The Devil and Bob Bullock
Can a womanizing, alcoholic, emotionally unstable elected official become one of the most powerful and feared figures in state government? A generation ago, before blogs, YouTube, and the 24-hour news cycle, one did.
The clock on the wall of the comptroller’s office said it all. It ran backward. “True story. The clock didn’t run this way,” Bob Bullock said in a 1995 interview, circling his index finger in a clockwise motion. “It ran backward.”
“Backward” was a polite way of describing the comptroller’s office when Bullock arrived after the 1974 election. He found an aging staff of bean counters in green eyeshades making journal and ledger entries with lead pencils and keeping tallies with antiquated manual adding machines. The most evident bow to modern technology was in the intake room, where a dozen or more workers sat on stools around a table opening mail—checks from taxpayers—with an electric letter opener. Once opened, the checks made their way slowly into the books and into state bank accounts. Crates of unopened checks were stacked nearby, awaiting processing that took weeks. The slow pace was costing the state dearly in interest that would have been earned had the money been promptly deposited.
Well before he took office in January, Bullock had key staff members ready to walk through the door with him. Randall Buck Wood would be his general counsel, and Don Ray would run his field office division. He recruited Ervin Osborn, the respected former chief of the Austin regional office of the Internal Revenue Service, to be his chief deputy. He made it clear to them that patience would be no virtue in this agency. It would be expanded, modernized, computerized, and streamlined. Above all, enforcement would be toughened.
“We don’t have enough money,” Bullock told them. “We can’t even hire auditors.”
To rectify that, he called on Governor Dolph Briscoe, Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby, new House Speaker Billy Clayton, and a smattering of influential legislators to make a case for beefing up tax collection efforts.
“I’ve got to have an emergency appropriation,” he told each of them, “and I have to have it immediately. The minute the Legislature walks in the door on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in January, I need that money. For every dollar you give me, I’ll give you ten.”
Whether they believed he could deliver ten for one or were just calling his bluff, the deal was done. Bullock had his appropriation as soon as he took office, and things were about to get hectic. Running on a sea of alcohol and the gathering forces of manic depression, he tried to engage every task at once—and he had laid out many tasks. His growing flock of fresh-faced, good-government romantics would soon learn that when they signed on with Bullock, they checked their personal lives at the door.
He set an exhausting pace that drove some holdovers from the administration of Bullock’s predecessor, Robert S. Calvert, to exit voluntarily. Wood described Bullock’s attitude as being one of “If you think you can do it in a week, you probably can do it in a day.” He hired a press aide to crank out a daily blitz of news releases—about his hires, about problems he was finding in the agency and how he intended to fix them, about matters before the Legislature. Once, he issued a press release to announce that “nothing happened in the comptroller’s office today.”
Having wiped out the top tier of Calvert’s staff, Bullock began working his way through the second echelon, firing those whose work he deemed inadequate or tardy. When he could, he foisted that unpleasant duty onto one of his subordinates. When he had to do it himself, the firings were abrupt and emotionless: Take your personal belongings and go. After getting that message without warning, one employee of the revenue processing division drove home, tied a rope to a rafter in his garage, and hanged himself. “The problem was that Bullock couldn’t tell the difference between an incompetent worker and an impossible task,” Bill Collier, one of his early top aides, wrote in an April 1980 Texas Monthly article scathingly critical of his former boss.
From the first day, Bullock’s preoccupation, justifiably, was unpaid taxes. “I want to know how much delinquent tax is out there in the state,” he told Ray.
An answer was not readily available, but the scramble was on to find out. Toiling with a decrepit bookkeeping system and an IBM computer for which a program had to be written, Ray’s staff took a couple of months to come up with numbers that appeared to be accurate: 70,000 delinquents owed the state $60 million. Some of the accounts were years old, and the businesses that owed them were long since defunct. Some involved only minuscule amounts, but many of the scofflaws were still around and owed hundreds of thousands of dollars that had gone unpaid for years. That money was collectible, but no one knew exactly how. For years, the most vigorous collection effort was a letter to the offending business. Compliance was voluntary.
