Capitol Offenses

Manure Flows Downhill at the Mansion

She’s throwing weeds again.” “She” is Anne DeBois, administrator of the Governor’s Mansion in Austin. According to state memoranda, workers on the Mansion grounds have repeatedly been subjected to temper tantrums (including yelling and screaming), physical abuse (being manhandled, and having weeds thrown at them), and demands that groundskeepers perform presidential campaign-related duties for Governor George W. Bush. The Mansion administrator denies the charges detailed in the memos, but records of the General Services Commission (the housekeeping agency for state government, which helps maintain the Bushes’ official home under the supervision of the Governor’s Office) indicate that the treatment has been bad enough that employees have called in sick rather than return to work at the First Residence.

“She threw weeds at Hector this morning,” continues the memorandum, dated April 5, 2000. “Hector also said that she threw weeds at William yesterday. (She has thrown them at me and Albert, previously),” a G.S.C. official wrote of the “abuse” of the Governor’s gardeners. The presence of weeds in the Mansion’s acre-and-a-half garden seems to have been an especially provocative cause of discord between the Mansion administration and the G.S.C. employees who maintain the grounds.

“Hector called today to inform me of Bill Wilson’s concern about how he is being treated at the Mansion,” the G.S.C. chief of groundskeeping for the Capitol complex, Janet Reed, wrote of another incident involving a worker, on March 31. “Wednesday, [Bill Wilson] was weeding the vegetable garden. Ms. Anne yelled at him not to touch the plants he was weeding. He stopped working in the area and moved from the north to the south part of the lawn.

“Today, Anne found Bill while he was working. She was angry and took him to the vegetable garden. She grabbed his hands and placed them on the weeds that on Wednesday he was told not to touch. She told him that he was to immediately pull these ‘weeds’ out!”

In the following weeks, the first of spring, there were apparently friendly discussions between G.S.C. and the Mansion administration about the choice of warm weather plants; the need to replace Mexican heather lost over the winter at the front porch; deadheading roses; and pulling pansies from the auto court. There was also a memo about preparation for the Governor for a Day ceremony – and the visit of the Bluebonnet Queen, in early April. But following the departure of the Queen, there was more trouble, apparently related to Ms. DeBois’ demands regarding the appearance of the Mansion during the high-profile political season. In retrospect, some of the disputes would appear comical – if the employees involved were not having to work under conditions which they considered abusive both of their persons and their dignity.

The memos also point to some possible campaign-season stresses on the Governor’s home front. In late May, for example, Ms. DeBois ordered gardeners to cut down and uproot a Japanese maple on the mansion lawn. According to the G.S.C. record, the Mansion administrator then ordered that the same kind of tree be planted in its place.

“This is unreasonable!” Ms. Reed wrote in a May 23 memorandum marked “To File”: “We have had the whole crew over there [the Mansion] all week in order to get the caladiums planted. Now we are to stop the scheduled planting and remove a tree and find new plant material. Just the thought of removing a tree and replacing it with the exact same tree is ridiculous.” But Ms. Reed tried to smooth over any differences in a note the following day to the Mansion administration: “I noticed that our crew had removed the Japanese Maple tree farthest to the south and dug out the root system. That area is very sunny now. I hope the caladiums will not burn as the season gets warmer.”

The exchanges were recorded in G.S.C.’s files because Ms. Reed is required by regulation to document the complaints of her workers. Specifically, G.S.C. rules prohibit state employees from “physical, verbal or psychological abuse of other employees or members of the public.”

Anne DeBois, the subject of the complaints, has been administrator of the Governor’s Mansion for seventeen years. Although she was not hired by Governor Bush, she does serve at his pleasure. Her annual salary is $51,000 for overseeing five employees, including the governor’s two housekeepers, one dietician, and one cook. The grounds of the Mansion are maintained (under Ms. DeBois’ watchful eye) by gardeners in the direct employ of the General Services Commission, supervised by Ms. Reed.

Asked about the charges, Anne DeBois said she was unaware of any difficulties in her dealings with state workers. “I don’t think that’s true,” she said when told of the specific complaints. “That’s the first I’ve heard of any of this.” It would seem, however, that Ms. Reed is a reliable source on events in the state’s gardens. Five years ago, a Governor’s Proclamation granted her permission to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery, alongside the likes of Stephen F. Austin and Governor John Connally, because of her work in maintaining and beautifying the Capitol grounds. Nonetheless, despite the seriousness of the complaints, there is some humor in the incidents she recorded.

On March 20, Ms. DeBois ordered that a large amount of fertilizer be delivered directly to the Mansion. “Anne called and yelled,” begins the memo. “She was furious that we had not planted coreopsis in the north ‘wildflower’ area. She said that we promised this 6 weeks ago and it still was not done. (Coreopsis is a very hot weather plant. They are not yet available.)

