Updated, Feb. 28, 4:34 p.m.: Members of the Texas House complained Thursday about security policies in place for legislators visiting the Governor's Mansion, prompting the quick scheduling of both a legislative hearing and a meeting between Gov. Rick Perry's office and Department of Public Safety officials to discuss the issue further.
Despite lawmakers' concerns about having to undergo a backgrond check every time they visit the Governor's Mansion, DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said the policy is not a new one.
"The security policy at the mansion – which requires a background check for all visitors to the mansion – has been in place for approximately ten years," Vinger wrote in an email. "Texas Department of Public Safety officials will meet with the Governor’s Office tomorrow to discuss this issue."
Outraged members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus left a reception at the Governor’s Mansion this week after facing what they described as heavy-handed and offensive security procedures. One of the lawmakers said he won’t return to the stately residence until the policy is changed.
The complaints came to light Thursday at a House Appropriations Committee hearing, where lawmakers grilled Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw about a policy that requires everyone but Gov. Rick Perry and his wife, Anita, to submit to criminal history checks each time they attempt to enter the Governor’s Mansion. The committee scheduled a hearing on Tuesday to hear more testimony on the issue.
“Is this not enough to get into the governor’s mansion?” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, asked McCraw while holding up his DPS-issued Capitol identification card.
Turner, who served as host of the afternoon reception at the Governor’s Mansion, said Thursday that he and other lawmakers were upset that they had been asked to provide additional information including their driver’s license numbers to allow DPS to perform criminal history checks on them before they could enter the event. The reception was part of a three-day legislative summit put on by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.
“There was pushback by members the Thursday before the event that they did not feel it necessary to provide the information,” Matthews said.
The request prompted Giddings to not attend the event, Matthews said. Dutton and Dukes arrived at the mansion but left rather than submit to the vetting. Turner said he submitted to the security vetting after arriving at the Mansion on Monday, but did so only because he was the event's host. He said he did not plan to go back to the Governor’s Mansion until the policy was changed.
“If we are coming to the point that the governor’s house is becoming so exclusive and we are trying to mirror what is happening in D.C., then I have a problem with that,” Turner said.
Referring to his official Capitol identification, Turner added, “If this is not good enough to allow me to get into the governor’s house, when for 24 years I’ve gone over there with no problem … then you all can have it to yourself over there.”
“Obviously there’s not a representative that poses a threat to anyone," McCraw said. Nonetheless, he said DPS recommended the policy to the governor’s office, who accepted the recommendation.
Lawmakers appeared baffled at the hearing as McCraw explained that everyone who visits the mansion, including McCraw himself, has to submit to a thorough criminal history check, even if they had previously undergone such a vetting and had been cleared for a visit days earlier.
“There are no exceptions right now and, believe me, you’re not the first representative who has asked questions about that particular policy,” McCraw said. He said there have been talks within the agency about changing the policy for legislators.
DPS is working to balance providing access to the Governor's Mansion while maintaining the historic building's safety following a 2008 fire that authorities believe was the result of arson. Following lengthy repairs, the mansion was reopened in July.
Giddings said the new policy implies that DPS does not trust the state’s elected legislators to be around the governor.
“It appears to make those of us who have been cleared to operate in this building, it appears to make us suspect when we go into the governor’s mansion,” Giddings said.
Dukes wondered why security procedures at the Governor’s Mansion appeared more stringent than the White House.
“When I went to the White House and showed that [Capitol] badge, it was more than good enough,” Dukes told McCraw.
Giddings sought to make clear that the questions from her and other lawmakers were not directed at the DPS workers who were just following orders.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with those officers, the performance of their work,” Giddings said. “This, I think, sir, is directed toward you and for you to answer to.”