Skip to main content

The Signpost Up Ahead: Ethics

The ethics dust-devil whirling around Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, is unlikely to harm his upcoming election as Speaker of the House, but it could make more trouble for him during the legislative session. It has made some House members on his side skittish—not an unnatural state for politicians in a time of change, and not a permanent condition. And it has emboldened and encouraged some of the people who don't want the Republicans to do well in their first session in charge of things since the inventions of such contrivances as telephones, automobiles, income taxes and Velcro. That's not a permanent condition, either.

The ethics dust-devil whirling around Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, is unlikely to harm his upcoming election as Speaker of the House, but it could make more trouble for him during the legislative session. It has made some House members on his side skittish—not an unnatural state for politicians in a time of change, and not a permanent condition. And it has emboldened and encouraged some of the people who don't want the Republicans to do well in their first session in charge of things since the inventions of such contrivances as telephones, automobiles, income taxes and Velcro. That's not a permanent condition, either.

The harumphing over news reports—about Craddick's lobby ties, his daughter's lobby business and whether it conflicted with his legislative job, and bills that Craddick is accused of passing for business associates—will diminish. Political stories have shorter shelf lives than they used to have, and the long holidays at the end of the year are often a good burial ground for scandals both real and imagined. It would probably take something new to stir things up after the break.

But Craddick's foes have a built-in advantage in the form of legislation reconstituting the Texas Ethics Commission. That agency has been under Sunset Commission review during the interim between sessions, and the legislation making recommended changes will come up in this session. That's what a lawyer might call an attractive nuisance—every officeholder in Texas would like to change something about the regulation of their political finances, oversight of their personal financial reporting, and handling of complaints that politicos aren't doing their business on the square.

Now add to that usual racket over ethics and campaign finance amendments from lawmakers that might reintroduce questions about the same things that have been in the papers. Craddick has explained most of what's been said about him, or denied it (see below), but that doesn't prevent new visits to the subject during the legislative session next year.

Democrats are preparing legislation that Republicans would rather not see. Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, filed a bill that would overturn the so-called Robin Hood system of school finance. Republicans want to do that, but remedies are expensive and they can't afford them right now. The Texas Legislative Council has been asked by Democratic lawmakers to draft bills including some of the more controversial items in the state GOP's platform, just in the interest of making Republicans vote on that stuff. Hint: Many Republicans would rather not talk about that stuff, much less vote on it. Ethics proposals embarrassing to the new boss aren't a long leap from those notions.

The latest flap: Sheila Beckett, director of the Employee Retirement System of Texas, says she never talked to Craddick about changing the law to extend state health insurance benefits to his lobbyist daughter, but she does say she was told he was behind the change. A spokesman for Craddick flatly denies he had anything to do with it. Whoever was behind it, Christy Craddick is one of the 88 people who benefits. State employees can insure their dependent children, and can keep them on their policies (they have to pay their way) as long as their kids don't get married. Craddick the Younger is in her 30s, but isn't married, and told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that she's still insured by the state. That costs about $300 a month. Before the law was changed, unmarried children of legislators and state employees could only stay on the policies until they turned 28. A tangent worth noting: The board of directors at ERS has six members, three of whom are elected by state employees. One of those elected officials is Don Green, newly named as the budget/finance wizard for Craddick.

House Cleaning

Tom Craddick's staff will include Chas Semple and Don Green, and two more who came in a little more quietly: Lobbyist Nancy Fisher and Austin TV producer Monica Vigil-McDonald.

Semple, a former Craddick aide who now works for Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, will be the new speaker's executive assistant. Craddick won't have a chief of staff, at least not in title. That's an effort to cut out an obstacle between the speaker and the House members, some of whom have complained that the current speaker, Pete Laney, has let Chief of Staff Barry Miller act as a roadblock. That's true, but it's also the norm for speakers: Craddick says he wants to be more accessible than his predecessors. Green will be the budget director. He's been crunching numbers for the LBB, then the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, and finally the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, for 22 years. Vigil-McDonald will be communications director.

Fisher's title isn't clear, but she'll take over much of what is done now by Sharon Carter, the chief clerk of the House. Fisher had a hand in firing the staff of the House's bill analysis division, which had reported to Carter. The 30-odd employees there, more than half of them hired on November 1 to get ready for the session, won't have jobs there next session.

With that announcement came another: He's disbanding the three-member transition team he assembled last month. That trio included lobbyist and former legislator Bill Messer, lobbyist and public relations consultant Bill Miller, and Republican activist Bill Ceverha, also a former legislator. With the new staff announcements, they'll still be helpful, but not nearly as visibly as before.

Moving Power Back to the Committees

Craddick, as noted, will eliminate the department that does the legal analyses of legislation, returning that function to the control of committee chairs in the House. The centralized operation employs about 30 people and has been in business for about half a decade.

