Political Intelligence

Mashed Moralizers

Progressives are celebrating in Burleson—yes, in the county of Johnson, home of a persecuted plastic-penis peddler, a cross-dressing Republican chieftain, fundamentalist churches galore, and congressional aspirant Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth. (See “The Passion of Johnson County,” May 21, 2004). On June 18, lawyer Ken Shetter won the runoff in the mayor’s race by a margin of 24 votes.

Shetter’s opponent was Stuart Gillaspie, the son of Wohlgemuth’s pastor, spiritual advisor, and unofficial campaign chair, Rev. Gloria Gillaspie. The pastor is the chief divinity officer of the mammoth Lighthouse Church in Burleson. Gillaspie had announced from her pulpit that God sent her a vision that the church soon would be “ruling” Burleson, according to some angry parishioners who believe the good reverend crossed the line with the remark. (The pastor and her son could not be reached for comment.)

Whether the whole of Johnson County was included in God’s plan is unclear. Apparently the message was garbled during transmission: Stuart was the second Gillaspie relative to lose an election in the town this season. Son-in-law Cory Smithee lost his bid for city council. But lesser powers certainly answered the call for Gillaspie—to no avail. Wohlgemuth, who is running to unseat U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards in a district many believe was specifically drawn for her, endorsed the pastor’s son. So did U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Ennis). Barton, who has little connection to Burleson, appeared in a photo in the local newspaper grinning beside his chosen mayoral hopeful.

The election will not be contested, Stuart Gillaspie told the press on election night. The reason, perhaps, is that the all-Gillaspie-affiliated counting crew of election clerks insisted on tabulating the ballots three times just in case they had made a mistake and Stuart had really won. At least one of the counters widely and proudly declares that she “never” removes the field of Wohlgemuth yard signs from her yard, even in non-election years.

In a statement to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram shortly after the outcome was announced, an angry Stuart Gillaspie blamed his loss on opposition to his mom. “It was almost a feeling of, well, a person whose parent has a church doesn’t have a right to run for office,” he griped.

The victorious Shetter says that the May 15 vote concerning the sale of alcohol in south Burleson—Gillaspie was against and he was for—could have influenced some voters. (The vote to allow the sale of mixed drinks in restaurants passed; allowing beer and wine sales in convenience stores failed.) But the real reason that voters chose him, the new mayor believes, had to do with a reaction against the overreaching of Johnson County’s self-appointed moralizing fundamentalists. “I believe we were the first in the country to campaign hard and long on the issue of separation of church and state—and win!” he says. “I don’t think we are going to be the last.”

A Ruling That Works

Even by Lone Star standards, this seemed overly harsh. The state planned to deprive Texans who earn all of $2,000 a year of their government-sponsored health insurance by changing the definition of the word “work.” A federal judge recently ruled, however, that this vindictive bit of public policy violates federal law. As a result, an estimated 2,300 people will keep their Medicaid benefits.

At issue is an arcane section of state regulations known as the Personal Responsibility Agreement. It’s a long set of rules with which Texas welfare recipients must comply in order to receive cash assistance from the state. The Legislature expanded the list of requirements last session. To stay on welfare, parents must now ensure their kids attend school and go to doctor appointments, among many other directives. But the Lege didn’t stop there. It also decreed that anyone who violated the expanded Personal Responsibility Agreements would lose not only their welfare cash assistance but their Medicaid too.

There was one rather large problem with this mean-spirited approach. Federal law declares that states can withdraw Medicaid from poor citizens only if they refuse to work. To get around that pesky federal statute, the Texas Workforce Commission simply expanded the definition of “work” to include anything required under the Personal Responsibility Agreement. That means if you trudge to a low-paying job every day, but your kids play hooky from school, the state would still classify you as “refusing to work” and cancel your welfare and your health insurance. Keep in mind that anyone receiving government cash in Texas isn’t Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen. To qualify for welfare, Texans can’t earn more than about $2,000 a year.

Last fall, the nonprofit Texas Welfare Reform Organization filed suit—along with the El Paso County Hospital District and two mothers who stood to lose benefits—to prevent the TWC from implementing the new rules. They won two temporary injunctions. The commission had argued that the rules simply encouraged parents on cash assistance to keep their kids healthy and in school. In early June, however, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks dismissed the state’s argument. He ruled that tethering Medicaid benefits to the Personal Responsibility Agreement clearly goes beyond the intent of Congress and violates federal law.

The state is still mulling whether to appeal. “We still believe in the policy,” said Workforce Commission spokesperson Ann Hatchitt. “It’s a good idea for parents to keep kids healthy.” She declined to comment further.

