Wads of campaign cash have long been the coin of the state Capitol realm. Still, sometimes it’s the smaller gifts that offer a personal touch and bond lawmakers to those who curry their favor. In keeping with the holiday season, the Observer recently rifled through lobby-gift disclosures at the Texas Ethics Commission to bring to you a list of our favorite gifts bestowed upon state officials in the last two years. Taken together, they embody Austin’s golden rule: You must give to receive.
Dallas Democratic Rep. Terri Hodge has seen the giving from both sides. After a career as a Southwestern Bell lobbyist she joined the Legislature. But these days the mere thought of gifts may give Hodge a headache. Last year federal investigators subpoenaed records about Hodge as part of a bribery, extortion, and money-laundering probe into affordable housing contracts at Dallas City Hall. Hodge’s adult son reportedly occupied her $200,000 Dallas home for several years while his lawmaker mom lived without paying most of the rent and utilities in an apartment owned by Brian Potashnik—the developer at the center of the ongoing federal probe. Hodge also failed to report her residency in the Potashnik spread as a gift.
While the lobby may not be able to make such headaches disappear, it did try to ease the pain. Last December Johnson & Johnson lobbyist Richard Byron Ponder gave Hodge $120 dollars worth of Tylenol. At a recently advertised sale price, this would buy more than 2,000 hits of pain reliever. That’s more than a year’s supply—if consumed at the maximum prescribed dosage of six pills a day. Like many of her colleagues, Hodge did not return a call seeking details about her lobby gift.
During the 2005 session, fireworks lobbyists shot down—count ‘em—seven House County Affairs Committee regulatory bills that would have extinguished certain fireworks sales—including those to drunks and minors. When the 2005 holiday season rolled around, four fireworks lobbyists celebrated their marksmanship by giving 17 lawmakers pistols. Recipients included Reps. Ray Allen (R-Grand Prairie) and Wayne Smith (R-Baytown). They were chair and vice chair of the committee where these bills fizzled. Three members of a Senate committee where one such bill met a similar fate also received guns: Senators Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria), Kim Brimer (R-Fort Worth) and Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay).
Another fireworks pistol recipient, Dripping Springs Democratic Rep. Patrick Rose, did not respond to an Observer inquiry as to whether he was armed when his GOP predecessor, former Rep. Rick Green, physically attacked him on Election Day outside a polling place. No shots were fired.
The fireworks lobby is not alone when it comes to bangs for bucks. At the end of the 2005 session, two lobbyists for the nuclear power companies Entergy Corp. and Louisiana Energy Services reported $50 gun gifts to House Energy Resources Committee Chair Buddy West (R-Odessa). Their reports did not clarify if they used “fusion” to jointly give West one $100 gun. Around the same time, inner-city lobbyist Don Lee of the Texas Conference of Urban Counties gave a mystery gift to Rep. Ray Allen. The only clues he reported were that Lee bought the gift for $100 at McBride Guns in Austin.
The company doing the most to keep Texas a world-class air polluter, TXU Corp., not only armed lawmakers, but also helped them clean up the mess once the smoke cleared. TXU lobbyist Mark Malone gave an apparently small-caliber, $50 gun to House Natural Resources Committee member Rep. Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville). Three other TXU lobbyists paid “deer processing” costs for five House members, including Environmental Regulation Committee Vice Chair Charlie Howard (R-Sugar Land) and Energy Resources Committee Chair West (R-Odessa). The lobbyists also covered similar costs for House Regulated Industries counsel Jake Posey. And TXU lobbyist Paul Blanton paid a $300 taxidermy tab for Sen. Kim Brimer (R-Fort Worth). Adriana Martinez of Austin-based Martinez Brothers Taxidermy said $300 is not enough for a classic “shoulder-mount” deer head. According to Martinez, $300 could buy a mounted deer skull or antler rack, a rattlesnake belt, or perhaps a small stuffed bird. On the subject of getting mounted, six TXU lobbyists also reported spending up to $50 apiece on a saddle for Rep. Craig Eiland (D-Galveston).
Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s top Texas lobbyist, Charles Stuart, spent up to $33,250 on 141 gifts to an army of politicians, political aides, and family members—thereby accounting for a remarkable 25 percent of all reported lobby gifts. This Blue Santa used a triage system, awarding three classes of gifts worth $100, $200, or $350. The 55 lucky recipients of the Blue Cross deluxe package got such golf tchotchkes as a golf shirt and cap, balls, a score “jotter,” and a divot tool. The 32 lawmakers and other officials with full Blue Cross coverage also received a: Swiss army knife, folding chair, tote bag, towel, stainless tumbler, flash drive and—that HMO essential—sunscreen.
Where the First Family of the Texas House was concerned, Blue Cross’s chief lobbyist did not stop at Speaker Tom Craddick. He also gave gifts to Craddick’s wife, Nadine; daughter and campaign apparatchik, Christi; son Tommy; and even daughter-in-law, Laura. Among the gifts were “framed photos” bestowed on Tom, Nadine, and Laura Craddick. The ever-diligent Stuart would not have missed passage this past April of House Resolution 259, which congratulated Tommy and Laura on the birth of their son: Thomas Russell “Tripp” Craddick III. So it would not surprise us if the “framed photos” that this wise man came bearing five months later featured the cherubic baby Tripp.
We will have to wait until next year to discover who will be this holiday season’s Prince of Piece.
Andrew “Kringle” Wheat unwraps oversized gifts from the Texas Ethics Commission as a shipping & receiving clerk for Texans for Public Justice.