Has Robert Eckels Lost His Mind?

Or is the county judge just crazylike a fox?

In sentencing Ben Reyes and Betti Maldonado last week for their roles in bribing city officials during an FBI sting operation, a stern-faced Judge David Hittner ratcheted up by two levels the time the pair would serve in jail. The federal judge declared that the duo "tarnished the public view of our city government" and contributed "to a loss of public confidence" in that institution. As evidence, Hittner quoted a most unlikely source, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels.

"Eckels referred to 'envelopes full of cash' as he pointed out corruption in government," lectured the judge to a packed courtroom filled mostly with members of the media, lawyers and sympathizers for the defendants. That was hardly news to Houston's political community, which has for weeks been chewing over, and in many cases, gagging on, Eckels's state of the county speech, sarcastically termed the "state of his conscience" speech by a colleague. In that pungent address Eckels took what many in his audience perceived as a flurry of jabs at city government, the Harris County Hospital District, big contributors to his own campaign and the ethical standards of his county co-workers.

Thanks to Hittner's linking Eckels's remarks with the stiff prison terms -- nine years for Reyes and four years, three months for ex-port commissioner Maldonado -- Eckels had a whole new potential batch of critics: the supporters and families of the fallen Hispanic leaders. But they'll have to join the rear of a long queue of Eckels's Commissioners Court colleagues, irritated City Councilmembers and befuddled campaign contributors, who opened their pocketbooks and now find themselves characterized as participants in a corrupt system.

Eckels not only proposed $250 contribution limits on those doing business with the county, but he also advocated a city-type system requiring county employees to divulge financial relationships with county contractors. Eckels's motion for the reform agenda died from lack of a second at commissioners court, although he prevailed upon GOP state Representative Kyle Janek to introduce it as a bill in the Legislature. However, Janek now says he only submitted it as a favor for his old friend and that he has problems of his own with the bill and doesn't expect it to go anywhere.

Which leaves the denizens of that fishbowl world of county politicos and their big-money supporters asking what on earth has gotten into Robert Eckels, the son of a commissioner who pioneered the system by which those who get from the county big-time are expected to give to the political leaders who run it.

"People are saying he's gone off the deep end," says a political consultant. According to this source, legislators and contributors "don't know what the hell is going on with him."

What really ticks off the county judge's establishment critics is that since campaigning for office in 1994, Eckels has been one of the biggest recipients of dollars from county vendors, a system he now deplores publicly. And there are no signs he's seen the light. Touting the sponsorship of more than 150 big contributors, Eckels hosts yet another big-ticket fundraiser this week, even though he faces no opponent for another four years. In a humorous twist, Eckels headlined the event invitation "Has Robert Eckels lost his mind?"

One of those sponsors finds little to laugh about in Eckels's latest statements and will continue to give the judge dollars but not respect.

"The longer I'm in politics I can take anything other than hypocrisy," says this contributor. "That starts to bother me worse than just about anything else."

"That is incredible," exclaimed Commissioner El Franco Lee about how Eckels's comments had been cited by Judge Hittner. Lee was already unhappy with other criticisms of the city in the Eckels speech, and the use of those comments to justify additional jail time for two longtime friends of the commissioner's pushed him to the boiling point.

"Words from people in powerful positions have an effect," snapped Lee. "That's what I've been trying to get these people to see for years. You cannot afford to make flagrant, irresponsible statements and think it's going to go unnoticed or think it's not going to do any harm to somebody. That's what happened here."

In the address sponsored by the Greater Houston Partnership and the League of Women Voters, Eckels eschewed the usual feel-good fodder that passes for a state of the county speech. It was no accident. Eckels had carefully planned his address, taking input from his political consultant, Allen Blakemore.

"I didn't actually review the speech," says the consultant, "but we had a number of conversations about issues and ideas." The two brainstormed the ethics portion of the speech, which Blakemore believes reflects public concerns about the conduct of area government.

Eckels himself seems bemused by the continuing repercussions from his remarks. He says the hubbub overshadowed what he considers his most important reform proposal: to require county employees to disclose any extra jobs they have with county contractors.

"I would like to know if one of my department heads had an outside consulting contract with a company with whom the county is doing business," Eckels says in an interview. "That might influence the way they are recommended to me. There's no way for me to know that today, and we're seeing that with the hospital district and their computer folks."

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