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The Contrarian

Bradley Puts On a Show in Senate Committee

Controversial chair of Forensic Science Commission spars with senators in confirmation hearing

Updated below

John Bradley doesn’t take crap from anyone.

When he’s lording over meetings of the Forensic Science Commission, the man is prickly even during his lighter moments (at other times he can be downright rude.) At legislative hearings, Bradley talks back to state senators like no one I’ve ever seen. If he wasn’t district attorney of Williamson County and chair of the Forensic Science Commission, Bradley would make one hell of a cut-throat divorce lawyer.

Bradley came before the Senate Nominations Committee this morning for a confirmation hearing. Most gubernatorial appointees—even the most controversial ones—typically soft-talk their way through Senate confirmation to their posts. Bradley was having none of that. He came ready to defend his controversial 18-month tenure as chair of the Forensic Science Commission. And the press was eager for the show—half the sparse audience consisted of reporters.

Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis—who might be described as Bradley’s legislative nemesis—was there to ask the DA some pointed questions.

The case against Bradley is a long one. I reviewed some of the controversy in my post on Friday. He mainly has delayed the commission’s investigation into the flawed arson evidence in the Cameron Todd Willingham case. (Grits recounted the many criticisms in more detail. And the Houston Chronicle articulated the argument against Bradley in an editorial today calling for senators to deny him confirmation.)

Ellis hammered Bradley for telling a reporter that Willingham was a “guilty monster.” How, Ellis wanted to know, could Bradley make such a statement when the prosecutor was chairing an investigation into Willingham’s case?

Bradley shot back with a list of the courts that had found Willingham guilty. “I didn’t find it a particularly shocking notion that he was guilty,” Bradley said. Rather, he was trying to counter the statements put out by a advocacy group in New York (read: the Innocence Project) that argued Willingham might be innocent.

When Ellis pressed, wondering whether such statements compromised Bradley’s ability to conduct a fair investigation, the ornery prosecutor went on the attack. He pointed out that Ellis serves as chair of the Innocence Project’s board. “I think that is a conflict of interest,” he said. And Bradley implied that Ellis held preconceived opinions that Willingham is innocence.

Ellis shot back: And you have no preconceived opinions? “After all,” Ellis said, “you are John Bradley—God’s gift to us.”

At this point, Sen. Bob Deuell—the Republican chair of the Nominations Committee—interjected and asked both men to be more civil. Both did tone it down.

After Bradley finished dueling with Ellis, reporters rushed into the hall to hear Bradley stonewall their questions. While they were out of the hearing room, they missed the testimony of Anthony Robinson, who spent 13 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Since his exoneration in 2000, Robinson has earned a law degree and said he currently works on immigration cases. Robinson pleaded with the committee to make the Forensic Science Commission follow its mandate—to learn from the flaws and past mistakes with forensic evidence, and ensure they don’t happen again.

That is the real import of today’s hearing. In the end, the Nominations Committee approved Bradley on a 4-2 vote. He now goes before the full Senate, where he’s likely to be confirmed as well. (The Senate has rejected only one of Gov. Perry’s nominees in recent years.)

So today’s hearing provided excellent political theater. But that’s all it was.

The lingering—and most important—question is whether the Forensic Science Commission will pick up its pace. It’s handled just three cases since 2007. There are many more instances of flawed forensics in this state to be investigated—especially among arson cases. It may fall to the other eight members to force the commission to tackle more cases. It doesn’t appear Bradley has the appetite for unearthing forensic misconduct. And he damn sure won’t be bullied into doing it.

Update: A reader pointed out that nominees require a two-thirds vote in the Senate to win confirmation. That means Bradley will have to gain support from 21 senators (all 19 Republicans and two Democrats) when his nomination reaches the floor. I still would be surprised if he wasn’t confirmed. As I mentioned above, the Senate almost never rejects an appointee, no matter how controversial (the famous exception being SBOE Chair Don McLeroy). But Bradley’s confirmation isn’t assured. 

