By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
To county clerks around Texas who are tracking legislation in Austin, the show is turning into a sort of campy horror flick. Call it Courthouse Dracula Returns or The Bill That Wouldn't Die.
What's troubling the clerks is the re-emergence of a proposal that would increase filing fees for public records--things such as land titles, assumed business names, liens, and marriage licenses--to raise extra money for document preservation. The clerks, who generally oppose the legislation, thought they had killed the bill last session. But they didn't reckon on Dallas businessman William "Sonny" Oates--who they believe is the political equivalent of Christopher Lee, rising once again to snack on taxpayers.
"He's back," says Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, who follows state legislation for the County and District Clerks Association of Texas. "We gotta figure this out again."
Oates is the chief executive officer of Government Records Services Inc., a company that restores and archives important public records in counties throughout the United States, including Dallas.
When the Legislature last convened, the Dallas Observer reported how the clerks were up in arms over a bill Oates was peddling that would have required the clerks to charge an extra $10 for every public document filed in their offices ["Not so fast, Sonny," April 10, 1997]. The additional money was to be dedicated to restoring and preserving those records. Oates, not coincidentally, has a virtual monopoly over that particular business in Texas.
The clerks, fearing that the bill would create a taxpayer revolt that could cost them their jobs, managed to water the measure down by making the fee optional. Despite their resistance, the legislation survived the House and Senate, only to be vetoed by Gov. George W. Bush, who called it "excessive." Bush, like the clerks, did not want to sign off on anything that might be construed as a tax increase.
Evidently, Bush's stake wasn't fatal, and now the clerks worry that the possible presidential hopeful may be transfixed by the businessman's relentless seduction.
In February, state Rep. Tony Goolsby, a Dallas Republican who chairs the powerful House Administration Committee, introduced a bill similar to the legislation Oates and his lobbyists pushed last session. As before, the bill doesn't come from the clerks, who would presumably benefit from it, nor has Goolsby bothered to consult the clerks to find out whether they need higher fees. Rather, the clerks association contends that the current fees are, with a few exceptions, adequate to pay for their document-preservation projects.
Nonetheless, House Bill 1599 would give county clerks the option of charging an additional $7.50 "records archive" fee for each document filed in their offices. Though the fee is less than last time, there's a new twist: The bill would allow clerks to charge an additional $7.50 to pay for the restoration of old county courthouses. In Dallas, for example, that means the $9 that County Clerk Earl Bullock now charges for filing a one-page document could increase to $24.
It just so happens that restoring Texas' historic courthouses is a priority project for Bush.
Shortly after the National Trust for Historic Preservation added 225 Texas courthouses to its annual list of America's most endangered places last summer, Bush announced his Texas Courthouse Preservation Initiative. The governor appointed a committee to recommend ways to save the state's historic courthouses. The group gave Bush its recommendations in November, though they did not include any specific suggestions on how the money should be raised.
The clerks, meanwhile, were on the lookout in case Oates' legislation was filed again this year. It wasn't long before they sized up what they consider a rather obvious attempt to slip the measure past Bush.
"The governor's hot button this year is courthouse restoration," says Fort Bend County Clerk Dianne Wilson, who with DeBeauvoir monitors legislation for the clerks association. "This bill is just adding a little sugar on it, hoping the governor won't veto it."
A Bush spokesman said the governor has not reviewed the bill and has no comment.
The clerks association isn't expected to take a formal position on the bill until it meets on March 16, but some members have already begun distributing fliers in opposition. Calling themselves "concerned county officials of Texas and voting Texas taxpayers," the anonymous pamphleteers circulated a flier dated February 22 that begins, "Sonny Oates Is At It Again!!!"
"Just when Texas county officials thought it was safe to run their affairs, Sonny Oates of Government Records Services has gotten Rep. Tony Goolsby (R-Dallas) to file House Bill 1599," states the flier.
Goolsby did not return phone calls for this story. Neither did Oates.
The clerks admit they have "no knowledge" that Oates is behind Goolsby's bill, Wilson says, but they have a large dose of suspicion. Oates has again enlisted a team of high-priced lobbyists, led by Austin heavyweight Rusty Kelley, to represent his company in Austin.
While Goolsby may be intent on helping the clerks do their jobs better, he hasn't bothered to consult them on the matter, Wilson says. But what really annoys Wilson is that the bill, one of several that proposes raising county filing fees for various causes, puts clerks in a position of upsetting historic preservationists.
"The problem I see in this bill is that the county clerk is damned if he or she does support the bill and damned if he or she doesn't," Wilson says. "If we choose not to do either one of those, everybody's mad."
Off the record, other clerks say they are peeved that they again have to fend off Oates, who has gained an unflattering reputation for wining and dining "blue hairs" in county offices across the state to gain a leg up on his few competitors. By last count, Oates' company controlled the document-preservation business accounts in more than 100 Texas counties, including several that rank in the state's 15 most populated.
Neither Oates nor any of his subordinates have ever been found guilty of any wrongdoing in the course of their business, though the same can't be said about officials they deal with.
The most recent example is former Bowie County Clerk Marylene Megason, who in January was convicted on two charges of abuse of her official capacity, a state jail felony, and was sentenced to two years' probation and ordered to give up her office. (Bowie County is in Northeast Texas.) Megason's troubles began last year, when money paid by Government Records Services wound up in her personal bank account, according to special prosecutor Tom Wells. In that case, Wells says, GRS hired Megason's son Daniel to move county books, files, and filing cabinets out of the clerk's office, but county employees and jail inmates did the work. At the time, Megason's daughter was a GRS employee and, according to Wells, the moving arrangements were made through her rather than Megason.
"What the indictment was about was using government employees and jail inmates for private purposes," Wells says. Although no GRS employees have been accused of any wrongdoing in the case, Wells says the company's conduct was far from clean.
"A very good case could be made that it was a sham transaction. I know they [GRS employees] had given her [Marylene Megason] real expensive bags. They had given her trips to baseball games. I know Megason went and testified on their behalf before the Legislature a couple of times," Wells says.
Though he confirms that the daughter made all of the moving arrangements on behalf of GRS, Megason's attorney Don Cooksey denies that there was any payoff and claims the case was politically motivated. "I still don't know how they reached a verdict. I just don't think the state proved its case," says Cooksey, whose client is planning to appeal.
Cooksey says he doesn't believe any conflicts of interest were created by the fact that Megason's son performed county work on behalf of a company that also employed her daughter. "Government records can hire anybody they want to come in and do contract work for them. It's not nepotism," Cooksey says. "It's customary for Government Records to hire kids of county officials because they have access to the county courthouse.