Sunday, November 25, 2007

No opponents? No-bid contracts? No problem!

Few rivals, but plenty of donors

In secure seats, Commissioners Court members still raise millions

Nov. 25, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

In July 2006, under the glittering chandeliers of a Westin Galleria Hotel ballroom, hundreds of contractors, kingmakers and well-heeled campaign donors schmoozed over breakfast with Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, an annual ritual many had kept for years.

Juice and coffee flowed, and so did the money — more than $285,000 that morning alone, all legal donations to Eversole's bulging campaign war chest. It was the largest one-day bonanza for any commissioner since at least 2003.

But like most members of the Harris County Commissioners Court, Eversole has not faced a competitive election in more than a decade — a fact that hasn't stopped him, or the rest of the court, from raising millions in campaign cash, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis.

"If you don't raise funds, you're going to get an opponent who's got money," said Eversole, who has raised $1.9 million since 2003.

A comprehensive Chronicle review of donations to the Commissioners Court shows that its members — Commissioners Eversole, Sylvia Garcia, El Franco Lee and Steve Radack, former Judge Robert Eckels and current Judge Ed Emmett — have raised more than $10 million since January 2003, when Garcia took office after a rare contest for an open seat on the court.

Much of that money has come from contractors, particularly engineering and law firms that receive millions in lucrative no-bid contracts. At least 46 donors have given more than $50,000 each since 2003, and the top contributor, engineer James Dannenbaum, has given $160,000.

Positions on Harris County's five-member governing body are among the most secure in local politics. It is not uncommon for commissioners to remain in office for decades.

But court members also face almost no restrictions on the amount of money they can raise. They can accept donations of unlimited size.

"They're in the territory where nobody regulates them," said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein. "There is serious money there. ... For donors, the Commissioners Court is where the action is."

Contract questions

For their part, commissioners explain their extensive fundraising as necessary to scare off potential challengers, donate to charities and other campaigns and to cover so-called officeholder expenses, including gas, phone bills and coffee.

Radack, commissioner of Precinct 3 and by far the top fundraiser with more than $3.2 million, said his substantial campaign fund is among the reasons serious challengers have not stepped up to face him. He hasn't faced a close re-election contest since he took office in 1989.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Lee, by contrast, has raised the least: just over $1 million since 2003. The longest-serving commissioner, he has been in office since 1985 and has never faced an opponent, saying for that reason he does not make fundraising a high priority.

Garcia, of Precinct 2, has raised nearly $1.7 million since she was sworn in. When she found out last year that she would not be opposed, she threw a charity event in lieu of her traditional political fundraiser.

"My goal has always been to have the same amount in the bank as it took me to get elected," she said.

Former Judge Eckels, who railed against unfettered donations and other ethics issues while in office, brought in at least $1.7 million before he stepped down in February. He has since refunded more than $170,000 to his donors.

Only Emmett, the county judge since March, is expected to face serious competition for his seat. He raised more than $500,000 through June.

Among the court's top donors have been representatives from dozens of firms with a stake in county decision-making: tax collectors Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP; Dannenbaum Engineering Corp.; and bond counsel Andrews Kurth, LLP, among others.

According to the analysis, a majority of the court's top 50 donors are affiliated with engineering, law and architecture firms, most of which receive professional services contracts exempt from competitive bidding under state law.

Those 50 donors, who together account for nearly $3.75 of every $10 the commissioners have raised, have received more than $108 million in county business since 2004, according to county ledgers.

Campaign reform activists argue that by accepting millions in contributions from contractors, commissioners foster a public perception of back-scratching in county government, a charge donors and politicians have long denied.

"Clearly (contractors) are donating to enhance their business," said Fred Lewis, an Austin attorney and outspoken advocate for campaign reform. "You can't have a process like that and claim you run an ethical government. ... "

Denying any favoritism

Commissioners said campaign donations do not influence their decisions, noting that they spread professional services contracts among many firms, often based on county staff recommendations.

Likewise, donors say they do not give money with the goal of influencing the court, describing their largesse as a means to reward and support candidates who share their ideologies and policy-making preferences.

"We always try to participate in good government," said Dannenbaum, the court's largest individual donor, whose firm has received $6.5 million from the county since 2004 and was awarded a $10 million project in June to plan an extension of the Hardy Toll Road.

"When good, hardworking people running for office need help in their campaign, we try to support that."

Dannenbaum and other donors have denied that their contributions earn them favorable treatment. Don Aviles, president of Aviles Engineering Corp. who donated more than $97,000, said he sees making campaign contributions as a form of community service.

Lewis and other critics describe county politics as the untamed frontier of Texas campaign law, where limited regulation and weak disclosure requirements have fostered a pay-to-play culture among contractors and politicians.

Neither state nor county officials face limits on how much money they can raise, but state officials must post their donations in a searchable online database that allows taxpayers to see who gives money and when.

County officials only have to disclose their contributions in paper reports, which, unlike databases, are difficult to analyze.

And because of their limited power under Texas law, counties lack the authority to impose fundraising ceilings on their elected officials without support from the Texas Legislature.

This differs from municipalities, which can enact restrictions as they see fit. In Houston, for example, donors can give no more than $5,000 to a candidate during an election cycle.

State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, proposed legislation in 2003 that would have allowed counties to set similar limits, but it died in committee and has not been resurrected.

"Today (county officials) get to say 'Oh, the state doesn't authorize us to set limits,' " Villarreal said. "My bill was designed to put the pressure on them locally. ...

"It was a good bill. Now that it's been brought to my attention, I will likely file it again with my other bills that regulate state fundraising."

Radack, for one, questioned the effectiveness of regulation, saying that donors have found loopholes in even the most stringent contribution limits.

"I think it's safe to say if campaign money was eliminated from the process that there would still be people criticizing it," he said.

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