Off the Desk:
Is there anything that would get more of you out to vote in city elections? Well, the city's charter revision committee is looking for input on whether we should change the way council members are elected. It's not too late to weigh in on the subject. Hearings take place this week and next from 7-8:45pm at several locations:
•Monday, Aug. 23: Rosewood Recreation Center, 2300 Rosewood Avenue
•Tuesday, Aug. 24: Spicewood Springs Branch Library, 8637 Spicewood Springs
•Monday, Aug. 30:Yarbrough Branch Library, 2200 Hancock Drive
•Tuesday, Aug. 31: South Austin Senior Activity Center, 3911 Manchaca Road
For more information, call 499-3064. -- L.T.
President Bill Clinton was pilloried for asking what the "definition of 'is' is." Now, George W. Bush's veracity is being questioned based on what the definition of"conversation" is.
Yesterday, attorneys for Eliza May, former executive director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission, filed a motion asking the court to find Bush in contempt of court for not telling the truth about his interactions with officials from Service Corporation International, the world's largest funeral company. SCI has been fighting an investigation by the TFSC, which recommended the company be fined $445,000 for violating a casket load of state regulations. In March, May filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the state, SCI, and SCI's CEO Robert Waltrip, claiming that the company and state officials worked together to thwart her agency's investigation into the company.
The contempt motion spotlights Bush's sworn affidavit, released on August 5, in which he said he has "had no conversations with SCI officials, agents or representatives" about the state's investigation. The affidavit was filed by Texas Attorney General John Cornyn along with a motion to quash a subpoena issued to Bush by May's attorneys. Since the affidavit was filed, Bush's flat denial of a conversation has been contradicted several times, even by Bush himself. According to reporters who were with Bush in Iowa last week, when Bush was asked if he talked to Waltrip about the investigation, Bush responded, "I did not. I had only a brief exchange with him that lasted only a few seconds." Bush press secretary Linda Edwards has also described their encounter as a "brief verbal exchange."
The American Heritage Dictionary defines "conversation" as "an informal spoken exchange."
In the August 16 issue of Newsweek, Johnnie B. Rogers Sr., Waltrip's attorney, discusses an April 15, 1998 meeting in the office of Joe Allbaugh, Bush's chief of staff. While Rogers and Waltrip were in Allbaugh's office, Bush stuck his head into the room. "Hey Bobby, are those people still messing with you?" Bush asked Waltrip. May's attorneys allege that Rogers' statement, combined with statements made by Edwards, and a sworn interrogatory issued on June 11 by Waltrip's attorneys, (see July 9 Austin Chronicle, "Funeralgate Hits Texas,") show that "the governor had what was undeniably a conversation about the dispute arising from the Texas Funeral Service Commission investigation of SCI." They add that Bush gave "testimony that was deliberately misleading and deceptive."
The motion claims that Bush made the false statements to avoid being deposed in the May lawsuit. "Plainly, such egregiously improper conduct subverts the judicial process and undermines our system of justice," says the motion, submitted by May's attorneys, Derek Howard and Charles Herring Jr. The two want the court to find Bush in contempt, order him to appear for deposition within 21 days, and to impose a monetary fine against him. A hearing on the motion to quash is scheduled in Travis County District Court on August 30.
In a prepared statement, Edwards called the motion for contempt "nothing more than a publicity stunt and an example of the frivolous misuse of the civil justice system. This is clearly an attempt to draw Governor Bush into something he has not been involved in. Governor Bush stands by what he said in his affidavit, which is what he has said all along -- that he was not involved in the case and has no personal knowledge of the facts of the case." -- R.B.
Give Me Liberty('s Deal)
Liberty Lunch may be closed, but the political Pandora's Box its death created seems to be wide open. After the City Council displaced the long-running club by approving a proposal to lease three city-owned blocks to Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC), the city granted the club a reported $600,000 loan to help it relocate to 815 Red River. Now at least one local club owner, Steamboat's Danny Crooks, says the city set a precedent by granting Liberty Lunch the low-interest loan, and he's hoping for a similar deal.
