Off the Desk:
There were no tear-filled testimonials or joyful songs, just the relieved announcement Tuesday that the AISD Board of Trustees wants Pascal "Pat" Forgione Jr. to be the district's next superintendent. Forgione currently works for the U.S. Department of Education. He was one of the five candidates interviewed -- but rejected -- during the first round of superintendent interviews in June. --L.T.
To Tell the Truth
Last Thursday, Gov. George W. Bush released a sworn affidavit in which he said he did not talk to "officials, agents or representatives" of Service Corporation International (SCI) about an investigation that the Texas Funeral Service Commission (TFSC) was doing into the company's activities.
But the governor's sworn testimony has already been contradicted by SCI's own lawyer, Johnnie B. Rogers Sr. In the August 16 issue of Newsweek, Rogers tells reporter Michael Isikoff that he and SCI's CEO, Robert Waltrip,met with Bush's chief of staff (and now campaign manager) Joe Allbaugh on April 15, 1998, to hand deliver a letter demanding an end to the TFSC's investigation. While the two were in Allbaugh's office, Bush stuck his head into the room, Rogers told Isikoff, and said, "Hey Bobby, are those people still messing with you?" When Waltrip indicated that they were, Bush asked Rogers, "Hey, Johnnie B. Are you taking care of him?" Rogers replied, "I'm doing my best, Governor."
Rogers' version of events appears to contradict Bush's sworn statement that he has "had no conversations with SCI officials, agents or representatives" about the state's investigation. It also appears to contradict another part of Bush's affidavit, which was signed on July 20. Bush said, "I have no personal knowledge of relevant facts of the investigation nor do I have any personal knowledge of relevant facts concerning any dispute arising from this investigation." Yet Bush apparently knew enough to ask if "those people" -- who just happen to be the governor's employees -- were "still messing with" SCI. Bush spokesperson Linda Edwards would not comment on the apparent contradiction. "The governor was on his way out of the office when he saw Waltrip that day," she said. "They had a brief verbal exchange. They did not discuss the case. Governor Bush was not involved in this case and has no personal knowledge of the facts in this case. The governor's office did not attempt to influence this investigation in any way."
With Bush on the presidential campaign trail, his fellow Republicans are trying to distance the governor from the growing influence-buying and whistleblower scandal known as Funeralgate. (Some wags have also begun calling it "Formaldegate"). Last Thursday, Attorney General John Cornyn, a Republican, filed a motion to quash a subpoena filed by attorneys representing former TFSC executive director Eliza May, who sued the state and SCI in March claiming she was fired after she began investigating apparent violations of state regulations by SCI. In his motion, Cornyn argues that a plaintiff "does not gain the right to depose high level corporate or state officials simply by virtue of naming a corporation or state agency as a defendant in a lawsuit." The motion also argues that the deposition is being "sought purely for purposes of harassment."
It's unclear if Bush, who has received $35,000 in campaign contributions since 1996 from SCI's political action committee, will be deposed. A hearing on the matter has been set for August 30 at the Travis County Courthouse. An elected state district court judge (all but one of the judges who could be assigned the case are Democrats) will decide if the facts in the case merit Bush's testimony. If the judge decides that Bush must testify, the case may be appealed directly to the Texas Supreme Court, where all nine justices are Republicans. Four are Bush appointees; a fifth was appointed by Bush to a lower court and recently won election to the Supreme Court. Political observers in Austin are already speculating that the justices could simply sit on the case for a year or more, thereby preventing the matter from becoming an issue in Bush's bid for the presidency.
Former Texas attorney general Jim Mattox is an expert on subpoenas issued to public officials. During his eight years in office, Mattox, a Democrat, fought numerous attempts to depose state officials. But he says Bush will likely lose this fight -- that he is "probably close enough to this thing to justify a deposition." He adds that Waltrip's conflicting interrogatories in the May lawsuit, combined with the Bush family's long friendship with Waltrip, "probably justify an inquiry as to whether Waltrip talked to the governor."
So now it appears that Bush -- as well as his campaign manager and former chief of staff, Allbaugh, and his general counsel, Margaret Wilson -- may all be deposed in May's lawsuit. But even if Bush and his staffers are deposed, Mattox doubts the story will derail Bush's presidential juggernaut. "I think the public has become somewhat conditioned to seeing big money float around in the political process. This is just one more example of the abuse that they expect to happen and it doesn't inflame them in any way," said Mattox. "If the press had found out he'd used cocaine, it'd be a bigger story." --R.B.
Feed a Cold, Starve a Clinic
The city's proposed 1999-2000 budget for the city/county public health clinics has the clinics' governing board members opining that they can't win for losing. Thanks to greater operating efficiencies achieved under the management of a consulting group hired last year, the flow of red ink from the Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) has been stemmed and even transformed into a budget surplus that the FQHC board hoped could be used to lessen the impact of proposed clinic closures. But the city manager's draft budget for the FQHCs puts the clinics back in roughly the same financial position from which they began the last fiscal year: Any gains in the system are offset by $325,000 in additional expenses for overhead costs, and a $429,000 reduction in transfers paid by the city for treating city-insured patients. Essentially, the city budget office says there is no surplus, and due to the escalating costs of delivering care, the clinic system will have to cut seven full-time positions to stay in the black.
