This story is from Texas Monthly’s archives. We have left it as it was originally published, without updating, to maintain a clear historical record.
Christmas Day, 1976. I was I spending the day alone at a rented farmhouse, broke, broken by a nasty divorce. I was concentrating on cleaning the wild duck I had shot that morning on the pond out back and intended to cook for dinner. The crunch of tires on gravel, the sound of the door opening: in walked my employer and friend, Bob Bullock, state comptroller of public accounts, one of Texas’ most powerful officials, with his constant companion, a fresh bottle of Old Charter.
“I knew I’d find you out here cryin’,” Bullock said.
“I wasn’t crying,” I protested.
No matter. We had drinks. Bullock told of a horrible Christmas he spent alone and sick in a run-down hotel after one of his divorces, then about the Christmas he and fellow misfits got together to cheer each other up, but he wound up hiding in a back room so he could cry unnoticed.
We both cried. We had more drinks. “I love you like a brother,” Bullock said. He gave me the bottle and $50 and sent me off to San Angelo, where, he reminded me, a woman who cared about me was waiting. He was right, and it was a good Christmas after all. The woman is my wife now; she and our baby sleep in the next room as I write this, and I know I owe this happiness at least in part to Bob Bullock.
I never felt closer to a man than I did to Bullock on that day. And yet less than two years later, I was voluntarily testifying in a grand jury probe of his office, instigated partly by me. The charges I and others made: that Bullock used state employees and equipment for political purposes; that some employees spent most of their time on Bullock’s political affairs and the personal business of his right-hand man, chief deputy Ralph Wayne; that the office airplanes were used by Bullock and Wayne for personal and pleasure trips; that Bullock spent state funds without restraint; and that Bullock and Wayne used the powers of their offices to reward friends and punish enemies.
There couldn’t have been a sadder end to a story that had begun so well. Bullock had campaigned long and hard to win the statewide election in 1974 and had made dramatic improvements in the long-ignored comptroller’s office in 1975 and 1976. He was a one-man fury of reform who attracted many talented professionals to his staff. He quickly used his political powers to build a statewide machine that could easily have propelled him to the governorship. But things turned sour as Bullock suffered heavy setbacks in his personal life and succumbed more and more to the temptations of power and his own self-destructive urges. It is an old story—in many ways, it is similar to Huey Long’s in another era—and perhaps I should have sensed it the day in 1975 when Bullock put me in charge of his public relations. “I have a tendency to get caught speeding,” he said. “I want you to be my conscience and tell me when I’m wrong.” The trouble was, he never listened.
Bob Bullock took over as comptroller in 1975. He had been a political hanger-on for almost two decades—as a legislator, a lobbyist, top aide to Governor Preston Smith, and Smith’s Secretary of State—before he decided to run for statewide office on his own behalf. His options were limited: Governor Dolph Briscoe, Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby, attorney general John Hill, and land commissioner Bob Armstrong were all new in office and unassailable. But the incumbent comptroller was octogenarian Bob Calvert, a twelve-term veteran best known for making some indiscreet remarks about blacks when his record of hiring minorities was questioned. Less well known, except in certain segments of the business community, was Calvert’s lax reputation when it came to collecting taxes due the state. Faced with the prospect of a long, expensive, bitter—for no one has ever suggested that Bullock doesn’t relish a fight—and probably unsuccessful campaign, Calvert chose not to run again. Bullock had no trouble brushing aside one of Calvert’s aides in the 1974 Democratic primary and beating a mediocre Republican opponent.
Everyone knew the lackluster Calvert would be an easy act to follow, but nobody anticipated the explosion Bullock made on the state political scene. Even before he was sworn in, Bullock fired Calvert’s top 33 bureaucrats. He brought into the comptroller’s office a huge influx of talent, some of it administrative, some political. He recruited Ervin Osborn, the respected former chief of the regional office of the Internal Revenue Service in Austin; Buck Wood, the former chief lobbyist for Common Cause, who had guided the post-Sharpstown scandal reform package through the 1973 Legislature; and Garry Mauro, a Students for McGovern operative who is now executive director of the state Democratic party. Bullock was besieged with requests for jobs from hundreds of people he had met during his years in politics, and he found places for so many that his hiring practices were the talk of the Capitol during the 1975 legislative session. For a time he cornered the market on young political talent, and his penchant for hiring these activists spurred frequent references to Bullock’s ‘‘liberal political machine”—quite a switch for the onetime chief of staff for a very conservative governor. Bullock also went out of his way to hire minorities, particularly in the field offices around the state. He was able to expand the staff of his agency from 1400 employees to 2360, hiring so frenetically that sometimes people were taken in before Bullock had a particular job in mind for them. Weeks would elapse before specific duties were assigned.
Then Bullock discovered the device that would catapult him to the forefront among Texas politicians—the raid. In a routine study of the comptroller’s statutory authority an assistant discovered an unused power: the comptroller and his agents could shut down any retailer who was delinquent in paying state sales taxes. Bullock had previously ordered a computer check to discover the offenders and was amazed to find there were 70,000 of them, who owed the state more than $60 million. Many of the debts were tiny, and many of the businesses had closed. But a substantial number were still in operation and were, in effect, thumbing their noses at the state over amounts up to several hundred thousand dollars.
So in May 1975 Bullock began a series of dramatic sales tax raids across the state, personally leading those in media-heavy Houston and Dallas. They were a publicity coup beyond a politician’s wildest dreams. Reporters were tipped off in advance and arrived at the same time as the comptroller and his agents. Bullock would stroll into the targeted business, followed by the media, and while cameras rolled and pencils scribbled, he would demand payment. If it was not made, he would order the place closed down on the spot. Cameras then recorded the locks being changed and the assets being hauled away, while Bullock moved on to the next delinquent. It was the best show in town wherever it went. In those early days a raid rarely failed to be the first item on the evening TV news or to show up on the front pages the next day. Public support was unanimous: these scofflaws were pocketing taxes ordinary people had already paid—“your pennies, nickels, and dimes,” as Bullock liked to say during interviews. Before the news media tired of the game, they temporarily made Bullock the most popular, and probably the best-known, politician in the state.
Better still, the raids and other new Bullock programs got results. The publicity prompted a surge of voluntary compliance by retailers that netted millions. Properly impressed, the Legislature regularly increased Bullock’s budget, allowing him to beef up his out-of-state audit program for checking the books of companies doing business in Texas but headquartered in other states. He expanded and modernized the in-state audit system and improved the entire collection process with new methods, automation, and better training. In fiscal year 1976, Bullock’s auditors found $84 million in new tax liabilities, compared to the paltry $14 million of Calvert’s last year in office. Of Bullock’s 1976 total, $20.8 million was from out-of-state firms.
All this activity made Bullock the darling of the insular Capitol press corps, which had endured a decade of dull politicians before finding relief in the quotable new comptroller. Bullock continued the careful cultivation of reporters he had begun during his tenure as Secretary of State, when he had started showing up at their watering holes and regaling them with tall tales of his dubious political past. He told of taking money from the white-supremacy lobby as a legislator in the fifties, of skimming state admissions-tax money while operating a lounge in East Texas, of riding with Preston Smith and the late South Texas political boss George Parr in notorious Duval County when the Duke of Duval, as Parr was known, handed Smith a check for $5000. “Why, George, this check’s written on the school district,’’ Smith said, as Bullock recalled it. When Smith wouldn’t take it, Bullock said, Parr ordered the car stopped at a bank, cashed the check, and handed Smith the bills. Bullock also liked to tell how he had narrowly avoided being caught in the Sharpstown scandal: he and another Smith aide were angry at being left out of a bank stock transaction and were about to ask to be dealt in, when the scandal broke.
Once he had taken office, it didn’t take Bullock long to begin manipulating the press more skillfully than any Texas politician since John Connally in the mid-sixties. He issued frequent press releases on hiring, problems at the agency and his solutions, and matters before the Legislature. Because of his high visibility, his championing of causes popular with newsmen, and his flamboyant style, replete with biting one-liners, the Capitol press used every one. Once he issued a statement saying only that on that day he had done nothing—and sure enough, they used it. He told stories on himself and he took reporters into his confidence, and he got away with it, as he knew he would. He had been down that ol’ bad road, Bullock was telling them, and he had learned the evil of his ways. His frequent comment of that era summed it all up: “Stealing is out this year.’’
The image of bad-boy-turned-good applied even to Bullock’s early years in Hillsboro, a small town sixty miles south of Dallas with a long history of producing politicians with statewide ambitions. Most of what is known about Bullock’s childhood, beyond the fact that he was born in 1929, comes from bizarre stories told by Bullock himself after a few drinks. Once a landowner fired a warning shot at young Bullock as he trespassed across the man’s pasture; angered, Bullock returned with his own rifle and shot the man’s house full of holes. He didn’t find out until afterward, he says, that nobody was home. Most of the other tales also involved guns, except for a story he occasionally told on himself—the perpetrator was actually a classmate—about urinating in the pepper sauce in the school cafeteria.
From these beginnings, Bullock somehow made it through Texas Tech and Baylor Law School. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War and returned to win a seat in the Texas House in 1956 and 1958. He was a team player for the conservative House leadership and a close friend to Byron Tunnell, who eventually became House Speaker and railroad commissioner. In 1959 Bullock left the Legislature but not politics, working as a lobbyist for the Texas Automobile Dealers Association and Wanda Petroleum. Then another Hillsboro boy, attorney general Crawford Martin, put Bullock in charge of his Consumer Protection and Antitrust Division, where he was credited with some successful consumer litigation. In 1968 Bullock became an effective fundraiser for Preston Smith, who was running for governor; Smith rewarded Bullock by naming him appointments secretary. About this time Bullock began compiling his celebrated card file of political donors, carefully keeping track of everybody in the state who gave a significant contribution to anybody. As often as not, the secretaries maintaining the files were on state payrolls, the first of many such practices that would draw fire from the news media over the years.
In 1971 Smith named Bullock Secretary of State. The appointment marked the beginning of a new era for Bullock, one in which he sought political stature on his own rather than as someone else’s hired gun. Although the job had more status than power, he wrung from it far more personal publicity than any Secretary of State before or since. As the state’s chief elections officer, Bullock endeared himself to liberals by not resisting their lawsuit challenging Texas’ restrictive filing fees for candidates. Still Smith’s right-hand man, however, he won frequent headlines with repeated sharp-tongued attacks on ambitious Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, the John Connally protégé who was maneuvering for a 1972 race against Smith. But the assaults boomeranged on Bullock. Barnes lost, but so did Smith, and when the lame-duck governor tried to take care of his loyal henchman by appointing Bullock to a six-year, high-salaried job as head of the State Board of Insurance, Barnes vowed to get even. In the bitterest confirmation dispute of the seventies, with both men asserting claims on senators’ personal loyalty, Barnes won and the Senate rejected Bullock’s appointment. His budding political career seemed over almost before it had begun.
Within months, however, Bullock was touring the state, drumming up pledges of support and money for the upcoming comptroller’s race. His interest in the relatively obscure job took much of the political community by surprise. They had been lulled by Calvert’s lethargy into forgetting that the position of comptroller was potentially one of the state’s most powerful offices. The collection of the 21 major state taxes is a job that touches every consumer and every businessman in Texas. The arcane nature of sales tax law (Popsicles are taxable; Fudgsicles are not) offers a clever politician rich material for exploitation in ways ranging from press releases to telephone hot lines.
More important, the office has real power, thanks to the pay-as-you-go clause in the Texas Constitution. The Legislature may not spend a penny more than the comptroller estimates will be collected. Since legislatures traditionally like to spend every cent they can get their hands on, much depends on whether the comptroller’s estimates are generous or conservative. A wily politician can effectively hold the Legislature hostage until his own demands are met, and Bullock has used this device with devastating effect. Here’s how it works: Bullock’s estimators tell him there will be, say, $5 billion available for a two-year appropriations bill, but he announces publicly that there is only $4.7 billion available. This is prudent administration, but it is also prudent politics. As spending pressures build during the session, Bullock meets with legislative leaders and budget writers and shows how he could estimate $200 million more if he just had the budget to do a better tax-collection job. They, of course, see the wisdom in this. Bullock generally ends up with very accurate revenue estimates, but in the process he has nearly tripled his budget in four years, from $16.5 million to $46 million in 1979.
In his first year as comptroller, Bullock was riding high. He was frequently mentioned as a candidate for governor in 1978. He manipulated the Legislature and the press like a baker kneading dough. The power and prestige of his agency was growing as rapidly as the size of its staff. Most of all, Bullock had an image that any politician-administrator would envy: a public official who would not tolerate incompetence. There was, it seemed, no limit to his political future.
But within the agency there were tensions and problems not yet visible to outsiders. To make room for the new people Bullock was bringing in, there had to be many firings. Finding the right victims, however, wasn’t an easy task, even though Texas state employees have no civil service protection. Some deadwood was spotted through routine evaluations; others had to go because Bullock knew their political sympathies lay elsewhere. Then it became more difficult.
An evaluation team made the rounds of the field offices, spending about a day in each, an exercise that usually resulted in the dismissal of the field office manager and several employees. Such dismissals were generally sudden; the fired employee was asked to take his or her belongings and not return. Bullock could not abide incompetence, and neither could he abide delay. Too many Calvert people were fired without being given any chance to prove themselves. Some were so intimidated by Bullock personally or by the evaluation teams (everyone knew what had happened at other field offices) that they were simply unable to protest; their heads went on the block. In his first two years in office, Bullock and his aides fired or forced out literally hundreds of people, including many longtime state employees, some of whom were close to retirement. Some had it coming; some undoubtedly didn’t. Some found other jobs; others couldn’t, and reports of their hard times filtered back to the agency. Eventually the day came when just about all the Calvert people who could be fired had been fired, and the snake began to devour itself: Bullock started firing his own people.
Working for Bullock was difficult in other ways. To him, no task was too big, no deadline too early—for the right person. If you couldn’t do it, he’d find somebody who could. His instructions were often unclear, but everyone was usually afraid to ask for an explanation. If they did, he would say nothing, but just hand them a copy of an essay called “A Message to Garcia“ and send them on their way. The “Message” was a glorification of blind obedience. He solicited opinions from those around him, but he was given to explosions of temper that all too often resulted in curt dismissals or arbitrary decisions. The advice he got, therefore, was no more than the solicited individual felt like risking.
Some of those working for Bullock thought of him as a brilliant administrator; others thought his abilities dismal and abhorred his intrusions into program areas. The truth was that he made snap judgments on both programs and people. Sometimes he was right, sometimes not. He seemed to thrive on the turmoil he created. When things got too quiet, he would call in his division chiefs and switch them around in their jobs like peas in a shell game. The field operations division, the agency’s largest, went through five directors in five years; other divisions had similar histories. One top assistant had three jobs and seven offices in a year. Bullock insisted the moves were not arbitrary. The work of a division should make no difference to a professional administrator, he said, arguing that the changes brought a constant flow of new ideas to the top. He didn’t want people stagnating in their jobs and forming bad habits. But the switches often reduced efficiency and kept many employees unsettled and fearful for their jobs. Morale began to droop.
Bullock sometimes stayed away from the office for days at a time, hunting or fishing, traveling, refinishing furniture, checking out a new female interest, or convalescing from ailments. But when he worked, he worked hard and expected the same of others. For top-echelon people, this meant getting to work early and staying late. Woe to the employee not at his desk to receive Bullock’s call at five minutes to eight in the morning or half past five in the afternoon. Nobody made it to Bullock’s inner circle without working Saturdays. Many of the people in the office Saturday mornings weren’t actually working; they were simply there so he could see them. Employees also learned to keep important-looking projects in plain view, because Bullock liked to check their desk tops after hours.
Another responsibility of the inner circle of division directors and political operators was to stay in touch. Bullock would fly completely off the handle if he couldn’t get an aide on the telephone or into his office immediately. A staffer had to inform his own secretary or Bullock’s of his whereabouts at all times, even if he was only going down the hall to the rest room. And when Bullock sent a secretary to find an aide, she ran. When he called in from out of town to talk to several people, absolute chaos erupted. Secretaries ran everywhere, eyes wide, fearing that someone couldn’t be located. Some of the problems were averted when Bullock gave top aides electronic beepers. Then came car telephones, then walkie-talkies. Always in the market for new gadgetry, Bullock has now been granted a Federal Communications Commission license to operate his own communications system, complete with microwave transmitters and a scrambler for confidentiality.
Easily the most demanding task of all in working for Bullock was the drinking. Actually this was expected of only his inner circle of young protégés. All his employees vied to be part of that group and to sit at Bullock’s table in the bars. He had a wet bar installed in his plushly remodeled office so that the drinking could start early in the day, often before noon. Those present didn’t have to participate, but it clearly made him feel more comfortable if they did. The first couple of years he liked to go to lunch with this group of aides. They were always at least three-drink lunches. Sometimes the group returned to the office; just as often they didn’t, and the drinking would continue in the restaurant or some other bar. Those participating didn’t worry about their absence, because state business was still being conducted, even from the bars. There was always one aide on the telephone to the office, relaying orders. A frequent order in midafternoon would be for some attractive secretaries to join the group. In 1977, the routine changed slightly, and the drinking in Bullock’s office didn’t begin until afternoon. Again, business was still conducted. After five or six o’clock, the procedure was always the same: the group adjourned to a bar, where they remained until late in the evening. A lot of marriages were awash in that flood of alcohol; some sank, including Bullock’s. The members of the inner circle did not particularly gain anything by spending so much time with the boss. In fact, because the more he drank the more easily he blew up, they actually became more susceptible to being fired. Each member of the group was fired at least once. But they just went back to work the next morning and avoided Bullock until the argument had been forgotten. Everyone became as inured as possible to Bullock’s outbursts. There was a gallows humor about the situation that began to be picked up by the news media. “An optimist is a comptroller’s office employee who takes his lunch to work,” one newspaper reported.
A camaraderie developed among the survivors. Not everything about working for Bullock was bad, after all. Bullock himself, if he wasn’t on a tear, could be a very thoughtful boss. He became close friends with the people in the inner circle and went out of his way to help them with their personal problems. He couldn’t say no to someone he considered a friend. In restaurants and bars, he was a notorious check-grabber, even though he was never well off financially. Eventually, Leslie Vilas, his secretary, had trouble paying Bullock’s bills. Bullock began using funds raised for his reelection race for personal expenses. Finally, Vilas resorted to collecting from those who drank with him, asking them to chip in for the ample supply of liquor he kept in his office. Bullock probably never knew about it.
There were other rewards as well. Some staff members were invited on hunting and fishing trips with the boss. Sometimes Bullock would feel particularly festive and order a workday party. Only those he trusted and could relax with were invited. An aide would be sent around to the divisions to find attractive women and invite them on the spot. Some were never told anything more than “Mr. Bullock would like to see you.” Such parties, with up to thirty people, would gather at an out-ofthe-way bar about three o’clock, with Bullock presiding like Bacchus himself. No one doubted the parties were justified; after all, everyone was working so hard.
So this group, the inner circle and the people close enough to be invited to the parties, were welded together by the energy of Bullock’s frenetic personality. He fascinated them, this man of power who could be so accessible one moment and so remote the next. They spent their time alternately shaking their heads over some new antic of Bullock’s or feeling good about him. Above all, they felt loyal, because loyalty was the product of the rewards he gave them. The people in the group drank together and ate dinner at each other’s homes. Increasingly, they found they could not talk to people outside the agency, because outsiders didn’t understand Bullock or insiders’ justifications for some of the things being done. They became a closed group whose collective perspective on events in the agency and the difference between right and wrong had slipped away from reality.
