Texas Ag Commissioner May Have Billed Taxpayers for Trip to Get 'Jesus Shot'
By Brian M. Rosenthal
Less than a month after taking office, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller flew to Oklahoma City with a top aide, billing the taxpayers at least $1,120 for flights and a rental car, budget records show.
At the time, Miller said he made the trip to tour the Oklahoma National Stockyards and meet with Oklahoma lawmakers as well as the state's top agriculture official. His office posted a picture on Facebook of him with three lawmakers who his office said had invited him to the Sooner State's Capitol.
Recent interviews have cast doubt on that description, however. All of the lawmakers in the photograph, or their aides, said they did not invite Miller or even expect him in their state that day in February 2015. The president of the stockyards said it did not give him a tour. And Miller himself now acknowledges that he requested the meeting with the Oklahoma agriculture official -- and then did not show up.
A rental car receipt shows Miller and his aide drove 128 miles on the trip.
The interviews suggest a possible explanation: One of the lawmakers and another person with direct knowledge of the trip both said Miller told them that he got a medical procedure while in Oklahoma.
Miller, a former rodeo cowboy who suffers from chronic pain, told the Houston Chronicle earlier this year he has received the "Jesus Shot," a controversial but legal medication administered only by a single Oklahoma City-area doctor who claims that it takes away all pain for life.
Miller declined to confirm or deny whether he received the injection during the February 2015 trip.
The agriculture commissioner insisted that the trip was a business trip that served state taxpayers. If nothing else, Miller said, the Facebook picture proves that he met with Oklahoma lawmakers.
Still, one of those lawmakers described his talk with Miller as nothing more than a brief chat that started in a hallway.
Aides to the others agreed.
"He's saying that was the business purpose of his trip?" Rep. Jerry Shoemake said. "Really?"
In response to questions about the trip, Miller's office said late Thursday that he had decided to pay back the flight and rental car costs.
"Out of an abundance of caution the commissioner is reimbursing the state for the cost of this trip," spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said in an email. "He will continue to work on behalf of the agriculture industry in the Lone Star State, and travel across the country and around the world to identify new markets for Texas agricultural exports in order to grow the industry and create jobs for hardworking Texans."
The Oklahoma trip is the latest of several issues to arise about the spending of public funds by Miller, a first-term Republican who campaigned as a small-government conservative and has drawn criticism from lawmakers for imposing steep fee increases on farmers, ranchers and grocery stores.
The 'Jesus Shot'
The Houston Chronicle reported last year that Miller hired nine friends and campaign aides to new high-paying jobs without giving the public a chance to apply -- as required by law -- and that he also gave more bonuses in his first nine months than his predecessor awarded in his first two and a half years in office, according to hiring records.
Newly obtained records also show that Miller has flown first class, charged the state for cocktails and expensed 450 miles of driving for a trip to Fort Worth for a TV interview that he said was canceled after he arrived.
Ethics experts said that Miller's use of taxpayer funds to pay for the Oklahoma trip would be illegal if it was determined that the purpose of the trip was for personal reasons, such as a medical procedure, as opposed to public business.
"Oh, no question about it," said Buck Wood, a longtime Austin lobbyist who specializes in ethics. "Using it for a medical procedure? I can't even imagine anybody doing that. But I guess I haven't seen everything."
The "Jesus Shot" is a legal medical procedure, according to the Oklahoma Medical Board. It apparently was created 33 years ago by John Michael Lonergan, who goes by "Dr. Mike."
Lonergan moved to Oklahoma a decade ago after losing his Ohio medical license when he was convicted of felony tax evasion, records show.
The "Jesus Shot" costs about $300 and includes Dexamethasone, Kenalog and B12, which have each been approved to treat inflammation, according to Dr. Mary Schrick of Full Circle Integrated Health in Edmond, Okla., which used to host Lonergan's practice.
Reached at the Priceless Beauty Spa in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, where he works on Thursday mornings, Lonergan declined to comment.
Miller said during a brief interview earlier this year that the "Jesus Shot" has worked well for him.
"That's private medical information. I'm not going to share that with you," he said. "But it's worked out good."
In that interview, Miller said he had never used taxpayer money to travel to Oklahoma.
"My private money, my private doctor," he said.
Stands by account
In response to a public records request for documents about all of Miller's travel, the Agriculture Department initially did not provide any information about the Oklahoma trip. Only after a separate request asked specifically about the trip did the department produce records, including the rental car receipt.
The department called the initial omission "inadvertent."
Asked during an interview last week to explain what happened, Miller shrugged.
"I have no idea," he said. "I'm certainly not trying to keep anything from you."
The trip to Oklahoma took place the same week as a National Association of State Departments of Agriculture conference in Washington, D.C., which was attended by both Miller and Jim Reese, the Oklahoma agriculture chief.
Kandi Batts, an assistant to Reese, said her office did not know why Miller asked Reese for the follow-up meeting -- or why he did not show up. The meeting was not rescheduled, Batts added.
After being told last week that the Oklahoma agriculture department had said that he requested the meeting and did not show, Miller said his memory had been "jogged."
"You're correct," he said, explaining that he proposed the meeting with the Oklahoma official because the two did not get enough time to talk at the conference earlier that week. He did fail to make the meeting, he acknowledged, but only because he and his aide had accidentally gone to the wrong place.
Miller also acknowledged that he did not get a "tour" of the stockyards, as his office had claimed. Instead, he said, he just stopped by and looked around for a few minutes.
He stood behind his explanation of the meetings at the Capitol, saying that he met with lawmakers for more than two hours about the federal government's attempt to seize land along the Red River, Lake Texoma and feral hogs, among other issues. He pointed to another photo showing him and his aide smiling next to Rep. Shoemake and fellow Oklahoma Reps. Brian Renegar, Wade Rousselot and Jerry McPeak.
"It was a pretty lengthy meeting," Miller said. "We covered a lot of ground."
The Oklahoma lawmakers and their aides painted a different picture.
Aides to Renegar and Rousselot said their bosses did not set aside any time to meet with Miller and were just pulled into a discussion already taking place at the Capitol.
"I don't think it was planned," said Louise Aldridge, the Renegar aide.
McPeak's legislative assistant said the meeting was not initiated by her office, either. She also described it as brief and noted that there has not been any follow-up.
"I don't know how much more I can tell you about 15 minutes a year ago," said the assistant, Janice Stotts.
Shoemake, the fourth lawmaker to talk with Miller, agreed with the others about the day.
The lawmaker said he ran into Miller in the hallway and, after learning that he was the Texas agriculture commissioner, struck up a brief conversation.
"It was 15 minutes, at most," he said.
Asked what the discussion was about, Shoemake hesitated.
"What'd we talk about?" he added. "Nothing in particular. I mean, nothing."
(c)2016 the Houston Chronicle