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Analysis: When George P. Bush says something is fake news, remember the Alamo

Before the primary elections, the state land commissioner and his aides dismissed a leaked audit as "doctored" — not to be trusted. Now the final version is out, and it's substantially the same as the early version.

Texas General Land Office Commissioner George P. Bush testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Dec. 5, 2017.

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As the election season rolls on, keep this in mind when Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush opens his mouth: The officeholder from the state’s best-known political family certainly knows how to spin a story.

Back in February, Bush was in a noisy Republican primary fight with his predecessor, Jerry Patterson. Among other things, Patterson is an Alamo buff. He has made it abundantly clear that he thinks Bush has mismanaged things at that monument. And he got some support for that view from a draft of an internal audit critical of the “structure and funding model” at the Alamo put in place by the General Land Office.

“Internal” is an important word in the previous sentence. That draft audit — along with the final version that came out this week — was issued by the internal auditor in Bush’s own agency. That’s what internal auditors are supposed to do: to tell you when there’s spinach on your teeth, toilet paper stuck to your shoe, oddities in your accounting and so on.

They point things out to management. Management is supposed to clean things up.

The draft audit was first revealed by the Austin American-Statesman in early February, and other reporters caught up with the land commissioner to see what he thought about it. “I can’t really comment on the document,” Bush said at the time. “I cannot disclose, but we do have evidence that it was a doctored memo.”

Here’s the lead paragraph from the draft audit — also the lead paragraph of the final audit:

“GLO should reconsider the structure and funding model it uses for operating the Alamo. A contractor performs the daily operations, but it uses state resources to do this, as it does not have its own funds or other assets. This is an unusual situation that has created complexity and a lack of clarity regarding the nature and the use of the funds used for Alamo operations. It is also the root cause of several of the observations in this report.”

The land commissioner’s suggestion that the draft memo was “doctored” temporarily sunk the stories about his management of the Alamo, for the most part, and it did so at a critical time: Less than two weeks later, early voting in the primary elections began. Bush easily won the nomination for another term with more than 58 percent of the vote. Patterson ran second in that four-candidate race, pulling in just under 30 percent.

Now that the final audit is out, you can audit the land commissioner’s political spin. Give him an A-plus. While the leaked draft didn’t foul his re-election bid, the final document is both direct and damning — not the sort of thing a politician wants on his report card to the public:

“We determined that the financial formation and accounting of the Alamo Complex fund did not comply with state requirements,” the auditor wrote. “Also, not all contract requirements of the agreement to operate the Alamo are being met. In addition, controls over budgeting, expenditures, contracting, and reconciliations should be strengthened.”

They made several recommendations to straighten things out.

Auditors typically give space to the people and organizations under the microscope, a place to make arguments, to disagree or to point out things the auditors might have missed. In this audit, the top line sort of slams the door: “Management concurs with the recommendations.”

Managing the Alamo is going to be noisy, no matter who’s in charge. It’s a Texas shrine, and between various factions of historic preservationists, political interests, tourism promoters and people and groups disrupted by the GLO’s efforts to modernize operations and spruce up the site, it’s the subject of a long-lasting, ongoing rumble.

That rumble is a management issue, and Bush is the top guy at the agency in charge. It’s his job. But the hat he was wearing earlier this year was that of a politician, not a manager, and the spin he applied at the time did what he needed it to do: It put off the spanking detailed in the final audit until now — long after the primaries where Patterson was a threat.

The delay helped, but didn’t put the issue of the Alamo to bed. Just read the day-after-the-audit emails from Miguel Suazo, the Democrat challenging Bush in the fall: “It clearly demonstrates that George P. Bush is in over his head and lacks the competence to manage our state’s most historic landmark.”

He sounds like Jerry Patterson, doesn’t he?

Disclosure: The Texas General Land Office and Jerry Patterson have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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