The honchos at the Texas Department of Economic Development tried to get rid of former legislator Randall Riley quietly, and in fact, the executive director and the chairman of the agency apparently went out of their way to get folks in the Pink Building to talk Riley into quitting. But it finally came to a force-out when Riley got a call from friendlies in the lieutenant governor's office who said TDED Chairman Mark Langdale and Executive Director Jeff Moseley wanted to wring his neck.
He's on the payroll and at the office for another week as we write this. The agency is considering a lawsuit against him for his handling of a particular Smart Jobs contract. If that's not strange enough, how's this: Riley is on the slate to testify before the state's Sunset Commission this week, two days before he drops off the state payroll. The agency, which has a historical aversion to outside observers, isn't talking much because A, this is a personnel matter, and B, because it might be a legal matter.
Riley, however, is telling his version of this tale to anyone and everyone who will listen. Unless somebody changes their minds, he'll be reeling it out for the Sunset Commission on Wednesday.
He says the heart of his problem is that he was telling lawmakers and others more than the agency wanted them to know. For instance, he says the Smart Jobs program that was part of his portfolio at the agency is improving, but not nearly as quickly as the agency has told lawmakers. In fact, he says, it's still a mess and will be for the several months it takes the auditors to sort things out.
Another issue was an internal disagreement over whether the agency should stop putting out new contracts when they were ordered to do so by top lawmakers. TDED stopped new applications, but continued to sign Smart Jobs contracts that were already in the works. Lawmakers found out and made their intentions and their moods clear, and no more contracts were signed.
Suing the Whistle-Blower?
The potential lawsuit has to do with a Smart Jobs contractor that didn't get its money from the state when it thought it should. There was some conversation back and forth. The company proved up some of the things that the agency's lawyers said should be proved, and Riley says he approved the payments after the contractor met those criteria. The agency's version is that the matter should have been left to TDED's lawyers, especially with state auditors and legislators telling the agency to get a tighter grip on the reins at the troubled Smart Jobs program.
It all piled up. The agency brass went to talk to folks on the Lite Guv's staff. Riley wasn't a must-hire, but did get a friendly word from Rick Perry before TDED hired him last year. After Langdale and Moseley visited the Capitol, Riley says the word he got from Perry's folks was to cool off and stick around at least until a transition to a new Smart Jobs director could take place.
The top apparently blew off when Riley went to an executive session of the board. His story: When asked for an example of people not being open with information, he pointed to Langdale and said the chairman had decided not to share draft copies of a scathing auditor's report with other board members. That message, delivered in front of the other board members, set Langdale off, Riley said. The chairman, a former next-door neighbor of the governor's and a fixture at TDED for the last several years, let the folks at the Capitol know that Riley was cooked, and that was that.
This week's Sunset hearing is focussed mainly on a report that recommends wholesale changes at the agency, including moving Smart Jobs and tourism elsewhere in government and replacing the current board with a new one. But it will start with Riley.
Republicans in Repose
House Republicans went off to the camp in the Hill Country, outside of Marble Falls, for a social/bonding/political gathering that by most accounts was a great success. Even the injured were smiling about it. Incoming Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and Elizabeth Ames Jones, the Republican nominee from San Antonio's HD-121, were among the walking wounded when it was over. Kolkhorst got a wicked ding in a volleyball accident that first appeared to be a broken arm. Jones suffered no permanent damage, but got run over by Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, in a softball game and was slung around by Rep. Joe Nixon, R-Houston, in a strenuous version of the jitterbug.
Statewide officials and others, ranging from comedians to reporters, came in to talk to the 48 members who showed up. That's how Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, got into a conversation with Land Commissioner David Dewhurst about Internet addresses.
This requires a quick zip through recent history. The Free Enterprise PAC run by Richard Ford tried late last year to recruit an opponent for Merritt, because the group doesn't like his voting record. They sent letters to people in his district asking for help. He was one of the people they asked. As it turned out, nobody ran against Merritt. A few weeks into this year, Merritt and some others got after Dewhurst for his large contributions to Ford's group, knocking the land commissioner for giving financial help to an outfit that was going after Merritt and a few other incumbent Republicans in the House. Dewhurst responded a few weeks later with a letter from Ford saying that none of the land commissioner's donations to the group were being used for those purposes.
