Houston Chronicle reports:
Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis has proposed two ethics reforms he says are needed to improve transparency in county government, though Texas counties’ limited rule-making power may scuttle his plan.
Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously backed Ellis’ request to study how the county can establish mandatory registration of lobbyists and a blackout period for campaign contributions to elected officials from firms who seek or receive county contracts.
“We’re living in a time when public trust in government is shaken and everyday people are concerned about the undue influence of special interests,” Ellis said in a statement afterward. “We have an opportunity and obligation to strengthen public trust by reducing any appearance of or actual preferential treatment when it comes to how public dollars are spent.”
University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said the Ellis proposal was a bold, necessary first step to make county government more open to the public. He said relationships between Commissioners Court members and developers, engineers and builders whose businesses are affected by county policy often are shrouded in secrecy.
“Harris County is so big, and is continuing to boom, such that the need to have very clear lines between development and politics is imperative,” Rottinghaus said. “As the county shifts to a more progressive way of thinking, the commissioners will have to respond by giving voters tools to investigate what the connections are between campaign funding and political decisions.”
Ellis said the county needs an ethics commission to enforce any new rules. His vision, however, may be hamstrung by the limited ability Texas counties have to enact such policies. Unlike municipalities, which can establish their own rules and ordinances, counties can follow the lead only from the Legislature, said Robert Soard, first assistant county attorney.
That limitation tied the hands of former County Judge Ed Emmett, who established a task force that recommended a series of ethics reforms in 2009. Among them: creating an ethics committee, posting officials’ personal and financial disclosure forms online and ethics training for county employees.
The county attorney at the time concluded Commissioners Court lacked the authority to act on many of the proposals. The ethics committee met only twice before the county attorney said state law prevented the body from meeting confidentially, granting protection to whistleblowers or having the authority to supervise elected officials or their departments.
Some county ethics rules remain in place. Elected officials still must complete the disclosure forms, and any county employee involved in negotiating contracts with vendors must declare conflicts of interest. Commissioners Court members often disclose during meetings why they are abstaining from a vote, though written conflict of interest forms are not filed with the district clerk until afterward.
No new powers
Soard said the Legislature has not given counties any new powers to establish ethics rules in the decade since Emmett tried, though El Paso and Montgomery counties sought and received special permission from state lawmakers to set up their own ethics commissions. Harris County could try a similar approach, Soard suggested, though the Legislature will not return to Austin for a regular session until 2021.
“We’re certainly working with the commissioners to see what the county can do,” Soard said.
There is precedent at the state level for the kind of reforms Ellis has pitched. A blackout period bars state lawmakers from accepting donations from one month before the legislative session until 20 days after adjournment. Lobbyists also must register with the Texas Ethics Commission.
The city of Houston requires lobbyists to register with the city secretary, an effort to show the public what players attempt to influence elected officials. A 2015 Houston Chronicle investigation, however, found the city struggles to enforce the rule. That year, not a single person or firm was cited for noncompliance despite evidence dozens of lobbyists failed to record which clients they represented, did not keep their registrations up to date or did not report expenses incurred while trying to influence city leaders.
Harris County since 2009 has allowed lobbyist registration on a voluntary basis. Participation has been dismal: Just 17 lobbyists have signed up in the past decade, according to records from the county clerk.
Houston also has a blackout period for campaign contributions. The city prohibits council members and the mayor from accepting donations from firms seeking a contract from the date it appears on a City Council agenda until 30 days after the body votes to award the contract.
A similar rule in Harris County would have barred engineer Karun Sreerama from mailing a $5,000 check to the campaign of Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle in March, two days after a contract he recommended for Sreerama’s firm won preliminary approval. Cagle’s office this week said the commissioner since has returned the donation.
Bay Scoggin, state director of the Texas Public Interest Research Group, said blackout periods are only marginally effective at curbing unethical behaviors, as donors simply can wait several months before cutting a check. A more effective proposal, he said, would be limits on how much individuals and PACs can donate.
“You want to switch the incentives from county commissioners being financially beholden to their biggest business partners to their constituents,” Scoggin said.
Ellis’ proposal also asks the county purchasing agent to explore how to disclose campaign contributions from firms seeking to do work from the county.
Just the beginning
A Chronicle analysis of political donations earlier this year revealed commissioners rely heavily on vendors — mostly architecture and engineering firms — to finance their campaigns. In 2018, 78 percent of donations to Ellis came from vendors, compared with 42 percent for Adrian Garcia in Precinct 2, 88 percent for Steve Radack in Precinct 3 and 82 percent for Cagle in Precinct 4.
Commissioners control tens of millions of dollars in annual infrastructure spending within their precincts and have discretion over which firms to choose to design projects.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo in January announced she would refuse contributions from county vendors, citing a desire to act ethically. Her Commissioners Court colleagues declined to follow her lead.
Ellis, who said his proposal was the beginning of a broader push for ethics reform in county government, has drawn questions about his use of campaign funds. His war chest of $2.92 million is larger than the combined accounts of his Commissioners Court colleagues.
Ellis invests most of that sum in the stock market, an unconventional though permitted strategy under the Texas Election Code. The commissioner lists purchases and sales of securities on his campaign finance reports, as required by law, but he declined to disclose his entire investment portfolio to the Chronicle.
His large campaign account permits Ellis to fend off challengers and also supplement his office budget. Last year, Ellis billed to his campaign $11,000 for groceries, $25,400 in contributions to other political campaigns, $27,008 to charity and $11,400 at restaurants, including 32 visits to a Smoothie King five blocks from his home.
Ellis said he expenses meals only when he is working, though he said he considers himself on the job at all times.