News outlets uncritically echoed White House line that Miers "cleaned up" Texas Lottery Commission

››› ››› ROB MORLINO

As media outlets began delving into the professional background of Harriet Miers, President Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court, several reported that as chairwoman of the Texas Lottery Commission, she "cleaned up" an ethically troubled regulatory agency -- a characterization echoing that made by White House press secretary Scott McClellan during an October 3 press briefing. But as some media outlets have reported, her record on the commission is the subject of considerable debate. Dallas Morning News political writer Wayne Slater, for one, described her tenure as "troubled ... a real, real problem."

Bush appointed Miers to the voluntary public service position at the Texas Lottery Commission in 1995, while he was Texas governor. As the Austin American-Statesman and other Texas newspapers reported, during Miers's tenure, the commission terminated two of its executive directors, leading to lawsuits by both of them against Gtech, the company running the Texas lottery.

First to go was executive director Nora Linares, who previously had worked to elect Ann Richards, the incumbent whom Bush defeated in the 1994 governor's race [San Antonio Express-News, January 6, 1997]. In a profile titled "Bush's Gatekeeper" in the March 24, 2003, edition of Texas Lawyer, Charles Soechting, who was the attorney representing Linares and who subsequently became head of the Texas Democratic Party, complained of Miers's role in Linares's termination:

[Charles] Soechting, a partner in O'Quinn Laminack & Pirtle in Houston, contends that Miers ignored his and his co-counsel's efforts to help Linares exit the Lottery post gracefully when questions arose in 1996 about her possible conflicts of interest related to her then-boyfriend's contract with the Lottery operator. Linares contended she did not know about her boyfriend's contract. "Resignation wasn't an option. The manner in which it was handled made no sense at all," Soechting says.

As commissioner, Miers oversaw a public hearing at which Linares was allowed to respond to questions by the agency's overseers. "It was the most piss-poor example of a fair hearing run by Harriet that I've ever seen," Soechting says. "Nora wanted to get out of there with some degree of dignity. And Miers didn't let her."

Asked about it, Miers has no comment, but in a Nov. 26, 1996, article, Miers was quoted in the San Antonio Express-News, saying, "Ms. Linares has been consistently an advocate of Gtech [the Lottery operator] and its performance. I would hope it has been based on objective criteria and performance, but that obviously is an issue the commission has to look at."

Initially, Linares sought re-instatement in a lawsuit against the commission, but she eventually reached a settlement wherein she was awarded no money but the commission cleared her of any wrongdoing. At that point, the commission voiced concern over Gtech's business practices [Associated Press, February 15, 1997]. Linares's attorneys then focused their attention on Gtech, claiming that they knew hiring her boyfriend would threaten her employment at the Lottery Commission. Gtech eventually settled with Linares for $435,000.

Linares's replacement, Lawrence Littwin, claimed that Gtech's "undue influence" with members of the commission led to his termination after five months on the job [Austin American-Statesman, October 30, 1999], and he sued the company. The lawsuit marked an early public airing of allegations made by Ben Barnes, a former Gtech lobbyist, regarding the circumstances under which Bush was accepted into the Texas National Guard as a young man [Houston Chronicle, January 6, 2001].

Littwin's lawsuit claimed that Gtech pressured the commission to fire him after he began investigating campaign contributions between the company and Texas lawmakers, and that Miers had agreed to his firing after the company threatened to disclose that it had paid Barnes a $23 million settlement in exchange for his silence on the National Guard matter. The Chronicle reported that Gtech wanted Miers to provide her explanation for why Littwin was fired in order to refute his allegations. When a federal judge in Texas ruled that Miers did not have to testify, the company settled Littwin's lawsuit for $300,000.

Prior to the settlement, Miers had raised ethical concerns about Gtech, and she directed the lottery commission to re-open the company's contract to run the game to other bidders. After Littwin's lawsuit was settled, however, the re-bidding was closed and Gtech retained the contract, according to the Chronicle.

It was during this same period that then-Gov. Bush was running for a second term -- and planning for his 2000 presidential campaign began. Miers was retained by Bush's gubernatorial campaign and paid $19,000 to look into potentially problematic areas of his past, including Barnes's allegations about political favors that landed Bush in the Guard [Newsweek, July 17, 2000].

On the October 4 broadcast of National Public Radio's (NPR) Morning Edition, anchor Renee Montagne interviewed Slater about Miers's years at the Texas Lottery Commission:

MONTAGNE: What was her tenure like?

SLATER: It was troubled. It was a real, real problem. It was a troubled agency, but not when she arrived. She was there about a year, year and a half, and then questions of influence-peddling arrived, and during her tenure, it was a stormy time where two directors were fired, another lobbyist -- questions were raised about a lobbyist for the lottery contractor. Republican supporters say she was a person who sort of rode herd over an agency that was having problems, and she directed it in ethical ways. Democrats say that she was really a political lawyer who was hired or at least administered a Republican-minded discipline of Democrats. One of the directors who was fired had been an Ann Richards Democrat and was replaced, ultimately, by a Republican.

MONTAGNE: Is that still the view between the two sides -- nothing was resolved?

SLATER: Oh, you betcha. There's a conflict of interest about which side prevailed. I think there's a lot of feeling among people who know Harriet that she is a strong ethical person who was guided by the idea of protecting the integrity of the game. But still, Democrats say that this was an effort to purge Democrats along the way. And at some point later along the way, the second lottery director to lose his job raised questions of politics, and during the legal battle, the lottery's lobbyist at the time, former Lt. Governor Ben Barnes, testified in kind of a related case that he was involved in getting Bush out of [sic: into] the National Guard. So it became a deep, deep political fight.

But several major newspapers on October 4 touched only briefly on Miers's leadership role at the Texas Lottery Commission, repeating the October 3 claim by White House press secretary Scott McClellan that Miers "helped clean it up when it needed cleaning up."

USA Today reported that Miers "fired two executive directors in an effort to clean up a series of scandals."

While The New York Times devoted an entire article to the subject of Miers's tenure on the commission, a separate profile of Miers in the same edition of the paper glossed over it, describing her as "a go-to person for Mr. Bush ever since [he met her], first as his appointee to the Texas State Lottery Commission, which she helped clean up; then as White House staff secretary, directing the flow of presidential papers; then as a deputy White House chief of staff; and since the beginning of this year, White House counsel, the president's in-house lawyer."

The Los Angeles Times reported: "In 1994, Miers served as Bush's general counsel when he ran for Texas governor. Once in office, he turned to her to help clean up a scandal involving the Texas Lottery Commission, which she chaired from 1995 to 2000, while continuing her law practice."

And The Boston Globe reported that Bush "tapped [Miers] to clean up the state's lottery commission."

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Supreme Court Nominations, Miers Nomination
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