Then, researching the comptroller’s statutory powers, Ray made a discovery he knew Bullock would love. Leaving his desk, he stepped across the hall to Wood’s office.
“Buck,” he said, “we got the power to go in and just seize property.”
Wood’s eyes widened.
“I’ve been up talking to the head of sales tax, and he said they tried it one time in Dallas. A sewing machine store. They seized a bunch of Singer sewing machines, but they actually lost money on the deal. By the time they sold them, they didn’t get much for them and they had [to bear] the cost of selling them, so they never did it again. Buck, there are a lot of businesses on this list. We could make it work.”
Wood was interested but cautious. “Let’s look at this really hard,” he said. “Seizures involve due process problems. We’ve got to have a whole set of documentation. We’ve got to study the law. We’ll want to read some cases. We don’t even have a form for seizure notices.”
He anticipated a lawsuit from the first raid, and he wanted nothing left to guesswork. He wanted to know the precise extent of the seizure authority, the mechanics and logistics of it. Wood figured it would take at least two weeks to bone up on the subject. “Do me a favor,” he told Ray. “Have everything set up before you tell Bullock, because I know what’s going to happen. He’ll want to do it the next day.”
The next day, the red light signaling an interoffice call flashed on Wood’s phone.
Buck, come in here to my office,” Bullock said. From the excitement in his voice, Wood sensed what was coming. He entered the office and found Bullock and Ray drinking Budweiser. He knew for certain. We’re about to screw up.
“Don tells me we’ve got the power to go out and seize this stuff,” Bullock said, gesturing to a big stack of delinquencies on his desk. “I’ve already found five or eight that owe us hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they’re still in business. This will get everybody’s attention. We’ll bring in more money doing this than by sending out hundreds of auditors.”
Bullock’s mind was racing. He rambled about the value the publicity would have in forcing future voluntary compliance. Ray sat quietly, grinning broadly as Bullock spoke. Don, Wood thought, you and I are the ones who are going to have to do this, and we don’t know what the hell we’re doing. Within a few minutes, Bullock had summoned half a dozen other staffers to his office to brainstorm the delinquency list and select targets.
The questions in Wood’s mind were compounding. How much notice did the agency have to give the business owner? What documentation was needed? What about security? Did they need policemen with them? What was the rush? Nobody was going anywhere in the next two weeks.
Under the statute, similar to one used by the Internal Revenue Service, the comptroller could simply issue a “jeopardy determination” paper and seize assets and freeze bank accounts on the spot—no thirty-day notice, no hearing.
“How about these liquor stores in San Antonio?” Bullock asked. “There are three down there, and they owe us $405,000.”
Johnny Gabriel operated the three stores, and not paying sales taxes was only one of his transgressions. Six years earlier, the Alcoholic Beverage Commission had canceled his package-store permits for buying liquor from unauthorized sources. He had no sales tax permit and had never paid “one red cent in sales taxes,” Bullock told those gathered in his office.
“I’m going to padlock that son of a bitch,” he said. “I can sell that stuff and get my money, right? Get a trailer to haul all that whiskey off. Get somebody to change the locks. Buck, get whatever documents I need to walk in the door and tell the son of a bitch I’m taking over.”
“When do you want to do this?” someone asked.
“When do you think I want to do it?” Bullock said. “Tomorrow.”
Making the argument of logistical hardships, possible due process requirements, and other loose ends that needed to be tidied up, the staff convinced him that tomorrow was too soon, but the most time they could buy was three days. Bullock had entered the launch code, and the missile was already rising from the silo.
Three days. It was scant time to prepare all the documents, consult with the attorney general’s office, and make arrangements for the manpower and vehicles required to empty three large liquor stores. The attorney general’s staff warned of “all sorts of due process problems.” Rather than implant caution, that kind of recalcitrance only angered Bullock. “Well, we’re going to need you,” he told an assistant attorney general in San Antonio. “The day after tomorrow, we’re coming down there, and we’re going to seize these places.”
Trucks were rented to haul away the liquor, and arrangements were made to rent storage space at Southern Moving and Storage. The seizure notice was drafted and extra enforcement officers dispatched to San Antonio. On the day before the raid was scheduled, an officer in the San Antonio field office was instructed to visit each liquor store, do a walk-through, and estimate the amount of inventory. The stores varied in size, and the enforcement officer had no experience estimating inventory. His guesswork was likely to be tenuous. Wood still wanted more time.