John Bradley to Face Senators on Monday

Controversial chair of the Forensic Science Commission comes before Nominations Committee

On Monday, the state’s most controversial prosecutor will stand trial himself.

John Bradley—Williamson County DA and chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission—will have his state Senate confirmation hearing on Monday morning before the Nominations Committee. (The committee hearing notice was just posted today.)

The Senate must approve the governor’s appointments, and Bradley is no different. He will likely win Senate confirmation. Nearly all appointees do—even the most controversial. (In recent years, only former State Board of Education Chair Don McLeroy was rejected by the Senate.) Still, Bradley will likely hear a good bit of criticism during his confirmation process.  

He has many critics inside and outside the Capitol, and he’s garnered a reputation as one of the most ornery public servants in the state.

His very appointment in late September 2009 was controversial. Bradley took over as part of a house-cleaning of the Forensic Science Commission by Gov. Rick Perry. Bradley promptly canceled a hearing on flawed arson evidence in the Cameron Todd Willingham case. Critics accused the governor of a coverup and trying to stall the Willingham investigation.

In the past 18 months, Bradley has repeatedly hampered the commission’s work on the Willingham case. In fact, the inquiry has proceeded only because the rest of the commission openly revolted against Bradley’s attempts to short-circuit the investigation. At meetings, he’s badgered witnesses and condescended to other commissioners. At times, he’s seemingly been skeptical of the commission’s very existence.

On Monday morning, senators and the public will get their chance to critique Bradley’s performance. It should be quite the show.

They had three minutes to share their life stories. Just 180 seconds to describe all that had befallen them. The details were different. Some were parents of the mentally disabled, some ran group homes and treatment centers, others were dealing with severe mental illness or recovering from traumatic brain injuries. But they all came before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday and Thursday with the same message: Don’t cut funding for programs that are saving lives.

The sheer number of people signed up to provide public testimony on the health and human services section of Senate Bill 1—the draft state budget—necessitated a time limit of three minutes. More than 200 testified during nearly 15 hours spread over two days. Every legislative session, public testimony on the budget provides long days of emotionally intense hearings. But this year is different. State lawmakers face an unprecedented $27 billion budget shortfall, and Republican leaders have announced their intention to balance the budget without raising taxes, which means frightening cuts to programs for the state’s most vulnerable. And those vulnerable citizens—and their parents and caregivers and advocates—turned out to decry the draft Senate budget released last week. It was an outpouring of raw emotion—snapshots of human misery and triumph—the likes of which senators on the dais said they’d never seen.

Ruth Hansen took Wednesday off from her job as a secretary at an Austin elementary school and waited all day to speak her three minutes. Her daughter Andrea has down syndrome. Ruth and her husband had always cared for her at home. But as they grew older, they began to worry what would happen to Andrea when they were gone. They put her name on a waiting list for a state waiver program that would pay for Andrea to live in a group home. The demand for community-based care in Texas has long outstripped the available funds. And Andrea’s name lingered on that waiting list for 13 years.

Finally, in June 2008, Andrea, then 29, reached the top of the list. She gained a slot in a Medicaid waiver program that allowed her to live in an Austin group home with two other disabled women. She’s been there three years and couldn’t be happier, Ruth said. “They are very caring, very attentive. It’s almost like family.” Andrea goes to dances, has made friends, even met a boy. Ruth doesn’t know how long she and her husband, who’s been diagnosed with bladder cancer, will be around to care for her daughter. “We’re getting older,” Ruth said. “I know she has safe care, a beautiful life.”

The senators will decide if that continues. Andrea’s group home—like so many other providers in the state—is facing a 29-percent cut in funding under the proposed Senate budget. If the 29 percent cut goes into effect, Andrea’s group home—and many others around the state—will close. “Could your family survive on a 29-percent cut?” Ruth asked the senators.