After last week's announcement that Steamboat had been evicted by the owner of its 403 E. Sixth address after an offer to lease the building for twice the rent came in from a San Antonio-based nightclub, Crooks immediately began investigating the possibility of relocating with a similar city-financed loan. But according to Mayor Kirk Watson, the city would be unlikely to approve the $300,000 to $400,000 Crooks says he'll need to move Steamboat to the old Lake Hills Theatre at Ben White and Lamar. Watson says the difference between Steamboat and Liberty Lunch is that while the city effectively pushed Liberty Lunch out, Steamboat represents a landowner-tenant dispute. "The deal with Liberty Lunch was that it was on city property and the city made some decisions with relation to that property," Watson says. "Frankly, some of the people who were critical about taking some sort of action about removing Liberty Lunch were the same people that would have beat our brains out if we say, 'We're going to give money to help subsidize some other private business.' Liberty Lunch was a special set of circumstances involving city property and a longtime tenant that has played a pivotal role in Austin."
Crooks says Steamboat -- like Liberty Lunch -- has played an important role in Austin: providing young local bands a place to play for over 20 years. "We're an Austin music place, not an out-of-town music place," says Crooks, who points out that Steamboat isn't going out of business, but instead being pushed out of business. "And we employ 500 people a month, 100 bands at an average of four people per band, plus our staff. We're a viable employer that needs help."
Although Watson has yet to see Crooks' plan, which also includes housing Congress House Studios and the Austin Rehearsal Complex (another recently evicted local business) in the new space, the mayor's initial reaction seems to be that helping a private business that loses its lease may set a more complex precedent than the city's Liberty Lunch loan.
"I love Steamboat and understand all the concerns," says Watson. "And I am concerned what happens to small businesses like that. But it's not a situation where everybody that finds themselves in a similar position can come to the city. ... Difficulties between private businesses are another issue. I don't want to be perceived as 'Oh see, he doesn't care about Old Austin,' but the fact is that [the Steamboat situation] is a dispute between private businesses."
Meanwhile, despite the mayor's reservations, Crooks says he'll continue pursuing the city loan, while also lobbying the City Council to create a task force to address small business issues. "I'm not looking for a gift -- just a loan," he says. "And if they say Liberty Lunch is a special case, then we should be, too." -- A.L.
Still Hanging Around?
Ever wonder what happened to last summer's push to have the Ice Bats hockey team move downtown? As you may recall, Mayor Kirk Watson touted a plan last July to have the Bats foot the bill for a hockey arena/civic center along Auditorium Shores. The proposal faced vocal opposition -- most notably from neighboring Bouldin Creek residents who worried about the traffic congestion and parking nightmares the facility would generate. Seeing a public relations nightmare in the making, the hockey team backed away, and the south shore arena proposal was replaced with a more popular idea to build a community center funded through a rental car tax increase. At that time, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution saying moving the Bats downtown was a priority, and the city would continue to scout for a site for the team's new arena.
A year later, there's been hardly another word about the subject. The city hasn't so much as mentioned another possible locale. The Ice Bats changed ownership a few months ago. And plans for some much-needed renovations to the Travis County Expo Center, where the team currently plays, are in a holding pattern until the team decides whether it will stay put or fly to the central city. "There has been some discussion [with the new ownership], but it's been more like 'Hey, we're the new owners,' and 'Hey, we're the mayor's office, glad you're here,'" says Watson aide Larry Warshaw. "It's very preliminary. But the resolution still stands and if they are interested, I'm sure we're ready to help."
The Bats' lease at the Expo Center expires March 31, 2001. Even before Watson's plan for a downtown arena, there was talk of the team's desire to build its own facility. The Expo Center needs renovations; tenants and patrons have long complained about its lack of heat and air conditioning. Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe says the county is interested in improving the Center, but unless it gets a commitment from its current tenants -- namely the Ice Bats and the County Livestock Show and Rodeo -- there is no way the county can afford to pay the estimated $1.4 million rehab. "Everyone seems to want it, but no one is coming to the plate to pay for it," he said. "I think we owe the taxpayers an explanation of how we would pay for it." Bats owner John McVaney, meanwhile, says the team hasn't decided what to do: "There's a lot of people talking a lot of intriguing thoughts and ideas. We want to run the team as efficiently and effectively as we can, but we also respect the city and [want] what's best for the city." -- J.S.