The Whistleblower and Harriet Miers

Questions linger about Court nominee's time with Texas Lottery

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Sooner or later, senators pondering Harriet Miers's qualifications to be a Supreme Court judge will want to inquire into the byzantine dealings of the Texas Lottery Commission in the late 1990s, when she was its chair.

Miers has been portrayed as a tough administrator who cleaned up a scandal-plagued state board, as in this report from the Houston Chronicle:

"Harriet Miers proved to be a tough, no-nonsense administrator during her five years heading the Texas Lottery Commission, firing two executive directors to stamp out scandal but leaving unexpectedly amid lagging sales and player interest."

The paper goes on to note that "one of those firings stirred up questions about whether political influence helped George W. Bush avoid active service in Vietnam."

But that's not the last question stirred by Miers's tenure on the lottery commission. There's room for speculation about whether, even as she worked to clear out corruption, she stifled the claims of a key whistleblower.

The story goes like this:

Apparently in January 1996, then Texas governor George Bush received an anonymous letter claiming that Nora Linares, director of the Texas Lottery Commission, was in cahoots with a former employer and a boyfriend to rip off the commission. Supposedly, the boyfriend, convicted on an unrelated federal bribery charge, was using state equipment and personnel to work on a private contract he had with Gtech. That's the company contracted to carry out the Texas lottery. According to reports in the Houston Chronicle from that time, Linares claimed she knew nothing about this, even though the boyfriend was running his business out of her cousin's New Mexico apartment address.

At first, Bush and his then assistant Miers did nothing, but eventually Miers was sent over to the commission to straighten things out. This raised eyebrows at the time, since Miers's law firm represented a company which had a major contract with the lottery. Linares was fired, and in March 1997 the commission put the Gtech contract up for re-bid. Then in June, one Lawrence Littwin, a Democrat, was hired to run the lottery, which had been set up in 1992. At the time, Miers, now chair of the lottery commission, said of Littwin, "His extensive business, technical and lottery experience, his knowledge of lottery products offered by vendors, and his knowledge of the procurement process will be of great benefit . . . . He is a man of integrity who will further develop and maintain strict controls at the commission and insure operations that are above reproach."

When Littwin took over he received a report from the state auditor critical of both Gtech and the lottery commission for failure to conduct proper accounting. Littwin hired the firm of Deloitte and Touche to run more audits, and they allegedly revealed that Gtech had seriously violated its contract. His investigation also revealed what were described as illegal campaign contributions. At that point, according to Littwin, Miers and other commission members ordered him to stop the investigation.

The upshot of the affair was that Gtech, even though not the low bidder, got its contract back, and according to Littwin never corrected its auditing breaches. Littwin was fired that October, after only five months on the job. The commission would only say it had "lost confidence" in him. The personnel files say he was dismissed for "reasons unknown."

In a subsequent 1999 lawsuit, Littwin claimed Gtech was engaged in questionable dealings through its chief Texas lobbyist in 1997, Ben Barnes, former state lieutenant governor.

Barnes hit the headlines during Bush's first campaign because he supposedly was the man who got young George out of the draft and into the Texas National Guard, a charge he denied. Littwin's suit was eventually settled for $300,000. Barnes's deposition, in which the National Guard matter was mentioned, disappeared.

The question is whether Miers was dispatched to the state lottery commission to cover up a mess on the verge of being brought to light by a whistleblower. We may never know.

 
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