Thursday, January 31, 2002

A "malodorous arrangement."


The line between 'legal' and 'ethical'

January 31, 2002

Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2002

The mutual back-scratching between Williamson County commissioners and favored consultant Pete Peters is cozy enough to constitute a serious breach of ethical
conduct, if not the law.

Through his firm, The Communicators, Peters has worked as a political consultant to every member of the commissioners court. When the commissioners proposed a bond package for highways in the fall of 2000, Peters formed a political action committee to promote it. The PAC then hired his firm as a consultant. After the bonds passed, Peters was hired as a $130-an-hour consultant to help oversee the road projects.

But the loop is even tighter than that, and more lucrative for Peters. His firm billed the PAC, Roads Now, for $18,000 in expenses, though there is no documentation that Peters' firm spent its own money. And his firm is being paid about $4,000 a month from the county road budget to promote the projects.

The contractors who contributed to Peters' PAC and the commissioners' election campaigns wound up getting most of the highway construction work under professional service agreements, which means there is no bid procedure to ensure cost savings.

Peters' activities may fall just inside the law, but this malodorous arrangement is beyond all ethical boundaries.

Peters overcame serious personal problems and a felonious past to build a circle of influence in Williamson County, one wherein he gets paid by the contributors, the consultants and the county, first to build interest then to promote the projects. It smells to high heaven, but Peters is only cashing in on an opportunity and the contractors are only paying to play, a longstanding Texas tradition.

It falls to Commissioners Mike Heiligenstein, Greg Boatright, David Hays and Frankie Limmer and County Judge John Doerfler to bring some integrity to bear on this ethically dubious scenario. However, they are unperturbed so far by Peters' actions, even his billing the county for three meetings with American-Statesman Editor Rich Oppel that never occurred.

The commissioners say they aren't troubled by Peters' revolving roles in their campaigns, the Roads Now PAC and the county's oversight of the projects. Nor are they concerned, they say, about the contractors who gave to them and Peters' PAC getting the construction contracts without a bid procedure.

They should be, because Peters' snug alliance with them may not sit as well with the Williamson County taxpayers, who foot the bills, and voters, who will have something to say about who represents them in Georgetown. Doerfler, Boatright and Limmer are running
for re-election this year.

© 2002 Austin American-Statesman: