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Ghosts and Other Scary Stuff

Travis County prosecutors have issued subpoenas in their investigation of the so-called Ghost Worker case. The primary House committee investigating that affair has, as a result, pulled up (a second committee hasn't changed course, but could). And the piles of Open Information Requests from politicians, partisans and the press should start yielding some results in the next week or so.

Travis County prosecutors have issued subpoenas in their investigation of the so-called Ghost Worker case. The primary House committee investigating that affair has, as a result, pulled up (a second committee hasn't changed course, but could). And the piles of Open Information Requests from politicians, partisans and the press should start yielding some results in the next week or so.

"We have an actual investigation that is ongoing," said Gregg Cox, an assistant Travis County district attorney. "I can't comment on the particulars."

He said the investigation began with reports that some staffers at the Capitol work part-time but are recorded as full-timers who receiving full-time benefits. Cox wouldn't talk about which laws might be in question, or which legislators. But he did say he's talked to the chairmen of two House committees to make sure they don't accidentally grant immunity from prosecution to any of their witnesses.

The House can make you testify, but if they do it while you're claiming it'll incriminate you, you're protected from prosecution. Cox wanted to make sure the House committees were aware of that and didn't mess up possible future prosecutions.

That interest, among other things, prompted one committee to abort its investigation. Rep. Larry Phillips, the Sherman Republican who chairs the General Investigating and Ethics Committee, had planned to look into reports that some House members have been listing part-time employees as full-timers, a cheat that gives those workers free health insurance.

His aim was to look at what's been going on, and to consider changes in law and House rules that would clear up the practice in the future.

But Phillips backed down after talking to prosecutors. He said he's not closing the door on a future investigation by his committee, though: "The public wants to make sure there's a thorough investigation."

Phillips had been promising a full vetting of the issue and was fending off other legislators who wanted him to open all of his hearings to the public. A trio of Democrats asked for that and also said Phillips should include consideration of new rules governing the people who work for legislators in the lower chamber.

Phillip's committee had two pieces of business (and presumably, could restart). First, there's the issue of whether anyone in the House has been doing anything that's against House rules or state law. That's the likely focus of the prosecutors. Second, Phillips planned to have his committee look at changes in the rules and possibly, the law, to keep future lawmakers on track.

"If there are things that are happening that don't make sense or aren't appropriate, that needs to stop," he says. "I don't think it's that complicated."

In their letter to all members of the House, the three Democrats — Reps. Garnet Coleman of Houston, Jim Dunnam of Waco, and Craig Eiland of Galveston — wrote that the meeting should be open to the public. They say no one has pointed to a violation of law or House rules, and say the closed session cloaks the politics underlying the scandal. They've accused House Speaker Tom Craddick of stirring up the trouble; his aides deny that, and Craddick's been quoted as saying he was surprised by the allegations.

The three Democrats suggested some rule changes that would prevent part-timers from getting full-time benefits. They'd bar non-elected officials from receiving "elected-class" benefits; some House and Senate officers can, under certain circumstances, get the same retirement package that's open to elected officials. They would allow members to hire "on-call" employees who wouldn't work fixed hours, and would require monthly accounting of employee overtime, vacation, and sick leave. And they'd prevent full-time employees from holding outside jobs, a shot at former state Rep. Terry Keel, who's the House Parliamentarian and who, with permission from Craddick, has kept his outside law practice open.

Investigation #2

Rep. Byron Cook, one of the first House members accused of giving full-time benefits to part-time employees, named a House subcommittee "to clarify the state’s employment laws and House Rules for both employees of the House Civil Practices Committee as well as all House Capitol, District and Committee staff employees..."

Cook, chairman of the House Committee on Civil Practices, pegged the investigation to differences over a memo on the scandal from Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston. He says it's accurate, but said in a statementthat aides to House Speaker Tom Craddick have called it incorrect.

The subcommittee he named will attempt to find out what's right and what's wrong and go from there. Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, will chair that group, joined by Reps. Phil King, R-Weatherford, Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, and Robert Talton, R-Pasadena.

Craddick had askedPhillips to investigate the issue. Some members of Cook's committee wanted to leave it there, but he wouldn't recognize their challenges, instead forming his new subcommittee and then moving on to other business. Cook's new panel hasn't met. When Phillips dropped out, Cook said he was inclined to forge ahead, but hadn't decided.

Golden Parachutes

A Carrollton legislator wants the names of former legislators now working as regular state employees and adding time to the top-drawer retirement accounts set up for all of the state's elected officials.

Rep. Jim Jackson, a Republican, asked the Employees Retirement System for "records of all former state elected officials, past and present, who after leaving office were listed as full-time employees with any state agency that makes them eligible to participate in the employee class of ERS."

He also asked for salary information and whether they've transferred time earned as regular employees to their elected class accounts.

Jackson said in his letter that "the preferential treatment of former members of the elected class is unnerving," a reference to the state law that allows them to transfer their work time into the more lucrative elected class accounts.

He wrote that he was particularly incensed about "on-call" employees, who don't have set hours but get time on the state payroll that adds to their retirement benefits.

We recently looked at the state pension plan's brochures, and an employee's full- or part-time status has nothing to do with whether and how they accrue time for pensions. To get credit for a month's work, you need only be on the payroll on the particular day in that month when the checks are cut, and allow the pension deduction to come out of your check.

The difference between elected class and employee class, for most people, is in the base salary that's used to compute benefits. For state employees, that base is the average of their three highest-salary years. For elected officials, it's keyed to the pay of state district judges, currently $125,000.

State employees who make more than that actually do better than retired officeholders. But most make much less, and also have to wait longer or work longer to collect the benefits. Officeholders can retire at age 60 if they served for eight years, and at age 50 if they served for 12 or more. State employees can retire when their combined age and years of employment reach 80.

Here's a quick and almost certainly incomplete list of former elected state officials who currently (or recently) have been on the state payroll as regular full- or part-time employees. From statewide office: Former Railroad Commissioner Charles Matthews. From the state Senate: Ken Armbrister, Chet Brooks, and Kent Hance. From the House: Ben Campbell, Terry Keel, Mike McKinney, Terral Smith, Miguel Wise, and Zeb Zbranek.

Matthews was the only one in that bunch who's elected state position was a full-time job. Texas legislators are part-timers, and get better benefits than the full-timers who work for them. One more note: Former county officials, like Jackson, can transfer their county time into the state system, or vice-versa.

Faith-based Accounting

State Auditor John Keel says he has not been asked to look at the House employment mess and isn't conducting an audit of the payroll system there.

The State Auditor's Office has been mentioned in some stories (here and elsewhere) as a possible investigator, along with Travis County prosecutors, various House committees, and the Attorney General.

Keel says they haven't seen any such requests, on paper or otherwise. They're not involved.

One problem with an audit of legislative records is that some possibly critical pieces of paper just don't exist. It's a faith-based accounting system. Lawmakers sign up their employees and say whether they're full or part time and what their pay should be. But the House doesn't require time sheets or any other proof of the hours that were actually worked. That makes it more difficult to prove that someone worked, say, 40 hours a week. Ultimately, it's an honor system.

That sort of hole in the paper trail can make it hard to tell the difference between a cheater and someone who follows the rules.

In political terms, that's a mess: How do representatives seeking reelection prove their House employees really work the hours for which they're paid?

While legislators battle over what's fair to them, a lot of their employees get hosed.

Texas lawmakers already get far more than full-time work from many of their employees, and they're largely exempted from laws guaranteeing overtime pay and comp time for the long hours their staffs put in during legislative sessions and when interim committees are cranking out reports.

If you did a proper accounting of the time the non-elected people actually work in the Pink Building, you'd have to bring sacks of money for overtime, or get used to empty halls after sessions, when staffers traded hours off for extra hours worked.

As it stands, overtime for legislative staffers is rare. And whether employees get any time off for the extra hours is, like the time sheets and everything else, up to the individual legislators.

Macias Drops Out

On the eve of a court fight, Rep. Nathan Macias has decided to concede to Doug Miller, who beat him by 17 votes in the Republican primary.

Macias sued for a recount after the Republican Party of Texas and the Secretary of State signed off on the votes, and was supposed to go to trial for an election contest on Monday.

But on Friday afternoon, he issued a statement saying he's giving up, and taking some last swipes on the way out. It was a long list. In his statement (the whole thing is here), he indicated he's out of money. He mentioned his failed attempt to replace the judge in the case but also referred to some "disturbing interaction" between that judge and lawyers on the other side of the case that was never mentioned in his attempt to get another judge. He said the attorney general "is conducting an ongoing criminal investigation" of the election. He complained of campaign attacks by a pro-gambling PAC called Texans for Economic Development. He griped about coverage from local and regional media. He said conservatives who ditched the GOP primary to vote in the Democratic contest for president hurt his chances. He thanked the voters "who legally participated" in the election.

Thinking About It

Add Chris Bell to your list of candidates who might show up in the special election to replace retiring Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, later this year.

The Houston Democrat, a former congressman and city councilman, says he's been getting "a lot of calls" encouraging him to run.

Two and maybe three Republicans are in the hunt. Janek is backing Austen Furse, who's raising money and actively campaigning. And Grant Harpold, a Houston attorney and GOP precinct chair, has announced his candidacy. Former Harris County GOP Chairman Gary Polland has talked about it, but hasn't announced his plans.

Janek plans to retire on June 2 and unless Gov. Rick Perry declares an emergency election, Janek's successor will be chosen in a special election on November 4 — the same day as the general election.

That timing forces current House members to choose between running for reelection and running for the Senate. Two of them — Republican Charlie Howard of Sugar Land and Democrat Scott Hochberg of Houston — have expressed an interest in running. Howard says he won't run if he has to forfeit the House seat. Hochberg says he won't make a decision until he knows what Perry plans to do.

Bell, meanwhile, is getting calls. The Austin American-Statesman got the first bead on the story with an interview of Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who said he's among the people trying to talk Bell into the race. Watson lost a statewide race before turning to the state Senate. Bell, who finished second in the 2006 race for governor, would be in similar straits.

It's Republican turf, but not prohibitively so. Statewide Republican candidates won in SD-17, but by slightly smaller margins than they won statewide. The Texas Weekly Index there is 15.4, meaning that the average statewide Republican beat the average statewide Democrat by that many points in the last two election cycles. That's a Republican lean, but it's still competitive, particularly if it's a bad year for the GOP.

And some polling from the district — done by some of the people trying to draw Bell into the contest — hints that it might be a bad year, with 63 percent saying the country is on the wrong track, and 53 percent giving George W. Bush a negative job rating.

Bell, who's been thinking about running for U.S. Senate if and when Kay Bailey Hutchison gives up that post, admits he's mulling a change in direction. He hasn't made up his mind yet, but says running the state race doesn't necessarily take him out of contention if the federal seat opens up (Hutchison's current term is over in 2010, and there's been speculation — add three paragraphs of caveats and provisos here — that she'll resign early to focus on a run for governor).

The Texas Senate currently has 20 Republicans and 11 Democrats. Janek's seat is one of three where the hackocracy expects competition. The others: SD-10 in Fort Worth, where Republican Kim Brimer will face Democrat Wendy Davis; and SD-11, where Mike Jackson of La Porte will face Democrat Joe Jaworski of Galveston.

Flashback

The new business margins tax comes due on June 15 (the deadline was postponed a month by Comptroller Susan Combs) and people are starting to ask who voted for it. We dug it out so you don't have to. Here's how the House and Senate voted on final passage of the business margins tax bill in special session two years ago.

House final vote on HB 3 — the business margins tax bill, on 4/25/06:

AYES – 81 (10 Democrats, 71 Republicans)

Democrats: Kevin Bailey, Robby Cook, Donna Howard, Vilma Luna, Jim McReynolds, Joe Pickett, Chente Quintanilla, Patrick Rose, Mark Strama, Michael Villarreal.

