Reality vs. Perception on SBOE Ethics?

by Dan Quinn

On Friday two Texas State Board of Education members at the center of recent stories about ethics concerns denied that they have done anything wrong. Check out reports on this from the Houston Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman and Dallas Morning News.

The denials came on the same day the state board’s Finance/Permanent School Fund Committee discussed whether the board should make any changes to its ethics policies. Some committee members argued that those policies should be clearer, should align more closely with policies for other state agencies and should make reporting requirements the same for board members and firms bidding for the board’s business. They also wanted to give board members time to review and possibly contest any questionable statements in bidders’ disclosure forms before those disclosures are made public.

State board chair Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas, said she especially wanted changes that would encourage board members to avoid even the perception of ethics problems when they carry out their official duties.

Well, that suggestion sounds good to us. Obeying the letter of the law might protect board members from prosecution, but it won’t necessarily assure the general public that members aren’t seeking private benefit from their official actions. For example, a policy might forbid or at least require disclosure of private contact with a bidder during a specified period. But why shouldn’t a public official voluntarily disclose other contacts outside that period, simply as a way to assure the public that there are no hidden personal agendas?

Moreover, wouldn’t it be in the best interests of all involved for a public official to recuse himself or herself from decisions regarding bidders with which he or she has had prior contact and possible business dealings? Doing so doesn’t suggest that public official has done anything wrong. To the contrary, doing so reassures constituents that decisions are being made in the best interests of the public good, not for personal gain.

Ms. Lowe is right: board members should act, when possible, in ways that avoid even the perception that something is not appropriate. That’s common sense.

But we would like a real answer to this question: why did Ms. Lowe and other members of the state board’s far-right faction vote as a bloc to hire a new investment consultant when other board members had voiced serious concerns about possible ethics problems involving that decision? Not only that, but the Permanent School Fund‘s staff had rated the firm lower than the consultant the far-right bloc essentially voted to fire. And the firm the far-right bloc voted to hire had submitted a substantially higher bid.

If Ms. Lowe is really concerned about perceptions, she should seriously review and explain her own votes. So should her colleagues.

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