Almost immediately after he took office, Bullock’s personal life and health went into a steady decline. The impact on his administrative and political decisions was quite direct. A speculative land deal in Austin with Travis County Democratic chairman Ken Wendler had collapsed, leaving the pair with a bill for several hundred thousand dollars they could not pay, and Bullock fretted about it constantly. Another omnipresent source of worry was his love life. (Bullock has been married and divorced four times.) His escapades were sometimes a source of amusement, such as the time he spent Thanksgiving Day with two women at the same time and cooked them both turkey dinners. (“I’ve got to run out for cigarettes,” Bullock would tell one woman. Then he would speed to the other woman’s house and baste her turkey. He ate a meal at both places.)
Problems developed, however, when his women were also on his payroll. The first was Diane Daniel, ex-wife of former House Speaker Price Daniel, Jr. Bullock began dating her in the fall of 1975, while she was working as one of his secretaries. He frequently took her on the office airplane, first as a secretary, later as a date as well. The tour of other state capitals was designed for studying their tax systems but also served as a continent-wide party at taxpayers’ expense. Then there was another woman at the agency whom Bullock saw off and on beginning in the fall of 1977. Staffers suspected it was “on” again when she was able to get another pay raise—she got three in her first eight months of work, totaling almost $600 a month. It was never questioned. His personal life spilled over into office hours in other ways. Once he called me away from other duties to write a love letter. During a brief courtship of and marriage to Dallas socialite Diane Burney, he had members of his staff plan the wedding and the European honeymoon. While he was involved with Burney (from March to June 1978), Bullock commuted to work in Austin from Dallas, using the office airplane. The European honeymoon was cut short when Bullock’s teenage son was seriously injured in a motorcycle wreck, leading to weeks of hospitalization and months of slow recovery.
Such personal crises and the excessive drinking they led to contributed to Bullock’s declining health. In 1972 he had most of one lung removed. The newspapers called it a “benign tumor.” Bullock said it was a tubercular disease that had already been arrested by the time of the operation. Despite the absence of a lung, he continued his heavy smoking. Those close to him came to recognize his behavior as cyclical: extreme highs, during which he was capable of creative administration and huge amounts of work, followed by deep depressions, during which he drank more heavily, became impossible to deal with, and made mostly negative administrative decisions, such as firing people or abolishing entire programs. The cycles became more pronounced. In February 1977, after a long day of heavy drinking in his office, Bullock decided to resign; he ordered drafts of a resignation letter to the governor and a press release. The job had become too much for him, he said; and as he sat there, eyes glazed and bourbon dripping unnoticed from his chin, he was a picture of defeat. He gathered up his personal belongings and went home. But top aides conferred and stayed away from Bullock for several days until his behavior was on the upswing. The resignation was never mentioned again.
But in November 1977 Bullock hit bottom a second time. This time he contemplated suicide. He claimed later that he actually played Russian roulette with one of his pistols—spinning a cylinder containing one bullet, placing the barrel in his mouth, and squeezing the trigger. “The steel was ice-cold in my mouth,” he said. The day after his near-suicide he checked into M. D. Anderson Hospital in Houston. The state comptroller was diagnosed as manic-depressive, a mental imbalance physicians noted was aggravated by his alcohol abuse. Extensive tests also revealed early signs of liver deterioration from alcohol and blood pressure problems caused by heavy one-lunged smoking. The hospital agreed to treat him on the condition that someone be in his room 24 hours a day until the suicide threat was past. Agency staffers were ferried from Austin each day on the agency plane.
The doctors told Bullock he had to give up drinking and smoking and, to combat the depression, to take lithium for the rest of his life. For a time, he did quit smoking and drinking; but then he slipped back. He made repeated trips to M. D. Anderson for various disorders: treatment of a precancerous lesion in his throat, for which he quit smoking again for a short while; too many red cells, treated by removing thickened blood; the sudden swelling of fatty deposits in his body cavity due to eating too many sweets while trying to give up smoking. Always the physicians’ advice was the same: stop smoking and drinking before you kill yourself. The advice was never taken permanently. Some of those around Bullock refused to drink with him and chastised him for smoking or got up and walked away when he lit up. But he could always find others who were glad to drink with him, because they wanted a place in the inner circle. And one aide even kept a pack of cigarettes for Bullock in his desk drawer during each of Bullock’s efforts to stop smoking, hoping to ingratiate himself with the boss.
Drinking added yet another threat to Bullock’s health and political well-being: he insisted on driving when he shouldn’t. After many close calls, his luck ran out after a birthday celebration in July 1978, when an Austin policeman arrested him for driving while intoxicated. Bullock pleaded guilty, paid a small fine, and received a probated sentence. Last October Bullock’s health reached its nadir with a mild heart attack from which he is still recovering.
