As Harris County Judge, I’m committed to helping build a more transparent government. We’re launching a broad public engagement campaign, Talking Transition: Harris County, and will work to include transparency in our initiatives. As I begin my new role, I’m taking two steps to ensure that I’m building trust with the people of Harris County.
First, I will recuse myself in matters before the county where a conflict of interest may exist. Whether or not the recusal is required as a matter of law, I would like there to be no legitimate question that I work for the best interests of the people of Harris County.
In practice, this means I have informed the County Attorney I will be recusing myself from consideration, decisions, and updates regarding two lawsuits currently pending against Harris County. The lawsuits are Salcido, et al. v. Harris County, et al., Cause No. 4:15-cv-2155 (S.D. Tex., Houston Div.) and Smith v. Harris County, Cause No. 4:15-cv-cv-2226 (S.D. Tex., Houston Div.). In Salcido, a man suffering from withdrawal died in the Harris County Jail shortly after being restrained face down on a gurney while warning that he couldn’t breathe. In Smith, a young man with a diagnosis of major depression and symptoms of schizophrenia, as well as a history of suicide attempts, was held in the Harris County Jail and died by suicide.
I plan to recuse myself in Salcido because I have a close, personal relationship with David James, an attorney at the Austin firm of Edwards Law. Edwards Law is counsel to some of the plaintiffs in Salcido. I further plan to recuse myself in Smith because I was a volunteer at the Texas Civil Rights Project while that litigation was developed and filed. I left TCRP in 2015.
Second, I will set internal standards to avoid the risk of special influence.
In a county as large as ours, there are a lot of people and entities that make the system run. The county awards billions of dollars in contracts, many of which are professional services contracts that, by definition, do not go to bid.
Starting January 1, 2019, I will not be accepting political contributions from individuals or companies that do business with the county or seek to do business with the county. While contributions from folks who do business with the county are lawful, I want to limit the risk of special influence and, more importantly, the appearance thereof.
Right now, there’s not a perfect system in place to track all the necessary information regarding who does business with Harris County. We will hold ourselves to the highest standard we can with the information available to us. We will be asking all of our donors to certify that they don’t have a contract and will not be seeking a contract with Harris County within a year.
At the county level, I will continue to advocate for processes that increase transparency, make tracking easier, and encourage equitable participation in our government.