Deep in the Heart of Texas Political Scandals

Crimes, carousing, and contravention from the Capitol grounds

Legislators are people, too. They like to smoke, drink, gamble – some launder money. A daring one or two are even willing to get caught riding around North Texas with three prostitutes in their whip. Rounding out the full lot of lawmakers who've run into trouble while serving in the Texas House and Senate would take an eon, and could fill up a Bastrop phone book. Here's a smattering to get you started – just before the circus comes to town on Tuesday, Jan. 10. – Chase Hoffberger

Bob Bullock: Official Vices

Bob Bullock
Bob Bullock (Illustrations by Jeff Crosby)

The legendary (and notorious) Bob Bullock served as lieutenant governor from 1991-99, but his best-remembered sinning occurred during his two-fisted tenure as comptroller (1975-91), where he modernized the office, pursued tax scofflaws (via "Bullock's Raiders"), and built his reputation as the Toughest Pol in Texas. Although thoroughly dedicated to Texas, Bul­lock also scored high on the Seven Deadlies, certainly at least Pride, Wrath, Gluttony (alcohol division), and Lust, with the occasional side-trip by tax-funded airplane to Greed. (Sloth was unknown, and he Envied nobody.) One former employee summed up Bullock bluntly: "His virtues will never escape his vices."

Married five times, in his serious drinking days (as comptroller) he would turn "official" trips into high-flying staff parties, often accompanied by young women who wouldn't be listed on the manifests – garnering accusations of abuse of public resources and falsifying government records. A grand jury declined to indict him, although years later he reportedly told young then-D.A. Ronnie Earle, "I was guilty as hell."

Bullock paid for those sins by forgoing his obvious ambition to become governor. Frankly worse than these headline vices was his relentless habit of bullying subordinates – and anyone who disagreed with him – into submission. When he was on one of his benders, he was also notoriously sloppy, and occasionally threatening, while handling guns – were he alive today, the NRA would probably issue him a Good Guy With a Gun Award.

Although he accomplished many good things for Texas, Bullock's vices truncated his political career and his life. After a heart attack, he was rehabilitated at a California "drunk school" and reportedly stopped drinking in the early Eighties, but continued chain-smoking, and died of cancer at 69, shortly after deciding not to run for re-election. – Michael King

Jonathan Stickland: The Icky Sticky Icky State Rep.

Jonathan Stickland
Jonathan Stickland

The black sheep of the 84th Legislature sure could use a primer on how to stay anonymous on the internet – and a few lessons about how not to force oneself sexually on a loved one. In Dec. 2015, a challenger to his House seat revealed that Stickland had in 2001 used an online forum to solicit "a smoke buddy" to get high with in North Texas, and one year later hit up the website to ask for help harvesting his own stash. Both those slipups pale in comparison to his online antics in 2008, in which he told a friend seeking relationship advice on fantasy football site that "Rape is non existent in marriage, take what you want my friend!" – C.H.

Molly White: Pledge Allegiance to Some Nonsense

The right-wing former freshman rep. landed in hot water during the 2015 session when she required visiting Muslim constituents to declare allegiance to the American flag and U.S. laws to enter her office. The pointed instructions elicited heavy rebuke from the Muslim community and even prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to call for "civility." White also believes that family planning is "the greatest hoax ever" for women and families and that abortion will definitely lead to suicide or substance abuse. In 2016, the lawmaker was ousted in the primaries. – Mary Tuma

Ma & Pa Ferguson: Two Govs for the Price of One

Can't run for governor? Get your spouse to run for you. Gov. James "Pa" Ferguson was a man of contradictions, a teetotaler who ran in 1914 on an anti-Prohibition platform. Two years later, he vetoed all appropriations to the University of Texas, as revenge for the school's failure to sack his primary opponent, former Lt. Gov. William Harding Mayes. When the Legislature impeached Ferguson in 1917, lawmakers banned him from holding public office. So in 1924, his wife Miriam "Ma" Ferguson ran, telling voters not so subtly that they would be getting two governors for the price of one. She – or rather the Fergusons – won, making Ma the first elected female governor in the United States, and "Pa" a state's first First Gentleman. At the end of her two-year term, Ma lost a run-off to Dan Moody, the state's attorney general who investigated ol' Pa on corruption charges in 1925. The loving couple eventually made it back to the mansion for another term in 1932. – Richard Whittaker

