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In 1997, when Harriet Miers was chairwoman of the Texas Lottery Commission, controversy swirled in Texas regarding allegations that former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes had made an illegal campaign contribution to Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. At the time, Ben Barnes was a political lobbyist under contract to GTECH, the Rhode Island firm running the Texas Lottery.
Under the GTECH contract, Barnes was receiving 4 percent of GTECH’s gross revenue in Texas, a contract worth some $3 million a year to Barnes. Barnes, a Democrat, obtained the GTECH contract in 1991, arguing that as a Democrat he could influence then-Gov. Ann Richards, also a Democrat. When George W. Bush was elected Texas governor in 1995, he persuaded GTECH that his influence over the governor’s office continued, since he was the person who was responsible for pulling the strings needed to get Bush into the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.
In June 1996, Barnes and his wife, Melanie, each gave $1,000 to Ronnie Earle’s re-election campaign. The issue of the contributions surfaced at the Texas Lottery Commission, where Harriet Miers, George Bush’s personal lawyer, had been appointed by him to be chairwoman of the panel. The issue was that GTECH’s contract with the state barred GTECH and its agents from making any gift, loan or contribution to “any Texas state officer” or legislator. A violation could mean the termination of GTECH’s contract and a fine of as much as $25,000.
As Travis County district attorney, Ronnie Earle is a local official under Texas law, elected by local voters. Still, he has statewide authority to enforce provisions of the Texas Lottery Act. The Austin American-Statesman printed on Jan. 21, 1997, that Earl also had a contract with the Lottery Commission to carry out those responsibilities.
Harriet Miers, as chairwoman of the Texas Lottery Commission, jumped into the controversy.
“The issue has been brought to our attention,” she told the Austin American-Statesman at the time, “and the general counsel has been asked to give the commission a response as to whether there is anything that needs to be done in this connection.” Records suggest that George Bush’s gubernatorial campaign had paid attorney Miers $19,000 to investigate claims Ben Barnes was making at the time that he had played a key role getting Bush into the National Guard. In 1995, then-Gov. Bush appointed Miers to serve as chairwoman of the three-member Lottery Commission.
Barnes surfaced again after the Texas Lottery Commission fired Executive Director Larry Littwin, after Littwin questioned the GTECH contract, charging among other things that GTECH had violated the contract with the state by making political campaign contributions and paying favors to individuals affiliated with the Lottery. In a wrongful termination suit filed by Littwin, Ben Barnes gave a deposition where he repeated under oath his National Guard allegations. The deposition was suppressed as part of a $300,000 settlement GTECH made to end Littwin’s suit against the company.
In January 1997, Barnes was mentioned by federal prosecutors as participating in a $500,000 kickback scheme in which he allegedly “hired” GTECH’s national sales manager, J. David Smith, as a “consultant.” U.S. Attorney Faith Hochberg of New Jersey claimed federal prosecutors could find no evidence that Smith did any work for the money. One month later, GTECH terminated Barnes’ contract, buying it out for $23 million.
In October 1997, GTECH’s Smith was convicted in federal district court in New Jersey of engaging in an embezzlement and kickback scheme orchestrated to inflate state-level payments to consultants and lobbyists who could wield the political influence to get GTECH key contracts with important state lottery commissions, including Texas.
WND could find no evidence that the Texas Lottery Commission took any action against Ben Barnes or Ronnie Earle regarding the Barneses’ contributions to the Earle re-election campaign. Federal prosecutors in the Smith conviction claimed that Barnes’ kickback payments to Smith were a “blueprint” for the kinds of illegal schemes Smith was advancing around the country in his role as GTECH’s national sales manager. Despite the many allegations of payment impropriety and questionable political lobbying done on behalf of GTECH at the time, WND can find no evidence that Harriet Miers or the Texas Lottery Commission ever took any legal action.
In January 1998, the Texas Lottery Commission, including Harriet Miers, voted to keep the GTECH contract, even though lower competitive bids were on the table at that time.
Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle has again surfaced nationally as the prosecutor who brought charges against former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.