In about that time frame, Merritt got on the Internet and registered three domain names for future use, which is what he and Dewhurst were talking about at the retreat. The names? DavidDewhurst.com, DavidDewhurst.net and DavidDewhurst.org. Dewhurst has his lawyers on the case (he apparently called them before he talked to Merritt) appealing to the authorities who manage all of the Internet's domain names. That eventually could lead to mediation and or the courts and or Merritt giving the name back. Merritt says simply: "We agreed to talk, and he's gonna pay for lunch."
Merritt also has other names registered, including the TonyGarza.com, .net and .org, after the railroad commissioner, UTFootball.com and UTBasketball.com.
• Politicians have always announced the opening of their storefront campaign offices, but it's a new age, and now they announce their e-storefronts. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, has a new site up, offering everything from a biography to t-shirts. It's at www.hutchisonforsenate.org.
• State sites on the Internet are improving rapidly. The Texas Railroad Commission just completed a renovation of its site, at www.rrc.state.tx.us. That was a private sector deal: An Austin company, Onramp, did the work.
Independent of the Reform Party
The dinky crowd that showed up to welcome Pat Buchanan to the Texas Secretary of State's office would have disappointed the average county commissioner, but they were lugging boxes with petitions signed by 128,894 Texas voters, almost enough to convey ownership of some Texas counties. If at least 56,116 of those signers are actually registered, Buchanan will be on the ballot as an independent candidate. He said he did it that way to play it safe. It would require fewer signatures to get the Reform Party on the ballot, and the deadline is a bit looser, but getting a party on the ballot requires a series of local, regional and statewide conventions that present too much of a hurdle.
So, like Ross Perot before him, Buchanan is attempting to get on the Texas ballot as an independent instead of as the leader of a party ticket. His partner on the ballot, he said, will vary from state to state. Here, it's Clymer Wright, the longtime term limits activist from Houston. Buchanan said he's an old friend who agreed to fill in for the time being.
On the Campaign Finance Trail
They just think differently up there in Washington, D.C. When state Republicans convened in Austin last week to talk about their coordinated campaign for the fall, they started with a press conference attended by all but a few of the statewide elected officials. The main push was for Gov. George W. Bush, but the real battle is for control of the Texas Legislature in January, when lawmakers will attempt to draw the political maps that will set the landscape for the next decade.
The pep rally went a little south when U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay was asked what he thinks about the lawsuit filed against him by congressional Democrats led by Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island (who we mistakenly put in Massachusetts last week). As you might expect, DeLay doesn't think much of the suit, which claims he violated civil racketeering laws with his aggressive political fundraising. He said he is prepared to depose every Democrat in Congress and will make them sorry they came after him.
Asked whether he agrees with Gov. George W. Bush's assessment that Congress is too partisan, DeLay replied that the Democrats "have sold their souls for power." Later, he made Congress sound like a big, dysfunctional family, saying, "there are a lot of emotional problems in the House."
Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, stepped in at that point to try to get the Unity message back into the tops of the news stories the next day. He blamed the partisan atmosphere in Washington, D.C., on Bill Clinton and said it'll change if Congress gets a president it trusts. The intended message of the day: DeLay will head the $4 million Victory 2000 effort in Texas. He said, without making clear whether he was talking about the state or the entire country or both, that Republicans failed to turn out their voters in 1998 and said his job will be to do that in Texas.
DeLay got support on the lawsuit front from a few Democrats who said the suit shouldn't have been filed, and from a number of legal scholars who said it was a stretch to put political fundraising in the same league as racketeers. And he argued, correctly, that the groups in question are legal. They are so-called "527" organizations, named for the tax code section that makes them possible. That designation allows the groups, broadly speaking, to raise money and get involved in political activities without disclosing the names of voters. They're not allowed to contribute to particular candidates, but the lines are increasingly blurry between specific and general help for campaigns.
