A Pattern of Intimidation? or Just Business?
A citizen's complaint against a Dallas funeral home more than a year ago has erupted into what may be the biggest influence-buying scandal in recent state history. The battle between the Texas Funeral Service Commission (TFSC) and Houston-based SCI has since grown to include several other major players -- most notably Gov. George W. Bush, Attorney General John Cornyn, and several state representatives, all of whom figure into a whistleblower lawsuit filed by former TFSC director Eliza May. Here's a timeline of how the controversy unfolded:
August 1996: Austin resident Eliza May hired as executive director of TFSC.
January 1998: TFSC receives a complaint from a citizen regarding the use of unlicensed embalming facilities by SCI. The agency begins examining records and finds that provisional licensees were doing embalmings at an SCI funeral home in Dallas without proper licenses.
March 6, 1998: The TFSC denies a license to Dallas/Fort Worth Mortuary Service, a company that planned to set up a commercial embalming service in the embalming rooms of two SCI funeral homes: Lucas Funeral Home in Hurst, and Sparkman-Crane Funeral Home in Dallas.
March 25, 1998: Tommy Metcalf, an SCI employee and member of the TFSC board, calls TFSC staffers to complain about the denial of the licenses. Metcalf also talks to May regarding the denials.
March 26, 1998: SCI attorney Johnnie B. Rogers calls May to complain about the denial of the licenses.
March 31, 1998: TFSC issues subpoenas seeking 15 months' worth of documents related to improper embalmings.
April 3, 1998: Sen. Ken Armbrister gets $1,000 from SCI's PAC. The same day, Metcalf calls TFSC staffers to complain about the issuance of the subpoenas.
April 7, 1998: SCI attorney Rogers notifies TFSC that it will not comply with the subpoenas.
April 8, 1998: Joshua Kimball, a provisional licensee working on his embalming license at SCI's Sparkman-Crane Funeral Home in Dallas, calls May at the TFSC office. According to May, Kimball tells her "I am going to kill all of you." May files a report with the Austin Police Dept.
April 10, 1998: TFSC employees arrive unannounced at Sparkman-Crane Funeral Home in Dallas and Lucas Funeral Home in Hurst to inspect embalming records. SCI personnel at the facilities initially refuse, then decide to cooperate with the TFSC employees.
April 13, 1998: SCI CEO Robert Waltrip calls TFSC chairman Dick McNeil to complain about the investigation, the subpoenas, and the surprise inspections. According to May's lawsuit, Waltrip threatens to "sue TFSC and threatened to have the TFSC abolished by the Texas Legislature."
April 15, 1998: Waltrip writes a letter denouncing the TFSC and what he calls the "storm trooper" tactics used by TFSC employees during inspections of Lucas and Sparkman-Crane. He says TFSC should "consider disciplinary action, including termination" of the staffers involved. On the same day, Waltrip and attorney Johnnie B. Rogers visit the TFSC offices in Austin and talk to May. After leaving TFSC, Waltrip and Rogers go to the governor's office in the Capitol. (According to May's lawsuit, she received a call from Joe Allbaugh, Bush's chief of staff, "approximately 45 minutes after Waltrip and Rogers left" her office.) In court documents filed later, Waltrip first says he talked to Gov. Bush about the TFSC; he later says he didn't.
April 16, 1998: Rep. Kyle Janek, an SCI stockholder, calls May to inquire about the TFSC investigation into SCI.
April 17, 1998: Armbrister sends a letter to McNeil regarding the TFSC's investigation into SCI, urging him to respond in a "prompt and decisive manner" and to "hold a hearing on this complaint" as soon as possible. The same day, former Sen. Michael Galloway sends letters to all nine TFSC commissioners. Galloway's letters are nearly identical in wording to Armbrister's.
April 20, 1998: Rep. Dan Kubiak sends a letter to May. His letter is nearly identical to the ones sent by Armbrister and Galloway.
