Political Intelligence

The Right Pick?

Like a referee at a football game or the alternator in your car, the Texas Legislative Council is one of those agencies you don’t really think about until something goes wrong with it. Lege Council, as it’s known in the Capitol, quietly chugs along, obscured within the machinery of state government. The agency crafts the language of most bills so that they actually do what lawmakers intend, writes analysis of major legislation, and offers legal advice and research for lawmakers.

Obviously, it’s critical that Lege Council not be beholden to one party, and traditionally lawmakers have kept partisans out of the executive director post. But don’t take our word for it. The second page of the agency’s own Employee’s Manual reads, “The mission of the Texas Legislative Council is to provide professional nonpartisan service.” So you have to wonder if Lege Council’s new director is capable of being nonpartisan.

The new director is Milton Rister (pronounced Ryster), a long-time GOP campaign operative and former head of the Texas Republican Party. In 2002, he consulted for Congressman Tom DeLay’s controversial Texans for a Republican Majority PAC. Last fall, Rister even testified on DeLay’s behalf at a preliminary hearing in Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle’s criminal case against the former House majority leader for allegedly laundering corporate campaign money. Rister has also served as director of research for Lite Gov. David Dewhurst, and as chief of staff for Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Lewisville). Sure doesn’t sound nonpartisan.

Undeterred, though, the bipartisan group of 14 House and Senate lawmakers, chaired by the Lite Gov. and the Speaker, that oversees Lege Council voted to confirm Rister on February 1. Although some legislators on the council—including Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), Rep. Ryan Guillen (D-Rio Grande City), and Rep. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham)—said that they were concerned about Rister’s partisan past, only one lawmaker, Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio), voted against his confirmation. Wentworth said the two men “have a history.” He said Rister worked with a right-wing PAC that aired television ads targeting Wentworth in the 2002 Republican primary.

At Lege Council, Rister will have to refrain from all campaign work. The agency’s employee manual expressly forbids any political activity, including simply “publicly soliciting support for a candidate.” Several lawmakers have said that Rister promised them that political work is behind him now, though, perhaps, not too far behind. Two days before the confirmation vote, the online newsletter Quorum Report divulged that a PAC run by Dr. James Leininger, a major GOP donor, paid Rister $15,000 for consulting and opposition research in the upcoming Republican primary. Leininger’s PAC is reportedly taking aim at several Republican House members who didn’t vote for Dr. Jim’s prized school voucher proposal last session. Asked, after his confirmation vote, when he stopped his campaign work, Rister would only say, “I took my ‘W’ sticker off the car Monday.”

Busting Bill

If Bill Ceverha thought that filing for bankruptcy would silence his critics in addition to freeing him from the approximately $196,000 in civil liability incurred from losing a lawsuit over his role as treasurer of Texans for a Republican Majority, he was wrong. Democrats are busier than ever trying to turn Ceverha into a poster child for cronyism and corruption in the Texas Republican leadership. The former state rep-turned-lobbyist makes an inviting target not only because of his relationship to Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) and U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land) but also because of his membership on the board of the Employee Retirement System, the almost $20 billion fund that doles out benefits for state workers.

At a Capitol press conference on January 23, Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) presented documents that he says detail new evidence of conflicts of interest involving Ceverha and ERS. ERS is investigating, at Ceverha’s request. Former Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Mike McCormick is on the job.

Craddick appointed Ceverha to the ERS board early in 2003 although he didn’t officially start his five-year term until August. The dates are important because prior to joining the board, Ceverha worked as a lobbyist for Dallas businessman and former insurance executive Henry “Bud” Smith. News reports in May 2003 revealed that Smith was behind a bill by former state Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Dallas) to buy life insurance for state employees that could be turned into cash for the state when the retired employees died. The “dead peasant” plan, which presumably would have operated through ERS, never made it into law. But a memo by Smith dated April 28, 2003, that Burnam presented at the press conference thanked an ERS deputy executive director for “the courtesies you extended to Bill Ceverha, Jack Erskin, and myself.”

Ceverha told the online newsletter Quorum Report that the memo referenced a courtesy call, not a lobby visit. “It was a legislative matter,” he said.

Burnam also referenced a recent ethics complaint against Ceverha by the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. According to the complaint, Ceverha accepted a cash gift from Bob Perry, the GOP’s biggest state donor, but did not list the amount in his disclosure forms as required. “It seems like nondisclosure is Mr. Ceverha’s trademark,” said Burnam. The ethics commission didn’t agree, ruling in late January that state law doesn’t compel Ceverha to reveal the value of the gift.

The avalanche of abuse heaped on Ceverha over his service on the ERS board—which is an unpaid position and which prevents him from lobbying for certain clients—raises an interesting question: Why stay on the board and put up with the abuse?

Ceverha didn’t return two calls from the Observer but he did tell Quorum Report, “I enjoy the service.”

Jefferson’s Justice?

