AUSTIN, Texas – Democratic lawmakers in Texas and Washington, D.C., reacted with outrage following revelations a state agency destroyed documents about its search for legislators who fled to Oklahoma to block passage of a redistricting bill.
The Texas Department of Public Safety (search) issued a statement Wednesday saying it destroyed the records and photographs because federal regulations prohibit it from keeping intelligence information that is not part of a criminal case.
State Rep. Kevin Bailey, the Democratic chairman of the House General Investigating Committee, said it appears such regulations are true only for a federal investigation or an investigation funded by federal money.
Bailey said the destruction "keeps us wondering, keeps people wondering: Is there something to hide?"
In Washington, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas (search), a former Border Patrol chief, said "every single law enforcement officer knows and understands the consequences that go with the obstruction of justice, the consequences that go with lack of public trust."
More than 50 Democratic legislators left the state before the scheduled May 12 redistricting debate and stayed at a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla. They did not return to Texas until after the May 15 deadline for passage of House bills.
Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick (search) ordered state troopers to find the lawmakers and bring them back to Austin so a quorum could be achieved in the House and the GOP-backed redistricting bill could be debated.
Craddick said Wednesday he knew nothing about the destroyed documents, and added the matter was being blown out of proportion.
"I'm afraid that those who are pursuing a conspiracy are drilling a dry well," he said.
The DPS memo ordering the documents be destroyed was e-mailed May 14, the day after the search for the legislators was called off, DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said.
The order stated: "Any notes, correspondence, photos, etc. that were obtained pursuant to the absconded House of Representative members shall be destroyed immediately. No copies are to be kept. Any questions please contact me." It was signed by L.C. "Tony" Marshall, commander of the DPS Special Crimes Service.
Marshall Caskey, chief of the agency's criminal law enforcement division, told Marshall to order the documents destroyed, Vinger said.
Texas law generally requires that records be kept for a period of time, but it was unclear how those guidelines applied in this case. A spokeswoman for GOP Attorney General Greg Abbott said his office would investigate only if a public records request had been pending when the records were destroyed. She said the office was unaware of any such requests.
In Washington, some Democrats accused Republicans of using tax-supported, anti-terrorism agencies for political purposes.
"Misuse of federal law enforcement agencies for domestic political purposes. Sounds like Watergate in 1974 and Richard Nixon, doesn't it?," said U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards.
Democratic Rep. Martin Frost noted the documents were ordered destroyed the day the Fort Worth Star-Telegram first reported that a federal agency within the Homeland Security Department had been contacted to help track the private plane of former House Speaker Pete Laney, one of the missing Democrats.
U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican and a driving force behind the Texas congressional redistricting plan, said Wednesday he would not comment on "false accusations" connected to the DPS document destruction.
DeLay said last week his office investigated on Craddick's behalf whether the FBI and U.S. marshals could be used to help round up the Democratic state legislators.