Gov. George W. Bush isn't whistling past the graveyard anymore.
Attorneys for Eliza May, the former executive director of the Texas
Funeral Service Commission, filed a motion Wednesday morning asking the
court to find the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination
in contempt for not telling the truth in a sworn deposition,
part of a case involving a possible funeral-home oversight scandal.
May says that the Service Corporation International, the world's largest
funeral company, got her driven out of state government after her
commission recommended last August that the company be fined $445,000
for violating a casketload of state regulations. She was fired by the
commission in February. May filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the
state, the company and CEO Robert Waltrip in March, claiming that the
company and state officials worked together to thwart her agency's
investigation into the company.
The contempt motion puts the spotlight on Bush's sworn affidavit, filed on Aug. 5, in which he said that he has "had no conversations with SCI officials, agents or representatives" about the state's investigation. The affidavit was filed by Texas Attorney General John Cornyn along with a motion to quash a subpoena issued to Bush by May's attorneys.
Since the affidavit was filed, Bush's flat denial has been contradicted several times, even by Bush himself. According to reporters who were with Bush in Iowa last week, when Bush was asked if he talked to Waltrip about the investigation, Bush responded, "I did not. I had only a brief exchange with him that lasted only a few seconds." Bush's press secretary, Linda Edwards, has also described their meeting as an "exchange."
The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word "conversation" thusly: "an informal spoken exchange."
In their 16-page motion, May's attorneys point out that in the Aug. 16 Newsweek, Johnnie B. Rogers, Waltrip's attorney, discusses an April 15, 1998, meeting in the office of Joe Allbaugh, Bush's chief of staff. According to Rogers, while he and Waltrip were in Allbaugh's office, Bush stuck his head into the room. "Hey, Bobby, are those people still messing with you?" Bush asked Waltrip. When Waltrip indicated that they were, Bush asked Rogers, "Hey, Johnnie B. Are you taking care of him?" Rogers replied, "I'm doing my best, governor."
May's attorneys are claiming that Rogers' statement, combined with statements made by Edwards, and a sworn interrogatory issued on June 11 by Waltrip's attorneys, show that "the governor had what was undeniably a conversation about the dispute arising from the Texas Funeral Service Commission investigation of SCI." They add that Bush gave "testimony that was deliberately misleading and deceptive."
In a prepared statement Wednesday, Bush spokeswoman Edwards
called the motion for contempt "nothing more than a publicity stunt and an example of
the frivolous misuse of the civil justice system. This is clearly
an attempt to draw Gov. Bush into something he has not been involved
in. Gov. Bush stands by what he said in his affidavit, which is what he
has said all along -- that he was not involved in the case and has no personal
knowledge of the facts of the case."
The court filing is the latest development in the influence-buying scandal whirling around SCI that is now being referred to as "Formaldegate." On Monday, the Texas comptroller of public accounts, Carole Keeton Rylander, a Republican, announced that her agency was taking over the day-to-day operations of the TFSC, which has been foundering ever since May was dismissed from the agency on Feb. 8. Rylander was asked by Bush to intervene at the tiny agency, which is supposed to have 10 employees. Just four employees are currently working at the TFSC, which regulates 1,200 funeral homes in Texas. Three employees from the comptroller's office are expected to stay at the TFSC for several weeks.
The comptroller's move was applauded by SCI spokesman Bill Miller, who said the company is eager to resolve the fines that have been levied against it. "All we've ever said is we want our case processed," Miller said.
In her lawsuit against the state, May blames her dismissal on SCI, which has given tens of thousands of dollars to various state politicians who allegedly intervened on the company's behalf. Since 1996, Bush's gubernatorial campaign has received $35,000 from SCI's political action committee. In 1994, when Bush was running for governor, Waltrip gave him $10,000. In addition, Waltrip is a close friend of Bush's father, former President George Bush.
In their motion seeking a contempt sanction, May's lawyers claim Bush made false statements in his affidavit to avoid being deposed. "Plainly, such egregiously improper conduct subverts the judicial process and undermines our system of justice," says the motion, which asks the court to find Bush in contempt, order him to appear for deposition within 21 days and impose a fine against him.
A hearing on the motion to quash the subpoena is scheduled in Travis County District Court on Aug. 30.