Baptism By Fire in the Governor's Mansion
How could Bill Jones prepare for space shuttle debris and executions?
Published in 2006 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 12, 2006
Updated on April 6, 2017
Imagine starting a new job and, as one of your first official duties, having to tell the new president of the United States what he can and cannot do.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” says Bill Jones, 47.
Jones served as Rick Perry’s general counsel when George W. Bush headed to Washington, D.C., to become the nation’s 43rd president, leaving his lieutenant governor to become Texas’ 47th governor. With a president-elect occupying the Texas governor’s mansion, novel legal issues — everything from the use of the telephones, to the handling of incoming mail, to transitioning into the new administration — arose that had to be resolved.
Jones says he worked through the various issues with President Bush’s general counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, now the nation’s attorney general. Before joining Bush’s staff, Gonzales was a partner with Vinson & Elkins, the law firm at which Jones is now a partner.
“Let’s just say we found a way to work it out so that everyone was happy. I was not about to hack off the president of the United States as one of my first duties as the governor’s general counsel,” says Jones.
The election of 2000 resulted in several recounts of election returns and a month of speculating whether George Bush or Al Gore had won. Given the uncertainty in Washington, D.C., the Perry team had less than three weeks to prepare for the 2001 Texas legislative session.
“I drank water from a fire hydrant for a while,” laughs Jones, who describes his early days in Austin as “trial by fire.” Although a seasoned attorney, Jones was confronted with myriad new-to-him legal issues, including criminal (executions and requests for pardons), legislative, state contracts and open records law matters. “I wouldn’t say [the pressure] kept me awake at night, but it made me get up pretty early in the morning,” says Jones. His three children and wife Johnita, a chemical engineer with ExxonMobil, remained in Houston until summer 2001, enabling Jones to immerse himself in his new job.
Punctuating the day-to-day routines were occasional moments of what Jones calls “high drama.” Shortly after arriving in Austin, for instance, Jones traveled to Huntsville to witness his first execution. “I did it because I wanted to be sure I understood everything that happened and that I appreciated the severity of what I was called on to do,” says Jones. “I’d never seen anything like it, but I didn’t want to do this from afar.” The experience, which included talking with the family of the victim of the executed prisoner, will always stand out in his mind.
In February 2003, Jones received a chilling phone call while attending a young lawyers’ conference in El Paso: The homeward-bound space shuttle Columbia, while streaking through the atmosphere at 18 times the speed of sound, had disintegrated 40 miles above the earth, killing its seven-member crew. Jones was asked to return to Austin at once to help prepare the governor for a press conference. Reports of charred debris falling from the sky across Texas and beyond raised a host of legal issues that the governor’s office had to address. How should they handle the finding of wreckage or remnants on private property? Who had jurisdiction when a body part or piece of equipment was found? The county coroner? The state? The federal government? How should the state cooperate with the federal government? How should the matter be investigated? As Jones recalls, his office maintained control and jurisdiction until the federal government stepped in.
“He did an outstanding job,” says Mike Toomey, Gov. Perry’s chief of staff during Jones’ tenure. “We came in contact with each other every day, on different issues, since he [was] the governor’s lawyer,” Toomey says. “I’m sure he was making a lot more money practicing law in Houston, but he moved with his family to Austin to take a big cut in pay. That says a lot when a person is willing to sacrifice money for public service.”
Jones won’t elaborate but says he took a greater than 50 percent cut in salary to join the governor’s staff for those three years. After working through two legislative sessions, special sessions where House members left the state and a complete turnover in the political guard, among other things, Jones returned to private practice, joining Vinson & Elkins’ public policy group in January.
“It was like adding Roger Clemens to the Houston Astros,” says Monty G. Humble, head of the public policy group. “Bill is a quality individual with tremendous integrity and professionalism, and we feel like having him join us really completed our team.”
“What I love about the job at V&E is that it is about as close as I can get to what I did at the governor’s office,” says Jones. “I discovered I really enjoyed the state government aspect of working with agencies, staff in various offices and officeholders. I enjoy it and still do. It is exciting to me.”
Son of a Preacher Man
The son of a Baptist minister who was also a rancher, Jones grew up in Caldwell, 25 miles west of Texas A&M, a school off-limits to African-Americans at the time of Jones’ birth in 1959, but from which he graduated in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in business management.
“I grew up hauling hay, fixing barbed-wire fences and working cattle, driving trucks and tractors at a very early age. That’s my background — country boy,” says Jones, dapper in a dark suit in his beautifully appointed Austin office.
One of seven children, Jones credits his eldest brother, Donald, 18 years his senior, with inspiring him to attend college. He vividly recalls spending three days as a 4-year-old on the campus of Prairie View A&M University, a state-supported college for African-Americans, from which his brother graduated. “I just thought that to go to college was the end-all and where-all of what to do when you grew up,” says Jones. Jones’ desire to be a lawyer was fueled more from seeing Perry Mason on television than from real life examples. “I liked the drama of it,” he recalls. “I wanted to be a courtroom lawyer.”
Jones enrolled at Baylor University Law School in February 1983, graduating as a moot court champion, member of the national mock trial team and member of the National Order of Barristers. Jones headed to what is now Locke Liddell & Sapp in Houston. But in 1991, he and fellow sixth-year associates David A. Springhetti and Michael P. Cash, his Baylor classmate, mock trial partner and longtime friend, decided to start their own firm. The new firm specialized in commercial litigation and real estate.
“It was a little chilling when we went and talked to Charles Sapp, the patriarch of the firm, and he said, ‘While I admire your entrepreneurial spirit, I question your timing,’” recalls Cash, now a shareholder in the Houston office of Winstead Sechrest & Minick. “The legal business was in a little bit of a downturn in 1991, but it worked out great.”
Cash, Jones and Springhetti practiced together for nearly 10 years before Jones left to serve the government. “I was surprised it didn’t happen sooner,” says Cash. “When you meet someone who appears to be the total package — straightforward, honest, ethical, talented, all that — the first thing most people ask is ‘Yeah, where’s the hidden flaw?’ Well, Bill just doesn’t have one. I’ve known him for 24 years — Bill is who you want your kids to grow up to be.”
Fred McClure, a partner in the Washington office of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, recalls Jones being a “trailblazer” through leadership activities during school and as a young professional. McClure, who graduated a few years before Jones from both Texas A&M and Baylor, says he communicated his belief to his pal Rick Perry that Jones would be a great general counsel, and that he, Perry and Jones discussed the possibility at an A&M football game. Why Jones? Because McClure felt he had “substantial” political instincts, would be loyal and would give the governor great legal advice. “I knew he wouldn’t be afraid to give the governor his unvarnished view of what he thought the governor should or should not do,” says McClure, “and that after the governor received his advice and made whatever decision the governor would make, [Jones] would salute and march forward to implement it.”
“It was an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often, especially for a young African-American kid from Caldwell, Texas, whose dad taught him how to haul hay and fix fences,” says Jones. “So I felt it was not an opportunity to be taken lightly and it would possibly mean even greater opportunities after the service was done than I could possibly generate on my own with my own firm. … It turned out to be one of the most wonderful things I have ever done.”
Ask Jones what’s next and he says, simply, that his goals are to help make V&E’s department a “great success.”
Talk to people who know him, and they express hope that he will return to the public arena. Austin attorney JoAnn Merica, president-elect of the Austin Bar Association, got to know Jones during his stint as president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association. She sums up her opinion of Jones: “The guy is a great speaker. He has been a great trial lawyer. He has been extremely successful at everything he’s done, and it is my hope that he has the ability and opportunity sometime in the future to lead this state in even bigger ways than he already has.”