POLITICAL INTELLIGENCE Cronies on the Loose 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 \(propaign 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 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 councilincluding Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa D-Rio cerned about Rister’s partisan past, only one lawmaker, Sen. Jeff Wentworth \(Rmation. 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 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 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 ance 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 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER FEBRUARY 10, 2006
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