The voice of a local Republican activist had a conspiratorial edge when he phoned two weeks ago, asking if the Press would be interested in a story revealing how Ann Richards helped an old buddy obtain an early parole from prison.
"Well, sure, who wouldn't?" was the answer.
The caller quickly provided the phone numbers of several people who he said could supply details on the adventures of one William Howard Pharr, a flamboyant Austin businessman turned bank robber turned murderer who had known the governor since they attended high school together in Waco.
The incontrovertible facts about Pharr are these: using a showy gold Porsche from his own car dealership as a getaway vehicle, he pulled off two bank heists in the vicinity of his own home, was captured by authorities and drew a relatively light 12-year prison sentence in 1988. But in 1992 he was released from prison and, using directions given him by another inmate, made a beeline for Anahuac, where he promptly robbed and murdered an elderly couple.
In the closing weeks of Richards' campaign against George W. Bush, Republican operatives energetically shopped the outlines of the Pharr saga to reporters around the state, adding this one bit of still-undocumented spin: the governor, they said, had used her influence to spring her old acquaintance from prison in 1992. But the story never surfaced in print before the election, and if Richards managed to scratch out a victory over Bush (the votes were being counted as we went to press Tuesday night), she may owe her victory in part to the restraint of Texas journalists and the tenacity of a lawyer hired by her campaign to keep the story out of the papers.
Pharr wasn't the only late-inning game going. As Republicans were peddling his story, media sources said, some in the Richards camp were trying to steer into print a story that would allege that Bush's father had helped him get into the National Guard back in those confusing Vietnam-era years that have came back to haunt Bill Clinton and Dan Quayle. But the Democrats' gambit also failed to produce a story. As a result, both sides muddled to a punchless conclusion, with the only drama being provided by Richards' last-minute embrace from Ross Perot.
However the election turned out, the story behind the "story" of William Pharr provides a textbook example of the way the field generals of modern political campaigns attempt to use news reporters as part of their strategies. According to one well-placed GOP source, Bush's camp hoped to link the candidate's advertisements on the inadequacies of the new state penal code to a media unveiling of the Pharr story, thus painting Richards as soft on killers -- at least those who are longtime acquaintances.
"They [Bush strategists] were going to pop this story," the source said when it appeared there was little possibility the Pharr story would see daylight. "That was their two-fer ... a hard news story that would serve as a prelude to the ad. Then the ad comes up, Richards cries foul, and they say 'No, look at that story that ran in X,Y,Z paper. Proves our point.' They wanted to talk about this like crazy, but if they can't get into print, they can't do it."
As the GOP source noted, the "window" for the appearance of such a story was open until about a week before Election Day, after which most of the state's mainstream media would begin to observe their informal, self-imposed "fairness" rule against breaking last-minute stories that reveal new charges or allegations about candidates.
"That window is closed. The story's dead now," the source said. "But if you look at the timetable, two weeks ago Bush had kind of a buzz-on... [His] mother going out in the field, the soft thing is working, and he could have had this hard-line story. I think because the penal code attack line was weakened by his being unable to corroborate that story, his campaign suffered a bit of a stalling factor. It didn't have the horsepower it needed at the end."
Richards strategist George Shipley said he had no doubt that Bush supporters shopped the Pharr story. "I've been told that by at least four members of the state and national press," said Shipley, whose own purveying to the press of damaging information on Republicans has earned him the sobriquet "Dr. Dirt."
Shipley said Texas Republicans were trying to follow "the exact same strategy" that George W. Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, employed in Florida in his effort to unseat Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles. Jeb Bush's campaign aired a commercial in which the mother of a murdered child complained that Chiles had refused to sign death warrants for the killer and was "liberal" on crime. But it turned out that the murderer's case was still on appeal and Chiles had not been asked to sign off on his execution, and Jeb Bush was widely criticized for the ad.
"In retrospect, we might have let them do it if we thought it would backfire on them," Shipley said of Richards' opposition, "but that's kind of high-risk."
And Shipley suggested that both Bush brothers were simply copying the tactic employed by their father in 1988, when George Bush the elder tagged Democrat Michael Dukakis as a softy on crime with the factual story of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman and stabbed her companion while on a Dukakis-granted furlough from prison.
"I could see it coming about six weeks out when the story surfaced," Shipley said of the GOP's attempt to make the 60-year-old Pharr the geriatric Willie Horton of the 1994 gubernatorial campaign. "It was new to me, but most of the responsible Capital press corps had heard it two years ago and rejected it because there were no new facts."
Reggie Bashur of the Bush campaign acknowledged he had "heard the story" about Pharr but said he didn't know enough about it to comment. He also denied that the Bush campaign had planned to coordinate its advertising with the appearance of the Pharr story in the papers.
"I know George Shipley and he's a fine guy," Bashur said last week. "But the Bush campaign hasn't done anything on that and will not do anything on that."
The Richards camp, meanwhile, took the unusual step of retaining lawyer Charles Burton of Austin's Minton, Burton, Foster & Collins firm to play defense by emphasizing to newspapers that stories linking Pharr and Richards "without the appraisal of facts" exonerating Richards could trigger lawsuits.
Reporter R.G. Ratcliffe of the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau did write some kind of story on the Pharr release, after interviewing Pharr at the Beeville corrections facility where he's incarcerated, Pharr's former parole officer, state parole officials and Richards campaign officials. Burton had extensive conversations with Chronicle editor Jack Loftis, but Loftis decided not to publish the story, sources said, because the allegations of Richards' involvement were unprovable (the newspaper endorsed Bush, before you conspiracy theorists get too carried away).
Burton declined any comment on his activities on behalf of Richards until after the election, and neither Loftis nor Ratcliffe returned calls for comment. Pharr also clammed up after talking to Ratcliffe and a Dallas TV reporter and refused to be interviewed by the Press.
