Bishop in happier times.
Bishop in happier times.

Bishop's Endgame

In the often Byzantine world of Harris County Republican politics, George Bishop was a player, a behind-the-scenes icon always willing to help, an angel to those seeking elective office. He was a Republican when being one wasn't cool in Texas, when virtually the only recognizable local name in the GOP was the late Albert Fay.

With the party's current domination in Harris County, it would appear that Bishop would be finally savoring the ultimate success of that early and long political investment in the GOP as a growth stock.

Outward indications, a posh country retreat and other trappings of affluence, are evidence of Bishop's arrival to the good life. Bishop, 58, spent the Thanksgiving week with his family -- his wife is respected state District Judge Caprice Cosper -- in the exclusive San Diego enclave of La Jolla, showing his four-year-old son Balboa Park and the zoo.

However, the outlook is anything but comfortable for this former party activist. Bishop is a fallen angel, awaiting punishment and a likely prison term in March on his three-count conviction for evading more than $700,000 in income taxes.

While his many supporters argue about prosecution motives and other aspects of the case, one point is painfully clear: Bishop, who could move with equal grace through the practical world of the courtroom and the ethereal universe of the privileged, is a self-made man who self-destructed.

The rarefied ranks of the wealthy represented a long rise for George Bishop. He grew up in a house along the railroad tracks in Wichita Falls. His father, George Jr., worked as a pepper salesman for McCormack Tea and Spice. He went on to peddle janitorial supplies. Bishop's eventual inheritance from that family estate would total $262.

After graduation from high school, Bishop paid his own way through college. In 1966 he got his law degree from the University of Texas.

Like most voters in Texas in that earlier era, Bishop's family was Democratic. They didn't relate to his early interest in Republican politics.

"They thought it was crazy," he says.

However, even at a young age Bishop seemed to have a keen ability to size up political potential. As a youth, he was active in the Wichita Falls campaign of a fledgling state legislative candidate named John Tower. Tower lost that race, years before he would go on to become the longtime U.S. senator from the Lone Star State.

Bishop continued his party work when he got to Houston, where he was determined to be a behind-the-scenes player and not run for office.

"I decided that you could be a good lawyer or a good politician, but not both," he says. "I saw lawyers who were in the Legislature who I would never have represent me."

A key to his eventual success was that this GOP moderate got along well with Democrats, unusual for some in today's party.

Results of his work are indisputable. A covey of Republican officeholders owe much to Bishop. He was instrumental in early campaigns of Tower for Senate and George Bush the elder. He ran Kay Bailey Hutchison's first race for state representative from a district in Bellaire. And when Paul Eggers sought the governor's seat three decades ago, Bishop led his Harris County campaign.

Former Republican county chair Betsy Lake saw Bishop's influence at work during her tenure. "He was one of the old Republicans who go way back," she says. "When I was chairing, you always spoke with him. But times change. In the last couple of years, you don't hear much about him. But for a long time, he definitely was [a force]."

For a time in his career, Bishop shared a law office with David Hittner, who ascended to a state civil court bench and on to the federal judiciary. Bishop's early law partner William Tipton says that while the public did not see his influence, it was there nonetheless, in spades. "He was very successful," Tipton says. "He was a kingmaker. Candidates had to get his blessing. He has always been powerful in the Republican Party."

And Bishop solidified his status as a GOP insider by reaching back into a tradition of his youth. In 1948, when he was seven years old, the elder Bishop started taking him on bird hunts as a father-and-son affair. In 1967 Bishop revived that ritual with his friends.

He now invites about 20 of his closest associates on an annual October pheasant hunt near Bonesteel, South Dakota. Among the participants are political heavyweights and members of the judiciary here. This year's hunt included appellate justices Michael Schneider and Don Wittig, retired judge Ross Sears and state district judges Tad Halbach and Patricia Hancock.

Other regular Bishop events were his post-Election Night parties, which drew more of the influential crowd. Former U.S. attorney Ron Woods attended some of those events.

"George would help a lot of the Republicans in Harris County," Woods says. "He gave advice; he held fund-raisers. On Election Night he would have many of the candidates at his office. Many of the eventual winners were there."

"There was no invitation list; people just dropped by," says Bishop's longtime legal assistant, Terri Rayburn. "Mr. Bishop has been doing this for so long that people just know to come."

"We would bring in the TVs and have a Mexican food buffet," Rayburn says. "But sometimes it was real sad; 1992 was not a good year for some of our candidates." In that election, Republicans lost their 12-year grip on the White House.

The GOP rebounded. Bishop's critics say he did not.

On the domestic front, Bishop locked into a nasty 1991 divorce case with his former wife, leading to a $140,000 settlement for her. His political and professional life led to increasing clashes. A feud with then-judge Russell Lloyd blew up into what Bishop says was a threat by Lloyd that he would "smash him like a bug." Lloyd's animosity came in part because Bishop had not backed Lloyd's wife in a losing judicial race.

Some other members of the county's judiciary say privately that they resented Bishop implying to clients that he, as a party activist, had clout in their courts. Lloyd held up a $40,000 settlement for Bishop, and Bishop was one of the attorneys who had repeated problems cashing in on huge legal fees in the massive settlement of the cases involving leaking polybutylene pipe.

