"It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals." Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, expressing his displeasure at the commutation of Scooter Libby's prison sentence by President Bush
Quote of the Week
On Monday, President Bush commuted the felony sentence of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, preserving the $250,000 fine and two years probation but eliminating what Bush called the "excessive" 30 months imprisonment. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said the sentence was not "excessive" but "consistent with the applicable laws."
A second lawsuit is being filed to block the planned Wal-Mart at the former Northcross mall; the Allandale Neighborhood Association executive committee voted Monday to sue the city of Austin and Lincoln Property Co., saying the site plan for the supercenter was approved illegally. See "Developing Stories."
In a blow to both logic and U.S. history, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school districts cannot take account of student race in administering plans for racial desegregation.
Travis Co. Medical Examiner David Dolinak recovered two "jacketed, large-caliber, hollow-point-type lead" bullets from the body of 25-year-old Kevin Brown, who was shot and killed by Austin Police Department Sgt. Michael Olsen. Brown scuffled with Olsen in the parking lot of Chester's Club (near 12th and Airport) just after 4am on June 3, after a club employee told Olsen that Brown was carrying a handgun. Brown fled on foot; Olsen and Officer Ivan Ramos followed and caught up with Brown in the courtyard of the neighboring apartment complex. After Brown allegedly ignored Olsen's commands to stop and raise his hands, Olsen fired his gun, killing Brown. (For more, see "Unsuspended Judgments," June 15.) According to Dolinak's report, Brown (who was 5 feet 7 inches) took both bullets in the back. One entered to the right of Brown's spinal column, near the edge of the scapula, and traveled downward at a "very slight" angle, breaking part of his eighth rib. The other bullet entered 3Ú4 of an inch right of center (nearly 2 inches below the first shot and just more than 2 inches to the left) and, traveling downward, fractured Brown's ninth and seventh ribs and perforated the lower lobe of the left lung, which collapsed. According to toxicology test results, traces of codeine and marijuana were found in Brown's bloodstream; cocaine metabolite was found in Brown's urine. The tox report also detected Promethazine an antinausea drug indicated for treating allergies in Brown's blood and urine. Jordan Smith
Robert Springsteen is back in Travis Co. jail, where he'll remain locked up until he is retried for murder in connection with the infamous 1991 yogurt-shop slayings. A pretrial hearing tentatively scheduled for June 29 was cancelled; District Judge Mike Lynch has not rescheduled it as of press time. J.S.
Not only is beauty in the eye of the beholder, but height is, as well. At a governance committee luncheon of Austin's chapter of the American Institute of Architects last week, architect Richard Weiss outlined the current tussle in a city task force over the proposed definition of "height" in city code. This is all keyed to the redevelopment of the Treehouse at Barton Springs and Dawson on the edge of the Bouldin Creek neighborhood. Developers used a loophole in city code to build an extra 40 feet of height on the project, via a rather creative retaining-wall concept. Now neighborhood groups want to clamp down on the definition of height for commercial buildings. Architects, however, fear the current proposal will discourage new construction on sloped land and even cut off a potential number of floors on certain buildings a serious, and probably unintended, deterrent in those cases. Weiss wants to see some kind of slope calculation considered so that extreme cases such as the Treehouse could be set aside for special consideration. Kimberly Reeves
The CWS Capital Properties project at 222 and 300 E. Riverside continues to make the rounds of city boards and commissions and continues to get a skeptical reception. The 200-foot, two-tower project, the subject of Save Town Lake's ire, would be the first variance to the Town Lake Waterfront Overlay, if granted. Last Tuesday night, developers' attorney Richard Suttle tried to sweeten the pot with additional land and amenities for the Town Lake Trail. Development plans have been configured to avoid breaking the 150-foot "primary setback," in which development is not allowed. The project will go through a subcommittee hearing process before it makes it back to the full commission next month. K.R.
