One of the biggest scandals in Austin is not what’s illegal in Texas, but what is legal. Public officers and political candidates can operate with near impunity, entering into agreements which enrich themselves or family members, and never face the kinds of consequences everyday Texans would.
The legends and stories abound – the legislator with a six-figure contract with a local management district, another who trades help with getting appointments in exchange for private contracts, the lobbyist who hires the partner of a legislator to ensure access.
So it’s always a bit of a surprise when incumbents and candidates for public office fail to meet the very low bar set by the existing legal framework – failing to make personal financial statements on time, failing to make regularly scheduled campaign finance reports, or those who fail to pay their taxes on time.
Then there are those “small” ethical lapses. The cutting corners, the “I didn’t realize” moments, the “it was such a small contract we didn’t pay attention” excuses.
Ken Strange is one of these, the candidate whose tenure on the Wimberley ISD Board shows a willingness to cut ethical corners to benefit his employer (and campaign). Strange has served on the ISD Board since 2008. Simultaneously, Strange has been a director at Wimberley EMS, which is organized as a 501(c)3 organization, and barred by federal tax law from political activity.
According to Wimberley ISD’s financial reports (Dec. 2010, 2012, 2016; Nov. 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015; Oct. 2013, 2014, 2017; Sept. 2016), the school district contracted with and paid thousands of dollars for Strange’s nonprofit to service high school football games. In and of itself, this isn’t a problem – but as former ISD president, and as an ongoing member of the Wimberley ISD School Board of Trustees, Ken Strange voted to approve vendor payments from the school district to his day job at Wimberley EMS.
Current Texas law places two disclosure requirements on local government contracting activity. The first is on the government official, in this case, Ken Strange. The official has to disclose to the ISD any potential conflicts, and if the ISD has a website, the Conflict Disclosure Statement (Form CIS) must be posted on the ISD website. The CIS for Ken Strange is dated November 2008, and lists no conflicts. Strange has apparently not submitted an updated CIS for the past ten years, even as other members have more recent updates to the CIS listings.
Separately, there is a duty on the vendor (in this case Wimberley EMS) to disclose their potential conflict, specifically, they would have had to name Ken Strange as an employee. The ISD does NOT post vendor conflict forms on their website. However, the Wimberley ISDs own rules state, “All members, including the Board President will either vote or abstain on all action items. Board members are expected to vote unless there exists a specific conflict of interest associated with agenda item under consideration.”
Strange did not abstain, and voted to approve each expenditure. Self-dealing with taxpayer dollars is not accountable government. Legislators and local government officials should go out of their way to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest, not cut corners to subsidize their employers. Taxpayers need to demand more accountability and transparency, and elected officials have to disclose their conflicts and serve our needs, not their own. It’s time to Reform Austin.