Republicans: Charles "Doc" Anderson, Leo Berman, Roy Blake, Dennis Bonnen, Dan Branch, Betty Brown, Fred Brown, Bill Callegari, Scott Campbell, Warren Chisum, Byron Cook, Frank Corte, Joe Crabb, Tom Craddick, Myra Crownover, John Davis, Glenda Dawson, Dianne White Delisi, Mary Denny, Joe Driver, Rob Eissler, Kirk England, Dan Flynn, Dan Gattis, Charlie Geren, Toby Goodman, Tony Goolsby, Bob Griggs, Kent Grusendorf, Pat Haggerty, Mike "Tuffy" Hamilton, Peggy Hamric, Rick Hardcastle, Glenn Hegar, Fred Hill, Ruben Hope, Bob Hunter, Suzanne Gratia Hupp, Carl Isett, Jim Jackson, Terry Keel, Jim Keffer, Phil King, Lois Kolkhorst, Mike Krusee, Edmund Kuempel, Jerry Madden, Brian McCall, Tommy Merritt, Sid Miller, Geanie Morrison, Anna Mowery, Joe Nixon, Rob Orr, John Otto, Larry Phillips, Jim Pitts, Elvira Reyna, Gene Seaman, Todd Smith, Wayne Smith, Burt Solomons, Joe Straus III, David Swinford [initially recorded absent, but said his machine failed to register his vote], Larry Taylor, Vickie Truitt, Corbin Van Arsdale, Buddy West, Martha Wong, Beverly Woolley, Bill Zedler.

NAYS – 68 (53 Democrats, 15 Republicans)

Democrats: Alma Allen, Rafael Anchia, Lon Burnam, Joaquin Castro, Norma Chavez, Garnet Coleman, Yvonne Davis, Joe Deshotel, Dawnna Dukes, Jim Dunnam, Harold Dutton, Al Edwards, Craig Eiland, Juan Escobar, David Farabee, Jessica Farrar, Kino Flores, Steven Frost, Pete Gallego, Helen Giddings, Veronica Gonzales, Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles, Ryan Guillen, Ana Hernandez, Abel Herrero, Scott Hochberg, Terri Hodge, Mark Homer, Chuck Hopson, Jesse Jones, Tracy King, Pete Laney, David McQuade Leibowitz, Armando Martinez, Trey Martinez Fischer, Ruth Jones McClendon, Jose Menendez, Paul Moreno, Elliot Naishtat, Rick Noriega, Rene Oliveira, Doro Olivo, Aaron Pena, Robert Puente, Richard Raymond, Allan Ritter, Eddie Rodriguez, Jim Solis, Senfronia Thompson, Sylvester Turner, Carlos Uresti, Mark Veasey, Hubert Vo.

Republicans: Dwayne Bohac, Carter Casteel, Keith Elkins, Linda Harper Brown, Will Hartnett, Harvey Hilderbran, Charlie Howard, Bryan Hughes, Delwin Jones, Bill Keffer, Jodi Laubenberg, Ken Paxton, Debbie Riddle, John Smithee, Robert Talton.

ABSENT – 1

• Roberto Alonzo, Democrat.

Senate final vote on HB 3, the business margins tax bill, on 2 May 2006

AYES – 16 (2 Democrats, 14 Republicans)

Democrats: Ken Armbrister, Frank Madla.

Republicans: Kip Averitt, Kim Brimer, John Carona, Bob Deuell, Robert Duncan, Craig Estes, Troy Fraser, Chris Harris, Jane Nelson, Steve Ogden, Kel Seliger, Florence Shapiro, Jeff Wentworth, Tommy Williams.

NAYS – 14 (10 Democrats, 4 Republicans)

Democrats: Gonzalo Barrientos, Rodney Ellis, Mario Gallegos, Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, Eddie Lucio, Eliot Shapleigh, Leticia Van de Putte, Royce West, John Whitmire, Judith Zaffirini.

Republicans: Kevin Eltife, Mike Jackson, Kyle Janek, Todd Staples.

ABSENT – 1

• Jon Lindsay, Republican

News Morsels, Political and Not

The state didn't have the right to remove children from a West Texas religious community, the state's 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin ruled. The judges said the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services didn't have evidence that the 460+ kids were in imminent danger. The case was filed on behalf of 48 FLDS mothers by Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, a non-profit outfit. State officials are deciding whether to appeal the court's opinion, which is available here.

• The state's latest round of eight-liner raids hit a big political contributor. Gordon Graves, the head honcho of Aces Wild, has given $587,825 to Texas statewide officeholders in the last eight years, including $125,500 to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, $113,500 to Gov. Rick Perry, $43,000 to Attorney General Greg Abbott (who's office claimed credit for the raids), and $18,375 to Comptroller Susan Combs.

