in Houston, Texas

City failed to post ethics statements

Thursday, Sep 04, 2008, 04:55PM CST
By Trent Seibert

Houston city officials have failed for the past two years to post ethics forms online as required by law, Texas Watchdog has learned.


The ethics forms are meant to make public any ties city officials may have to a business seeking a government contract.


On Wednesday - and only after Texas Watchdog questioned city officials about the missing ethics forms - the city posted a single conflict-of-interest form that was originally filed in 2006.


"What seems to be the problem?" asked Ben Streusand, a Houstonian who serves on the board of the Texas branch of Americans for Prosperity and who is one of the hosts of the Three Amigos radio show on 700 AM KESV. "To me, it seems very straightforward. You've got to follow the law."


No one at City Hall seemed to know why the law hadn't been followed.


Joseph Badell, the public information liaison for the city’s Information Technologies Department, called the city Web page where the ethics disclosures are supposed to be posted a "work in progress."


The law requires elected local government officials to complete a Conflicts Disclosure Statement and an affidavit if they are associated with a business seeking a government contract


The local official must file the form if their father, mother, son or daughter is seeking a contract, if they've received a gift of $250 or more from the business or if they're employed by the business --- defined as receiving more than $2,500 in taxable income within 12 months of the contract negotiations. The law applies to elected officials and anyone in government who deals with contracts.


The law also requires businesses to file a Conflict of Interest Questionnaire if they are aware of similar ties to an official. While the affidavits are not required to be posted online, the disclosure statements and questionnaires are.


The law reads: "A local governmental entity that maintains an Internet website shall provide access to the statements..."


Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, said she proposed the original legislation (HB 914) to make local government more transparent.


Woolley said she was not aware that Houston -- the city she represents at the Capitol -- wasn't following the law she sponsored.


"When a bill goes into effect, you expect it to be enforced," Woolley said.


The city’s Information Technology Department is charged with posting the documents online, according to an April 3 city memo.


The department said Wednesday morning they had not received any ethics documents to post.


However, by the afternoon, a lone disclosure form, filed in November 2006 by Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, was posted on the city clerk's Web site.


Texas Watchdog, however, after digging through paper records at City Hall found forms that should have been posted on the city's Web site, but have not been. They can be found here on the Texas Watchdog site: They were submitted by Edminster, Hinshaw, Russ and Associates; Miller & Van Eaton; and Oscar R. Aguirre/Richard Fields (Aguirre & Fields).


Clutterbuck said she doesn't believe that council members were trying to evade any reporting requirements. She explained that it's more likely that historically, the city has relied on paper documents, rather than electronic documents, so it's not surprising that City Hall might have been slow to move on this.


Still, Clutterbuck said that it's no excuse. "We need to comply with the law, and do it in a timely fashion."


Darrin Hall, deputy director for the mayor’s Office for Government Affairs, said he “wouldn’t defend” the lack of online forms.


Woolley said the legislation was aimed not at punishing officials but at opening up government. A violation of the law is a class C misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine.


But after learning about Houston's delay in posting the ethics documents, Woolley said she would consider tweaking the law during the 2009 legislative session to make the requirements easier to enforce.


Texas Watchdog intern Crystal Hubbard co-reported this story.

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