Thursday, February 01, 2007

Eckels: "... had conversations with a New York firm and international investment banking firms."

Harris County judge could leave office early

Feb. 1, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said Wednesday he is mulling offers from the private sector and can't rule out walking away from the four-year term he just won in November.

An early resignation would create a political whirlwind in county government, where officials serve without term limits and open seats are rare.

"In the last 90 days I've had conversations with a New York firm and international investment banking firms," Eckels said, saying he often has been approached by lobbying and law firms interested in hiring him.

"I have had more serious discussions than in the past. They are more concrete."

He is contemplating those offers, he said, but it is premature to talk about who he is "visiting with."

"I don't have to decide today. But I don't rule out anything," said Eckels, who was in Los Angeles on business. "I wouldn't do anything until I knew the county was in good shape and I had a chance to visit with my colleagues. I'm not looking for something else to do."

Either way, Eckels said he will make a decision sooner rather than later. He has been county judge since 1995.

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt talked to Eckels Tuesday. Bettencourt declined to divulge the particulars of their conversation, but said his fellow Republican gave him the sense that he was seriously weighing other options.

"There's no doubt Robert is considering doing something else," Bettencourt said.

"He's already served 12 years in this job. There comes a time when everyone has to decide what difference they can make and whether they are ready for the next phase of their lives."

The county judge and four commissioners comprise Commissioners Court, the overall governing body in Texas counties.

If Eckels stepped down, it could create a political standoff, since the commissioners, who would be charged with appointing someone to serve until the next general election, are split 2-2 along party lines.

"The constitution doesn't allow offices to be vacant. Eckels will still serve until his successor is appointed and qualified," County Attorney Mike Stafford said. That also means that Eckels, a Republican, potentially could break a partisan tie in appointing his successor.

Possible successors mentioned in political circles include Bettencourt, District Clerk Charles Bacarisse, Commissioner Jerry Eversole and businessman Ned Holmes, all Republicans.

"From all indications, it seems he's decided he's found something better and is resigning. This is real," said Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, who frequently has butted heads with Eckels though both are Republicans.

Radack said he has spoken to several people who have direct knowledge about Eckels' intentions. "He hasn't talked to me about it and I wouldn't expect him to," Radack said. "We aren't big political buddies. We're not even little ones."

Other commissioners were more circumspect, though all said they had heard rumors about Eckels' plans. Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said she had not spoken to Eckels. Eversole and Commissioner El Franco Lee said they had.

"This is no bigger than any other overtures that have been made. He wanted to have a chance to evaluate it," Lee said. "It sounds like he's interested in what they are saying. He's been down this road so many times."

Eckels' salary is $141,552. He has the potential to make several times that in the private sector, which would value his knowledge of government and contacts in politics and business.

Eckels, a lawyer, formerly served in the state House.

The judge pointed out that he would have to resign before the expiration of his term anyway if he became a candidate for one of the several statewide offices up for election in 2010.

Eckels has eyed statewide offices for several years. He also was mentioned as a potential contender for the congressional seat vacated by former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay last year.

Chronicle reporter Bill Murphy contributed to this report.

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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