September 08, 2008
The County Board of Ethics, for what it's worth

Remember that board of ethics that County Judge Ed Emmett wanted to form and eventually got around to? It was supposed to have the power to investigate ethics complaints involving county officials and employees, but it turns out it won't be able to do much of that.

The task force envisioned a board that would participate in the investigation and resolution of major ethics cases, in conjunction with the county and district attorneys' offices.

But the county attorney's office told Emmett last week that the board could not have authority over the employees of independently elected officials, such as the sheriff and district attorney, or those in departments governed by a separate board, such as the Juvenile Probation Department and the Harris County Hospital District. The office still was studying Friday whether the board would have any power over Commissioners Court members and their staffs.

While the board would have power over some important departments, such as the Harris County Toll Road Authority and the budget office, most of the corruption allegations that have surfaced in recent months have involved elected officials or their employees.

The task force's two other major proposals -- requiring lobbyists to register and making former county employees wait a year before benefiting financially from a county contract -- could not be adopted without legislative changes, according to a letter from the county attorney's office.

I suppose that shouldn't come as a surprise. Generally speaking, counties can't do anything without having the say so of the Legislature. Getting such legislation passed can be tricky, no matter how sensible it may sound, even if it only applies to Harris County. It's doable, and it's desirable, but it's not a sure thing by any stretch.

However, the county immediately could implement a host of the panel's other recommendations, such as posting personal financial disclosures online and expanding ethics training.

Emmett, who is facing criticism from his Democratic opponent over his handling of ethics reform, said he would like to adopt all of the recommendations approved by the county attorney and would like to lobby for the legislative changes needed to implement the others. "I'll put it on the agenda at the earliest opportunity," he said.

The issue probably will not be addressed until early October. He said the county attorney's guidance came too late to move forward with the plan at Tuesday's meeting, and the Sept. 23 meeting largely will be devoted to the county's mid-year budget review.

David Mincberg, Emmett's opponent in November, said the reforms are long overdue.

Well, the task force was convened in February, so it's certainly not like this has been rushed to the marketplace. Better late than never, I guess.

This may be the most poignant quote I've ever seen in a story like this:

Commissioner Jerry Eversole, who is facing corruption investigations by the FBI and the district attorney's office, said he would go along with any proposals supported by his colleagues because he believes he will be forced out of office before he would have to follow the new rules.

Sometimes no sarcastic remark seems adequate. This is one of those times.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 08, 2008 to Local politics

I have to admire the state's structure here - keeping renegade county judges at bay, gently guiding them back to the jobs they are supposed to be doing. Hopefully they (Commissioners too) can do it with their new-found ethical discoveries in mind, as you don't need the legislature's approval to be ethical.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on September 8, 2008 6:41 PM

You have to wonder if Jerry Eversole is "still there" making these comments which of course the FBI is taking note of. Maybe he will plead insanity. With comments like the ones he made, a jury will buy it.

Posted by: Baby Snooks on September 8, 2008 7:27 PM
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