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."

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.

Other Eckels proposals have also raised the hackles of his listeners. Eckels jabbed the city for an annexation policy that gobbles up rich, developed suburbs while avoiding poor areas that need city services. He attacked the hospital district and criticized the way basic services are provided in unincorporated areas.

"I don't know when I have ever puzzled over a speech as much as I have that one, and it wasn't just the campaign reform, although that's what everyone wants to talk about," says lawyer Joe B. Allen, Vinson & Elkins's political action committee director. "And it wasn't just the shot at City Council about cash in envelopes. He attacked the city on multiple fronts, about their annexation policy, service policies."

Perhaps the most wide-ranging and unrealistic proposal, says Allen, was Eckels's pitch for state legislation to allow counties to provide a broad spectrum of municipal services, including water and sewer service to unincorporated areas. Allen called the proposal the "most remarkable departure in Texas government." He added, "If the speech had said nothing but that, that would be a revolutionary thought."

Allen specializes in municipal utility district law. "It would be a sea change in Texas government to suggest that the county in effect have the same functions as the city. I spend a lot of time out in suburbia, and I hear people saying, 'We don't want to be annexed by the city,' but I haven't heard them clamoring for the county to in effect become the city."

Allen opposes contribution limits because he believes it violates the rights of members of large firms to participate in the political process. He cites his own firm, Vinson & Elkins. It does some business with the county but has 550 lawyers, most of whom do not.

"If somebody wants to have self-imposed limits because they believe they might be wrongfully influenced by taking political contributions, hey, impose all you want on yourself," says Allen. "If Robert wants to say, 'I'm going to limit myself to $250,' that's okay with me. I just don't want him to decide what my political rights are."

Lee, whose precinct is almost entirely within the city, was angry with Eckels's criticisms of Houston. In fact, he says he issued his own apology on behalf of commissioners court to city officials.

"Hell, yes, I wrote the city an apology," says Lee. "Regardless of whether he was absolutely right -- and he was absolutely wrong -- the forum was wrong. If he was genuine about these issues, he would have addressed them the way the system was designed to do, not in a speech where you invite everybody to your house and then you shit in the middle of the floor."

Lee has tried to stay neutral in the four-year war between Republicans Radack and Eckels that began after the judge took office. He says he assumed the young judge would take the necessary time to learn the system. "My patience is wearing real short now," warns Lee. "[He's made] too many repetitive statements that I consider to be irresponsible, and they are reoccurring in the same way, which leads you to believe he thinks he is right. And there's no apologies, no remarks for who he is hurting and no regard for his colleagues or for other people in politics. His regard is for some other, higher order I haven't identified yet."

Largely because of his fund-raising efforts, even though Eckels will not have a challenger for four years, many political players credit his sudden penchant for preaching reform to a well-hidden game plan for running for higher office.

But no one can figure what that office might be.
One of his hosts for the fund-raising breakfast believes the judge is tired of the ceaseless feuding with Radack, weary of his job and ready to move on.

"You work places where it becomes clear somebody just doesn't like their job, and so it doesn't matter what's going on, they're just not happy about it ."

Radack figures any fool can see what's in the wind. Radack says Eckels tried to turn the county speech into his political platform. "It's a campaign. He's begun a campaign for another office. Anybody can see that."

Lee's suspicions tend in the same direction. "There have been others that you and I have witnessed real close who try to use one office as a launching pad for another," says the commissioner.

Whether Eckels had self-purification or self-promotion in mind, the style and substance of his speech raised a warning flag for some of his previously die-hard supporters.

"I think that anytime you turn and attack all the people who are your key supporters, and you do it in a very public way, it hurts you," says a fundraiser sponsor. "People don't like unpredictability. My experience is that people can deal with officeholders they may hold deep philosophical differences with better than they can deal with unpredictability."

Eckels is unruffled. He insists his goal remains to be the best possible county judge. Still, he does note that he never planned to be in his current job for the long term. He only ran for it after Lindsay's problems caused him not to seek re-election.

"If somewhere down the line that happens again," Eckels muses, "I might look at some other job in politics."

But not anytime soon, says political advisor Blakemore. "I would say anybody who is looking for his early departure better not hold their breath. I don't foresee him jumping anywhere too fast, 'cause he's having a lot of fun."

Eckels's colleagues and contributors are using a lot of terms to describe his recent conduct in office, but most are four-letter words. And fun isn't one of them.

Funnel your news tips to the Insider. Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.

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