The House centralized its bill analysis operation after conservatives—notably Reps. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, and Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson—had wild success using mistakes in those documents to knock bills off the House calendar. Those derailings were often fatal to legislation and always irritating to the bill authors and to the management of the House. Changes resulted.

First, the bill analyses started getting more scrutiny so that the glitches that were causing problems on the House floor were minimized. We're talking about things like noting the dates and times of committee votes and checking the right boxes on the forms and making sure every required section of the analyses were done in just the right way. You know—the kind of picky stuff lawyers live on.

Second, the House's rules were changed to make it more difficult to kill a bill on the basis of "non-substantive" problems. If someone called a point of order on a bill, saying the bill analysis was messed up, the author could argue that the mistake was of no real consequence and continue on from there.

Centralizing the bill analysis operation also had another effect. It moved control of the content of the bill analyses away from the House committees and to a central point where management—by which we mean the Speaker's office—could watch what got into those documents and what didn't.

One spin: It became harder for lobbyists to influence the content of the bill analysis to the benefit of their clients, and in fact, we've heard some lobbyists whine about the results over the years. We also heard them whine about the results before the change, but for different reasons; in the old days, they'd be irked with a particular committee chairman or clerk instead of with a central office.

An alternate spin: 98 percent of the bill analyses aren't affected in a substantive way, since the central office gets the information on the bills from the members of the Legislature and doesn't change it much. In practice, the members get a lot of that information from the lobbyists pushing the legislation, and the difference between the old system and the new one is minimal on most bills.

The Vision Thing

The three guys who'll be running the government six weeks from now are touting a couple of legislator orientation conferences sponsored by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative-tilted San Antonio-based think tank. A letter to "Dear Friend of Texas," signed by Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov.-elect David Dewhurst and Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, went out to legislators and their staffs and other "people interested in the issues facing Texas," according to a spokesman for the group.

TPPF is probably best-known for its role in the state's textbook wars, but it's done research and then been relatively outspoken on everything from tort reform to school vouchers to mass transit, and is a frequent foil of the Texas Freedom Network and other groups on the other side of the political ledger. Dr. James Leininger of San Antonio, an influential Republican financier, helped start TPPF.

TPPF led the research efforts into "factual errors" that got changes made to some textbooks—and got other books whacked from the state's list of what is acceptable for shoveling into the minds of public school students in Texas. The phrase factual errors is in quotation marks up there because it was the subject of some controversy during the battles. TPPF and others won the day with the State Board of Education, which chose to classify interpretations and characterizations of events by historians and other authors as facts. When they disagreed with a particular writer's take on a subject—when they thought the conclusions were wrong or unacceptable—they called them factual errors and booted them. We're not trying to relive the fight here, just to tell you what the controversy is all about (but do keep those cards and letters coming).

The "78th Texas Legislature Policy Orientation" described in the letter from the state's next official troika is "designed especially for legislators, their staffs, and people who work with state government." At two conferences—one in late January, the next in early February—"the new House and Senate leadership along with top policy experts will present a vision for the state of Texas."

The letter has the state seal at the top, but also has a "not printed or mailed at state expense" disclaimer at the bottom. Michael Sullivan, a spokesman for TPPF, said the list of speakers isn't available yet, but said the general public would be allowed to go to the conferences (at the Four Seasons in Austin) and said there would "probably be no charge."

Oops, with an Assist

Because of a bum number on the Texas Secretary of State's website, we recently wrote that Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, got the least number of votes of any winner in contests for the Texas House. That's only true if you leave out the 22,083 votes he got in Ellis County, which is what the SOS did. He got 5,989 in the Hill County part of his district and a total like that would have won him the Winner With The Least trophy. Instead, that distinction falls to Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who won a hotly contested race with only 6,292 votes. The runner up was also a Houston Democrat—Rep. Kevin Bailey—who won reelection with 8,503. The average winner in House races got 20,605 votes. With 28,072 votes on Election Day, Pitts finished well above the average instead of in last place. The Secretary of State's office has added Ellis County results to the totals on its website, and fixed a much less significant problem with numbers from Eastland County and rechecked everything else, so the numbers you'll find there should now be correct. They're at www.state.sos.tx.us.

New Hires, But Not New Names

Barry McBee will be the first assistant to Attorney General Greg Abbott. McBee has been at Bracewell & Patterson's Austin office for a little over a year. Before that, he was Rick Perry's chief of staff, both in the governor's office and in the lieutenant governor's office when George W. Bush was still in the Pink Building. Prior to working in the Capitol, McBee headed the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission and worked at the Texas Agriculture Commission (under Perry). He'll replace Howard Baldwin, first assistant to AG John Cornyn, now that Abbott has been sworn in as the state's top civil lawyer.