All of this combined to create an atmosphere at the comptroller’s office in which wrongdoing could go unchallenged. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the first steps into legally gray areas were taken, and precisely when the next steps, into the realm of the clearly forbidden, followed. A few excesses, such as the drinking and partying on state time, seemed relatively minor in view of the accomplishments of the agency and the pressure of working for Bullock. Similarly, Bullock justified his penchant for lavish spending of state funds—his offices and those of top administrators were lushly appointed, and a massive conference table cost $11,000—with the argument that the improvements he had brought about more than paid for them. No one doubts that Bullock greatly improved tax administration, but he also managed to have it appear that he was raking in more back taxes than he actually collected. Bullock would issue press releases about finding another umpty-ump million dollars in tax liabilities (technically known as audit-setup figures), but $61 million of the $367 million set up from 1975 to 1979 evaporated when challenged by taxpayers because they were marginal calls by auditors who were under the gun to produce impressive totals. Millions more are still in dispute. The audit programs were the excuse for Bullock’s ever-growing budget, and the swelling audit-setup totals justified Bullock’s requests for more employees.
While Ervin Osborn, the IRS professional, held the job of chief deputy, Bullock behaved himself. He had immense respect for Osborn. But after Osborn’s death in December 1975, Bullock named his old friend Buck Wood as chief deputy. Although Wood tried, he had only mixed success in keeping Bullock out of trouble.
Bullock began to get a little bad publicity soon after taking office. First, questions were raised about his political card file, which was being maintained as usual at state expense, and about his having state employees assemble a clipping library from the tens of thousands of newspaper stories he had collected. Then the Dallas Times Herald questioned Bullock’s handling of a tax matter for his old friend, South Texas rancher Clinton Manges. This one Bullock won: he rebutted the charges, and the comptroller’s office in fact turned down a low assessment sought by Manges.
In early 1976 both Austin newspapers ran stories about Bullock’s trips on the office airplane with Diane Daniel and other staff members to places like Santa Fe, Phoenix, New York, Lansing, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. BULLOCK EXPENSES LIST $180-A-DAY HOTEL BILL, blared one headline. He defended the trips on the basis that they were made to study the operation of other state tax departments. That was true. But Diane Daniel wasn’t always necessary to the trips, and neither was Bullock, really. Sometimes he didn’t bother to visit the other state officials; he just sent his staff while he and Diane went sight-seeing. Here is how the Louisiana trip went: Bullock, Diane, and the others flew on the plane to Baton Rouge, where they visited the state tax office. Then they flew down to New Orleans, even though the branch office there was closed for the day, taking with them a barmaid picked up by two aides. A child of one of the aides was ill in Austin, so the plane flew him back, then returned to New Orleans. On the flight home, the barmaid was dropped off in Baton Rouge. They never visited the New Orleans office.
Bullock’s response to bad publicity was generally to go after the reporters responsible for the stories with a vengeance. He sent them nasty letters, wrote their bosses, and sometimes checked the tax status of the newspaper, radio, or TV station carrying the story. Anything in the media that galled him, no matter how small, drew a vituperative and often petty response. One target was reporter Sam Kinch, Jr., of the Dallas Morning News. After Bullock underwent a hemorrhoid operation last year, he sent the newsman a jar of chopped oysters, claiming they were the removed hemorrhoids.
It was the airplane more than anything else that got him into trouble. The comptroller had been forewarned by his staff, but he could not seem to avoid mixing business with pleasure. The comptroller’s office had never had an airplane before Bullock’s tenure. The first one was acquired in the summer of 1975, a small plane confiscated by the Department of Public Safety for hauling drugs. In September 1975, the agency got a second: a larger, faster MU-2 by Mitsubishi, which was later traded for a still more expensive aircraft, a King Air 100. And in 1978, right when he was under fire for misusing airplanes, Bullock obtained a third plane, a King Air 200. From the outset, the airplanes were Bullock’s favorite toys, the most beloved symbols of his power and prestige. Bullock’s proclivity for aircraft was so well known that once John White, then state agriculture commissioner and now national Democratic party chairman, tried to prod Bullock into buying a jet so that more cautious state officials would have a precedent to follow.
Bullock used the state airplanes to visit friends. He also used them to take his women to Colorado in the skiing season and to New York and San Francisco. Always there was a cover story—a tax office nearby that he could say he had visited. The planes were justified to the Legislature by claims that they were needed to ferry out-of-state auditors from one city to another. But the planes that could fly the long trips (the MU-2 and the Kingair) were reserved for Bullock and usually weren’t available for regular scheduling. Frequently, the out-of-state auditors had to take commercial flights.
The flight logs became a problem. When the reporters asked for them early in 1976, I screened them and found omissions and discrepancies that would easily be spotted. The most glaring was the omission of Diane Daniel’s name on logs for trips reporters already knew she had taken. The pilots, who kept records, had been afraid to put her name down and, of course, afraid to ask for instructions. With Bullock’s help, the trips were reconstructed as accurately as possible and recreated on new flight log forms. The standard purpose for a flight on the logs became “to confer with tax officials” or “to confer with area taxpayers.” That covered anything. An aide later solved much of the problem with the logs when he discovered that state law didn’t actually specify that dates had to be kept. Thereafter, the logs had no dates and were purposely mixed up.
