Naked City

The Lawsuit That Wouldn't Die

You read it here first: Within a year, George W. Bush will be ordered to testify under oath in the influence-buying scandal known as Funeralgate.

So far, Bush has avoided all efforts to put him under oath. In 1996, his attorney, Al Gonzales, was able to keep his client from being selected for jury duty in a drunken driving case here in Travis County. But the stakes in that case were small and Bush wasn't the focus of the court action. Funeralgate is a different story. Bush has been named as a defendant in the whistleblower lawsuit brought by Eliza May, the former executive director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission; the suit alleges that Bush and others who got campaign contributions from funeral giant Service Corporation International worked to thwart an investigation into SCI's hiring of improperly licensed embalmers.

Just as he did in 1996, Gonzales, who is now the White House general counsel, will do all he can to keep Bush out of situations in which he must swear to tell the truth. May's attorneys have been trying to get Bush under oath for more than 16 months. And they have many reasons to support their argument that Bush, and only Bush, can answer questions about discrepancies in testimony given in the Funeralgate mess.

For instance, the attorneys want to ask Bush about his conversations with former TFSC chairman Dick McNeil, who has testified that he talked briefly with Bush in 1998 about the investigation the agency was doing. They also want to ask Bush why his chief of staff, Joe Allbaugh, was so quick to intervene during the TFSC's 1998 investigation of Houston-based funeral giant SCI. May's attorneys are particularly interested in what Allbaugh, whom Bush has appointed as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will say under oath. During May's investigation into SCI, Allbaugh conducted two meetings with her. The purpose of the meetings, says May's lawsuit, was to "pressure and intimidate May concerning the SCI investigation."

Adding further intrigue to the influence-buying mess was last month's move by May's attorneys to name Texas Attorney General John Cornyn as a defendant in the suit. The attorneys charge that Cornyn went out of his way to help SCI during the TFSC investigation. As first reported in the Chronicle, the AG's office determined in early 1999 that it would not get involved in interpreting TFSC regulations while the agency was conducting its investigation of SCI. But shortly after that finding, Cornyn personally intervened, overruling the agency's earlier finding. That allowed the agency to interpret state law in a manner that was favorable to SCI. In their latest court pleading, May's lawyers, Derek Howard and Charles Herring Jr., claim that in January of 1999, Cornyn "began participating in the improper and illegal effort to prevent a full and proper investigation of SCI and to assist SCI and other conspirators in covering-up their prior improper, illegal actions, and in preventing May" and the TFSC from enforcing the law. The suit points out that Cornyn's chief deputy, Andy Taylor, used to work at the same law firm that was representing SCI at the commission -- and that by meeting with some SCI officials while working for the attorney general, Taylor acted unethically.

In response to the lawsuit, Cornyn's office issued a terse statement, saying the attorney general "holds himself and his staff to the highest ethical standards. This is a politically motivated effort to try to jump-start a two-year-old lawsuit."

Herring said that by intervening in the SCI matter, Cornyn changed longstanding policy at the AG's office. Cornyn was "doing a special favor for [SCI CEO Robert] Waltrip," he said. "That's not the way government is supposed to work. In our view, Cornyn was enlisted in the conspiracy."

The lawsuit was originally scheduled to go to trial in the spring. It now appears that it will be delayed by several months. May's attorneys appear to have a good case against the state, though they'll have a difficult time proving that Bush, Cornyn, and the others acted to protect SCI because they got campaign donations from the company and Waltrip. Still, that's not the most disturbing aspect of Funeralgate. Voters have become inured to the fact that politicians do favors for big donors; the most disturbing part of this mess is that at no time did Bush, Allbaugh, SCI, Cornyn, or state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, act on behalf of, or show any concern for, Texas consumers. Instead, they acted to protect the fat cats. That's the scandal.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

George W. Bush, Al Gonzales, Texas Funeral Service Commission, Service Corporation International, Dick McNeil, Joe Allbaugh, John Cornyn, Derrek Howard, Eliza May, Charles Herring Jr., Andy Taylor, Robert Waltrip, John Whitmire

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