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Turner’s public agency work

A lot of the attacks in the Mayoral campaign so far have been aimed at Adrian Garcia, in part to knock him out of second place where he is perceived to be, and in part because there’s some real material to use. There has been some sniping between Costello and King, as they fish in the same ponds for voters, and some other stuff here and there, but not much as yet against the perceived and poll-supported frontrunner Sylvester Turner. Until now, anyway.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Two of Sylvester Turner’s mayoral rivals are criticizing the longtime lawmaker for reaping thousands of dollars in legal and land title work for public agencies, questioning the ethics of the sometimes lucrative arrangements while he holds elective office.

It is legal for Texas lawmakers, who serve part time and earn $7,200 a year plus $190 per day of legislative session, to do work for local government entities.

Two of Turner’s rivals in the race to replace term-limited Mayor Annise Parker – former City Attorney Ben Hall and former Congressman Chris Bell – said the practice appears improper when it involves fees earned from entities over which he may wield authority as a state legislator.

“It may not be illegal, but it sure has the appearance of impropriety, especially given the timing in some of the instances,” said Hall, who last week called for an end to “pay-to-play” politics.

Both Hall and Bell stand to gain votes from Turner, who has positioned himself as an establishment candidate and has led or tied for the lead in recent polls.

Turner defended his work, saying it is neither illegal nor unethical for lawmakers to receive public business while in office.

“I think my track record speaks for itself,” he said. “When I believe people have not been performing up to par, regardless of the relationship – business relationship – that they may have had with my firm, I have not been hesitant in holding people accountable and responsible.”

Hall and Bell have cited $144,000 that Turner’s land title company, American Title, earned in 2014 on a Houston Independent School District real estate deal. Hall also has questioned what he says was more than $3 million Turner’s companies received in payments from Houston’s housing department for professional services.

“We have certain ethical standards that we need to abide by, and first and foremost is staying away from conflicts of interest,” Bell said.

In 2012, Turner initially criticized HISD’s $1.9 billion bond plan, saying he was worried it would not do enough to encourage students to attend neighborhood campuses. He ultimately endorsed the issue, which passed with 69 percent of the vote.

Two years later, his title company earned $144,000 on an HISD real estate transaction.

[…]

Tom “Smitty” Smith of the Austin-based advocacy group Public Citizen Texas said it is not uncommon for lawyer legislators to have contracts with one or more government agencies.

“A lot of the work – of legal work in this state – has to do with municipal or county or district governments of various kinds,” Smith said. “The gray area comes in the choice of that legislator’s law firm. Is it an open bidding process? Or is it just simply a gimme?”

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, another Austin advocacy group, said the practice comes with potential conflicts.

“Are the local governments hiring a particular lawmaker because that lawmaker has jurisdiction over issues that concern the local government?” McDonald asked. “That’s the basic issue. That’s the basic conflict.”

Let’s get one thing cleared up right off: Any time Ben Hall makes an allegation about any other candidate, the first question he should be asked is “So, have you paid your property taxes yet?” With that out of the way, there’s not much to this story. One can certainly argue that this kind of paid advocacy ought to be illegal, or at least more tightly regulated, and I would not disagree. But given that it is legal, this story is basically about nothing. There’s no allegation of wrongdoing on Turner’s part – the activity is legal, the fees he charged were in the normal range, and he did the work he was paid to do. It was all properly disclosed. The two professional ethics watchdogs had only the perfunctory “could cause a conflict” admonishment for it. People may not know about it, though this was hardly a secret, and they may not care for it once they do know it, which is all fair. It’s well suited for a negative mailer, but unless there’s something else out there, it’s not going to generate more than one story.

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2 Comments

  1. Kris Banks says:

    Bell using this line of attack shows he’s just swinging at anything.

  2. Steve Houston says:

    I’m half surprised Kuff didn’t bring up Hall trying to give away the store on city debt collections before jumping ship (for great personal gain) with the law firm he set the deal up with. Any talk of conflicts of interest coming from Hall should probably start there before moving to his later exploits.