By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Dallas businessman William Oates--"Sonny," as he is known to friends and associates--says he is gravely concerned about all the old paperwork crumbling and decaying in county courthouses across Texas.
Binders full of old deeds, land records, tax liens, and other documents faithfully recording the important business transactions of Texas citizens are wasting away, Oates believes.
A man of means, Oates decided he had the wherewithal to do something about this overlooked menace to public order. When the Texas Legislature convened earlier this year, citizen Oates took it upon himself to seek a new law which would levy an additional $10 fee on every document filed at the 254 county clerk offices in the state.
Oates had legislation drawn up, found a sponsor for the bill, and hired a crack team of very expensive lobbyists to shepherd his proposal through the legislative process.
Under the bill, everyone filing a document at the local county clerk's office--things like property titles, plats, assumed business names, liens, and public notices of foreclosures and auctions--would be required to fork over the extra $10. Counties would then have hundreds of millions of dollars available to spend on restoring and preserving their old records.
"If this bill does not pass, then the records in a lot of counties are just going to deteriorate," Oates says in a telephone interview, static occasionally drowning out his far-away twang. "I can just tell you that in many more years, there will be no way to save [them]."
But many counties aren't equipped to perform document restoration work themselves, and have to hire a private contractor for the task. More than 100 Texas counties--including Dallas County--contract for restoration and preservation work with a company called Government Records Services, Inc. The Dallas-based firm is by far the largest provider of document restoration services to county clerks in Texas, and would stand to make millions if Oates' pet bill were to pass the legislature.
And who owns Government Records Services, Inc.?
Even in Austin, where sweetheart bills flourish each legislative session like spring bluebonnets, eyebrows are being raised over Oates' audacity, a classic example of how special interests cultivate legislation for their profit.
It is not yet clear if Oates will reap what he has sown. His proposal might have slipped quietly through the process--helped along by the lobbyists Oates is paying up to $100,000 to push the bill. But Oates apparently neglected to determine whether most of the county clerks across Texas even want the extra money.
Many of the clerks, it turns out, aren't at all excited by the idea of jacking up filing fees by $10, and some are peeved that Oates didn't consult them before pushing his legislation.
A coalition of clerks has emerged as the strongest opposition to Oates' bill, and last month they persuaded legislators at least to water down the proposed law a little. Oates' original bill has now been revised; instead of requiring counties to assess the $10 fee, clerks would be allowed to charge it.
Last month, the revised version of Oates' bill sailed out of the Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, and it now awaits a final vote in the full Senate. A companion bill in the house is still waiting in committee.
Many of the clerks say they still do not like the bill. Just authorizing the new fee virtually guarantees that--over time--counties will start to charge it, they say. Dallas County Clerk Earl Bullock, in fact, says he is already planning to exercise his prerogative if the bill passes and collect the extra money, raising the current $9 fee his office charges for filing a one-page document to $19.
"Don't let them fool you," says Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, the co-chair of the county clerks' legislative committee. "Once the fee is in place, it is there."
The offices of Government Records Services, Inc. occupy a nondescript, one-story beige warehouse at 2800 Mockingbird Lane in Dallas, just a few blocks from Love Field. But anyone hoping to speak with GRS President Sonny Oates might have better luck finding him in Austin these days, trying to push Senate Bill 436 through the legislature.
Since the January start of the legislative session, Oates has spent a lot of time and money making friends in the state capitol. Oates hired a five-member lobbying team led by Russell "Rusty" Kelley and Jack Roberts. Kelley and Roberts are Austin heavyweights whose other clients include American Airlines, Owens Corning Fiberglas, USA Health Network, Co., and the Texas Bankers Association.
Oates has set aside more than $100,000 to pay the lobbyists for their services, according to information on file with the Texas Ethics Commission.
Hiring lobbyists to push issues that benefit a special interest is, of course, how business gets done in Austin. And Oates is getting his money's worth from his lobbying team, which is carefully tracking the proposed law and protecting their client's interest in seeing the law passed.
"That is all true. That is absolutely true," says Kelley, who doesn't try to downplay his role in pressing the legislation, or dispute its importance to GRS. "If this legislation passes, there's no doubt that this would help [GRS]--if they were to get some of this business."