Ethics reform plan unveiled for Harris County

October 21, 2008 4:02:29 PM PDT
In the Harris County judges race, ethics has become one of the biggest topics after several groundbreaking 13 Undercover investigations. Nearly a year ago, 13 Undercover investigated allegations of corruption against County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, including gifts being received from county contractors and misused campaign funds.

And then there was the investigation into Sheriff Tommy Thomas and the department's secret squad used to spy on two brothers who had sued the department over civil rights violations, now part of an internal investigation and a federal lawsuit.

And just last week, 13 Undercover reports questioned the relationship between county Attorney Mike Stafford and one of his employees, exposed a toll road fund that's being used to pay for parties and the use of campaign funds.

With public trust on the line, county leaders are pushing for changes.

Remember those controversial county emails unearthed by 13 Undercover and the resignation of District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal. Both are among some of the reasons Harris County Commissioners Court has been pressured to form a comprehensive ethics reform plan.

And on Tuesday, months after setting up an ethics task force, the county judge presented a series of ideas.

"Prior to what we had with my task force making a recommendation," said County Judge Ed Emmett. "Now you have the commissioners court acting as a body to move this process forward. And that's important."

Among the ideas:

  • Requiring lobbyists to register
  • Prohibit use of county email for non-county business
  • Ban private work on county time
  • Maintain an electronic, searchable campaign database

    But none of the suggestions will be implemented soon. That's because commissioners made a motion to have the county attorney study the entire proposal first. It's a move that frustrated Commissioner Sylvia Garcia.

    "I think if people were serious, there would be specific proposals put on right after they put this task force together," she said. "Because I think there are some things that we can do voluntarily."

    Garcia says the controversy over the various emails sent by Sheriff Thomas and Rosenthal have damaged the county's reputation among residents. In commissioners' court Tuesday, she told Emmett she would like to restore confidence in the county by tackling campaign finance reform.

    "Your task force didn't touch any of that," Garcia said to Emmett.

    Emmett disagrees, saying he's committed to ethics reform, but the county must act with the state and he isn't dragging his feet.

    "The court has had a chance to look at it and they've looked at it and that's the action they've taken," he said. "And frankly, we've been a little bit busy."

    Emmett was referring to the county's recovery efforts after Hurricane Ike. But he says the ethics reform won't die in the county attorney's office and that the state legislature will look into it as early as next January.

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