Revolving door always open for ex-politicians
By KRISTEN MACK
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
March 5, 2007
Robert Eckels expects to work at two jobs this week — Harris County judge until Tuesday, Fulbright & Jaworski partner starting Wednesday.
That's a faster transition than usual, and Eckels is leaving earlier in his term than most, but the move between public and private life called the revolving door has spun for many Texas politicians before him.
It most often transports elected officials who are defeated or don't seek re-election.
Two of the state's top judges, however, joined the private sector in Houston voluntarily with time left in their terms, as Eckels is doing, and a state representative from Houston revolved soon after winning nomination for another term.
The officials and their private employers say the skills and expertise that worked in the public sector are useful to private employers who simply want help navigating the system.
Government watchdog groups decry the revolving door, saying officials use knowledge and contacts developed in public office to advance private interests.
Eckels has said he does not plan to lobby, and he has no immediate expectation of involvement in Fulbright & Jaworski's Harris County business — mostly bond issue work — though he would not totally rule it out.
Many become lobbyists
Unlike their federal and city of Houston counterparts, Harris County and Texas officials aren't prohibited from lobbying their former public employers for a period after they leave.
Seventy former Texas lawmakers are registered as lobbyists, the highest figure in the nation, according to a study last year by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based investigative journalism operation specializing in politics,
"It raises questions in the public's mind about whose interest a public official is representing at any given time," said Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans For Public Justice, a nonprofit organization that tracks money and politics. "Is it the public's interest or are they eyeing the next job?"
John Hill liked the job he had in the late 1980s, when he was chief justice of the state Supreme Court. He crusaded against the partisan election system that drives judges to accept campaign contributions from lawyers and other special interests. He advocated a system of gubernatorial appointments and retention elections.
Yet it was the same issue that persuaded him to step down from the bench and join a Houston law firm in 1988, two years into a six-year term.
The Supreme Court received negative national attention when CBS' 60 Minutes highlighted large campaign contributions and questioned whether justice was "for sale."
"The issue became so controversial, both on the court and in the public domain," Hill said in an interview last week.
"I regret that I didn't serve out my full term," he said. "I wasn't dissatisfied with being chief justice. But I had a lot of opposition and I felt it was affecting the court adversely."
Hill left the court and became a name partner in the Houston-based law firm now known as Locke, Liddell & Sapp.
"Hill is a legend in Texas law and politics. He brings such a reputation in terms of abilities, knowledge of the law and judicial process," said Bruce LaBoon, a senior partner at the firm.
Hill headed the litigation practice for a number of years, LaBoon said, and became "a great rainmaker" — a person who brings clients to the firm.
Among clients Hill drew were MetLife Insurance, the drug company Eli Lily and the Texas Medical Center.
Life beyond the bench
Hill's successor, Tom Phillips, also pushed for changes in the judicial system and also left in midterm.
Phillips said last week that he left partly because he was fully vested in the retirement system, which he referred to as a "gentle form of term limits," and did not view the Texas judiciary as a lifetime career.
He taught constitutional law at South Texas College of Law for a year as a transition between public and private life.
"I did not want to be looking for a job while I was sitting as the judicial officer of the state and I didn't want to be unemployed either," Phillips said.
The law firm Baker Botts initiated conversations with Phillips soon after he left the bench.
"The primary value he has bought is to elevate significantly the profile of our nationwide appellate practice and attract business opportunities for the firm," said Stephen Tipps, a partner at the firm.
"Highly qualified, highly talented elected officials are always going to have many opportunities in the private sector," Tipps said.
Phillips has argued a billion-dollar divorce case before the state Supreme Court, and he has another case pending in the court he once headed.
Phillips' clients include the Rhode Island-based Millennium Chemical and Pennsylvania-based packaging company Crown Cork & Seal.
Phillips says his career as a lawyer and judge gave him good insight into what "arguments are worth making and how to structure them in a way busy judges would find appealing."
Too good to pass up
State Rep. Gerard Torres of Houston had won the Democratic nomination for re-election in 1998 and was campaigning against a Republican challenger when Reliant Energy offered him a lobbying job.
Torres says he initially turned the offer down, but he reconsidered after political and community leaders told him the position was too good to pass up.
At the time Reliant didn't have a Hispanic on its lobby team and considered that a deficiency, said Bruce Gibson, then-senior VP of government affairs.
"We created a profile for a 'Gerard Torres-type,' someone who was smart and personable, knew the process from the inside, and could work with anybody," Gibson said.
Reliant couldn't come up with anyone who matched all of those qualities, except Torres.
Torres now works for the Greater Houston Partnership.