WASHINGTON--The day before Texas Governor Rick Perry issued his now-controversial executive order mandating the administration of the HPV vaccine, an aide sought "under the table" input on the deal, according to an internal email, an awkward turn of phrase given the charges of corruption that surround the mandated vaccination.
On February 1, 2007, Gregory Davidson, the governor's executive clerk, sent an email to other staffers soliciting final comments for Perry's executive order. In the email, he wrote, "If you've been working offline on some changes or under the table with someone else on this one, get your comments to me ASAP."
The Davidson email was included in emails released to several news outlets by the Perry administration as part of a public records request.
Davidson sent the awkward email to Perry's inner circle, which included top official Deirdre Delisi, deputy chief of staff Phil Wilson, communications director Robert Black and budget director Mike Morrissey. Among the email's recipients, five are lobbyists or former lobbyists. Four, including Delisi and Black, currently hold key positions in the Perry campaign.
Subsequent responses to Davidson's request have been redacted by the governor's lawyers.
The email could be a harmless query from a Perry underling, or it could be an unsubtle acknowledgement that the major players on this issue were doing much of their deliberating off-line, practicing, as Perry's opponents put it, "crony capitalism." Perry is absent from the email exchange, as is Mike Toomey, the governor's former chief of staff-turned-elite lobbyist, whose clients included Merck, the pharmaceutical company that stood to benefit from the vaccine mandate.
The governor's decision to issue the executive order has earned criticism from his fellow presidential candidates as an example of intrusive big government and the act of an unethical administration that lavished government contracts on politically connected companies. The order had mandated that young girls be vaccinated against HPV, which has been found to cause cervical cancer, though it did offer parents the chance to opt out. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann labeled the vaccine a "government injection" and has repeatedly highlighted Toomey's link to Merck.
Davidson is unwilling to comment on his email. He did not return multiple calls seeking clarification. A former Perry staffer who was on the email traffic says that whatever discussions they had were strictly above board. In fact, there was little debate on mandating the vaccine. "It was never an issue of not doing it," the staffer said. "We knew if you don't do the mandate, you don't get compliance. The mandate drives compliance."
Perry is unlikely to embrace the 'm' word or offer a straightforward answer on the controversial subject. At the start of his campaign in August, the governor conceded his executive order had been a mistake -- that it should have included an opt-in clause instead of the opt out. But in the first two debates, he championed the original opt-out rule before falling back to favoring the opt-in idea. At the last debate, he said he was lobbied by a 31-year-old woman with stage-4 cervical cancer before he issued the order. This turned out not to be true.
"I think he's trying to communicate to the American people his deep-felt belief in the issue of trying to protect the lives of young girls," says Perry insider Reggie Bashur.
What is clear from the email traffic on the executive order is Merck's lobbyists' involvement in implementing public policy.
If Toomey wasn't sending emails, his lobbying firm colleague Lara Keel was. Perry's staff appeared to work closely with the lobbyist on ironing out the number of participants, the costs of the program and its p.r. campaign. Three months before Perry issued his executive order, the Merck lobby is helping to draw up a defense.
On Oct. 31, 2006, Keel emailed the governor's assistant budget director, "I am attaching a map of the U.S. that details what states are covering the cervical cancer vaccine, as well as age groups etc." Keel wrote, "It's as of two days ago. I believe this is exactly the info you are looking for ... Let me know what else I can get to you."
Both Toomey and Keel did not return calls seeking comment.
The Austin American-Statesman found other examples of Perry's office working closely with Merck and being sensitive to the appearance of colluding with the company.
On November 7, the day Perry won re-election, the newspaper wrote that one adviser emailed Toomey and Keel the "projected costs of providing the HPV vaccine to low-income Texans."
The day before Perry signed the executive order, his assistant budget director emailed a prescient critique of the press release: "That first line sounds almost like a Merck commercial."
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