Where are Harris County's ethics watchdogs?

February 14, 2012 3:44:49 AM PST
The county attorney's office is under increasing fire amidst widening corruption scandals. They are the people you pay to watchdog ethics in our town, but are they? We ask the tough questions.

A commissioner convicted, constables under investigation -- even the DA is under fire. So you may be asking at home, where's the county's ethics watchdog? Good question.

Maybe it was all a dream. June 2009, we thought ethics reform had come to Harris County.

"It's a great step, and I think today is a good day for Harris County," former Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said.

But the new day didn't last long.

"They are promised ethics and we get the complete opposite in Harris County," Texas Watchdog Editor Trent Siebert said.

The new law had created the first-ever county ethics review committee.

"The League of Women Voters studied ethics at the local level and discovered there wasn't any in Harris County," a spokeswoman from the group said.

Guess how many times that ethics committee actually met? If you said zero, you're wrong. Let's give them a little credit.

"I think they met one time," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

Well maybe twice, but that was late 2009, more than two years ago.

Gosh, there's no place like home.

"It's the same old story, it's all talk and no action. Taxpayers should be infuriated," Siebert said.

They did make an ethics video so county employees could learn the obvious. But no one is required to watch it, so maybe you're seeing a premiere.

So who pulled the plug on the ethics panel?

Other county officials tell us it was based on the advice of Terry O'Rourke, the assistant county attorney who sure likes to talk tough about ethics.

"The lesson is simple. If you see wrongdoing at the front end, you act on it instead of covering it up," he has told 13 Undercover.

O'Rourke was the man in charge of deciding if the county should try to remove former Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole after his federal indictment.

But O'Rourke came under fire himself for sending this letter to the federal judge, recommending leniency for Eversole after he was convicted for lying to the FBI about gifts from a county contractor.

"The problem is there seems to be a cozy relationship between the people that are investigating and the people being investigated," KTRK legal analyst Joel Androphy said.

In the letter, O'Rourke says he had the "duty to review," "evaluate" and "investigate" all the criminal charges brought by the government.

"This suggests there was a detailed investigation. Where is it?" Androphy said.

Well Mr. O'Rourke, we've now looked at the records, and now your representations to the federal judge are, at the very least, suspect.

Take the controversial real estate deals at the very heart of the federal investigation. Here's your letter...

"I found the county procedures had been followed and there was no evidence of undue or improper outside influence on the decision makers."

One problem, there's absolutely no written evidence in the county records you ever interviewed anyone involved in the deals. Despite complaints from competitors, the deck was clearly stacked for Michael Surface and his friends.

"I complained to every single official in town," competing bidder Eli Sasson said.

O'Rourke talks about the "factual conclusion" he made that Jerry Eversole and Mike Surface had many significant contacts completely independent of his position.

But based on what again? There's no written evidence in county records that your office ever talked to Surface or Commissioner Eversole -- or anyone else -- even though the feds exposed huge gifts from Surface to Eversole for his house in The Heights.

So how did O'Rourke conclude this?

"Mike Surface's efforts to help his friend Jerry fix up his new house to make it nice for his cancer-afflicted wife, Pat, was the sincere act of a loving friend," O'Rourke wrote.

Maybe it was, but if O'Rourke never questioned either man, how would he know?

"What this shows is that Terry O'Rourke never should have been involved in the investigation of Jerry Eversole," Androphy said.

"At the minimum, he violated county ethics policies. How do you get someone from the county attorney's office defending this?" Siebert said.

The county attorney refused to sit down with us and answer our questions, but surprise, surprise, hours before our story aired, the watchdog may have woken up. See his letter to commissioners.