Anatomy of a counterinsurgency

Stand-off. Attempted coup.Insurgency. These labels seem more fit to describe government proceedings in Iraq or South America, but during the final days of the 80th Legislature, all three terms fit the Texas House of Representatives like a glove.

Motions to vacate the chair, questions relating to the authority of the speaker to recognize members, and the resignation of the House Parliamentarians and the appointment of two former legislators in their place sent the House spinning off its axis. Even seasoned observers of the legislative process were dazed and confused. `See “Craddick’s House rules,” August 22-28.`

As with most guerrilla warfare, the what, when, and why were not crystal clear in the immediate aftermath of the battle. With the help of documents released last week by the office of House Speaker and Midland Republican Tom Craddick in response to a public-information request, a clearer picture has emerged of the events that threw the House into chaos. The untold story of the final days of the 80th Legislature — and what may be the greatest constitutional crisis the state has faced since the days of Governor Jim Ferguson — is outlined by connecting the dots between these papers, events already chronicled in the public record, and the observations of those who closely watched the events from behind the scenes.

The best defense is a good offense

On May 21, 2007, former legislator and Craddick loyalist Terry Keel set forth the legal arguments House Speaker Tom Craddick, a 34-year veteran of the House, would use to halt an attempted overthrow and essentially declare himself immune from any attempt by his peers to hold him accountable. Four days later, Craddick named Keel Parliamentarian of the Texas House following the late-night resignations of Parliamentarian Denise Davis and Assistant Parliamentarian Chris Griesel, essentially ending the revolt against the three-term speaker.

The House’s downward spiral began on May 14, as rumors were floated that a procedure referred to as a “motion to vacate the chair” would be raised to remove Craddick from his post. That day, Davis told the Austin American-Statesman that such a motion would result in a new speaker’s race, and was what is known in parliamentary nomenclature as a “privileged motion” — a motion that takes precedent over all others and must be acted upon. Her comments, though innocuous at the time, were a clear hint to Craddick and the Chamber how she would likely rule should the burgeoning insurgency gain momentum and attempt to remove him.

The following day, Eastland Republican Jim Keffer announced he would run for Speaker in 2009. Craddick announced he would seek the Speakership for a fourth term.

On May 16, the newly released documents show, the Speaker’s office began internal maneuvering to handle the seemingly inevitable motion to vacate the chair. Parliamentarians Davis and Griesel were scheduled to meet with Craddick and his chief of staff, Nancy Fisher, that morning. The meeting was ultimately cancelled.

The Current requested from the Speaker’s office all diary entries that would show meetings between Craddick and his parliamentarians for the three weeks prior and two weeks following May 29. The May 16 meeting is the only one shown. Craddick spokeswoman Alexis DeLee declined to participate in an interview with the Current and declined to answer written questions submitted to the Speaker’s office, so it’s impossible to say for sure what was on the agenda for May 16, but the cancelled meeting could signal the start of Craddick’s “canvassing” of outside opinions, including those of Keel and Wilson.

In the following days, the insurgency against Craddick gained steam.

Representative Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) demanded Craddick’s resignation from the floor of the House in a personal-privilege speech on May 21. Reps Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville) and Patrick Rose (D-Dripping Springs), so-called “Craddick Ds,” defected from the Speaker’s camp on May 22, the same day that Representative Fred Hill (R-Richardson) predicted a motion to vacate the chair would be made before the end of the session.

The same day Cook demanded Craddick’s resignation — the most public face put on the revolt to that point — Keel authored a smoking-gun memo outlining how Craddick could declare himself a statewide officeholder, immune from accountability to his peers.

Timeline of an aborted revolt - Key events in the Craddick/House showdown
(click for larger version)

“The Speaker of the House of Representatives cannot be removed from office by a ‘motion to vacate the chair’ or any similar motion from the floor. Such a motion is not authorized under the House Rules and it furthermore would be in contravention of applicable articles of the Texas Constitution,” Keel wrote in the memo, flying in the face of more than a century of precedent in Texas alone — not to mention Thomas Jefferson’s parliamentary manual and centuries of precedents concerning presiding officers of similar bodies.

The memo also raises significant conflict-of-interest questions because Keel wrote it in some sort of private advisory capacity to Craddick, and then was appointed by Craddick as House Parliamentarian — a position which by its nature represents all 150 members of the house, including those who wanted to oust Craddick.

Partisans take the dais

Legislators had noticed that Keel was hanging around the Speaker’s office in the days before all hell broke loose on the House floor.

“We knew Craddick had retained a lot of people — or asked a lot of people — to help him figure out what his response would be `to an eventual motion to vacate the chair`,” notes longtime Representative Garnett Coleman (D-Houston). “And we knew that Terry Keel was part of that. I’d seen him hanging out in the back hall. I passed him and said, ‘Hey, Terry.’ We knew why he was there.”

