Political Intelligence

Exit Strategies

Allegedly we’re living in the age of personal responsibility, an ownership society, in which government esteems individual wealth above all, lionizes the captains of industry, and passes legislation to crack down on free-loaders who abuse the federal bankruptcy laws. What to make then of Bill Ceverha, a man whose dealings as a campaign treasurer drove him into bankruptcy, yet who continues to be entrusted with helping to manage nearly $20 billion in state investments?

Ceverha is a Republican campaign consultant, lobbyist, and man-about-town political insider. Somewhere in that list must be included his current spot on the board of trustees for the Texas Employee Retirement System (ERS), the state agency that controls health benefits and one of the biggest pots of money in state government: $19.9 billion worth of retirement investments for all current and former state employees.

In early October, Ceverha filed for bankruptcy protection from his creditors, a week before stricter new federal bankruptcy guidelines backed by the GOP took effect. Like many others who seek bankruptcy, Ceverha’s financial troubles stem from a calamitous event, though in his case, it wasn’t a severe health problem or loss of employment or, even, a dramatic increase in the lobbyist registration fee. Rather, Ceverha was done in by his association with two Texas Toms—Tom DeLay and Tom Craddick.

Ceverha served as treasurer—at least in name—for the DeLay-founded Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee (TRMPAC) in 2002. For three years, an Austin grand jury has been investigating the organization. TRMPAC allegedly funneled illegal corporate money to Texas legislative candidates, with the ultimately successful goal of electing Ceverha’s good friend Craddick as Texas House speaker and instituting DeLay-brand congressional redistricting. The inquiry has so far resulted in the indictment of DeLay and two associates on money laundering and conspiracy charges, as well as indictments of eight corporations who supplied the money and the DeLay associate who raised it.

A year after Ceverha’s work with TRMPAC, on July 15, 2003, Craddick boosted his crony onto the unpaid, six-member ERS board. (The Speaker of the Texas House can appoint one trustee to the board; the governor and chief justice also each have an appointee, and three others are elected by state employees.) Craddick took the unusual step of replacing former Democratic Speaker Pete Laney’s appointee with Ceverha, who is serving the remainder of a term that ends in 2008.

The 68-year-old Ceverha hasn’t been charged in the criminal investigation, but he was a TRMPAC defendant in a civil lawsuit brought by three defeated Democratic candidates. The lawsuit alleged that Ceverha, as TRMPAC treasurer, wronged the Democratic candidates in 2002 by steering illegal corporate money to their Republican opponents. Ceverha testified that his title of treasurer was more ceremonial than anything else, and even though he signed TRMPAC’s disclosure reports and some of its checks, he really didn’t know how the PAC was using its money [see, “TRMPAC in Its Own Words,” April 1, 2005].

District Judge Joe Hart didn’t buy that argument, and ordered Ceverha to pay the plaintiff Dems $196,000 in damages, plus attorneys’ fees that could total more than $1 million. Ceverha wasn’t nearly wealthy enough to deal with the bill. Apparently, he didn’t quite have the financial acumen you would expect from a well-connected Republican lobbyist and consultant with ties to the largest GOP donors in Texas. The bankruptcy also halts the lawsuit. “This puts an end to him being a defendant in the litigation,” said Ceverha’s lawyer, Terry Scarborough, who will now, by dint of back attorneys’ fees, be one of Ceverha’s creditors in bankruptcy.

SUV Levees

Looking for the Exit

As the Observer went to press, the number of American troops killed in Iraq under Bush II hit the grim benchmark of 2,000. There is a bipartisan consensus growing that the Bush team badly botched just about everything involving Iraq from the decision and justification for the war to its execution. Most recently, in a Los Angeles Times Op-ed, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson, lambasted the Bushites for their unwillingness “to listen to dissenting opinions” on foreign policy issues. A CIA leak case has dredged up many of the false, phony, and manipulative administration maneuvers to launch the war. Meanwhile, since the March 2003 invasion, a quarter of the U.S. casualties in Iraq were National Guard or Reserve troops, many of whom are more citizen than soldier; a series of recent devastating storms have exposed a shortage of state and National Guardsmen to deal with domestic emergencies.

Slowly, with a generous shove from the moral authority of Cindy Sheehan, a national debate about how the U.S. should extricate itself from Iraq has begun. A sign of the times could be seen at the LBJ School of Public Affairs on October 17. That night the school sponsored a debate billed as “Exit Strategies: Sooner or Later?”

In front of a volatile audience of about 90 people, four panelists—two “pros” and two “cons”—pondered the morass in Iraq and the whens and hows of American disengagement. Arguing for a quick end to the debacle were Ray McGovern, an ex-CIA analyst who has become a leading light in the peace movement, and Nadia McCaffrey, a member of Gold Star Families for Peace and mother of an Army sergeant killed in Iraq. Representing the stay-the-course side were Sarah Binion, a government professor at Austin Community College, and Trampes Crow, a veteran of the Iraq War and graduate student at the LBJ School.

Binion cautioned the largely anti-war crowd that re-debating the invasion was “academic at this point.” She argued that the U.S. needed “to finish the job” although what that entailed wasn’t particularly clear. Crow brought his personal experience to bear on the question of withdrawal, arguing that while the U.S. “cannot maintain the status quo in Iraq,” premature withdrawal would mean “electing to trade 2,000-plus American lives for tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi lives.” Crow said, “We must hope for a structured framework of withdrawal from Iraq that replaces our forces with their forces.”

Not surprisingly, for those advocating an immediate withdrawal, the ready analogy was Vietnam. “We don’t know what’s going to happen if we withdraw, but we’re wise enough or able enough to be able to negotiate, to put our diplomats to work,” said McGovern. In order to pave the way for withdrawal, the U.S. should disavow any “permanent military bases in Iraq” and “specific rights to oil” to get the international community to assist Iraq once the U.S. leaves.

McCaffrey took a more personal approach, relating a trip she took to the Middle East in 2004 to “speak with people and hear their stories directly.” She told of a meeting that was arranged for Iraqis who had lost loved ones during the occupation. A 12-year-old boy whose father and grandfather had been killed told the assembled Americans that he wanted all foreign troops out of Iraq immediately. An American noted it could take years to leave. “Then we’ll kill you all,” said the boy. “What if the president sends more troops?” the American asked. The boy’s response chilled McCaffrey: “We’ll go to your country and kill you all there.” “Think about it,” said McCaffrey in her final words to the audience. “That’s what we are preparing for our children and our grandchildren … We are dooming their future.”

Too bad we can’t go back to debating the path to war.

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Published at 12:00 am CST