The two days of testimony seemed to affect all the senators, both Republicans and Democrats. Committee Chair Steve Ogden, a Republican from Bryan, seemed especially moved by Wally and Peggy Van Wyk, a couple in their 80s who testified late Wednesday. They adopted their daughter Laura in 1958. Like many, they pleaded with senators not to cut funding for the community home where Laura, who has cerebral palsy, has lived happily for decades.

When the Van Wyks finished speaking, Ogden said he’d just read the couple’s written testimony and wanted to point out a section to the committee. He read aloud how the Van Wyks were told in 1958 that because of complications during birth, Laura would have cerebral palsy, damaged vision and a soft spot in her skull. She couldn’t walk or eat solid food for two years. But they had accepted her as she was. Ogden looked up from the paper. “Fifty-three years later, my hat’s off to y’all because you’re still fighting for her,” he said. Then he paused and added, “We’ll do our best to make sure we don’t harm her.”

Every senator said they couldn’t envision instituting cuts that would harm the disabled and mentally ill. But they will have to find billions to make up the shortfall. They can’t cut eligibility for Medicaid—that’s forbidden by the national health care reform—so one of their only options is to cut the rates paid to providers through Medicaid. That would affect treatment centers, group homes, ambulance services, doctors, nursing homes, you name it.

To avoid the rate cuts, senators will have to find more money somewhere. The Republicans on the panel said they refuse to raise taxes and are looking for government efficiencies. “If we find enough change in the cracks in the couch, it will really add up,” said Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls. There are certainly inefficiencies in Texas government, but most budget analysts don’t believe eliminating waste alone would save enough money to cover the shortfall.

Many of the advocates and parents, including self-described Republicans, argued for higher taxes. David Walker, the county attorney in the conservative Houston suburb of Montgomery County, testified that his county had just built a treatment center to divert mentally ill offenders from jail. “If there must be budget cuts, let’s not cut human beings,” he said. “My Lord Jesus tells me ‘What you do unto the least of my brethren, you do unto me.’ I believe that and that’s why I’m here. If it means raising taxes, then raise mine first.”

In This Budget, No Good Options

If you want to understand the consequences of balancing Texas’ budget without raising taxes, just listen to Anne Heiligenstein. She provided the best description I’ve heard yet of the twisted math at work in the Capitol.

Heiligenstein heads the Department of Family and Protective Services, which runs the state’s foster care system and Adult Protective Services, among other programs. She appeared on Tuesday morning before the Senate Finance Committee to describe how her department planned to deal with a massive drop in funding.

Republicans in the Legislature are trying to close a $27 billion budget hole without raising taxes. State leaders such as Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have assured us the budget can be balanced without harming “essential” services.

It falls to the budget-writing committees to figure out what constitutes “essential.” We can’t pay for all the state’s current services—not without raising taxes. And Texas already spends less per resident than nearly every other state. So almost all our spending could already be considered essential.

The question hanging over the committee hearings the past two days was: Who’s most essential? Who’s most desperate for help—the abused children or the nursing home residents or the emotionally disturbed kids who might need help soon or the mentally ill? How do you decide whose program takes precedence?

It’s a sick game to play, but these are the questions lawmakers will have to consider.

As Heiligenstein noted, the initial Senate budget plan would result in a 12 percent cut in the amount of money her agency pays residential treatment centers to care for foster kids. The pay cut could cause some treatment centers to refuse to work with the state because they’d lose too much money on the deal. As it stands now, the state pays treatment centers only about 80 percent of the cost of caring for foster kids. If that rate drops 12 percent, and the state can’t find treatment centers to take kids, we’ll probably end up with hundreds of foster children sleeping in state offices. (This actually happened in 2007, when 611 kids stayed in state offices—a disturbing outcome that lawmakers rectified with increased funding. This year only 12 kids slept on sofas.)

Heiligenstein is begging the Legislature not to force her to undo that progress. Preventing a 12 percent provider rate reduction was one of Heiligenstein’s top budget requests.

