By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Most of the bad press surrounding the firing last year of Texas Funeral Service Commission director Eliza May thus far has focused on Governor George W. Bushand his staff. But as May's wrongful termination suit proceeds through depositions toward an April court date in Austin, expect a strong media spotlight on Houston's state Senator John Whitmire for his alleged role in helping to squelch a probe of funeral giant Service Corporation International.
The commission launched an investigation in early 1998 into allegations that SCI violated state regulations by using unlicensed embalmers at its Dallas-area funeral homes. SCI already charges top scale for such services. According to May's suit, the commission probe indicated that SCI facilities attempted to increase profits and reduce liability by using illegal, cut-rate embalmers.
When May ordered investigators to make unscheduled visits to some of those funeral homes on Good Friday in 1998, angry SCI officials vigorously protested to their contacts in the Bush administration.
SCI's chief, Houstonian Robert Waltrip, has strongly supported both Bush and Whitmire for years. SCI's longtime lobbyist, Johnnie B. Rogers Sr., is a close friend of Whitmire's, and the senator also is a full-time paid attorney for Locke Liddell, SCI's law firm.
Whitmire injected himself into the commission's investigation of SCI in May 1998, participating in two meetings in which May claims she was pressured to drop the probe.
In the tumult that followed, May was fired as director, and the commission was reshuffled and essentially gutted. A $450,000 fine against SCI was never collected. May's attorney Chuck Herring contends Whitmire used his official position to assist influential supporters in derailing an agency investigation.
"In our view," says Herring, "Whitmire stepped over the line in terms of the influence and intimidation that he exhibited toward the commission, its staff and the SCI investigation."
The senator has resisted being deposed in May's lawsuit by citing legislative privilege. However, in a lengthy interview with The Insider, he blasted the former director for outrageous conduct, saying she pulled the campaign contribution records of state officials. He also denied that his long-standing relationships with SCI, Waltrip, Rogers and Locke Liddell had any bearing on his actions. In fact, Whitmire claims he was unaware that his employer also represented SCI when he asked May to meet with him.
"The firm had absolutely no role, to my knowledge. I was never... It was not an area of the law I was involved with," says the senator. "I'm not familiar with it to this day. I can't even tell you who the attorney is that works with them."
In the interview, Whitmire offered two versions of how he got involved. In the first, he said he read in the newspapers about the conflict between May's agency and SCI and decided to call her to see what the problem was.
According to Whitmire, this sort of thing is just his standard operating procedure. "What I did was exactly as I've handled numerous complaints by people dealing with the criminal justice department or Texas Employment Commission. I've done this for 28 years. When someone thinks an agency is not listening, making arbitrary decisions, where communications has broken down, what you do is pick up and listen to the agency side of it."
A few minutes later, Whitmire expanded a bit on that chain of communication. He said he called SCI lobbyist Rogers before he contacted May.
"He said, "Man, we got an outrageous executive director over there who's got a vendetta against us,' and all this and that," recalled Whitmire. "I knew the lady, so I called her and asked, "What is going on?' "
Whitmire set up a meeting with May, Waltrip, Rogers and others in his office. He said it didn't take long to see who was at fault.
"I thought the agency was taking some rather bizarre steps in dealing with SCI," said Whitmire. "I told her in that meeting that I thought it was a little bizarre -- the raid on Good Friday. It all broke down because the [SCI] employees didn't know what to give them."
Whitmire apparently is unaware of the agency mandate that all funeral home inspections be conducted without prior notice to the funeral operators. As for the inspection on Good Friday, May's attorney Herring laughs.
"Death doesn't take a holiday," says the lawyer. "Funeral homes are open all the time, because they have to receive bodies and they have to conduct funerals. They don't shut down on Good Friday."
At a second meeting set up by Whitmire in Bush chief of staff Joe Allbaugh's conference room, May claims the two berated her and attempted to intimidate the commission into dropping the SCI probe. Whitmire heatedly denies that.
"She's a Hispanic woman, a Democratic officeholder," Whitmire says. "I'm a Democratic senator, and it just didn't happen. Okay. It is a false allegation. I'm not nuts."
Whitmire does allow that "Allbaugh was very stern. I raved a little bit about "you can't be going off half-cocked like this...' " Whitmire says he detests May for examining campaign contribution records of state officials involved in the investigation.
"It was a remarkably stupid thing to do that most people in state government know would lead to your termination," the senator says. "Forget all the other stuff we talked about. She did that, and she was fired. After that, she started pointing the finger and trying to say others were wrongdoers."