The Republican candidate running to join the Texas oil and gas regulatory agency has run afoul of state environmental rules and is embroiled in a series of lawsuits accusing him of fraud in the oil patch.

Jim Wright, owner of an oilfield waste services company, says he has done nothing wrong and that he’s the victim of a Democratic Party smear job.

If nothing else, South Texas court filings and public records showing more than $180,000 in state fines levied against Wright point to the fractiousness of the oilfield.

Wright, who lives on a ranch outside Orange Grove, 35 miles northwest of Corpus Christi, faces Democrat Chrysta Castañeda, a Dallas oil and gas attorney and engineer, in November for a spot on the three-member Texas Railroad Commission.

At the center of the disputes is DeWitt Recyclable Products, a company Wright started nearly a decade ago near Cuero to take oily muds and other drilling site byproducts and recycle them into crude oil, diesel fuel and cleaned-up dirt.

Wright sold the company in 2014 to out-of-state investors for more than $1 million, but he remained listed as president, according to court filings.

The Railroad Commission sent the facility a cease-and-desist letter and canceled permits in January 2017 after an inspector found waste stockpiled directly on the ground, waste material storage tanks leaking material into the soil and unpermitted stormwater ponds collecting around the machinery and the facility.

In November 2017, Wright agreed to pay for the cleanup of the site and pay the Railroad Commission $181,519 for the violations — even though his attorney had claimed that he did not have ownership or operational control of DeWitt after the sale and that, despite requests, his name was never taken off agency records for the facility.

Wright then sued two of the vendors of the storage tanks, alleging that they were responsible for the cleanup of the material in the tanks. The companies later filed countersuits.

At stake, among other things, is $800,000 that DeWitt had paid to the Railroad Commission in 2016 to ensure a proper cleanup if the facility were to close. Wright has recouped that money, but the storage tank vendors — some of whom have won court judgments recognizing them as rightful creditors — say that Wright was not entitled to the money.

‘No taxpayer money’

Wright campaign spokesman Silver Vasquez said all that money has gone toward cleanup, which he said totaled $1.5 million.

“All this happened after the sale of the company, but Jim had to make it right for him, the other investors and the community,” he said. “No taxpayer money went to remediate this.”

He said the company, now operating as Eagle Ford Recycling Services, has been repermitted and is open for business.

Vasquez said that Wright has a 12% stake in the company, is not on the board of directors and “obviously will recuse himself” if a company matter comes up before the Railroad Commission.

He said the campaign would not comment on ongoing litigation.

Creditors

James McAda, who has run an oilfield services company for more than three decades and is fighting Wright in court, said he is owed more than $200,000 by Wright.

“I think a man who wants to do that kind of job should be following the rules of the agency that he’s going to help run,” McAda said. “This wasn’t just some little small type infraction violation; this was a pretty major deal involving disposal of waste.”

“I’m a dedicated Republican voter, but I don’t think Jim Wright is the man for the job,” he added.

Another company that had sued Wright over cleanup issues, Tidal Tank, settled with him after his March primary victory.

In a separate case, oilfield services firm Petro Swift LLC of Kerrville has accused Wright, his partners and DeWitt Recyclable Products of failing to pay for construction work the Kerrville company did at the Cuero-area site.

Petro Swift attached a lien to the property, but company officials accuse Wright of “fraudulent transfers” of the property through different companies to avoid payment.

Petro Swift co-owner Travis McRae told the American-Statesman that going after Wright was “like chasing a ghost through the woods.”

He said Wright owes Petro Swift about $205,000 on the original bills, plus at least $70,000 in attorney’s fees.

“If the guy can’t follow the rules of his own permits — if he doesn’t have respect for rules that are assigned him that he has to comply with — what makes anyone think he’s going to try to enforce rules when he holds that office?” McRae said.

McRae described himself as a “hardcore conservative, Republican all the way down the ticket.”

But, he said, “I’m not voting for Jim Wright.”

“I always thought the Democratic side is anti-oil, anti-fracking, so let’s have a Republican on the Railroad Commission,” he said. “In this particular case, based on personal experience, I don’t want that dude running anything — even if that means voting Democratic.”

Primary underdog

Wright has told the Statesman he wants to “bring integrity back” to the agency, which some critics call “captured” because the three statewide elected commissioners get most of their campaign money from the industries they’re charged with regulating.

As an underdog ahead of the March primary, he had pledged to recuse himself from matters involving campaign contributors.

But after he defeated a vastly better financed incumbent in the GOP primary, oil and gas interests lavished money on his campaign and Wright walked that pledge back.

He also has the support of Railroad Commission Chairman Wayne Christian, whose campaign has contributed $5,000 to Wright’s campaign. Christian and Commissioner Christi Craddick also are Republican.

Wright says the exposure of the lawsuits is part of a Democratic plot.

"As an oil and gas operator who has been in the industry for more than 30 years, I’m fortunate to own four energy related companies, and have affiliations with others,” he said in an email. “The success of these companies has always been based on integrity and honesty. I ran for this office to serve the people of Texas, and help rebuild the oil and gas industry which should be important to all Texans. Regardless of extreme attacks from leftists who want to put thousands of oilfield workers out of work, we will remain focused on finding ways to create jobs and keep our economy ever improving for Texas."

His campaign accused the Texas Democratic Party and Castañeda of spreading “untruthful allegations ... on an issue that has already been remedied and resolved.”

For her part, Castañeda said the acts laid out in court filings and Railroad Commission documents “disqualify my opponent from serving as railroad commissioner.”