But it’s not the only program facing cuts, of course. She then observed that the draft budget would force a 40 percent cut to prevention programs that help keep kids out of foster care. The state’s successful kinship care program—which helps abused children stay with relatives like grandparents, and aunts and uncles so they don’t end up with a foster family—would be zeroed out. The prevention programs not only lead to better results for kids, but by keeping children out of foster care, they save the state money in the long run.

Some of the senators grilled Heiligenstein on why she wasn’t prioritizing prevention programs. In her answer, she hit on the ludicrous choices she faces.

“I have this house on fire over here,” she said, referring to proposed foster care cuts that might lead to kids sleeping on sofas in state offices. She then termed cuts to prevention programs “a house with bad wiring that might be on fire in a couple of years…..I made the decision to deal with the house that’s on fire right now.”

And there you have it—the 2011 budget process in summary: Burn down your house now or burn it down in a couple of years. The budget process comes down to deciding which outcome is less bad. .

That was just one agency. A few hours later, officials from the Department of Aging and Disability Services made their case. They said the draft Senate budget would lead to a 33 percent cut in Medicaid payments to nursing homes.

Keep in mind that at least 70 percent of residents in 550 Texas nursing homes are on Medicaid. We’re talking a lot of seniors. How, Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) asked, can nursing homes reduce costs that much? There’s no magic answer, the bureaucrats said. Nursing homes would have to serve less food, hire fewer nurses, check the patients less often. “I think a 33 percent reduction in nursing home rates isn’t practical,” concluded Tom Suehs, who oversees all health and human service agencies in Texas.

Of course, if the state fully funds Medicaid rates for nursing homes, that takes money from another vital area. There are many other programs facing  cuts that aren’t “practical.” Budget writers are proposing closing a state hospital for the mentally ill. And community mental health centers, which provide outpatient treatment and already have a huge waiting list, are facing a 40 percent cut in funding.

So, who’s less essential? The abused kids, the nursing home residents, the mentally ill, the Medicaid recipients? After just two days of hearings, it’s already clear that legislators either must tap the Rainy Day Fund and raise more revenue—or they will have to employ some twisted logic to decide whose program gets cut. There will be no good options, only less bad ones.

Williams Jumps In for Senate

You can officially count Michael Williams in. The Texas Railroad Commissioner—known for his fiery speeches and ever-present bow tie—announced this morning that he’s joining the fast-growing Republican primary field to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison in the U.S. Senate.

Looking resplendent in a polka-dotted bow tie, Williams made his candidacy official during a sit-down with the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith in downtown Austin. (The video will be posted here.)

After announcing his intention to run, Williams answered questions from Smith and the audience for about an hour. Williams came as advertised—conservative, market-oriented, generally against government regulation, pro fossil fuels and unconvinced that humans are causing climate change. Predictably, he criticized Obama administration policies; he said he’d vote to repeal the health care law.

Williams has long seemed like he’d make a formidable candidate in a Republican Senate primary. His energy-industry connections will undoubtedly help his fundraising. And he’s a popular figure among the party’s grassroots. Whether he’ll fulfill that potential remains to be seen.

His performance this morning was smooth, but largely unremarkable. Perhaps his most memorable line came in response to a question about climate change. Williams said he doesn’t believe that humans are responsible for the rise in carbon dioxide levels. That’s not a surprising position. In his years on the Railroad Commission—from which he just recently resigned effective this spring—Williams has been a vocal climate change skeptic. When Smith followed up and asked, “So we can put it down that you don’t believe in climate change?”

“You can put it down and you can underline it,” Williams said.

He was reluctant to discuss the political dynamics of the race. He did say he expects to raise and spend between $7 million and $8 million on the primary alone, but sidestepped several questions about Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former solicitor general Ted Cruz, two of his opponents for the GOP nomination. Of course, the primary is still 13 months away, so there’s plenty of time for criticizing his opponents. The 2012 Republican Senate primary is looking like it will be a rollicking campaign, and Williams is one of the more charismatic entrants.

