By Aaron Reiss
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Until recently, Linda Tripp was the biggest blabbermouth to serve up a national scoop for Newsweek investigative reporter Mike "Spikey" Isikoff. The now-indicted Pentagon staffer fed him details of the White House assignations of Monica and Bill.
But that was before Isikoff met Johnnie B. Rogers three weeks ago in Austin. Rogers is a longtime Capitol lawyer-lobbyist who represents Service Corporation International. The Houston-based funeral home giant has been embroiled in a controversy that could damage the presidential aspirations of George W. Bush.
Rogers gave Isikoff some juicy quotes that contradicted the spin put out by his SCI bosses and the Bush campaign. Worse, according to SCI sources, he didn't even tell them he'd broken with the party line until the interview appeared in the magazine last week.
Austin-based SCI media advisor Bill Miller was still fuming after the Newsweekstory broke.
"He's a dream source 'cause he can't quit talking," says Miller about the semi-retired Rogers. "He's been told not to talk to the media umpteen times and [he says,] 'I can't help it. They get me on [the phone] and I can't help it. I just can't help it.' "
Isikoff talked to Rogers about allegations by Eliza May, the former director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission, that Bush and others squelched a commission investigation into SCI embalming practices. The ex-director says in a wrongful termination suit that the governor was involved when Rogers and SCI head Bob Waltrip met with Bush's then-chief of staff Joe Allbaugh at Bush's office in May 1998 to try to get some relief from the commission probe.
Bush submitted an affidavit in May's suit denying that he exerted influence on behalf of SCI. It also claimed he had no conversation with Waltrip a big Bush contributor or SCI representatives at the meeting. A Bush spokeswoman amended that scenario later, saying he simply poked his head into the session and exchanged pleasantries. That was the line Miller peddled to the media right up until Isikoff's story.
Isikoff's story quotes Rogers giving this account of the meeting:
Rogers and Waltrip were ushered in to see Allbaugh. Bush looked in and spotted Waltrip, then said, "Hey, Bobby, are those people still messing with you?" Waltrip said they were, and the governor asked Rogers, "Hey, Johnnie B. Are you taking care of him?" Rogers replied, "I'm doing my best, Governor."
The Newsweek reporter got a "throw-down quote" from Miller at his firm, Hillco Partners, but did not use it, Miller says. "When I read the story I realized he had gotten that paragraph from Johnnie B. which was the whole story. I thought, why the hell does he need me when he's got Johnnie B. shooting his mouth off like that?"
Neither Rogers nor a Houston spokesman for SCI's Waltrip returned phone inquiries from the Press. The incident left several veteran legislative lobbyists and political consultants in Houston to speculate on why a colleague would give such damaging information.
"I was stunned," says Campaign Strategies' Dan McClung, who has known Rogers for years. "I'm inclined to think that for some reason or other he didn't know who he was talking to. Johnnie B. Rogers would no more know Isikoff than a man in the moon. He never followed that Monica Lewinsky deal. Just not that kind of guy."
Quantum Consultants' Nancy Sims is also nonplused by Rogers's willingness to cross a client. "No lobbyist would speak to the press on behalf of their client without first discussing it with their client. That's very unusual, particularly on such a politically charged subject."
Consultant George Strong says he was amazed at the article. "I just thought that maybe Johnnie B. was talking off the record, or maybe he thought that 'hell, I'm going to tell 'em what happened because we're all going to appear in court and, shit, I'm not going to lie about a conversation I had with the governor!' "
No one seems to be willing at this stage to call Rogers's account of the meeting a lie. Bush is fighting a subpoena for him to testify about the meeting, and the lobbyist's testimony could be decisive. A spokeswoman for the governor continues to hold to the line that Bush "did not discuss the case." Miller takes a more pragmatic approach.
Asked whether Rogers's account is accurate, Miller answers, "I wasn't at the meeting. That was before I got hired. I guess we're going to find out."