HOUSTON — In the wake of a bribery scandal, Houston Community College trustees discussed last week the possibility of tightening their campaign finance rules, but it’s murky if there will be any changes.
The proposal centered around limiting the time frame in which trustees can accept campaign contributions: The first day of February prior to the date of the trustee’s election, with the window closing on March 31, about a 13 month window to raise money.
There would also exceptions allowed for runoffs, and special elections to fill a vacant seat.
As it stands now, trustees can accept any amount of money, from any one, at any time.
That’s in contrast to some other elected offices, such as state legislators, who cannot, for example, accept campaign contributions while they are in session.
HCC Trustee Dave Wilson argued that there was no reason for trustees — who serve six year terms — to be taking campaign contributions if they are not actively running for election. He said the trustees want to keep the status quo, suggesting they wanted to collect campaign cash during key votes.
“It’s all talk and no action,” Trustee Dave Wilson said after the debate. “They want the same hanky-panky action going on.”
Ideas were thrown out on what could fix what critics have called a pay to play system.
Trustee Zeph Capo said just because one trustee accepted bribes, that should not taint the rest of the board.
Capo also suggested that some trustees want to have a level playing field when it comes to facing off against well-heeled challengers.
“We also have to consider the other fact of this,” he said, “There are potentially people who can self-fund.”
Trustee Robert Glaser suggested a much smaller cap on trustee elections — $500.
Capo questioned Glaser.
“Even their own actions do not align with what they say,” Capo said, noting that Glaser himself took a $2,500 contribution from a vendor around the time Glaser voted on the contract.
“There’s been an erosion of trust because we’ve had people in the zealous cause of the to fix all of the wrongs,” Capo said, when instead “one person did wrong.”
Glaser said at the time he neither remembered the donation nor the vote.
“I raise money and me collecting money from supporters is no different than any other trustee,” Glaser said in a later interview. “When collecting money from supporters, contractors, and unions, all can exert influence and it’s up to us to do the right thing for the voters and not for the folks writing the checks.”
Capo added after the debate: “Regardless of what changes may or may not occur it is always a good practice to have a discussion to review the position of where people are coming from,” he said. “We need to make the very best decision for the college, for everybody, an entire body as a whole.”
Trustee John Hansen appeared sympathetic to the need to raise money as a trustee.
“If you have a really seriously contested trustee where there are several legitimate candidates, you really need $50,000 to $60,000 in order to run a decent campaign,” he said. “That kind of money is really hard to raise from sources other than vendors.”
Hansen suggested that the money might be best raised from groups like the Greater Houston Partnership, a business and community group that has been shaping the city since 1840.
Although, “There is not a clear way to do this that uniformly works,” Hansen said.
No decision was made during the Thursday debate, which came in the wake of former HCC Trustee Chris Oliver pleading guilty in a bribery scheme.
He was sentenced last week to 70 months in prison.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said that Zeph Capo raised the issue of a $5,000 total limit on campaign contributions. This was incorrect and the Monitor regrets the error. From Capo: “I’m fine with completely ending vendor contributions so long as it is across the board for everyone. That is easier said than done though.”