Two Top Texas Leaders Tested By Ethics Charges

TEXAS Republicans are trying to take the offensive in an ethics war that is defining the early stages of two reelection bids.

Their target is Gov. Ann Richards (D), who faces possible charges over destruction of state records -- a potential ethics violation.

Last August the governor's staff destroyed several years' worth of long distance telephone bills whose details could have answered whether they were used for improper political activity. The staff initiated a practice of discarding such bills after 30 days.

``Governor Richards is in deep trouble on this issue,'' says state GOP chairman Fred Meyer.

The state ethics law is so strict that an official or employee who talks to a spouse on his state-provided telephone could be considered to have misapplied taxpayer time and equipment. The law aims to prevent politicians from running reelection campaigns out of their state offices while taxpayers foot the bill.

Meanwhile, US Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) goes on trial this week for felony charges stemming from her tenure as the state's treasurer. The charges state that Senator Hutchison used treasury employees and equipment in her successful campaign to win last July's special senatorial election and then, aware that an investigation was in progress, falsified and concealed records.

Hutchison faces re-election this year. So does Richards, and now Republicans are turning up the heat on her.

Questions arose about the governor's telephone bills in January. John Fainter, Richards' chief of staff, says that the records were destroyed because the governor's office was ``drowning'' in paper.

Last week Ken Anderson, the general counsel to the state GOP, asserted that the records destruction was illegal unless Richards received permission from state auditors and archivists.

State archive officials agree that Richards should not have destroyed the records. But they doubt that a law was broken, noting that the overlapping laws that govern record retention are subject to interpretation. For the law to be broken, the violation had to be intentional.

Richards' office has apologized and announced it will now keep the records for three years. The governor's office raised suspicions, though, by changing its story on the issue four times. A Richards spokesman first claimed the governor was continuing the practice of her predecessor, a Republican. Then, after conceding that the practice began with Richards, the spokesman changed the start date several times.

Republicans note that the start date was just three weeks after the Travis County district attorney raided Hutchison's treasury office in search of similar records.

``To say that we were not cognizant of that [raid] would be, I think, stretching credibility. But the decision was made based on an internal decision to implement our retention policy,'' Mr. Fainter says.

Mr. Meyer, the state GOP chairman, scoffs at that explanation. ``Unless you have something to hide,'' he says, ``you don't suddenly begin destroying telephone records shortly after Travis County prosecutors raided the Texas treasury, citing allegations of record destruction as the reason for their raid.''

Republicans are particularly interested to see the telephone bills for Richards' private lines. Many state officials pay to have private lines to keep personal or political business off of state lines. Richards has 13 private lines. ``Thirteen lines is sort of like a phone bank to me,'' says Republican commentator John Knaggs.

Southwestern Bell informed Fainter last week that the telephone company can provide copies of the bills for December 1992 to September 1993. Bills from January 1991, when Richards took office, to November 1992 will require 45 days.

The bills will not show who made most of the calls. A Richards spokesman says the governor's office is making efforts to reconstruct the bills. However, Richards is fighting a request by Hutchison's attorneys for copies, arguing that the records are unrelated to the senator's trial.

If charges were brought against Richards, it would be by district attorney Ronnie Earle, whose office has jurisdiction of ethics violations in the state capital. Mr. Earle, a Democrat, is also the prosecutor in the Hutchison case. Claire Dawson-Brown, the director of the public integrity unit in Earle's office, has promised to demand a full accounting of the governor's office.

Republicans have tried to argue that the case against Hutchison is political, born out of Democrats' chagrin over Hutchison's landslide in last June's special election. They say that Earle enforces the ethics laws selectively. Mr. Knaggs says the facts are not conclusive, but that ``circumstantial evidence points that way.''

Earle has ``a lot of ties'' to Richards, he adds. Richards entered and eventually won the race for state treasurer when an investigation by Earle forced out the incumbent. ``The doorway was opened'' by Earle for Richards, says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, an insider's guide to politics in the state capital. He notes that Earle's wife worked for Richards at the treasury. Earle denies that politics affect his decision to prosecute.

Either way, Republicans are going to be working hard to make sure the prosecution of Hutchison backfires against Richards.

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