Beat Your Children Well?
At long last, Laredo oil, gas, and banking multimillionaire Tony Sanchez declared his gubernatorial candidacy Tuesday afternoon, amidst a glittering and giddy crowd of media, Democratic pols, supporters, and miscellaneous hangers-on. The tallest and most obvious of these was former UT Chancellor Bill Cunningham, who worked with Sanchez on the Board of Regents, and was the first dignitary acknowledged from the dais by the candidate. (Maybe there's an Antonio Sanchez Petroleum Engineering and Investment Building in the works on the Forty Acres?)
The good news: Sanchez has a lovely family (his daughter Ana Lee introduced him), he's a competent public speaker (at least as good as Gov. Rick Perry), and he rang all the predictable changes on the importance of schools, health care, jobs, a clean environment, and "dignity for everyone." Thus far he's staked out the rhetorical territory of the radical middle -- so "nonpartisan" that afterward a couple of reporters wondered aloud, "Did he declare as a Republican or a Democrat?" "Or was that Rick Perry?"
Indeed, the speech could have been delivered by the GOP incumbent -- especially when Sanchez arrived at what he called his "plans": (1) a statewide initiative for "better school discipline of disruptive students"; (2) teaching fundamentals, especially reading; (3) dignity and respect for teachers; (4) Affordable and reliable health care, restricting the power of the HMOs; (5) reducing "crime and violence" in the classroom and better support for law enforcement.
Sanchez left the dais as soon as he finished asking -- à la Bill Clinton -- that we "Build the bridge between the Texas that is and the Texas that can be." He took no questions except from a few crazed scribes able to get within shouting distance. It was inauspicious for Sanchez to piss off the press corps with only his first speech behind him. "We could have watched the whole damn thing on TV," said one reporter. Meanwhile, one state labor leader in the crowd declared himself "agnostic" on the candidate until he shows a better hand on labor issues.
The occasion made clear why some Dem leaders are wooing former Attorney General Jim Mattox, who recently told "Austin Stories" that "There's a lot of Democrats and labor people who would like to see a rich man and a Hispanic at the top of the ticket -- we just also would like him to be a Democrat." Mattox has not decided whether he'll run, but added, "Let's just say that someone who has been a Bush supporter [as Sanchez has] his entire career, even if he wins the office, is likely to remain a Bush supporter -- and to do like the old Shivercrats used to do, which is run the Republican presidential campaign for Bush in Texas. I believe that is what Tony Sanchez would do." -- Michael King
No Money, No Problems?
For those who think watching the City Council is fun, the annual three-day budget approval -- this year, Sept. 10, 11, and 12 -- is a highlight, as council members make trades and deals and last-minute pitches from the dais on behalf of their pet programs. In past years, the city has even supplied scripts -- complete with each council member's proposed amendments -- for observers to follow along.
But in past years, the council had money to play with, as City Manager Jesus Garza and his staff have pulled a couple of million dollars out of the air at the 11th hour and thrown it on the table. This year, as you've heard, is different. With sales tax collections continuing to decline, the council will be lucky to pass the $1.8 billion 2001-02 budget as written without having to trim it further. This hasn't spurred much optimism among council watchers or City-Hall insiders, who expect the budget to be dispensed with as quickly as possible, so Mayor Kirk Watson -- and, persistent rumor has it, Garza -- can move on to more engaging pursuits.
A slimmed-down budget means bad news for supporters of parks, libraries, and neighborhood planning -- the three city departments sustaining the most unpopular cuts in resources. It's possible that council members friendly to those programs -- probably Beverly Griffith, Will Wynn, or Jackie Goodman -- may attempt some tinkering. But without any extra money, it's more likely that supporters of parks and libraries will have to wait for a midyear budget amendment to again make their case.
As for neighborhood planning, that horse has already left the barn. With each plan seeming more contentious than the last, the council is way ready to pull the plug (even if tacitly) on that experiment, and despite the objections of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, the city manager's proposed "streamlining" seems to enjoy support from all across the dais.