April 22, 1998: Sen. John Carona sends a letter to McNeil about TFSC. Its contents are nearly identical to ones sent by Armbrister, Galloway, and Kubiak.
April 23, 1998: Janek, an SCI stockholder, writes a letter to TFSC chairman Dick McNeil, inquiring about the TFSC investigation.
May 11, 1998: Sen. John Whitmire calls May at the TFSC. Tells her he wants to meet with her to discuss the SCI investigation. According to May's lawsuit, Whitmire says that "SCI intended to sue TFSC." Whitmire demands to meet with May the following day.
May 12, 1998: While in Whitmire's office, May says, his approach to her is "prosecutorial, brow-beating, harassing, and pressuring." Her lawsuit also alleges that when she told Whitmire about illegal activities, he indicated "that he was uninterested in any such violations and did not want to hear about them." Whitmire also allegedly says that he intends to have another meeting, the following week, this time with Mr. Waltrip present, to try to "put an end to the matter." The same day, Janek gets a $1,000 political contribution from SCI's PAC.
May 18, 1998: At Whitmire's request, May attends a meeting in the office of Joe Allbaugh, Bush's chief of staff, where, May claims, Whitmire demands to know all details of the TFSC investigation, even though Waltrip, the CEO of SCI, is sitting in the same room. May says the meeting was "clearly designed to intimidate me."
May 19, 1998: Janek gets an additional $1,855 from SCI's PAC.
June 15, 1998: Whitmire sends a list of 11 questions to Attorney General John Cornyn asking for an opinion on the TFSC's interpretation of the state's funeral regulations.
Aug. 3, 1998: The TFSC's complaint review committee recommends that SCI be fined $445,000. The same day, a private investigator working for SCI begins calling May's friends looking for unflattering information on her.
Aug. 4, 1998: May writes Whitmire and Allbaugh, telling them that SCI's investigator is calling her friends and that she is concerned for her personal safety.
Aug. 10, 1998: May meets with Allbaugh in his office. According to May's lawsuit, Allbaugh again questions her about the TFSC investigation, then tells her, "This isn't going anywhere."
Aug. 17, 1998: Whitmire calls May again. Says he wants the TFSC to agree to mediation to resolve the dispute with SCI.
Oct. 15, 1998: Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Carrollton, gets $5,000 from SCI.
Dec.17-18, 1998: TFSC and SCI meet to mediate the dispute. The matter is not resolved.
Jan. 14, 1999: McNeil calls May. According toMay, he tells her that TFSC commissioner Tommy Metcalf, an SCI employee, wants May "put on administrative leave or otherwise disciplined."
Jan. 19, 1999: SCI attorneys meet with Clark Ervin, general counsel in the AG's office, to talk about their problems with the TFSC.
Jan. 25, 1999: TFSC puts May on administrative leave.
Feb. 8, 1999: May is fired as executive director of TFSC.
March 4, 1999: The AG's office issues a letter saying it will not issue an opinion on the TFSC dispute because "the controversy is set for mediation" and "it would not be appropriate" to get involved.
March 23, 1999: May files a whistleblower lawsuit against TFSC. SCI and Waltrip are also named as defendants.
April 8, 1999: Cornyn sends memos to staffers saying he wants to be aware of all cases in which his office refuses to issue an opinion.
April 9, 1999: Sen. Ken Armbrister sends the AG's office a request identical to one submitted by Whitmire in June of 1998.
May 7, 1999: Cornyn meets with attorneys from SCI to discuss the TFSC case.
June 2, 1999: Cornyn issues an opinion that appears to favor SCI's position regarding legality of embalming within existing funeral homes.
July 1, 1999: Scheduled date for May's attorney to depose Gov. Bush regarding the TFSC matter. Bush, campaigning for the presidency in California, misses the deposition. His office says he will fight deposition requests.
Sept. 1, 1999: A new law, sponsored by Marchant,
becomes law. It overhauls TFSC, strips the agency of its general counsel, and forces McNeil out as chairman of TFSC.--R.B.