According to reports from the Center for Public Integrity and from Common Cause, 527 groups include the Christian Coalition, the Club for Growth, Shape the Debate (the group that paid for those "Hypocrisy" TV ads against Al Gore), and Citizens for the Republican Congress. But before you get all heated up about conservatives, there are several groups from the other end of the spectrum in the same pot: The Sierra Club, the Peace Action Fund, Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities (founded by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream), and the League of Conservation Voters.
• Don't get caught calling this full disclosure, but a non-profit that's caught some flak for not revealing its sources of funding is now revealing some of them. Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit group that has made a name for itself by slapping judges, state officeholders and lobbyists on campaign finance issues, says it got a $55,000 grant from the Deer Creek Foundation of St. Louis. The group says it expects to get $275,000 from foundation grants this year (listed on the Web at www.tpj.org), and says that will cover 85 percent of its budget. The rest comes from about 1,000 "individual Texas donors" the group won't name. Republicans have been shooting at the group for keeping its own sources of money secret while excoriating Attorney General John Cornyn for his participation in a group of Republican AGs that won't directly reveal its contributors.
• Fun and Games Department: Harold Cook, former executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, wrote up an Internet joke that's now been passed around Austin as much as the ILOVEYOU virus that inspired it. He made up some copycat viruses. For instance: "If you receive an email from Domingo Garcia, John Sharp or Garry Mauro entitled 'Can't we all just get along?' it is not real. Delete it." One more: "If you receive an email from [Austin Mayor] Kirk Watson entitled 'Let's slow down this process–we need more public input' it is not real. Delete it."
Remote Control Jousting
This is probably more interesting than it is significant: John Sharp, who got beat by Rick Perry in the last lieutenant governor's race, is helping David Fisher raise money. Perry, of course, is helping Todd Staples raise money. Add that to the undercurrents in the race for the state's 3rd Senate District.
Here's another one: Attorney General John Cornyn endorsed Staples. That's not surprising, either, since Republicans (and Democrats, too) have made it clear that this fight is important to them. Cornyn come with two undertows. First, this lines him up against a trial lawyer and with tort reformers. Expect Fisher to get slapped some more over the next six months for his ties to Beaumont, which is the home of the state's tobacco lawyers -- Cornyn's favorite foils. Second, it puts the state's redistricting lawyer in the middle of a fight that is, in the end, about partisan control of the Legislature. Cornyn will be representing the state if and when its legislative and congressional redistricting lines go to court. Democrats will probably squawk that he is a partisan himself. He'll point to his Democratic predecessors and say they are his guiding lights in all of this. Everyone will be correct.
Staples, who's the vice chairman of the House Corrections Committee and who has taken a fair amount of flak from prison guards in his district, is renewing his call for a pay raise for corrections officers. Last session, efforts to get raises for guards got buried under efforts to get a $100 per month pay raise for all state employees. Now the guards are squawking, with some justification. Their pay is low and their ranks are dangerously thin; they blame the personnel shortage on the low pay, which they say doesn't attract new people into their ranks. Staples has called for a special session if lawmakers can't get more money for guards another way. He wants to get the guards another $100 per month for now, with more to follow, possibly, during the regular legislative session next year. He got booed in a meeting with guards during the primaries. One of his opponents, Les Tarrance of The Woodlands, got a loud cheer when he said to the crowd: "I am not Todd Staples!" Note: There is a video of that event.
Sharp isn't the only Democrat helping Fisher raise money. He's got a funder coming up in Houston next month that has Staples shooting at him for close ties to Houston. The sack-dragging is sponsored by a number of Houston Democrats, including Mayor Lee Brown and Mayor Pro Tem Jew Don Boney Jr. Staples took their involvement as an opportunity to write Brown that "East Texas is not for sale." That's a play on Houston's periodic looks at East Texas water supplies (that's not popular in parts of the district Fisher and Staples want to represent). Other sponsors include former Democratic Party Chairman Bill White, Democratic Sens. David Bernsen of Beaumont, and Mario Gallegos, Rodney Ellis and John Whitmire of Houston. The Republican asked Fisher to skip the funder and show up for a debate on Houston's water grabs on the shores of Lake Conroe.
