Like a Hurricane


Texans have earned the right to be afraid of hurricanes. In 1900, a powerful hurricane nearly wiped out Galveston, killing thousands. Throughout the 20th century, hurricanes claimed lives in Galveston, Corpus Christi, and Brownsville. But while no one would ever wish for a hurricane, there is—hard as it is to believe—a positive side to these tropical storms. Hurricanes form part of a natural cycle that helps to keep Texas bays and estuaries healthy. The influx of fresh water that comes from these storms drives out parasites and predators. Hurricanes also kick up sediments, increasing the available nutrients for marine life. So despite the destruction they cause, hurricanes also can be a source of rejuvenation.

This example from nature is instructive as we enter yet another scandal involving the speaker of the Texas House. Periodically, throughout the state’s history, business interests have unduly insinuated themselves into the legislative process through the speaker’s office. It’s a tempting target because so much power—the ability to appoint committee chairs, referee the rules, and largely set the legislative agenda—is concentrated in just one person.

The last major scandal to involve the speaker’s office occurred more than 30 years ago and is known in Texas political shorthand simply as Sharpstown. Authored by Houston businessman Frank Sharp, the scheme consisted of bank-financed stock purchases for state officials that could be quickly cashed out in exchange for favorable legislation. Charges were filed against nearly two-dozen state officials. In September 1971, a Travis County grand jury indicted House Speaker Gus Mutscher. He would end his career a disgraced convicted felon. Voters also booted out the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general.

Like the hurricane cleaning out the bay, Sharpstown brought with it a wave of reform. In 1973, the Lege passed laws allowing for open meetings and open records, registration of lobbyists, campaign finance disclosure, and ethics guidelines for lawmakers as well as new consumer protections. Legislators also passed the Speaker Statute in an effort to prevent special interests from influencing House members’ election of their leader. The reforms have helped keep the Lege relatively free of a Sharpstown-size scandal for three decades—that’s a long time without the cleansing effect of a political hurricane.

Now, another one is brewing. It is possible that sometime in March the Travis County District Attorney could release grand jury indictments in a wide-ranging political conspiracy to seize hold of the state Legislature and particularly the office of the House speaker. As we reported last August and again in this issue, a cadre of Republican politicians, lobbyists, and corporate executives used the Texas Association of Business and a political action committee called Texans for a Republican Majority to funnel possibly illegal corporate money into the 2002 elections. The scheme catapulted Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland) into the speaker’s chair. Although it is uncertain how far up the ladder the DA will climb, it is becoming increasingly clear that two of the masterminds behind this conspiracy were U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land) and his long-time friend Tom Craddick.

In coming issues, the Observer will continue to cover the unfolding scandal as well as offer suggestions for reforms. While scandal is never pleasant, it is undeniable that corruption has muddied our electoral and political process. If it takes indictments and convictions to clean up our tarnished system, then we welcome the coming storm.