-- Mike Clark-Madison
Still Available: ScrewW.com
Back during the 2000 presidential election campaign, the Bush team bought the rights to nearly every possible Web site domain name that might play off of its candidate's name. (Somehow, they missed GWBush.com -- also reachable at GWB.com -- unbeatable for its news coverage, humor, and bumper stickers.) Nine months later, such domain names as GeorgeBushSucks.com still lead you to Bush's official campaign site. The Bushies' site-buying spree has thus forced Bush-haters to get creative in registering names. Our current favorite is SmirkingChimp.com. Its motto: "Ask not at whom the chimp smirks -- he smirks at you." In addition to links to constantly updated news stories on Bush, the site has the famous collection of mug shots of the Prez juxtaposed against similar shots of chimpanzee expressions available for downloading. Other contenders for best site address: TooStupidto BePresident.com, and Dumbya.com. -- Lee Nichols
Polling the Pollers
After a failed union drive at the local Gallup Poll Organization last year, United Steelworkers organizers have recently returned to the company at the request of local staff (about 120 Gallup "Interviewers" are eligible for union membership). Seems that following the staff vote to reject the union last year, the company initiated a series of take-backs and union-busting propaganda, disseminated by management consultants known as the Burke Group -- which brags about its anti-union success on its Web site at www.tbglabor.com. The company strategy has angered employees and provoked a new organizing drive. While the Burke consultants are hosting regular paid staff meetings to distribute anti-union information, at press time workers were holding off-site meetings to discuss their organizing options. They say they are hoping for another union vote in the next few weeks.
"This is not your typical workplace," said one worker. "It has flexible hours and adjustable schedules, so it attracts independent types. But they brought in this corporate 'hit-man' to scare and split the workers -- he's a joke. And it's made a lot of people who were anti-union or fence-sitters to start to reconsider their position."
Calls to Gallup's Austin office were referred to the U.S. corporate headquarters in Nebraska, whence C.O.O. Jane Miller issued this statement: "Gallup has worked hard to provide its associates with an outstanding workplace and benefits, all of which have been provided without any assistance from a union. Gallup does not believe that any problems will be encountered in the future which cannot be resolved by direct communication between Gallup and its associates. For these reasons, Gallup sees no reason for a third party and urges its associates to vote no on union representation."
-- Michael King
Hold the Embalming!
State and national rumors have been swirling for several weeks about the "Funeralgate" litigation, in which former Texas Funeral Service Commission Executive Director Eliza May sued the state for dismissing her as a whistleblower. May charged she was fired for preparing to take action against funeral home conglomerate Service Corporation International and its CEO Robert Waltrip -- and that then-Gov. George W. Bush directly intervened in the dispute on Waltrip's behalf. May, Waltrip, and several other principals have been deposed in pretrial procedures, and there were rumors that presidential aide Joe Allbaugh and counsel Alberto Gonzales were to be deposed in August, with President Bush still on the potential witness list. But a source close to the case told us at press time that Allbaugh and Gonzales have not been deposed (Gonzales is seeking to quash his deposition) and that all depositions have been temporarily suspended while settlement talks proceed. But this is not the first time such discussions have taken place, so like a coffin awaiting descent into the earth, the whole matter remains up in the air. -- Michael King
Too Much Passion
After serving more than 25 years with the Austin Police Dept., Lt. Hector Polanco retired on Aug. 31. "Hector's a friend of mine and he's very passionate about police work," said Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield. "And I think that has led to some of the controversy in his career." Indeed, Polanco has had a somewhat checkered history with the department. As you may recall, Polanco was the officer who secured the highly detailed and completely false confession from Christopher Ochoa. Ochoa and friend Richard Danziger went to prison for the 1988 murder of Nancy DePriest. But there was a problem -- they didn't commit the murder and were finally freed earlier this year.
"Hector Polanco fills my thoughts on a daily basis," says DePriest's mother Jeanette Popp, who has become one of Polanco's most vocal critics. "I have not hated in my life, but I'm that close. The truth to that case [DePriest's murder] would have been easier to live with than the story [Polanco] made up."