David Dewhurst vs. Reality

David Dewhurst sounded like a bleeding-heart liberal at times during his inaugural speech today on the south steps of the Capitol.

In his speech, Dewhurst promised that Texans would have a “world-class education.”

He vowed to “help those who have no one else to help them, to ensure that the promise of opportunity is available to all without favoring the few.”

He reminded the audience to never forget the most “vulnerable in our society— helpless, hopeless, jobless. I want everybody—everybody—to have the opportunity to be all they can be. The best investments that we can do are investments that give Texans the tools for self-sufficiency: A world-class education, quality, affordable health care, a stable dependable business climate…. These are the kinds of investments that we must make in good times and in bad.”

He promised just about everything—except a way to pay for it all.

True to his fiscal conservatism, Dewhurst declared, “We’ll achieve all these goals. And did I mention? We’ll balance our budget without raising taxes.”

I must be missing something. But how can we pay for all these goodies and close a $27 billion budget gap without raising taxes?

The answer is we can’t. Cutting $27 billion from the budget will have very real, very harmful consequences for the state.

(By the way, Gov. Rick Perry made a similarly odd statement in his speech, as my colleague Abby Rapoport chronicled in this post: “As Texans, we always take care of the least among our population—the frail, the young, the elderly. The people on fixed income. Those in situations of abuse and neglect. We’ve always done that. People whose needs are greater than the resources at their disposal. They can count on the people of Texas to be there for them. We’re going to protect them, support them, empower them. But we cannot risk the future of millions of taxpayers in the process. We must cut spending to keep our economic engine on track.”)

If Dewhurst and Perry want to argue that it’s better to keep taxes low and skimp on services, fair enough. That fits with the conservative ideology on which they were elected. But it’s simply not possible to cut state spending by a fourth and still provide “opportunity” for the vulnerable in our society.

If we cut our way to a balanced budget, some of those vulnerable people will be left to fend for themselves and end up living under bridges. It’s just how the system works. We can either pay for services or hold on to our tax money. Those are the options. There isn’t a magical third solution—not for a budget deficit this big. We can’t trick our way out of it or find $27 billion worth of “efficiencies,” because they don’t exist. And if we choose to hold on to our tax money, the vulnerable that Dewhurst professed to care so much about will be harmed.

To pretend otherwise is wishful thinking.

The Budget Deficit from Hell

Texas has 4th largest shortfall in the nation

For months the estimates of Texas’ budget deficit kept rising—$11 billion, $18 billion, $20 billion, $24 billion. Each seemed more unfathomable than the one before.

The high-end estimates were in the $22 billion to $24 billion range. Surely, it couldn’t be worse than that.

Well, yesterday, it officially got worse.

The Comptroller’s office released its official revenue estimate, and the news must have made jaws hit the floor (at least mine did): $27 billion.

And with that, Texas became one of those states—the kind of place that makes national news for its budget woes, the place that closes state parks, that doesn’t just cut public programs, but wipes them out entirely, that combines school districts and lays off thousands of public employees.

My friends, we’ve entered California territory.  

In fact, Texas now has one of the worst budget outlooks in the country—worse than California’s, in fact.

Texas has the fourth-largest budget deficit in the country for fiscal year 2012, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

That $27 billion deficit accounts for about 25 percent of the budget. The only states with shortfalls that consume a higher percentage of their budgets are Illinois (50 percent—imagine that?), New Jersey (37 percent) and Nevada (37 percent). Then Texas.

Oh, and  California? Its deficit is 22 percent. So congratulations, fellow Texans. We’re now officially worse off financially than the state where good budgeting goes to die.

In 2003, the Legislature faced a $10 billion shortfall that seems so quaint now. Lawmakers took a slash and burn approach, instituting painful cuts that deprived hundreds of thousands of kids of health insurance, laid off several thousand state workers and shrunk numerous programs. It took years to recover. Some programs never have rebounded. And some Republican lawmakers later paid a political price for those cuts.