When Ralph Wayne became Bullock’s chief deputy in March 1977, he too found the planes useful. Wayne had business interests—radio stations and branch savings and loans—in the Panhandle and West and East Texas. He had two planes of his own, but he also had use of the comptroller’s airplanes. The flight logs during the time Wayne was chief deputy show that 37 of his 88 flight destinations were Plainview, Lubbock, Amarillo, or Brownwood, cities where Wayne had personal business interests. The stated reason for the trips was comptroller’s business, but before Wayne joined the staff the comptroller’s business didn’t require such frequent visits to the Panhandle by the chief deputy. In a previous year, the comptroller’s planes had flown to Plainview, for example, only one time. In 1978 Wayne flew there six times. Wayne owned a radio station in Plainview.
Like his abuse of the airplanes, Bullock’s use of employees and state equipment for personal or political purposes started small and grew large. Most politicians have a personal aide, and Bullock used his to run all kinds of errands, some involving use of the office airplane. His secretaries kept his personal bank accounts and paid his bills, took his clothes to the cleaners and laundry and his shoes to be shined, shopped for him, and helped decorate and get utilities turned on when he moved. Once he sent Karen Johnson, an associate deputy comptroller and the highest-ranking woman in the agency, to buy a Christmas present for his girlfriend. Security employee Jess Cullum investigated the background of anyone Bullock wanted to know about and once flew to the Panhandle with him (on the state plane) to fetch the runaway daughter of one of Bullock’s ex-wives. Before his 1978 reelection campaign, he kept state-paid secretaries busy for weeks building extensive political files for every Texas city and preparing campaign material, which turned out to be unnecessary because Bullock was unopposed.
In the fall of 1976 Bullock debated whether to run for governor in 1978. His prestige was at its height—the Legislative Budget Board had just issued a report praising his overall performance and singling out his management, training, and collection techniques—so he held an Austin fundraiser to test the political waters. But the $95,000 that the affair netted was not enough to persuade Bullock that Dolph Briscoe could be beaten. After the results were in, he made two decisions that had a major influence on subsequent events in the comptroller’s office: he decided to support Governor Dolph Briscoe for a third term, shelving his own gubernatorial plans until 1982, and he decided that he had to shed his new liberal image and move to the right.
The real reason for helping Briscoe was to dispose of John Hill, who was already in the 1978 governor’s race. Bullock had acquired a personal distaste for Hill, whose lack of support had probably squelched Bullock’s hope of challenging Briscoe for control of the state Democratic party in 1974. Characteristically, Bullock went after Hill with every weapon in his arsenal. After extensive research by his staff, he accused Hill of lax prosecution of tax cases sent to the attorney general by the comptroller. After a private meeting between the two men, Bullock claimed Hill had repeatedly cursed him. Bullock ended up suing Hill for an accounting of how the tax cases were handled, but Hill won the case in the state Supreme Court. That was only the beginning; at least it was arguably the comptroller’s business. Bullock also had his staff analyze Hill’s legal settlements for the state with Southwestern Bell and Oscar Wyatt’s Lo-Vaca Gathering Company, which were not the comptroller’s business. Bullock’s security officers, led by Jess Cullum, investigated Hill’s Organized Crime Task Force to find out if any questionable acts had been committed. The information was turned over to Briscoe, who then announced his own “investigation” of the task force. Bullock’s claims division, which handles all state government vouchers, routinely pulled all those from the attorney general’s office to search for illegalities or embarrassing items. After Hill was actually running for governor, his every pronouncement was studied for possible flaws. His spending programs were analyzed by comptroller’s office revenue estimators. His press conferences were attended by Bullock’s aides. Bullock issued a barrage of political news releases attacking Hill from every angle. Most of the releases were written on state time at Bullock’s direction. While Hill had to be gunned down, Briscoe had to be puffed up. Bullock’s planners drew up spending and tax-cut proposals for Briscoe to use in his campaign, as well as other position papers, speeches, and news releases. The whole thing climaxed with Bullock publicly calling Hill a son of a bitch. In sum, it was a massive use of a major state agency in a political campaign. And despite all of Bullock’s efforts, Briscoe lost.
In early 1977, Bullock began to implement his planned move to the right. Concerned that his agency was getting an IRS-type image, he started accepting speaking invitations from business groups and service clubs. He sent mass mailings to businesses across the state emphasizing the service aspects of the agency and its businesslike procedures. Memos went out reminding staffers that this was “the year of the taxpayer.” No longer did Bullock brag about the big collections; he wanted people to know that he didn’t want to collect a single tax dollar not rightfully due the state.
Bullock tried to separate himself from the liberals on his staff, which included most of his old inner circle. When he did drink with them, there were occasional heated arguments over such issues as why none of them belonged to the Rotary or Lions clubs or the chamber of commerce, groups that he began to tout as the “heartbeat of America.” Unfortunately, during just this period a tax question came up concerning all such service groups. The way the law is written, the office had no choice but to collect taxes on sales by these groups, even those made for charitable purposes. Nevertheless, Bullock ordered those sales exempted, a decision his staff resisted because of its far-ranging implications. After many drinks at an Austin bar, an argument erupted between Bullock and legal services director Don Ray, who tried to explain why the groups shouldn’t be exempted. Bullock insisted that it be done anyway. “Let me get this straight,” said Ray. “All you want me to be is a yes man.” “That’s right, that’s all you are,” growled Bullock. Ray responded with a string of curses and the two rushed outside to fight. The fight never took place, but the argument accelerated Ray’s desire to resign, which he did shortly thereafter.
Wood left too, to set up a law practice with Ray, giving Bullock the opportunity to continue the new emphasis on business by hiring Ralph Wayne as chief deputy. Wayne, once a close political advisor to Bullock’s old nemesis Ben Barnes, and once in business with him, added a new aspect to the activities going on at the office: use of state employees for his personal business interests. He brought Sherri Revier, his business secretary, with him to his new job and put her on the state payroll. But she continued to do the same work she had done before: writing letters and memos to his radio stations and savings and loans, paying his personal and corporate bills, corresponding with his bookkeeper, and taking care of other personal odds and ends. Wayne had to have a second secretary to handle his state business.
The salaries of Wayne’s secretary, his assistant, and the assistant’s secretary, and the use of office equipment and the state airplane added up to considerable savings for Wayne’s businesses. On top of all this, Wayne himself officially set aside Wednesdays as time to deal with his own business interests. Later, this schedule was expanded to include all mornings as well. The staff was instructed not to bother him at these times. I confronted Bullock with this situation and he urged me to talk to Wayne. In a surreal conversation with Wayne, during which I set out the entire scope of my concerns, Wayne made this amazing statement: “Why, sometimes I even have to use my state pen on personal business. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. Where do you draw the line between personal and state business?” The only result of my complaint was that Wayne’s assistant voluntarily took a 20 per cent salary reduction. “I can’t do anything about the girl,” Bullock said, referring to Sherri Revier. “I told him he could do that.”
Bullock found an ominous new way to misuse power in September 1978, in an incident involving Bill English’s restaurant in Austin. English was the bane of the enforcement division; he had a terrible sales tax record and was finally ordered shut down in one of the raids. Bullock, who hadn’t been on a raid in two years, parked his car across the street to watch the fun and ordered that the news media be called out. Things went routinely enough, and English came up with the money to bring his payments up to date and remain open. However, English blasted Bullock in television interviews, saying the comptroller and his staff were all drunks and that his employees had thrown Bullock out of his place one night for drunkenness—a charge Bullock vehemently denies. When Bullock found out about English’s comments, he ordered high-ranking legal staffers down to the office that night to research ways to close the restaurant. “They can consider themselves fired until they find a way to shut him down,” he said. Early the next morning, about a dozen key staff members met again to figure out how to do it. Several strategies were outlined and set in motion, even though English at that moment was current on all his obligations to the state.
Bill English was never shut down, but by the time tempers cooled, I and two other public relations staffers had left the agency. Over a period of months, we had laid our concerns before Bullock several times, both verbally and in writing, but to no avail. Once, over drinks at a downtown bar, I told him I knew I had compromised my integrity but still wanted to do what I could to steer things straight. He suddenly grabbed me and yanked me across the table. “Don’t tell me about your integrity,” he snarled. “Let’s go outside and settle this.” I refused, so he fired me, temporarily, and stormed out alone into the night, forgetting until too late that I had brought him to the bar. He was too proud to come back in and ask for a ride.
After our resignations the Travis County grand jury began looking into Bullock’s activities. One grand jury returned no indictments but urged that the investigation be continued and issued a report criticizing many comptroller practices. Bullock is now suing to have the report erased from court records; he has also threatened to sue grand jurors individually. That grand jury investigation was characterized by acrimony and distrust; after its term expired, some members felt they’d been tricked out of returning indictments. But Bullock’s care to provide a public purpose for his pleasure trips saved him. The second grand jury also returned no indictments, and district attorney Ronald Earle said that beyond looking into the private work done by Wayne’s secretary (whose typewriter ribbons are still being transcribed by the FBI), the investigation was closed. The debate is sure to continue. And the political damage has already been done. Though unopposed in the last election, Bullock is certain to draw strong opposition should he choose to run again.
If he runs again. The powerful comptroller, who worked so hard and broke so many rules to set up a 1982 race for governor, now talks about leaving public life and opening a car dealership. Dozens of people who would have helped him toward his dream of being governor are gone or disillusioned. Wayne, who helped destroy the dream, is also gone.
But there is no clean end to this story; it will go on as long as Bullock is in office. If there is any lesson to be learned from his five years as comptroller, it is that his virtues will never escape his vices. The agency, which under Bullock briefly became the best in state government, is still beset by turmoil and revolving-door administrative policies. Things are still better than they were in Calvert’s day, but it could have been so much more. Bullock mastered a bureaucracy, a tax system, an electorate—everything but himself. His story is partly one of scandal, but even more it is one of personal tragedy.
My fate, however, is clear. It is the same one met by John Connally, John Hill, several reporters, and other Bullock enemies. Bullock will shuffle through some drawer or closet until he finds his genuine Haitian voodoo doll, type out my name on a slip of paper and stick it on the doll, and then, with feeling, jab a big hatpin right through the doll’s chest.
Bill Collier is a reporter with the Austin American-Statesman. This story, in a different form, appeared in Inquiry.