Political Intelligence

Bad Bets


Snake Eyes of Texas

As any successful gambler will tell you, the key to winning is leaving as little to chance as possible. So it was for 73-year-old Curtis Fowler of Amarillo. Fowler apparently wanted a sure bet that his illegal gambling operation wouldn’t get shut down. So he set about bribing, or trying to bribe, law enforcement and elected officials in Amarillo, according to court records. But he bungled the play so badly that he not only faces a stretch in federal prison, but also inadvertently started a potentially explosive corruption scandal in Amarillo.

Fowler ran so-called eight-liners-a kind of slot machine in which there are eight ways to win. Eight-liner parlors are the most prevalent form of illegal gambling across Texas [see “Texas Hold’em,” July 16, 2004]. They pay cash winnings, which are outlawed in Texas. Law enforcement officials in Amarillo have been trying to crack down on them for months [see “Gaming Texas Gambling Law,” April 6, 2007]. Fowler and several acquaintances hoped to sidestep a burgeoning gambling investigation, and instead upped the ante on their own possible jail terms.

In February, Fowler approached, apparently unprompted, Tommy Passmore, an investigator for the Potter County attorney’s office. Fowler offered him $500 a week in exchange for various favors, including tip-offs about raids, and for closing down Fowler’s rival parlors, according to court records. Passmore played along, taking bribes and making promises in return. Turned out, Fowler had bet on the wrong guy: Passmore was working undercover for the FBI.

Fowler and his friends paid out more than $13,000 in bribes and kickbacks during the five-month investigation, according to federal authorities. In June, the FBI raided a series of eight-liner parlors, including Fowler’s. In July, a federal grand jury indicted Fowler and five others on charges of illegal gambling, bribery, and money laundering. If convicted on all counts, Fowler faces a maximum 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Sounds like a good time to turn state’s evidence.

Indeed, the FBI investigation continues, according to the Potter County attorney’s office. Fowler bragged to Passmore several times that he had bribed both law enforcement and elected officials in Amarillo, according to federal court records. Fowler was a player in local politics, contributing to candidates for county commission and for sheriff.

In Curtis Fowler, the FBI may have hit the corruption jackpot.

Bush’s Rath

Diane Rath boasts the kind of qualifications we’ve come to expect from a political appointee in the Bush administration. She has the slavish devotion to the GOP-this is a woman who named her kid after Reagan-a willingness to inject partisanship into the government bureaucracy, and a controversial record replete with allegations of cronyism and corruption.

On July 9, President Bush nominated Rath to serve as assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, below Secretary Michael Leavitt. Since 1996 Rath has served on the Texas Workforce Commission. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Rath will oversee programs such as Head Start, children’s Medicaid, and the welfare system known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

The ambitious Rath has long been mentioned in Republican circles as a candidate for higher office, either elected or appointed. She got a boost into politics from James Leininger, the San Antonio hospital-bed magnate and GOP sugar daddy. Before entering public service, Rath worked as a flack for Leininger’s company, Kinetic Concepts.

Rath is known as a hands-on, business-friendly commissioner, deeply involved in the agency’s workings. She’s chaired the Workforce Commission board since 1998. The agency directs the state’s employment programs, including job training and welfare-to-work initiatives.

Controversy has tainted Rath’s tenure several times. In fall 2003, Executive Director Larry Temple, whom Rath helped bring to the agency, allegedly tried to purge Democrats from the commission’s legislative affairs department, according to commission employees.

In 2004, a former Workforce Commission employee filed a lawsuit against the agency, claiming that Temple and Rath tried to turn the legislative affairs department into a cog in the Republican political machine. The suit claimed, as the Houston Chronicle reported at the time, that the agency drew up a plan in early 2004, at Rath and Temple’s behest, to lobby the Legislature on behalf of conservative political causes. It’s illegal for state agencies to lobby the Lege. When the Chronicle reported the details of the lobbying plan, the idea was scrapped, and the manager who wrote it resigned. Rath and Temple denied involvement.

Temple drew more scrutiny in 2005 after the Chronicle reported allegations that Temple and a crony at the Health and Human Services Commission steered state contracts to companies run by family members and friends. Rath stood by Temple, who denied any wrongdoing. He remains in his job.

For her part, Rath will chair the workforce commission until the Senate confirms her to the new post.

Farcical Felony

Harris County grand juries usually indict just about anybody on the say-so of the district attorney’s office. Yet on July 3 members of a current grand jury couldn’t bring themselves to accept creative felony charges against two young activists who shut down the Immigrant Detention Center in Houston for a few hours.

Chanting “melt the ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” Ben Browning and Ashley Turner locked their bodies to the entrance and exit gates of the privately run facility on June 4. The two called for an end to immigration raids. For several hours they halted the movement of immigrant detainees bussed in and out of the processing facility.

Once officers cut the locks and reopened the gates, they hustled Browning and Turner off to a night in jail. The activists expected to be charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass. Instead, the district attorney added felony possession of a criminal instrument. The instruments? Bulldog bicycle locks from a local bike shop. If convicted, the two could have served up to three years each in prison.

Turner’s attorney, Randall Kallinen, argued the locks weren’t altered or “manufactured” before they were used to commit the crime-a key requirement of the felony statute. The grand jury no-billed the native Houstonians. The two activists still face misdemeanor charges that could land them each in jail for six months, along with as much as $2,000 in fines.

Turner and Browning are trying to raise $5,000 to pay legal fees. Their act of solidarity with undocumented immigrants, who generally don’t protest for fear of being discovered, has resonated with some in Houston’s Latino community. A taco truck owner, Leobardo Santillan, has raised more than half the defense funds through collection drives at local flea markets. Santillan, who operates Taqueria el Tigre, is donating several days worth of sales as well.