The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

On the Defensive

By Robert Bryce, April 21, 2000, News

The last place any politician wants to be is in a courtroom under oath. But Gov. George W. Bush may soon find himself in that very position.

Last Friday, attorneys representing former Texas Funeral Service Commission executive director Eliza May added Bush as a defendant in the lawsuit she filed 13 months ago against the state and the world's largest funeral company, Houston-based Service Corporation International.

The amended lawsuit claims Bush "knowingly permitted his staff to intervene improperly" in the state funeral agency's investigation of SCI. It also claims his actions are an abuse of power and were designed to "subvert the lawful conduct of public officials in the performance of their official duties."

May sued the state under the Texas Whistleblower Act, claiming that she was fired from her job at the TFSC last year because she was investigating SCI, which had allegedly violated a number of state embalming statutes at some of its Dallas-area funeral homes. In August of 1998, after a lengthy investigation of the company, a sub-committee at the agency recommended the funeral giant be fined $445,000. The state has not yet required SCI to pay the fine and the matter was recently referred by the commission to the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

By adding Bush to the lawsuit, May's attorneys are hoping to get answers from Bush regarding the actions of his top staffers, including former chief of staff Joe Allbaugh (who is now managing Bush's presidential campaign) and Margaret Wilson, his general counsel. Both Allbaugh and Wilson attended a meeting in Allbaugh's office at which Allbaugh demanded to know the details of May's investigation into SCI's operations. The suit also claims that Wilson called May while the investigation was underway and told her that she was "under a lot of pressure" to end her investigation of SCI and that if she didn't stop her inquiry, "the investigation would be taken away" from the TFSC and handled by the governor's office.

May's attorneys have already tried, and failed, to get Bush to testify in court. Last summer, they subpoenaed Bush, but on August 31, Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz, a Democrat, quashed the subpoena and ruled that May's attorneys had not shown that Bush has "unique and superior knowledge" of the facts in May's lawsuit.

Bush's Capitol office spokesman, Michael Jones, said the "groundless suit involves the same old claims already rejected by the court last year when an earlier unjustified deposition was sought. As it pertains to the governor, this feeble claim has no merit."

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