Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., Nov. 28, 2003
Quote of the Week: "It's very gratifying, but then people also gather at car wrecks." -- State Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, commenting on the crowds gathered to wish him well as he announced his resignation. See p.19.
Alleging a vast conspiracy, the owner of the proposed site of the now-abandoned Wal-Mart Supercenter project at MoPac and Slaughter Lane has filed suit against the city of Austin and Stratus Properties. See p.20.
Meanwhile, the City Council has OK'd a study of the impact of big-box retail on Austin (with Mayor Will Wynn voting no) -- and further Kept It Weird by deep-sixing a Starbucks at the airport. See p.20 and p.18.
Williamson Co. Sheriff John Maspero has officially been suspended from office pending resolution of the misconduct case brought against him by County Attorney Gene Taylor. See p.24. For more on Maspero and his buddy Jimmy Chapman, see p.18.
Surprise! Texas lottery officials now acknowledge that Mega Millions -- the multistate lottery Texas is poised to join next week -- will pull "far more money" out of Lotto Texas than they had thought, with unpleasant side effects for the state budget. Who knew? Mega Millions tickets go on sale Dec. 3.
Browning Construction Co.'s abrupt withdrawal from the Choice Project -- the new Planned Parenthood facility temporarily idled at 201 E. Ben White -- has strengthened the resolve of supporters determined to see the project through to its completion. Here's your chance to throw your support behind the project as well. Go to www.thechoiceproject.org/signature.html and add your name to the list of supporters, which will then see print in the form of a full-page newspaper ad in the Austin American-Statesman. The suggested donation is $10 per person, which will help pay for placement of the ad; additional funds raised will go toward the Choice Project. Donations can be made online or by sending a check to PPTCR, Attn: Signature Ad, 707 Rio Grande, Austin, TX 78701. Write "signature ad" on the check's memo and indicate how you would like your name to appear in the ad. The deadline to participate is Dec. 1. -- Amy Smith
Retired 30-year APD veteran Robert Martinez Sr. died at home on Nov. 18 from cancer. He was 62. Martinez was widely recognized for his work combating gang activity in Austin and had become the department's most decorated officer by the time he retired in 1997, including a commendation from former President Bill Clinton in 1994. On Nov. 20 the City Council voted to name the APD's new forensic science center -- currently under construction -- after the elder Martinez. Martinez was buried at the Austin Memorial Park, next to his son, Robert Martinez Jr., also an APD officer, who was killed in the line of duty in 1989, and whose name graces an East Austin street. -- Jordan Smith
The City Council last week closed the book on what Mayor Will Wynn called "the most troubling case" of his City Hall experience by approving a $5.3 million settlement for Christopher Ochoa, wrongfully imprisoned for more than a decade for the 1988 rape and murder of Nancy DePriest at a North Austin Pizza Hut. Ochoa's detailed -- but totally false -- confession, which he claims was coerced by Austin police, and his later testimony at trial led to his and Richard Danziger's conviction and incarceration for the crime; they remained in jail even after the real perpetrator, Achim Josef Mareno, confessed to the crime. Danziger, who was left with brain damage after a beating in prison, got a $9 million settlement from the City Council this summer, and Ochoa has agreed to give $500,000 of his settlement payment to Danziger. The city is selling bonds to fund both settlements. -- M.C.M.
At press time, family and supporters of 17-year-old Ricky Luna were planning a Nov. 26 protest at the Capitol, to ask that Gov. Rick Perry order Luna's release from the Texas Youth Commission. According to a press release, Luna has been in TYC's McLennan Co. State Juvenile Correctional Facility for three years on an assault charge but has not succeeded in completing the TYC rehabilitation programs because he is mentally retarded. Youth Commission programs are not tailored to meet the needs of mentally challenged youth, Luna's supporters charge, and Luna's failure to make progress has led to harsh punishments for the teen, including two alleged beatings by TYC staff. -- J.S.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett announced on Thursday that Austin's Mary Lee Foundation will get $1,598,300 in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop 22 housing units for the elderly in Austin. -- Lee Nichols
On Nov. 24 lawyers with the Texas Civil Rights Project filed suit against Travis Co. Sheriff Margo Frasier on behalf of the family of John Frump, who committed suicide in November 2001 while in the Travis Co. Jail. Frump had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts, and was indeed recovering (at the Austin State Hospital) from a prior suicide attempt when he was arrested by sheriff's deputies on a domestic violence warrant and taken to the county jail. While in custody, Frump allegedly told his cell mate, sheriff's deputies, and (via telephone) his sister that he intended to kill himself; the lawsuit alleges that, although jail officials assured Frump's sister he would remain on suicide watch, in fact he was taken off after a brief meeting with jail psychologist Dr. Larry Houser and was placed in the jail's general population. Within hours he was dead. The suit alleges violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and of the Americans With Disabilities Act. -- J.S.
Applications are currently being accepted for assistance through the APD's Operation Blue Santa. The program last year served 4,000 local families and more than 12,000 local children, according to APD, and hopes to exceed those goals this year. Applicants must bring proof of address to city-run neighborhood and community centers (Blackland, East Austin, Montopolis, South Austin, St. Johns, or Rosewood-Zaragosa) to apply. Hours for application vary; call 220-BLUE or visit www.bluesanta.org online for more details. -- M.C.M.
