This week Channel 13’s Ted Oberg reported that early in the Turner administration 126 doctors and executives with Kelsey-Seybold Clinic made campaign contributions of nearly $90,000 on the same day. Kelsey, which is one of our City’s outstanding medical institutions, has for many years been the principal healthcare provider for City employees. The contributions came just months before the Turner administration extended Kelsey’s contract for an additional two years without getting any other bids. If you missed the story, you can watch it using this link:
This story began to come to light in the fall of 2016 with a visit I made to Kelsey. Kelsey has been taking care of me for almost 20 years. They provide outstanding care and I cannot say enough nice things about them.
On this occasion, I saw a specialist I had not previously seen. While we were talking, he said, “I really hate that you lost the election to that [expletive deleted]. He is going to be a terrible mayor and on top of that it cost me a thousand dollars.” When I asked him why, he said that the leadership of the clinic had told him that if they did not contribute to Turner’s campaign, they would lose their contract to provide healthcare to City employees.
So, I pulled Turner’s campaign finance report to see if what he had told me was true. I was stunned. On the same day – February 16, 2016 – 126 Kelsey doctors and executives, most of whom had never made a campaign contribution in their lives, gave Turner between $500 and $1,000 each, totaling just under $90,000. The report shows that the contributions were received in alphabetical order, indicating the degree to which this was orchestrated. You can examine the actual pages from the report by clicking [here].
Oberg’s reporting also uncovered that on the same day, Kelsey’s CEO, marketing director, and their lobbyist, the infamous Cindy Clifford, had breakfast with Turner. Since then, groups and individuals related to Kelsey have gone on to contribute thousands more to Turner’s campaign.
Turner claims that all of this campaign money had nothing to do with Kelsey’s pending contract renewal. He would have us believe that over 100 doctors, who have never made a single campaign contribution to anyone, suddenly concluded on the same day they had to rush out and contribute to his campaign, even though the next election was nearly four years away. It is an insult to our intelligence.
But the story did not end with just campaign contributions. A person who helped organize Turner’s lavish inaugural ball told me that Turner’s surrogates also demanded that Kelsey contribute $50,000 to help pay for the ball. Oberg was able to confirm through an Open Records request that Kelsey made that contribution. The City’s campaign finance rules do not cover contributions to inaugural events, a gaping loophole that needs to be closed.
I don’t blame Kelsey. I have been there. I have owned companies that did business with the City. You get a call from someone representing the mayor or a council member. They are having a birthday party and would love for you to come join the celebration, providing, of course, that you bring a check along.
The City’s employees are a very important part of Kelsey’s business. Losing them would have cost Kelsey millions and probably forced it to layoff employees. If Kelsey would have lost the contract, the thousands of City employees that rely on it for healthcare would have been forced to find new doctors. What choice did Kelsey really have when they got that call?
This is why we need systemic reform of our campaign finance ordinance. As you may recall, I worked with a group of lawyers to draft an amendment that would end the blatant pay-to-play that now permeates our City Hall. [Click here to read the proposed amendment.]
Houston is one of the few major cities in the country that allows this kind of legalized extortion. It is time that we have real campaign finance reform in Houston.