President Bill Clinton was publicly pilloried for asking a prosecutor what the “definition of ‘is’ is.” Now, George W. Bush’s veracity is being questioned, based on the definition of the word “conversation.”
On August 18, attorneys for Eliza May, the former executive director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission, filed a motion asking a state court to find Bush in contempt for not telling the truth about his interactions with officials from Service Corporation International, the world’s largest funeral company. SCI has been fighting an investigation by the Commission, which recommended the company be fined $445,000 for violating a casketload of state regulations. In March, May filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the state, SCI, and SCI’s C.E.O., Robert Waltrip, claiming that the company and state officials worked together to thwart her agency’s investigation into the company. The contempt motion spotlights Bush’s sworn affidavit, released on August 5, in which he said he “had no conversations with SCI officials, agents or representatives” about the state’s investigation. The affidavit was filed by Attorney General John Cornyn, along with a motion to quash a subpoena issued to Bush by May’s attorneys.
Since the affidavit was filed, Bush’s flat denial of a conversation has been contradicted several times, even by Bush himself. According to reporters who were with Bush in Iowa in August, when Bush was asked if he talked to Waltrip about the investigation, he responded, “I did not. I had only a brief exchange with him that lasted only a few seconds.” Bush’s press secretary Linda Edwards, has described their encounter as a “brief verbal exchange.”
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “conversation” as “an informal spoken exchange.”
In the August 16 issue of Newsweek, Johnnie B. Rogers Sr., Waltrip’s attorney, discussed an April 15, 1998 meeting in the office of Joe Allbaugh, the Governor’s chief of staff. While Rogers and Waltrip were in Allbaugh’s office, Bush stuck his head into the room. “Hey Bobby, are those people still messing with you?” Bush asked Waltrip. May’s attorneys allege that Rogers’ statement, combined with statements made by Edwards, and a sworn interrogatory issued on June 11 by Waltrip’s attorneys, show that “the Governor had what was undeniably a conversation about the dispute arising from the Texas Funeral Service Commission investigation of SCI.” They add that Bush gave “testimony that was deliberately misleading and deceptive.”
In a prepared statement, Edwards called the motion for contempt “nothing more than a publicity stunt, and an example of the frivolous misuse of the civil justice system. This is clearly an attempt to draw Governor Bush into something he has not been involved in. Governor Bush stands by what he said in his affidavit, which is what he has said all along – that he was not involved in the case and has no personal knowledge of the facts of the case.” Edwards neatly sidestepped the other part of Bush’s affidavit – that he “had no conversations” with SCI officials. Indeed, during an August 18 press conference, Bush himself told the media that he had a “twenty-second conversation” with Waltrip. So why did Bush swear that he had never talked to SCI officials about the investigation?
The contempt motion claims that Bush made the false statements to avoid being deposed in the May lawsuit. “Plainly, such egregiously improper conduct subverts the judicial process and undermines our system of justice,” says the motion, submitted by May’s attorneys, Derek Howard and Charles Herring Jr. The two want the court to find Bush in contempt, to order him to appear for deposition within twenty-one days, and to impose a fine.
It’s unclear what will happen on the contempt motion or May’s lawyers’ attempts to get Bush’s deposition. An August 30 hearing on the motion to quash was scheduled in Travis County District Court. Eight of the nine judges who could be assigned the case are Democrats. From there, the case may be appealed directly to the Texas Supreme Court, where Bush has a decided advantage: all nine members of the high court are Republicans, and four of them were appointed to the court by Bush. A fifth justice was appointed by Bush to a lower court and was later elected to the high court.
During his press conference, Bush twelve times described May’s legal action as “frivolous.” Funny, that’s similar to what President Bill Clinton said about the Paula Jones lawsuit. Clinton ended up being impeached by Congress, and fined $90,000 by a federal court for being less than truthful in his testimony in the Jones case. One legal expert familiar with the May lawsuit expressed amazement at Bush’s lack of caution in his testimony. “If there’s anything every politician should have learned in the last year, it’s be careful about bullshitting your way through civil proceedings” he said.
Robert Bryce is a staff writer for the Austin Chronicle, where a version of this article first appeared.