in Houston, Texas
Hundreds of El Paso public corruption documents remain under seal
Monday, Sep 17, 2012, 09:44AM CST
By Mike Cronin
files

Reams of court documents remain sealed in an El Paso public corruption case --- including two documents that the judge in December said should be unsealed after 2011, the El Paso Times reports.

First Amendment experts have said (Judge Frank Montalvo) has been too quick to seal some of the hundreds of documents and proceedings that have been hidden from the public in El Paso's raft of corruption cases, which stretch back to 2004.

Under the law, court documents and proceedings are supposed to be open unless a judge determines there is a strong government interest in sealing them.

Among the docs that are public is the Dec. 9 transcript of former County Judge Dolores Briones’ guilty plea, in which she admits accepting $24,000 in bribes in exchange for supporting a $600,000 federal contract. The court unsealed the transcript this week, even as Montalvo ordered that any other motions using the plea be sealed. The plea agreement itself and the factual basis for the plea both remain sealed, the Times reports.

Montalvo previously stated in court that he sealed many of the documents at the request of federal prosecutors, based on their continuing investigations.

Charles Daughtry, a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told the El Paso Times that he could not “see any legitimate reason” to keep any of the remaining Briones documents sealed. Those documents already are available to the defendant and the statute of limitations has expired.

The El Paso Times estimated in July that 268 orders, documents and motions remained under seal.

Nine people, including six public officials, have pleaded guilty to corruption charges resulting from a 2010 indictment that states $100 million in government health-insurance business was illegally steered to Access HealthSource. The investigation stretches back for years and has managed to touch virtually every corner of government in El Paso.

Wiretaps of three men connected to businessman Bob Jones, sentenced to 10 years and fined $68 million for his role in the Access bribery scheme, revealed that the scandal penetrated El Paso County government and its courts; local police; and the El Paso, Ysleta and Socorro school districts. Prosecutors have presented evidence of bribes accepted by elected county officials and school board members.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of files by flickr user T a k, used via a Creative Commons license.

El Paso Times alerts public to potential waste -- $3.7 million of it for building owned by El Paso Times
Friday, Sep 14, 2012, 03:26PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
elapse

Lest you doubt the indispensable role of the press as guardian of the commonweal, we offer the El Paso Times warning that the city was on the verge of paying $3.7 million too much for a downtown building.

And lest you doubt why the entire newspaper business is in deep financial trouble, we point out that the building in question houses the El Paso Times.

The Times compounded its scoop by reporting today the City Council decided to wait just a bit before moving to acquire its building for $14 million.

The city had the 83,000-square-foot building and a parking lot across the 300 N. Campbell St. location appraised for $10.3 million in August. The appraisal report had not been read by the City Council and brokers for TVO North America, the real estate company handling the deal, until Thursday after being requested by a reporter for the Times.

In a bit of an understatement, City Manager Joyce Wilson told the Times there had been “some confusion” and that the appraisal figure had gotten all balled up with other numbers, including the $14 million offer.

The confusion may have something to do with the speed with which civic dominoes began toppling after the City Council offered $50 million in taxpayer money to build a stadium downtown as a lure for to a Triple A baseball franchise.

The plan, the secrecy surrounding elements of it and the lack of public input is quite unpopular with certain constituencies in El Paso, including the hotel industry.

While the negotiations to bring the Tucson Padres east continued, the Council voted to raze City Hall to make room for the ballpark and prepares to vote this Tuesday on an $83 million bond package pay for everything, including the Times building.

Where to put all those displaced city employees cannot be determined until the Council decides on what it is willing to ask taxpayers to pay for the Times building. "There is no way we would ever consider buying anything for $4 million more than its appraisal," City Rep. Michiel Noe told the Times. “If it is $4 million more, then hell no.”

The story does not say whether or not the Times is willing to sell its building for $3.7 million less than it thought would be offered.

Nor does the story say whether a desk will be made available in the Times’ new headquarters for the reporter who made the much lower offer possible.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of El Paso Times front page via Newseum.

Public costs of wind power pile up as industry digs in against expiration of tax credit
Friday, Sep 14, 2012, 02:15PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
spanish fan

Imagine Washington policymakers one day proposing a spectacular renewable energy and jobs program, one that assigned a laborer equipped with a lovely Spanish-style but, of course, American-made, fan to every home.

