in Houston, Texas
South Texas water district’s spending practices, fiscal oversight lacking, auditors find
Friday, Jun 01, 2012, 01:57PM CST
By Steve Miller
tap

A state audit of a water district in South Texas, which was the subject of legislative scrutiny last year, reports poor fiscal oversight and lax spending discipline.

The Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3 has spent more than it has taken in since at least 2008, according to the Texas State Auditor’s Office report.

Auditors found the district had  “significant weaknesses in the management of its finances and operations.”

It found that assets including land, water rights and easements were sold to cover for revenue deficits, but “it cannot continue to sustain itself through the sale of assets.”

The audit also found fault with the district’s collection procedures, maintenance documentation, and discovered that “the individual who is both the District’s general manager and the president of its board has multiple businesses that provided services to the District in fiscal years 2008 through 2011” without a process to ensure compliance with state laws regulating such arrangements.

Pay for the board members of the district increased 76 percent in 2011, and the audit found no documentation to verify the hours worked in exchange for that pay, a violation of the Texas Water Code.

District employees and board members who handled cash were not bonded, another violation of the code.

The district provides water to the city of McAllen and a number of other entities and individuals.

In its response to the audit, the district claimed that proponents of dissolution of the utility made “politically charged allegations” and pointed out that previous claims by its detractors of missing funds were not sustained by the audit.

The district also maintained that the sale of assets were not made to cover shortfalls and instead relied on an “interim operating loan,” which it repaid.

It cited a number of deficiencies named in the audit that have been corrected, including the money handling, director compensation documentation and conflict of interest concerns.

The audit was prompted by a 2011 bill, SB 978, which would have dissolved the district and authorized the city of McAllen to take over its management. A number of McAllen residents and city leaders testified in favor of the bill and despite a favorable analysis of the bill by the Senate Resource Center, Gov, Rick Perry vetoed the bill, instead ordering the audit.

The city of McAllen has unsuccessfully tried to take control of its water since 2007 through legislation.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of water spigot by flickr user Tara R., used via a Creative Commons license.

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In new District 35, Austin’s Lloyd Doggett aims to hold back San Antonio challengers
Monday, May 28, 2012, 10:03AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
sign

For the past decade, Republicans have not allowed U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett to take anything for granted.

The arcane and complicated legal battle over congressional redistricting in 2003 forced Doggett to move into another district after five terms. In two elections while the fight made its way through the courts, Doggett beat Republican challengers by vote totals of more than 67 percent.

In 2010, when Republicans were upsetting incumbent Democrats and retaking control of Congress, Doggett beat back an aggressive challenger, winning by the slimmest majority since he first ran for federal office.

Doggett has again decided to move, with a considerable push from Republican legislative mapmakers, to a newly created District 35, setting up a Democratic primary that pits his longtime Austin and Travis County base against a Latino majority in San Antonio and Bexar County.

Doggett, 65, is facing two challengers from San Antonio, Sylvia Romo, 69, Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector, and Maria Luisa Alvarado, 55, a U.S. Air Force veteran and candidate for lieutenant governor in 2006.

The nine-term congressman has responded with some of the hardest campaigning of his career and almost $3 million in cash to spend on television ads carpet bombing the I-35 corridor of the district.

“He’s been through this before,” Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in San Antonio says. “Lloyd Doggett has never been accused of being complacent. He’s come out and worked. He’s been to every event you can think of in San Antonio. He wants to win.”

The difference this time is not that District 35 was drawn to be more conservative. The winner of the Democratic primary is expected to be a heavy favorite in November against the winner of a three-person Republican primary, a candidate each from the Libertarian and Green parties and an independent.

The district is now heavily made up of Democrats who have no investment in Doggett. The legal challenge to the congressional map drawn by the Legislature, turned back by the Supreme Court, pivoted on the desire to give a growing Hispanic population in Texas commensurate electoral power.

The success of what Hispanic voting advocates say was a flawed redistricting compromise will be tested in District 35, Steve Bickerstaff, an election and redistricting expert at the University of Texas School of Law, says.

“Doggett’s district (old District 25) was not made up of predominantly minority voters,” Bickerstaff says. “That has changed considerably in the 35th.”

Romo believes these newly empowered Latino voters are ready to make a change. Romo insists she is running not as a Latino but as a professional who happens to be Latina. Nonetheless, she says voters in the district recognize a cultural gulf between Doggett and them.

Lloyd DoggettLloyd Doggett

“What I’m hearing from voters is he (Doggett) doesn’t represent the new district,” she says. “I’m hearing them say, ‘It’s our time now.’”

Romo says she has spent a lot of her campaign time in Austin and thinks Democrats there may be suffering from Doggett fatigue. Whether or not that is true, a week before the May 29 primary, Diane Holloway, staff reporter and blogger for the Travis County Democratic Party, posted on her Facebook page, “Is this really the best we can do? Turnout for the Democratic Primary in politically hip Travis County is currently at 1.63 percent. That's no good. We MUST do better.”

From what she has seen, Camarillo thinks voter interest should be high among Hispanics. She isn’t sure how much either Romo or Alvarado will benefit from the increase.

Romo knew going in she would be taking on Doggett’s long incumbency. Her relatively late December start cost her in donor support, she says.

