Good or Bad? Local politics and money
Is money a corrupting influence on politics? At both the local, state and national levels? In other words, are people, corporations, professional firms, consultants, lobbyists, attorneys, organizations, political action committees donating money to political campaigns and candidates because they really believe in them? Or do they contribute money hoping for something in return? You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch your back? In other words, do some people contribute money to a campaign because they believe in the candidate and/ or the slate, seeking nothing in return? They believe him/ her to be an honest person, and they think they’ll do a fair and honest job if elected? While others give money to certain candidates looking for a little bit of quid pro quo, tit for tat, in return? You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. It would be interesting to look at all the political races in Hidalgo County over, let’s say, the past 20 years, get the campaign reports for each winning candidate, circle their biggest financial contributors, and then see how it all played out in the end. Did the bigmoney donors suddenly get new work they never had before “their candidate” won? Texas, by the way, ranks near the top of the 50 states, or the bottom, depending on one’s point of view, with regard to a limit on campaign donations. Here in the Lone Star State, individuals and political action committees can give candidates as much money as they want. Over the years, I’ve seen some city commissions and/ or school boards play it cool. When a new majority is voted into office, they wait a respectable amount of time – couple of months maybe – before switching attorneys, engineers, insurance companies, department heads, etc. And then I’ve seen others, wham, bam, thank you, ma’am, two weeks, or less in some cases, all the city’s professional services have been revamped, department heads demoted – the old are out, and the new are in. And the new just happen to be the winning slate’s biggest campaign contributors. Simple coincidence, of course. Nothing to see here, move along. Personally, I think the worst aspect of this occurs in this county’s judicial system. I’ve always thought it to be wrong on so many levels that an attorney or a law firm can contribute a lot of money to a judicial candidate, and then later, after the election, go and argue a case before the same judge to whom the attorney and his/her legal firm just contributed huge amounts of campaign money. Someone is going to tell me that the judicial process isn’t somehow compromised by such a system? There’s no other explanation for some of the court rulings I see go by coming out of the county courthouse. Courtordered mediation after mediation in a court case that’s so simple to decide, even a 10-year-old could look at the facts and rule accordingly. But instead, the judge rules that both sides hire a mediator (often one of the judge’s compadres) who can pocket some more money for his next gambling trip to Vegas. Meanwhile, the poor plaintiff or defendant suffers the abuse. And in some cases, it’s the taxpayers paying for the court-ordered mediation. Which is why we see so many local legal cases filed in federal court instead of the state district court or county courts at law in Hidalgo County. Some lawyers know the game is rigged and they know they don’t stand a chance because the opposing side (either the plaintiff’s or defendant’s attorney) was a big money donor during the judge’s last re-election campaign. Or they’re good golfing buddies. Go figure. In federal court, the judges are appointed. They don’t need to host political fundraisers every four years. That’s not to say, though, that there aren’t some good and decent and honest judges in Hidalgo County who do accept campaign money and offer nothing in return. The entire system isn’t corrupt. But sometimes it’s difficult ferreting out the wheat from the chaff. Some cities and states are starting to move toward the public funding of political campaigns. Remove the influence money plays in the public arena. Albuquerque, New Mexico, has already adopted a form of public finance for local elections. On a state-wide level, Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, New Mexico and North Carolina have followed suit. They are varied in the ways they do it. In some cases, however, courts and state legislatures have struck down public funding. Gee, I wonder why? On the other hand, some people, corporations, professional firms see nothing wrong with the private funding of elections. It’s their free right, they argue, to contribute money to whichever candidate they so choose. And if they don’t do it, their competition is, so they have to play the same game to survive. This situation is currently playing out in Donna. And people are talking about last year’s political contributions. Just one example. The old law firm was let go. It only charged Donna ISD a monthly retainer of $8,000, which included actual legal work that was considered part of the retainer. Immediately after the school board election last November, the new board majority brought in a new attorney, Robert Salinas, who now charges the same district, AKA, the taxpayers, a monthly retainer of $25,000. Plus he’s charging the district an hourly fee of $200 on top of the $25k per month, and Salinas is already farming out work to at least two other attorneys who are charging the district $225 per hour. One recent charge to the district was for $350. According to the billing statement, it took Salinas 1.75 hours to “draft a letter to the superintendent regarding FBI investigation status.” Total charge for the work: $350. During the course of November 2014, the attorney charged Donna ISD 25.25 hours of legal work at $200/ hour, which came out to a total of $5,250. That’s on top of the $25k for the month.