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Bush's scandal not as sexy as Clinton's

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 24, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Eliza May of Austin, Texas, is no Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky.

Her allegations against Texas Gov. George W. Bush have nothing to do with sex. But she does pose a challenge to Bush's veracity, much as Jones and Lewinsky did with President Clinton.

In a potentially explosive lawsuit, May claims she was unlawfully fired from a state government investigative position because she was scrutinizing a Bush family friend. Like Clinton, Gov. Bush -- or his attorneys, to be exact -- contends the complaint against him is politically motivated.

There is little doubt that May, a Democrat, and her attorneys are trying to embarrass Bush now that he is the presumed Republican nominee for president in the November election. Although her original lawsuit was filed shortly after her termination last year, it was recently updated to include Bush as a defendant, even though a sitting governor enjoys some immunity in Texas against legal actions involving his official duties.

As a political tool, this lawsuit is an example of what C. Boyden Gray, who served as legal counsel to former President Bush, calls the "criminalization of politics." It is the all-to-familiar tactic of bringing suit against a political opponent to amplify a policy or political disagreement and to harness the power of the legal system to prevent the complaint from being ignored.

But even if May's motivations are purely political, her allegations should not be ignored. They give us a glimpse inside the current administration of the Texas governor and GOP presidential nominee.

As May tells it, she was serving as executive director of the Texas Funeral Services Commission when the staff found evidence that two funeral homes affiliated with Service Corporation International were embalming without the necessary licenses.

The world's largest operator of funeral homes and cemeteries, SCI was founded by CEO Robert L. Waltrip, a close friend of the Bush family and a generous contributor to the campaign coffers of the Texas governor.

When the commission began investigating SCI's funeral homes, Waltrip appears to have overreacted. Not only did he sue the agency and attempt to intimidate May, according to her complaint, but he also went directly to Bush's office seeking help in getting the commission to back down.

There's no disputing that Waltrip was successful in enlisting the help of one of Bush's top assistants, Joe Allbaugh, who then summoned May and her colleagues into a meeting in the governor's office with Waltrip and other SCI representatives. May claims she was pressured to bring the investigation to an end, a directive she ignored.

After the company was fined $450,000 by the commission, May says, the legislature came under pressure from SCI and the governor's office to shut down the agency. Then in early 1999, May was fired.

For its part, SCI claims the commission was far too aggressive in its investigation, acting more like "storm troopers" than funeral industry regulators.

In the subsequent legal proceedings, Bush successfully resisted an effort by May's attorney to question him under oath. In an affidavit, Bush told the court that he "had no conversations with SCI officials, agents or representatives concerning the investigation or any dispute arising from it."

Other witnesses apparently tell a different story.

In testimony taken by May's attorney, according to her complaint, SCI lobbyist Bill Miller said Bush was present when Waltrip showed up in his office on April 15, 1998. "Bush asked why Waltrip was there," Miller said, and "Waltrip said he was having trouble with the funeral commission."

In addition, Linda Edwards, Bush's communications director, testified that when she read the governor the news reports about the April 15 meeting -- in which Bush reportedly said to Waltrip, "Hey, Bobby, are those people still messing with you?" -- he did not dispute this account.

Beyond May's request for compensation for wrongful termination, the story seems to be a classic case of a campaign contributor seeking to use his influence with the governor of Texas.

"This is not about partisan politics; this is about the power of money and influence," says Charles Herring, May's attorney.

In Bush's defense, spokesman Mike Jones insists May's case is "feeble and of no merit." Yet Heather Brown in the Texas Attorney General's office acknowledges her office is taking the suit seriously.

Asked to comment on testimony indicating that Bush and Waltrip discussed the funeral commission investigation, Brown replied: "He knew nothing; we are going to continue to maintain that."

During the Clinton impeachment more than a year ago, you will recall, Republicans argued repeatedly that the president's chief transgression was not having oral sex with a White House intern but, instead, lying under oath.

In this case in which Bush is being accused of lying under oath, I expect we will find that very few people, Democrats or Republicans, will spring to the defense of Eliza May. Of course, it might be different if her allegations involved sex.

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