Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"This indictment is nothing more than prosecutorial retribution by a partisan Democrat. They could not get Tom DeLay at the polls. They could not get Mr. DeLay on the House floor. Now they're trying to get him into the courtroom. This is not going to detract from the Republican agenda." DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden, referring to Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle. DeLay was indicted yesterday in the TRMPAC case; if convicted, the (now former) House majority leader could face two years in jail.
Headlines Breaking News: As this issue went to press, a Travis Co. grand jury indicted U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on one count of criminal conspiracy in connection with D.A. Ronnie Earle's probe into alleged campaign finance law violations by the Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee.
Hurricane Rita came and went, causing much trouble and consternation to Beaumont and parts north, but delivering hardly a breeze and no relief to parched and fried Austin. By the time you read this, perhaps the first real norther is on its way.
A 16-year-old boy was charged in the shooting death of Austin High sophomore Christopher Briseño, killed in a drive-by as he walked home last week. See "Austin High Sophomore Killed in Drive-By."
Questions about the use of Tasers rise again, as a man died in South Austin about an hour after being Tased by police on Monday afternoon. See "Austin Stories," below.
In yet another low-water mark for Austin's institutional politics, Capital Metro threatened to fire any bus drivers who participate in additional strike action, following the one-day strike by the drivers' union last week. On Tuesday, the union fired back with a lawsuit accusing Cap Metro of illegally interfering in negotiations between the workers and the contractor that employs them. See "The Bus Stops Here: Cap Metro."
At press time, John Roberts was sailing toward Senate confirmation to install him as the nation's 17th U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, despite lingering concerns about his commitment to civil rights, equal protection under law, reproductive freedom, and a general right to privacy. See "Senators Go for Bush's Man."
Austin Stories A confrontation with police Monday afternoon in Southeast Austin ended in death for 33-year-old Michael Clark after he was stunned at least twice with a Taser, the APD reports. Police were dispatched to the 6400 block of East William Cannon just after 1pm on Sept. 26, where they found Clark and a woman involved in a fight. Police officials say Clark was "displaying behavior that was violent and irrational," and bit one officer before police resorted to using pepper spray and a 50,000-volt Taser jolt to subdue him. After police got Clark into custody he went into "medical distress," according to the department, and was taken to South Austin Hospital by EMS where he died just before 4pm. The official cause of death has yet to be determined by the Travis Co. Medical Examiner's Office; the incident is under investigation by both APD homicide and Internal Affairs investigators. Jordan Smith
The APD's Northeast and Central East Area Commands are joining forces on Operation No Deal, which will target street-corner prostitution and drug dealing in East Austin by conducting undercover stings in the area. Interestingly, according to APD statistics, more than 50% of individuals popped for buying drugs and sex in the NEAC and CEAC came from another neighborhood or from out of town. J.S.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality directed Austin-based KBDJ LP last Friday to cease quarrying and rock-crushing operations at its Buda-area facility. The directive came in response to District Judge Margaret Cooper's decision to reverse and remand the approval of KBDJ's water pollution abatement plan back to the TCEQ, based on appeals by Anne Ashmun and Neighbors Organized to Protect the Environment, a group of nearby Ruby Ranch subdivision residents opposed to the crusher. The ruling upheld plaintiffs' claims that KBDJ's approval was not supported by substantial evidence. Neighbors focused on concerns over the facility's location atop the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, and the court's ruling cited the amount of suspended limestone solids contained in runoff that finds its way into groundwater during operations. "We're going to comply with what the law and the judge requires," said KBDJ spokeswoman Kirsten Voinis, also noting that KBDJ intends to stay in business at its Buda site and is still moving forward with other permit approvals required for long-term operations. Daniel Mottola
A Travis Co. grand jury has indicted 21-year-old UT student Laura Ashley Hall on two felony counts of hindering apprehension for her alleged role in helping 22-year-old Colton Pitonyak flee to Mexico in the wake of the brutal murder of 21-year-old Jennifer Cave, who was found shot, stabbed, and dismembered in Pitonyak's bathtub on Aug. 18. Pitonyak, indicted for first-degree murder, is being held in the Travis Co. jail. Hindering apprehension is a third-degree felony; each count is punishable by between two and 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. J.S.