For those of us who covered the 2003 session, the notion that just eight years later, Texas faces a shortfall that’s nearly three times larger is a truly staggering thought.

I certainly don’t envy the people who have to write this budget. Even if they drain all $9 billion from the Rainy Day Fund, they’ll still have billions and billions to make up. Health care, K-12 education and higher education comprise about 80 percent of our spending. That means health care, public schools and colleges are about to get slashed.

I don’t think anyone knows how devastating those cuts will be or how fierce the public backlash could become. But neither will be pleasant.

On Friday, Willingham Inquiry Finally Goes to the Experts

After two years of probing, the Forensic Science Commission will hear from four arson experts.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission has been studying the validity of the arson evidence in the Cameron Todd Willingham case since 2008.

On Friday—more than two years into its investigation—the commission will finally hear from actual fire investigators.

The commission will devote its entire meeting tomorrow at an office building in downtown Austin to the Willingham case. It will hear invited testimony from four arson experts: Craig Beyler, John DeHaan, Thomas Wood and Ed Salazar.

Willingham was executed in 2004 for allegedly starting the 1991 fire that killed his three daughters. Every piece of physical evidence in the case has since been debunked.

Beyler is the nationally renowned fire scientist who produced a scathing report on the quality of the evidence in the Willingham case for the commission last year.

Beyler was originally scheduled to present his findings in late September 2009. But Gov. Rick Perry axed three members of the commission, including chair Sam Bassett. The brooding John Bradley took over as chairman and promptly canceled Beyler’s planned appearance. Fifteen months later, the commission will finally hear from the Baltimore-based expert.

Also scheduled to speak is John DeHaan—another giant in the field of fire science. DeHaan has written the book on fire investigation, literally. His Kirk’s Fire Investigation is the field’s most widely cited text. DeHaan, who’s based in California, typically testifies for the prosecution and has worked closely with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms over the years.

His testimony in several recent cases has landed DeHaan in some trouble. He offered the key evidence that convicted Curtis Severns—whose case the Observer profiled last year. (DeHaan testified that he believed Severns intentionally set the 2004 fire in his Plano gun shop, but the Observer investigation uncovered compelling evidence that the fire was accidental and that Severns is innocent. He remains in federal prison.) DeHaan also provided the key evidence that nearly sent a Louisiana woman named Amanda Hypes to death row for starting the fire that killed her children. Hypes was innocent, but DeHaan’s testimony helped get her indicted. She spent more than four years in jail awaiting trial. When the case was eventually thrown out due to procedural issues, DeHaan reconsidered his analysis and told prosecutors he was no longer sure of Hypes’ guilt. She was later released.  

But unlike those cases, DeHaan has said from the beginning that the evidence against Willingham was flawed. He was one of four experts who examined the case at the request of the Chicago Tribune back in 2004 and found the evidence of arson lacking.

The commission will also hear from Thomas Wood, an investigator with the Houston Fire Department. And from Ed Salazar, the assistant State Fire Marshal.

It was an investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s office, Manuel Vasquez, who led the original fire investigation at the Willingham house and who compiled the flawed arson evidence. Vasquez has since passed away. Meanwhile, the State Fire Marshal’s office has stood behind his work in the case, even though nine national experts have called the evidence outdated, sloppy and false.

This will be the commission’s first meeting on the Willingham case since its confrontational hearing in September, when the scientists on the commission rebelled against Bradley’s attempts to wind down the investigation. Instead the scientists voted to expand the inquiry and begin hearing invited testimony.

It will also be the first action on the Willingham case since Gov. Rick Perry was reelected. With the governor having secured another four-year term, the Willingham inquiry may be drained of its political implications and focus instead on the wider problem with arson evidence. There are still 750 people in Texas prisons on arson convictions. Quite a few are likely innocent.

The Statesman and Grits have more on the hearing.

I’ll be at tomorrow’s meeting and will post updates in this space and on Twitter.

