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Susan Combs: The TT Interview

Photo by Bob Daemmrich, Texas Tribune

This has been a busy year for state Comptroller Susan Combs.

The state Legislature began the year with a deficit in the current budget and a $28 billion shortfall in the next one, a financial predicament that put a heavy load on the state's chief financial officer. Last spring, her aides announced the agency had left personal information about 3.5 million current and former public school and state employees in an unsecure spot on her agency's website. After that news had been knocked around in public for several days, she took responsibility and fired some of her agency's technology managers. She has since beefed up the agency's privacy standards and has consultants working to see what harm was actually done. Separately, but also central to her political future, she changed her position on abortion rights. All of this came after she told the Tribune she might be interested in running for lieutenant governor in 2014 should the opportunity present itself.

This week, Combs agreed to talk about the year behind her and what's ahead. Here's an edited transcript of the interview.

TT: Tell me what's going on with the data stuff, and what happens going forward.

Combs: We had a consultant come in, Deloitte. We had them double-check us, to take a look at was there anything else out there. The answer was no, nothing else was exposed. And the way that that data exposure happened has been fixed. It cannot happen again. We are getting a report in from our other consultant about a very good list of things that we are already in process of doing, will continue to do, and it's a variety of things. Some of it is hiring a chief privacy officer. We're the only agency in the state to have a chief privacy officer.

I am not a subject matter expert on this, clearly. What the experts will tell you is that you've got to deal with both the humans and the machines. So you want to have an extremely robust culture in your agency of understanding it's every single person's responsibility to care about data security.  If you've got a computer password, do you have it on your desk, on a card?


TT: No.

Combs: Well, people do. This kind of data is everywhere. We've got to teach the humans. It's everybody's job. It's not just nobody's job, it's everybody's job. Then, in addition, have other things which I'm, for security reasons, I'm not going to tell you, but there are other things that we'll have in place. Software sets of eyes and ears that will in fact document whether people are doing what they're supposed to do. It is ever-changing. You're always in a sense lagging technology. You have the Pentagon being hacked into. You have China being very, very aggressive. All you can do is keep moving the defense line forward, keep moving it daily, and make it clear that it is something that is extremely important all through the system. You're never done. There is no silver bullet. You are never done.

TT: What was the damage assessment? Have you got any kind of feedback or information on what happened with it?

Combs: What we know is that we have no evidence that anybody has been harmed by the exposure. We have no evidence. We pay attention all the time. Some folks who may have accessed it did not know what it was, could not open it, could not access it and got rid of it. Although it was exposed, it was not utilized.

TT: You say "some folks" who accessed it. Do you know of anybody who got access to it who knew what to do with it?

Combs: We don't know of a single entity. No. And we've been looking.

TT: Is there any other remaining potential exposure still there from the earlier breach?

Combs: We have no evidence of that, again. But I can't absolutely say no. I don't know that. But the people who are the experts on this have said they know of no reason why there would be something else happen. All I do is I ask and I ask and I ask and we check and I ask.

TT: Are you doing this for other agencies?

Combs: No, I don't have any role there. The authority for the security standards for the state is with DIR (the Department of Information Resources) and to some extent, with DPS (the Department of Public Safety). The real challenge is that ... let's call them Agency X has a really bad system. How can Agency X even tell anybody without revealing a vulnerability? I think that's actually kind of a challenge.

TT: How does all of this play into your politics? What's the political impact of all of this?

Combs: I don't have any idea. I don't know. All I know is that there's a problem, I'm taking responsibility for it and I'm fixing it. I would suggest that other agencies need to look to their stuff, too.

TT: Let's talk politics for a sec. What are you going to run for, if anything?

Combs: I don't know. I'm keeping my options open. Today is, by the way, today is Aug. 3, 2011. I got years. I have nearly three and a half years left in my very important, very interesting day job. And I take my day job very seriously. I do generally put in about 12 hours a day in my day job. … I am focused on my job. I just got elected. I didn't get elected to sit around and not do my job. I got elected to do my job, and that is what I'm doing.

TT: When you're raising money — and at a pretty good clip — what are you telling those folks? What are they asking you?

Combs: I say, "There may be an opportunity ahead. I'm a big fan of [Lt. Gov. David] Dewhurst. I've worked well with him. I don't know if that spot will open up. I do want to know if you might help me continue my public service." And the response, as you can tell, has been good. Also, I would say this: The people that give me money, I think, think I've done a good job. I don't think they give me money because they think I'm doing a lousy job. I haven't terrified people. I haven't threatened people. People think I'm doing a good job.

TT: Let's talk about choice. I understand your position on that has changed. Tell me where you were and where you're going.

