Hank Gilbert, the Democratic nominee for state agriculture commissioner, has hammered incumbent Todd Staples, a Republican, on many fronts, including his agency's performance inspecting gas pumps to make sure they work right.
PolitiFact Texas just checked his September claim that pumps in each of the state's five Texas Department of Agriculture regions lack required state stickers or have stickers that are out of date. We rated that statement Half True.
But today's venture into the state's vast span o' pumps was touched off by an Aug. 20 press release from Staples' campaign bringing to light a video of Gilbert at the Central Texas Democratic Forum on Jan. 11--yes, January. That's when he told the Dems that he'd fire about half the agriculture department's employees at headquarters in order to hire "people to put in the field because that's where we need it. Because right now we have so little people in the field, the HEBs of this state, the Brookshires of this state, they're calibrating their own gas pumps. The TDA just sends them the stickers and they calibrate them. So we literally do have the fox guarding the hen house. That's got to stop."
We wondered how such a dramatic statement had slipped past us. Has anyone else noticed that the state sends stickers to stores that calibrate their own pumps? Are things that cozy?
Responding to our query, Gilbert's campaign manager, Vince Leibowitz, said in an e-mail that both HEB and Brookshire independently have their gas pumps certified between state inspections.
Per Gilbert's statement that the agriculture department "sends them the stickers," Leibowitz said Gilbert wasn't referring to the state inspection seals, which he said can only be affixed by agency employees. Leibowitz said Gilbert meant "independent inspector" stickers--again, not the same as state stickers--which he said Gilbert has seen on Brookshire pumps in East Texas.
However, Leibowitz said, "to our knowledge, TDA does not send out those stickers. Hank misspoke." Asked if Gilbert subsequently issued a correction or retraction, Leibowitz replied by e-mail that "someone approached him after this to talk to him about it, and he clarified what he intended to say. He has since not similarly misspoken and has talked about gas pumps dozens and dozens of times on the stump."
Hot on this sticker trail, we checked with the Texas Department of Agriculture whose spokesman, Bryan Black, said its inspectors are the only personnel authorized to inspect a fuel pump and apply its "weights and measure seal. That is the law and that is our policy."
Stores of all sizes must calibrate their pumps by using registered service technicians, licensed by the TDA, Black said. State law requires each pump to be inspected every four years, he said, though since 2007, the average time between inspections has been 2.6 years.
A TDA Web page says the department has 72 weights and measures inspectors throughout the state checking more than 65,000 fuel pumps a year. Leibowitz said Gilbert foresees eliminating various agency positions and using the savings to hire more field inspectors, but that it's "inappropriate and premature" to detail those plans.
Next, we queried HEB and Brookshire about their gas pumps. Both told us they contract the calibration of their pumps to outside vendors.
Explained Sam Anderson, spokesman for the Tyler-based Brookshire Grocery Company: "If they pass (state) inspection, the Department of Agriculture provides their stickers. If we are not compliant, we have to have our service provider come back out to fix them. Then the department comes back out." In a follow-up e-mail, Anderson said the grocery store does not have its own certification stickers on its approximately 400 dispensers.
So, how does the meter swing on Gilbert's statement?
Stores do indeed calibrate their gas pumps--by using state-certified technicians. But Gilbert leaves the impression this practice is new and nefarious -- and a substitute for state inspections. It's not. Also, as Gilbert's campaign acknowledged to us, his statement that the state sends stickers to stores simply isn't so.
Gilbert may have only said this to a single audience. Regardless, his claim--which was never corrected publicly--incorrectly suggests wrongdoing, and state complicity in that wrongdoing. On the Truth-O-Meter, that's fuel enough to rate False.