Bid to Find Tex. Lawmakers Decried
By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday 16 May 2003
Federal Workers Were Led to Believe They Were Looking for Downed or Lost Plane
A Texas political battle turned into a matter of national security for a few hours this week when state officials enlisted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to help track down more than 50 Democratic state lawmakers who had vanished from Austin.
The Democrats fled the state over the weekend, depriving House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Republican, of the quorum he needed to pass several controversial bills, including one that would redraw Texas's congressional districts in favor of the GOP. On Monday, Craddick and other Republicans dispatched state troopers to round up the legislative fugitives and bring them back to the Texas Capitol.
State police officials, in turn, called in federal help as they pursued a rumor that Rep. James E. "Pete" Laney, a former Texas House speaker, had ferried fellow Democrats out of state aboard his Piper turboprop airplane. A state investigator called the Air and Marine Interdiction Coordination Center in Riverside, Calif., part of the Homeland Security Department, to ask officials there to use their nationwide radar network to help locate the plane.
The call from the unnamed investigator came as an "urgent plea," describing a plane with state officials aboard that was overdue, according to a statement issued yesterday by the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"We got a problem, and I hope you can help me out," the statement quoted the officer as saying. "We had a plane that was supposed to be going from Ardmore, Okla., to Georgetown, Tex. It had state representatives on it, and we cannot find this plane."
Believing they had an emergency on their hands, agency officials called the Federal Aviation Administration in Fort Worth, and airport officials in two other Texas cities, but were unable to find the plane.
"When law enforcement calls us asking for assistance in locating an aircraft that may be missing or lost or downed, it's certainly an appropriate response to try to locate that aircraft," said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the bureau. "We take these statements at face value."
In fact, there was no plane. Most of the Democrats had taken buses to Ardmore, where they holed up in a hotel. They were expected to stay there until at least midnight last night -- the deadline for new bills to be brought to the House floor.
The only thing in jeopardy was the GOP legislative agenda.
Democrats in Washington seized on the episode yesterday after the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Dallas Morning News reported on the incident this week. Several vented their outrage on the House floor yesterday. They accused Craddick and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the chief proponent of the redistricting plan, of misusing their official powers for political ends. They said both Republicans had turned to the Justice Department as well as to Homeland Security for help.
"Not since Richard Nixon and Watergate 30 years ago has anyone tried to use law enforcement agencies of the federal government for domestic political purposes," Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.), a longtime foe of DeLay in redistricting battles, said in an interview. "This is an abuse of criminal- and terrorist-fighting resources of the U.S. government for a domestic political matter. . . . There should be a complete investigation."
Rep. Jim Turner (Tex.), ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, said it was "deeply disturbing" that federal resources were diverted to try to track down Laney, who, in a show of bipartisanship, had introduced George W. Bush before the president-elect gave a speech after the Supreme Court settled the outcome of the 2000 election.
"We created the Department of Homeland Security to track down terrorists, not law-abiding citizens," Turner said.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, joined eight other House Democrats yesterday in asking the acting inspector general at Homeland Security to investigate what happened.
"If true, this report represents a shameful diversion of taxpayer resources for partisan purposes," the lawmakers wrote to Clark Kent Irvin.
DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella said DeLay did not seek federal help in forcing the Democrats back to Austin. DeLay did pass along to the Justice Department Craddick's inquiry on whether federal law enforcement could assist in the manhunt, Grella said.
"We've had no contact with Homeland or the FBI," said Grella, who asserted that Democrats were trying to detract attention from their "shirking" of their legislative duties in Austin.
"This is a smoke screen," Grella said. "[W]e certainly are disappointed that they've resorted to flat-out lying to hold on to power."
A spokesman for Craddick, who became speaker this year after Republicans won control of the House for the first time since Reconstruction, said Craddick did not tell the state police to seek federal help.
"He called them [state police] in and let them do their job," said Bob Richter, the spokesman. "There was an effort made to find out if they could get some federal help in that. It was either turned down, or they found out they couldn't do it. By the end of the day Monday, it was a dead issue [because the lawmakers were found]. . . . I think Craddick is getting credit for a lot of things other people did. He may have said, 'Let's do what we can to find them.' "
Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said it was routine to seek federal assistance. "We feel that we conducted a thorough and professional investigation," he said.
Richter said Craddick just wants the Democrats to come back and has acknowledged that the House will not take up the redistricting bill this session, which ends June 2. "He's repeatedly said there's not going to be retaliation," Richter said. "He wants to get back to business and salvage what we can."
Late yesterday, the Associated Press reported that Democrats declared victory and posed for a photograph at the Holiday Inn in Ardmore. "Now that we have been able to kill redistricting, we are able to go back and finish the business of this state," state Rep. Craig Eiland said.
Declaring Victory, Texas Democrats End Exile
By The Associated Press
The New York Times
Friday 16 May 2003
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Fifty-five fugitive Democrats returned to the Texas Capitol in triumph Friday after thwarting a Republican redistricting bill by running off to Oklahoma for nearly a week.
``Welcome home, Texas heroes,'' one sign read as the lawmakers, all from the Texas House, arrived, smiling and waving to a cheering crowd.
During the political drama, the runaway lawmakers stayed at a Holiday Inn in Oklahoma, ate at a Denny's and took cell phone calls around the pool.
``We've weathered some troopers, we've weathered a tornado and we weathered Denny's,'' said Rep. Jim Dunnum, the group's ringleader. ``No matter what happens, democracy won.''
The lawmakers slipped away Sunday night in an extraordinary revolt that brought the Texas House to a standstill because there were not enough lawmakers for a quorum to do business.
Democrats said it was the only way to stop a congressional redistricting plan from being ramrodded through the GOP-controlled House at the behest of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. The redistricting was aimed at grabbing five House seats from the Democrats in 2004.
GOP officials ridiculed the rebellion, pasting the missing lawmakers' pictures on milk cartons and creating playing cards likening the Democrats to most-wanted Iraqis.
Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick angrily asked the Texas Rangers to track down and bring in the Democrats, but authorities said they could do nothing once the lawmakers crossed the Red River into Oklahoma. Even the Homeland Security Department was drawn into the fray after a Texas law officer called up, hinting that a plane full of Democrats might have crashed.
In the end, the redistricting bill died at midnight Thursday under legislative rules as the Democrats were on their way back from the Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla.
They trooped into the House on Friday to loud applause from the gallery as their Republican colleagues sat quietly at their desks.
There was a quorum -- at least 100 of the 150 House members -- at last.
``It's good to be back,'' state Rep. Garnet Coleman said. ``We're tired and we slept some. And we should be ready to continue working on the floor today. We have bills on the calendar.''
Eighteen days remain in the session. Democratic Rep. Aaron Pena said some Democrats were getting a ``chilly reception'' but most of the Republicans have been gracious.
Redistricting may not be dead yet this year: Republican Gov. Rick Perry has the option of calling a special session, in which redistricting could be addressed.