We would like to think people in our nation’s highest offices adhere to the highest ethical principles.
Yet recent news reports have exposed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who let billionaires pick up the tabs for expensive vacations, private jet flights, and pay the private school tuition for his kinfolk.
U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) was just indicted in a sprawling corruption scheme. A search of his home found he had more than $550,000 in cash and 13 bars of gold bullion worth more than $100,000.
Former President Donald Trump (R-Florida) is under indictment for numerous state and federal criminal offenses. A New York state judge just ruled that he committed fraud by inflating the value of his real estate holdings.
What about local government?
We would like to think that local public officials follow a stronger moral compass. We hope they are making ethical decisions without being swayed by opportunities for personal gain.
But how can we be certain?
Fact is, we can’t, as our reporting in recent months illustrates.
Airport chief executive—Our investigative report showed the City’s highly paid chief executive of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, Jacqueline Yaft—despite being explicitly warned by the City’s Law Department—failed to report a conflict of interest involving her former employer. That former employer is an airport contractor. Yaft signed off on more than $500,000 in payments to that firm. The City Auditor’s office confirmed Yaft’s conflict.
City commission members—We reported that members of two City of Austin commissions were under fire for alleged conflicts of interest because the nonprofit organizations they work for might profit from their official actions. If the Ethics Review Commission had been up to its authorized strength, when it conducted a preliminary hearing, the complaints against them likely would have proceeded to final hearings and possible sanctions.
City Council member—We reported that Austin City Council Member Jose Velasquez failed to report his connection to, and income from, the East Austin Conservancy. After a hearing, the Ethics Review Commission slapped him with a Letter of Admonition.
Are we to believe these the only ethical transgressions committed by local officials?
How would we know?
Citizens need to monitor conduct
If we want our local public officials to behave ethically and honestly we need to be able to surveil their conduct.
To do that, we need tools. We need details about their financial interests so we can spot situations in which they may be tempted to help themselves instead of serving the public interest.
Did they benefit from awarding contracts to certain businesses?
Will approving a zoning case benefit their personal real estate values?
Might approving a technology project increase the value of their stocks?
These rhetorical questions offer concrete examples of things we would have no way of knowing about. Not unless we were armed with information about their business interests, real estate holdings and stock ownership.
The Bulldog’s Government Accountability Project (GAP) provides that information for some—but not all—local government officials. Not all because not every local government agency requires such disclosures. (More details about that later.)
Officials required to self-report conflicts
State law requires most public officials to file reports when they, or their family members, have an interest in a business or real estate, or a relationship with a vendor, that might cause them to personally benefit from their official decisions or votes.
That amounts to an honor system, defined as “a system granting freedom from customary surveillance with the understanding that those who are so freed will be bound by their honor to observe regulations and will therefore not abuse the trust placed in them.”
Some local government officials—such as city and county elected officeholders and candidates for these elective offices—must file Personal Financial Statements on forms prescribed by the Texas Ethics Commission. These statements require disclosure of sources of income, retainers, investments, interests in real estate and businesses, boards and executive positions, interest in business in common with lobbyists, and contracts with governmental entities.
But these statements are not published by the agencies that collect them.
State law requires that Personal Financial Statements be kept from public view—unless you jump through bureaucratic hoops.
Local Government Code Section 145.007(b) requires that anyone who wants to see these statements must file a public information request and complete a form that shows the date of the request, the name and address of the requestor, and the name of the organization the requestor represents.
In addition to Personal Financial Statements, City Code Section 2-7-72 requires elected officials, high-level employees, and members of boards and commissions to file Statements of Financial Interest that contain additional details. But these, too, are not published; they are released only in response to a public information request.
Adding to shroud of secrecy, the City of Austin and Travis County do not publish anything that would let the public know these financial documents even exist—let alone how to obtain copies.
Other local governments require even less
Austin Independent School District—The nine elected trustees who form the governing body oversee an annual budget of $1.8 billion. Yet they are not required to file financial disclosures of any kind.
Austin Transit Partnership—This organization was formed by the City of Austin and the CapMetro after voters in 2020 voted to implement Project Connect. Its seven-member board and executive director are responsible for successful delivery of a multi-billion-dollar plan to expand transit options and add light rail services.
The board members each file a Statement of Financial Interests and Affiliations just one time, when appointed. The form lists employment, entities from which a member or a member’s immediate family received more than 10 percent of gross income in the previous year, substantial ownership interests, loans, and interests in real estate other than their personal residence. The agency’s general counsel told the Bulldog, “ATP Board Members are expected to keep their Statement of Financial Interest and Affiliations up to date and submit new or updated forms as appropriate.”
Central Health—This agency wins the award for the most bizarre arrangement for personal accountability. The nine people on the Board of Managers are appointed by Travis County (four members), the City of Austin (four members) and one member jointly by these two agencies.
Travis County appointees were required to file Personal Financial Statements on the Texas Ethics Commission’s form as part of their applications to serve on the Board of Managers. But they are not required to update those forms, no matter how many years they serve on the board.
City of Austin appointees to the Board of Managers are not required to file any financial disclosures whatsoever.
Travis Central Appraisal District—Nine members of the Board of Directors are appointed by the taxing jurisdictions served by TCAD. The Travis County tax assessor-collector serves as an ex-officio (non-voting) member. TCAD Operating Policies adopted by the board in 2012 required board members to file Financial Disclosures on the district’s own internal form each January. These covered their financial activities in the preceding calendar year.
Policy changes subsequently adopted by the board eliminated the requirement for its members to file annual financial disclosures.
Records public officials don’t want you to see
The local government agencies that do require public officials to submit these reports just collect and file them away. No one reviews the documents to see if the information they contain raises red flags about how the officials carry our their official duties.
“It is the duty of the individual filer to ensure the submitted information is correct and complete,” a city spokesperson said in response to the Bulldog’s question about internal reviews. “The Law Department provides legal advice as requested.”
Further, “It is the duty of the individual filer to disclose conflicts of interest and/or decide whether to abstain from decisions or votes. The Law Department provides legal advice as requested on any potential conflicts.”
The policy of leaving disclosures to personal discretion was challenged by the City’s Ethics Review Commission. In July 2022, the Commission passed a resolution recommending that financial disclosures of council members and council candidates be posted to the City’s website. But as the Bulldog reported, City Council members have shown no interest in establishing that requirement. So, the Bulldog will continue to file public information requests to get these records and publish them in the GAP.
Freedom of information is critical
“Thank you, Ken Martin and The Austin Bulldog, for launching this new open government project. It is sure to help Austin area residents as they keep a watch on their public officials,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
“We at the FOI Foundation of Texas are always urging governments to post more information online. It makes it easier for citizens and for government employees who respond to Public Information Act requests. In this case, the Government Accountability Project is making important documents available online on one site so everyone can stay informed.”
Trust indicators: I’m editor Ken Martin and the GAP is my baby. It has taken me nine months to deliver this project. I’m making it available as a free public resource. If access to this kind of information is important to you, please donate now to show your support. You can reach me at [email protected].