“Buck, you take the big store,” Bullock instructed. “Don will get the next-largest, and Wayne Oakes [the audit enforcement supervisor] will take the third.”
Assuming that the element of surprise would be important to avoid evasion as well as minimize hostile resistance, they planned to enter the stores simultaneously when they opened at ten o’clock the next morning. As Wood and his crew arrived at the first store, accompanied by a San Antonio police officer, a bobtail truck was backed up to the front door, prepared to haul away the goods. No customers were inside, just a young Hispanic clerk standing behind the counter.
“This business owes the state $405,000,” Wood said, flashing the jeopardy determination papers. “If you pay this amount now, we’ll leave. If you don’t, we’re going to seize the contents of this store.”
No emotion registered on the young man’s face. He opened the cash register and emptied the contents onto the counter. Smiling, he said, “If you wait until dark, I’ll get you some more.”
Wood had no idea what he meant. “I take it you don’t have the $405,000?”
“Here’s your notice of seizure,” Wood said. “You’re no longer in charge here.”
For the next several hours, it was impossible to determine who was in charge. The store was huge, and the inventory would not fit into a single bobtail truck. Wood ordered another but soon realized that even two would not accommodate the entire inventory. He called Ray, who told him that he too needed more trucks. Wood called a major moving company, one with real trucks—eighteen-wheeler, semitrailer big rigs.
“Sure, we have trucks available,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “What are we moving?”
“Whiskey,” Wood said.
“We can’t haul whiskey,” the guy said. “You have to have a license to haul that.”
“What do I do to get a license to haul whiskey?” Wood asked.
“It takes federal and state permission.”
He placed a call to Bullock and told him the situation. Bullock called Ben Ramsey, the chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulated intrastate trucking, and said he needed an emergency license to haul whiskey. Ramsey said he’d need to check with his attorneys.
Wood imagined that Ramsey was wondering what kind of trouble he could get into. Ramsey was friendly with Bullock, however, and within an hour, the permits were issued. But other obstacles presented themselves. Wood had procured a forklift and pallets to transfer the liquor from the storage room, but the door had to be removed to get the vehicle inside. Then, the storage room was too small to get the lift inside. Everything had to be manually loaded onto the pallets. Every available field agent in San Antonio was called to the scene.
Once in the trucks, the cases of liquor could not be stacked more than a few cases high because of the potential shifting and damage that could occur during transport. More trucks were summoned—eighteen in all just to the largest of the liquor stores.
Finally, the first truck left for the warehouse at Southern Moving and Storage, where another problem awaited. While other trucks were still being loaded, Wood received a telephone call from an enforcement officer at the warehouse.
“There’s a problem. I’ll put you on the phone with the guy in charge of the warehouse,” the agent told him.
“We can’t store liquor,” the manager told him. “You have to be bonded. You have to have a permit . . . a federal permit.”
Wood called his boss, who had remained in Austin, waiting to see how the seizure was going before making an appearance in San Antonio. “Bullock, we have a real problem,” he said. “We need a federal permit to store this stuff. I don’t have the time for it. Somebody else is going to have to do it.”
A couple of hours later, Bullock called and told him the federal permit was in hand. The warehouse manager still was not satisfied.
“This stuff is flammable, and we usually don’t store flammables.”
Several truckloads of whiskey were idling in the parking lot, and Wood was growing impatient. The guy is confusing “flammable” with “combustible,” he thought. “Furniture is flammable,” Wood snapped. “You store furniture.”
At length, the manager relented on that issue but raised another. “I’ve got pilferage problems,” he said. “You’re bringing in thirty-dollar and forty-dollar bottles of brandy. People will walk off with them.”
“Whatever you’ve got to do, do it,” Wood said.
More headaches. At two o’clock in the afternoon a constable delivered to Wood formal notice that a hearing would be held at three on an injunction to stop the seizure. That much he had anticipated. He drove to the attorney general’s San Antonio office and found a group of nervous assistant AGs. “We don’t know anything about tax law,” the head of the office told him. “You’re going to have to handle this.”
