King, Buzbee take aim at Turner over billboards, spending
Mayor Sylvester Turner came under fire Tuesday from his two main re-election challengers, Bill King and Tony Buzbee, who leveled separate ethics-related allegations against him.
First, King convened a mid-morning news conference to show off a $2.8 million cost estimate his campaign received from the city legal department earlier this month to fulfill a Texas Public Information Act request for details about city contracts and payments that do not require the approval of city council. King claims Turner has authorized nearly $400 million in spending without the approval of council since taking office in 2016.
He called the proposed bill for the open records request, which also seeks copies of correspondence between city officials in regard to the spending, “a desperate attempt to conceal what is in those contracts.”
A Turner spokesperson said officials followed state law in estimating how much it would cost the city to provide copies of the more than 533,000 purchase orders involved in King’s request.
Under state law, contracts and purchases that cost less than $50,000 do not require council approval.
Hours later, Buzbee announced he intends to sue Turner over recently-installed billboards the challenger says run afoul of campaign finance laws. Billboards for the AlertHouston! campaign, Buzbee alleged, amount to an illegal campaign contribution because they portray Turner’s “smiling face on 27 billboards across the city.”
Buzbee said he plans to file suit against Turner and Clear Channel Outdoor, the company that donated the billboards.
“If (Clear Channel) really cared about public safety, why put this mayor’s picture that takes up more than half of the space on the billboards?” Buzbee said in a statement. “This mayor doesn’t care about public safety. If you need proof of that, just look at how he has failed us with inadequate police protection and laying off firefighters.”
A spokesperson for Clear Channel did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The mayor pushed back against the accusations, saying the AlertHouston! campaign and related billboards are supported by a state grant and that Turner was chosen to be the face of the campaign because he is the city’s defacto emergency manager during natural disasters and other events.
“It is unfortunate that some would choose to politicize this very important public safety message,” Turner spokeswoman Mary Benton said in a statement.
Buck Wood, an Austin-based campaign finance lawyer, equated Buzbee’s allegations to a hypothetical real estate agent who, after announcing a run for public office, would then have to take down any advertisements for their private business.
“I have never seen anything like that,” he said.
Proving the billboards are illegal, Wood said, would require Buzbee to show that the company and Turner struck a deal explicitly aimed at aiding the mayor’s re-election.
“You’d have to have good, strong evidence that they put up these pictures just for the purpose of helping elect him,” Wood said. “...You’d have to prove a conspiracy, and that’s basically impossible to do in this situation.”
Each year around hurricane season, former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett would appear on billboards, in some years directing people to the county’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management website. Emmett said he used campaign funds to pay for the billboards during election years.
The allegations mark the latest ethics-related attacks leveled by Turner’s opponents during the early stages of the mayoral campaign. Both Buzbee and King have made City Hall corruption cornerstones of their campaigns, alleging cronyism and a “pay to play” atmosphere give political donors too much influence over city business.
Turner has denied their calls for campaign finance reform, saying the city has “long-established rules that govern potential conflicts of interest.” He said he would be open to proposals from people who are “not trying to score political points.”
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, King questioned the city’s estimate that it would take more than 155,000 hours to compile the documents he requested. That would amount to about 75 people working eight hours a day, five days a week for every week of a calendar year, King calculated.
“There’s a couple things potentially going on here. One is that there’s something so bad in these documents that they’re desperate not to disclose it, in which case they’ve given us this ridiculous bill to keep us from getting the documents,” King said. “And then the other thing is that he’s really signed enough contracts in the last three years it would take 75 people a year to copy them. Both of those are sort of equally disturbing to me.”
Turner spokesman Alan Bernstein said the administration’s response followed state law, with the finance department and controller’s office running searches “to determine how much information existed so that they could create a cost estimate.”
Document production fees are based on the cost of labor, copying and postage, Bernstein said, with most of the charges in this case coming from hourly labor rates that the state approves.
King tied the open records issue to the $396 million spent by the city last fiscal year on payments of less than $50,000. Since the topic came up at a city council committee meeting in early March, King has alleged that the total equals the amount spent by Turner’s administration without council approval.
City Finance Director Tantri Emo said city records show council approved about $348 million of that $396 million for contracts and purchases that exceeded $50,000, but involved payments below that threshold.
Overall, the payment data was comprised of more than 148,500 transactions tied to more than 4,200 vendors, as most of the companies received multiple payments of less than $50,000 during the same period.
Asked about the suggestion that the city should provide a breakdown of the payments, Bernstein provided a link to City Controller Chris Brown’s online database of payment records. Included on the page is a link to the city’s invoices for less than $50,000 during the 2018 fiscal year, though the list does not provide vendor names for each transaction.
The remaining $48.1 million in payments were a mix of contracts under $50,000 and other payments, such as unemployment, refunds, fees and worker compensation, Emo said in a memo to Turner, city council members and Brown earlier this month.
The finance department needs to conduct “further analysis” to break down in more detail the $48.1 million that council did not approve, Emo wrote in her April 2 memo.
King made clear Tuesday that he does not think it is practical for city council to approve thousands of small contracts each year. If he became mayor, however, King said he would place “every single contract the city signs” into a searchable online database.
“Transparency is the cornerstone of good government, of efficient government, and this administration has been the most opaque in my lifetime,” King said, adding that he would roll out an ethics reform package within a few weeks.
Turner’s administration ultimately appealed King’s open records request to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, contending that the requested information is exempt from public disclosure. King said he also would appeal the city’s cost estimate to Paxton’s office.
Reporters Zach Despart and Mike Morris contributed to this story.