Tag Archives: conflict of interest

Time of My Life, Part 24: Some fights are worth having

My career in print journalism, while providing me with unforgettable experiences and much joy, also provided some angst, heartburn and at times a touch of dread.

Now and again I would encounter situations that compelled me to look more deeply into the affairs of public officials I respected. Such was the case about 30 years ago while I worked as editorial page editor for the Beaumont Enterprise in the Golden Triangle region of Texas.

I went to work one morning and while reading that day’s edition I came across a story about a Jefferson County Commissioners Court meeting. Near the end of the story, we reported that “In other business,” commissioners approved a contract involving the opening of a café in the courthouse that would be run by a state district judge, Larry Gist.

It caught my eye. I took it up with my boss, the executive editor, and inquired about looking further into that matter. It didn’t seem appropriate for a state official to be operating a private business inside a county courthouse.

I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version of what I learned.

Judge Gist had prepared a bid to operate the courthouse café with a friend and business partner of his. He communicated with the county auditor, a young man named Jerry Ware, about his interest in running the café. He used what he told me later was “facsimile” county stationery, meaning he paid for the letterhead that would go atop the documents he was submitting for the auditor to consider.

But he signed the documents, “Larry Gist, judge.”

Here is where it got real sticky. Ware was appointed to his office as auditor by the district judges. So he considered a bid by one of his employers, one of the individuals to whom he answered. State law, interestingly, does not require a county to accept the lowest bid on projects such as this; it gives the county discretion to determine the “best bid” offered.

So, Ware — who works for Larry Gist (among other judges) — selected Gist’s bid to operate the café on the ground floor of the Jefferson County Courthouse.

That seemed strange. I thought it smacked of conflict of interest. I talked with Judge Gist, asked him about the stationery and quizzed him about whether he put any undue pressure on the county auditor to look favorably on his bid. I talked to Jerry Ware, and asked him whether he might have been influenced by the facsimile letterhead and the signature that contained the word “judge” alongside the name of the individual who was bidding on the courthouse business.

We published an editorial that questioned whether the county was adhering to all the proper ethical standards by allowing the judge to bid on a project to be housed inside a courthouse where he worked and whether the auditor was applying objective standards to all the bidders who had sought the contract.

Quite obviously, Judge Gist and Jerry Ware were unhappy with the newspaper and with me. Ware hated my guts for the rest of his life. He died of cancer not too many years later.

As for Gist, I learned through other channels that he sought to sue me and the paper for libel. The only sticking point for Gist in his pursuit of a legal challenge was that nothing we published was untrue. As you might know, truth is the first and last line of defense in any libel lawsuit.

Judge Gist and I endured a frosty relationship for the rest of my time on the Gulf Coast. I am happy to say, though, that it thawed over time. I had occasion to talk to Judge Gist on another matter once I made the move from Beaumont to the Texas Panhandle.

I don’t know the status of the courthouse café. That was then. The here and now allows me to look back on that episode with just a touch of relief that it never got past the threat of a lawsuit.

Earth to POTUS: No ‘siege’ at EPA

Someone needs to explain to the president of the United States — in language a second-grader might understand — what a conflict of interest looks like.

It usually involves taking advantage of someone with a vested stake in a public policy, such as, oh, living for virtually free in a condo provided by a lobbyist whose interests might benefit from certain policies.

Such is the case with Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt, who rents a condo for $50 per night from an oil company lobbyist. The lobbyist is trying to curry favor with EPA on policies that would benefit the oil company.

Does one think that’s a conflict of interest? Yes! But if the answer is “no,” they need to look up the definition of the term.

Donald Trump says Pruitt is “totally under siege” by what he calls the “fake news media.”

Mr. President … ready my lips. No one is denying that the Pruitts are renting this condo from the lobbyist. The EPA director has offered some lame excuse that he pays that dirt-cheap rate only when he is staying there. How in the name of government ethics does that make it all right?

Pruitt was a bad choice to lead the EPA from the beginning, given his penchant for rolling back rules designed to, um, protect the environment. That he’s been revealed as someone who likes living high off the generosity of a lobbyist only makes matters worse.

So, Mr. President, stop with the “fake news” canard. It ain’t fake, sir. It’s true.

Shocking! Sen. Wendy Davis’s income jumps

So now it is revealed that state Sen. Wendy Davis’s law practice is proving to be lucrative for the legislator.

That’s a surprise?

http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/04/wendy-davis-sees-legal-income-rise/

Davis, who’s running for Texas governor and figures to be a shoo-in for the Democratic Party’s nomination, released her past three years’ tax returns. They reveal that her private law practice income has doubled. It’s a good thing for her, too, given that she earns $7,200 a year as a state senator, plus the per diem expense stipend she gets when the Legislature is in session.

It’s long been something of an open secret that many lawmakers parlay their public service exposure into money-making strategies for their day jobs. Davis’s law practice wasn’t doing badly for her in 2010, the first year of the returns she released. Her income went from $130,000 annually that year to $284,000 in 2012. Not bad, right?

Well, that’s the way it goes for public figures. Every aspect of their so-called “private life” becomes subject to public scrutiny.

Attorney General Greg Abbott, who’s running for the Republican nomination for governor, had released his tax returns earlier.

Davis’s income story, of course, doesn’t quite end with the amount of money she earned. The law firm she founded has had dealings with some high-dollar public-sector clients, which is where some folks have suggested has produced potential conflicts of interest. She’ll need to reveal those relationships — in detail.

That, too, is the price of being in the public eye.

Conflict of interest on high court?

Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is a longtime political activist.

The latest news of her political activism makes me wonder: Does this married couple ever talk about their day when they’re home at night? Ever?

http://mediamatters.org/blog/2013/07/29/groundswell-ginni-thomas-and-continued-conflict/195117

Conflicts of interest are nothing new in Washington, or in Austin, or even in Amarillo for that matter. It is troubling in the extreme, though, when a sitting justice is married to someone with such a heavy-hitting role in political causes that might become the subject of, say, appeals before that very court.

Mrs. Thomas’s role in these endeavors is troubling to be sure.

The government watchdog group Common Cause questioned whether Justice Thomas should have taken part in the landmark Citizens United case that enabled corporations to make unlimited campaign donations because, according to Mother Jones magazine, the justice well could have taken part in Citizens United strategy sessions before it made its case before the court.

Ginni Thomas has been involved with groups opposing the Affordable Care Act. Her husband voted with the minority that sought to repeal a key portion of the law.

It’s fine for the spouse of a high-ranking public official to be involved politically. It’s quite a different matter, though, when a perception emerges that the spouse’s involvement might affect the public official’s performance of his or her duty.

Justice Elena Kagan once was solicitor general of the United States, meaning she argued the government’s position before the court. One of the cases she argued had to do with Arizona’s strict immigration law. How did she vote when the case came before the court? She didn’t. Justice Kagan recused herself.

Justice Thomas should do the same whenever cases connected to political causes involving his wife come before the court.