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Right on the Money: The George W. Bush Profile
July 8, 2003
From the Buying of the President 2000 by the Center for Public Integrity

Part Three:

For three decades now, hundreds of electrical power, oil refining, and chemical plants have been pumping toxic particles into the air over Texas. These plants produce as much smog-forming nitrogen oxides as 18 million cars, making Texas the state with the largest volume of air pollution in the nation. The Texas Legislature passed the Texas Clean Air Act in 1971, but plants built before the law was passed don't have to comply with its rules.

In December 1996, staff members of the Texas Natural Resources and Conservation Commission, the state environmental agency, began meeting with representatives from eleven companies to talk about reducing the emissions of the plants that benefited from the grandfather clause. But when it looked like the commission was moving toward eliminating the exemption for those plants, energy-industry executives balked and headed straight for the governor's office.

On January 14, 1997, Bush's environmental director, John Howard, told his boss in a memo: "Industry has expressed concern that the TNRCC is moving too quickly and may rashly seek legislation this session."

In early March, Bush tapped Vic Beghini, an executive with Marathon Oil Company, and Ansel Condray, an executive with Exxon Corporation, to come up with a plan to let the industry comply voluntarily with the state's clean-air regulations.

According to documents obtained by the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, an environmental group based in Austin, Beghini and Condray then presented the finished proposal at a June 19, 1997, meeting of about forty industry executives. In his notes of the meeting, James Kennedy of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, the giant chemical manufacturer, wrote, "Amoco presented the paper to the group at the meeting as something that has been agreed to at high levels and was not subject to change."

If Kennedy felt a little left out of the process, the plan drafted by Beghini and Condray, and backed by Governor Bush, would shaft the public even more so. "The concept put forward was that the industry group and the Governor's Office would develop the program, then take it to some broad-based group, including public representatives, who would then tweak it a little bit and approve it," Kennedy noted.

Sure enough, on September 10, 1997, the TNRCC announced the formation of the Clean Air Responsibility Enterprise committee. The CARE committee's job was to come up with a voluntary program to reduce emissions from grandfathered facilities. But the CARE committee simply rubber-stamped the proposal that Exxon, Amoco, and Bush had already signed off on.

The smoke and mirrors weren't over yet. A list of incentives for companies that participated in the governor's plan sent to TNRCC commissioner Ralph Marquez from Howard suggested that "a recognition program for participants may be appropriate to encourage participation." Thus, industry would be rewarded with free publicity for complying with the new regulations that they had proposed.

On March 31, 1998, Bush appeared at a press conference flanked by executives of Exxon, Amoco, and Texas Utilities, among others, to announce that twenty-six companies - representing sixty of the 831 pollution-producing plants in the state, had pledged to reduce emissions by 15,000 tons a year. "We're committed," Bush said, "to clean air in the state of Texas."

But whether companies cut back on emissions didn't really matter to the governor or to the industry. Du Pont's Jim Kennedy had realized that way back at the June 19, 1997, meeting, where the plan was first presented. "The concept paper has no 'meat' with respect to actual emissions reductions," Kennedy wrote. "One of the leaders actually stated that emissions reductions was not a primary driver for the program."

As far as Bush was concerned, his voluntary compliance plan was already a rousing success, a model of public-private partnership good enough to take on the road to the presidential primaries. Three weeks after Bush announced that he was a candidate for President, his spokesman, Scott McClellan, boasted: "Governor Bush was the first governor in Texas to tell grandfathered industries, 'It's time to clean up.' Voluntary programs are working in Texas."

Well, not really. A study by the Environmental Defense Fund published six months after Bush's press conference found that only three of the twenty-six companies had actually scaled back their emissions. (In 1999, under increasing public pressure, Bush finally signed a bill that forces power plants to cut their emissions in half by 2003.)

The energy industry was still grateful for Bush's efforts. According to a study by Public Research Works, Bush raised $566,000 from the grandfathered polluters for his two gubernatorial campaigns. And from March 4, 1999, to March 31, 1999, Bush raised $316,300 from PACs, employees, lobbyists, and lawyers for grandfathered companies for his presidential campaign. They included: Enron (Bush's No. 1 career patron); Vinson & Elkins (Bush's No. 3 career patron), a law firm that represents Enron and Alcoa, a grandfathered polluter; and companies owned by the Bass family (Bush's No. 5 career patron). Another such company with grandfathered plants is Sterling Chemicals, Inc., a subsidiary of Sterling Group (Bush's No. 6 career patron). All told, the four patrons have given Bush at least $1.4 million over the course of his career.

*    *    *

Calling Texas "litigious heaven," Bush promised during his first campaign for governor that, if elected, he would push legislation to limit frivolous lawsuits. He argued that fewer lawsuits would lead to lower insurance rates for average Texans. Of course, limiting the right to sue would also benefit insurers with deep pockets who end up footing the bill for many multimillion-dollar settlements.

Bush has raised millions from companies that have pushed "tort reform." Farmers Insurance Group, Inc., based in Los Angeles, is Bush's No. 8 career patron. During his two gubernatorial races, Bush also collected $4.5 million from officers and board members of Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the Texas Civil Justice League.

