Thursday, September 23, 2004

"CAMPO should abstain from voting on matters that represent financial gain for themselves, business partners or family members."

Questions about conflicts of interest on CAMPO board

September 23, 2004

Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

Members of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board should voluntarily and immediately disclose their potential conflicts of interest, and moreover, abstain from voting on matters that represent financial gain for themselves, business partners or family members.

Although the state ethics law is admittedly ambiguous, nothing is keeping CAMPO members from adopting a stringent set of ethics rules that could be a standard for similar bodies around the state. State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, is feeling the heat for voting to approve a project that financially benefits her sister, Stacy Rhone.

While the issue was framed in typically Austin over-the-top accusatory rhetoric, the question raised is certainly one deserving of a serious answer.

Although the vote was technically legal, it didn't pass the smell test. As a member of CAMPO, Dukes should have abstained on the controversial plan to toll seven Central Texas roads.

As the American-Statesman's Ben Wear reported, Rhone holds a $44,000 contract with the general engineering company for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which will run the toll roads approved by CAMPO. Though officials with the general engineering contractor, HNTB, said Rhone started her public relations work in February this year, she did not sign a contract with HNTB until July 7, about a week before Dukes voted to pass the toll road plan.

The timing throws gasoline on a fire of suspicion about the toll roads. It's worth noting that Rhone's company is part of a team led by the TateAustin public relations firm that is among five bidders seeking a longer-term marketing contract.

Dukes said there was no quid pro quo and we take her at her word. We note that Dukes was one of 16 affirmative votes, so hers wasn't decisive. Viewed another way, the outcome would not have changed had Dukes abstained and there wouldn't be questions about it now.

The CAMPO board -- created under federal law with a membership that includes state and local officials -- seems to fall outside of state ethics laws. But even if it is determined that state law covers legislators serving on CAMPO, it still would fall short. The law specifies that a public official would have to file an affidavit disclosing the interest of a parent or child in a pending vote, but doesn't mention a sibling.

Rhone, Dukes' sister, said she is being targeted because she is African American. That's absurd. It is her relationship to Dukes -- and not her color -- that has caused people to criticize the circumstances under which she got a contract with HNTB. That could have been avoided if Dukes had disclosed those details herself.

Allegations regarding a conflict of interest also were raised about state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, also a member of CAMPO, who voted to pass the toll road plan. Lowell Lebermann, vice chairman of the mobility authority, is Barrientos' employer and has been for decades.

The senator properly disclosed that relationship in financial statements filed with the state -- as required under state law.

The best solution is for the Legislature to extend state ethics laws to cover entities such as CAMPO, and to include siblings of public officials.

In the meantime, CAMPO members should publicly disclose their potential conflicts of interest, including those that involve siblings.

© 2004 Austin American-Statesman: