In a brewing legal fight between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and an ousted state regulatory official, lawyers for the governor said today they will move to block a subpoena for Bush's testimony in a lawsuit by the former official, who contends she was fired for pursuing an investigation of a politically influential funeral company.
Eliza May, a Democrat who was executive director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission, alleges she was a victim of retaliation because she accused the nation's biggest funeral home operator, Houston-based Service Corporation International, of violating state licensing requirements, and because she accused two commission members of breaking conflict-of-interest laws by opposing the investigation.
In her lawsuit -- which does not name the governor as a defendant -- May alleges she was fired last February after the company complained about the investigation to top aides to Bush, who is the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. The company's political action committee contributed at least $35,000 to Bush's last gubernatorial bid, according to campaign finance reports included with the lawsuit.
Lawyers for May, who is a former treasurer of the Texas Democratic Executive Committee, want to question Bush under oath about May's firing before deciding whether to include him as a defendant in the case, said Derek Howard, one of her attorneys.
But a Bush spokeswoman, Linda Edwards, said today that Bush had no role in May's ouster.
"The governor was not involved in this case and has no personal knowledge of the facts in this case, and so there's no reason for him to testify," Edwards said.
Two top aides to Bush -- his chief of staff and his general counsel -- did meet with May and officials of the company, but "their limited role was just to listen," and perhaps mediate the dispute, Edwards said. "No one here ever attempted to influence anyone."
She said the meeting was held at the request of state Sen. John Whitmire (D), who represents the Houston area. Officials of Service Corporation International had complained to Whitmire about the investigation, said the company's Austin lawyer, Johnnie B. Rogers. He accused May of taking on the huge company in an effort to raise her political profile.
"When a state senator calls our office and is concerned that a state agency has conducted itself in an inappropriate way, we think it's our responsibility to listen," Edwards said.
Ted Delisi, a spokesman for Attorney General John Cornyn (R), whose office is representing the governor, said lawyers will file a motion with a state District Court judge in Austin this week seeking to quash the subpoena for Bush's deposition.
In firing May, the commission said she had acted improperly in instructing one of her staff members to research Bush's campaign finance records.
May, who could not be reached today, was elected treasurer of the Texas Democratic Executive Committee in June 1996, then hired two months later by the nine-member funeral commission, which oversees the state's funeral industry. In January 1998, she and her staff began an investigation that resulted in accusations that some Texas funeral homes affiliated with Service Corporation International were operating without proper licenses.
The company, known as SCI, operates more than 3,700 funeral homes, cemeteries and crematoria worldwide, according to its Web site. SCI denied May's allegations but was fined $450,000 by May's office. The company has challenged the penalty, saying it was not given a chance to defend itself in a hearing before the full commission.
In a court document, SCI said May "spearheaded an ill-advised, unfounded prosecution of Service Corporation International. Her tactics included the issuance of broad subpoenas of dubious legality, an oppressive and intimidating unannounced raid on SCI's facilities on Good Friday, and other abusive tactics."
But May -- who is suing the commission, SCI and SCI's chairman under the Texas Whistleblower Act -- said the investigation was legitimate. She alleged that SCI's chairman, Robert L. Waltrip, obstructed the investigation by seeking the intervention of two top Bush aides: Joe Allbaugh, who was Bush's chief of staff and now is his presidential campaign manager; and Margaret Wilson, the governor's general counsel.
She also said in her lawsuit that two commission members who operate funeral homes affiliated with SCI should have recused themselves from the investigation under conflict-of-interest laws. Instead, she alleged, they pressured her to drop the probe. She said she complained to an official in the governor's office and to other commission members about the two men's alleged conflicts, but to no avail.