Naked City

It's His Funeral

As much as Gov. George W. Bush might want to kill it, Funeralgate just won't die. The latest development in the apparent influence-buying scandal involves testimony by former Texas Funeral Service Commission chairman Dick McNeil, who says that he spoke with Bush about the agency's investigation into Service Corporation International during a fundraiser at the Fort Worth Zoo in 1998. McNeil's testimony directly contradicts Bush's sworn statement, dated July 20, 1999, which says he had "no conversations" with any TFSC officials about the agency's investigation into SCI, which is headed by Bush contributor and family friend Robert Waltrip.

McNeil's deposition, taken on Oct. 17, is the fourth time that Bush's sworn statement regarding the SCI investigation has been contradicted. It also calls into question Bush's statement that he has "no personal knowledge of relevant facts of the investigation" or "any dispute arising from this investigation."

The deposition says that after McNeil introduced himself to Bush at the zoo, the governor replied, "Have you got -- you and Bob Waltrip -- are you and Mr. Waltrip got your problems worked out? And I said, no, we're still trying to work on that, Governor."

McNeil, a Bush appointee, then said, "I hope that we have not been an embarrassment to you or to any of this administration." To this, he recalls Bush replying, "You're not an embarrassment to me. He said, do your job." McNeil said it was the first time he had ever met Bush and that their conversation lasted about 30 seconds.

Bush's sworn statement on the SCI matter has already been impeached by Bush himself on two occasions. Last August, once in Iowa and once during a press conference in Austin, Bush admitted that he had spoken to Waltrip about the state's investigation while Waltrip was in the office of Joe Allbaugh, Bush's chief of staff (and now campaign manager). Bush said he didn't have a conversation with Waltrip. Instead, he said he had "only a brief exchange with him that lasted only a few seconds."

The other contradiction came from Johnnie B. Rogers, SCI's longtime lobbyist, who confirmed that Bush spoke to him and Waltrip about the TFSC investigation while the two were in Allbaugh's office on April 15, 1998.

Adding further intrigue is the news that the state's investigation of SCI, which began in 1998 under the direction of former executive Eliza May, has uncovered additional violations by the funeral home giant. In August 1998, a subcommittee of the agency recommended the company be fined $445,000 for a raft of violations which included the use of unlicensed embalmers. Last month, during a meeting of the TFSC board, officials from the Texas attorney general's office told the board members that they had discovered about 40 additional violations committed by SCI, the world's largest funeral company. If the agency seeks a fine for each violation, the company could face an additional $200,000 in penalties.

While the case against SCI continues to be problematic for the TFSC, which has been in disarray ever since May was fired last year (the agency is facing sunset review and will likely be dissolved by the Legislature), May's whistleblower lawsuit against Bush, Waltrip, SCI, and the TFSC heralds more problems for Bush. McNeil's deposition is "flatly inconsistent with the governor's sworn statement," said May's lawyer, Charles Herring Jr. "And we will renew our efforts to depose the governor after the election."

In August, state district judge John Dietz, a Democrat, ruled that May's lawyers could not depose Bush or key staffers, including Allbaugh, until after the election. The case is set for trial in April. The TFSC's case against the SCI is supposed to be handled by the State Office of Administrative Hearings, but no date has been set.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

George W. Bush, Texas Funeral Service Commission, Service Corporation International, Robert Waltrip, Eliza May, Dick McNeil, Joe Allbaugh, Johnnie B. Rogers, Charles Herring, Jr., John Dietz

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