Meanwhile, candidates picked by the GOP's Christian right coalition, under Steven Hotze and Frank Harmon, began dominating the Republican primaries.

"I have never taken George to be a kingmaker like Frank Harmon or Steve Hotze," says one lawyer active in the party's conservative wing.

Bishop agrees that he has not been particularly active in the party since the early 1990s. "It's not as much fun after you start winning all of the elections," he says.

Others believe Bishop's departure from the political scene was of his own choice. He had found new love in wife Cosper, paying a reported $52,000 for a Tiffany's engagement ring.

His assistant, Rayburn, says Bishop is "absolutely devoted" to his child. "He was a lot more active in the past. He's not out there pushing and shoving anymore," Rayburn says.

However, the attorney managed to continue to attract his share of lucrative litigation. He scored big with a $565,000 fee for his court-appointed work on a class-action toxic exposure settlement.

And Bishop bought a 39.8-acre getaway called Inglenook Farms, near Chapel Hill. "It means a cozy place by the fire," he says.

However, another reason Bishop may have distanced himself from politics has nothing to do with elections or family. By 1994 he had his hands full with an all-out investigation by the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS took aim in part at what the U.S. Attorney's Office dubbed the "Judges Pheasant Hunt" and Bishop's close relationship with members of the judiciary.

Bishop acknowledges that a handful of judges make the trek to South Dakota for the bird shoot. "Every year we had a couple of judges come along. Like everybody else, they paid their own way."

Bishop and his lawyer, George "Mac" Secrest, say that the government paid an undue amount of attention to the hunt, an event that was innocent and legal.

Bishop says authorities thought they had another Brilab case, referring to a federal investigation more than 20 years ago.

Federal agents probing Bishop found paydirt elsewhere. During the period of Bishop's separation and divorce, he was making huge fees. But he was also not filing his income tax return, and those he later filed were challenged by the government.

The authorities alleged Bishop had bought the Inglenook property with funds he did not declare on his returns. Prosecutors also said that he used that money to purchase the engagement ring and $33,000 in antique furniture.

Bishop and some of his friends make veiled reference to his current troubles as being "politics," arguing that the Democratic administration is behind his woes. The "IRS was targeting me because I was a Republican," the attorney says. "Why did they spend all this time and money asking about me?"

But even friend Ron Woods doubts that Bishop's troubles are political, or that the government waged a vendetta because the defendant is a Republican.

"Anytime [the] IRS can catch a lawyer, they or the U.S. Attorney's Office are going to go after it with full vigor," Woods says. "I'm certainly not saying that it is political."

It is also obvious that Bishop is no longer an active GOP force, and that there are plenty of bigger targets in the Harris County Republican Party. While political bloodletting in the courts is not at all unusual in the era of the "politics of personal destruction," it's just hard to believe that it happened to Bishop. In fact, both he and Secrest also point their fingers in a more prosaic direction: toward Bishop's former wife. Secrest says she had access to the records, and he believes she could have told the IRS about his tax situation.

And the final argument against political persecution theories is the recent verdict of the jury, which found him guilty as charged.

Secrest argued that his client was simply incapable of handling his financial affairs. In fact, his own lawyer says that during law school he received an F in an income tax course and a D in legal accounting. Secrest characterizes him as a "fuck-up" in taking care of personal business.

"He is described as a master in the courtroom and a mess in the office," he says.

Woods is willing to give Bishop the benefit of the doubt regarding whether he intentionally hid money from the IRS.

"As a solo practitioner, I can certainly see how [sloppy accounting] could happen when you are trying cases all the time," he says.

Also, Bishop's bookkeeper quit to move on to another job. Bishop hired another, who later died. Eventually he got around to filing his tax returns.

"When the dust settled, some of the money didn't make it onto his return," Secrest says. "He should have put his money into one account and hired staff to take care of these things."

The trial itself was not unusual in the presentation of evidence. Rare, though, was the list of character witnesses to be called by the defense: a sitting U.S. district judge (David Hittner), a former U.S. attorney (Ron Woods) and, stranger yet, two current prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office, Paula Offenhauser and Katherine Haden.

None of them was called to the witness stand.

Secrest decided against their testimony, he says, because in doing so, he could have opened up a new avenue of attack for the prosecutors.

"The government can go into character issues," he says. "Bishop has made enemies, ruffled feathers. He is an in-your-face litigator."

Some, including a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office who is familiar with the evidence, say Secrest made a mistake in not calling the character witnesses, even though the prosecutor thinks that the government would still have had a strong case against Bishop.

That assistant U.S. attorney, who asked to remain anonymous, says he can recall no other case in his career where assistants in his office were willing to testify for the defense. Haden says both she and Offenhauser are "friends" of Bishop's wife.

Secrest says that he will appeal the verdict and that he will call those important character witnesses to testify at the sentencing hearing. Under mandatory federal sentencing guidelines to be followed by Judge Ewing Werlein, Bishop could receive from 27 to 33 months in prison.

It will be a long fall for a man who helped move the local and state GOP from a political afterthought to a potent political force.

"It's tough to work all this hard for this," Bishop says, "and then to have it crash down."


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