“She also insisted that we get at least 12 [cubic] yards of compost delivered immediately and the entire lawn top-dressed. (We just fertilized – it is not necessary to put more fertilizer-type product on it!)

“I stated that I will do my best to get the plants. I told her that I was sorry she was mad, but this was the first I had heard about the compost. I asked her to please clarify for me what she wanted. I asked if she wanted 12 yards of compost [approximately two-and-a-half to three tons] delivered to the Mansion – She said oh – no no. She wants at least 12 yards delivered somewhere else and then we are to bring it over a truckload at a time.

“I got a truck and the credit card….”

The relationship between the Governor’s Mansion and the General Services Commission was apparently progressing well enough as early as February 17, when Ms. Reed, the G.S.C.’s chief of grounds, sent Ms. DeBois a memo about the unexpectedly short winter: “It seems that spring will arrive much earlier than normal,” Ms. Reed wrote. “If you have any thoughts regarding your plant preferences for warm season color in the auto court, the front flower beds, and any other place, please let me know. Growers will be taking orders early and may run out or have poor quality if we wait.” A week later there was another G.S.C. memo to Ms. DeBois about the problem presented by weeds and live oak leaves.

But on March 8 (as it happens, the same day that U.S. Senator John McCain withdrew from the running for the Republican nomination for president, leaving a clear field for Governor Bush) relations began to sour. “On my routine visit to the Mansion,” Ms. Reed wrote on the next day, for her files, “I was met by Albert Ybarra who expressed some concerns about his ability to get some work done and about a concern regarding whether or not he should be doing some things asked by Ms. Anne DeBois.

“Albert told me that yesterday he was blowing prior to [public] tours and then planned to complete mowing and finish the fertilization. He was unable to complete any of these jobs because Ms. Anne stopped him and had him set up a P.A., podium, and 20 chairs for a press conference on the lawn. Next, he was told to put out 20 more chairs as she did not think this was enough. Albert could not complete any of [his] work until after the conference. Then he had to put away all the chairs, the P.A., and podium. The chair legs had sunk into the grass so each leg had to be washed and dried prior to putting away.

“Ms. DeBois continues to get Albert to mop the upstairs balcony. He must carry water and other equipment through the private quarters to get this job done. He voiced concern about this job as Secret Service (SS) was moving in and he felt this job was better done by the attendants in the house who are assigned to duties within the private quarters.

“I told Albert that I appreciated all the information. I agreed with him on all the points.… [The] jobs within the Mansion and setting up for press conferences without notice was not in our contract.”

The day after complaining about the use of a state employee for a political event, Ms. Reed wrote to Anne DeBois, “The Mansion was very beautiful today with the azaleas in bloom!” But in another memorandum to file on March 29, Ms. Reed wrote: “Hector called to say that the men can’t take it anymore at the mansion. This morning Dennis almost ‘lost it’ with Anne because of the way she was talking to him…. [And] last week Mike Garcia told me they had to mow twice. They mowed once and she had them do it all over again after he finished.”

Hector Medrano is the G.S.C.’s on-site supervisor of the Mansion gardeners, who number from two to fourteen on any given day. It was Medrano who communicated most of his crew’s complaints to the G.S.C. hierarchy. “Hector called yesterday and asked my opinion on what to do,” Ms. Reed recorded on April 4, the day before the last weed-throwing. “He stated that both Dennis and Bill no longer want to work at the mansion at all. Dennis is very upset about how he is being treated there and wants a meeting…to see what can be done about Anne’s behavior.

“I told Hector to move the two guys. Let all this crew know that people are going to be shifted in and out of there and to do his best with a bad situation….

“Today, Albert and Lloyd called in sick. We are pretty sure they don’t want to go to the mansion so they decided staying home was better. Dennis and Bill are still there today. Maybe tomorrow they can get a break.”

There is no indication in the memoranda that Governor Bush or his wife were aware of the treatment of their workmen. This is not, however, the first case in which problems have come up about the Governor’s household and administrative staff. At last count, the renovation of the Mansion itself, originally budgeted at $1.2 million, was $2.65 million and still rising, a cost overrun of more than 120 percent. The extra expense comes at a time when the Governor is preaching austerity to the rest of state government–and state agencies are reportedly squeezing their budgets to avoid potentially embarrassing cost overruns during the presidential campaign.

Furthermore, Texas law requires state agencies to improve contracting with “historically-underutilized businesses” (i.e., those owned or operated by minority and female contractors), but the Governor himself has shown no progress in that area. At the end of the last fiscal period–for the third year in a row–the Governor’s Office reported a spectacularly dismal record of minority contracting in the especially profitable area of professional services: zero percent.

Contributing writer Lucius Lomax reports regularly for the Observer on the curious and odoriferous habits of state agencies.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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