Happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Lee Nichols, Fri., Jan. 7, 2005
HeadlinesQuote of the Week: "It's refreshing. I feel like we have all taken a shower and now we can all go to war." Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., on Tom DeLay's reversal of his self-serving attempt to change House ethics rules. See "Austin Stories" and "Beyond City Limits," below.
At press time, state Rep. Jack Stick had withdrawn his challenge to the results of the Dist. 50 state House race, which he lost to Democrat Mark Strama.
After yet more dog attacks in rural areas, Travis County Commissioners began crafting an ordinance to control canines. See "A Dog Law With Teeth."
Prominent local trial lawyer and "staunch Democrat" Mack Kidd died at 63. See below.
Greg Hamilton was sworn in Monday as the first African-American sheriff in Travis County's history. See "Top 10 Law Enforcement/Public Safety Stories."
Several local organizations are organizing tsunami relief efforts. Willie Nelson's shindig is sold out; some other legitimate groups to contribute to include the Association for India's Development (studentorgs.utexas.edu/aidaustin), the Texas Asian Chamber of Commerce (420-8777), and of course, there's always the good old Red Cross (www.redcross.org).
Austin StoriesThe AISD community was shocked when Bowie High School sophomore Robert Michael Plumlee collapsed of a heart attack during practice for a Fiesta Bowl marching band competition in Phoenix, Ariz., and died later that day. The 15-year-old had a congenital heart abnormality that caused his sudden death. Despite their loss, the band decided to go on with the show, winning Thursday's battle of the bands, and marching bravely along in Friday's parade. Rachel Proctor May
Drill bits and power tools remain available in abundance, but it will henceforth be much more difficult to get political contributions down at the Sears store, following the dismissal of the Travis Co. grand jury indictment against the company in the ongoing Texans for a Republican Majority PAC investigation. On Dec. 30, the indictment was dismissed pursuant to an agreement between Sears and Travis Co. DA Ronnie Earle, similar to an agreement concluded earlier with Diversified Collection Services Inc., another of the eight corporations indicted for illegal contributions to TRMPAC during the 2002 state legislative campaign. Under the agreement, Earle dismissed a single felony count of an illegal $25,000 corporate contribution to influence a state election, and Sears agreed to cooperate with the continuing investigation and to fund a public education program through UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs on the responsibility of corporations in campaign financing. As he had in the earlier agreement, Earle described the illegal Sears contribution as a response to "false and misleading information provided by the fundraiser," presumably incorrect information from TRMPAC or its operatives that corporate contributions to political campaigns are legal in Texas. TRMPAC representatives under indictment former Executive Director John Colyandro, Tom DeLay fundraiser Warren RoBold, and DeLay aide Jim Ellis were scheduled to appear in court this week concerning motions on their cases. Michael King
The legacy of Mack Kidd could fill a book, but friends and colleagues of the 3rd District Court of Appeals justice will remember him most as a "wonderful human being." Kidd, 63, died unexpectedly earlier this week. A progressive Democrat, the Austin resident was widely recognized as a legal whiz who did not let politics influence his decisions as an appellate judge, a position he held since 1991. "Justice Kidd was a great judge, a staunch Democrat, and most of all, a wonderful human being," said Travis Co. Democratic Party Chair Chris Elliott. "He had a keen sense of justice and applied that to his work on the court." Kidd earned his legal stripes as a go-to personal injury lawyer who wasn't afraid to take on large corporations. The jurist was a former county Democratic Party chair and former president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. A service honoring Kidd's life will be held at 2pm today (Thursday) at the First Baptist Church, 901 Trinity. Amy Smith
On Dec. 23, members of the Austin Conscientious Objectors to Military Taxation publicly redirected a portion of their federal income taxes to Casa Marianella and Posada Esperanza, shelters for immigrants and refugees. In a statement released in conjunction with their donation, ACOMT members said, "As war tax resisters, we knowingly challenge federal law by redirecting our income taxes. At this time, most ACOMT members are experiencing collections efforts by the IRS, including bank account and wage seizures. However, when we compare our risks with those of Casa residents whose arduous journeys to the U.S. often have involved huge costs, or if we compare our risks with those of a U.S. soldier or Iraqi civilian, we are humbled." The resisters said they offer their donations publicly in order to "openly state our decision to channel our resources away from war and military occupation and toward the fulfillment of human needs." For more info, see the Web site at www.acomt.org. M.K.
In a two-sentence letter dated Dec. 20, Austin Community Access Television Executive Director John Villareal resigned effective immediately, saying only that he is "unable to perform his duties." Rondella Hawkins of the city's Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs told us she has no other information about the resignation as of yet, but that the ACTV board had appointed Pat O'Neil as acting director. City Auditor Steve Morgan said that his office began an investigation of ACTV financial matters "several weeks ago," but that he can't release any information about the investigation at this time. "We do an investigation when there is a possibility that a potentially illegal or unethical act has occurred, in order to determine whether it has occurred." In a press release, the ACTV Producers Advisory Committee said they had been told that Villareal had been suspended without pay just before the board learned of his resignation, but otherwise were given no further info. "I hope that the circumstances surrounding John Villareal will swiftly see the light of day," said Stefan Wray, chair of the Producers Advisory Committee. The board is scheduled to meet Jan. 11, with plans to discuss agreements worked out among board members, producers, and staff over the last several months, addressing pending ACTV restructuring proposals. M.K.