In June 1995, Bush followed through on his campaign promise and signed a series of bills that limit the access of victims to the court system and the amount of damage awards they can receive. Bush also signed into law measures that make it harder for consumers to sue real estate agents and that make it more difficult for them to collect damages when they're injured by more than one party.

Limiting personal-injury lawsuits did produce savings for insurance companies, but that money went straight to the industry. From 1996 to 1998 insurance companies made a $3 billion profit while the average Texan's auto insurance rates continued to climb.

Texans have paid the price in other ways, too. When a jury in San Antonio found that an oil company's lax safety measures had caused the death of a refinery worker, it wanted to send a message by ordering the company to pay $42.5 million in damages to the worker's widow. But thanks to the laws Bush signed, the company walked away paying only $200,000. "Two hundred thousand dollars is just pocket change," Wilda Hosch, a juror in the case told the New York Times. "They'll just write it off."

*    *    *

On May 18, 1998, Eliza May, the executive director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission, was summoned to the office of Joe Allbaugh, Governor Bush's chief of staff. Waiting for her were Allbaugh, Margaret Wilson, the governor's general counsel, and State Senator John Whitmire of Houston. Whitmire pressed May for details of her agency's investigation into the embalming practices of Service Corporation International, the world's largest "death care" company, which is based in Whitmire's district. The only trouble was that Robert Waltrip, the founder and chairman of SCI, and Johnnie B. Rogers, Jr., the company's lawyer, were also in the room.

May said later that the meeting was "clearly designed to intimidate me."

The meeting was prompted by a six-page complaint that Waltrip wrote and hand-delivered a month earlier to May and Governor Bush.
Waltrip is not in the habit of delivering his own mail, but he had a lot at stake in the investigation. He is SCI's largest individual shareholder, and his mother and children are on the company's board of directors.

In recent years, Waltrip and his company have given more money to Bush than to any other politician. Waltrip is also a longtime supporter of Bush's father. He contributed to the elder Bush's congressional campaigns in the 1960s, donated more than $100,000 to the Bush Presidential Library, and paid the former President to speak before a funeral directors association.

The day Waltrip dropped off his complaint to Allbaugh, Bush reportedly spotted him and said, "Hey Bobby, are those people still messing with you?" Waltrip replied yes.

May alleges that during the funeral agency's investigation, Governor Bush allowed two men who work for SCI to serve on the Texas Funeral Service Commission, even though state law prohibits a single funeral company from having more than one seat on the commission. The two commissioners, Leo Metcalf and Robert Duncan, made several attempts to slow the agency's investigation.

"SCI poured money in all the right places and kicked our butts," Kenneth Hughes, a member of the Texas Funeral Service Commission, said. "They told us, 'We'll go to the governor and get this thing thrown out.' I didn't think they were that strong."

Despite the mounting political pressure, May and her staff pressed on, and in August 1998 the commission's complaint review committee fined SCI $450,000. The company appealed the fine. But the agency's actions did not go unpunished.

In January 1999 the Texas Funeral Service Commissioners put May on administrative leave.In March, the House Appropriations Committee of the Texas Legislature voted to eliminate the agency's budget. In the end, the agency survived, but May did not. The commissioners fired her on February 8, 1999. May filed a wrongful termination suit against the agency and SCI, which is still pending. Bush has refused to testify in her case.

Since then, the company's embalming practices have become the subject of a lawsuit filed by the family of North Texas TV anchor Frank "Tres" Hood. After the thirty-one-year-old died of colon cancer in July 1998, his family took his body to an SCI-owned funeral home in Wichita Falls, Texas, which in turn sent it to an SCI-owned funeral home in Dallas -- one of the facilities that May and her staff had investigated -- without the family's knowledge. After Hood's body was entombed in the family crypt, it leaked so much fluid that his wooden casket broke, and his relatives had to foot the bill to clean it up. The case is still pending.

*    *    *

Bush denies pulling strings for anyone.

"Any insinuation that I have used my office to help my friends is simply not true," Bush told a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in August 1998. "I don't talk to my business associates about doing business with state government one way or another."

But Bush's own words and actions prove that he mastered the art of greasing the wheels of politics with favors long ago.

After his father was elected in 1988, Bush was tapped to head what was known around the White House as the Silent Committee, an informal group of about fifteen hard-core Bush supporters. Bush's assignment: to see that members of the Silent Committee landed jobs in the administration. Long after his father was sworn in and he returned to Texas, Bush continued to intervene on behalf of his father's backers. According to Chase Untermeyer, a former director of personnel in the Bush Administration, the President's son would "call to say someone on the Silent Committee list was being jerked around by a Cabinet officer. I'd frequently get calls asking that I see someone or not forget someone." In 1994, Bush lobbied on behalf of catalog baron Roger Horchow, who unsuccessfully sought the chairmanship of the National Endowment of the Arts. Asked by reporters why he pushed so hard for Horchow, Bush replied, "He gave money to my father."

If Bush is elected, he already has a long list of contenders for his own Silent Committee. The only question left would be who gets to be chairman.

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