June 4, 2003, 10:07PM
Craddick's role detailed
Trooper describes search for AWOL lawmakers
By ARMANDO VILLAFRANCA
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN -- A temporary command center in the state Capitol took on the air of a tense war room last month as police and top state officials searched for runaway Democratic legislators, according to depositions released Wednesday.
A state trooper who coordinated the search described an impatient governor, tips from secret sources and intelligence gleaned from a videotaped news conference.
"We assumed that there was a lot of things going on that we did not know about," said Texas Department of Public Safety Lt. William Crais. "There was a lot of things being told to us that were happening behind the scenes."
A small room adjacent to the office of House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, served as the command center in the search for 55 Democratic representatives who left Austin to deprive the House of a quorum and kill a Republican congressional redistricting plan.
When the Democrats failed to show up for work the morning of May 12, Craddick -- acting under House rules and a vote of members present -- ordered that the runaways be arrested and returned to the Capitol.
In his sworn testimony, Crais said Craddick provided leads and directed DPS personnel in the command center.
"He requested certain things of us and I used our resources to get those things done," Crais said. "He would walk in there and give instructions."
Craddick's office released a statement Wednesday saying that his perception of his involvement in the hunt was different than Crais' recollection. He said he passed information to DPS investigators, but spent much of that day dealing with other issues.
"I don't believe, though, that I ever personally went into the command center to order anyone around or in any way direct the operation," he said. "It was important to me, of course, that enough members be found to get a quorum, but I am not trained in police work and chose to stay out of it whenever possible."
Crais said Craddick told him legislators were in Santa Fe, N.M., and Ardmore, Okla. When Crais asked the source of that information, he testified, Craddick and Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, answered, "We know that."
Crais testified for nearly three hours on Monday at the office of an Austin attorney. Transcripts of his deposition were released Wednesday by the attorney general's office, along with the depositions of Texas Ranger D.H. "Dino" Henderson, DPS Lt. Ken Scheer and Mary Ann Courter of the state attorney general's office.
The depositions were taken in connection with a lawsuit that state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, has filed against DPS, alleging it improperly destroyed documents generated during the search. Burnam was one of the quorum-busting Democrats.
Henderson testified that Craddick told him legislators were in Santa Fe and had to be picked up and returned to Texas. "Speaker Craddick was the main focus at that time for the information," Henderson said.
Crais said that on the evening of May 12, Gov. Rick Perry appeared at the door of the command center and asked who was in charge.
When Crais identified himself, he testified, the governor asked him to step into Craddick's office and then began chastising him.
He said the governor was impatient that officers had not found the missing legislators using information developed earlier in the day.
Perry looked at his watch and said, "You had this information since 9 o'clock; it is now almost nine hours later. How come you haven't found them?" Crais testified.
Crais said Perry complained about leaks to news agencies, and handed him a document with information that the premature twins of Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, were hospitalized and that Eiland might be at the hospital.
"He said, `I want the Texas Rangers to go by and locate Mr. Eiland,' " said Crais. Perry also wanted Rangers dispatched to Brownsville to search for the Democratic representative from there, Rene Oliveira.
Later, Crais said, Perry told him he was doing a good job and not to worry about "what happened."
When asked if he knew what Perry meant by "what happened," Crais said, "Well, it wasn't very pleasant when I talked to the governor."
Perry's office declined to comment about the depositions.
"The issue is over and dead," said spokeswoman Kathy Walt.
Crais said the information compiled in the search for the legislators included a list of emergency contacts each had given Capitol security officers at the beginning of the legislative session.
Crais said the search narrowed after some of the Democrats appeared in a news conference at an Ardmore hotel. He said officers used a videotape of that to account for some of the legislators.
State police searched for the runaway lawmakers May 12 and 13, but called off the manhunt after it became clear that 51 legislators were in Ardmore -- enough to prevent a House quorum until the redistricting bill died May 15. DPS officers did not have jurisdiction to arrest the legislators in Oklahoma.
Three other Democratic representatives hid out in Texas, and one went to Mexico.
The depositions depicted an occasional almost comic element to the command center operations.
A DPS analyst brought to the center to access databases ended up running errands and making phone calls because no one provided her with a computer.
And Crais testified that he at first dispatched two sergeants from the DPS special crimes division to man the command center, but that the politically charged atmosphere apparently made them anxious.
Crais said he took over command of the DPS operation in the Capitol after one of his subordinates called to say, "This is no place for a sergeant."