Houston’s revenue cap was the topic of the second question posed during an Aug. 29 mayoral forum near Rice University. In his response, candidate Gilbert Garcia managed to introduce an issue that has hovered over city government for decades.

“The housing director said it was a culture of corruption at City Hall,” said Garcia, an investment manager and former Metro board chairman. “It was in the paper … he was fired the next day. The housing department was being investigated by the DA. The health department, where the COVID money came through, was raided by the FBI. These things are not normal.”

In addition to the incidents Garcia mentioned, a top mayoral aide pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges in August 2022.

Corruption in city government, real or perceived, was a powerful theme in the 2019 mayor’s race. Four years later, for most of the 18 men and women seeking to lead the nation’s fourth-largest city, it has been, at best, a second-tier topic, grabbing less attention than public safety, road conditions and transportation.

Absent from this year’s campaign are such entertainments as 2019 candidate Tony Buzbee’s ad featuring men with pigs’ ears and snouts portraying campaign donors strolling into the mayor’s office – “pigs fighting for a place at the trough” of lucrative city contracts. On another occasion, Buzbee brought a wheelbarrow loaded with horse manure to a news conference, declaring “something stinks at City Hall.”

More substantively, Buzbee and another 2019 mayoral candidate, Bill King, launched petition drives aimed at temporarily blocking campaign donors from doing business with the city

Houston currently has a law, which is not always followed, barring city vendors from donating to any candidate within 30 days of a contract award.

The message did not propel either candidate to victory; Buzbee lost in a runoff with incumbent Sylvester Turner, who cannot run again this year because of term limits. Buzbee is running for a City Council seat this year.

Garcia, seeking elected office for the first time, promises on his campaign website to “root out corruption, cronyism and incompetency from City Hall” and to immediately order audits of the housing and health departments. It is part of his “pledge to Houston,” inscribed on a large poster board that he brings to campaign events and invites attendees to sign. 

During the Aug. 29 forum – featuring Garcia, City Councilman Robert Gallegos, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and attorney Lee Kaplan – only Kaplan picked up on Garcia’s references to ethical lapses in city government. He was dismissive.

“I don’t believe there’s a ton of corruption at City Hall,” Kaplan said. “I think audits are not particularly useful. If there were tons of fraud throughout the city, we would know it because we have aggressive prosecutors.”

King, a lawyer and former Kemah mayor who challenged Turner in two mayoral campaigns but is not on the ballot this year, said his petition drive quickly fizzled, mainly because “we could never find anybody who could put up the money to do it. We ended up collecting 2,000 or 3,000 signatures. I wish some philanthropist would take it on and finance it; it’s something that we need.”

King said he is baffled by the limited interest in the topic.

“Campaign finance reform just doesn’t seem to have any traction in Texas on any level, and I don’t understand why not,” King said. “If you look at the contributions, probably 90 percent are from somebody that has a financial interest in what happens down at the city – vendors, concessionaires.”

Garcia has contributed to numerous candidates and causes, including some municipal campaigns, but said his investment firm has not sought business with the city of Houston since he became its leader in 2008.

Despite his emphasis on ethics and transparency, Garcia expressed uncertainty about a law blocking or limiting city contracts to donors.

“The only caveat is, how do you enforce it?” Garcia said. “I would look at it, but I think there’s a grander issue. Everybody should have the right to support whom they choose to support. I would look at the entire procurement process and look to revamp it.”

Longtime issue

Concern that campaign donors exercise undue influence in Houston goes back decades.

Early in her first term, Kathy Whitmire, who served as mayor from 1982 to 1992 in the pre-term limits era, pledged to end the “horrible political system” that sent a disproportionate share of city contracts to firms whose executives or employees were major donors. She made changes to the city’s procurement procedures to try to fix the problem, but King and other critics say the “pay to play” culture persists more than 30 years after she left office.

