His top political aide gets a $29,000 loan from a campaign donor led to believe there is a state appointment in it for him. The big donor he appoints as a medical expert to one of his boards has had his license revoked in three states. And to top it off, his bid to license and regulate every barbecue scale in Texas is thwarted by the Attorney General.
It has been quite an April for Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.
The man who was once in the same week called “the Slim Pickens of Texas politics,” and “the Donald Trump of Texas politics” is not the best known Ag Commissioner in Texas history (that would be former governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry). He has another 24 years to go to match John White, the longest serving commissioner.
His collective misdeeds and missteps don’t yet place him in the Texas gallery of political rogues along with George Parr, the Duke of Duval County and the infamous Ballot Box 13 that secured Lyndon Johnson’s 1948 election to the U.S. Senate. Or the dozens of state lawmakers and officials caught up in the Sharpstown stock scandal in the early 1970s.
But in the events of the last month and his record since taking statewide office in January of 2015, it is clear he has been committed to raising the profile and importance of the Agriculture Department and raising the profile and importance of Sid Miller.
Miller is “arguably Texas’ worst statewide elected official,” said Jon Taylor, political science professor and director of the master’s program in Public Policy and Administration at St. Thomas University in Houston. “He’s emblematic of what happens when one party so dominates statewide elected offices.”
The public information office for the Department of Agriculture on Tuesday acknowledged by email receiving a request by The Texas Monitor to interview Miller for this story. Miller did not respond to the request by the time the story was published.
While revelations of donor promises involving his chief political consultant Todd Smith — experts have called them both examples of “pay-to-play” — have gotten more attention, and justifiably so, it’s Miller’s opposition to the so-called Barbecue Bill that offers a glimpse into his real political agenda with the Agriculture Department.
The Legislature easily passed House Bill 2029 in the last session, creating an exemption for retailers who use scales “exclusively used to weigh food sold for immediate consumption.”
The Department of Agriculture estimates there are nearly 18,000 retailers who use some kind of scale to apportion what they sell to their customers. As it involved Texas’ beloved barbecue, the exemption didn’t seem like a big deal.
It was, however, an affront to Miller. In an editorial he wrote for the Texas Tribune prior to the bill’s passage, Miller said “This bad bill gives places like barbecue joints a license to steal by exempting them from state consumer protection laws designed to protect Texans like you and me.”
“It only costs a barbecue restaurant $35 per year to register that scale. That’s about the same cost as a couple of pounds of brisket. Cowboy logic says that this isn’t about the fee.”
If the cowboy in question is the Ag Commissioner, it was not only about the fee, but the authority to levy it. One of Miller’s first major initiatives was something he dubbed Operation Maverick.
On his first day in office, Miller called a press conference, and with a cupcake trailer behind him announced the liberation of public school children from the punitive lunch guidelines enacted by Commissioner Susan Combs and undone by his predecessor, Todd Staples.
The food deregulator, who had voted as a Republican state representative from Stephenville for significant cuts to the Agriculture Department budget in 2011, confessed his sin. “We were broke. We were upside down and in the hole and we had to tighten our belt. However, that’s not the case now.”
Miller asked the 2015 Legislature to increase his department’s biennial budget by $50 million. And while that didn’t seem much for an agency with a biennial budget of $1.1 billion, it was a 50 percent increase in state funding. More than 90 percent of Miller’s budget is controlled by federal funding.
Included in the budget increase and later removed when it was discovered by a Texas Tribune reporter was a plush remodeling of Miller’s office. The disclosure also drew attention to Smith, whose wife, Kellie Housewright-Smith, was Miller’s hand-picked, $180,000 a year assistant commissioner for operations overseeing the remodeling project.
When Housewright-Smith stepped forward to claim she tried to get the remodel killed, Ag Department spokesman Bryan Black produced documentation that she had several weeks earlier been fired and that her statements were “stories made up by a disgruntled former employee.”
The Legislature responded by cutting general revenues for Agriculture to $105.4 million in the next biennium from its current $106.1.
Deprived of new tax funding, Miller decided on a plan to raise nearly $23 million dollars every two years by raising fees on almost every regulatory mandate in the department. Nearly $21 million of it would come by an almost doubling of weights and measures inspection fees: Operation Maverick.