One constant over the last couple of years has been the migration of Texas Republicans to federal jobs. Now there's one coming home: Albert Hawkins, one of the state's most respected budgeteers, is leaving the Bush Administration to come home and run the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. That puts him in the center of the state's budget mess, running the agency where caseloads and high prescription drug costs and expanding benefits for children and impoverished Texans are all combining to increase state spending at a rate that state revenues can't match. It's just his sort of mess. Hawkins has been Secretary to the Cabinet, a prestigious job that doesn't really use his talents for state budgets. Before that, he ran then-Gov. Bush's budget office, and he was the deputy director of the Legislative Budget Board before that. He replaces Don Gilbert, who is retiring.

Make former House member Ashley Smith the vice chancellor for governmental relations and policy at the UT System. The Houston Republican had been working for Perry as a part-time senior advisor, and shuttling between Austin and Houston, where he runs a health care concern called TIRR Systems. Smith will apparently give that one up, but might stay on as a board member. The new gig pays $284,000 a year, and an additional $8,400 annual car allowance. While we're on Perry's office: Deirdre Delisi returns after months spent in the dusty offices where she managed Perry's gubernatorial campaign. She'll be deputy chief of staff in this incarnation at the state office.

Taking Out the Trash

Here's a time-honored trick of people who wrangle reporters for a living. Announce controversial news late on Friday, or better still, on the eve of a holiday. Without knocking the subjects of the announcements, it's known as "taking out the trash." The idea is that nobody will read the relatively short item in the next day's papers and the issue will die out before the weekend/holiday is spent. With all the pre-Thanksgiving press noise about lobbyists and revolving doors in top government jobs, that's just what the press folks for Gov. Perry and Lt. Gov.-elect David Dewhurst did.

On the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, at 2:58, Dewhurst sent out a press release announcing his new staffers, including the top lobbyist for one of the state's biggest utilities. His chief of staff will be Bruce Gibson, a Houston Democrat who served in the House (from Godley, south of Fort Worth) and then as chief of staff to then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. Most recently, he was the head lobbyist for Houston-based Reliant Energy. That announcement, though it was dampened for public consumption, calmed some fears from senators and others about having a tenderfoot for Lite Guv in a tougher-than-usual legislative year. Dewhurst also said he'll have two executive assistants. Larry Soward, who was his number two at the General Land Office, will be the first; Rob Johnson, who ran Dewhurst's campaign for office, will be the other. The incoming lieutenant governor also said he intends to reappoint Senate Parliamentarian Walter Fisher. That last announcement was included for the benefit of other officeholders who had designs on hiring Fisher.

A few minutes later, at 3:11, came the announcement from Perry's office: Cliff Johnson, a former representative who worked in the Bill Clements and George W. Bush administrations before becoming a well-respected lobster, is giving up his lobby practice to be a "senior advisor" in the Perry administration. Johnson, a Democrat from Palestine, will work with another lobster-turned-bureaucrat and former House member Mike Toomey, Perry's new chief of staff. Perry, Toomey and Johnson all served together in the House.

Control Issues

House Republicans have begun working on changes to the House rules, and they've begun to talk about what changes they want to make to the committees in the lower chamber. They're not talking officially about who will be on what committee—just the structure of the committees and what each will do. It's in the discussion stage, and things will certainly change. With that caveat, here are some of the ideas they're talking about:

• Committee chairs would be allowed to serve on the Appropriations Committee, but not on the Calendars Committee. The idea is to spread power around.

• Substantive committees would each have a member who is also on the appropriations panel, to better coordinate bills that spend money with the people who are holding the purse.

• A special committee would be set up to study duplication of state services, with the idea of digging out money that's now marbled into state agency budgets. An interim study headed by Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, attempted that in 1997, but came up without much savings.

• The tax-writing Ways & Means Committee might be split, with one new committee handling property tax issues and the other overseeing other state taxes.

• A new committee on Border Affairs is being discussed to consolidate those issues as the Senate has done. Those issues are handled by a number of different panels now.

• The powerful and overworked State Affairs Committee would be split into at least two different panels, with one handling complicated and time-consuming utility issues and the other handling the general state business the committee was originally set up to consider.

Again, none of that is official, and all of it could change if it causes hives in the body politic. The overarching goal seems to be to spread the workload so that fewer legislators have extraordinary power, and to move more say over legislation down to the committee level and away from the speakers' office. The ad hoc group will start meeting within a week, and will make recommendations after the session starts and after the votes have been case for speaker.

• Craddick has been pretty quiet about all the rumors that followed his announcement that he had the votes to be the next Speaker of the House, but he was quick to knock down one of them. An Austin American-Statesman story on gossip in the Pink Building said reporters might lose their floor privileges and be moved to seats in the gallery overlooking the House chamber. It ain't so, Craddick wrote in a note faxed to reporters: "It will never happen as long as I have any say in the matter."

Flotsam & Jetsam

Mark your calendar, if you love inaugural ceremonies. Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov.-elect David Dewhurst will be sworn into office for four-year terms on Tuesday, January 21. That's set for noon and will be done on the downtown side of the Pink Building. The inaugural ball will be that night at the Austin Convention Center. While we've got the date books out, mark Tuesday, January 14 (the week before) as the first day of the legislative session. That's the day senators and representatives are sworn in, and the day the House elects a speaker.

• We've mentioned the battle over drilling on South Padre Island, and now that the feds have approved permits for a couple of gas wells there, the Sierra Club has filed suit to stop the operation. They filed suit in federal court in Corpus Christi, saying the permits were granted without enough consideration for nesting grounds of the endangered Ridley Turtles. The Endangered Species Act, the group claims, prevents the truck traffic that would come with the drilling operations.

• According to the Houston Press, Steve Mansfield, a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, has taken a job as a security guard at the Texas Medical Center. He left office in 2000 and lost a GOP primary for a comeback earlier this year.

• Gov. Perry appointed Juergen "Skipper" Koetter as judge of the 267th District Court. He's an attorney and mediator in Victoria.

Political People and Their Moves

Democratic Party spokesman Mike Hailey is on the streets after three years in that job. He and Party chair Molly Beth Malcolm have had a rocky relationship for a while now, and she asked him to leave after the Party's balloon popped in the first week of last month. Hailey, who's about to get married, is looking. Malcolm, however, had someone waiting in the wings: She hired Sean Byrne, whose most recent experience was on Robin Moore's unsuccessful House bid, as the party's new spokesbot... Mary Jane Wardlow, press secretary to Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, is going to the Employee Retirement System, where she'll be director of public information, handling publications and press calls and such. She's a veteran of several state agencies, and worked for Bob Bullock, which is where she met ERS director Sheila Beckett all those years ago... Monty Wynn moves from David Bernsen's campaign to the Senate office of Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, who was elected to fill the seat left open when redistricting forced Sen. Mike Moncrief, D-Fort Worth, to either quit or move. He quit, a couple of senators changed districts, and Brimer won the open seat. Wynn will be legislative director... Rep. Chuck Hopson, D-Jacksonville, hired Dennis Speight to be his new chief of staff. Speight worked for the Texas Partnership—the PAC formed to reelect house Democrats—and previously worked as an aide to then-Sen. David Bernsen, D-Beaumont, and to Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston... Sen.-elect Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, hired a staff that includes Todd Gallaher as chief, Don Forse, who'd been with Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, as spokesman, and Scott Kibbe from the American Heart Association as legislative associate. The Gallaher pick raised some Senate eyebrows: He worked for a campaign opponent to Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, and lent a hand to former Sen. Mike Galloway, who ran against Sen.-elect Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands. Gallaher says all he did for Galloway was run a couple of errands... Texas Tech University filled its presidential gap with Donald Haragan, a former president of the school who left the job two years ago to go back to teaching. He'll sub until a replacement is found for David Schmidly, who left to become president of Oklahoma State University... Karen Lundquist, general counsel at the Texas Ethics Commission, got a battlefield promotion. Commissioners named her the new executive director after Tom Harrison retired. That agency is under Sunset review by the Legislature, which is not a relaxing experience. Sarah Woelk was named interim general counsel... Deaths: Former Rep. Will Ehrle Sr., who became a lobbyist for the mobile home industry. He was 69... George Christian, 75, a mentor, advisor and friend who had a knack for treating everyone he knew as an important and smart and very interesting person. He was a truly decent and wonderful man, and we and hundreds of others already miss him terribly.

Quotes of the Week

Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, telling the Austin American-Statesman that House members' support for Tom Craddick is solid in spite of some rough stories in the papers: "Without a doubt I think he's safely on his way to being speaker. No one is going to back up on their vote unless he kills somebody tomorrow."

Speaker-presumptive Tom Craddick, R-Midland, in an interview with the Associated Press: "I could go through a dozen things that my wife and I have done for Midland that nobody ever writes about. We're just not interested in that. We try to give back to a community that's been very gracious to us. So if I die or something, would you make sure that gets on my tombstone?"

John DiIulio Jr., former head of the White House's faith-based initiatives, in an interview with Esquire for which he later apologized: "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of policy apparatus. What you've got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."

Former Enron employee Stephen Schwarz, interviewed by The New York Times on the trouble some of his younger colleagues had finding new jobs that paid the same high salaries they got in their first gig out of college: "The bust had certainly restored some balance between your actual experience and your pay and responsibility."


Texas Weekly: Volume 19, Issue 24, 9 December 2002. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2002 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email biz@ texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@ texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.


The Texas Tribune Member Drive Fall 2021 banner

Support public-service journalism that’s always free to read.

Yes, I'll donate today