Hall alleges corruption

The Houston Chronicle reports on the Ben Hall campaign’s recent allegations of corruption at City Hall. Perhaps this is what he was referring to when speaking broadly, in innuendo, of Parker’s “multiple ethics violations.” Hall’s campaign sent me a press release outlining what his plan would be, in regard to solving the evident crisis of corruption. I have to give him some credit for outlining an actual problem –more later on if the problem actually pertains to the Mayor, however– and having some specific, concrete solutions to the problem. As Hall delineates in his press release, his 10-point plan on corruption:

  1. Two-year moratorium on accepting campaign contributions after vendors receive city contracts.

  2. Two-year moratorium on accepting campaign contributions from municipal appointees.

  3. A candidate may not accept any contributions over $250.00 from an officer, director, or employee of a city contractor.

  4. When a contract is awarded or a person appointed, all campaign contributions given by that individual and/or company during the previous municipal election cycle must be disclosed immediately.

  5. Two-year moratorium on any city employees registering as lobbyists or working for a lobbying firm. 

  6. Requiring lobbyists to file reports and creation of a searchable online database showing information (i.e. names of companies they lobby for, amount paid, amount spent, amount spent on contributions, etc.)

  7. No gifts will be accepted by the Mayor within the six months preceding an election.

  8. Create a searchable online database of city contracts awarded by all departments.

  9. Create a searchable online city check register.

  10. Increased accountability through improving search capability for ethics reports.

Some of the points are not as specific as they should be, but it is a start. Point No. 6, which essentially requires lobbyists to file the equivalent of a campaign finance report, seems somewhat arduous and excessive. As does Point No. 7, which is greatly arbitrary. That being said, I really do like a lot of his ideas on moratoriums, specifically Point No. 5, which has been pushed for most prominently at the national level. The phenomenon is typically referred to as the “Revolving Door problem,” and is an issue in any place of government, be that Washington, Austin or Houston.

Hall’s campaign ideas on this subject are chock full of interesting ideas, but that leaves one question conveniently unanswered. How does this pertain to the incumbent? My basic, underlying philosophy on elections featuring an incumbent is that the challengers must convince the electorate that the incumbent has failed. It seems that Hall largely agrees with this premise

A lengthy report was also published by the Hall campaign, noting all of Parker’s major campaign donations featuring city contractors. The report, which is about 13 pages long full of names, features two possible ethics violations. The analysis by Mike Morris at the Chronicle also was somewhat indecisive, bordering on dubious, vis-a-vis these allegations. I tend to agree with him.

Morris then interviewed Dave Feldman, the City Attorney. He noted that many of the contracts that Hall lambasts, those involving $50k or more in expenses, are the City Council’s job to approve, rather than the Executive Branch’s. On the greater issue, Feldman criticized the assertions as “absurd.”

While I certainly do not believe that the Mayor acted in bad faith in regard to campaign finance issues, I was somewhat surprised and perplexed to see how the Parker campaign responded to the issue. Rather than fully deny any wrongdoing on Parker’s part (again, not alleging they are hiding anything), the Mayor’s campaign simply responded by casting an aversion of their own. The Mayor’s spokesperson, Sue Davis, simply deflected the subject to Hall’s past allegations of impropriety, his tax liens and his tax returns. While those are all valid topics of discussion, they were not the issue at hand, but I digress.

Ben Hall would be wise to knock off his ridiculous claims of Parker being some sort of corrupt politician. And Annise Parker would be wise to not stoop to that low level by not responding with mudslinging, simply addressing the issue and moving on. The campaign really needs to be talking about substance, and this is where the points Hall alleges come into play.

I would like to know, without any sensationalism, without any editorializing, what Parker’s campaign thinks of these issues. To be such a proponent of campaign finance reform and strict regulations seems more systemic of the actual Ben Hall, the Democrat, rather than the faux, Republican-friendly one. I am curious to also know what Hall’s Republican supports think of this idea. As a Democrat, I have historically supported ideas such as closing the revolving door. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to now oppose those beliefs because of which candidate is attached to them. I hope my colleagues may see it that way as well.

 

 

‘Phony Scandal’ picked up by Chronicle

Ok, perhaps I should stop calling it that.

Mike Morris at the Houston Chronicle wrote the cover story this morning about the Mayor’s allegedly unethical pay raises given to senior staffers in her first few years of office. As the astute will recall, KRIV had been drumming up this issue about three weeks ago, as I noted on three occasions.

The KRIV story alleged that these pay hikes occurred between 2009 and 2011. Of course, Annise Parker did not become Mayor until January 2010. I attempted to bring this to the attention of KRIV, thinking they may have made an honest mistake, but was rebuffed as they doubled down on the story. At that point, I dismissed the “phony scandal” as being untrue, because if the only two years compared were 2009 and 2011, it is comparison of salaries in the City Controller’s office and Mayor’s office, respectively.

However, Morris’ articles notes this, as the Chronicle does the due diligence required, and notes the differences between 2010 and the present. Raises still occurred, but they were far less severe than KRIV had insinuated.

For example, KRIV alleges that Parker’s Communications Director received a 68% raise, while the Chronicle places the number at 31%. Similarly, KRIV alleges a whopping 147% raise for Parker’s Finance Director, while Morris thinks 29% is a more accurate salary bump.

