In Texas, County Commissioners Are Free to Harvest Contractor Cash

Loose campaign finance laws permit politicians in Harris County to hide relationships between top campaign donors and the contracting firms paid with public funds.

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All four of Harris County’s commissioners live high on the hog thanks to campaign cash contributed mostly from employees and leaders of companies that hold no-bid professional contracts to do lucrative work in—you guessed it—Harris County. 

A Houston Chronicle investigation, “Pay to Play,” found Harris County commissioners got 79 percent of their campaign cash from donors who received 93 percent of no-bid infrastructure contracts in 2020 to 2021, a process overseen by those very same commissioners. Collectively, that class of contractor donors contributed $5.9 million while four commissioners—two Democrats and two Republicans—gave their firms $310 million worth of work.

Commissioners, of course, have denied that donors’ campaign cash plays a role in those decisions. But Andrew Wheat, research director for corruption watchdog Texans for Public Justice told the Chronicle. “If that’s not a pay-to-play system, what is? Then the term has no meaning at all.” 

Problems with cronyism go back much farther in Harris County. In 2003, a nonprofit called Campaigns for People found the same overreliance on contractor cash in both Harris County and Houston city campaigns. “The Same Pattern, no progress,” said attorney Fred Lewis, who worked on a report called “Pay to Play in Harris County: Campaign Contributions and Discretionary Contract Awards.” 

Without more disclosure requirements for local campaigns, Texas has left the door wide open for contractors in Harris County—or anywhere else—to contribute as much as they want to Texas politicians who run some of the nations’ largest counties and cities, experts say. That, in turn, can allow inappropriate relationships and expectations to form between contractors and elected officials that can contribute to cronyism, unwise decisions with public funds—and other forms of corruption. As Wheat told the Observer, the huge percentage of the total money raised by Harris County commissioners that was tied to government contractors “really blew my mind.” But the same thing happens elsewhere in Texas.

We analyzed contribs to Austin City Council candidates recently (they’re subject to strict campaign contribution limits). In Austin, the dominant contributor industries, not surprisingly, are real estate developers and construction. The local media did not want to talk about those findings,” Wheat said.

Across Texas, leaders of some large cities, including Austin, have chosen to require officeholders and candidates to provide information on campaign donors’ occupations and employers. Some cities, including Houston, even post contribution databases on the internet. Many cities have adopted contribution limits. But state law would have to change to tighten up rules for counties.

Just to quantify the size of Harris County’s “Pay to Play” system in 2022, Reporter Zach Despart spent more than a year analyzing data from commissioners’ campaign contribution forms.  Since commissioners’ forms do not disclose the donor’s occupation or employer;  each donor’s affiliation had to be verified with additional research. It was a huge job: Harris County encompasses a large swath of the Houston megalopolis and has an estimated population of 4.7 million, larger than the population of at least 24 U.S. states.

The massive amount of data work behind the analysis reveals a deeper problem: Texas law doesn’t require any city council members or county commissioners to supply donors’ occupations or employers on campaign finance reports. Nor are their campaign finance reports available in any central archive.

Campaign contributions are unlimited for most state and local races in Texas. But legislators, the governor, and other officeholders or candidates for legislative and statewide executive positions must disclose more donor information in reports filed to the Texas Ethics Commission. Under state law, such politicos are required to “disclose an individual contributor’s principal occupation or job title and the full name of the contributor’s employer if, during the reporting period, the filer has accepted contributions aggregating $940 from the individual.”  An even stricter requirement applies to most judicial candidates.

The rules, though, are often unenforced. “The TEC rules require candidates/officeholders to make “best efforts” to ID employer/occupation of donors,” Wheat said in an email. “It is not unusual in TEC filings to see those fields typed in with those magic words: ‘Best Efforts.’ ” In other words, lots of politicians don’t comply.

In Harris County, some contractors contributed more than $10,000 to a commissioner. Yet none of the four Harris County commissioners bothered to voluntarily disclose contributors’ employers or occupations in the name of accountability, nor have they moved to collectively provide the public with a Harris County campaign database. Instead, Democrat and Republican commissioners alike defend their practice of taking money from people who stand to financially benefit most from their sway over professional contracts. They also defend the county’s unusual professional contract reviews, which unlike those in many other counties, give the four elected commissioners significant input.

Under Texas campaign finance law, commissioners can spend campaign money mostly as they wish. Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle used some to buy knives for constituents to chip ice during last year’s freeze; Democratic Commissioner Rodney Ellis used campaign funds to pay for art for his district and for overseas travel. All four have accumulated huge war chests to discourage potential challengers. 

There is one notable champion for disclosure on Harris County Commissioners Court: Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the elected official who presides over the ruling body of five. Early on, Judge Hidalgo announced that she would refuse contractor donations to avoid any potential conflict of interest. Hidalgo made her decision public, but no one else on the commissioners court followed that example. (Despart found that she’d let only three contributions worth $400 dollars slip by; Hidalgo promptly promised to return them.) 

In a blog post titled “Judge Lina Hidalgo Stands Alone,” Andrea Greer, a Houston-based writer known as the “Nonsequiteuse,” wrote that Hidalgo deserves credit for trying to challenge a system that “creates the heavy, stinky odor of undue influence,” especially since her stand will make it harder for her to win re-election. 

“Judge Hidalgo deserves more credit than she gets for her refusal to accept money from county vendors, because in a campaign that may well be decided by attack mailers and negative social media campaigns, her fundraising policy makes it much harder for her to bring her values to the voters,” she wrote

Lewis, the Austin-based attorney and government watchdog, points out the same problem plays out in multiple arenas, but increased disclosure and stronger limits can help clean things up. 

“Others have greatly restricted pay to play with contractors,” he wrote in an email. “The best example is the SEC (US Security and Exchange Commission) with its restrictions on municipal bond underwriters. The SEC banned them from getting an underwriting contract from a city if they or their agents gave more than $250 to elected officials. It worked! They stopped giving; they preferred the contracts.”