Sixteen-year-old Austin Wierup was killed last Thursday morning on his bicycle near the corner of South Congress and St. Elmo on his way to class at the Griffin School in Hyde Park. A preliminary APD statement says Wierup collided with a cement truck as it turned eastbound on St. Elmo. The truck driver, 33-year-old Sidney Henry, was not given a citation and no charges have been filed at press time. According to witnesses, Wierup was riding on the sidewalk and appeared to strike the front side of the truck, APD spokeswoman Laura Albrecht said. It is unclear whether the truck struck Wierup as he was going through the intersection or if both were turning when they collided. "It is still an open case and still under investigation," Albrecht said. The Griffin School's Adam Wilson said the small, tight-knit school community is grieving over the loss of Wierup, whom he called a gregarious, respected, and popular student. Wierup, a junior, normally arrived at school on his skateboard, having taken the bus from South Austin, Wilson said. "My perception is that he was trying to get to a more central bus stop given the Capital Metro strike." (For more on the bus drivers' strike, see p.18) A memorial will be held at the Griffin School Saturday evening and the Yellow Bike Project has placed a symbolic white bicycle at the scene of the accident. D.M.
You'll never guess what the one book contested at the Austin Public Library has been this year an illustrated version of I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. According to librarians, a concerned parent objected to one of the illustrations in the Nadine Bernard Westcott version of the old children's rhyme. The library's material reconsideration committee, formed in 1993 in response to outrage over APL's acquisition of Madonna's Sex, had the good sense not to ban the offending tale. So why are we rambling about this? Because it's the tail end of national Banned Books Week, an annual celebration the last week in September of our democratic freedom to read whatever we want to read, no matter how seemingly unpopular or unorthodox the content. For lists of the most challenged books and authors in America, see www.ala.org/ala/oif/bannedbooksweek/
bannedbooksweek.html. Then march over to your nearest library and exercise your freedom to check out a contested work. APL reference librarians are reachable at 974-7449 or email@example.com, and APL's Web site is www.cityofaustin.org/library. Cheryl Smith
In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the consequent disruptions in gas supplies, Naked City welcomed President Bush's request that "we all pitch in" and cut down on our gas usage, by "not buying gas if we don't need it," and not jumping in the car "for a trip that's not essential that would be helpful." That's why we were puzzled Saturday afternoon when we spent 30 minutes wandering around in the neighborhoods north of old Mueller airport, burning up fuel, while trying to find a way to cross I-35 only to be turned back by police roadblocks at every south- and westbound intersection. The problem? Seems the presidential helicopter, limousine, and the rest of Bush's entourage were in town for Hurricane Rita photo-ops at the North Austin emergency command center, and it wouldn't do if ordinary citizens were allowed to drive the public roadways at the same time as the Gas Guzzler in Chief. We tried to look at the bright side no potential terrorists from the Delwood neighborhood had been allowed within a quarter-mile of His Magnificence. Michael King
Beyond City Limits A proposed statewide ban on same-sex marriages is "constitutional pollution at its worst," Texas AFL-CIO President Emmett Sheppard declared Tuesday in announcing the state labor federation's opposition to Prop. 2 on the Nov. 8 ballot. Sheppard said that the broad language of the proposal, which would also deny the creation or recognition of civil unions, puts workers in jeopardy of losing their health care benefits. Both Travis Co. and the city of Dallas, as well as dozens of private companies in Texas, extend employee benefits to domestic partners. "Passage of Proposition 2 would, at the very least, place political pressure, and maybe legal pressure, on private companies to withdraw those benefits," Sheppard said. "In an age when companies are looking for an excuse to cut health care costs, Proposition 2 provides too tempting a target of opportunity." More than two-thirds of the federation's executive board voted to reject the proposition. Amy Smith
Yee-haw, it's the battle of the education policy reports! The liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities and the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation (don't get 'em mixed up) each released an educational policy paper this week. The TPPF tackled charter schools. While the group generally promotes charters as a market-style alternative to what it sees as a public education "monopoly," its beefy analysis of student test scores does not gloss over the weaknesses of charters, including larger average classes and less-experienced teachers, even as it argues that charters close the achievement gap between at-risk and other students faster than traditional schools. See the full report at www.texaspolicy.com. Meanwhile, the CPPP analyzed different states' average educational expenditures and test scores, and found no evidence that the "65% rule" Rick Perry's executive order requiring 65% of school expenditures to be spent on instruction was a silver bullet to better school performance. While CPPP admitted that "in education spending, what matters is spending enough money on the right things," it found that some higher-performing states spent 65% of their budgets on instruction (which includes the arts and sports), while others spent significantly less. See the full report at www.cppp.org. Rachel Proctor May
Texas Public Interest Research Group released a new analysis last week linking global warming with findings that show for the first time that the West's major river basins are getting warmer at exactly the time of year water needs to be stored as snow to meet the region's water needs. Three-fourths of the water used in the West starts as snow, according to the analysis, which found trends that go beyond occasional or seasonal drought, showing a steadily declining snowpack in four major river basins in the West over the past 110 years, including the Rio Grande basin where much of the water used by El Paso and Laredo originates. "Warmer winters and less snow means that we'll have even less water available. Global warming is affecting us today," said TexPIRG's Luke Metzger. The report, written by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, identified a monthly pattern of increased temperatures from 1995 to 2004, showing that warming has been greatest during snowfall months, a so-called "fingerprint" of global warming. For more info, see www.texpirg.org. D.M.