• The Howzitgoin Department: Overall crime in Texas rose in 2007, but violent crime was down. According to the Department of Public Safety, the number of crimes per 100,000 residents rose 0.7 percent from 2006 to 2007. Property crime rose 1 percent; violent crime fell 1.2 percent. Details: Murder, up 2.2 percent; rape, up 0.3 percent; robbery, up 4 percent; aggravated assault, down 1.4 percent; burglary, up 5.8 percent; larceny-theft, up 2.2 percent; motor vehicle theft, down 1.8 percent. The report's available online here.

• New media: U.S. Sen. John Cornyn picked up several endorsements in the state's Border counties, and he's posted little videos of some of them on his website.

• Democrat Chris Turner turned a tax-holiday tout into a towel-snap, encouraging Arlington voters to take advantage of the sales tax holiday on energy efficient appliances and noting that Republican Rep. Bill Zedler voted against the break. Zedler, Turner says, voted against it as a stand-alone measure, but for it when it was wrapped into another bill.

• The state GOP's number one House target — Rep. Juan Garcia, D-Corpus Christi — wrote a $17,000 campaign check to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Club in January. That's the same amount his campaign received from the Mauricio Celis, and Garcia aides say it undermines a GOP attack on their guy. The Nueces County GOP sent out mailers attacking Garcia (and Rep. Abel Herrero) for taking money from Celis. The Republicans say Garcia also got money from a PAC to which Celis contributed. The Garcia reply? None of Celis' contributions were in that PAC when it was giving to the candidate; it had already been contributed elsewhere. Garcia's challenger is former Rep. Todd Hunter, who served as a Democrat but is running as a Republican.

Political People and Their Moves

Former Comptroller John Sharp will head the newly formed Ryan Foundation, a charity formed by the Dallas-based tax-consulting firm where he has been a principal. He'll give up the tax gig to run the foundation. The announcement for that outfit says it'll be funded with grants from Ryan, public and private partnerships, and the consulting firm's clients. Does this sound like a job description for someone who wants to run for office? "He will focus on improving the quality of life of others in the community though active participation in charitable outreach efforts."

State Auditor John Keel got the — take a deep breath — David M. Walker Excellence in Government Performance and Accountability Award from the National Intergovernmental Audit Forum. That's for "sustained contributions" to the craft and for leadership. His staff nominated him.

Missy Mandell left the Lower Colorado River Authority, where she was most recently manager of federal affairs, to open her own consulting firm. Mandell worked for a number of politicians before joining LCRA in 1989.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed:

• Three new members to the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners and tapped Bud Alldredge of Sweetwater to head that group. John David Clader of Pleasanton, David Kercheval of Grandview, and David Rosberg Jr. of Mason will join that panel. Kercheval is an exec with Agricultural Workers Mutual Auto Insurance. The other three are veterinarians.

Joshua Carden of Weatherford, Cathy Landtroop of Plainview and Lewis Timberlake of Austin to the OneStar Foundation board. Carden is an attorney in Rep. Phil King's firm. Landtroop is a development officer at Texas Tech University. And Timberlake is a professional speaker.

Wroe Jackson, a student at St. Mary's University School of Law, and Michael Savoie, director of the Center for Information Technology and Management at the University of Texas at Dallas, to the Guaranteed Student Loan Corp.

Quotes of the Week

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, in a Houston Chronicle story about slow Texas fundraising by John McCain: "If a Republican isn't out-raising a Democrat in Texas, where are they going to out-raise a Democrat? Vermont? The fact that he's having trouble getting campaign cash from reliable Republican donors reflects the fact they don't see him as a reliable Republican."

Roger Williams, head of the Texas GOP's "Victory" campaign, quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "This is a challenging time to be a Republican. No question about it. We're the underdogs, and we have to act like it."

Bill Jones, head of the board of regents at the Texas A&M University System, on his job: "Paul Burka [of Texas Monthly] referred to me as the reincarnation of [the late University of Texas Chancellor] Frank Erwin. Which I thought was interesting. Frank was a Longhorn, and he's dead, and he's white."

Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, one of a handful of House members who plan to run for Speaker in January: "I am positive I've got one vote."

Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, on proposed House voting machines, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman: "We've got pantyhose and petticoats to deal with. Are you looking at having one of these things in each stall?"

Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas, in response: "I don't know how many stalls you have. I haven't been hanging out in the ladies' restroom."


Texas Weekly: Volume 25, Issue 21, 26 May 2008. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2008 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 (512) 302-5703 or email biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.

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