SBOE Committee to Discuss Ethics Concerns

This requires close watching. Faced with growing a growing list of ethics concerns regarding the Texas State Board of Education‘s management of the Permanent School Fund, the board’s Finance Committee is meeting on Friday to review ethics rules. The Austin American-Statesman has the story here. What isn’t clear, however, is whether some board members are more interested in weakening ethics rules than in cleaning up the problems.

In fact, the board’s Finance Committee chairman, David Bradley, R-BeaumontBuna, doesn’t even seem to take the concerns seriously. Mr. Bradley told the Statesman that the board’s current ethics policies have created a “culture of gotcha”:

“It becomes more of a political weapon and food fight. We’re going to try to make it a little more simpler. … Hopefully, we can eliminate some of the political gamesmanship.”

So what does Mr. Bradley want to do? From the Statesman:

Of particular concern to Bradley and [San Antonio board member Rick] Agosto are the differing disclosure requirements for the board members and the bidders vying for contracts with the Permanent School Fund. The bidders have to submit all contacts with board members for the six months before the posting of the job opportunity, but board members are not prohibited from having contact until the bid is submitted.

Let’s make one thing clear: the board should not weaken the requirement that bidders reveal prior contacts with board members. Instead, the rules should be tightened to require that board members also reveal any contacts they have had with bidders, regardless of when those contacts were initiated. That’s just common sense. Board members Pat Hardy, R-Fort Worth, and Bob Craig, R-Lubbock, have it right when they say the key is transparency. Says Mr. Craig:

“If you’re transparent and open about it, then … you clear up the perception that there may be a problem, and sometimes the perception is worse than reality. You’ve got to have full disclosure. It’s really not that complicated. Just do the right thing.”

Of course, the Texas Legislature could have solved the problem this past spring by stripping away the board’s authority to manage the PSF and giving that responsibility to a panel of finance experts. Not only would that have cleared up any ethics concerns, it would have also shielded decisions about curriculum and textbooks from vote trading and other shenanigans involving the PSF — a problem that we have also noted. The House passed (by an overwhelming majority) a constitutional amendment and other legislation to do so during the last session, but the Senate’s Republican leadership refused even to call a hearing on those measures.

It’s also helpful, we think, to recall Bradley’s own words in 2000. During his race for re-election that year, he portrayed himself as a defender of good ethics involving management of the PSF. At the time he told the Houston Chronicle that he had pushed for a new process for selecting money managers, saying the old process was “poisoned by campaign contributions” and that “deals were cut on a cocktail napkin.”

Ironically (or not), Mr. Bradley and two other board members were indicted less than two years later on a charge of violating the state’s law on open meetings for meeting over lunch with financial advisors to discuss the PSF. The charges were later dropped, with Bradley and the other board members agreeing to take a class on the state’s Open Meetings Law.

Then in 2008 Mr. Bradley received his single largest re-election campaign donation from an investment consultant in New Hampshire — a man who had previously worked with fellow state board member Rick Agosto. At the time, Mr. Agosto wanted the board to hire as its new investment consultant a firm called New England Pension Consultants (NEPC). He hadn’t told the board that he had met previously with NEPC on private business matters. It was Mr. Bradley, however, who successfully pushed the board to hire NEPC at a meeting in July of this year. (Mr. Agosto was absent from that meeting.) (See more here.)

TFN will be watching closely what the board decides to do. We hope the state’s lawmakers are, too.

4 thoughts on “SBOE Committee to Discuss Ethics Concerns

  1. It really troubles me, as a citizen and a taxpayer, to read about these very questionable tactics by the people to whom is entrusted the education of Texas children. What can be done? Can TFN draw up a petition that anyone can sign, asking the approprate body to look into these allegations? Is there an “appropriate body” that is neutral and apolitical?

  2. David Bradley said: “It becomes more of a political weapon and food fight. We’re going to try to make it a little more simpler. … Hopefully, we can eliminate some of the political gamesmanship.”

    What does that mean? It sounds as if he wants to sidestep an ethics charge by changing a standing statement of ethics to excuse whatever was alleged to have been done. That sounds like gamemanship to me. Let me tell you a little story.

    One of my deceased uncles, a very nice and fervently religious man, was a big supporter of Richard Nixon. He loved the guy. When news of the Watergate burglary and White house coverup hit the news media, he was really upset. Was he upset at the burglary of the Democratic Party offices in the Watergate office building? No. He was upset because of the police investigation of the crime and the evidential leads suggesting that the White House was involved in the planning of the crime and its subsequent coverup. For my uncle, he was totally approving of the crime, even if Nixon was found to be the planner and director of this debacle. As my uncle said at the time, and this is close to an exact quote, “A man in office has a right to take whatever measures are necessary to protect himself from his political enemies.”

    Here’s the problem, and I will use a modern university as a starting analogy. To some extent, the modern university is a microscopic version of society at large. If your university was anything like mine, it had a large schedule of intramural sports programs (e.g., softball) that allowed the student participants to exercise, blow off steam, and have a good time. The intramural sports programs, while not totally free from the overarching rules of the university, had their own sets of governing rules, which included the conventional on-the-field rules of a given sport.

    Well, apparently, my uncle felt that politics in American society were (or should be) some sort of big intramural softball game that is exempt from the overarching legal constraints in our society. Anything political should be allowed to operate according to its own set of rules (or lack of them), resulting in the kind of give and take you get between Wiley Coyote and the Roadrunner. James Carville breaks into Rush Limbaugh’s house on the sly one Saturday night to steal some papers. Rush finds out about it and retaliates by slashing Carville’s tires in the parking lot of his townhouse. It’s all just good and joyous fun in the name of politics—and the last thing anyone should ever do is involve the police in all of these cute little games. After all, a politician should have a right to do whatever is necessary to protect himself from his political enemies.

    I do not agree with that assessment. I doubt most people who visit here would agree with it. However, based on the statement above, I do have some concern that Mr. Bradley might be my uncle’s long lost twin brother.

  3. All they will do is discuss ethics rules and how to leave enough room to get around them (wink, wink).

  4. I know what you mean PHarvey. Many years ago, I was asked to write a hazardous materials spill response procedure for a government facility, which shall remain nameless here. Normally, these procedures are supposed to be written in a highly detailed and action-specified sort of way to constrain responder behavior and assure that spills are addressed properly and rapidly. Well, after several meetings with my client, it became clear to me that he wanted a procedure so loose and generalized that the responders could do it however they danged well pleased, including cleanups that involved waiting several days until they got “a round tuit.” Needless to say, I did the ethical thing and gave them what they should have had rather than the piece of crap they wanted.