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For Dean of Senate, Public and Private Blur

Critics say the dean of the Texas Senate, John Whitmire, D-Houston, is a poster boy for a legislative culture in which real and perceived conflicts of interest are commonplace. Whitmire says he's proud of his four decades in office.

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Bidness as Usual

This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.

Exactly 40 years ago this month, a young college dropout named John Whitmire pointed a 1972 Cutlass toward Austin and set out to realize his dream — to serve in elective office, just like his daddy had years before.

Getting sworn in as a state representative would have been a big deal for a 23-year-old social worker even in an ordinary year. But the 1973 session was no ordinary gathering of the Texas Legislature.

The civil rights era had spilled out of the streets and into the statehouses, thanks to new single-member districts that helped produce the most diverse freshman class in the modern history of the Texas House.

It was the largest one in a generation, too — 70 or more, depending on who’s counting, in the 150-member body. Among them were a future U.S. senator, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, and several future U.S. congressmen, including Democrats Mickey LelandCraig Washington and Gene Green.

Helping to fuel the high turnover: The Sharpstown scandal, an influence-peddling controversy that had penetrated the highest levels of government and — either directly or indirectly — ended the political careers of the sitting governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker, plus scores of incumbent lawmakers.

The voters had thrown out the bums en masse.

Austin had become oddly synchronous with Washington in that bitterly cold winter of 1973, when Whitmire braved rare Central Texas snow on his way to taking the oath of office. Watergate, like Sharpstown in Texas before it, was well on its way to becoming a household word, and public corruption was eroding voters’ trust in their elected representatives. 

Calls for ethics reform were sweeping across the political landscape. In oil-rich Texas, cozy ties between lobbyists and lawmakers weren’t new. But for once, it seemed state government might do something about it.

The youthful and idealistic House speaker, Democrat Price Daniel Jr. of Liberty, had made good government his calling card, a perfect fit for the times but still a radical notion inside the Texas Legislature, whose members didn’t exactly cotton to the idea of publicly revealing their campaign transactions or private business dealings.

Legislative leaders give low bill numbers to their most important initiatives, and Daniel reserved the single digits for public integrity legislation: House Bill 3 aimed to create the state’s first open meetings law; House Bill 2 introduced comprehensive lobbyist registration and reporting requirements; and House Bill 1 — easily the most contentious — was designed to make lawmakers disclose, for the first time, details about how they made their living in a part-time Legislature.

Whitmire stepped into that cauldron without knowing a gavel from a floor substitute. He campaigned as a conservative but was called a liberal, a welfare worker who had promised state Rep. John Hannah (a future federal judge) that he would support Daniel as House speaker. Former Daniel aide Carlton Carl remembers the Houston Democrat as one of the many freshman lawmakers who were “scared shitless of their shadows.” 

“They didn’t know what they were doing,” he said.

The first big vote came when Rep. Fred Agnich, R-Dallas, made a mockery of the public disclosure debate with an amendment requiring that lawmakers’ financial statements be placed in sealed envelopes and kept secret — accessible only by court order or ethics prosecutors pursuing an official complaint. The provision got tacked on by the narrowest of votes, 71-70, only to be removed after bitter negotiations with the Senate in the waning hours of the session.

Whitmire can’t remember now why he voted with Agnich in early 1973 to gut HB 1. The young Houston representative otherwise turned in a mostly pro-reform voting record that year, according to the 1973 book The Year They Threw The Rascals Out, by Charles Deaton.

What Whitmire does remember all these years later is how politically naïve he was. He had little more in his campaign kitty than the $5,000 loan he got from his dad, for a race few thought he would win. He certainly wasn’t seen as a “lobby candidate,” not that he knew what that meant at the time.

“Back then you didn’t have campaign war chests,” Whitmire said in a recent interview in his Capitol office. “You gotta understand, I had nothing. I didn’t even know what a lobbyist was when I got elected. I probably couldn’t hardly even spell it.”

Suffice it to say that Whitmire, 63, has learned a thing or two in his four decades as a legislator. When he’s not making laws, he’s working in the government affairs section of a politically connected law firm — the section that employs registered lobbyists. Without ever leaving the Legislature, Whitmire has been a federal lobbyist.

“I know how to spell it now,” he said, deadpan.

He knows how to raise and spend campaign dollars, too.

As he begins his 21st regular legislative session, Whimire boasts the biggest war chest in the Legislature — more than $6 million at last count, more even than Gov. Rick Perry has reported.

Like many of his peers, he has used the money to fund an often-lavish lifestyle, helping him lease an $80,000 BMW 650i and buy $290,000 in tickets to sports events since the 1990s, including the Houston rodeo.

Car leases are allowable and the ticket purchases, for “constituent entertainment,” got the blessing of the Texas Ethics Commission, much to the consternation of some critics who complained about it.

At the Capitol, Whitmire is the dean of the Senate — where he took office in 1983 — the title reserved for its longest-serving member. His bill-passing expertise and warm ties to the GOP leadership arguably make him the chamber’s most powerful Democrat. His old friends, like Craig Washington, call him something else: “Boogie,” a nickname that evokes his party boy reputation but actually stems from the zip-up “boogie boots” he used to wear in the '70s.

Whitmire can be both charming and intimidating, a bully to some, a lovable scoundrel to others. He’s been hailed for his ambitious work in overhauling the criminal justice system, but over the years his personal business dealings have demonstrated just how blurry the lines can get between a lawmaker’s public duties and private interests. He endured a series of conflict-of-interest controversies and investigations in the 1990s, spending nearly $200,000 of his donors’ money on defense lawyers, campaign records show.

Work for a legal giant

He has his own law practice and has been known to represent — on retainer or as a consultant — government contractors, taxpayer-supported agencies and close friends who do business with public entities. For the past 15 years, Whitmire has also been “of counsel” to Houston-based legal giant Locke Lord, which has a long list of clients with interests before the Legislature, including some that have benefited from legislation he has sponsored or helped pass.

Whitmire joined Locke Lord in September 1997, a few months after authoring a bill allowing taxes to be levied to build a stadium for the Houston Astros, one of the firm’s clients. Locke Lord says the job offer and the passage of the bill were entirely unrelated.

In 2011 Locke Lord was named the “Top Law Firm Lobby Practice” for the seventh year in a row by Austin-based Capitol Inside, a political newsletter, according to firm literature. Under the state’s disclosure laws, the clients Whitmire represents there and the details of his compensation are kept secret.

Both he and Locke Lord say he adheres to a code of conduct that ensures zero conflicts with his official duties as senator.

“I just have very strict rules, between me and the practice,” Whitmire said. “They don’t lobby me, I don’t contact them. I couldn’t give you a list of their clients if my life depended on it. Obviously I see them in the building, but we don’t discuss business at all.”

That hasn’t stopped critics from questioning whether the legislator who got his start in a reform-minded Legislature has come to embody the very conflicts of interest it struggled to avoid — or at least to fully reveal to the public.

“This is a guy who is in bed with so many people I don’t know if he has his constituents’ best interest in mind or his own pocketbook’s best interest in mind,” said Trent Seibert, founder of Texas Watchdog, a nonprofit dedicated to tracking the influence of money in state politics. “This is what turns people off from politics and makes people distrust politicians."

John Harris Whitmire was born in Hillsboro in 1949. His father, James Whitmire, was the Hill County clerk. He said his dad was an alcoholic, but he had the undying admiration of his youngest son. His mother, Ruth, was a nurse who liked to tell her son that a man is defined by the company he keeps.

Whitmire’s childhood was chaotic and difficult. At age 3 he moved to Houston, then two years later went to Pasadena, where he flunked the first grade. His parents divorced when he was 7, and he and his older brother, Jim, moved with their mother to Waco. Then two years later they moved again, to tiny Whitney, just outside Hillsboro. John Whitmire was in the fifth grade.

In Whitney, the family's small country house had no running water. They bathed in a metal wash tub and went to the bathroom in an unattached outhouse. When Whitmire was in sixth grade, a fire destroyed their home, forcing the family to move to a one-room “tourist court” motel room.

Despite all the hardships, Whitmire clings most fondly to the memories of that tiny town and his down-to-earth neighbors, who brought him a bucket of sugar and collected $13 for him after his house burned to the ground. He named his eldest daughter Whitney, and to this day his blue corduroy Future Farmers of America jacket, with “Whitney” embroidered on it in big yellow letters, hangs behind his desk in the Capitol.

When he was in the ninth grade, his family moved back to Houston, and Whitmire went kicking and screaming. But he settled into life in the big city and eventually found himself studying political science at the University of Houston. He always thought he would return to Hill County to run for office, but it was in Houston, during his senior year in college, that political opportunity struck.

At the time Whitmire was working his way through UH with a job at the state welfare department. He spent part of the day conducting unannounced compliance interviews of food stamp recipients, the rest attending class.

"They drew that one for me"

After the progressive redistricting plan came out before the 1972 elections, Whitmire’s college professor, Richard Murray, showed him how a newly drawn North Houston district encompassed his home, his church, his high school and the hospital where his mother worked. There was no incumbent running.

“I said, ‘They drew that one for me,’” Whitmire recalled.

Whitmire won after a primary runoff and, at a time when Democrats ruled Texas the way Republicans do now, he was easily elected in November 1972.

Whitmire’s decade in the state House wasn’t the stuff of lawmaking legend. While his friends Craig Washington and Mickey Leland quickly made names for themselves as ambitious up-and-comers, Whitmire was generally dismissed as a lightweight.

In 1973 Texas Monthly called him “furniture,’’ a term reserved for low-impact legislators, and in 1979 he earned a spot on the magazine’s list of the worst legislators.

“Nicknamed Double Zero: one digit representing his ability, the other his stature in the House,” the magazine wrote in a decidedly harsh assessment of him that year. “Whitmire approaching the podium was a misguided missile homing in on his own self-destruction.”

Whitmire finished his undergraduate degree and went on to UH law school while serving in the House. He gained admittance to the bar in 1981 after just two years, availing himself of a now-defunct statutory perk that let state legislators become lawyers without a law degree as long as they passed the exam.

In those early days, he barely had two nickels to his name. When Whitmire filed his first personal financial statement in 1974, as required by the disclosure bill he voted to water down, his net worth was probably a negative number. He reported a car loan — the bronze Cutlass with the bucket seats — but he had no property, no stocks and no job other than the part-time legislator gig that paid him just $400 a month. It’s since been raised to $600 a month.

Fast forward to his 2012 disclosure statement, and a far different picture emerges. Whitmire lives in a Houston home worth $1.4 million, has ranch property in Brenham valued at $3.7 million, owns an Austin condo appraised at $400,000, and has a lakehouse on Toledo Bend, a reservoir bordering Louisiana, that is being advertised for sale at $385,000.

Whitmire attributes his healthy financial condition partly to hard work and partly to his ex-wife, West Texas ranch heiress Becki Dalby Whitmire, and her parents. He says her trust fund put him through law school and helped the family make ends meet while he tended to his legislative duties.

His service in the Legislature, despite its part-time nature, promises future financial rewards. Whitmire says he’s been told he’ll be eligible to collect a yearly pension worth up to $125,000 annually, the maximum allowed under law, if he retires.

Involvement with developers

Over the last two decades, Whitmire has also invested with Houston developers involved in controversial public sector real estate deals.

In a few weeks, when ethics filings are due, he said he plans to report an investment in two condo projects being developed by his friend Mike Surface. The Houston developer was at the center of a corruption scandal that brought down Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole in 2011. This is at least the second time the senator has partnered with Surface. Whitmire sold his stake in Harris 249 Limited Partnership, an investment with Surface he no longer remembers, for an undisclosed sum in 1998. His 1998 disclosure statement says only that he made a net gain of “more than $25,000.”

In a plea deal that forbids Surface from entering into government real estate deals for five years, the developer admitted he provided gifts to Eversole, including more than $60,000 in cash, with the intent to influence him. The developer was sentenced in 2012 to two years’ probation. Whitmire said the FBI interviewed him about the government’s wide-ranging corruption investigation in Harris County in 2008. But he said he was not the target of any investigation.

“I was told specifically I was not being investigated. I was a resource,” Whitmire said in the interview this month, his voice rising. “Did you hear what I just said? I was specifically told [that] and voluntarily answered their questions as a resource.”

It was not the first time Whitmire’s dealings with developers were in the news. In the early 1990s, he introduced executives of BSL Golf Corp. to the Houston Municipal Employees Pension Fund. The fund's investments in BSL golf courses in Houston and Austin sparked city and FBI investigations, according to reports in Houston newspapers and KPRC-TV.

The owners, Andrew Schatte and Richard Bischoff, later denied the FBI had ever investigated the deal. And Bischoff said that despite complaints, the investments ended up generating a good return for the fund.

Whitmire also benefited from his association with Schatte and Bischoff. Last month, Bischoff told The Texas Tribune that for years, Whitmire had been paid a legal retainer from BSL Golf’s parent company, Universal Services, saying he was “like an in-house counsel” there.

Bischoff said that he saw no conflict of interest in the payments and that they stopped around 2000. Whitmire attributes criticism of his private dealings to political opponents bent on tarnishing his reputation.

The BSL controversy blew up on Whitmire at the beginning of the most tumultuous period of his adult life — and arguably the most rewarding, politically speaking. He may have been a lightweight in the 1970s and even the 1980s, a decade Whitmire now calls “pretty uneventful.” The 1990s were anything but.

A decade of headlines

After a tight and bruising re-election battle in 1992, Whitmire got his first big legislative break in the 1993 session when Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, a fellow Hillsboro native, appointed him chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Voters had been clamoring for a crackdown on revolving-door policies that allowed criminals to walk out of prison after serving a fraction of their sentences.

In response, Whitmire authored an ambitious rewrite of the state’s criminal laws and triggered a prison building spree that would last for years. He won almost universal accolades for it at the time. And for the first time in his then 20-year career, "Boogie" was taken seriously.

“Whitmire … whose only previous contribution to the Senate was a series of one-liners, was the class clown who made straight A’s when he finally decided to do his homework,” Texas Monthly wrote that year, giving him his first “Best” legislator designation. “Whitmire got serious about an overhaul of the entire penal code.”

It didn’t take long for the shine to wear off.

Over the next two years Whitmire was embroiled in several conflict-of-interest controversies, engaging in behavior deemed ethically questionable even in a Legislature used to edgy wheeler-and-dealers.

In summer 1993, just a few weeks after passing a bill benefiting the Houston Firefighters' Relief and Retirement Fund, Whitmire signed a lucrative contract to lobby for the pension board in Washington. The Houston Chronicle, in a December 1993 story titled “Whitmire backs bill, lands a job,” reported that the Houston Democrat was not in full compliance with the terms of his contract but got paid anyway; the fund said the omissions were minor.

A few weeks later, Whitmire was in the spotlight again for urging the Houston Fire Department to hire an ex-parolee, who was later fired for failing to disclose all of his convictions. 

In 1995 alone, the senator found himself:

  • Under internal investigation for flouting Senate protocol when he hired a Houston-area engineer (and campaign donor) for $5,000 a month to consult with his Senate committee despite the fact that the consultant didn’t live in Austin, as the rules required. Whitmire told the Austin American-Statesman he didn’t have time to worry about the Senate’s “silly rules” but said the consultant, whose work for the committee could not be substantiated with any written reports, had provided valuable services.
  • Under investigation by the Harris County district attorney’s office for taking a $4,000-a-month consulting contract with the Harris County probation department. His job was to explain the criminal laws, which encouraged more community supervision and probation, that he had just passed. (The county probation director at the time, Larance Coleman, is now on Whitmire’s Senate payroll in Austin). Whitmire said he wouldn’t take the probation job today, but noted that the DA cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing.
  • Heavily criticized by government watchdogs for taking a reported $24,000 in legal fees from a foundation that operated a halfway house and whose state funding Whitmire oversaw as Criminal Justice Committee chairman. 
  • The subject of unflattering news coverage for mixing his official and private duties inside his Senate district office, where both Whitmire and a paid committee staffer — also ignoring Senate residency requirements — both ran law practices at the same time.

Whitmire said he’s learned a lot since those rocky days. He says he no longer takes offers of work if it means dealing directly with state agencies, and he routinely turns down people who want the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee to represent them in criminal matters.