In fact, besides Waynette Chan, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, who both KRIV and the Chronicle place the alleged pay hike at 46% for, the Chronicle notes that most of these hikes were not all that extravagant, especially for senior staff.

Further, Morris goes on to note how, as Houston left the recession, most City workers received modest, but noteworthy, pay raises. It is also worth noting that the furloughs have long since ended, and that many –if not most– of the laid off workers have been rehired by the City. As Morris goes on:

City payroll data show that during Parker’s tenure, 22,357 city workers got at least one contractual raise. Those raises averaged 5 percent, with the amounts varying between the municipal, fire and police unions. For the 12,993 employees who also received a salary adjustment, promotion or merit raise – or some combination of those – the average overall raise was 11 percent.

Morris then goes on to note that both Ben Hall and the Firefighter’s Union, both with a vested interest to take down Parker by any means necessary, harshly criticized the Mayor for this issue. However, as the Chronicle continued in its pattern of due diligence for the day, Morris talks to all the other stakeholders in the matter, including the HPD Union, HOPE, the local AFL-CIO, as well as both prominent Democratic and Republican consultants:

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, which has endorsed Parker, said the mayor’s staff salaries give him no heartburn.

“Anybody who got laid off during that year, I’m sure they’re very, very upset about it, and understandably so, but when you have a downturn in the economy and you’re trying to turn things around, you better keep your key people in those positions and you’re going to have to compensate them what you believe they’re worth,” Hunt said. “I personally am not concerned about the salaries of the top administrators in the city of Houston. I don’t think any of them are out of line with the private sector.”

Melvin Hughes, head of the municipal employees union, declined comment.

Richard Shaw, of the Harris County AFL-CIO, said the raises do not disturb him because the mayor now negotiates pay agreements with all three unions.

“As far as I’m concerned, she bargains in good faith with all employee groups and, from a labor standpoint, that’s what we ask for,” Shaw said. “The firefighters need to quit whining. They didn’t take any hits on layoffs. They negotiated that pay agreement with the mayor.”

GOP communications consultant Jim McGrath said the issue will be little more than water-cooler fodder at City Hall unless Hall can show a pattern of such decisions.

“Taxpayers and voters care about their well-being and their future and if the mayor has failed in some regard as it relates to that, that’s something you can get traction with,” McGrath said. “This inside baseball stuff will not fundamentally alter the dynamics of a race that isn’t looking good for Mr. Hall at present.”

Democratic political consultant Mustafa Tameez agreed: “This is not going to be seen well by the public, but something like this doesn’t make or break the election.”

As far as I’m concerned, I agree with them. I worked at City Hall amid all of the layoffs and the furloughs, and probably would be legitimately angered if the Mayor was indeed awarding these extravagant raises, but she wasn’t.

The average City Employee took in about an 11% raise. Of the 11 members of Parker’s ‘senior staff’ mentioned by Morris, five receive pay hikes over 11%, while six receive hikes equal or below 11%. There really isn’t a scandal here, and Morris & the Chronicle did a really good job at explaining why–right down to the headline.

Now that a reputable source has repudiated KRIV’s story, I wonder what Greg Groogan’s –the “journalist” who published this nonsense at KRIV to begin with– next move will be. I wonder if he’ll keep doubling down on it.

Gathering steam?

This has the headline of yesterday’s Houston Chronicle was. However, the article by Mike Morris on Ben Hall’s mayoral candidacy did not especially convince me of any significant develops for the better in his campaign.  Morris interviewed both Democratic and Republican who painted rosy pictures for the Hall campaign that may have been taken out of context by some readers of the article. For example, Democratic consultant Mustafa Tameez explained:

“Let’s say Ben Hall comes out and he raises $2.2 million and he only puts in $200,000 of his own seed money,” Tameez said. “Then Parker’s more likely to have multiple debates with him because he has substantial support and she wants to clarify her positions. All challengers want to take it to the incumbent and point out one of the 10 things that are wrong with the city at no expense to themselves, and no incumbent would ever allow that.”

Morris did note in the preceding paragraph that this was about as far from the case as possible from the truth, as reflected in Hall’s most recent campaign finance report. However, I do fear that anyone who simply looked at the headline and skimmed the article with chunks like that could have gotten the wrong impression. Additionally, the article talks about Hall’s housecleaning of the old operatives, and their replacement with new Republican consultants.

This should be noteworthy, but I could would have not ascribed the word “gathering steam” to it. First, the housecleaning reeks of Farouk Shami. It is not the mark of a healthy campaign. Second, this represents a troubling departure for Hall politically. He is obviously not a Republican, and anyone who listens to him is made aware of that fact somewhat quickly. However, Hall, for some reason, still appears to be pretending to be a Republican. As I have demonstrated before, going out of your way to attract the far-right may have some profound effects.

Hall’s campaign has been dominated by three things thus far, only one of which has made it into mainstream press: Not paying his taxes, Bizarre Facebook posts and Neo-Nazis making comments on said posts.

Off the Kuff & Greg’s Opinion have more. From my experience in writing for a newspaper, I rarely have been able to select  my own headline. Accordingly, it would make sense that Morris writes such a neutral article on the issues at hand, and his superior editorializes it in a sensationalist headline. For the life of me, I can’t tell if he’s “gathered steam” or just “full of hot air.”