February 20, 2008

Yes, please.

Amid renewed attention to ethics in Harris County government, some elected officials appear open to closing a loophole that keeps secret senior employees' outside income, real estate holdings or business connections.

State law requires county judges, commissioners and county attorneys to file "personal financial statements" designed to reveal any potential conflicts of interest. But it does not apply to many of the other elected and appointed officials who make multimillion-dollar decisions with taxpayer funds.

Commissioners Court has the power to require disclosure for these officials, such as sheriffs, constables and clerks, yet the policy has remained the same for years.

In response to Houston Chronicle inquiries, some county leaders say they are willing to consider such a reform to increase transparency at the nation's third-largest county, and commissioners are expected to discuss the issue at their regular meeting today.

"I'm in favor of it," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who supports the reform, along with Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, who put the issue on the court's agenda. "We live in a time now where public disclosure is a good thing."

You mean, we live in a time where public disclosure is (finally) being widely seen as a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have, not to mention a time where it's ridiculously easy to make it broadly available. And we're also living in a time where the behavior of certain public officials makes our omission on this front all the more glaring.

No official has alleged any wrongdoing by Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas, but KTRK (Channel 13) has raised questions about whether a one-time county vendor, whose former company still gets government business, helped modify the design of Thomas' Colorado County ranch house -- and whether the work was free.

Thomas has denied any wrongdoing, and said he paid for the work. He has declined to disclose the amount of what he says is a private expense.

Thomas would have no problem disclosing broader financial information if it were required, a spokesman said.

"If commissioners want him to do that, he would," said Capt. John Martin. "One, he's never been required to, and, second, it's never really come up."

Mm hmm. Nice to know. Now let's put that to the test.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 20, 2008 to Local politics