Houston mayoral candidates both propose end to "pay for play" contracts

ByKeaton Fox KTRK logo
Tuesday, January 15, 2019
Houston mayoral candidates both propose end to "pay for play" contracts
Houston mayoral candidates both propose end to "pay for play" contracts

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- With a sign on his left that read "Clean up City Hall" and one on his right that read "end pay to play" mayoral candidate and businessman Bill King described conversations he says he had with politicians who wanted a campaign contribution.

"I got, many times, a call from an elected official who would say, Bill, y'alls company is doing a great job for us. I see your contract is coming up for renewal and we would really look forward to supporting you. And you know, you're just fabulous,'" King said. "'Oh, by the way, I've got a birthday party coming up and would you mind stopping by? I'd love to see you and say hello and celebrate my birthday with you. And oh, by the way, if you could bring a little bit to help out with a campaign contribution, that'd be great.' Well, if you're somebody running a business, what are you going to say?"

King's proposal: end the perceived practice of contractors who give political contributions in exchange for city contracts.

He intends to seek the 40,000 voter signatures to push his proposal to a vote of the people through the city's citizen initiative process.

King came prepared for criticism that his firms have given to politicians in the past. He says it's true: his firm did give, but many times he says it felt like he had no choice if he wanted to keep getting jobs.

"A lot of times it feels a little bit like extortion," King said. "I know a lot of other people who do business at city hall that feel the same way."

His announcement comes a day after flashy Houston attorney and mayoral candidate Tony Buzbee took out a full-page ad in the Houston Chronicle detailing his proposal to end pay for play.

The two proposals are similar. Both plans would require signatures from tens of thousands of voters. Both plans deal directly with contractors who give to politicians at city hall. Both specifically target Turner's administration for a deal where his former law partner got nealy $7 million for legal services.

Both say the practice is rampant at city hall.

Buzbee's plan would disqualify a contractor from any work for a year if they contribute to a public official. King's cap is $250.

Given the similarity of the proposals and the common competitor in Turner, would they work together on the issue?

"I welcome him into this fight over this issue," King said. "I think it's an advantage to anybody gets running to be associated with it."

"For me," Buzbee said, "Anybody who's been involved in the whole pay-to-play their entire career, whether it be Turner or whoever doesn't have a lot of credibility on the issue."

Buzbee's campaign will be entirely self-funded and he's never done business with the city, he said. Buzbee has raised money for a cavalcade of candidates and donated to candidates across the specturm, records show.

A spokesperson for Turner's re-election campaign ignored questions about the contract that went to the mayor's former law partner, instead sending a statement saying the city already has rules on the books for conflicts of interest.

"The city has long-established rules that govern potential conflicts of interest regarding campaign contributions, including a black-out period and prohibitions on the members of certain boards and commissions," the statement read. "As with all city policies, we continually evaluate these rules to ensure they are meeting the city's needs. The city will always entertain ideas and proposals from anyone, especially if they're not trying to score political points."

Even newly-elected Harris County judge Lina Hidalgo is singing the campaign finance reform tune. Last week, she announced she will refuse to accept donations from individuals or companies who currently do business with the county or who will seek to do so. Her office said she'll require a signed statement saying that donors will not attempt to get a contract within the fiscal year.

"Government transparency and accountability are essential to building trust between elected officials and the residents we were elected to serve," Hidalgo said in her statement. "We can never forget that public service is a public trust."

Why wouldn't Turner agree to something similar?

That question went ignored as well.

Turner won his seat in 2015 by just over 4,000 votes over King.

Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Turner won by 500 votes. That number only included Harris and Montgomery counties.

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