Texas went through one of its traditional and periodic governmental scandals in 1971–72, when federal accusations and then a series of state charges were leveled against nearly two dozen state officials and former state officials. Before normalcy returned, Texas politics had taken a slight shift to the left and had undergone a thorough housecleaning: the incumbent governor was labeled an unindicted coconspirator in a bribery case and lost his bid for reelection; the incumbent speaker of the House of Representatives and two associates were convicted felons; a popular three-term attorney general lost his job; an aggressive lieutenant governor's career was shattered; and half of the legislature was either intimidated out or voted out of office. The scandal centered, initially, on charges that state officials had made profitable quick-turnover bank-financed stock purchases in return for the passage of legislation desired by the financier, Houston businessman Frank W. Sharp. By the time the stock fraud scandal died down, state officials also had been charged with numerous other offenses-including nepotism and use of state-owned stamps to buy a pickup truck.
In the 1972 electoral aftermath, incumbent Democrats were the big losers, although at the top level of officialdom it was a matter of conservative Democrats being replaced by less conservative Democrats. Using the scandal as a springboard, less conservative Democrats and Republicans carried the "reform" battle cry and also gained a stronger foothold in the legislature. Democrats, defensively, charged that the whole scandal atmosphere in Texas was a national Republican plot, originated in the Nixon administration's Department of Justice. But before the smoke cleared, Will Wilson, an ex-Democratic Texas attorney general, by then one of the top Texas Republicans in the federal government, was hounded from his position as chief of the criminal division of the Department of Justice because of his own business dealings with Sharp.
The political tumult that was to become known as the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal started out meekly, though symbolically, on the day Texas Democrats were gathering in Austin to celebrate their 1970 election victories and inaugurate their top officials. Attorneys for the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, late in the afternoon of January 18, 1971, filed a lawsuit in Dallas federal court alleging stock fraud against former Democratic state attorney general Waggoner Carr, former state insurance commissioner John Osorio, Frank Sharp, and a number of other defendants. The civil suit also was filed against Sharp's corporations, including the Sharpstown State Bank and National Bankers Life Insurance Corporation. But it was deep down in the supporting material of the suit that the SEC lawyers hid the political bombshells. There it was alleged that Governor Preston Smith, state Democratic chairman and state banking board member Elmer Baum, House Speaker Gus Mutscher, Jr., Representative Tommy Shannon of Fort Worth, Rush McGinty (an aide to Mutscher), and others-none of them charged in the SEC's suit-had, in effect, been bribed. The plot, according to the SEC, was hatched by Sharp himself, who wanted passage of new state bank deposit insurance legislation that would benefit his own financial empire. The SEC said the scheme was for Sharp to grant more than $600,000 in loans from Sharpstown State Bank to the state officials, with the money then used to buy National Bankers Life stock, which would later be resold at huge profits as Sharp artificially inflated the value of his insurance company's stock. The quarter-of-a-million-dollar profits were, in fact, made. But they weren't arranged by Sharp, the SEC said, until after Governor Smith made it possible for Sharp's bank bills to be considered at a special legislative session in September 1969, and Mutscher and Shannon then hurriedly pushed the bills through the legislature. (Smith later vetoed the bills on the advice of the state's top bank law experts, but not until he and Baum had made their profits on the bank loan-stock purchase deal.)
The state officials denied all the charges, asserting that they had obtained the bank loans and made the stock purchases purely as business transactions unrelated to the passage of Sharp's bank bills. But as the spring of 1971 droned into summer, political pressure mounted on Smith, Baum, Mutscher, and Shannon-even on Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, who had been connected in several tangential ways to Frank Sharp, his companies, and the bank bills. By the fall of 1971, when Mutscher and his associates were indicted, the politics of 1972 had begun to take shape. Incumbents moved as far away as possible, politically, from the "old system" and the current state leaders. New candidates came forward, some of them literally with no governmental experience, under a "throw the rascals out" banner.
Mutscher, Shannon, and McGinty were tried in Abilene, on a change of venue from Austin because of adverse pretrial publicity, in February and March 1972. The indictment charged the three men with conspiracy to accept a bribe from Sharp, and District Attorney R. O. (Bob) Smith of Austin said during the trial that Governor Smith was an unindicted coconspirator. Prosecutors acknowledged from the start that the case would be based entirely on circumstantial evidence, which produced legal technicalities inexplicable to laymen. But the jury needed only 140 minutes on March 15, 1972, after exposure to hundreds of pounds and hours of evidence, to find the Mutscher group guilty. The next day, at the request of the defendants, Judge J. Neil Daniel assessed punishment at five years' probation.
The conviction of the Abilene Three dramatically advanced the momentum of the "reform" movement, coming less than three months before primary elections, at which more legislative seats were contested than in any year since World War II. (Redistricting decisions by the federal courts added to the high percentage of electoral challenges, but the Sharpstown scandal generally was credited as the main factor.) In statewide races "reform" candidates also dominated. The Democratic governor's race saw two newcomers-liberal legislator Frances (Sissy) Farenthold of Corpus Christi and conservative rancher-banker Dolph Briscoe of Uvalde-run far ahead of Governor Smith, who was seeking a third term as governor, and Lieutenant Governor Barnes, whose seemingly inexorable rise to political prominence was ended when his reputation was tainted by the scandal. Briscoe defeated Farenthold in the runoff and later was elected governor; but Republican candidate Henry Grover of Houston and Raza Unida Party candidate Ramsey Muñiz of Waco drew enough votes to make Briscoe Texas's first "minority" governor. For the state's second top executive branch job, voters chose moderate Houston newspaper executive William P. Hobby, Jr., over seven other Democratic candidates as lieutenant governor-also on a "reform" theme. Reform-minded moderate Democrat John Luke Hill of Houston, a former secretary of state, left a successful private law practice to defeat the popular three-term attorney general, Crawford C. Martin, who had been criticized for his handling of the stock fraud scandal and for his own relationship with Frank Sharp. The Democratic primary and the general election of 1972 also produced a striking change in the legislature's membership, including a half-new House roster and a higher-than-normal turnover in the Senate. Most of the newcomers were committed to "reform" in some fashion, regardless of their ideological persuasion. The voters simultaneously indicated that their confidence in the legislature had been restored to some extent, because they approved in November 1972 an amendment allowing the legislature to sit as a constitutional convention in 1974. The convention failed by three votes on July 30, 1974, to approve a proposed new constitution for the voters to consider (see CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1974).
The final impact of the stock fraud scandal on Texas politics occurred during the regular session of the legislature in 1973. The lawmakers, led by new House Speaker Marion Price Daniel, Jr., of Liberty, a moderate and son of a former governor, with active support from Attorney General Hill and Lieutenant Governor Hobby and with verbal encouragement from Governor Briscoe, passed a series of far-reaching reform laws. Among other subjects, the legislation required state officials to disclose their sources of income, forced candidates to make public more details about their campaign finances, opened up most governmental records to citizen scrutiny, expanded the requirement for open meetings of governmental policy-making agencies, and imposed new disclosure regulations on paid lobbyists.