But Keel’s appointment as House Parliamentarian seemed to take the Legislature and the mainstream media by surprise, as did Craddick’s controversial ruling that he was not subject to removal by his peers except by impeachment. Craddick appointed Keel and Ron Wilson, another former State Representative and Craddick lieutenant, on the night of May 25, 2007, during a period when the House was ‘at ease’ for about two hours. Earlier, Craddick had been hit with repeated assaults from the floor by House Democratic Leader Jim Dunnam (D-Waco). Dunnam asked if Craddick would recognize a member for a motion to vacate the Chair. Craddick said no, and Dunnam asked if that ruling would be subject to a vote to appeal from the floor. Craddick again said no.

Seasoned lawmakers and Capitol observers who spoke with the Current say that Craddick essentially went AWOL during that two-hour time period without adjourning the house.

“There was a flurry at the podium, and Craddick recessed, or put the House at ease, over objection and without a vote, which is not, I believe, permitted in the rules,” said Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Quorum Report and a well-respected Capitol observer. “There was a small surge to turn the mic back on and continue. Some representatives tried to characterize this later as as a mob act, but I would argue that the moment Craddick came back and assumed absolute authority, it stopped being an insurgency and became a coup.”

“Nobody in the chamber really had any idea what was happening,” adds Coleman. “`Craddick` just walked out of here. In that period, we were all trying to figure out what happened. We were at ease — or at recess — and we didn’t know what was going to come next.”

During the confusion before Craddick returned to the floor, Davis and Griesel resigned and Keel and Wilson were appointed in their places. According to documents obtained by the Current, commissions for Wilson and Keel were sent to the Secretary of State’s office at 10:40 p.m. by House Clerk Robert Haney. This was unknown to members on the floor until the House reconvened at 11 p.m. Coleman says he and others were surprised when Keel, along with Wilson, an acknowledged expert on the House Rules, ended up on the dais with Craddick in spite of Keel’s recent presence in the Capitol.

“We didn’t expect to see them up there,” Coleman says. “When `Craddick` walked out — abandoned his post — that was one thing. But, to put those two thugs up on the dais, that’s when some people say Craddick went into ‘Hitler Mode.’ There was no fairness after that.” In the legislative sessions immediately preceding the 80th, Keel and Wilson were bona-fide Craddick Lieutenants. “In 2003, Ron Wilson was a ‘bad cop’ for Tom Craddick. Terry Keel did the same thing in 2005. To put both of them up there was a show of force. It was meant to intimidate some of us. That was its objective,” says Coleman. Keep in mind the job of the Parliamenterians, however, isn’t to intimidate; it is to assist the speaker and members with the interpretation of the House Rules and advise the speaker on how he may or should rule when a “point of order” is raised on the floor of the House.

Indeed, the actions of the final days of the session were unprecedented in the history of the Legislature. “The only thing approximating it was Sharpstown,” notes Kronberg, referring to the 1970-71 scandal in which it was alleged that House Speaker Gus Mutscher Jr. was bribed to pass favorable legislation and members of the “Dirty Thirty” — ironically including a young Tom Craddick — sought Mustscher’s removal.

Silence of the sacrificial lambs

Legislators were not the only ones Craddick was trying to intimidate at the close of the 80th Legislature. Documents released from the Speaker’s office show that Craddick sent strongly worded letters to Davis and Griesel on May 29 telling them in no uncertain terms that their communications with Craddick were secret:

“During your time with the House as House Parliamentarian you provided legal and parliamentary advice to me. The depth and breadth of your representation to the House, and to me as one of your clients means that you must be particularly careful to ensure you do not divulge legal confidences. As one of your former clients, I am putting you on notice that I expect you to keep confidential all privileged matters that transpired during the time you worked for the House as a House officer.”

There is a major problem with Craddick’s letter: The Parliamentarians advise the entire House, not just Craddick.

Charles Herring Jr., an Austin attorney who represents Davis and Griesel, took serious issue with Craddick’s conclusions in a letter that was released by the Speaker’s Office in response to a public-information request. “In fact, Ms. Davis served in the positions of House Parliamentarian and Special Counsel to the House of Representatives. She was an employee of, and paid by, the Legislative Council. Thus, her clients were the Texas House of Representatives and the Legislative Council, rather than you individually,” Herring wrote.

“Your letter further states that Ms. Davis is ‘ethically obliged to decline to provide advice or services or make statements that are substantially related to ... `her` work here.’ That statement is both incorrect and overbroad. I suggest that you have your lawyer explain to you the meaning and limitation of Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct 1.09 and 1.10 ... ”

Although the newly released documents shed some light on the behind-the-scenes events, many details remain unknown and questions remain unanswered. Would a motion to vacate the chair have been successful had Craddick allowed one to come to the floor? Who else was advising Craddick in the days before the House parliamentarians resigned and Keel and Wilson were appointed? Had Craddick planned on appointing Keel and Wilson to fill the spots of Davis and Griesel all along, or was it a spur-of-the-moment act? With Craddick’s office mum, the latter question may never be answered. However, it is fairly certain that Keel, who was named to the Parliamentarian’s post permanently earlier this summer, knew he would assume the position on a more than temporary basis near the end of May. On May 30, forms released by the Speaker’s Office show that on that day (after the session had concluded and Wilson had already resigned his temporary appointment) a request was made for Keel’s House ID card complete with walk-in purchasing and supply privileges, fax and photocopying privileges, and, of course, building access.

Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.