Cindy Clifford, of the lobbying group The Clifford Group, has been around city hall for some time. In the process, she gained undue influence which seems to be more beneficial to her and her clients than it is to taxpayers.
Going back a few years, Clifford represented Yellow Cab during the fight over ridesharing regulations in the city of Houston. At the time, when Mayor Sylvester Turner refused to adjust regulations, Anvil Bar & Refuge owner Bobby Huegel shared a photo of the Turner and Clifford saying:
“Do we have a Mayor that sacrifices progressive transportation solutions and lower DUI rates so he can maintain his fundraising connections? That’s a pretty disturbing preview about what type of leadership will exist under the Turner administration.”
That was just a foreshadowing of the amount of influence Clifford would have in this administration.
The ridesharing battle happened during Turner’s first year in office. The year prior, Clifford sat on his campaign’s Finance Committee, then became head of his Inaugural Committee, and then a member of his Transition Committee on Criminal Justice.
Clifford has given, at least, $15,000 in contributions to Turner since taking office, the most recent of those was a $2,500 contribution in March and a $1,500 contribution in June.
But, it’s much more than her personal contributions.
As a member of Turner’s finance committee, she was partially responsible for Turner’s fundraising haul.
Clifford and the Clifford Group have also long fundraised for candidates. As recent as June, the Clifford Group organized a fundraiser for Council Member Karla Cisneros and Clifford herself is listed on Cisneros’ campaign finance report as paying the cost for the event venue and refreshments.
City rules on campaign contributions state that contributions cannot be solicited on behalf of any candidate by any member of the Planning Commission, Ethics Commission, METRO, Port of Houston, or the Sports Authority, but nothing prohibits appointees or lobbyists, like Clifford, from personally contributing.
Nonetheless, Clifford’s connection raises ethical and campaign finance questions. While she doesn’t personally act as the fundraiser for candidates, she is the President of the Clifford Group and undoubtedly benefits when the Clifford Group is the one in charge of fundraising.
Along with being a fundraiser, Clifford represents no fewer than ten businesses in their lobbying efforts with the city. These include Cigna, Comcast, Dell, Kelsey Seybold, Orrick, and Republic Services to name a few. All while currently serving as a mayoral appointee on the board of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.
The Clifford Group has also served as a city vendor in the past, one Controller report shows them collecting three payments of $16,500 each – totaling $49,500, just under the $50,000 limit that would require council approval.
The extent to which Clifford has ingratiated herself with the city and the mayor’s office is hard to quantify. As recent as March, Dolcefino Consulting was in a spat with the Mayor’s Office over communications between Clifford and the Mayor. But there are few who are more inextricably tied financially and personally to the mayor and who have benefited as much as Clifford.
The jury is still out on whether her organization fundraising while she sits on a city board is an actual violation the campaign finance policy, but it certainly violates the spirit of the ordinance.
Some argue that “pay-to-play” is just another cliché remark thrown around the city in attempts to vilify elected officials, but when you see examples like Clifford, who have seemingly had huge returns on investment from helping political allies, you can’t help but to wonder how deep it goes.