Faced with such persistence, Wood agreed. His job was not to try cases, but he knew a little about the situation he was facing. There was, for instance, a provision of the tax law that prohibited a state court from enjoining the enforcement of a tax. At the hearing, the liquor store’s attorneys made their case first, then Wood got his shot at the owner.
“You’ve been sitting on these bills for years,” he said. “Why haven’t you paid your taxes?”
The questioning was designed not so much to block the injunction but to get the judge’s sympathy and persuade him that the liquor dealer was not a sympathetic figure. It seemed to work, even before Wood played his hole card.
“Judge, you simply don’t have the right to issue an injunction,” he said, citing the statute.
Without hesitation, the judge said, “That’s right. I don’t have jurisdiction. The injunction is denied.”
Back at the liquor store, a crowd was beginning to gather. Word of the raids had gotten out and made the noon newscasts. Now more reporters and camera crews were swarming the place. Wood paid the spectators little attention until five o’clock, when the forklift driver, not an agency employee, shut down his equipment and said, “End of the day. I’m gone.”
Wood pleaded with him to stay. “We’ve got to have you. We’ll pay you overtime,” he said.
“Can’t do it. I’ve got to pick up my kid.”
Wood approached the audience and shouted, “Can anyone here operate a forklift?” He had no authority to hire anyone. No vouchers. No way to follow normal procurement procedures. One man stepped forward. They negotiated a price and he went to work.
With all the glitches ironed out, Bullock arrived to harvest a public relations bumper crop. He spoke to the spectators and the press about businesses that hadn’t paid their taxes, about his commitment to doing what the comptroller’s office had always neglected, about how cheaters were a burden on everyone. “You pay the taxes,” he explained. “They collect it from you and pocket it.” He left and drove back to Austin, but work at the liquor store and warehouse went on through the night.
At midnight, the young man to whom Wood had served the seizure papers and who had remained at the store throughout asked for a favor. He wanted permission to drink one of the expensive whiskeys he had never been able to afford.
“You’re an employee of the store,” Wood shrugged. “If you’re willing to take responsibility for it, I don’t care.”
Pulling a bottle from a shelf, the young man unscrewed the cap and poured a generous shot into a paper cup. He walked outside, sat down on the curb, and polished off half the bottle by the time Wood and his crew locked the doors and headed home. The sun would be coming up soon.
News of the raid was splashed across the front pages the next morning, and the early reaction was mostly positive. Law-abiding businessmen and women expressed outrage that the cheaters had for so long defied the law with impunity. The ordinary Joes and Janes loved seeing the big guys taken down.
New targets were selected the day after the first raid, and in the future, the comptroller would ride at the head of the column when Bullock’s Raiders came to town. At Norma’s Café, in Dallas, an angry and sobbing Norma Manis confronted the Raiders, while television cameras recorded the emotion. Bullock’s response: He pointed out that she was driving a Lincoln Continental while owing $45,000 in back taxes. She paid up with a cashier’s check two hours later. In Houston, a nervous young manager of a music store tried to explain why he was in arrears to the tune of $8,638. “They took the nickels and dimes and quarters of the people of the State of Texas,” Bullock told the reporters who accompanied him there. “I don’t feel sorry for a damn one of them.”
On Thanksgiving Day, 1975, Buck Wood was at home preparing to have dinner with his family. In the eleven hectic months since he had joined Bullock in the comptroller’s office, leisure time had been rare, as holidays, weekends, and vacations were secondary to Bullock’s whims. Wood had spent months on the road, evaluating the comptroller’s field offices around the state and carrying out the unpleasant task of firing employees who did not measure up to the new performance standards. This was an uncommon and welcome day of rest.
In the middle of the afternoon, the phone rang, and Wood was not surprised to hear Bullock’s voice. “Buck, I need you to do something.”
What now? The office is closed. The Legislature is out of town. No raids are scheduled. “What is it?” Wood asked.
“I need you to go to the store, pick up some sage, and bring it to me,” Bullock said.
“Bullock, I’m getting ready to have dinner with my family,” Wood protested.
“This won’t take long. I really need it.”
“Why can’t you go get it? I’ve got a bunch of family here.”
Bullock stammered with an answer. “I’m just . . . I’m real busy, Buck. I need you to do this for me.”
Wood was baffled and more than a little put out by the request. He continued to plead his own family obligations and press his boss for an explanation. Finally, Bullock blurted out, “Dammit. Buck, I’m trying to cook two Thanksgiving dinners, and I can’t get away.” With a little more prodding, Wood learned that one dinner was for Bullock and his wife, Amelia, and the other he would share with Kathryn, the second wife he had continued to see after their divorce and his remarriage to Amelia.
In Bullock’s manic states, there was no risk that couldn’t be taken. In his private life, that was evident with whiskey and willing women; in his public life, it was evident in the manner in which he managed what was becoming a very important state office. Eventually, the public and private would merge into the makings of a full-blown scandal that could have finished him in politics. Women were part of the problem. Airplanes were another.
To the first small plane obtained from the Department of Public Safety, which had confiscated it in a drug bust, Bullock added a Mitsubishi MU-2, which, while larger and faster, soon proved inadequate for his travels. He traded it for a more spacious Beechcraft King Air 100. At a frantic pace, he winged around the country, ostensibly to study the tax-collecting methods of other states. Those information-seeking forays soon became little more than high-altitude parties.
After being told that Louisiana was a model of tax enforcement, Bullock put together a crew—staff lawyers and enforcement experts—and lit out on a Friday for Baton Rouge, the state capital. After spending most of the day there, Bullock’s group realized they were in the wrong place; Louisiana’s out-of-state audits were handled in the New Orleans office. Back at their hotel, they gathered in the bar to plan their next move.
“We’ve got to go to New Orleans,” Bullock said. “Let’s go this afternoon. We’ll spend the night, and we’ll go to the audit office tomorrow.”
“This is Friday,” Wood said. “They’re not going to be open tomorrow.”
“Wrong,” Bullock said. “Their offices are open half a day on Saturday. We’ll just fly over there and have a good time.”
While they were talking, a young lawyer in their group was busy flirting with their eighteen-year-old Cajun cocktail waitress, something that had not escaped Bullock’s notice.
“Paul, you like that waitress. Ask her if she wants to go with us,” Bullock said.
For God’s sake, what are we doing? Wood thought. “Paul, don’t do it,” he said.
“Why not?” an assistant said. “I’ll pay for everything.”
“Well, it’s your poison, but I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
The next time the waitress visited their table, Paul asked, “How would you like to go to New Orleans?”
“Yeah, I would like that,” she said. Looking down at her abbreviated cocktail dress, she added, “But I don’t have any clothes. I’d have to go home.”
“We don’t have time to do that,” Bullock said. “Paul, find out where a dress shop is and go buy her some clothes.”
At a nearby shopping center, while Paul and the waitress fetched clothing and the others waited in the car, Wood received a phone call from his wife, telling him that their son was sick and would probably have to be hospitalized. He informed Bullock.
“Drop us off in New Orleans,” Bullock told the pilots, “and fly him home and fly back to pick us up.”
In New Orleans, the party continued until the cocktail waitress became ill and had to be flown back to Baton Rouge. The plane then returned to New Orleans and flew Bullock’s group back to Texas the next day. The following Monday morning, Bullock told Wood that everyone was too hung over to go to the New Orleans tax office—except him. When he got there, Wood said, Bullock found that it was the wrong division and that no one there could help with out-of-state audits. But that conversation with Wood later kept Bullock from being indicted for the New Orleans trip. Bullock’s lawyer, Roy Minton, asked Wood to relate the story to a grand jury investigating Bullock’s travels. Wood testified that Bullock had told him about the Saturday visit two days later. Asked if he believed that Bullock was telling the truth, Wood said yes.
The trips became a pattern. Bullock would select a destination—Phoenix, Santa Fe, Denver, sixteen in all before the binge ended—and assemble a crew to accompany him, a crew that usually included his concubine of the moment. His practice was to send his staff to meet with the local officials while he and his female friend took in the sights and saloons. To the professional staff, it sometimes seemed that their primary mission on those trips was not to bone up on the science of tax collecting but to keep Bullock out of trouble.
