The following article was published today in the Texas Tribune, authored by Christine Ayala and Jay Root. UPDATE: The same article was republished in the New York Times with the title “A Texas Official’s D.W.I. Case Is Being Seen in a Softer Light”
A top state official gets arrested for drunken driving in Austin and refuses breath and blood tests. Police cite erratic driving and uncooperative behavior, and critics say the official is unfit to serve in public office.
No, this is not the case of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, the Democrat at the center of Gov. Rick Perry’s abuse-of-office indictment.
It’s Republican Jack Stick, the top lawyer for the state’s sprawling health care agency, which was recently accused in a federal audit of failing to prevent millions of misspent dollars on medically unnecessary orthodontia.
Stick’s DWI case is scheduled for a pretrial hearing next week after two years of delay — all of it amid a virtual wall of silence from Perry on down.
There are key differences in the cases. Lehmberg pleaded guilty, spent 45 days in jail and expected to resume her job without issue. Stick, stopped by Austin police on Sept. 11, 2012, has actively fought the charges, leaving the case unresolved. In Lehmberg’s case, video showed her shouting at jail staff, kicking doors and being physically restrained. Stick can be seen on a police video arguing with an officer about taking a field sobriety test, and he was deemed “uncooperative” in the arrest report. But he did not act belligerently or resist arrest.
Yet some say the way Stick’s case has been handled highlights a double standard in the Perry administration. In Lehmberg’s case, Perry said he had lost confidence in her fitness to oversee $7.5 million in state funds — which he eliminated with a veto — that were destined for her office’s corruption-busting state public integrity unit.
Stick, meanwhile, has been promoted and helps oversee the agency that is the state’s second largest recipient of taxpayer funds — the Health and Human Services Commission — at a time when it is under the microscope for its Medicaid spending and some health care providers are complaining about unfair treatment.
“There is certainly inconsistency,” said state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a Laredo Democrat who heads up the House Committee on Human Services, which oversees the commission. “The argument on Lehmberg was, ‘I’m going to veto money because she clearly doesn’t have the trust.’ On this other one where the money is so much bigger, you have the people that are running it who, even if they were stone-cold sober, you wonder about their judgment.”
Glenn Smith, director of the liberal Progress Texas PAC, said Stick’s arrest should not have gone so unnoticed.
“The current leadership in Austin sure does seem to have somewhat of a double standard when it comes to judging people who have these difficulties,” Smith said. Perry “is posturing, trying to take this sort of ultimate moral high ground in regards to the district attorney,” he added, while staying silent when he had nothing to gain or the situation involved “people in positions of power in his own party.”
Calls to Perry’s office were not returned, and Stick declined an interview. But Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the health commission, said Medicaid spending for orthodontics — the subject of the damning federal audit — decreased after Stick joined the agency in 2011 as deputy inspector general. She said Stick would not comment on the DWI case.
And Stick’s current boss, Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek, a Perry appointee, said there was no comparison between the two DWI cases. Janek was appointed commissioner 10 days before Stick’s DWI.
“There is no doubt as to what took place with the other case. Admission of guilt. Punishment meted out,” Janek said. “We are not there yet.”
Janek would not speculate on Stick’s future with the agency if he were found guilty.
After two years of delays, Stick faces an Oct. 2 hearing that should result in either a guilty plea or a trial date, according to Corby Holcomb, assistant trial director for the Travis County attorney’s office.
Stick’s lawyer, Brian Roark, has asked the judge to scrap the dashboard camera video of Stick’s arrest — along with anything the police collected, wrote or said regarding the case — because Stick claims to have been detained without probable cause.
According to police records, after his arrest, Stick said a blood test would exonerate him. But those records show he refused any form of field sobriety, breath or blood tests. It is possible he gave blood pursuant to a search warrant.
A lawyer, Stick said at the time of his arrest that his defense of “hundreds” of DWI suspects led him to believe sobriety tests were inaccurate.
“I do not think I would be successful in my field sobriety test,” Stick told the officer. “I’m just saying for people like me who are apprehensive about taking a test, who are nervous — my knees are shaking.”
Stick told the arresting officer he had four drinks earlier that night: a glass of wine and a few manhattans at Perry’s Steakhouse and Grille and the Driskill Hotel.
“I was working,” Stick told police. “I met some people.”
Goodman, the spokeswoman, could not say what state agency work Stick was doing that night. Records show he was stopped shortly before 11 p.m. on a Tuesday.
Despite the unresolved DWI and Stick’s critics, Janek said he has done “a good job” at the agency.
“Jack is conscientious in his work,” Janek said. “He works very hard to get the information I need out of our counsel, and he is working very hard to open up the process and the office of chief counsel.”
As deputy inspector general, Stick worked in the office tasked with detecting fraud and waste. Janek said that office has been very aggressive in going after suspect providers.
Some of those providers say the agency has treated them unfairly. The advocacy group Texas Dentists for Medicaid Reform has singled out Stick for what they say is inappropriate treatment of providers who were investigated for fraud.
Paul Dunn, a Levelland dentist, is one of them. Dunn disputed Stick’s quality of work at a legislative hearing in June.
Dunn’s practice came under investigation in January 2013 and had its Medicaid reimbursement payments put on hold, which is a federal requirement during such investigations.
“He has my life in his grip and has basically destroyed it,” Dunn said. “He told me in the first meeting we had, ‘You didn’t commit fraud,’ but the way the system is set up, he has got me on a payment hold and only he can turn it loose. He has bankrupted my business.”
The commission is blaming a private contractor, a subsidiary of Xerox, for failing to properly review and process Medicaid claims since 2008, and providers have been investigated in droves to check for fraud.
Goodman acknowledged that Stick has rubbed some providers the wrong way in the process, but she said it has all been in the service of taxpayers.
“To be honest with you, he ruffles feathers because he can be very frank in his discussions,” she said. “That doesn’t make the decisions wrong. In fact, I think they’ve been the right decisions for the taxpayers and the agency. Strong actions sometimes make you enemies.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/09/28/top-republicans-dwi-case-being-seen-softer-light/.