In Memoriam

Benny Preston Fisher, 1942-2002

Benny Fisher was not a hard man to find. He was the sheriff of Delta County in northeast Texas, the smallest county in the state, so he was never more than twenty miles or so from the sheriff’s department in Cooper. Still, he was not in his office the first time I called, nor could the dispatcher locate him on the road. “Have you tried him at home?” his deputy asked me. His house was just a short walk from the station. “C’mon out, Nate,” Fisher said when I found him there. “We’ll treat you so many ways, you’re bound to like one of ’em.”

I was doing a story about then-Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry’s 1998 campaign for Lieutenant Governor, and had been told that Fisher, a former regulator at the Texas Department of Agriculture, had a story to tell about Perry. I met Fisher at his house one afternoon in September. A shaggy Pomeranian followed us upstairs to a quiet sitting room, with thick drapes and shag carpet. When the dog was safely in his lap (“I’m not takin’ you,” he had warned), Fisher slid a box of Winstons out of his breast pocket. The air was perfectly still in that room. It smelled like 1975. I turned on the tape recorder, and in a gravelly voice Benny started talking.

Hired by Perry’s predecessor, Democrat Jim Hightower, Fisher was one of the agency’s top pesticide enforcement investigators. He was working a big case, maybe the biggest of his career, when Perry (Fisher pronounced it “Peery”) took over the agency in 1991. The state’s largest pesticide manufacturer, Voluntary Purchasing Group (VPG), was allegedly dumping arsenic-laden waste on its property in Bonham, and neighboring farmers were complaining of contamination bleeding onto their land. Over the course of a year, Fisher took samples on the property, interviewed dozens of witnesses, and took volume after volume of notes, as the investigation expanded to cover other sites contaminated over the company’s 30 years of operation in the area. “I had as good a case as any I’d ever worked,” he told me.

But none of that mattered. His new boss was in the pocket of the pesticide industry from the outset. In 1989, Perry, at that time still a state representative from Haskell (and a Democrat), had sponsored a bill to strip Hightower’s aggressive pesticide enforcement division of its regulatory power. Later, when Perry switched parties to run against Hightower, the chemical industry money poured into his campaign. Among the checks was one for $25,000 from VPG owner Dean Smith. Once in office, according to Fisher, Perry sat on Fisher’s VPG findings for a year and then quietly dismissed the case.

The oldest site, near VPG’s original plant in Commerce, was eventually cleaned up under the Superfund program in 1995. The company had been dumping arsenic into a creek in a black neighborhood in Commerce since at least the early 1960s. As it turned out, regulators had known about that contamination for 30 years, but had failed to inform residents until the early 1990s. And no enforcement action was ever taken by any agency concerning Fisher’s new allegations of disposal violations at two additional sites. One of those sites, in the town of Ridgeway, may have been the cause of arsenic contamination in the town’s sole source of drinking water. Regulators allowed the company to enter into a “voluntary cleanup plan” for both sites. Fisher was long gone by then. He was fired in 1993, for a trumped-up infraction.

Rick Perry is running for office again, but Benny Fisher won’t be around to tell his story this time. He died of lung cancer on March 11. Betty Clark, Benny’s sister-in-law, said the family was never sure if it was the cigarettes or the pesticides that killed him. He had been on chemotherapy for awhile, but when it finally happened, it happened fast. Fisher had been sheriff for twelve years before his TDA assignment; when Perry ran him off, the people of Delta County gladly put him back in office. Benny was widely loved, but even better, he had all the right enemies. “You said in there that Rick Perry had buried Benny Fisher,” Clark said, referring to my 1998 article on the VPG case. “And I guess whether he did or not, they truly have now.” He was 59.

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Published at 12:00 am CST