On June 27, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information request for details pertinent to 62 deaths of immigrant detainees that have occurred since 2004. "We are deeply concerned about this shockingly high number of in-custody deaths in immigration detention," said Elizabeth Alexander, director of the ACLU National Prison Project. Deficient medical care is a leading cause of death, based on complaints compiled by the ACLU, whose request seeks information on whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement or any independent agency monitors the deaths of immigrant detainees, who are often housed in county jails, or in immigration detention facilities managed by private prison companies. Also this month, the ACLU filed suit against San Diego Correctional Facility, an ICE facility run by privately owned Corrections Corporation of America (which also operates the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center in Taylor, Texas). The suit alleges a "systemic problem" of denying medical treatment has resulted in unnecessary suffering and death at SDCF. The ACLU endorses plans for a "special review" of two in-custody deaths, and urges the public release of the outcome of that investigation. Noted Tom Jawetz, an ACLU attorney: "Absent transparency about these deaths in detention, we can assume that ICE has something to hide." Patricia J. Ruland
Beyond City Limits
Veteran Department of Public Safety investigator Rosanna Abreo was unanimously selected by Bastrop Co. officials this week to replace indicted and ousted Bastrop Co. Sheriff Richard Hernandez. Abreo will serve out the remainder of Hernandez's term, through 2008. Hernandez resigned last month after he was indicted on corruption charges, including allegations he used county jail inmate labor to build barbecue pits that he sold for personal profit. Abreo is a smart and sharp investigator the first female member of the state Special Weapons and Tactics team and a lieutenant in the DPS criminal intelligence service, among other posts. Abreo, who is married to Texas Ranger Sal Abreo, has several college degrees, including a law degree from Texas Tech. She says she won't run for election to the post, but intends to serve as an interim administrator whose goal is to clean up the department. She took office this Monday, July 2. J.S.
Is Scott Panetti sane enough to be executed? That question will have to be answered by federal District Judge Sam Sparks, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 28. For now, Panetti's execution for the 1992 double murder of his in-laws in Fredericksburg will be put on hold until the lower courts can determine whether Panetti's delusional thinking, caused by schizophrenia, means he is incompetent for execution. Panetti knows he killed his in-laws, and knows he faces execution. However, he believes the link between the murders and the executions is just a "sham" perpetrated by the state; in truth, he says, the state wants to kill him to stop him from preaching the gospel. The state argues that because Panetti is "aware of" the connection between the murders and his execution, he is competent to be executed (without violating the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment); the fact that he doesn't have a rational understanding of the link is not important. In a 5-4 decision, however, the Supreme Court disagreed. In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy ruled that a "prisoner's awareness of the State's rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it" and mere awareness is not enough to satisfy the Eighth Amendment. The Supremes remanded Panetti's case to federal district court, where Judge Sparks will be asked to decide whether Panetti's delusional thought process renders him incompetent for execution. J.S.
The Citizens Advisory Committee for Hays County's proposed Habitat Conservation Plan will hold its first meeting Thursday, July 5. Hays County, like its brethren to the north, wants to create a plan to preserve habitat for the Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo, as well as other local endangered species. Thursday night will begin the planning process, which is being underwritten by $1 million in federal grants and local funds. The meeting will be at 6pm in the boardroom of the Dripping Springs Independent School District, 510 W. Mercer, Dripping Springs. K.R.
An internal investigation at the Texas Education Agency indicated that agency officials, including Deputy Commissioner Robert Scott, steered contracts for Gov. Rick Perry's pet projects to friends and former agency employees. Scott has heatedly denied these allegations and pointed to numerous factual errors in the report. Inspector General Michael Donley, however, stands behind the report as being true in its substantive findings, noting Scott had it to review and correct since April and did nothing. The report sat uncorrected and unaddressed until Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley learned she would not be reconfirmed as education commissioner and ordered Donley to release the draft document to State Auditor John Keel. That's why the report reads as if it's far from finished. Scott is still expected to release his own written comments on its findings. Neeley departed the agency July 1. K.R.
