Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"She is a very good bowler. For someone her size, she actually gets a lot of action out of the pins." Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten, when pressed for details about Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers. The New York Times, Oct. 16
Headlines At press time, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks upheld Austin's voter-approved anti-smoking ordinance, rejecting a request by several bar owners for an injunction. However, Sparks also said that bars in violation must not lose licenses or permits without judicial review and that the ordinance's $2,000 fine violates state law and must be reduced to $500.
Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's lawyers ratcheted up their media campaign to deflate Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle's attempt to prosecute him on felony-conspiracy and money-laundering charges, including a television commercial depicting Earle as a vicious, snarling rottweiler.
Jackson Ngai, who brutally murdered UT piano professor Danielle Martin last year, pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity on Tuesday. When police found Ngai spattered with Martin's blood, he continually repeated "computer chip," and a note on her body read, "Computer chip in brain."
President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court continued limping along, with arch conservatives dissatisfied even despite revelations that she supported a ban on abortions as a 1989 Dallas City Council candidate.
Speaking of President Bush, his approval rating hit 39% this week, the lowest of his tenure, according to an Oct. 13-16 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. But Republicans still cling tightly to their illusions, with 84% approving.
Naked City Mayor Will Wynn and 21 other local officials have joined a statewide effort to defeat the constitutional amendment that would define marriage as exclusively heterosexual. "I'm a proud American who believes that the First Amendment and the American Constitution prevents us from making any laws that codify religious values," Wynn said at Monday's press conference, organized by the No Nonsense in November campaign. The mayor and all but one City Council member went on record in opposing Proposition 2, which seeks to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions in Texas. Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas told In Fact Daily that he supports the amendment. Several Travis Co. elected officials, including Sheriff Greg Hamilton, Co. Judge Sam Biscoe, and all but one of the commissioners Gerald Daugherty added their names to the opposition list as well. The Democratic arm of Travis County's legislative delegation voted against the amendment once already, and say they intend to vote "no" again; GOP Reps. Todd Baxter and Terry Keel voted for the legislation in the House. Conventional wisdom holds that Proposition 2 will lose in Travis County. As for the rest of Texas, well, anything's possible. Amy Smith
In the same breath as his declaration against same-sex marriage (see above), City Council Member Danny Thomas signaled the start of his bid to replace Mayor Will Wynn in the 2006 mayoral race. "We are starting the campaign early," Thomas told In Fact Daily. So it appears marriage will wedge its way into the mayoral race, a good six months after the voters have had their say on the matter. A.S.
The trial of Jackson Ngai, the UT music student who stabbed his piano professor Danielle Martin to death in April 2004, began Monday. Presiding Travis Co. District Judge Bob Perkins said he expects the trial to conclude by the end of the week. Ngai pled not guilty, by reason of insanity, to a two-count indictment of murder and assault with a deadly weapon. Ngai had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic tendencies nine months before the murder and had had more than one episode of the disease. In Texas, however, that may not be enough to support an insanity defense. In addition to proof of mental illness, Texas law requires a defendant to have been so severely disoriented that he did not know his crime was wrong. "Even though he does have a severe mental disease, it didn't prevent him from being able to know the murder was wrong," prosecutor Mary Ann Powers told jurors in her opening statement Tuesday. At least 12 of the 60 prospective jurors were dismissed when they said they did not believe in the insanity defense and could not return a verdict of "not guilty by reason of insanity." If found guilty, Ngai's maximum sentence would be life in prison. If found not guilty by reason of insanity, he could be sentenced to one year in a psychiatric facility, to be renewed by a judge every year unless and until he were found to no longer be a danger to society. (See "Two Lives Lost," Nov. 12, 2004.) Emily Pyle
Although most Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in the Austin area are receiving some form of financial assistance from FEMA and/or the Red Cross, that support won't last forever. October 31 is the last day for evacuees to apply for food stamps under relaxed eligibility criteria, for example. After that, they'll have to meet standard requirements, meaning that those who don't have a job will only be eligible for food stamps for three months within a period of 36 months. Leaders of the Basic Needs Coalition of Central Texas, a public-private collaboration of 23 local organizations focused on community issues, held a press conference Tuesday to call attention to this situation, as well as to the fact that Austin's business and other communities will need to pitch in if local nonprofits are going to continue assisting those in need. "It is important that we provide quality services to both our new residents and long-term residents," said coalition Chair Susan Eason, who noted that area nonprofits were already stretched before Katrina. According to the Community Action Network, a group of local community organizations included in the Basic Needs Coalition, 4,200 Katrina evacuees have moved semipermanently to Austin. See www.basicneeds-ctx.org for where and how to donate time and money to local organizations. Cheryl Smith