The symmetrical logic of reducing our loathsome dependence on fossil fuels while creating more than 114 million jobs is powerfully alluring. If you could resist the impulse to ask what this revolutionary program would cost.

Something on a much less ridiculous scale has been going on for decades at the intersection of power generation and your government, which has insisted, through its policies, that American taxpayers support alternative energy sources like wind power.

To give you an idea of how competitive the wind power industry is, the possibility a federal production tax credit for wind farms might not be renewed for the first time since 1992 has sent companies in the nation’s wind power capital, Texas, into a panic, the Texas Tribune reports.

This in spite of the $7 billion state electric ratepayers contributed to build power lines from West Texas wind farms to cities where the power could actually be used. And that all of the taxpayer and ratepayer support produces a very small number of jobs at a cost of $1.6 million each.

Vestas, a Danish turbine manufacturer, is closing its Houston research and development facility in advance of the tax credit vote, the story says. William McWhirter with Trinity Industries in Dallas says a decline in wind tower production next year will hurt the manufacturing company.

Sarah Howell, a spokeswoman for BP Wind Energy, a creator of Texas wind farms, says the impact of a lapsed tax credit on the industry would be “devastating.”

Little remarked upon by the people opining in the story is how much supporting the wind power industry costs and that those costs have always been borne by taxpayers and ratepayers.

Without subsidy, the actual cost to generate wind power on-shore is expected to be at least 50 percent and as much as 75 percent more than for natural gas, according to projections made in a June 2011 study by the Electric Power Research Institute. (Please see projection charts on pages 1-11 and 1-12 in the study.)

Offshore wind power is expected to cost two to almost three times as much to produce as natural gas, the Research Institute study says. And those cost differences are not expected to change appreciably by 2025, the study says.

***

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo from ad by Lands Far Away Imports Inc.

$1.1 million in lost revenues from poor management at Dallas landfill, auditor finds
Thursday, Sep 13, 2012, 04:28PM CST
By Curt Olson
trash

Something stinks at the McCommas Bluff Landfill in south Dallas, and it’s not the decaying trash that haulers dump there.

That extra horrible stench comes from management practices that cause the landfill to lose money every year, at least $1.1 million over the past 11 years, WFAA in Dallas reports. Worse, City Auditor Craig Kinton pointed these problems out in 2009. Landfill officials promise to fix them following Kinton’s latest 44-page audit.

The landfill’s operation turns trash into money by charging haulers fees, but the audit reveals landfill staff did a lousy job of verifying commercial haulers and many have not paid the full fee owed. Fully 96 percent of about 1,500 users should not have access to the computer system the landfill uses, and the management of is not adequate to detect errors and reduce fraud and waste, the auditors found.

Significant internal control deficiencies over cash receipts and accounts receivable activities were noted in the Department of Sanitation Services’ (Sanitation Services) landfill and transfer station operations. Several of the deficiencies identified during this audit were previously reported to Sanitation Services in 2009, but had not been adequately addressed.

The stench coming from the landfill has also surfaced as a significant public policy discussion as Mayor Mike Rawlings wants all Dallas trash — the landfill only takes residential garbage now — hauled to the landfill. Haulers have sued to prevent the city’s move to rake in another $15 million to $18 million because it would create a monopoly. The case is still playing out in court.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of trash can by flickr user Michael Connell, used via a Creative Commons license.

Recall petition in Sinton, Texas, must be released, AG rules
Thursday, Sep 13, 2012, 02:00PM CST
By Mike Cronin
AG

The city of Sinton must release a recall petition, the attorney general has ruled. The city failed to show that the information could cause harm to a city employee or that its release would violate a law shielding the personal information of police officers.

Supporters of the petition want to recall three Sinton City Council members who “fired City Manager Jackie Knox without explanation Tuesday,” the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports. That was after an unsuccessful move to fire Sinton City Secretary Betty Wood.

Knox accused the city council members -- Mayor Eloy Lopez, Linda Guzman-Alaniz and Michelle Soliz -- of meeting in secret to arrive at their decision to fire him. Lopez denied any closed-door meetings.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Another election year defamation case: Brownsville lawyer sues opponent over statements in May primary
Thursday, Sep 13, 2012, 12:28PM CST
By Mike Cronin
gavel

A Brownsville lawyer is suing the judge who defeated her during the May Democratic primary for $3.3 million in damages.

