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A Week Full of Texas Political Scandal

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Texas is among the best states to work in as a political reporter because there’s unending petty corruption, political foibles and scandals that swirl like a dust devil on a hot summer day, fun to look at but changing little in the end. Even by Texas standards, this has been an impressive week.

The Dallas Morning News is calling for a special prosecutor to investigate barely in office Attorney General Ken Paxton. Finding cronyism under new Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller apparently is as easy as shooting hogs from a helicopter. The state auditor is shocked, shocked to find a lack of ethics in contracting at the Health and Human Services Commission. And finishing off the list: a Travis County grand jury was so frustrated that it was unable to indict controversial University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall that it gave him a blistering scolding instead.

The only thing missing from the mix is some sort of update on the indictment of former Governor Rick Perry for vetoing funding for the Public Integrity Unit after threating to do so if Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg did not resign due to her drunken driving arrest.

The Morning News’s editorial on Paxton raises some serious points, and the public good probably would be best served by the appointment of a special prosecutor. Paxton last year admitted to the Texas State Securities Board that he had repeatedly violated state law by soliciting investment clients and commissions without registering as an agent, a possible third-degree felony. The board issued a reprimand and fined Paxton $1,000. When a criminal complaint was filed with Lehmberg, she decided the proper venue for the case was Paxton’s home county of Collin. That has prompted today’s Morning News editorial calling for a special prosecutor

The matter gets tricky for Collin County, where District Attorney Greg Willis could determine whether to prosecute. Willis and Paxton are longtime friends. Both are listed on the most recent board of directors online filing of Plano-based Unity Resources LLC. They are limited partners together in three firms and co-investors in another.

Against that backdrop of multiple conflicts, Willis is hard-pressed to explain why he shouldn’t recuse himself and seek appointment of a special prosecutor who can objectively weigh the merits of the case. The public’s faith in the justice system requires that there be no hint of prosecutorial bias or that staffers under Willis’ direction might fail to pursue justice to protect their boss and his friend…

These are not nitpicky issues. State securities law imposes registration requirements to protect the public from victimization by investment frauds and scams.

The fact that Paxton violated the law repeatedly over several years suggests a troubling pattern unbecoming of the esteemed office he now holds. That’s why an independent prosecutor needs to assume control of this case.   

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Ag Commissioner Sid Miller is giving meaning to pork in office. You may recall that one of Miller’s most notable accomplishments during his tenure in the Texas House was passage of a bill allowing licensed hunters to shoot feral hogs from helicopters. Feral hogs are a real problem, but the helicopter hunting played into the national negative Texas yeehaw stereotype. Pork Chopping, as Miller called it, was the new sport of wealthy bubbas. If the agriculture commissioner is to represent agriculture, Miller is ideal for the job.

But even before he took office, Miller asked for and then retracted a request for an extensive remodel of his office that the Texas Tribune reported would include “hardwood floors, custom ceiling tiles and a shower.”  Then the Austin American-Statesman reported that Miller had hired his campaign consultant’s wife into a $180,000 a year job, which she resigned as soon as the newspaper started asking questions. (Former Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower hired his significant other into a top agency position in the 1980s, but she was qualified for the job and only took $1 a year in pay.) The ag department under Miller looks like a state agency where the reporters should hover like helicopters, watching for the easy pickings.

What would Texas government be without a contracting scandal? I used to tell people that whenever I heard a politician say we should privatize the functions of governments what I heard was: More state contracts for my friends and campaign contributors. We spent a couple of years with the lottery operating company Gtech hiring as consultants people connected with Governor Ann Richards aides and then replacing them with people connected to Governor George W. Bush’s office after the transition. When the Legislature in 2003 approved a reorganization of state’s health and human services, an emphasis on privatization quickly led to deals involving well-placed consultants. The story I wrote back then on the cozy relationship between agency officials and the contractors was almost identical to the excellent work done by the Statesman on the 21CT contracts with the Health and Human Services Commission, and the state auditor this week confirmed possible procurement fraud.

While there have been calls from Human Services Commissioner Kyle Janek to resign, he appears to be collateral damage in the entire affair. The real underlying problem is lax ethics laws regarding procurement practices in Texas. An independent contractor only has to register as a lobbyist for a company seeking a state contract if their pay is contingent on the company receiving the contract. A flat fee lobbyist only has to register if spending money to wine, dine or entertain state officials. On top of that, firms doing business with the state are not routinely required to disclose the names of subcontractors. Past history tells us the subcontractors often are on the friends and family plan of state officials. All independent contractors and lawyers representing companies in procurement should have to register as lobbyists, and state agencies should retain a register of all lobbyist contacts with agency officials. Firms that win state contracts, also should have to reveal the names of principals of any Texas-based subcontractor.

Finally, over at the never-ending story of Regent Wallace Hall, a Travis County grand jury this week issued a call for him to be removed from office even though the grand jury refused to indict Hall for running a one-man investigation of U.T.’s off-the-books loans to law school faculty and improper influence by legislators in the university admissions process. “The grand jury took no action on this complaint,” the jurors wrote. “However, we have chosen to issue this report because, as citizens, we are appalled at the behavior of the regent subject to the investigation.” (Depending on your point of view, Hall is either a rogue regent who is destroying U.T. or a crusading hero determined to rid the university of favoritism.)  Ross Ramsey at the Texas Tribune noted it was a “Funny way to clear a guy’s name.” Jim Schutze at the alternative weekly Dallas Observer wrote a piece so scathing of “Corruptdrunktown,” the grand jury, the legislators who investigated Hall, that I merely will direct you to read it. 

The grand jury report brought to mind a grand jury investigation of Bob Bullock when he was state comptroller over misuse of office funds. Bullock got a year of headlines such as Bullock denies impeding jury probe; Bullock berates investigating DA; Bullock claims DA lied about his case; Report says DA talked jury out of indicting Bullock aide. In the end, the grand jury declined to indict Bullock for anything, instead issuing a scathing report that largely repeated everything that had been in the news media for the previous year. Bullock’s lawyer, Roy Minton – who was known in those days as The Public Offender’s Defender – went to court and won a ruling to have the grand jury report expunged from the record because grand juries have no authority to issue reports. “The grand jury took no legal action against me but it plowed on like a hit and run driver into political gossip and lies about the legitimate operations of my office,” Bullock said defiantly.

Bullock went on to win re-election as comptroller a couple more times before receiving voter approval as lieutenant governor. And he won re-election to that office even after having advocated adoption of a state income tax and then recanting his own position. Now, Texas has a state history museum named in Bullock’s honor. Perhaps that’s because the victors usually get to write the histories.

In the meantime, the state’s political reporters get to write the daily stories. The politicians are the meat on the platter, with the white gravy of scandal on the side. As Bullock would say, God Bless Texas!

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