HOUSTON -- A campaign video shows Ben Hall, the former city attorney who is now running for mayor, sitting in a classroom amid a group of schoolchildren as his voiceover talks about the importance of education.
"Our children are our future," Hall says, with music swelling in the background. "They deserve the very best education that any school district can offer."
Funny thing about education, though. Somebody has to pay for it.
That's the irony in Hall's video. In Texas, public schools are funded mainly by property taxes. And Hall has a bad habit of paying his property taxes late.
Tax records obtained by KHOU 11 News show the candidate has paid more than $130,000 in late fees, penalties and interest on property taxes he's owed during the past decade. Indeed, he owed more than $50,000 to the Spring Branch ISD that was due in January, a bill he hastily paid after KHOU contacted him with questions about his tax troubles.
"It's not deliberate, but I'll be honest with you, I don't rush to pay my tax bills," Hall said. "And I'm sure that there are a lot of us that struggle with this obligation, but at the end of the day you have to pay them. And we pay them."
Hall, a wealthy plaintiff attorney, recently sold a mansion in Piney Point that cost him enough in late fees to buy some Houstonians' homes. During a ten-year period, he and his wife paid more than $84,000 in penalties, interest and collection fees. They moved into a house inside the city limits, where he didn't pay his Spring Branch ISD until a reporter started asking questions.
He's also paid more than $46,000 in late fees on a historic home in Montrose that houses his law office.
The Houston mayoral candidate readily owned up to his tax troubles and agreed to a television interview, conceding that he fully expected the embarrassing problem to come up during his campaign. Indeed, he tried to spin the questions into an argument that his tax woes make him more sensitive to the problems faced by average taxpayers.
"I think we need to seriously look at whether it is good policy to assess an additional 20 percent load on taxpayers who are already struggling to pay their taxes," Hall said.
Hall officially launched his candidacy for mayor less than two months ago. So he's still trying to establish his identity with voters who don't remember his tenure as city attorney nearly two decades ago.
"I think what's important here is that this is probably the first story we've heard about Ben Hall since he announced that defines him, and defines him in a way that clearly is not flattering," said Bob Stein, a Rice University political scientist and KHOU political analyst.
The timing of this story indicates Mayor Annise Parker's re-election campaign hopes to create a negative impression of Hall before the challenger has a chance to gain a foothold with the voting public. KHOU investigated Hall's tax records after a tip from a source within the Parker campaign.
"One finds it hard to believe that someone with this kind of wealth would have been this remiss," Stein said. "I think politically, it's not a good story, but apparently he's done this before. So my guess is that he thinks he can weather this story."
Hall hopes to unseat Parker, who is running for her third and final term as mayor, in the city elections next November.