The department actually raised more than twice that — $27.3 million — in the 2016 calendar year, $6.5 million more than Miller had said it would cost to fund all the new regulation, according to a state audit issued in August of 2017.
“He is a fiscal conservative in name only,” Taylor said.
He announced last August that without the dozens of new inspectors he asked for, the inspection of gas pumps would have to be outsourced.
Paxton likely finished the last remnant of Operation Maverick when he issued a non-binding opinion this week that said Miller’s department misunderstood the regulatory implications of the Barbecue Bill.
“A court would likely conclude that the Department of Agriculture’s rules implementing section 13.1002 of the Agriculture Code are invalid to the extent the rules impose the additional burden of requiring a purchaser to consume food on the premises in order for the seller to obtain an exemption from Department regulation over devices used to weigh food sold for immediate consumption,” Paxton wrote in his opinion.
While creating this record with consumers and the agriculture industry, Miller has created another record with those closest to him politically. Before the end of his first year in office, the self-described fiscal conservative had handed out more bonus money to favored employees — $413,700 — than Staples did in his first two and a half years.
Miller has so far declined to comment on the actions of Smith. The Austin American-Statesman buried news of the Barbecue Bill opinion with the story of Richard Branson who told a reporter in an email, “I gave $1K to Miller with the assurance of some type of position with Sid Miller’s rural health program wherein I could help provide guidance and counsel of better access to health care in Texas by promoting PA practice.”
Branson, owner of Atlantic Family Healthcare in San Antonio, said Smith asked for the donation and suggested an appointment as a rural health care policy advisor for Miller could be arranged. According to the story, when Smith asked for a personal loan of $29,000, Branson obliged.
“It sounds like Todd Smith was selling access to Miller,” Craig McDonald, director of the liberal watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice, told the Statesman. “It creates the impression that if you lend this high-powered lobbyist money that you’re actually going to accrue some favors or some clout with the politicians that he represents,”
Court records show Smith hasn’t repaid the loan and Branson did not get an appointment, the story said.
Rick Ray Redalen, however, did win a Miller appointment to the Rural Health Task Force. Redalen, who refers to himself on his website as The Maverick Doctor, made an in-kind contribution of the use of a motor home, valued at $80,000, to Miller in July of 2017, and $17,000 more the year before, according to required reports to the Texas Ethics Commission.
Redalen’s company, Quest Global Benefits, has had Smith on retainer for between $200,000 and $250,000 a year since 2015, according to Ethics Commission filings. The company features telemedicine services, something Redalen has advocated for as a task force member.
When the Statesman reported earlier this month that he no longer was licensed to practice medicine — he lost a license in Iowa in part for lying about his marriage to a 15-year-old former stepdaughter — Redalen said he did not expect anything in return for donating to Miller.
“I could have retired years ago. I don’t need the money,” he told the Statesman. “What I’m trying to do is help people in Texas get better health care.”
In both the Branson and Redalen cases Buck Wood, a renowned expert and author of some of the ethics laws in Texas, told the Statesman the judgement used all around “sure stinks to high heaven,” but there were no laws broken. Redalen is nothing more than an advisor with no real political clout, and, despite Smith’s relationship with Miller, he is not an elected official in a position to make good on his promise, Wood said.
Based on his past record, it’s not likely Miller will dump Redalen or apologize for Smith. When it was discovered Miller had improperly charged state taxpayers for a trip to Oklahoma, not on official business but to get a treatment referred to as a Jesus Shot from a physician of questionable background, Miller repaid the state, but without contrition.
When the press has complained of inflammatory social media posts made on accounts attached to Miller — a veiled threat of nuclear retaliation in the Middle East in 2015 and a vulgar reference to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election — Smith has made sure the offending posts disappeared, explaining away how they got posted in the first place.
Miller has said nothing.
“Why Texas Republican primary voters gave this self-aggrandizing clown a pass is beyond me — other than his strong ties to Trump,” Taylor said. “It’s depressing to think that given the current political landscape, Miller will likely easily win re-election this November due to his sheer dumb luck of being a Republican in a state with a relatively hapless Democratic Party.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].