At a tax conference in Denver, attended by representatives of the western states, Bullock was manic and restless. Sitting in the hotel bar at eight o’clock on the first evening, he announced, “This place is boring.” Turning to one of the pilots, he asked, “Is the plane where we can use it?”
“Sure, I can make a phone call and it will be ready in thirty minutes.”
“Call and get it warmed up. We’re going to Vegas,” Bullock said.
Wood sat quietly, waiting for one of the other lawyers to object. Instead they said, “Let’s go.”
So Wood spoke up: “We’re not going to take a state plane to Las Vegas.”
“You just hide and watch,” Bullock snapped at him.
Wood looked at the pilots and said, “Boys, you ain’t taking Bullock to Vegas.”
“What’s the flying time?” Bullock asked, ignoring Wood’s protests.
“We can be there in the morning,” a pilot said.
“Call and get us some hotel rooms,” Bullock told another of his aides.
“Whoa,” Wood said. “We are not going to Vegas.” Addressing the pilots, he said, “It’s a felony to take that plane to Vegas, and it’s going to cost thousands in state money to make that trip. Do you want to be part of a conspiracy to commit a felony?”
Bullock acted angry, but he acquiesced. After lobbing a few choice and profane epithets at Wood, he ordered more whiskey and didn’t mention Vegas again. Wood never knew if Bullock had been serious about the Vegas trip or had been putting him on.
By early 1976, reporters had taken note of the comptroller’s frequent travels and were making inquiries, requesting copies of his expense accounts and the flight logs kept by the pilots. Those documents should have told them where Bullock went, why he went, and who went with him. What they got was less than the full story and a doctored one at that.
After receiving requests from reporters for the documents, Bill Collier looked them over and found stark discrepancies that the newsmen would have easily detected. For example, some of the reporters knew that one woman who worked for Bullock had made many of the trips, but her name did not appear on the flight logs. The pilots had been fearful of recording the names of Bullock’s female companions.
“With Bullock’s help, the logs were reconstructed as accurately as possible—or as accurately as he wanted them to be—and forged onto new flight log forms,” Collier later wrote. The woman’s name was added to the reconstructed logs, which, invariably and often falsely, reflected that the purpose of the travel was “to confer with tax officials” or “to confer with area taxpayers.” Because state law did not require it, dates of the flights were not included on the forms, making it nearly impossible to verify their veracity. In actuality, according to Collier, some of the trips had been to meet friends, to conduct private business, or to hunt on the South Texas ranch of his friend and former client Clinton Manges. While Bullock played, the planes were not idle: They flew onto and off the ranch daily, delivering the major Texas newspapers to him.
Even with doctored records, reporters were able to piece together the rudiments of Bullock’s extravagances and misuse of state funds. Read one early headline: “Bullock Spends Freely on Luxury.” Attempts to explain the travel costs were ineffective; the press smelled blood and was in full arousal. On April 19, 1976, the Austin Citizen, a five-day-a-week, free distribution paper, wrote: “The Austin Citizen today requested access to key state documents from the office of State Comptroller Bob Bullock as part of a three-week investigation into allegations of mismanagement, high living and apparent violations of both the State Appropriations Act and Senate Bill 1. Allegations leveled by former state employees and backed by some documentation include: Falsification of airplane flight logs. Keeping more high-salaried employees on the comptroller’s payroll than authorized by the Legislature. Using funds allocated for pay raises for employees to hire new personnel. Expensive remodeling and furnishing of Bullock’s office in the Lyndon B. Johnson building.”
The article noted that in just over one year, Bullock’s payroll had ballooned by 50 percent, to 1,877 employees, and that the state auditor was looking into misuse of funds in many of the hires. It mentioned flight log discrepancies and the lavish renovation of his office (a $225 antique clock and the addition of a shower, kitchen, and bar). For several days, the newspaper hammered away at Bullock’s spending, reporting that his expense claims topped those of all other elected officials—including the governor—and pointing out that those expenses did not include the costs associated with maintaining two airplanes and four pilots.
