Sins of a Preacher Man

Until his overthrow, Bill Price led the Texas anti-abortion movement for 17 years. Was it politics, ego, or something worse that did him in?

"I determined it was a total abdication of leadership to take my hands off the steering wheel and let a radical fringe drive the bus," Price says. "Only I couldn't get anybody to come on board with me."

Until Price spoke out, the anti-abortion movement had always been a paragon of unity; one pro-life leader criticizing another was considered an act of heresy. Price became the target not only of Operation Rescue, but of other anti-abortion leaders who labeled him a traitor, a cancerous "white cell" attacking the body of the movement. At the state GOP convention in Fort Worth in 1994, wanted posters bearing his photo hung from the rafters branding him an enemy of the pro-life movement.

Price was celebrated in the media as a voice of reason within a movement that could excuse the killing of abortion doctors as justifiable homicide. Although some anti-abortion groups accused him of using Operation Rescue as a fund-raising ploy, Price says he lost more donors over the issue than he gained. But the movement was failing legislatively, and he kept to his new, more moderate position, moving away from hardball tactics. "I saw politicians distancing themselves from us. Violence was hardening many Americans against the pro-life message," he says. "I wanted to put a kindlier, gentler face on the pro-life movement."

Peter Calvin
Bill Price says that 17 years of devotion to the anti-abortion cause meant nothing when the Texans United for Life board investigated him for misusing his expense account.
Peter Calvin
Bill Price says that 17 years of devotion to the anti-abortion cause meant nothing when the Texans United for Life board investigated him for misusing his expense account.

Price believed that attempting to ban abortions outright was futile, but chipping away at it with legislation that restricted the procedure was within reach.

In June 1997, Gov. George W. Bush invited 15 to 20 anti-abortion leaders from around the state to Austin. Bush advisor Karl Rove asked them what kind of pro-life bill--parental notification or parental consent--they would support. Price insisted they go for less restrictive notification. Other movement leaders were livid. "Why did he want to compromise before we even filed the bill?" asks one leader who attended the meeting. "You should always ask for more and then settle for less."

But Price was tired of going for broke and getting nothing. Better to aim for the middle. He'd spent a career trying to get some kind of bill restricting teenage abortions through the Legislature. Only now did he have a Republican governor who needed some pro-life credentials to run for president and a pro-life lieutenant governor in Rick Perry. So what if he had to ride roughshod over some of the purists in his movement? It wouldn't be the first time.

What he hadn't counted on was that it might be his last.

By last January, the years of warfare had taken an emotional toll on Bill Price. Even his father thought he was having a mid-life crisis: He seemed tired and burnt out, and he was talking about resigning. His wife, Janet, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995, and he was spending more time working from home than in the office. TUL board chairman Tom Brown persuaded him to take a sabbatical to rekindle his spirit.

Price had every confidence in his office manager, Jill Jeffrey, who had been working for TUL even longer than he had. Jeffrey (who did not return the Dallas Observer's phone calls) appeared devoted to Price, demanding loyalty oaths from the other TUL employees. With Price's acquiescence, she set herself up as his gatekeeper, freeing him from the minutiae of day-to-day operations, isolating him from the rest of his staff so he could focus on big-picture problems. Her "grandmotherly gingerbread" demeanor would endear her to some employees, but several found her Machiavellian in her management style. For minor infractions such as tardiness or not smiling at Price, she had Carol and Luke Tullar--a married couple who worked at TUL for nine years--write essays of forgiveness.

"We thought she was speaking for Bill," says Luke Tullar. "She would use his name as a talisman, saying 'Bill and I think,' 'Bill says.' But it was just her way of invoking power." Carol and Luke agreed to daily infraction meetings where Luke would first meet with Jeffrey, who would inform him of what office wrongs his wife had allegedly perpetrated. Luke would then meet with Carol and relate these perceived infractions to his wife, trying to persuade her to do better and submit totally to Jeffrey's authority. "Jill nearly caused the end of my marriage," Carol says. "You see the good in her. But then you see the blackness."

Kyleen Wright, a TUL board member and Price devotee, only saw the good. "Jill was integral to the organization and a very kind person," Wright says. "There was a lot of good cop-bad cop going on with the staff, and Jill was the bad cop."

In early 1999 Jeffrey began telling Wright that Price was not himself, that he had been too focused on his wife's illness and absent from the office too often. With the legislative session in full swing and parental notification on the agenda, Price wasn't spending much time in Austin either.

Price took a brief vacation in Odessa, trying to relax at the home of friend and former board member Jim Frejia. While Price was there, Frejia received a call from Jeffrey. "She told me the organization was going to hell. She accused Price of not coming to work, of not caring about the job, of drinking entirely too much," recalls Frejia, who says he took notes. "She is so convincing, she had me questioning the veracity of one of my closest friends."

But what possible reason could she have to go against the man she revered? "It was a preventative strike," Frejia says. "She sensed she was getting fired, and she was laying the groundwork of her defense." Kyleen Wright saw it differently: "Jill began noticing that spending was up and income was down. She said things very gently to Bill about his spending, and I believe that was a factor in her firing."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help