Whitmire, the sister-in-law of state Sen. John Whitmire, a front-runner in this year’s mayor’s race, did not reply to an email seeking comment.

The Houston Chronicle reported in 2019 that Turner had raised $4.3 million from companies or employees of companies that conducted business with the city during his administration, amounting to 41 percent of the total he raised in his two mayoral campaigns. Turner denied any improprieties, saying he had campaigned under the same rules as his predecessors.

The same concerns have arisen in Harris County government.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who was elected to a second term last November, has taken the unprecedented step of refusing or refunding contributions from county vendors.

Her colleagues on Commissioners Court have not followed suit; a 2022 Chronicle investigation found that from 2020 through 2021, commissioners relied on county vendors for 79 percent of their campaign contributions while steering 93 percent of engineering, architecture, surveying and appraisal work to firms that donated.

Still, issues such as cronyism and pay-to-play are drawing relatively little attention in the mayor’s race so far.

Charles Blain, president of Urban Reform, a Houston-based conservative think tank, said he has watched most of the candidate forums in person or online, and references to ethical issues have been “very few and far between.”

Asked if voters have become jaded, Blain replied, “I do think some people really do fall into that category. They’ve seen a lot of scandals and are turned off to it. It’s such an important issue – that interest fades, but I wish it wouldn’t.” Blain elaborated on the issue in a recent Chronicle opinion essay. 

Turner, the incumbent, is not on the ballot this year, making it less useful for candidates to focus on scandals or investigations that occurred during his eight years in office. 

Ethics reform

The two front-runners in the race, Whitmire and Jackson Lee, both have long records in elected office – Jackson Lee is in her 14th term representing the Houston-based 18th congressional district in the U.S. House, while Whitmire has served in the Texas Legislature for 50 years.

Kaplan has derided them as “career politicians” in an ad, and he has noted on social media that Whitmire shares campaign donors with “disgraced” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was acquitted by the state Senate of 16 articles of impeachment brought by the House of Representatives last month.

Whitmire, in an interview with the Houston Landing, said he has strong concerns about ethics and transparency and raises the topic often on the campaign trail.

“I think we need a complete revision of city ethics,” Whitmire said, starting with a ban on vendors serving on city-appointed boards and commissions. “I think that a large degree of the public has lost confidence in City Hall because they think there’s conflicts of interest. I hear about it as I cross the city and I have personal concerns. Procurement needs to be completely reformed.”

He said restrictions on donors getting city business are appropriate, but has not decided on details, such as the appropriate time span between a donation and a contract.

Whitmire’s own ethics have been the focus of scrutiny. A 2013 Texas Tribune article noted the state senator “has his own law practice and has been known to represent – on retainer or as a consultant – government contractors, taxpayer-supported agencies and close friends who do business with public entities.”

Whitmire has been “of counsel” for 25 years to the Houston law firm Locke Lord, which the Tribune article reported “has many clients with interests before the Legislature, including some that have benefited from legislation he has sponsored or helped pass.”

Whitmire said if he is elected mayor, he would not practice law and would sever his ties with Locke Lord. 

“I’ll be a full-time mayor,” he said.

Representatives of Jackson Lee’s campaign did not make her available for an interview.

Mayoral candidate Jack Christie, a physician and former Houston City Council member, said the key to keeping City Hall clean was for the mayor to hire honest people and make expectations clear.

“You hire right, and you make a statement like this: If you ever lie, steal or cheat the taxpayers of the city of Houston, you’ll be fired the next day,” he said.

Another former council member running for mayor, M.J. Khan, also has pointed to the need for ethics reform at City Hall. In an interview with the Chronicle editorial board, he pointed to “undue influence of pay-to-play contractors and lobbyists and special interest groups” as a factor in the city’s problems with crime, infrastructure and other issues.

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Mike Snyder is a Houston-based journalist who worked for 40 years as a reporter, editor and columnist at the Houston Chronicle. He can be reached at snyderm599@gmail.com.