Polanco's legacy also haunts the yogurt shop murder case: He conducted the 1991 interrogation of Maurice Pierce, which lead to Pierce and co-defendants Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott becoming the focus of the department's investigation. Partially in response to questions raised about his interrogation tactics, Polanco was transferred off the yogurt shop case shortly after his 201/2-hour interrogation of Pierce.
The APD would not comment on Polanco's retirement or role in either case. -- Jordan Smith
Insuring the Insurers
The state AFL-CIO is not exactly delighted with the appointment of former Insurance Commissioner (and former insurance industry lobbyist) Richard Reynolds as the new executive director of Texas Workers' Compensation Commission, which presides over compensation claims by injured workers. Reynolds' appointment, says AFL-CIO President Joe D. Gunn, "doesn't just put the fox in the hen house. It gives the fox the keys to the hen house."
Reynolds' appointment is particularly offensive to labor because he has a long record of directly supporting insurers against injured workers in the past. Furthermore, as a Bill Clements appointee, he presided over the Insurance Commission during the Nineties, when it was beleaguered by criticism from consumers, workers, the Legislature, Ralph Nader, and even an investigation from District Attorney Ronnie Earle. Reynolds' response to the criticism from legislators and others that the commission wasn't doing its job: "I don't have to take that crap."
Although the Reynolds appointment is technically under the authority of governor-appointed commissioners, Gov. Perry was known to have heavy influence on the selection. Yet according to Gunn, Perry refused even to respond to inquiries or requests for meetings from labor representatives. "While we have no illusions about our political standing in the governor's office," said Gunn, "the Texas AFL-CIO is disappointed that this governor would not even speak to us, much less intervene."
Gunn told the Chronicle that among 60 candidates, Reynolds was the only interviewee, and that although his appointment was assured he was required to make a "courtesy call" to the AFL offices before he was confirmed. "We asked him if he could give us a card," said Gunn, "and he answered, 'We haven't printed them up yet.' That's how much we were consulted."
Reynolds did not respond to a request for comment. Commission spokeswoman Linda McKee referred us to a press release announcing Reynolds' appointment, in which Commission Chairman Rebecca Olivares said Reynolds' previous experience as a TWCC commissioner, and his membership on the insurance board, made him "a top candidate for the job. We are pleased that he has accepted this position." -- Michael King
Lying and Cheating and Stealing? Oh My!
Former George W. Bush campaign aide Yvette Lozano was sentenced to a year in prison last week for mailing a secret video tape and other materials to Al Gore's campaign team, then lying about it. Lozano also got a $3,000 fine and three years' probation. As a convicted felon, she'll also lose her right to vote -- which, given last fall's outcome, may not make much difference.
Attorney Raymond Hulser of the Dept. of Justice's Public Integrity section had this to say about Lozano receiving the maximum sentence permissible: "The judge sent an important message that stealing and cheating and lying do not have a place in presidential elections." Given the chad-littered, Katherine Harris-directed motif of the Florida election, Hulser's statement might seem satirical. But some cheating is more clear-cut than others, and a search of Lozano's home computer showed that she had done some investigative research of her own, turning up the address of former U.S. Rep. Tom Downey (D-New York), a Gore adviser at the time, who received the tape.
Lozano's motives remain a mystery, but being a longtime Democrat might have something to do with it. "Her lack of remorse and her smiling as she walked out of the courthouse were strange," the soft-spoken Hulser says. "I think she was smiling because the cameras were pointing at her."
Lozano's former boss, Public Strategies Managing Director of Media and Research Mark McKinnon, says she didn't just break the law. "She compromised the campaign and her relationships with me and my family," McKinnon says regretfully. "She literally could have affected history." McKinnon talked to prosecutors and the grand jury as part of the proceedings, but the case took up his time in other ways. When word got out about Lozano's postal woes, "We were all horrified. It made my life a nightmare. FBI agents were in my office, ripping out computers it was a very Kafkaesque experience."