It’s New Year’s Eve, which means it’s time for customary best-of-2010 lists. In my case, I’ve compiled the most surprising, ridiculous, hilarious and mendacious utterances in Texas politics—the top contrarian stories of 2010.

No. 5: Gov. Rick Perry says the Anthony Graves case shows the system is working.

Anthony Graves, you’ll recall, spent 18 years incarcerated, 12 on death row, for a crime he didn’t commit. Graves ended up death row for murder despite almost no evidence connecting him to the crime (except for made-up witness testimony) and despite multiple alibi witnesses. His wrongful conviction was stunning example of everything that’s wrong with the Texas criminal justice system, from a flawed police investigation to a overzealous, unethical prosecutor to the multiple appeals court judges who unthinkingly rubber-stamped the outcome in the case. (For more details, read Pam Colloff’s excellent recent coverage of the case in Texas Monthly.)

Perry was asked about the case after Graves was released in October.  He said he thought the case showed that “our system is working.”

Most people would look at the Graves case and conclude it was a heart-breaking injustice, and reveals the ugly flaws in the system. But Gov. Perry apparently believes the case shows the system is working. I’m not going to agree with him, but it’s an awfully contrarian position.

No. 4: Marc Katz plays it coy.

In January, Austin restauranteur Marc Katz launched lost-cause campaign for lieutenant governor. Katz’s campaign announcement was one of the more unusual political events I’ve attended in Texas. Katz held it at a gay bar in downtown Austin, replete with buff, shirtless men handing out campaign material.

In an interview after Katz’s speech, I asked him if he’s gay, and he provided one of my favorite quotes of the year. “My sexual preference is nobody’s business. Let’s talk about the issues, not about whether Dewhurst wears makeup.” Then he laughed and added, “If you print that, I’ll love you forever.”

No. 3: The massive voter fraud in Houston that never was.

On Aug, 24, Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez—a lame duck official who was overseeing the Houston voter roles—held one of the more bizarre press conferences you’ll ever see. Several dozen Tea Party supporters gathered to hear Vasquez  accuse a nonprofit group named Houston Votes of fraud. The group had been registering new voters and turned in duplicate forms—apparently the result of some workers looking to get paid by registering the same people multiple times. The group had clearly made mistakes. But Vasquez took it a step further and accused Houston Votes of a voter fraud conspiracy.

He announced that the Harris County voter rolls were under an “organized attack” and raised the specter of ACORN-like fraud

Vasquez never produced much evidence of an organized fraud. But the accusations did inhibit Houston Votes’ registering of voters, which was perhaps the goal all along.

No. 2: David Bradley and the quote of the year.

Just when I thought I’d heard it all from the irrepressible State Board of Education, David Bradley authored an unforgettable quote.

On Feb. 1, the Texas Tribune ran a story about the SBOE overseeing the multi-billion-dollar permanent school fund despite a lack of any experience with high finance.

Bradley defended his board’s lack of experience:

“If you sit on the mental health commission, do you have to be retarded? If you sit on the [Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission], do you have to be a drunk?”

No. 1: Gov. Perry says the forensic evidence in the Cameron Todd Willingham-arson case was sound.

Perry takes the top spot. The governor was asked about the Willingham case during a pre-election interview with the Texas Tribune, (Willingham was executed in 2004 for starting the 1991 house fire that killed his three children.)

Perry said, “I’m very comfortable that the science was good.”

It’s hard to know what to do with a comment like that, which so obviously contravenes the available facts. Perry has long contended that Willingham was guilty. Nothing wrong with that argument. Many people believe he was innocent, but we may never know for sure whether he was guilty. But what we do know for certain, 100 percent, utterly without a doubt, is that the forensic evidence in the case was flawed. That is simple fact. So says every national fire expert who’s looked at the case —and nine of them have examined it so far.

In fact, the very same week Perry made this comment, two of those experts testified at a court of inquiry in Austin and eviscerated the supposed evidence of arson against Willingham. Perry apparently wasn’t convinced, all evidence to the contrary. But he does get serious points in my book for contrarianism.

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