It's been a good week for District 21 congressional candidate John Courage. Not only did he beat out 60 Democratic contenders for the Democracy for America's Grassroots All-Star endorsement, but District 21's Republican incumbent, Lamar Smith, really stepped in it. Someone from Smith's office "misdialed," sending a fax meant for Karl Rove to the office of an unnamed Democratic congressman and you know that can't be good. The fax, available in its entirety on RawStory.com, details Smith's plans for dealing with immigration, which "needs to be considered in the context of (1) media bias, (2) animosity toward the president, and (3) feeling of the Republican base." Then, after a little ass-kissing "You read polls better than anyone" Smith pulls out the very Rove-ian idea of smearing thine enemy: "Liberals can easily and accurately be painted as opposing enforcement." When contacted for comment, Smith's press secretary, Blair Jones, said "There is nothing new or surprising in that memo." The Courage camp disagrees. "It exposes where Lamar Smith stands on this issue," said Alyssa Burgin, "something that he hasn't necessarily been up-front about recently." Diana Welch
The Kinky Friedman gubernatorial machine unveiled the campaign's first "Kinkytoon" last week the Kinkster's version of a rote campaign ad that pokes fun at Jesus-loving politicians. Picking an elected leader has become as exciting as choosing "between paper and plastic," opines Friedman as he embraces Texas' "endangered" cowboys and "sexy" cheerleaders. For now, the 'toon is only available online, but campaign director Dean Barkley, who ran former wrestler Jesse Ventura's successful Minnesota gubernatorial campaign, says it's likely the campaign will buy broadcast airtime in the future. For now, the campaign is focused on "rolling out" a new Kinkytoon every 30 days, in order to keep their message "fresh." See www.kinkyfriedman.com. J.S.
Mexia native Anna Nicole Smith (nee Vickie Lynn Hogan) will have an audience with the U.S. Supreme Court next spring when the justices take up her nearly decadelong legal battle to secure more than $400 million from the estate of her late husband, Texas tycoon J. Howard Marshall II. Marshall was 89 and Smith was 26 when they married in 1994, a year before Marshall's death. At issue for the justices is whether a federal court has jurisdiction to consider a claim that is already under consideration in state probate court. A federal court in California considered Smith's claim for her alleged inheritance, awarding her an $89 million judgement that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately overturned, ruling that the California federal courts never had jurisdiction, and letting stand a Texas state probate court decision that Marshall's son, E. Pierce Marshall, was sole heir to the estate. J.S.
The mother of Jonathan Magbie, a quadriplegic man who died last year while in the custody of the Washington, D.C., Department of Corrections after refusing to stop using medical marijuana, filed suit on Sept. 20 against individuals working for the jail and a local hospital for failing to provide adequate medical care in violation of federal laws including the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Still, medi-pot advocates argue that there's at least one party the U.S. Congress notably absent from the lawsuit, even though federal lawmakers share equal responsibility for the 27-year-old's death because they blocked District of Columbia voters from implementing a medi-pot ordinance. See details at "Weed Watch: Meddling Federal Lawmakers Share Blame in Senseless Medi-Pot Death." J.S.