Veronica Farias states in court documents that 138th District Judge Arturo C. Nelson “used his office and political influence to illegally disseminate information about her during a political campaign.”

The judge distributed information that had been expunged from state district court records because they lacked legal merit, Farias claims. Nelson committed that act “to humiliate, harass, slander and defame Farias),” according to the documents.

According to the Brownsville Herald:

The Texas Legislature enacted a law for the expungement of records to protect the reputation of falsely accused persons, the lawsuit states, to allow those persons to lead normal, productive and fruitful lives and careers.

The Code of Criminal Procedures also stipulates that a person who is an officer or employee of the state and who knows of an order expunging the records, commits an offense if he knowingly releases, disseminates or otherwise uses the records or files, according to the lawsuit.

Farias has requested a trial by jury.

Texas Watchdog reported on another election year defamation lawsuit in May. The Houston ad agency Rehak Creative Services claimed that state House candidate Ann Witt libeled the company via a website that chronicled campaign donations to Houston Rep. Jim Murphy, whom Witt lost to in the Republican primary for District 133. The case was dismissed on June 22.

And in Austin, Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, sued his GOP-primary opponent, former Texas Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, for what he said was a false statement about him. That case remains pending.

Wentworth defeated Jones in May, but lost to the third Republican candidate, Donna Campbell, in a July runoff.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of gavel by flickr user walknboston, used via a Creative Commons license.

Director of Texas juvenile justice agency rescinds executive pay raises
Wednesday, Sep 12, 2012, 05:08PM CST
By Curt Olson
money

There’s a new sheriff in charge of the state’s juvenile justice agency.

Michael Griffiths this week revoked raises awarded to 11 executives in March in possible violation of state law and removed two top agency leaders, the Austin American-Statesman reports.

Griffiths took over the agency Monday after a year of turmoil marked by reports of violence at youth lockups, reports of coercion and extortion among inmates at Giddings State School east of Austin and a suit from a 32-year agency veteran who said he was fired because he voiced concerns about what was happening at Giddings.

A state auditor’s report had revealed routine cost overruns with agency construction projects.

And about a week ago state lawmakers learned that 11 top agency officials received pay raises in March that ranged between $3,500 and $14,700.

It didn’t take long for Griffiths to undo the raises, and more executive jobs may be cut, the newspaper reported. Griffiths promises to change the agency’s culture and be more transparent.

Griffiths follows interim leader Jay Kimbrough, who Gov. Rick Perry tapped to take over the agency in the spring after Cherie Townsend abruptly retired. State lawmakers created the state Juvenile Justice Department in 2011 by merging the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission.

Five years ago the youth agencies received a bipartisan makeover at the hands of lawmakers, who were responding to sex and physical abuse scandals at youth facilities.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of money by flickr user 401 (K) 2012, used via a Creative Commons license.

Under state oversight following cheating scandal, El Paso ISD considers replacing interim superintendent
Tuesday, Sep 11, 2012, 05:14PM CST
By Mike Cronin
pencil

Less than a month after the Texas Education Agency appointed a monitor to oversee the El Paso’s public schools in the wake of a cheating scandal, district officials plan to replace the interim superintendent, the El Paso Times reported today.

Board members of the El Paso Independent School District would not explain why they sought to replace the current interim superintendent, Terri Jordan.

"It would not be appropriate for me to comment on this closed session agenda item before it is discussed fully by board members at tomorrow's meeting," board President Isela Castañon-Williams told the Times in a statement Monday.

The board was set to discuss Jordan’s replacement this afternoon.

Jordan served as the chief of staff to former El Paso public schools chief Lorenzo García prior to his arrest last year on public corruption charges.

García pleaded guilty in June to fraud and admitted directing a contract to a mistress and playing a role in the cheating scandal. García received tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses tied to student achievement - a measure that had been rigged by him and other district leaders.

The search for a new interim superintendent is taking place locally and statewide, said James "Jimmy" Vasquez, the executive director of Region 19 Education Service Center and the head of a task force created to help EPISD recover from the scandal.

"I have been calling the former superintendents of large school districts. We don't have anybody yet," Vasquez said of the candidate search.

Vasquez said the district is looking for a "temporary interim superintendent" to be followed by an interim superintendent and finally a full-time superintendent.