Staples is coming to Austin on Monday, the date of this edition, for a major fundraiser that will not actually put money in his bank account. It'll go instead into the coffers of the committee formed by Senate Republicans, a great deal of which will then be poured into SD-03.
• Tidbits: Fisher gave Staples a copy of his signed "fair campaign pledge" at a joint appearance in Lufkin, and thumped the Republican for filing "frivolous" ethics complaints at the same time he was appearing at a gathering of East Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse, which, in Fisher's words, was "a seminar targeting frivolous lawsuits." Fisher unnerves some Staples supporters with regular calls "just to see how they're doing." Last week, he showed up at Tarrance's office to chat.
• Pull GOP consultant Lee Woods of Houston off of Paul Woodard's campaign in HD-11. He got Woodard through the primary against Ken Durrett, who was coached by Bryan Eppstein of Fort Worth. Now that the primary's over, Woodard and Woods have parted ways and the candidate has hired Eppstein and Bill Tryon to run his general election battle for him. Woodard is running to replace Staples against Democrat Chuck Hopson, a pharmacist. Woods says the candidate wanted to be more coordinated with Staples' campaign, which Eppstein is running. On the other side of the district, it looks like Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, is sticking with his consultants after openly wondering whether to fire them. Jim Arnold says the checks are still coming in.
Privacy, Health Care and Tax Cuts
There's a new outfit in town, formed up because of the simmering debate over the privacy of personal banking and medical and other records in the hands of companies ranging from insurers to financial institutions to data crunchers. The Alliance for Responsible Information Practices, a concoction of Austin-based Public Strategies Inc., or PSI, is basically taking this tack with state lawmakers: Don't do anything. They're still working on membership and what they'll say and how they'll say it, but the banks and technology and pharmaceutical companies who are already in want the Legislature to codify existing law and concentrate on crime problems like identification theft. Over time, they think the private sector is in a better position to regulate this than the public sector. That said, this'll be one of the most watched issues of the next session, with interim committees already working on it and state regulators trying to figure out how to deal with new federal legislation that deals with privacy issues in financial institutions. Watch this space.
• Health care for uninsured Texans cost the private and public sectors $4.7 billion in 1998, according to a new report by Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander for a state panel studying the uninsured. Oddly, some supporters of presidential candidate George W. Bush pitched that as proof that the hole in Texas health care isn't as deep as liberals paint it. But the report from Rylander essentially measures so-called "uncompensated care", meaning $4.7 billion is what it costs to provide medical and health services to people without insurance. Most of the money, $3.5 billion, is from local governments, private providers and charities. Just under $1 billion comes from state agencies and about $200 million of the total comes from the federal government. Hospitals alone got zinged for $2.1 billion (part of that was state and federal money), making up that much in uncompensated care for uninsured people and for Medicaid services that went unreimbursed. Doctors paid another $914 million. The total boils down to about $1,000 in health care for each uninsured Texan in 1998.
• An amendment got added to the federal moratorium on Internet taxes that, if left alone when the Senate considers the measure, would cost Texas about $50 million in lost tax income. The current block on Internet access taxes exempts Texas and a few other states, reasoning that they had those taxes in place when the first moratorium passed. Texas legislators later came along and exempted the first $25 of a customer's monthly access charge from taxation, but the state still brings in about $50 million annually from the tax. The new bill, which passed the House and is wending its way through the Senate, doesn't include that grandfather clause for Texas. That would free Texans from any sales taxes on Internet access charges and cost the state about $100 billion in each biennium.
Miscellaneous Short Bits
• The Texas Department of Criminal Justice keeps a running list of Texas inmates scheduled for execution over the next several months. Between now and Election Day, the state plans to execute 22 of the 465 people on Death Row. And on the day after the elections, Gary Wayne Etheridge is scheduled to be killed. He's the convicted killer who became the notorious star of the last election cycle, when Republican Rick Perry and Democrat John Sharp -- then fighting over the lieutenant governor post that now belongs to Perry -- each accused the other of sponsoring legislation that freed Etheridge from prison to commit the crime that now has him awaiting execution.