Texas may get a new nuke, if plans announced last week by Illinois-based Exelon Nuclear, the nation's largest nuclear power provider, move forward. Exelon expects to file a permit application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in November 2008 to build a reactor on a 1,250-acre site in Matagorda County. If that falls through, the company has a backup site near Victoria. Excelon will spend $23 million on the application, in which the company will seek federal production tax credits, risk insurance, and loan guarantees, according to a company news release, which also notes that among the issues yet to be resolved are "a solution to used fuel disposal, broad public acceptance of a new nuclear plant and assurances that a new plant using new technology can be financially successful." Once the application is submitted, the NRC will review it for three to four years, the Houston Chronicle reports. Texas gets 14% of its electricity from two nuclear plants, including the South Texas Nuclear Project, operated in-part by Austin Energy. Many greens remain opposed to nukes, given gross cost overruns at previous plants, a lack of safe disposal for radioactive waste, and the disastrous fallout potential in the event of an accident or attack. Daniel Mottola
In other eco news, Environment Texas released its legislative scorecard for the 109th legislative session (2005-2006) this week, and one local legislator, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, took high honors, scoring 100%. He's recognized for "successfully fighting efforts to expand off-shore oil drilling, defending protections for endangered species like the polar bear and the recently recovered bald eagle, and working to make polluters pay to clean up contaminated groundwater," said ET Director Luke Metzger. ET also looked at legislators' votes on maintaining smog cleanup deadlines, increasing renewable energy production, raising fuel economy standards, making oil companies pay royalties to the government, preventing drilling in the Arctic Refuge, and cutting federal money to run logging roads through Alaska's Tongass National Forest. GOP Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn both scored a repugnant 0%, and local GOP Reps Lamar Smith and Michael McCaul both scored a pathetic 8%, each screwing nature on every vote except for roads through the Tongass rain forest. With Smith, McCaul, and Cornyn up for re-election soon, and energy and the environment atop voters' concerns, the legislators' environmental misbehavior could get them expelled from Washington. To see the complete ET scorecard and how your local legislator voted, go to www.environmenttexas.org. D.M.
Attorney General Greg Abbott released a report last week that showed 82 of the 96 government-related defined pension plans in Texas are carrying liability on the books. Basically, these funds carried $23 billion more in anticipated debt than current funding. Abbott estimated that 1.8 million Texans have counted on retirement funds with liabilities that exceed their assets. Of those 82 funds, 17 are considered seriously "at risk" because current liabilities would take more than 40 years to repay. Abbott suggests independent actuarial calculations, better financial expertise from board members, and greater transparency of conflicts of interest. K.R.
Coal plants account for much of the nation's smog, mercury, and global-warming pollution. According to a recently released Sierra Club report, however, coal's emissions are only a fraction of the damaging side effects resulting from its use. The report, "The Dirty Truth About Coal: Why Yesterday's Technology Should Not Be Part of Tomorrow's Energy Future," first debunks "clean coal" claims, arguing that even the cleanest of plants have failed to reduce climate-changing carbon dioxide output, and that attempts to capture and store CO2 are largely untested. The report goes on to look at so-called "mountaintop removal" surface mining, which has damaged or destroyed approximately 1,200 miles of streams, disrupted drinking water supplies, flooded communities, eliminated forests, and destroyed wildlife habitat. Once coal is burned, more than 120 million tons of solid waste and sludge are left behind annually, which have created various toxic contaminations in their own right. Coal mining and combustion also guzzle 195 billion gallons of water every day, nearly half of U.S. withdrawals. So instead of more coal plants, the Sierra Club contends that comparable investment in clean energy would result in $16.4 billion of economic activity and 249,151 new jobs. Find the full report at www.sierraclub.org/coal/dirtytruth/report. D.M.
The Education Trust released a report recently noting that teachers in high-poverty, high-minority schools are typically paid less than their suburban counterparts. The 10 largest school districts in the state were reviewed; according to the report, teachers in Austin working in the city's highest-poverty elementary schools earn an average of $2,688 less per year than those teaching in schools with fewer low-income students. In general, this means teachers in lower-income schools are less educated and less experienced than their counterparts. The study indicates it would require an additional $2 million every year to bring parity to teacher pay. K.R.
Amid arguments about whether Rudy Giuliani might face off with Fred Thompson in the race for the Republican presidential nominee, it's easy to forget there's a Texan in the running. Not surprising, since even some GOPers are trying to ignore U.S. Rep. Ron Paul. Sparks flew when Paul found himself excluded from the Iowa Republican presidential debate Friday. It wasn't exactly an unmissable event, with only six of the 10 candidates appearing John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Jim Gilmore all had better things to do. Debate organizers the Iowa Christian Alliance and Iowans for Tax Relief didn't invite Paul, however, claiming he isn't a credible candidate. Fellow presidential hopeful U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo fumed that Paul was as credible as anyone attending and should have been present: Keen-eyed Iowans noted that Ed Failor, executive vice president of Iowans for Tax Relief, also happens to be a McCain donor and senior campaign organizer. While Paul defended the rights of the two right-wing groups to "exclude the most pro-life, anti-tax candidate in the race," the sometimes-libertarian still managed to be heard. His people threw their own rally right next door to the debate and claim they drew a bigger crowd than the six other candidates combined. Richard Whittaker