The heavy-hitter law firm, Loeffler Tuggey Pauerstein Rosenthal LLP, home to many a state Republican pol, announced Tuesday that " Rebecca A. Klein" has been named managing partner of the firm's Austin office, aka "The Loeffler Group," the firm's government affairs practice. Name sound almost familiar? It should until Nov. 5, she was "Becky Armendariz Klein" ("But it's 'Rebecca' on the ballot!"), GOP candidate opposing U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett in the newly drawn CD 25. Before that, at the Public Utility Commission, she was just plain Becky Klein, but her maiden name was brought out of mothballs to run in the majority Hispanic Austin-to-McAllen "fajita" district. Somehow we suspect we haven't seen the last of "Armendariz!" M.K.
Semi-Austinite actress Sandra Bullock has donated $1 million to the Red Cross to help with tsunami relief efforts in Asia. That equaled an amazing one-thirty-fifth of the total aid promised by the Bush administration until it was shamed into upping its pledge substantially. L.N.
Beyond City LimitsSpeaking of that TRMPAC investigation: How much ethics is enough? That was the question before the U.S. House Republican Caucus, which late last year voted to revoke its decadelong rule that a member must step down from a leadership position if under felony indictment explicitly to protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay from possible indictment by a Travis Co. grand jury in the TRMPAC investigation. The bad PR from that vote caused grumbling in the caucus, and on Tuesday the leadership backed down, maintaining that rule and another against bringing discredit on the House. However, they did alter the rules of the House ethics ("Standards and Conduct") committee to require a majority vote for an investigation, effectively handing a veto to either party, and it is likely Republicans will replace Colorado Rep. Joel Hefley, seen as too independent after he concurred with last year's three admonitions of DeLay. M.K.
Convicted former state prison head James "Andy" Collins is asking a judge to waive a court requirement that he earn court permission before traveling out of state, the Associated Press reported on Dec. 31. Collins and co-defendant Yank Barry were convicted in 2001 on charges of bribery, fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy in connection with a multimillion dollar kickback scheme to distribute Canada-based VitaPro soy-based food products in Texas prisons. In 1995, when the scheme was introduced, Collins was serving as head of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Barry was president of VitaPro Foods Inc.; Collins was found guilty of accepting bribes to push through a $33.7 million contract for the soy food products, which were supposed to feed Texas inmates. A federal judge has yet to impose a sentence for either man and has not yet ruled on their 2002 request for a new trial. Collins has received approval for out-of-state trips, but complains that the process takes too long his job as a software company consultant "requires freedom to make business trips on one or two days' notice, particularly because his employers anticipate enhanced marketing efforts in 2005," according to the AP. "This process has hampered me from being able to discharge my duties effectively," Collins wrote to his attorney. Jordan Smith
Calling itself a "mainstream" opposition group, a new political action committee has emerged to fight a proposed amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage. Practice What You Preach seeks to call legislators' attention to the "real threats" to marriage in Texas no-fault divorce laws and domestic violence, according to the group's president, Jason Stanford. "It is a bright and shining lie to say that HJR 6 would do anything to help marriage," he said of one of two House proposals that would add Texas to the list of states with constitutional bans on gay marriage. The new PAC plans a statewide campaign to fight the ban with grim statistics showing that traditional marriage faces a greater crisis, as evidenced by the state's 100,000 divorces and 900,000 victims of domestic violence reported each year. For more info, see www.practicewhatyoupreach.org. A.S.
In his 19th year-end report on the federal judiciary, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist tackled growing complaints of "judicial activism" and defended lifetime bench appointments. That constitutional measure "tries to insulate judges from the public pressures that may affect elected officials," he wrote, protecting "judicial independence not to benefit judges, but to promote the rule of law: judges are expected to administer the law fairly, without regard to public reaction." Rehnquist points out that some court decisions like those affecting desegregation and voting rights were roundly criticized at the time, yet were ultimately correct. Arguments regarding decisions and actions of federal jurists have "always been with us," Rehnquist wrote, but "have in the eyes of some taken a new turn in recent years." There have been bills requiring collection of information on individual judges, "suggestions to impeach federal judges who issue decisions regarded by some as out of the mainstream," and several bills that would limit federal jurisdiction in deciding challenges to certain government actions notably, a measure by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay all of which concern Rehnquist. "No doubt the federal Judiciary, including the Supreme Court, will continue to encounter challenges to its independence and authority because of dissatisfaction with particular decisions or the general direction of its jurisprudence," he wrote. "Let us hope that ... all of our courts will continue to command sufficient public respect to enable them to survive basic attacks on the judicial independence that has made our judicial system a model for much of the world." J.S.
Weed Watch: In its biannual report on state court felony sentences, the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that of the just over 1 million felony sentences handed down in 2002, more than 32% were for drug offenses: 12.1% for possession, 20.2% for trafficking, and 2% on marijuana-related charges. The BJS also reports that 17% of felons were sentenced for violent crimes, 31% for property crimes, and just over 3% for weapon-related offenses. Not surprisingly, 95% of charges were adjudicated through guilty pleas, including bargained cases. Nationally, of all felons convicted in state court in 2002, 60% were white, 37% were black and 3% were all other races. For the complete report, see www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/fssc02.htm. J.S.