Onward Austin, the people who brought you the smoking ban (recently upheld! see "Headlines"), were fined $500 last week by the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to disclose a $35,000 campaign contribution from the American Cancer Society in April. Libertarian activist Wes Benedict, who is emerging as quite the campaign finance watchdog, filed a complaint in May, prompting TEC action. Rodney Ahart, Onward's treasurer and American Cancer Society Austin's government affairs director, called the matter an "honest oversight." "As soon as we noticed the contribution was missed, we took all the necessary steps," Ahart said, including promptly filing a correction affidavit, arguing that there was no intent by his office to conceal campaign cash. Local anti-ban bar owners, organized as Keep Austin Free, have long alleged the vote was bought with more than $300,000 in out-of-state special-interest money from the American Cancer Society. Dan Mottola
Beyond City Limits Sometimes a barking rottweiler is just a barking rottweiler. Those familiar with these loveable beasts might agree that the black and tan fellow that's featured in nonstop TV spots looks about as menacing as, well, Ronnie Earle, the target of the 30-second ads. The Free Enterprise Fund, a less-government group in Washington, launched the ad campaign in response to a grand jury's indictment of U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay on conspiracy and money-laundering charges stemming from his role in the 2002 legislative races. The ad opens with footage of Ronnie the rottweiler barking into the chill of the night, followed by a voiceover that begins, "A prosecutor with a political agenda can be vicious " In real time, meanwhile, DeLay's lead defense lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, is doing a masterful job of keeping the case in the spotlight not to elicit public sympathy for his client (DeGuerin is plucky, but not that plucky), but to paint Earle as a reckless vigilante. In motions this week seeking a dismissal of the charges and a speedy trial, DeGuerin included a personal letter to Earle, urging him to acknowledge that the charges are baseless. "The right thing, the courageous thing, for you to do is to admit you were wrong and dismiss the case right away," DeGuerin wrote. "The longer you drag it out the more obvious it becomes that the result you care about most is the political damage your actions have done to Tom DeLay." Earle had no comment. DeLay is expected to make his first court appearance on the charges Friday. A.S.
Yet another area Democrat has thrown her hat into the election ring Mary Beth Harrell of Killeen has kicked off her campaign for Congress, challenging District 31 incumbent Republican Rep. John Carter. A.S.
On Oct. 7, freshman U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, was tapped to head up the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Investigations by committee chair, Rep. Peter King, R-NY. The subcommittee will be tasked with investigating potential fraud, failures, and wasteful spending within the Department of Homeland Security. McCaul, a former federal prosecutor, said he was "honored" to be tapped for the job. "I feel right at home in this position and look forward to getting to work as quickly as possible." Jordan Smith
Government Canyon State Natural Area, the newest member of Texas' state parks family, celebrated its long-awaited grand opening last Saturday. Just 16 miles from downtown San Antonio, the 8,622-acre tract was preserved in a public-private partnership spanning 12 years, not only for its aesthetic grandeur, but because it sits atop some of the region's most sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zones. Previously, access was limited to volunteers and guided tours, but now daytime hiking, biking, and equestrian activities are allowed, with primitive camping expected next year. Once planned to host a 20,000-home subdivision and 36-hole golf course, it seems Government Canyon won't fully elude development. High-voltage power lines will partially infiltrate its borders, since opponents lost to local utilities in state District Court last month. City Public Service Energy officials told the San Antonio Express-News the planned route for the lines is the least invasive option and won't require cutting through undeveloped lands. In 2003, it was reported that former Sen. Phil Gramm called in high-level favors to have the lines relocated away from his nearby property. For more, visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/government_canyon or call 210/688-9055 D.M.
The Texas Public Interest Research Group released a new report Friday, titled "The Right Start: The Need to Eliminate Toxic Chemicals From Baby Products," documenting toxic chemicals, including phthalates and polybrominated diphenyl ethers, in teethers, bath books, and sleep accessories. "Unfortunately, parents do not have the information they need to adequately protect their children. Our government should give parents this information, and ultimately remove toxic chemicals from children's products," said TexPIRG Federal Field Associate Kim Frusciante. PBDEs are fire retardants that have been linked to a host of health concerns, including impaired learning and memory, reproductive defects, cancer, and impaired immune systems. Phthalates are used in many plastic products to improve flexibility. They've been linked to premature birth, reproductive defects, and early onset of puberty. TexPIRG recommends that parents not let children put polyvinyl chloride plastic toys in their mouths, and use glass containers for food and drink storage when possible. In washing plastic products, parents are advised to avoid harsh dishwashing soap and hot water, both of which speed up the leaching process. For more info, see www.safefromtoxics.org. D.M.
