Fort Worth

Inside Fort Worth's Panther Island: ‘This Looks Terrible,' Former State Lawmaker Says

Key figures behind Fort Worth’s billion-dollar flood protection project, known as "Panther Island," are U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, her son J.D. Granger and, now, J.D.’s fiancée, Shanna Cate – a trio with power to help shape the publicly-funded endeavor.

Kay Granger has been largely responsible for the more than $60 million the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has already invested in the work to re-channel the Trinity River, north of downtown Fort Worth, shore up flood protection, and give birth to a new, river-walk entertainment district.

But Granger’s ability to keep the money flowing into Panther Island has come into question.

And her son has recently drawn fire for his management of the project, as head of the Trinity River Vision Authority, with Panther Island mired in a growing debate on whether the mission actually is flood protection, or, instead, the creation of an entertainment district.

In addition, critics have accused the TRVA and its parent group, the Tarrant Regional Water District, of unchecked nepotism, pointing first at the mother-son relationship, and now at Cate, the project’s program and development director, who plans to marry into the Granger family.

“This looks terrible,” said former Texas Rep. Lon Burnam (D), a longtime critic who said the involvement of a third Granger family member will further fuel concerns in some circles that Panther Island is controlled by a small group of Fort Worth’s elite.

“Anybody that is slightly skeptical is going to think the worst, and maybe we shouldn’t … but given what has gone on and the problems with this project, a lot of people are going to think the worst,” Burnam said.

Before joining Congress more than 20 years ago, Kay Granger, a Republican, was Fort Worth’s first female mayor.

Her legacy, many feel, rests on Panther Island finally being completed, after more than a decade in the making … and becoming successful.

But funding for Panther Island has stalled, especially in Washington, D.C., with some in Congress and in the White House questioning whether the project is worth it, given the needs of other areas of the country hit hard by flooding disasters.

Also, critics, including a prominent taxpayer watchdog group, have questioned whether it’s prudent for taxpayers to pay such a high price for a project that is run by the son of a member of Congress.

Jim Oliver, general manager of the TRWD, declined to be interviewed by NBC 5 Investigates, as did Kay Granger, her son J.D. and Cate.

But in statements, Oliver said he reassigned Cate, giving her and J.D. Granger “separate areas of responsibility,” once he learned of their romantic relationship.

“JD oversees construction and permitting,” while “Shanna is responsible for event management and programming,” Oliver said.

But internal emails obtained by NBC 5 Investigates cast doubt on claims that Granger and Cate’s duties are completely separate.

In fact, the emails show the two have been involved together in discussions about construction, and about developers seeking to build on Panther Island.

Cate’s current job description includes working on the island’s development, saying she "manages aspects related to urban planning. Development. (And) TRVA’s fair contracting programming."

It added that she will "administer and participate on the Panther Island Development Committee," and will "develop relationships with the private real estate development sector" and "connect developers with the appropriate party(ies) to further their planning within the district."

Emails showed Cate even communicated with Granger about possible additions to her duties earlier this year, sending one email titled, "How does this sound for my job description."

Oliver, in a statement, said he learned of Granger and Cate’s relationship "a few years ago," and moved Cate out from under J.D.’s authority.

"At that time, I decided it was best that she report to me," he said.

But an email Cate sent in April raised more questions on who she was actually reporting to. In that email, she said she had never sent her procurement card charges to Oliver, "even though I moved under him over a year ago," and, instead, "I kept pushing to JD since he oversees TRVA expenses."

"It doesn’t look right. The perception is horrible," said Mary Kelleher, a former water district board member who fought for better transparency.

Kelleher said she’s worried that additional questions about the Granger family’s involvement could hurt Panther Island’s chances of getting the federal funding it still needs, estimated to be $400 million.

"I certainly think it doesn’t help how Washington is going to view the TRWD project," she said.

As questions mount on the continued funding of Panther Island, Fort Worth City Councilman Cary Moon said the TRWD and the TRVA need to do more to reassure the public that the project is on course.

"We have just got to be above reproach. We have got to create better optics. And we need this flood control program to come forward," said Moon, whose district takes in part of the Panther Island project.

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