Generally, he chalks up the criticism and the scrutiny he’s gotten to politics. Sour grapes and envy. The proof he’s done good can be found at the ballot box — election year after election year, Whitmire says.

“My constituents have shown a lot of confidence that I’m a great public servant,” he said. “I’m proud of my record, and you know what? Most Houstonians are proud of my record.”

The negative headlines haves subsided considerably. In 2010, Governing magazine named him one of its “Public Officials of the Year,” and Texas Monthly gave him his fourth “Best” award a year later.

But the questions about how he makes his living haven’t gone away.

Whitmire’s employer, Locke Lord, represents a broad array of interests and industries — among them medical, energy, restaurants, beer distribution, auto and rail.

Locke Lord also lobbies for four public pension funds, including the one that had hired Whitmire to lobby in 1993 and the one that invested in his friends’ golf courses. The Houston police and fire pension funds hired the firm before Whitmire started working there in 1997.

Throughout his career, Whitmire has been a friend of the public employee unions and a fierce advocate in the Legislature for their generous pension benefits, which Houston City Hall has frequently tried to pare back. That has often put Whitmire at odds with Houston mayors — stretching back at least to the rein of his former sister-in-law, Kathy Whitmire, during the 1980s.

Pension Review Board role

In addition to his legislative power, Whitmire has a major pension governance role in Texas: Since 1996, he’s been on the Pension Review Board, which oversees all public pension funds in the state. Whitmire has remained on the board since his term expired in 2005 because Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has never appointed a replacement, officials said.

Whitmire says his advocacy of the pension systems, or any other legislative interests, has nothing to do with the provenance of his paycheck.

According to Locke Lorde company newsletters, Whitmire has represented vendors looking for business at Houston City Hall and has at times been a sort of rainmaker for the firm. Locke Lord lauded him in the late 1990s for bringing in Houston Lighting & Power Company, and then BSL Golf Corp. BSL was looking to land a renovation contract and lease extension at Hermann Park golf course.

“John Whitmire is responsible for bringing this business to the firm,” the newsletter said.

Supporters of the part-time Legislature concept say it forces lawmakers to learn what issues impact their constituents in the private sector. But Craig McDonald, director of the liberal watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, said reforms are needed to put some distance between lawmakers’ public sector duties and their often-lucrative jobs.

“Our legislative process is infested with conflicts of interest,” he said. “Current rules allow legislators such as Senator Whitmire to represent private clients before local governments and to draw a paycheck from a law firm that reaps millions from clients paying to get access to the Legislature. We need to build walls that block such conflicts.”

In Houston, Whitmire’s blended approach to politics and lawmaking still can be found in his district office — a two-story, white Victorian with a wrap-around porch, where the senator and a top aide once juggled their public and private duties.

The landlord is Lawrence Kagan, a Whitmire friend and campaign contributor. Kagan and/or his companies have given the lawmaker at least $32,000 in donations since the early 1990s.

Whitmire says the office has been a bargain for the state, which for nearly 20 years has paid rent to Kagan’s company, adding up to an estimated $500,000 or more, based on state expenditure data and published monthly rent figures. Whitmire separately leases, for $200 a month, a small part of the building from Kagan as his campaign office, records show.

Whitmire said he couldn’t remember if he had ever done any legal work for Kagan, but he did urge the state's Health and Human Services Commission in the 1990s to keep leasing a big office building from Kagan, saying it was also a good deal for Texas. The state has paid Kagan $9.5 million to lease 131,000 square feet of office space since 2004, the last year figures were available, and he’s just signed another lease for an 8,000-square-foot building, for which he’s received $25,000 so far. Kagan did not return phone calls for this story.

While the HHSC business is more lucrative, Whitmire’s Senate District 15 office may be Kagan’s most reliable long-term lease in Houston. At a ceremony celebrating the dean’s 40th anniversary in the Legislature on Monday, one fellow senator said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Whitmire serve another 40 years in office.

It’s not an unpleasant scenario for Whitmire, one of just two actively serving members left from that starry-eyed freshman House Class of 1973.

“I’m a public servant,” he told the Tribune. “It is a religion to me. It is my purpose in life. I get up in the morning, I stress out about people’s conditions. And I will continue to do it as long as I can breathe.”

Audrey White contributed to this story.

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