FQHC board members say city administrators are working surreptitiously to undermine the clinic system's improving health by leeching away its revenues. "This is an indication that [City Manager Jesus Garza] still has it on his agenda to spin off the clinics [to a private health provider]," says board member Rose Lancaster. City officials respond that they're only trying to ween the clinics off the city's General Fund.
Unlike other city programs, the FQHC system will receive no extra allotment from the city's General Fund to cover their additional overhead. In fact, Garza has proposed that the clinics get no direct funding from the city at all, though FQHC board members thought they had that financial support for at least one more year. The city will pass along an additional $542,000 of its federal Disproportionate Share funds to compensate for the money it has pulled out, but FQHC board members say that source of funding is in danger of drying up in the near future.
The FQHC board has approved the city manager's draft budget, but with serious misgivings. At a hearing two weeks ago before the City Council, FQHC board chair John Mayo said he supports further cost savings recommended by the Goggio consultants, which include closing the four least-used clinics and purchasing dental services from private sources, but he said the fiscal limitations imposed by the new budget mean cutting faster and deeper than board members wanted. Mayo also said the FQHC system is being subjected to the "discretionary whims" of city administrators. Board members learned about the reductions in city funding and added FQHC expenses only two weeks before they were due to send a signed budget to council, forcing them to endorse recommended cutbacks without time to deliberate, says Lancaster. Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services director David Lurie responds that the clinics still need to accomplish more efficiencies to compete in a managed health-care environment, and ultimately shouldn't have to rely on city funding. "I don't think that it's a matter of money being siphoned off," says Lurie, "but whether we can develop a mechanism to provide for another dedicated source of funding for the indigent care system." --K.F.
Nothing to Cheer About
The Sierra Club, which issued its biennial Environmental Impact Statement on the 76th Texas Legislature last week, found little to cheer for in the wreckage of a session characterized more by stasis than success for the environmental community. Of the hundreds of bills the Sierra Club lobbied for or against this session, the best thing that could be said about the three bills with the greatest impact on the environment was they could have been much, much worse, given the anti-environmental makeup of this year's Legislature.
SB 766 by Buster Brown, R-Lake Jackson, sets up a so-called "voluntary emissions reduction program," whereby polluting industrial plants which were "grandfathered" out of the state's environmental laws when clean air legislation took effect in 1971 are allowed to set up voluntary programs of their own. The only enforcement tool in this polluter-friendly legislation was a provision forcing industrial plants which emit more than 4,000 tons of pollution a year -- according to the Sierra Club, only about eight plants statewide -- to pay increasing fines for emissions over that amount. The electric deregulation bill (SB 7), meanwhile, requires that grandfathered electric power plants significantly reduce emissions in the next two years.
In its original form, HB 801 by Tom Uher,
D-Bay City, would've eliminated the contested case hearing process for environmental permits and replaced it with a public "notice and comment" period. The bill was supported by chemical industry lobbyists, but later amended to preserve contested case hearings (a process that resulted in a permit denial for a radioactive waste dump in Sierra Blanca last year) and to provide for earlier public notice of applications for environmental permits with the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission.
The third bill, Warren Chisum's HB 1171, went through numerous permutations in the House and Senate before being killed by its own sponsor on second House reading. The legislation, originally a bill clarifying waste regulations, was amended by Sen. Buster Brown to require that the radioactive waste dump be run by a private company in Andrews County, where Waste Control Specialists, a company seeking a license to dispose of low-level waste, owns land.
The Sierra Club did note a few bright spots. HB 1074 by Mike Krusee,R-Taylor, requires an individual responsible for an accidental water spill or discharge to notify local government officials and the media about the discharge. And HB 2162 by Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, requires that local governments be notified and a hearing on the best use for the land be held before state-owned property (like the Triangle property in Hyde Park) is sold. --E.C.B.
The Gap Flap
What is it, you may ask, about their fleece vests and twill khakis that had nearly 50 people protesting outside The Gap on the Drag on a sweaty Saturday morning? The dispute is over the "Made in the USA" label attached to Gap clothing -- as well as to clothing at Banana Republic and Old Navy stores -- which is made in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, specifically on the tiny island of Saipan. Carmencita Abad, a former Saipan garment worker who spent six years making Gap clothes, led Saturday's protest in an effort to focus attention on the ongoing labor law and human rights violations she witnessed in the Saipan factories: unsanitary working and living conditions, 14-hour shifts, arbitrary production quotas, and low wages. The workers -- predominately Filipino and Chinese women -- are only paid $3.05 an hour. They are recruited in their home countries, lured by the promise of "working in an American factory on American soil," only to reach Saipan and discover the factories do not comply with U.S. labor laws. Abad was fired from the Sako Corporation, which contracts the factory labor for Gap Inc., in 1996 after she had attempted to unionize the garment workers.
A statement issued by The Gap and handed out at the Drag location Saturday denies all of the charges, stating that the company has a clear "Code of Vendor Conduct" which it uses to "ensure that our business partners operate ethically and that our merchandise is produced under appropriate conditions -- in the United States and around the world."
Next month, Congress will debate HR 730, an effort to enforce U.S. labor law in the Mariana Islands. A big opponent of the legislation is House Majority Whip Tom DeLay: "It's not good policy to impose a Washington standard on an island 12,000 miles away," explained DeLay spokesman Tony Rudy. Meanwhile, protesters vow to continue gathering outside The Gap's Drag location at noon on the first Saturday of each month. --J.S.