Image Over Substance

Perry's Past

Before Rick Perry was agriculture commissioner, before he was even a Republican, he was a friend of the pesticide industry. As a Democratic state representative from Haskell County, a farming region near Abilene, Perry challenged Hightower's zealous enforcement of pesticide regulations, introducing to the legislature a provision that would have gutted the department's pesticide authority. That was in 1989. In 1990, Perry became a Republican and announced his bid to unseat Hightower. The Farm Bureau poured tens of thousands of dollars into Perry's campaign. They weren't the only ones. "VPG hated Jim Hightower," Fisher says. VPG owner Dean Smith kicked in $25,000 to Perry's campaign. It paid off. A year later, the man who would have removed regulatory authority over pesticides from the Agriculture Department was running the show.

Former TDA enforcement officer Benny Fisher claims his superiors covered up his investigation into aresnic dumping at the VPG Superfund Site in Commerce, Texas.

photograph by Nate Blakeslee

According to Fisher, it was two of Perry's new appointees, Barry McBee and Larry Beauchamp, who covered up the VPG case. Fisher says deputy commissioner McBee (who would leave the agency in 1995 to become the state's top environmental officer as chair of the TNRCC) dismissed the case in a 1991 meeting in Austin. Special assistant Beauchamp (an ex-cop from Perry's home county who calls himself "Rick's Right Hand") later confiscated all of the files pertaining to the case at a meeting in Tyler in April of 1992, says Fisher. Before the Tyler meeting, Fisher made a photocopy of his file, which is now in the possession of the Houston law firm of McClanahan and Clearman, who are representing several plaintiffs in VPG-related suits.

In 1995, VPG agreed to settle one of the complaints raised by Benny Fisher's original investigation, involving the sale of arsenic-tainted fertilizer, for $30,000. But no agency has ever taken enforcement action regarding the more serious allegations of illegal dumping in Bonham and contamination in Ridgeway. A June 30 press release from the TNRCC announced that the Attorney General's Office had managed to extract $2.5 million from VPG in bankruptcy court. (Although the company declared bankruptcy in 1996, it continues to operate in Bonham.) But according to the AG's office, that money was collected solely to compensate the state for expenses incurred in the 1995 cleanup of an old site in Commerce, Texas, abandoned by the company in 1972. The Bonham and Ridgeway sites, on the other hand, have been placed in the TNRCC's voluntary cleanup plan.

Perry, speaking through TDA attorney Wil Galloway, denies that Fisher's files were confiscated. (McBee also claims no knowledge of that action, nor could he recall dismissing the case in a meeting in 1991.) Galloway said Fisher was removed from the case because the company had alleged misconduct by Fisher, which might have affected his credibility at trial. As it happened, however, no trial ever occurred. Galloway also claimed that allegations pertaining to illegal dumping were handed over to the Texas Water Commission. But as late as 1993, the Water Commission's successor agency, the TNRCC, was claiming that the Ridgeway site was "just discovered," and that files pertaining to the case had been "lost."

"All my life, I always thought that the law was for everyone to follow," says Fisher, who was a sheriff for 12 years before joining TDA. "But it don't work that way at TDA If you've got big money, you're cool. If you've got political pull, you're cool." Fisher was fired in June of 1993 for an unrelated incident -- a complaint from a farmer under investigation by Fisher -- that he says was merely an excuse to get rid of him. Says Fisher, "The only thing I can say is, I got one vote, that's all I got, but I'd sure hate to see Rick Perry as lieutenant governor."

Nate Blakeslee is a staff writer for The Texas Observer, where a version of this story first appeared.

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