If there was something making people wrinkle their noses at the state Supreme Court hearing on January 24, it might have been the faint scent of political acrimony between an ambitious politician and the biggest muscle on the bench.

The politician in question was state Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin), who thought he had discovered a surefire way to clinch a seat on the state Court of Criminal Appeals by having his Republican primary opponents disqualified. (There are no Democratic challengers for the seat.) But instead, the Supreme Court’s decision destroyed Keel’s unfettered ascent to the court. Now, Keel is forced into a true democratic contest against two qualified Republican judges, each of whom Keel previously tried to lock out of the race for technical mistakes on their filings.

In the 5-3 decision, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson ruled against Keel’s maneuver to disqualify his opponents. Jefferson’s vote might not ordinarily provoke much comment, but Keel says the chief justice threatened him last year with political retaliation during a heated telephone call in the midst of a legislative game of chicken. (Jefferson has denied the threat but not the phone call.) As the story goes, Keel offended Jefferson by killing a bill for judicial pay raises during the final moments of the last regular legislative session out of pique because senators were holding up a bill that he wanted, which fast-tracked executions.

Did Jefferson’s part in the majority opinion amount to making good on his threat? Maybe, but Keel won’t draw that conclusion. “You have to trust that the members of that court are making an honest decision,” Keel said from the high road.

But even though Keel won’t implicate Jefferson, he said the chief justice hasn’t forgotten anything, even though the pay raise bill eventually passed in a special session. Keel also criticized the Supreme Court, and argued the decision doesn’t represent “proper Republican judicial philosophy.” In the familiar refrain of those unhappy with a ruling, Keel said justices shattered an old Republican tenet by “legislating from the bench.”

Jefferson didn’t call back to give his thoughts, thus keeping with the time-honored tradition of tight-lipped judges.

If Jefferson’s court had ruled in Keel’s favor, the retiring rep would have sailed onto the state’s highest criminal court (assuming he could handle a Libertarian candidate in the general election). But now, incumbent Judge Charles Holcomb and challenger Dallas County Criminal District Court Judge Robert Francis have the court’s blessing to fix the technical mistakes that had threatened to keep them out of the race. Neither candidate will have a particularly arduous task on his hands. Holcomb has already added the needed handful of signatures that were allegedly lacking on his petition to be on the ballot, and Francis has re-labeled a dozen pages of his 225-page filing to fix his errors.

According to Keel, the revitalized candidacies don’t change anything for him. He’ll stick to his campaign plan. And as far as the status of the relationship between Keel and Jefferson, Keel says it’s “cordial.”

An unreasonable inmate

The Houston fund-raiser for Congressman Tom DeLay on December 5 encountered one minor hitch: Diane Wilson. During Vice-President Dick Cheney’s speech at the $500-a-head gathering, the Gulf Coast shrimper-turned-activist cum author unfurled a banner reading “Corrupt Greed Kills—From Bhopal to Baghdad.” Authorities arrested Wilson, a co-founder of the peace activist group Code Pink. Though she has yet to stand trial for the DeLay stunt, Wilson is serving a 150-day sentence in the Victoria County jail for a criminal trespassing conviction incurred in 2002 when Wilson chained herself to a tower at the Union Carbide-Dow Chemical facility in Seadrift, Texas. Greg Gladden, Wilson’s lawyer, said that Wilson was upset to hear she wouldn’t be serving the maximum penalty of 180 days, because she would be “that much less of a martyr.” 

Wilson has become something of a cause célèbre in progressive camps (see the “Free Diane” t-shirts for sale on the Code Pink Web site). But her decade-long crusade against Gulf Coast chemical giants—which culminated in a manhunt for former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson after he fled the site of a massive pesticide leak in Bhopal, India—has shown she can’t turn her back on injustices.

Now, from her cell in Victoria, Wilson is challenging another Texas monolith: the criminal justice system. In a January 20 letter from jail addressed to Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O’Connor, Wilson lays out concerns of fellow inmates such as “humiliating treatment” from guards, and lack of access to medical treatment and legal services. Wilson also calls for a more efficient complaint process. Sheriff O’Connor did not return phone calls seeking comment.

It seems that authorities aren’t too fond of the Wilson family down in Victoria. Alice Blackmer, publicist for Wilson’s recently published memoir An Unreasonable Woman [see “Seadrift Nation,” November 4, 2005], says officers arrested Wilson’s daughter during family visiting hours, searched her, and then placed her handcuffed in a holding cell for hours. The offense? An unpaid speeding ticket from 1999. Gladden said that officers routinely check for outstanding warrants during visitation hours. But Blackmer said the speeding ticket had been paid. In any case, after a family member posted $320 bail, she was released and permitted to visit her mother. For her part, Wilson soon will be back on trial facing misdemeanor charges for “possession of fictitious identification” in relation to the DeLay fund-raiser: She used the identification of a friend’s dead Republican aunt to infiltrate the event.

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Published at 12:00 am CST