A veteran of political races, McKinnon isn't sure he enjoys the high-stress, high-scandal side of national campaigns. If Bush runs for another term, he'll consider it. "I'm 74 years old now" because of the Lozano ordeal, McKinnon says. (He's really 47.) -- Lauri Apple
Chevy Chase Alert!
Despite this week's compulsive local TV news obsession with shark attacks off the coast of North Carolina (actually so rare that you are more likely to be hit by falling frozen airplane doodie), NO LAND SHARKS HAVE BEEN SIGHTED IN THE AUSTIN AREA!
This is, of course, no reason for complacency. Citizens are urged to take all precautions, including avoiding too much splashing around at Barton Springs Pool. -- Michael King
Pass the Pleas, Please
On Aug. 31, the Chronicle confirmed that the Travis Co. District Attorney's Office has offered at least one plea deal to Michael Scott, 26, currently behind bars awaiting trial on capital murder charges for his alleged role in the 1991 yogurt shop murders. This past spring, Scott's co-defendant Robert Springsteen, 26, was convicted and sentenced to death for his part in the murders. The third defendant, Maurice Pierce, 25, is also in jail awaiting trial.
Sources close to the case confirm that the DA's office has offered Scott a maximum 30-year sentence with the possibility of parole after 15 years if he pleads guilty to the murders and agrees to testify against, at least, Maurice Pierce. Scott has reportedly declined the offer. The DA's office did not return phone calls requesting comment, and Scott's attorney Tony Diaz, citing the gag order in effect on this case, said he could "neither confirm nor deny that."
Since their initial questioning back in 1991, all three defendants have adamantly denied any involvement in the grisly quadruple murder. But in September of 1999, after enduring hours of intense interrogation, both Springsteen and Scott gave videotaped "confessions" to police -- leading to their arrests several weeks later. Since then, the state has based its case solely upon the perceived strength of these two confessions, since not one piece of physical evidence recovered from the yogurt shop connects any of the defendants to the crime.
If the prosecutors are so certain of the three co-defendants' guilt, why offer Scott such a sweet deal? There are at least two obvious reasons, which taken together imply holes in the state's case. First, District Judge Mike Lynch allowed the state to introduce Scott's confession into evidence at Springsteen's trial over vociferous objection by defense attorneys. Portions of Scott's confession were read in front of the jurors, yet Springsteen was never afforded the opportunity to cross-examine Scott in person -- potentially strong grounds for appeal. If the Third Court of Appeals remands the case to district court on this point, prosecutors would be forced to retry Springsteen without the assistance of Scott's statements. And when asked after the trial, Springsteen's jurors said Scott's confession was integral in their decision to convict.
Perhaps more damning is the case of Maurice Pierce. At present there is no evidence, physical or otherwise, linking Pierce to the murders. Nonetheless Pierce has remained incarcerated in the Travis County Jail for the past 23 months.
This is not the first deal prosecutors have proposed. Springsteen attorney Jim Sawyer says the DA has offered his client at least one deal that he refused. The state also offered a deal to Forrest Welborn, who was originally arrested with the other three defendants, but was never indicted by the grand jury. Pretrial hearings in the Scott case are scheduled to begin Sept. 24. -- Jordan Smith
On Aug. 29 the political action committee of the Austin Police Association announced that it is endorsing former City Council Member Gus Garcia in his bid to be Austin's next mayor. APA President Mike Sheffield says APA PAC members -- who unanimously endorsed Garcia -- feel he has more experience than any other candidate, that he has pledged to stand by the APD and their law enforcement decisions "when they were right," and that he would not "play political football with officers' careers."
The APD has not always had the rosiest of relationships with Garcia; he has raised issues in the past about police use of force -- exemplified over the years by several officers involved in shootings in East Austin. "He's never been a [police] advocate, but we've talked about some of the issues we've had in the past, and we've had a meeting of the minds," Sheffield says.
Still, the endorsement might be seen as a way to get ahead of the game should Council Member Beverly Griffith decide to throw her hat into the mayoral ring. But Sheffield says the APA's endorsement has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not Griffith decides to run. "Beverly didn't even come up," he says. -- Jordan Smith