Sports Authority Ties Could Get Sticky for Houston Mayoral Candidate Gene Locke
Houston mayoral candidate Gene Locke’s law firm has made more than a half-million dollars in the past three years from a government agency that is looking at a $4 million bailout from county taxpayers — and his election to the city’s top post could present a conflict of interest for him.Locke
Locke’s firm, Andrews Kurth, serves as legal counsel for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, the agency that manages the venues for Houston’s three most prominent pro sports teams. The sports authority may need an extra few million bucks from taxpayers because of a stadium bond deal that went bad — a bond deal that was supposed to cost Harris County residents nothing.
And if issues involving the sports authority came before a City Council headed by Locke, he could find himself with a conflict of interest, as any number of possible actions by the sports authority could generate more billable hours for the firm and generate more money for it. A bailout from the county taxpayers would not require City Council approval, but other issues might — and Texas’ attorney general opined more than a decade ago that the Houston city government has as much of a stake in the sports authority as does Harris County.
A former Houston city attorney, Locke stepped down as general counsel for the sports authority, giving up the $640-an-hour fees that went with the job, when he announced his candidacy for mayor in April, authority Executive Director Janice Schmees said.
His resignation was not submitted in writing but verbally, Schmees said.Schmees
But Locke remains a partner with the firm, and his replacement as general counsel, fellow Andrews Kurth attorney Mark Arnold, began attending sports authority board meetings in his place.
The authority runs various sports venues and stadiums including those that are homes for the Astros of Major League Baseball, the Texans of the National Football League and the Rockets of the National Basketball Association. It recently said it may have to take $4 million from Harris County taxpayers after a firm that issued stadium bonds, MBIA, ran into financial problems in last year’s economic downturn.
As Houston’s KTRK ABC-13 first pointed out, Locke noted his work with the sports authority on his campaign Web site: “First as city attorney, then in private practice, he led the negotiations and development of Minute Maid Park, Reliant Stadium and the Toyota Center.”
His six-figure ties to the sports authority suggest a candidate, who, if elected, would have to choose between the best interests of the people and the financial realities of his firm.
Texas Watchdog sent the Locke campaign a list of questions about Locke’s relationship with the sports authority. The campaign declined to answer any of them, saying it would respond only in a one-paragraph statement via e-mail.
“When I am mayor every decision I make will be based solely on what is best for Houstonians,” Locke wrote. “… When I am elected my only debt will be to the people of Houston.”
The appearance of impropriety in such a case is common although not always deserved, said Mark Rosentraub, a University of Michigan professor who has authored several books on public and private sports enterprises.
“People change jobs all the time,” Rosentraub said. “But what has to be done is to look at the ethics laws, see just how he will divest himself from his law firm, and then monitor that person’s behavior. He would most likely have to recuse himself if that sports authority has business before the city council.”
Andrews Kurth has billed the sports authority $574,000 since 2007, according to sports authority records Texas Watchdog reviewed under the state Public Information Act.
Locke’s work for the authority included everything from attending board meetings – one board meeting was billed to the tune of $1,408 — to meeting with the authority chairman and Schmees. That came in at a cool $832.
Locke handled many of the agenda items while Arnold worked, at a rate of $525 an hour, on analysis and memos. Kathleen Bethune, a senior paralegal at Andrews Kurth, worked on drafts and meeting preparations, billing $210 an hour.
Locke continued to sign invoices for Kurth after announcing his candidacy; in a letter accompanying an invoice dated April 23, he advised his client to call him with “any questions or concerns.”
“He signs documents because he is the billing lawyer (for) that account,” Locke campaign policy director Jesse Dickerman said in an e-mail. “He has been CC’ed on communication as a courtesy.”
Dickerman added that Locke last attended a sports authority board meeting in the capacity of board lawyer in February, two months before announcing his candidacy.
Locke also remained involved in communications between Kurth and the authority. He was copied on a collections letter from Kurth’s receivables department to the authority dated June 12, and on e-mails involving a perceived discrepancy in pay from the authority in July. Correspondence to the authority from Arnold, Locke’s replacement, was written on Locke’s Kurth letterhead as late as July.
Schmees said she was not aware of Locke’s connection to any authority business after his verbal announcement that he was removing himself as general counsel.
“To my knowledge Gene was not involved, and HCHSA staff had no work-related communication with him after his decision to run for office,” she said in an e-mail.
Taken from: Texas Watchdog