• The Bush campaign spent $73.5 million through its last report. On what? Almost $22 million went into television and radio ads, another $4.9 million on direct mail, $3.4 million on postage and $2.8 million on telemarketing. Airplane charters ate up another $4.8 million, $3 million went to employees of the campaign, other travel expenses gobbled up $1.1 and the campaign has spent almost $1 million on phone bills since it cranked up more than a year ago. The biggest winners? The United States Postal Service, which has raked in $4.9 million, followed by Thomas Graphics, an Austin printing company, at $4.3 million. The IRS got $2.5 million, and Bush's direct mail firm (which until last year was owned by Karl Rove, his political sidekick) pulled in $2.4 million.
Political People and Their Moves
The newest sworn-in member of the Texas House is Myra Crownover, R-Denton, who won a special election last week in which she was the only candidate on the ballot. Crownover, the widow of Rep. Ronny Crownover, will be on the ballot again in November, again without opposition... Ray Sullivan left Gov. George W. Bush's state office a couple of years ago to help on Rick Perry's successful campaign for lieutenant governor. Now he's leaving Perry's state staff to go to the governor's presidential campaign. He'll join the spokesbot ranks there. Eric Bearse will take charge in Perry's press shop. Sullivan has worked in the past with both Karen Hughes, the campaign's communications director, and Ari Fleischer, who handles daily jousting with the national press corps... Sandra Joseph, legal counsel to Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams and former open records chief at the comptroller's office, is retiring. No replacement has been named... The Senate Natural Resources Committee was pretty quick to replace two departing staffers: They've hired J.A. Lazarus from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission and Wendy Wyman from the office of Rep. Dianne Delisi, R-Temple... Related, sort-of: Tammy Dowe jumped off the staff of Rep. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, to join former TNRCC staffer Liz Hendler at the Houston Partnership. They're both working on clean air issues... While they're wrestling with Randall Riley, the Texas Department of Economic Development has filled a job in one of its most troubled areas: Dan Martin, formerly of the TNRCC, will head the state's Smart Jobs program. Riley didn't head that program, but oversaw it... Ray Hunt of Dallas, who heads Hunt Oil Co., joins the Bush faction on the Republican National Committee. He'll be the finance chairman of the party's national Victory 2000 campaign... The State Commission on Judicial Conduct slapped Robert Hollman, a former Title IV-D Master in Odessa, with a Public Reprimand. He was accused of tying up his assistant, sometimes carrying her around the office, sometimes leaving her on the floor on in a chair while he timed her efforts to escape. Judge Hollman resigned in January, but the commission still wanted its disapproval known.
Quotes of the Week
Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who wants a podium at future debates between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore: "If Mexico can have all six candidates in their [presidential] debates, why can't we have three in ours?"
U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, on a lawsuit filed by Democrats in Congress which alleges his fundraising methods cross the line into racketeering: "They picked on the wrong guy. We're going to fight this with everything that we've got, and I guarantee they'll rue the day they've ever done this."
Lobbyist and former Gov. Ann Richards, telling gossip columnist Liz Smith why she wants to stay off of the list for vice president: "The problem with running for office is, if elected, one has to serve."
Former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, found innocent in two previous federal trials, on being convicted in his most recent one: "If you sit by a river long enough, the dead bodies of your enemies will float by you. I suppose the feds sat by the river long enough, and here comes my body."
State Board of Education member David Bradley, R-Beaumont, on a proposed rule that would make state money dependent on a student staying in class all day: "As a taxpayer, I want to ensure that if we are paying funds to a school district, there is a warm body in every chair we are paying for."
Patrick Ryan of the Texas Chamber of Electronic Commerce, on state laws that prevent unlicensed dealers from selling cars over the Internet in Texas: "When those laws were drafted, they had no idea the Internet was coming. Now, they really give the state a black eye and take it down a peg. Texas shouldn't be telling people how and where they can shop."
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Michigan, on why he introduced a bill that would ban an email tax that exists only as an urban legend on the Internet: "The Federal Communications Commission says it has no plans to impose any such tax at the present time, but I am troubled by the fact that there is nothing to prevent them from doing so later."
Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 44, 15 May 2000. Copyright 2000 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited.
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