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.
Illustration by C. Payne

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,

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