By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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."
Price claims there were no discussions about expenses when he fired Jeffrey on January 20. He had discharged her three times in the past, but had always taken her back. This time he was determined not to recant. Price says he spoke with Carol Tullar in December and learned for the first time about "the reign of terror that Jill engaged in regarding Carol and her husband." He decided he had been too hands-off with his staff and wanted to reinvolve himself. Jeffrey saw this as a threat to her authority, he says, and was "very, very angry about it," particularly when he started meeting with employees without her being present. This time, when he told her things were not working out, there were no tears, no plea to let her return. She left, he says, without saying much of anything.
Five days after the firing, Price was invited to what he supposed was a friendly lunch with three board members: Tom Brown, J.D. McCaslin, and Rob Farrell (none of whom would return the Observer's phone calls). The banter during lunch was light, chatty, recalls Price, until McCaslin spoke up. "We need you to be totally honest and don't withhold anything; it will only hinder our ability to help you." He sounded nervous. "Some serious allegations have been made against you."
Price remembers saying, "If some allegations have been made against me, I know who made them. It was Jill." Price tried to tell them that he had fired her a few days before.
But they knew all that. Jeffrey herself was a board member, and she had contacted Kyleen Wright and the other board members. She obviously had their confidence, not to mention some damaging financial records.
"Do you have problems with alcohol?" one of them asked. "Are you abusing prescription drugs?"
Price answered no, absolutely not, to both questions.
"Do you have a history of mental illness?"
Price grew indignant: A vindictive employee was making these claims, he says, and he wanted to know why they were giving them serious consideration. He had been their leader for 17 years.
It was time to go, they said: An emergency board meeting had been called for 2 p.m. at the TUL offices in Addison. Price would not be allowed in the meeting while the charges were presented against him.
Nearly three hours later, Price was asked to appear before the board. Tom Brown led the meeting, and Price was told that the only allegation remaining against him concerned the legitimacy of expense-account charges he had made on the TUL credit card.
"I looked at them and said, 'Which one of you is going to give me back my reputation when you are through with this?'" he recalls. "But they just sat there in silence."
Price says he told them that he would answer the allegations but that he wanted an opportunity to review all the financial records. They agreed. Over the next several days, he became outraged when he learned that four boxes of financial records had been removed from his office. Regrettably for him, outrage wasn't the emotion the board was looking for.
"Income was down and his expense account grew, and that was a deadly combination for the organization," Wright says. "It was important that this be an unbiased investigation, and Bill was not cooperative in the gathering of data, which did not help his case."
Price admits that TUL faced a $40,000 deficit at the end of 1999, but he attributes this more to his emphasis on abstinence education and its increasing cost rather than his own spending habits. "It's photos of doctors with scissors doing partial-birth abortions that gets donors to give. Abstinence education just didn't sell well."