Hear No Evil

Glenda Joe was acting out of sheer frustration when she took her complaint about City Councilwoman Martha Wong before Wong and her Council colleagues last December.

Joe had wanted to lodge her complaint with the city's ethics committee. The city ordinance that created it says the committee is supposed to "review and investigate allegations of impropriety on the part of city officials and candidates for elective office." To Joe, who has a contract with the city to promote children's immunization programs in Asian neighborhoods, the panel seemed like the proper venue for the airing of her complaint. (She has accused Wong of trying to damage her reputation by insisting that Joe is unfit for the promotional job because she isn't a foreign-born Asian; Wong has denied the allegation.)

But Joe ran into a problem: she couldn't figure out how to contact the ethics committee.

"It took a long time just to get somebody [in the city attorney's office] to give me the name of the chairman and his phone number," she says.

Joe, who's still somewhat confused by the situation, has since hired an attorney.

"He knows how to do the court stuff," she says, "but he doesn't really know how the ethics committee works, either. I don't think anybody does."

And that includes members of the Houston City Council.
Last spring, representatives of a Dallas credit-card collection company testified under oath before the Council that their firm was passed over for a city contract because it refused to bow to pressure from then-city attorney Benjamin Hall to hire a minority subcontractor he had recommended. The accusation was reviewed by two county grand juries, which took no action, and by the Houston Police Department's Public Integrity Review Group, which found it unsubstantiated.

City Councilman Lloyd Kelley tried to pass the complaint on to the ethics committee, which at the time informed the councilman that it did not have jurisdiction to review the allegation.

Ten months later -- with Hall having been gone from City Hall for more than a month -- the committee inexplicably has reversed itself and asked Kelley if he still wants to pursue the matter.

"And I say, 'For what?' The committee is limited to a reprimand or recommendation of termination," Kelley says. "That's the limit of their power. Well, if everybody's quit and gone, why would you suddenly have jurisdiction? I want to know, if they are going to play those games, why exist at all?"

Don Horn, the longtime president of the local AFL/CIO's central labor council, has posed that question himself, and not rhetorically.

Horn is one of seven members of the committee, having served on it since its inception under then-mayor Fred Hofheinz in the mid-1970s. Four of the seven posts are filled through appointments by the mayor and City Council, and the other three are filled through nominations by the Houston Bar Association, the AFL/CIO and the Harris County Medical Society. The members are not paid for their work.

Horn says the shortcomings of the panel became clear to him last year during its investigation of Fire Chief Eddie Corral. The chief had been accused by board members of the Firemen's Relief and Retirement Fund -- fire department personnel under Corral's supervision -- of trying to pressure them into investing pension funds with a securities company that employed Corral's son.

After seven public sessions of testimony from the chief, his accusers and others, the ethics committee voted five to one to clear Corral of violating the city's code of ethics. Horn cast the one dissenting vote and submitted his own report on the Corral investigation to Mayor Bob Lanier and the Council.

"The reason I came down in the way that I did was that the evidence that was presented to us under sworn testimony was overwhelming that the chief had crossed over the line," says Horn, pointing out that the city's code of ethics defines "impropriety" as "conduct that violates or gives the appearance" that standards have been violated.

Horns says the major difficulty the committee faced was the city's refusal to provide it with a report on an earlier investigation of the allegation against Corral conducted by HPD's Public Integrity Review Group.

Although the PIRG found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, Horn says the report might have shed light on possible ethical violations by Corral. State law, however, prohibits the PIRG from making public its investigations of police officers or firefighters when allegations of misconduct are not sustained. The city's legal department contends that the PIRG report on Corral fell under that protection, even though Corral, as chief, is no longer covered by state civil service regulations. The issue was referred to the state attorney general nine months ago, but the A.G.'s office has yet to resolve it by producing an opinion.

Horn says the ethics committee's inability to get its hands on the PIRG report underscored the need for the panel to have investigative tools at its disposal. He thinks the committee should have asked the Council for permission to hire its own independent investigator -- which it has a right to do under the ordinance that created it. An investigator would make the committee more effective and would level the playing field for people who bring complaints to the panel but don't have the resources to hire their own attorney or the wherewithal to act as a prosecutor.

"That's the reason I came up with the idea of an independent investigator or legal counsel that would gather and present the facts for us so that all the responsibility is not on the person who is making the complaint," says Horn. "You can imagine some city employee that sees a department head doing something wrong, daring to come over and file a charge and then having to prosecute the thing, all the while looking down the gun barrel." (Corral, for instance, was represented before the committee by former federal judge James DeAnda, who cross-examined the witnesses against the chief.)

Until the controversies involving Hall and Corral surfaced, the ethics committee had gotten very little attention during its almost two decades of existence. There's a good reason for that, Horn says.

"There haven't really been that many cases at all, partly because people are not that aware that the ethics committee could be a viable function for them," he says. "Plus, when the complainants have to gather up all the facts, that's a pretty high hill for them."

Attorney Walter Schroeder, the committee chairman, agrees with Horn on the need for bringing an outside investigator or attorney into the process, but says such a move should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Schroeder's also sensitive to criticism that it's difficult to get in touch with the committee. He points out that complaints can be mailed to the committee at the city of Houston's post office box, and that the panel has its own telephone number that can be reached through the city's main switchboard.

Of course, he admits callers might have a problem getting through.
"I've tried [the phone number] periodically, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't," he concedes. "I am constantly having discussions about if we have an ethics committee, people are supposed to be able to get hold of us. But sometimes things fall through the cracks."

Despite Kelley's criticisms, Schroeder maintains the committee is doing a good job and could do a better one if given the tools, specifically an outside attorney or investigator and the power of subpoena to force witnesses to appear before it.

"Whatever comes our way, I want to be able to respond," he says.
Additional resources and powers would have to be approved by the City Council. And even Kelley, who's often the lone voice of dissent on Council to Mayor Lanier, isn't disposed to giving the committee anything, especially if it costs money.

"If they are that ineffective and if they are going to play political games, I'm not going to spend a dime on them," says Kelley. "Selective ethics is worse than no ethics at all.


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