The City Council last week signed off on proposed amendments to city code to make it easier for small businesses to meet off-street parking requirements. The amendments -- born of the work of the Mayor's Task Force on the Economy -- combine existing parking requirements for similar uses, so that converting an existing commercial space will be less likely to trigger the entire city development-review process. As well, the city will implement an across-the-board reduction in commercial parking requirements in Central Austin (excepting properties with existing zoning, like CBD, that already reduces the standard parking needs). The council's 7-0 consensus was nearly torpedoed when Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman objected to a provision that allowed businesses to site their required parking spaces as far as 1,000 feet away -- two city blocks. When Brewster McCracken pointed out that he and others who work downtown routinely walk two blocks to and from their cars, Goodman noted for the record that she had never seen McCracken wearing heels. (Neither has Naked City.) The City Council also approved other code amendments designed for small-business friendliness, dealing with construction in flood plains, the size threshold for triggering the need for a site plan, and the definition of a "limited restaurant." -- M.C.M.
Beyond City Limits
The Texas Democratic Party is encouraging those lonely souls known as Texas Democrats to communicate with each other via Yellow Dog Blog, at, appropriately enough, www.yellowdogblog.com. Guest postings from prominent Dems are promised. State Dem Chair Charles Soechting says the current question he'd like all you donkeys out there to answer is: "Why are you a Democrat?" (That ought to be interesting -- we'd love to see some of the Blue Dog responses to that.) -- L.N.
Texas Department of Public Safety troopers seized a record $5.3 million in cash during a traffic stop in Jim Wells Co. on Nov. 19. Two Commercial Vehicle Enforcement troopers stopped an 18-wheeler heading southbound on U.S. 281, just north of Alice, for a routine inspection but became suspicious after the truck's occupants failed to produce proper commercial-vehicle paperwork. During a subsequent inspection of the truck's cargo area, the troopers found 11 boxes filled with cash, mixed in with boxes of frozen dinner rolls. "This is one heck of a bust," DPS director Col. Thomas A. Davis said in a written statement. "We train our troopers to look for illegal activity during traffic stops, and this is just another example of that training paying big dividends." -- J.S.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed suit in Travis Co. district court Nov. 19 against the consumer credit counseling and debt-management firm AmeriDebt Inc., alleging multiple violations of Texas' Deceptive Trade Practices Act. In a press release, Abbott said that although AmeriDebt has advertised itself as a nonprofit counseling service for debt-strapped consumers, the company actually used their nonprofit status as a front to solicit "voluntary donations" from consumers wanting their services, before transferring that business to the company's for-profit partners Debtworks Inc. and Infinity Resources Group Inc. Although AmeriDebt promotes consolidation of consumer debt as one of its primary goals, Abbott's suit alleges that of 19,000 Texas consumers, only 50 have actually obtained consolidation loans -- because for-profit partner company Infinity rarely approves the loans. The Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general in Minnesota, Illinois, and Missouri have all filed similar suits against the Maryland-based company. Abbott's suit seeks to enjoin the company from misrepresenting its services and asks that the court order the company to pay restitution to consumers. -- J.S.
It's one up, one down for the Bush administration. On Tuesday, the Senate voted to enact the administration-sponsored Medicare "reform" plan, which offers a prescription-drug benefit for seniors beginning in 2006, and the increasing privatization of health care for senior citizens by 2010. Both House and Senate Democrats tried to hold their caucuses together to oppose or filibuster the bill -- they couldn't do it -- and the largely phantom changes it makes in policy over the next year will be virtual weapons in the presidential election campaign. But, almost simultaneously, the GOP could not find the Senate votes to pass its energy bill -- aka the Big Kahuna for the Oil, Gas, and Nuclear Power Boys -- as agreement foundered largely on whether or not manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE should be sheltered from liability for poisoning municipal water supplies nationwide. They'll be back. -- Michael King
The Austin Clean Energy Initiative will host a Clean Energy and Economic Opportunity town hall meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 6pm, at UT's Clean Energy Incubator, MCC Auditorium, 3925 W. Braker. Austin Energy will present their Energy Resource Plan, and community members and stakeholders will have a chance to communicate questions and ideas. A panel of clean-energy and economic-development experts will be on hand to answer questions. (For more, see "There Goes the Sun," p.26.)
The Austin Area League of Women Voters will host its biennial Legislative Reception for the Travis County Delegation on Wednesday, Dec. 3, at Serrano's Symphony Square, 1111 Red River, 5:30-7:30pm. "Each legislator will give a brief talk, and citizens will have an opportunity to give feedback to them about issues of concern," says an LWV press release. Live music, light buffet, cash bar; free parking across the street. Tickets, $25 each, may be purchased at the door or by sending a check to the League of Women Voters Education Fund, 1011 W. 31st, Austin, TX 78705. RSVPs are appreciated.
The Men's Nonviolence Project of the Texas Council on Family Violence will host two events this weekend: On Friday, Dec. 5, 7-9pm, Eduardo Montiel will present "Que No Nos Separen Barreras/Let Barriers Not Separate Us," a report on men's anti-violence work in Nicaragua; and on Saturday, Dec. 6, 9am-3pm, anti-violence activists will exchange ideas and build strategies at workshops. Both events at the Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center, 808 Nile. Free; dinner provided Friday night, snacks on Saturday. For more info, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, or call 794-1133.
On Sunday, Dec. 7, 6:30pm, the political activist Web site MoveOn.org will host thousands of house parties across the nation for a viewing of the documentary Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War. The documentary interviews 20 intelligence and military experts regarding Bush administration lies regarding the war, including Joe Wilson, the former ambassador to Iraq who exposed the "Niger/yellowcake" lie (his wife was later outed by a White House source as a CIA agent), former Nixon lawyer John Dean, and others. Go to MoveOn.org for more details.