The chairman of the Texas Lottery Commission said Wednesday that politics will play no part in whether a powerful ex-lawmaker is hired to run the beleaguered state agency.
Former state Rep. Talmadge Heflin, a Houston Republican who lost his bid for a 12th term by a scant 16 votes last year, was an 11th-hour entry into the hunt to replace former director Reagan Greer after Lottery Commission Chairman C. Thomas Clowe encouraged him to apply last month. At least eight other applicants had made it to the final round of interviews before Heflin was asked to apply.
Clowe, who with fellow Commissioner Jim Cox conducts the final interviews and will ultimately decide whom to hire for the $115,000-a-year job, said Wednesday that no one applicant should be considered a front-runner. He also said that any suggestion that Heflin, former chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, is being considered because of perceived political connections would be misplaced.
"I don't owe anybody anything with this decision," Clowe said. "All I am interested in is that we get the best person in that position to take the agency to the next level. No one has asked me to consider his application and no one has suggested to me that I am under any obligation to hire him."
Heflin, who as Appropriations Committee chairman in 2003 spearheaded the Legislature's efforts to bridge a $9.9 billion budget shortfall without raising state taxes, did not return calls seeking comment. But Clowe said that he hoped that both he and Cox could interview the ex-lawmaker before the next Lottery Commission meeting Dec. 15. The commission is a three-member panel, but one position is vacant.
Clowe said Heflin would have to abandon any thoughts of running for his old House seat if he accepts the lottery post.
Whoever gets the job will take over an agency that has been mired in controversy for much of the past six months. Greer resigned after the Star-Telegram reported in June that he had approved advertising a jackpot for the Lotto Texas game that could not have been supported by ticket sales. It later came to light that advertised jackpots had been inflated on several other occasions.
Lottery officials have also been in an ongoing dispute with a former computer analyst for the agency over whether the lottery's $3 million disaster recovery center, nicknamed "the bunker," is capable of taking over operations if a calamity shuts down lottery headquarters in downtown Austin.
Shelton Charles, a 10-year lottery employee before being fired last month, told a legislative panel that computers and other high-tech equipment at the disaster recovery center were either inoperative or inadequate to support the agency in an emergency. Lottery officials called before the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee, disputed Charles' allegations, but they were unable to say exactly when the site was up and running.
But officials notified the committee's staff this week that the disaster site has been operational since July 1999. Charles, whose job description had included monitoring conditions at the disaster site, said the claim was false. The committee is still examining the matter.
Critics have pointed out that Heflin opposed the creation of the state lottery in 1991 and has no experience running gaming operations. But state Rep. Delwin Jones, a Lubbock Republican, said the lottery needs someone with Heflin's stature to restore the Legislature's confidence in the agency that raises about $1 billion a year for the state treasury.
"We need someone over there who can give us a straight answer to all these questions," Jones said. "I don't think we are always getting that now from that agency. I would be very comfortable with Talmadge heading it up."
Clowe said no action will be taken on the matter until he is certain that the right candidate has been found.
"Haste is really not what's important here," he said. "Making the right decision is the important matter."