Trustees voted in June to extend Jordan's contract as interim superintendent for a year at her current annual salary of $180,000. Jordan’s contract permits her to return to the chief of staff position.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo by flickr user flakeparadigm, used via a Creative Commons license.

City of Austin considers land sale to pay for cost overruns from water treatment plant project
Tuesday, Sep 11, 2012, 04:47PM CST
By Curt Olson
money

A massive Austin public works project that triggered political turmoil and second-guessing by City Council members now has top city leaders preparing for cost overruns.

City Hall staffers are seeking permission to sell 73 acres for as much as $11 million to pay for unexpected costs on the water-treatment plant under construction near Lake Travis in Northwest Austin, the Austin American-Statesman reports. City Manager Marc Ott and his senior leaders expect the most expensive project since construction of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to exceed its $508 million budget.

Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros downplays any cost overruns and believes they will amount to just 1 percent of the project — $5 million. Whatever the final cost-overrun dollar amount, the scope of the water-treatment plant has already been cut at least $12 million, the newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, crews constructing a shaft near the plant identified a leak in December, the Statesman reported. All that digging prompted talk of legal action by environmental groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Save Our Springs Alliance, who say the project threatens the Jollyville Plateau salamander.

The costs have also been political. Former Council Member Randi Shade, who cast one of the four votes for the plant in October 2009, was defeated last year by Kathie Tovo, an opponent of the plant. Council also had a heated debate last year whether to stop the project but opted not to after learning it would have cost $100 million to $155 million to restart the project, the Statesman reported.

The talk of cost overruns has led to I-told-you-so refrains from project critics.

"I think this tells us the staff was grossly misleading the council about what sort of venture they were getting the city into," said Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, the Statesman reports.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of money by flickr user 401(K) 2012, used via a Creative Commons license.

Clint ISD refuses to turn over documents on property transaction for new high school
Tuesday, Sep 11, 2012, 04:34PM CST
By Curt Olson
for sale

Clint Independent School District officials refuse to release information about a land purchase for a new high school, even though they sealed the deal four years ago.

The district claims it can’t reveal the land’s previous owner and the purchase price because of “certain legal matters,” the El Paso Times reports. The newspaper and a group that recently sued the district over funding, the Paso Del Norte Civil Rights Project, are both seeking the information. Clint ISD is about 30 minutes south of El Paso.

The $45 million in construction costs for the 600-student, 65-acre campus will be borne by state and local taxpayers. The school opened a few weeks ago.

Joel White, a First Amendment attorney with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, doesn’t accept Clint ISD’s argument, telling the Times, “There is absolutely no plausible explanation why they would not produce the contract, how much they paid for it and most of what has been asked to be produced. Even with the potential of litigation, things like contracts or basic transactions should not be withheld.”

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo by flickr user Ian Muttoo, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Does your state offer early voting? Do you qualify? Find out! #election2012 http://t.co/eodxBYVD
Dallas Morning News | 6 years 8 months
Why a Dallas-area cycling coach believed Lance Armstrong was drug-free (video) http://t.co/gURdYkj1
Caller.com | 6 years 8 months
Dozens of illegal waste dumpers sentenced in Jim Wells Co.; others on the run: http://t.co/NgerCdsQ
Karen Townsend | 6 years 8 months
Consistently impressed w/raullabrador when I listen to him in Congressional hearings. #Libya
Cory Crow | 6 years 8 months
Diigo: United raises fares by up to $10 per round trip - Business - http://t.co/kWY8gwPV http://t.co/bw25JP5R
News 4 WOAI | 6 years 8 months
If you see news in or around San Antonio 'SEND IT' to @NEWS4WOAI here: http://t.co/uMqbMXQv OR email us at: NEWSDESK@WOAITV.COM
swamplot | 6 years 8 months
Mining Houston Garbage for Recycling and Compost Gold http://t.co/HMMBArMX
swamplot | 6 years 8 months
Daily Demolition Report: Tulane Highway http://t.co/JXmkSx11
KFDA NewsChannel10 | 6 years 8 months
Obama and Romney: Where they stand on the issues http://t.co/y3VrPfkM
Williamson County | 6 years 8 months
Mental Health Awareness Week FREE Webinar:"Understanding Depression-How to Help You or a Loved One" Thurs,Oct 11@1pm-https://t.co/YUWi19WY
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