DPS Documents: More Questions About Killer-D Manhunt
The back story of the hunt for the House Democrats gets more and more intriguing.
For the week of May 12-16, Officer Kelly North of the Texas Dept. of Public Safety Criminal Law Enforcement Division worked 44 hours. Most of that time -- as duly recorded in Officer North's Narcotics Service/Task-Force Report -- was related to various criminal investigations. But on Monday, May 12, Officer North put in an 18-hour day (from 7:30am Monday to 1:45am Tuesday morning), and a significant hunk of his official 13 hours was devoted to the Great Texas House Democratic Legislator Manhunt. As North's daily time report notes, "En route to and in Ardmore Oklahoma at the request of Colonel Thomas Davis to make contact with Texas Legislators, return to duty station." According to published reports, several DPS narcotics officers joined North on that fool's errand, and in all, some 300 DPS officers were involved in the chase.
North's report is just one of the intriguing tidbits now available on the DPS Web site, specifically: www.txdps.state.tx.us/ director_staff/public_information/legislature/ legislatureindex.htm. The materials (including a touching e-mail to Davis from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's office, slugged "Sic 'em") have been posted by the DPS in response to numerous official and media requests for information and in the wake of the continuing brouhaha over the involvement of the DPS, Speaker Tom Craddick, Gov. Rick Perry, the federal Dept. of Homeland Security (and its state counterparts), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and possibly even the White House in the hunt for those House Dems who split town rather than enable a Republican vote for congressional redistricting. Democrats in Austin and Washington have continued to press various state and federal agencies for more info about the manhunt and how it was handled; Republicans here and there have continued to dismiss that pressure as "politically motivated," arguing that nothing illegal or inappropriate took place, and anyway, it's old news.
In the immediate wake of the Ardmore Exodus, questions were raised about the involvement of Homeland Security personnel in the search. Last week, fledgling Kingsville Democratic state Rep. and former immigration officer Juan Escobar said an FBI acquaintance, David Troutman of Corpus Christi, called him twice in Ardmore -- Troutman said he was just helping fellow DPS task-force officers find out if they should give up the hunt. That information helped prompt an unusual action by seven Democratic members of the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform -- under a "seven-member rule," they demanded that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge provide all communications between his agency concerning the missing legislators, including the entire tape of telephone conversations between Homeland Security and the DPS.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett has written to Ridge and the FBI requesting further info on federal involvement, thus far without results. And on Saturday, Connecticut Sen. and presidential candidate Joe Lieberman asked the White House to provide details of any conversations among House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, and President Bush -- after Bush chief of staff Andrew Card told Lieberman that a brief and presumably insignificant conversation concerning the Texas dustup had taken place among the three men. "In a matter of this significance, where questions have been raised about whether scarce homeland security resources were misused for political purposes," replied Lieberman in a letter, "the public should not be forced to rely on private reassurances."
Democrats filed open-record requests with the DPS on May 19 -- only to be told that records had already been destroyed in accordance with a law requiring the destruction of all records not associated with "criminal activity." Fort Worth state Rep. Lon Burnam filed suit to stop further destruction, and he, the DPS, and Attorney General Greg Abbott have since been exchanging charges over whether there might have been further destruction of relevant documents. The DPS Web postings are partly a response to that controversy.
What may have been the quickest police document purge on record was apparently not entirely successful, although what's left is not exactly riveting. The DPS has thus far posted 38 groups of documents, but most are bureaucratic and repetitive legislative rosters or bland internal communications (including those ordering the original document destruction). There are lists of the missing legislators, complete with aliases: "James E. 'Pete' Laney." There are copies of the formal questionnaire provided to troopers who visited legislators' offices in search of the fugitives. "Do you know where Representative Canales is?" asks one. Sergeant Palenque duly noted the staffer's response: "No idea."
More intriguing is the formal May 15 statement from the Riverside, Calif., office of the Homeland Security Department's Air & Marine Interdiction Coordination Center, recounting the May 12 "urgent phone call" from a DPS officer, quoted as saying coyly: "We got a problem, and I hope you can help me out. We had a plane that was supposed to be going from Ardmore, Oklahoma, to Georgetown, Texas. It had state representatives in it, and we cannot find the plane." The obvious inference made by the AMICC officer was of a potential emergency, "a law enforcement agency trying to locate a missing, lost, or possibly crashed aircraft." The AMICC staff did what they could to locate the plane by calling airfields (without success), although the report says that none of the department's aircraft were used in the search.
If the DPS officer (elsewhere identified as Lt. William Crais) was a little overzealous, it may be understandable. The notes confirm he was directly ordered by Gov. Perry ("7:53pm," says the handwritten notation) to find Reps. Rene Oliveira and Craig Eiland. Published reports of Crais' deposition in the Burnam lawsuit reflect that Perry personally chewed him out for several minutes and informed him that Eiland's wife had recently delivered premature twins and therefore her husband might be at a Galveston hospital neonatal unit. Agents looked there and at Eiland's house late Monday night, although in the meantime Eiland himself had called the DPS to tell them he was in Ardmore. Moreover, the headline news of the Democrats' hideout had by then been announced by Craddick on the House floor and broadcast all over the state.
The DPS postings substantiate what DPS officers have said: They were taking orders from Republican officials, who were nowhere near as "hands off" as Craddick and Perry have claimed. Even more alarming are the materials suggesting that other, as yet unidentified, personnel were also involved in the search: According to notes provided to the DPS by Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, a couple of legislators' spouses were apparently followed or watched by plainclothes operatives of whom the DPS claims no knowledge.
Whatever the complete and unredacted story of the state's pursuit of the absent House Democrats, the surviving DPS documents make clear it is yet to be fully revealed.