Remember Pat Tillman, the NFL star who valiantly gave up his lucrative career, joined the military after 9/11 to fight terrorists, got killed, and then became a Bush administration poster boy for all that is valiant and good about America? Turns out that while he might have been heroic, he wasn't exactly a Bushite. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Sept. 25 that the Tillman family is seething over the way Pat was used as a propaganda prop after his death in Afghanistan, saying that he thought the Iraq War where he also served was "fucking illegal" and that noted lefty MIT professor Noam Chomsky was one of his favorite authors. The Oct. 24 issue of The Nation reports that Chomsky confirms he and Tillman were scheduled to meet after Tillman returned from duty, which of course never happened. The Tillman family is now pushing for an inquiry into why it took five weeks for the Pentagon to reveal that Tillman actually was killed by friendly fire after he and his family were used as Bush campaign tools at his funeral. Lee Nichols
Happenings The dedication ceremony for the newly renamed Heman Marion Sweatt Travis Co. Courthouse (1000 Guadalupe) will be held Friday, Oct. 21, at 12:30pm on the courthouse's third floor in the 250th District Courtroom. Featured speaker will be civil rights lawyer and Clinton presidential adviser Vernon Jordan. The new name honors the civil rights pioneer who sued in that very courthouse, in 1946 for the right to attend the University of Texas Law School. He won, and Sweatt v. Painter opened up higher education to blacks across America and laid the foundation for Brown v. Board of Education.
The Hill Country Alliance will hold a public meeting regarding the proposed 2006 Travis Co. bond election on Monday, Oct. 24, 7pm at Bee Cave Elementary, 14300 Hamilton Pool Rd. The meeting will focus on preserving more than 2,000 acres in western Travis County, including Reimers Ranch. For more info, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Ethics in Business Awards, presented by the Samaritan Counseling Center, will be handed out Tuesday, Oct. 25, 6-9pm, at Hyatt Regency Austin, 208 Barton Springs Rd. Finalists include Freescale Semiconductor, Caritas, People's Community Clinic, and a host of others. Individual tickets are $125, tables are $1,250. For more info, go to www.austinethics.org.
A series of anti-death penalty events will be held around Austin next week. On Tuesday, Oct. 25, St. Edward's University explores alternatives to capital punishment with St. Ed's student Kristen Beauchamp's documentary Living and Dying in Huntsville, at 5pm, followed at 7pm by presentations from members of Journey of Hope ... From Violence to Healing, a nonprofit organization led by murder victims' family members. The doc will be shown in the Maloney Room in the Main Building; the presentation will be in Jones Auditorium in the Robert and Pearle Ragsdale Center. St. Ed's is at 3001 S. Congress. For more info, call 258-6480 or e-mail email@example.com.
On Wednesday, Oct. 26, Voices From Death Row, a national speaking tour featuring exonerated death row prisoners and relatives of death row inmates, both current and executed, will be presented in the Eastwoods room of the Texas Union on the UT campus, 7pm, 24th & Guadalupe. For more info, go to www.nodeathpenalty.org.
On Saturday, Oct. 29, the sixth annual March to Stop Executions will begin at Austin City Hall at 4pm (gather at 3pm) and proceed to a 4:30pm rally at the Governor's Mansion, 10th & Lavaca. For info, see texasmoratorium.org.
The Journey of Hope From Violence to Healing, a cross-country event featuring families of death row inmates and murder victims, exonerated inmates, religious leaders, and other anti-death-penalty activists, swings through Austin this week for a whirlwind of 35 different events through Sunday, Oct. 30. Today (Thursday) at 4pm, family members of executed inmates will hold a "speak out" event at the Hyatt at 208 Barton Springs Rd. among other events planned over the next three days. Included among the Journey's 50 speakers are Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and David Kaczynski, brother of convicted Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. The Journey coincides with the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty's annual conference, and on Oct. 28 the groups will join forces at 3pm for the annual march to stop executions. The march begins at City Hall and concludes with a rally at the Governor's Mansion. For more information on the Journey of Hope, go to www.tcadp.org.