One person who believes in the validity of the Pharr story is John Lund, Pharr's former district parole officer, who had extensive contact with the convict after he was arrested for the Anahuac murders. Lund met regularly with Pharr for about a month in 1992, and interviewed him for what he estimates was about 20 hours. He describes Pharr as quick-witted, perhaps psychotic, and not shy about crediting his release on parole two years early to powerful connections.
"He indicated he had friends in high places. He told me he was friends with the governor. It's my impression they were still friends," Lund said.
But he also acknowledged that if there is a "smoking gun" linking Richards to the early release of Pharr, it has yet to surface.
"What's going to happen is that it's going to dead end on you. You're going to get real excited and then you're going to hit a brick wall. What you're looking for is whether she let him out of jail or not. That's damn hard to prove. He never said the governor got him out. It was more like 'Well, it's who you know.' He's real smart. He was a jet pilot in the Air Force. You're not talking to a dummy here."
Lund observed that journalists were following a well-trod and crowded path in tracking the Pharr story during the gubernatorial campaign. He himself was interviewed in the first wave of media interest immediately after the murders, as well as in the pre-election round of attention by reporters from the Dallas Morning News, the Chronicle and the Houston Post.
Lund, who oddly enough claims to be a longtime Democrat, said he believes the governor was involved, despite any direct documentation linking her to Pharr's release. "A guy robs two banks and gets 12 years. Hey, we're talking robbing with a gun, and he gets a real light sentence. And he gets out two years early after serving only three years. If you and I went and robbed two banks, we'd probably get life. The whole thing stinks from the very beginning."
Adding further credence to the story, at least in Lund's mind, is what he relates as a sidebar comment from Ratcliffe, to whom he spoke after the Chronicle reporter had interviewed Pharr. Lund says he got the impression Ratcliffe "was definitely convinced" that there was substance to the tale.
Like Lund, Richards spokesman Bill Cryer is so accustomed to fielding questions about Pharr that he can anticipate most of them. But six days before the election, he and other Richards campaign staffers were still worried that Republicans might find a way to break the story out of quarantine and into headlines.
"I heard they shopped it around in Houston today, that they were talking to the radio talk shows," said a nervous Cryer.
One thread of the tale Republicans tried to stitch together concerned alleged phone logs from the governor's office that would reflect conversations between Richards and members of Pharr's family. Cryer said the governor did indeed call Pharr's family when they were campaigning for his release. But the way he described the exchange makes Richards look good.
"His son, Brad, called her and left a message," Cryer said. "And she, knowing the family, called him back. His son asked her what she could do and she essentially said, 'There's nothing I can do. He owes a debt to society and he's going to have to pay for it.'"
The Pharrs, Cryer said, also later corresponded with the governor. "There is a letter from Brad Pharr to the governor's office that says 'Thank you for taking my phone call.' But that's all. There's a letter from [William] Howard Pharr to the governor that says 'Thank you for calling my son. It dampened his spirits but we are plugging on.' Or something along those lines. And it goes on and talks about how rotten the prison system is. And that's the extent of it."
So, did the governor know how Pharr got out of prison early? "She doesn't have anything to do with parole," replied Cryer, who blamed the policies of former Republican governor Bill Clements for the convict's early release.
"The parole board met in 1990," Cryer explained, admitting his grasp of exact dates was sketchy, "and a three-member panel voted, as I understand it, 2-to-1 to release him in 1994. In 1992, the policy of [the staff of the parole board] was to accelerate parole releases. The staff accelerated the parole of Pharr as they accelerated a lot of paroles, one of the things Ann Richards stopped when she found out about the policy. So they accelerated it to that January, and then of course he went immediately down and committed his two murders, and was arrested and put back in prison, where he is today."
Cryer's account differs from newspaper stories of the time in some respects. According to a 1992 Chronicle report, a three-person parole board committee actually voted 2-1 to move Pharr's release date from 1992 to 1994. But, according to the newspaper, Pharr was released by the parole board's staff, without the knowledge of the board and in contradiction of its expressed wishes.
Cryer maintained that Richards has been completely candid about the Pharr case. "My policy, from when the first reporter asked me about it two years ago, is to pull the correspondence files and show them everything they want to see. And that's been the extent of it. When they see the correspondence file, they say almost universally, 'There's no story here. Good-bye.'"
Richards strategist Shipley claimed there's indeed a story in the Pharr saga -- one revealing how the rank-and-file of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice tried to undercut Richards by spreading the story.
"The prison system is Chinatown," Shipley snapped. "It is a conspiracy wrapped inside of a plot. And Ann Richards has been a reformer, and at times has imposed things on the system they don't like."
Shipley said Richards angered prison and parole officials by insisting that inmates be enrolled in the kind of 12-step therapeutic program that helped her escape alcoholism.
"This has not made her popular with the guards and some of the hard-core establishment at Huntsville," claimed Shipley. "So the prison system would have a motive [in furthering the Pharr story]. If you are a good political reporter, and R.G. Ratcliffe is very good, but you don't have a background in the prison system and don't understand those politics, it is very easy to see how a story could be shopped, by state employees and by Republican operatives, that would seem to be plausible."
Pardons and Paroles Board chairman Jack Kyle did not return a call for comment on the Pharr release. And a spokeswoman at the board's Austin office seemed in no hurry last week to help clear up questions about how Pharr was paroled two years early. "You know," she explained, "we had another inquiry on this and we are still waiting for the file. The file is in Huntsville."
And when was the other inquiry made?
"About three weeks ago," she answered. "The file's been moved and I don't know that anybody followed up on that. Let me take your number and we'll follow this file around and see what we can do."
We were still waiting for her call as voters went to the polls on Election Day.
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.