Combs: Twenty years ago, I was pro-choice, not pro-abortion. I was pro-choice because I had concerns about the role of government. Here we are, you go to 2004, 5, 6, 7, 8, and I am actually stunned to find, in the 21st century, past the year 2000, that we are seeing abortion — which I really thought was rare — being used as a contraceptive. It's just birth control. I spent some years that I am very proud of, being a prosecutor, handling child abuse and incest cases. And I saved kids. I really did save kids. I really think that I got them a better life.

I don't know what you can call it but a lack of personal responsibility. If people are having abortions because they're not taking personal responsibility, I find that just morally repugnant. It has reached such incredible numbers. I have been looking at studies and data and reading books and it is stunning to me. I say this with all seriousness. It is stunning to me that we are at the point in this country where in 2011, you have incredibly high numbers of women choosing to abort rather than have a baby or to have avoided the problem in the first place.

So I am unequivocal about it. I was wrong and it's 20 years later, and I feel very strongly about it.

TT: What should we do to policy in the state?

Combs: I really supported the sonogram bill. I really thought that was terrific. I would also, and I worked on this in the session, I do not think the taxpayers ought to be, through tax policy, enabling abortion. And I'm going to try to come back and do it again.

TT: Should the state being doing more in other services, like contraceptives and things like this?

Combs: I think counseling really does help. My husband and I made what for us is a very large donation [$5,000, she said later] to the South Austin Crisis Pregnancy Center because I would like a young woman who is faced with what she thinks is a significant problem to be given a choice, a choice to not abort, a choice to actually raise that baby, a choice to get a job.

TT: I'm curious about this whole continuum of services, the extent to which the state should be involved in them at all.

Combs: I really do think it's important to be able to counsel young women about the choices that we have. I think it's important for them to know there is someone who cares about them, who will help them with that baby. We don't seem to do too much of that, from what I can tell.

TT: Should we be doing more before the baby is even conceived?

Combs: Well, that's been kind of interesting. What I don't understand is, why, in 2011, the information is so available. I mean, people do understand how it is that they get pregnant. It is not that the stork came in and hit them in the head with a wing. So I think it has been made so unbelievably easy. There are no consequences. I have to believe that the schools teach people how they get babies. I don't think that they don't get it.

TT: Why now? What prompted your interest in this? From outside, it looks like here is the woman who may be considering other offices where this is on the plate of issues — where it isn't at the comptroller's office.

Combs: Well, the issue of government and children really started bubbling up in my mind back in 2003. The discussion of what is the role of government with school lunches? When it is appropriate for the government to take care of children? I really have been very outspoken on the issue of, if you by state law make a child go to school, you should not harm them in your custody. The whole question of what is the role of government is something that I really began to think really hard about on this issue of food and children. That's been about eight years.

What's the role of government? What's the role of parents? I think it is a conversation that we're going to continue to have.

So to the extent that we can also at least advocate for the unborn. All of these child custody cases that I had, there was a guardian ad litem. There was always somebody there to advocate for the child, in all the custody cases that we had. So I guess I will say that this is not a sudden conversion. This is something that I've been thinking about this interplay for a very long time, of government, children and who speaks for the children. I said that kind of as a lawyer gone straight.

TT: This is a political question. How do all of these things come together if you go forward for whatever office? Does all of this become baggage in a political campaign, and how do you deal with all of that?

Combs: I deal with those in a very straightforward manner. Either people believe that I am telling them the straight, unvarnished truth or they don't. If you are running for office, you're asking a voter to hire you. It's an extended employment interview. And people have to believe (a) that I have done my previous jobs well, so that there is some kind of experience resume; (b) that I take responsibility for what is of course a failure for the breach, although, I will tell you, I still don't of anybody that's had a problem; and (c) if a position that I had before had changed, they either believe me or they don't that it is genuine. That is the court of public opinion and I will take my chances in the court of public opinion.

Ross Ramsey is managing editor of The Texas Tribune and continues as editor of Texas Weekly, the premier newsletter on government and politics in the Lone Star State, a role he's had since September 1998. Texas Weekly was a print-only journal when he took the reins in 1998; he switched it to a subscription-based, internet-only journal by the end of 2004 without a significant loss in subscribers. As Texas Weekly's primary writer for 11 years, he turned out roughly 2 million words in more than 500 editions, added an online library of resources and documents and items of interest to insiders, and a daily news clipping service that links to stories from papers across Texas. Before joining Texas Weekly in September 1998, Ramsey was associate deputy comptroller for policy with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, also working as the agency's director of communications. Prior to that 28-month stint in government, Ramsey spent 17 years in journalism, reporting for the Houston Chronicle from its Austin bureau and for the Dallas Times Herald, first on the business desk in Dallas and later as the paper's Austin bureau chief. Prior to that, as a Dallas-based freelance business writer, he wrote for regional and national magazines and newspapers. Ramsey got his start in journalism in broadcasting, working for almost seven years covering news for radio stations in Denton and Dallas.
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