Hidalgo to refuse donations from Harris County contractors
New Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has announced that she will refuse political donations from county contractors, a stark departure from the past in which firms seeking business from the county showered Commissioners Court candidates and incumbents with cash.
“I’m looking at transparency at everything we do,” Hidalgo said, adding she does not want her administration to have “even the appearance of a conflict of interest.”
Hidalgo, who campaigned on making county government more open to the public, said she will ask donors to certify they do not have a contract with the county and will not seek one within the fiscal year. Harris County hires numerous outside firms to complete many functions, including engineering, road construction, mowing and pursuing collections from toll road violators.
Republican Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle and Precinct 2 Democrat Adrian Garcia, both of whom were elected in November, said Thursday that they would make no changes to their fundraising strategies.
Democrat Rodney Ellis in Precinct 1 and Republican Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack did not respond to requests for comment.
Hidalgo said she does not expect commissioners to follow her example. However, by justifying her decision to bar contractors to avoid even a whiff of impropriety, Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said she puts pressure on her colleagues to follow suit.
“It’s an audacious move by Judge Hidalgo,” Jones said. “She’s indirectly highlighting the unseemly underbelly of Harris County and Houston politics, where construction firms and people who do business with the city and county give copious amounts of money, especially to incumbents.”
Jones praised the move, and said it allows Hidalgo to immediately set herself apart from the cronyism that has dismayed voters.
Residents long have criticized what they view was a too-cozy relationship between commissioners and construction professionals, given Commissioners Court’s significant role in building new infrastructure in the fast-growing county.
Harris County awards hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of contracts annually, and each precinct is responsible for maintaining extensive networks of roads and bridges. With the passage of a flood infrastructure bond this past August, the flood control district will hire firms to complete more than $2.5 billion in projects over the next decade to 15 years.
Garcia and Cagle, the two commissioners elected in November, each received contributions from Harris County businesses, including construction and engineering firms. Garcia accepted more than $62,225 from 25 firms between Jan. 15 and the end of October. These contributions accounted for 9 percent of his monetary donations during this period. Of the firms easily identifiable as engineering companies, none appeared in the county auditor’s vendor database.
Garcia, through a spokeswoman, said he is committed to the “highest ethical standards” for Precinct 2. He added that accepting donations from businesses is legal.
“At this time, we are following the current county policies, but one of my tasks as commissioner is to research best practices and learn what’s working in other counties across the country,” Garcia said.
Cagle’s campaign accepted $196,200 from firms during the same timeframe, which accounted for 24 percent of his total haul. Each of the 11 engineering, construction or consulting firms that contributed at least $10,000 to Cagle’s campaign did business with Harris County in the past year, according to the county database. Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, the law firm that pursues delinquent taxpayers on behalf of Harris County, gave Cagle $10,000.
Houston Democratic consultant Keir Murray said taking a stand on ethics is a wise way for Hidalgo to introduce herself to many county residents.
“It speaks to good government and smart politics,” Murray said.
Murray said he is unsure how much Hidalgo’s pledge will influence how contracts are awarded, as the county judge has little individual power and a smaller budget than the four commissioners.
Hidalgo did not receive donations from county contractors during her run for office last year. She did, however, benefit from national interest in her campaign that is unusual for a local race. From January 15 through the end of October, 43 percent of the $343,000 in monetary donations to the Hidalgo campaign came from outside Texas. Some of her largest donors were actors Hidalgo met at a Los Angeles fundraiser in May.
The county executive said the support of outside groups, especially as a first-time candidate, was crucial to her victory. She declined to commit to accepting less out-of-state cash, but said the percentage of local contributions likely would increase as she becomes better known in the county.