By Chris Lane
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Lee is convinced that Eckels's use of a political advisor in the speech shows it was designed to boost Eckels's political future rather than county ethics. "That makes it even more interesting," Lee says, "because that means it was a well thought-out, malicious design to propel yourself at the expense of other people."
Eckels's fellow Republican commissioner and archrival Steve Radack wasn't on hand for the speech. That may have been one reason the judge was able to sound convincing when he purred, "The commissioners who join me here today are among the most honorable people I know, and I believe they are motivated for public service for all the right reasons." Eckels advised the stunned officials to be "public servants" rather than "public serpents," adding, "It is time for us to do what is right, not what we have the right to do."
Eckels concluded his remarks with "Honesty and integrity in government; this is the most important project for the new millennium. This is a project that could truly transform our community and our nation." He seemed to be saying that honesty and integrity are in short supply in the current political scene.
Asked a few weeks later if he believes he is part of a corrupt system, Eckels answers in the affirmative. He says there are good people in the system but that there is at least a perception of corruption. "It's too easy to have at least an implied coercion in the process even if it's not actual coercion."
Eckels says contributors often give money on the assumption that it is necessary if they want to be on the inner circle of bidders receiving contracts.
"I don't have on my desk a list of my contributors to check against the people that we're getting contracts with. I don't know anybody else that does; I can't speak for the commissioners, but I don't know that it works that way anywhere else."
Told that one lawyer in the crowd reacted to his speech by saying, "It made me feel dirty," Eckels had a quick reply.
"If you feel dirty about this speech, then I feel dirty about the process we're in, and I do, or I wouldn't have made the speech. If you feel that, imagine what the average citizen thinks when they are looking at the process from outside, and that's what leads to disrespect for government in general, and questioning of motives of the officials down here and the actions of that lawyer and everybody else who is involved in the process."
Asked for examples of county corruption, Eckels mentioned his predecessor, Jon Lindsay, and his own father. Former commissioner Bob Eckels was forced to resign in 1987 as part of a plea bargain on charges accusing him of the illegal paving of his farm road and stealing county-owned materials, including bridge timbers, a minibike and photographic film. The resignation ended a long-running battle between Bob Eckels and District Attorney Johnny Holmes.
"Hey, let's talk about that, since he brought up his father," counters Commissioner Lee. "No [reform] initiative like he has proposed will solve what his father's problem was, or what his father engaged in. That had nothing to do with contributions." Likewise, Lee points out that Lindsay's legal problems, and those of Commissioner Jerry Eversole, stemmed from misuse of campaign accounts. Concludes Lee: "This is a manufactured issue for Eckels. If he's chasing ghosts that have to do with his daddy, he's sure going about it in an unorthodox way."
Commissioner Radack was quick to play the hypocrite card when asked about Eckels's newfound reformism.
The reality is that Eckels has raised $3 million since 1993, with more than $1 million of that coming in the last 18 months, says Radack, who seems to be keeping very close tabs on the judge's campaign reports. "I find it very interesting that, now he has been re-elected, he suddenly decides to give us the state-of-his-conscience address. And I don't know what his problem is, but the hypocrisy is unbelievable."
It did take considerable chutzpah for the county judge to call for reform while circulating an invitation to a big-ticket fund-raising breakfast Thursday at the Westin Galleria hotel. In either a nod to his proposed contribution limits or an admission that miffed contributors had taken their big bucks elsewhere, the invitation included mock penciled-in reductions of roughly 50 percent or more for requested contributions in particular categories. Hosts get a table for ten and "preferred seating" for $2,000 rather than the original $5,000. Sponsors can dine on scrambled eggs and coffee with nine other pals for $1,000 instead of $2,500.
Asked whether the continuing fundraising makes a bad joke of his reform rhetoric, Eckels countered that he'll continue to have to raise cash to run his political office and fund political contributions to others. And he's building a war chest to make sure he has plenty of campaign firepower for the future. "A campaign doesn't run just six months before the election. We start today ... It would be nice to have the rules such that I wouldn't have to worry about an opponent coming in and doing the same thing, and I would know today what those rules are going to be four years from now." If reform legislation were to pass, Eckels says he would be willing to return the money he's collecting from contributors.