December 03, 2007
Questioning the commissioners' campaign spending

The Chron continues its reporting on the campaign finance habits of Commissioners Court with a piece on how they spend all that loot they raise.

In filings dating to January 2006, several commissioners, most notably Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole, disclosed some campaign expenses in ways similar to those that have led to fines for other Texas politicians. For example:

  • Hundreds of campaign expenses, particularly Eversole's, were labeled with vague descriptions such as "public relations" and "misc." -- sweeping designations that encompass everything from meals to purchases at boutique gift shops and typically offer little clues as to what was purchased or who benefited from those purchases.
  • Dozens of reimbursements made to office workers from several commissioners' campaigns, most frequently Radack's, did not detail the purpose of those payments.
  • Radack, commissioner of Precinct 3, omitted the addresses of hundreds of expense payees until mid-2006. He has begun including that information on recent filings, but his old reports still do not include addresses, which are required by law.

When Texas politicians report campaign expenses, they are expected to follow regulations intended to show the public who the money was given to and what goods or services were received in return.

The Texas Ethics Commission enforces those rules but only acts when it receives a sworn complaint. No Harris County commissioner has faced a substantiated complaint while in office in at least 15 years, according to records.

"The disclosure laws in Texas are built largely on transparency," said Tim Sorrells, deputy general counsel for the ethics commission. "They're designed so people can look at the reports and be able to ascertain what's going on."

Well, there's your problem right there. As the Chron showed in last Sunday's story, County Commissioners' finance reports are done on paper, and are not available online. Seems to me it's a no-brainer to require electronic filing, but it'll take an act of the Lege to make it happen, and however sensible this may be, there will be resistance.

Interesting, by the way, that the bulk of the questionable activity here was done by the Republican commissioners, Radack and the now-under-investigation Eversole. It's true that former Judge Robert Eckels was a champion of greater transparency and campaign finance limits - perhaps this is why he and his partymates on the Court never got along that well. The Chron editorialized about this, and hit on a relevant point:

Able to give unlimited campaign donations, professional services vendors who are not subject to competitive bidding for government contracts instead compete to give the most to their patrons in office. It's a situation that appeals to the worst tendencies in elected officials, tempting them to reward those who are most generous with both contracts and access.

As reported by the Chronicle's Chase Davis, major county vendors such as Dannenbaum Engineering's James Dannenbaum; Turner, Collie and Braden Inc.; and Andrews Kurth LLP have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to county officials since 2003. The officials awarded the donors millions of dollars in contracts. It's not illegal, but it suggests a "pay to play" system that does not serve the public interest. In today's lean and mean business environment, it's hard to believe those firms are contributing huge sums simply to support good government -- unless it's defined in their minds as government with lots of contracts to let.

Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels took a lot of heat from colleagues seven years ago when he decried loose ethics in government and advocated contribution limits for campaign gifts from those who do business with the county. At the time, Eckels opined that there was a perception of corruption in county government and "an implied coercion in the process, even if its not actual coercion."

This is something I've touched on before, most frequently in connection with Tom DeLay and his longtime penchant for corporate shakedowns. You hear all the time that "there is no quid pro quo" when a company that makes a big donation gets something favorable passed or unfavorable quashed, even when the donations are made right as legislation that affects it is being crafted or debated. But if it's true, as the beneficiaries of the donations always claim, that the money had no effect on their actions, then why would any rational profit-maximizing entity make those non-tax-deductible donations? What's their motivation if not to improve the bottom line? And even if you do think this they're just being played for suckers, it still leads to the perception of corruption that Eckels talked about, which both increases cynicism and makes other businesses feel compelled to get in on the game, whether rigged against them or not. It's bad all around. Let's get some transparency into the system so we can at least start to deal with this.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 03, 2007 to Local politics

Misspending of campaign funds by county officials is not discouraged by donors who have spoke out in Dolcefino's blog. This attitude suggests that the donors intent of his contribution is not necessarily legal or ethical either.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on December 3, 2007 9:44 PM