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. Bush and 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."
May's attorney says she never pulled campaign reports of elected officials. Instead, funeral commission chair Charles McNeil ordered her to review Ethics Commission filings by several board members who worked for an SCI affiliate, Herring says. Those records are also public and open for review by anyone who requests them.
Whitmire's involvement extends beyond the meetings. He forwarded a request for a legal opinion to Attorney General John Cornyn's office that he admits was drafted by SCI lobbyist Rogers.
"I was acting on behalf of me," insists the senator. "Johnny B. suggested the language. There's no question. We were trying to clear up the disputes....I was asked to do an AG opinion, and I said, "Sure, I'll do that.' "
Whitmire says he files dozens of such requests, and would do one for The Insider if asked.
He's not a defendant in the suit, which May filed against SCI,
Bush, her former commission and Waltrip. According to Whitmire, everything he did was simply a legitimate effort to represent constituents.
"This is a funeral home regulatory deal, and all of it has been cleared up now," says the senator soothingly. "SCI was not at fault....That was just a vendetta by one of their competitors." State officials have "completely cleaned house."
After the dust settled, Whitmire went on a fishing trip to Florida with SCI and Locke Liddell officials. He can't remember who paid for the outing, but is sure he never talked about the funeral home investigation with his fellow fishermen.
Movers and shakers take note: The next time you have problems with an out-of-control state commission, just call the Whitmire Dustbusters at (713)864-8701. Watch 'em clean house for you. Of course, before your appointment you might want to make large campaign contributions to the senator, hire his law firm and use a lobbyist who's on a first-name basis with John.
Rest assured he won't be aware of any of it.
The Gang That Couldn't Talk Straight
Last week The Insider complimented Mayor Lee P. Brown's new communications team for making the mayor more accessible to the media. This week the new crew is dodging brickbats from within its own ranks for issuing a press release that made it appear Brown's financial officers are asleep at the municipal wheel.
"Unanticipated Expenditures Plus Tax Rollback Will Further Reduce General Fund Budget," screamed the headline on the release crafted by communications director Monette Goodrich. The text explained that some $27 million in "unexpected expenses," combined with the recent tax rollback vote by City Council, could lead to a cut in city services and operations.
The Houston Chronicle took former reporter Goodrich's wording and splattered it across the front page as "Mayor cites "unexpected' city expense."
The problem with that is that most of the so-called unanticipated expenses had been discussed in council budget meetings and anticipated before the city budget was passed in June. While the expenses were not budgeted, planners projected that increases in city income would cover them.
A councilmember who voted with the mayor against the rollback is frustrated by the blunder. "They handed the other side a spin victory by putting out this stupid press release. It makes them look like they don't know what they're doing."
Asked why she used the term "unexpected" in the press release, Goodrich points to a backup chart in which city Chief Administrative Officer Al Haines labeled the increases as "unanticipated" and "unexpected." Asked whether Goodrich's press release was accurate, Haines responds, "it's mostly incorrect."
Of the increased costs, Haines says, "We knew it; we talked about probably 80 to 90 percent of those issues during the course of the budget discussions and the tax rollback debate." Haines points out that a memo he wrote on the subject did not use the dreaded words "unexpected" or "unanticipated."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.