By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
One day late in the spring of 1992, then-Texas State Treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison cornered one of her subordinates, R.T. Burkett, in a hallway.
An exacting boss, Hutchison wanted to know how much progress Burkett, director of information resources at the Treasury, had made on the "special project" she had assigned. She fired questions fast and furiously. How was he coming? Was he 20 percent through -- or 30 percent? On what day might he finish?
The 54-year-old computer technician, a veteran of 23 years in state government, had never before received such attention from Hutchison. The state treasurer, who kept no computer on her own desk, had previously graced his office with a visit only once.
But it wasn't just the novelty of Hutchison's intense interest that troubled Burkett. It was the nature of her "special project." Hutchison had ordered the purging of backup computer tapes containing political and personal documents her executive staff had produced. She had pursued the deletion of records even after the treasurer's office faced criminal investigation for misusing state employees and equipment.
This meant that the treasurer of the state of Texas was ordering subordinates to destroy what was likely to become evidence.
Burkett and the staffer he had assigned to the project, programmer-analyst Wesley McGehee, nervously resolved to carry out Hutchison's instructions -- but also to protect themselves. They carefully logged every request tied to the deletion of records. And instead of purging the material entirely, they secretly made two copies of everything.
After they completed the two-month job, McGehee taped the cassette-sized computer tape containing his copy of the purged records to the underside of his office desk. Later, he would discover that the tape had been mysteriously erased. Burkett took his copy of the tape home and hid it in his garage.
For more than a year, as Hutchison launched the campaign that would elevate her to the U.S. Senate, Travis County prosecutors conducted a low-level investigation into rumors of abuses by her staff. But given the lack of physical evidence, the probe was going nowhere.
Then, on June 9, 1993, that suddenly changed. Four days after Hutchison's victory in the U.S. Senate runoff, McGehee, racked by guilt, went to the D.A.'s office with his stunning revelation: the newly elected U.S. senator had ordered the destruction of embarrassing state records. Burkett would later produce evidence of this: his tape, which he carted into a Travis County grand-jury room in a pizza box.
The two men told their story behind closed doors to the grand jury that would later indict Hutchison. But they never had a chance to unburden themselves in open court, before a trial jury in Fort Worth.
This February, during pretrial procedural wrangling, Judge John Onion announced that he would make no decision before testimony began on the admissibility of evidence --including material from the "pizza-box tapes" -- that Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle considered critical. If the trial began and Onion refused to let the jury see the physical evidence, Earle believed, it could torpedo his entire case. The D.A. made a fateful decision: he declined to move forward with the senator's prosecution. He later explained that he hoped to do so later, presumably before a more receptive judge.
Judge Onion, though, wouldn't give him that chance. Onion instead swore in a jury, then immediately ordered the panel to acquit the first U.S. senator from Texas ever to come under criminal indictment. The abrupt court-ordered acquittal left the voluminous evidence of exactly what it was that Hutchison did -- evidence that fills four walls of shelving in a locked, windowless room in the Travis County D.A.'s office -- largely hidden from public view.
In the court of law, Kay Bailey Hutchison's acquittal had closed those files. Whatever she had done, the judicial system had judged her innocent.
This allowed Hutchison, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, to emerge the victor in a political and legal war that had lasted for more than a year. Proclaiming the forced verdict proof of her innocence, she emerged from the crisis primed to trounce any opponent the Democrats might put up against her.
But Hutchison's indictment was always far more than a legal exercise. Her indictment dripped with high-stakes political implications: it threatened to unseat the first Republican since 1875 to hold the U.S. Senate seat previously occupied by Lloyd Bentsen.
For months prior to the acquittal, D.A. Ronnie Earle -- a Democratic prosecutor -- and his staff had leaked snippets of their case against Hutchison to the press.
In turn, Hutchison and her handlers -- including attorney-husband Ray and crack Houston criminal defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin -- carried out her aggressive defense more in the political arena than in the courtroom. Recognizing how much hung in the balance, they mobilized the entire machinery of the Texas Republican party, from fellow U.S. Senator Phil Gramm all the way down to local precinct chairmen.
And in the political arena, where she now seeks reelection against Democratic nominee Richard Fisher on November 8, the case against Kay Bailey Hutchison remains to be judged.
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