Houston’s new ethics rules criticized as too lenient, easy on politicians

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New ethics rules enacted last week by Houston’s city council are being criticized as pointless, claiming that blatant violations to the laws are still possible under many circumstances.

The new ordinance seems to be directed more at lobbyists and city employees who decide to take jobs in the private sector, instead of tightening up regulations directed at politicians.

As an example, politicians are still able to go on expensive trips paid for by lobbyists or contractors, as long as the person paying goes along with them. Such trips are exactly the kind that Congress banned after the scandal involving Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who frequently took lawmakers on far-away trips such as golf-outings in Scotland.

The city’s new rules on gifts exempt any gift under $50, and those that come from a relative or a person with whom the lawmaker has a social relationship.

Craig Homan, himself a lobbyist for the Washington D.C. watchdog organization Public Citizen said “Instead of enforcing ethics standards, all of these things seem to license unethical behavior.” The city’s gift exemptions “license unlimited gifts and unlimited travel, and that is exactly what codes like this are supposed to prevent. This is very weak. There are some states that have no gift rules, and this pretty much rivals that type of standard.”

Another watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice, a non-partisan outfit in Austin, said through its spokesman, Craig McDonald, “The state standard, when it comes to gifts, is much too lenient. An ethics policy that allows an individual or a business to give an extravagant gift of travel or entertainment, kind of defeats the whole purpose of having an ethical wall.”

Houston city attorney David Feldman defended the new law saying there were provisions that made unethical dealings of the past, criminal offenses in the future. He pointed out that politicians and local officials are still required by the Texas Ethics Commission to report all gifts received on an annual basis, and that the local law is similar to state ethics laws.

“We had no intention to prosecute someone for an offense under the ordinance that would not be an offense under state law,” he said.

The new law includes stricter registration requirements for lobbyists. It requires that anyone representing entities or business interests disclose such relationship to city officials when discussing issues on behalf of a client.  An unnamed City Hall lobbyist called the rules “toothless”, saying that anyone who violated the rules will get a letter requiring them to register with the city.

The new ordinance also provides rules for city employees to prevent them from leaving to take private sector jobs that would allow them to use inside information of influence in a manner not in the best interests of the city.

See more at the Houston Chronicle

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