Billy Clayton: Pay for Play

In 1979, the tenured Democratic speaker of the House fell from grace when he was discovered to have accepted a $5,000 cash gift from a supporter who just happened to work with the FBI. Within a year, Clayton was indicted for the scandal – dubbed "Brilab" by the Bureau – and charged with extortion, racketeering, fraud, and conspiracy. He was later acquitted. The former speaker never spent that cold hard cash, and it remained stashed in his office. Though he retired from the House in 1981, Clayton remained in the Capitol limelight, where his many clients shelled out even more money for his lobbying skills. – Sarah Marloff

Borris Miles: Safety Threats

Art-stealin', gun-wieldin' state Rep. Borris Miles earned quite the reputation for himself. The Harris County Dem is best known for removing art from a Capitol art exhibit and whipping out weapons at private parties. He was indicted on two counts of deadly conduct in April 2008 after two separate episodes in which he reportedly brandished a pistol and threatened an attorney, but he was acquitted at a Jan. 2009 trial. Miles is no stranger to controversy, nor to re-elections. He returns to the Capitol for his sixth session this month. – S.M.

Sharpstown Scandal: Stock Fraud City

Frank Sharp
Frank Sharp

Houston banker Frank Sharp and his high-placed friends took the idiom "a favor for a favor" just a little too literally. Sharp filled politicians' pockets while they passed banking bills to pad his own until news of the scandal broke in 1971 – just after 1970's elections. The Sharpstown Scandal touched every corner of Texas. Representative Walter Knapp went to prison for stamp theft (clearly unhinged, he later shot and killed his wife before taking his own life), while House Speaker Gus Mutscher was convicted for conspiracy to accept a bribe. Former Speaker Ben Barnes got off easy with just the taint of scandal. But by the following Lege session, Sharp's spring cleaning had cleared out some seriously shady seniors. – S.M.

Robert Potter: An Eye for an Eye

Robert Potter
Robert Potter

Potter, a U.S. representative from North Carolina in the early 1800s who later went on to sign Texas' Declaration of Indepen­dence and serve as the former nation's secretary of the Navy, is perhaps best known for getting back at two Carolinian men he believed had carried on an affair with his wife by castrating them with a knife. – C.H.

Charlie Wilson: Good Times, Bad Times

Former state Rep. and Lufkin congress­man Charlie Wilson (d. 2010) survives as Tom Hanks in Charlie Wilson's War (2007), the George Crile book that preceded it, and most recently in an endowed chair of Pakistan Studies (underwritten by East Texas lumber money), welcomed by the UT-Austin administration over the angry objections of faculty members who actually know something about the subject. "Good Time Charlie" was legendary for partying, womanizing, pork barrel politics (the lumber industry needed feeding), but his ultimate myth was born of his (and the CIA's) weaponry support for the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet army in the Eighties. "Charlie did it," Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq said of the eventual Soviet withdrawal, failing to mention the consequent refugee crisis and the successor Taliban regime, and, by the way, Osama bin Laden. Wilson once cheerfully quoted a review of Crile's book, describing his subject: "a drunken, shiftless, ignorant, lying, drug-taking, zipper-flipping, corrupt, power-crazed cretin," and told Molly Ivins of his notorious "Charlie's Angels" secretarial staff: "You can teach 'em to type, but you can't teach 'em how to grow tits." In today's "Tea Party," "Freedom Caucus" House, Wilson would undoubtedly be a moral pariah, although for all the wrong reasons. In retrospect, he seems more like a Texas good ol' boy for whom the most abhorred vice would have been hypocrisy. – M.K.

Mike Martin: Storytelling Satanist Shootouts

Mike Martin
Mike Martin

In the summer of 1981, Mike Martin, then a first-term conservative state representative whose one contribution to the previous legislative session was a bill suggesting that public schools teach creationism alongside the science of evolution, was living in a mobile home park in East Austin when four shotgun blasts sailed into his vehicle and three bullets struck him in the arm. Martin initially attributed the shooting to a satanic cult that he had reportedly been investigating, but it was later discovered that he got his cousin to shoot him, in an effort to gain political sympathy in advance of a long-shot run for state senate. Martin fled town after his cousin fessed up. (Authorities found him hiding in a closet at his mother's house in Longview.) Martin pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor perjury charge and paid a nominal fine. He resigned from the House in April 1982. – C.H.

Tom DeLay: Fallen King of Macho Manor

The disgraced Texas politician began as a goofy, vice-loving partier nicknamed "Hot Tub Tom," and his household, which he shared with other legislators, was referred to as the "Macho Manor." Somehow, the former pest control business owner, through cutthroat politics and raising oodles of cash, climbed his way to the top of the Republican pyramid as House majority lead­er. But the party tub drained when DeLay faced money laundering and conspiracy charges over a campaign finance scheme that aided Texas GOP candidates. Ultimately, he managed to slither away from his conviction through an acquittal at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, but he couldn't escape our living rooms. DeLay's penchant for a good time resurfaced in his season nine appearance on Dancing With the Stars.M.T.

Blake Farenthold: Quack, Quack, Quack

Blake Farenthold
Blake Farenthold

Oh, those ducky pajamas. While U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold was running for Texas' 27th District House seat in 2010, photos of the Corpus Christi native dressed in duck-patterned blue pajamas alongside two scantily clad women surfaced online – not the ideal image for a conservative Republican seeking election. The kicker is that the photo fiasco did little to stop Farenthold from winning – he's been re-elected in each election since. Texas, y'all. – M.T.

The Unknown Engineers: Who Dug the Tunnel From the Capitol to Guy Town

In the 19th century, legislators and prostitutes went together like pork and applesauce. Don't think sleepy little Austin was any exception. The city played host to many late-night comings and goings in Guy Town, the 10-block red light district between the river and Fifth Street along Guadalupe and Colorado. The city banned prostitution, "fandangoes, [and] dance house[s]" in 1870, but one can imagine how well that worked. In 1876, two women were arrested for running a brothel. They promptly threatened to release the names of their client list – including legislators and city councilors – unless charges against them were dropped. Legend has it there once lay a network of tunnels between the state Capitol and Guy Town. If true, we send a swift tip of the hat to the secret engineers who kept these historic indiscretions private. For more on Austin's libidinous history, read "The Fantastic and Utterly Disrep­ut­able History of the Bevy of Sin Known as Guy Town," Jan. 26, 2001. – R.W.

Drew Nixon: Ignorance Is Bliss

Drew Nixon
Drew Nixon

In 1997, the Republican state senator, then 37, was charged mid-session with class A and class B misdemeanors after he was arrested in Austin for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer and found in possession of a handgun without a license. Nixon told The Victoria Advocate at the time that he was "humbled and ashamed" and would seek "professional help," but declined to remove himself from office. The incident was actually Nixon's second such run-in with the law. In 1993, during his first term as a state senator, the Carthage native pleaded no contest to a firearms misdemeanor after being stopped by police in East Dallas with three known prostitutes and a loaded .357 caliber handgun in his car. Nixon said he did not know the women were prostitutes. – C.H.

(Dis)Honorable Mention: The Cloak Room

What happens in the Cloak Room stays in the Cloak Room. The basement bar at 1300 Colorado, just in the shadow of the Legis­lat­ure, is famous for two reasons: its standing as the off-campus drinking club for state senators, and its legendary sense of discretion. It's had its brief moments of headline celebrity: In 2001, Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Bar­ri­entos was busted for drunk driving after a midnight session there; six years later there was quite the kerfuffle when Sen. John Whit­mire allegedly raised hell after staff refused to serve him. But the genteel elegance, the subterranean charm, and convivial bon-homie to the regulars, movers, and shakers may make this the last bastion of glass-clinking bipartisan conviviality in Texas. – R.W.

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More 85th Legislature
Lege Races Take Shape
Lege Races Take Shape
Seats open up as veterans bow out

Richard Whittaker, June 19, 2015

More by the News Staff
State Offers Exciting New Incentives Package to Retain Public School Teachers
State Offers Exciting New Incentives Package to Retain Public School Teachers
Tough times for teachers, but the Texas GOP is here to help

March 31, 2023

The Lege Opens, Here's What Happens Next
The Lege Opens, Here's What Happens Next
Not all of the bills are bad! Our analysis of the just-begun 88th Texas Legislature.

Jan. 13, 2023


85th Legislature, The Cloak Room, Drew Nixon, Blake Farenthold, Mike Martin, Charlie Wilson, Robert Potter, Sharpstown Scandal, Ma & Pa Ferguson, Borris Miles, Billy Clayton, Molly White, Jonathan Stickland, Bob Bullock

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle