Houston considers toughening ethical rules

HOUSTON Mayor Annise Parker and City Council Member Mike Sullivan have wanted tougher new ethics rules for a while -- even before word came that the Harris County District Attorney's Office was investigating City Council Member Jarvis Johnson for alleged misconduct.

"In my view of the world, that's what ethics is -- it's a common, sensical moral compass," Houston City Attorney David Feldman said.

But we've learned in government the compass sometimes needs to be in writing; that's why Feldman looked across the country for help in toughening Houston's ethics rules.

"We figured if there was any municipality in America we'd might want to take a look at their code of ethics, it would be Chicago -- and we did, and ours is better," he said.

But as Feldman laid out the proposed new rules, there was a sign of the chilly wind outside in the City Hall council chambers.

"You're talking about making that a criminal offense?" Houston City Council Member Oliver Pennington asked Feldman during Thursday's City Council meeting.

"It's a violation of standard conduct, yes," Feldman replied.

"That's BS," Pennington responded.

Some council members say they need help making sure they knew who prospective contractors are; they're worried about what they could accept.

"Can we ever allow one of our peers to buy us lunch?" Pennington asked Feldman. "Can we interact with our fellows like that, or do we need on kind of a permanent basis to buy our own lunch?"

"Somebody taking you lunch -- assuming that there's not a diamond ring included -- is not, in my view, going to meet the test," Feldman replied.

The proposed new rules will help you keep better track of who's lobbying the city and prevent council members from exerting improper influence on city departments.

Many of the new provisions would address ethical questions raised in our 13 Undercover investigation of Councilman Jarvis Johnson.

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