures on recall petitions (the group wants to recall Mayor Will Wynn and two City Council members who voted for the plan) when he was accosted by a man – later identified as Curtis – who first offered to bet him that his toll road information was incorrect and then offered to "buy" all his petitions and signatures if he would just pack up and go home. Costello said the group is forwarding its information to the district attorney's office, which is reportedly looking into potential charges of bribery or related offenses.

Interviewed by phone, Gardner said that during his admittedly unfriendly exchange with Curtis, who never identified himself, he didn't really think he was being bribed. According to Gardner, Curtis told Gardner a recall would hurt people on the mayor's staff, that his maps were incorrect, and more specifically that MoPac is no longer included in the toll plan – even offering to bet him $200 against nothing on a phone call to CAMPO staff to settle the issue. When Curtis' call didn't quite do that – "He handed me his cell phone, and the CAMPO lady said, 'Not exactly,'" recalled Gardner – Gardner wanted just to dismiss the whole thing as "a stupid bet." But Curtis was insistent. "He said, 'If you give me your petitions there, I'll give you $200 if you just pack up your table and go home.'" Gardner, who is currently unemployed, says he answered, "I don't want your money, and I'm not for sale," and said he would continue collecting signatures. "I didn't really think at the time that it was a bribe," Gardner added. "I didn't really look at it like that – I just say a fool and his money are soon parted."

After Curtis had moved on, a Statesman reporter who happened to be nearby asked Gardner about the encounter and identified the man as Curtis. Shortly thereafter, Austin Toll Party called a press conference to denounce the aide for bribery. Asked later if Gardner is claiming that Curtis literally attempted to "bribe" him, Costello said, "Yes, absolutely."

Gardner himself was a good deal less absolute. "I'm accusing him [Curtis], first of all, of betting – which probably isn't illegal, I don't know," he said. "Then, just giving me money, which is probably not illegal, I don't know the technicalities of it. But he did offer me money for the signatures – but since this guy didn't identify himself as a government official, I just thought he was some weirdo just trying to drop some cash on me, and I just said, 'Nah, buddy, get out of here.' That's the story in a nutshell."

Curtis is not talking, especially since the Toll Partiers have gotten the DA involved. Mayor Wynn has thus far declined to get in a shouting match with the toll opponents, and his office was blindsided by the incident and not happy to be drawn directly into the fray. But Wynn's chief of staff, Richard Arellano, sternly defended his staff member, and blamed the recall campaigners for reflexively denouncing anyone who disagrees with them as corrupt. "These people are desperate for publicity," Arellano said, "and in order to get it, they will say anything, and even try to hurt people. Matt Curtis is guilty of only one thing, and that is forgetting that if you stop to argue with a barking dog, you're liable to get bitten."

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