Lawyers Behaving Badly

West Texas has long been known for colorful lawyers, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more infamous pair than Terry McEachern and Richard Wardroup. As the district attorney of Swisher and Hale counties, McEachern gained international notoriety for stubbornly and, it turns out, wrongly prosecuting the 46 defendants rounded up in the now-discredited Tulia drug sting of 1999. McEachern lost his bid for reelection in the March primary and may lose his license to practice if the State Bar of Texas—which has filed suit against him—finds him guilty of Tulia-related misconduct.

To defend himself before the bar, McEachern has hired Wardroup, a Lubbock-based criminal defense attorney who himself had already been disciplined twice by the bar before botching his job as court-appointed counsel in the death penalty case of Joe Lee Guy. Federal affidavits show that Wardroup was abusing alcohol and drugs at the time he was representing Guy, who eventually received the death sentence for serving as an unarmed lookout in the robbery and murder of Plainview grocery store owner Larry Howell. (Guy’s two accomplices, who according to court testimony, were the ones who actually shot and robbed Howell, received life sentences.) All together, Wardroup has received nine disciplinary actions from the bar, including public reprimands and probated suspensions, during his 24-year career.

Why McEachern chose the problem-plagued Wardroup to help him save his law license remains uncertain. McEachern was not available for comment, and calls to Wardroup’s office were not returned.

McEachern has previously acknowledged that Guy did not receive adequate counsel during his trial. Last fall, according to the Plainview Daily Herald and other Panhandle papers, McEachern joined a number of Hale County law enforcement officials in signing a petition asking the Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Guy’s sentence to life, a request that the board unanimously accepted. “When you take all the facts into consideration,” McEachern told the Plainview paper in January, “the petition was the right thing to do.” So far, Gov. Rick Perry has not acted on the clemency request.

One Panhandle defense attorney who requested anonymity speculated that McEachern picked Wardroup because the two are friends. Another possible factor is economics: Last year, McEachern asked the Swisher County commissioners for $5,000 to help him hire a lawyer to fight the grievance filed against him by the bar. The commissioners rejected his request, citing the costly settlements with Tulia defendants already paid out by the county. And it appears that if anyone knows how to commit a variety of transgressions and still keep their law license, it’s Wardroup.

“Rick is a good lawyer when he’s not misbehaving,” says Lubbock-based criminal defense attorney Philip Wischkaemper, who is one of the lawyers representing Joe Lee Guy in his appeals. “The substance-abuse problems obviously affected his professional judgment.”

That could be another connection between Wardroup and McEachern. The former DA was convicted of a misdemeanor aggravated driving while intoxicated charge in New Mexico last year.

A Ringing Endorsement

On June 15, outgoing Congressman Chris Bell (D-Houston) broke a 7-year truce in the U.S. House of Representatives by filing an ethics complaint against House Majority Leader Tom “the Hammer” DeLay (R-Sugar Land). The complaint’s three components will sound familiar to regular Observer readers. It turns out, that’s no accident.

The first allegation centers on memo involving a Kansas-based company called Westar Energy Corp. that gave $25,000 to DeLay’s political action committee Texans for a Republican Majority, allegedly in return for favorable consideration of an amendment in an energy bill. Bell charges that DeLay illegally solicited and accepted political contributions from Westar in return for official action—a violation of both House rules and federal law. A second charge details how DeLay’s congressional office improperly used the Federal Aviation Administration to track down Texas legislators who, in an attempt to stop a vote on redistricting in the Texas House, had fled to Ardmore, Oklahoma. Finally, Bell asserts that DeLay’s TRMPAC laundered illegal corporate contributions for the purpose of influencing Texas legislative races and failed to properly disclose its financial activity.

“Tom DeLay has engaged in a pattern of corruption,” Bell told members of the media gathered for a press conference at the Texas Democratic State Convention in Houston. “In my opinion, [he] broke the law.”

Reporters immediately asked Bell about DeLay’s charge that the complaint was just sour grapes. Bell, a freshman, lost his re-election bid in the primary in one of the new DeLay-fashioned congressional districts.

“Nothing about this complaint is going to bring back my seat in Congress,” he responded. “This is not about retribution; it’s about facts.”

Bell said that he began working on the complaint long before his election loss, although the defeat afforded him more time to focus on it. “It really started last September after reading “Rise of the Machine” in The Texas Observer,” he said.

Bell appended the ethics complaint with two Observer stories—”Rise of the Machine” from August 29, 2003, and “Scandal in the Speaker’s Office,” from February 27, 2004. On June 22, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct agreed to investigate the complaint.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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