Bullock responded with a lengthy, astringent letter to the Citizen’s executive editor, Thomas Reay. “I’ve had better flyers stuck under my windshield wipers at the grocery store than the pathetic rag you’ve been littering my yard with,” he wrote in part. “When the people of this state want to return to the old days of having a do-nothing Comptroller, a Comptroller afraid to do his job for fear of asinine criticism, when they want delinquent sales taxes they paid to stay in the hands of some disreputable merchant and tax cheaters to get off without paying their fair share, they’ll do what you can’t do—vote me out of office.”
Four months later, with the stories of extravagance still popping up in the newspapers and at Austin watering holes, Bullock ditched his $9,000-a-month leased MU-2. In what seemed to be defiance of the negative publicity and his editorial critics, he replaced it with the roomier $13,999-a-month twin-engine Beechcraft King Air.
For the next few years, Bullock seemed hell-bent on self-destruction. His second marriage to Amelia was spiraling toward another divorce, and drinking was propelling him into more-curious behavior. He often carried a handgun and spent long nights at the Quorum Club, owned by his old friend Nick Kralj, a sometime political operative and lobbyist. In a drunken snit one night, he pulled his gun on a young waiter who had displeased him. He put the barrel against the young man’s head, cocked the hammer, and blew hot breath in his face.
Breaking free, the waiter ran out of the restaurant and never returned. Kralj called him to apologize. “Come on back, at least to get your money,” Kralj said.
“I wouldn’t come down there if you had a thousand dollars for me,” the young man said.
Considered an excellent marksman by his friends—some claimed Bullcok could put a rifle round through a wild turkey’s head at three hundred yards—he was admired on a hunt, but he racked nerves in more-domestic environs.
At a stag barbecue at Kralj’s house, which backed up to Camp Mabry, the National Guard compound in Austin, some of the guests were target shooting with machine guns. Bullock sat at a picnic table behind them. Suddenly, he jumped up, pulled out a pistol, and began firing past his pals at the targets beyond them. On another occasion, Kralj accompanied him to San Antonio, where he was to speak to a group of corporate executives at an elegant museum. As they entered the large reception area, Bullock’s pistol fell out of his pocket and went skittering and clattering across the tile floor. Kralj calmly stepped forward, picked it up, and put it in his pocket, as though it belonged to him. Bullock quietly thanked him and proceeded to mingle with the distinguished audience he had come to address.
Another story went that Kralj, no stranger to the byways of the wild side, once got drunk with Bullock, and the two of them took out their pistols and spent some time shooting at roaches in the Quorum Club. But Kralj said that that never happened. “The walls were all stone,” he said. “We would have been killed by the ricochets.” He said Molly Ivins had written that story two or three times—perhaps told to her by Bullock—and it had become an urban legend.
One story that did happen, however, was a night when Kralj had to leave the club to look in on his ailing mother. He left Bullock and George Garland, the head of the comptroller’s bingo division, in charge. He gave them the combination to the safe, which contained not only cash but also guns.
“It wasn’t two hours before George was in jail,” Kralj said. Bullock and his aide, abandoning their custodial obligation to the Quorum Club, had left the establishment and been stopped a few blocks away by a patrolman, who’d seen Garland pointing a pistol at the driver of another car. He was cuffed and jailed until Bullock showed up with Roy Minton and bailed him out.
More than two decades later, Bullock would tell his chief of staff, Bruce Gibson, that back in his drinking days, he once was having a few cocktails with several people in an Austin motel. It kept getting later and later, and eventually the husband of a woman Bullock had been hustling came in the front door. Bullock ducked into the bathroom but then realized that he was trapped. The husband would be waiting for him when he came out. He saw a window in the bathroom and crawled up and dropped through it, toward the ground.
What he hadn’t realized was that the motel backed up to a drainage ditch. “I just kept falling and falling and falling,” Bullock recalled. He found that the banks were so steep he couldn’t get out. He lost his sharkskin loafers in the mud and had to walk four blocks in his socks before he could escape from the ditch. “I kept seeing the headline ‘Comptroller Dies in Creek,’” Bullock told Gibson.