Doggett has through May 9 listed with the Federal Election Commission $1.1 million in money spent. Romo spent $60,800 during that same period and has just $20,021 on hand. Alvarado, who says she has made little attempt to raise funds, has spent $5,093 and has $896 in cash.

You can view FEC donor figures for every candidate running for Congress in Texas by clicking here.

Sylvia RomoSylvia Romo

“You can’t begin to compare my money versus his money. He’s buying all these ads. Yes, I’d like to be on TV more, but I am a known commodity here in Bexar County,” Romo says.

A district of working and middle class families would benefit from a congresswoman who has been a CPA for 31 years and whose profession involves balancing a budget, Romo says.

After serving two terms in the Texas House, Romo ran for and in 1996 became the first Latina elected tax assessor-collector in Bexar County.

Her knowledge of the tax code would help identify and close loopholes for special interest groups and to identify and protect those few tax benefits available to the middle class, Romo says.

“I will be the watchdog for financial matters,” Romo says.

Alvarado, too, has heard from voters in Bexar and Travis counties that Doggett’s core Austin constituency looks, works and lives differently than the majority in the new district. “I call them class issues,” Alvarado says. “It isn’t my goal to define the district that way (by race). I don’t hear that, and I don’t ever bring it up.”

Those class issues most important to Alvarado are job creation and serving a significant population of  veterans who work in and have retired from military service. If elected, Alvarado proposes an inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Claims of all kinds for veterans are not handled in a timely enough way, she says.

Maria AlvaradoMaria Luisa Alvarado

Alvarado’s support for term limits (although she says she isn’t sure what that limit should be) is consistent with her idea of true public service from someone elected to Congress.

“Incumbency shouldn’t be some guarantee, and I really believe that money shouldn’t have an impact on elections,” she says. “Real democracy doesn’t work that way.”

Alvarado’s definition is far removed from Doggett’s democratic reality: that of a resourceful, close-quarters puncher who knows how to raise a lot of money and knows how to deploy it.

Doggett has survived because of, not in spite of, his being the chief, unabashed liberal tormentor of the state’s Republican leadership.

The Doggett campaign did not respond to several e-mail requests made by Texas Watchdog for an interview with Doggett or a spokesman.

During Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign for president, Doggett drew national attention to a regular stream of criticism that made it appear the two were running against one another for some office.

“Doggett is simply embracing a confrontational political style that is the hallmark of his career,” Politico said in August. “An unapologetic liberal, Doggett loves to paint himself as a defiant, stick-in-the-eye of Republicans who dominate the conservative state but who (have) not yet managed to oust him from office.”

Doggett was at his most defiant poking an amendment to a $10 billion teacher hiring and retention bill in the face of Perry. Mightily piqued at how the Texas Legislature spent $3.2 billion in stimulus funding for schools in 2009, Doggett convinced a Democratic-controlled Congress to include an amendment for Texas - and only Texas - dictating the conditions of spending the state’s share of the funding.

Attorney General Greg Abbott sued on behalf of the state and won.

“After months of waiting, Texas schools will finally receive their $830 million share of education funds that were unnecessarily delayed in Washington, D.C.,” Abbott said in a statement at the time. “We are grateful that the new Congress remedied Congressman Doggett’s attempt to discriminate against his own State—and its school children.”

Doggett regularly takes on the Republican House majority, particularly on entitlement  and education budget cutting. He is an outspoken member of the House Budget and Ways and Means committees and the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Human Resources.

Earlier this month, Doggett assailed a plan to trim back the Social Services Block Grant Program.

“I think this whole bill is misnamed,” Doggett told colleagues. “It’s not reconciliation—it’s WRECKonciliation because it will wreck one life after another whether it’s preventive health care or whether it’s Jenny and the food she relies on through the Meals on Wheels program. I think we should reject the wreck and adopt the motion.”

This pugnaciousness plays particularly well in Austin where the Republican ascension in the state has been endured like a locust plague. The San Antonio Express-News was sufficiently charmed to endorse Doggett over the hometown candidates.

“While Doggett's abrasive style has made him a GOP target,” the Express-News editorial board wrote. “his experience and seniority are assets that far outweigh the attributes of his Democratic opponents.”

What is left for the primary to decide is whether or not Doggett’s liberal message is interpreted as college town elitism or working class populism and whether or not Hispanic voters want their Democratic message delivered by someone who is not Hispanic.

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

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Tense tenor in Dallas-Fort Worth-area race for Congress
Tuesday, May 22, 2012, 10:26AM CST
By Steve Miller
House floor

FORT WORTH, Texas - The man standing in front of the Fort Worth campaign office of Domingo Garcia, a candidate for the 33rd congressional district, snapping cell phone photos was suspicious. Or was he?

It’s hardly an act of subterfuge, although a male campaign aide hurried out the office door to question the man.

“What’s going on?” he asked amiably. Once he discerned no threat, he demurred.

“I just wanted to make sure you weren’t from another campaign,” he said apologetically.

That’s the tenor of a jammed May 29 Democratic primary in North Texas, where 11 candidates are vying for a spot in Washington. With no incumbent, the newly created district has sparked a somewhat furious competition for the right to compete at the next level, the anticipated July 31 runoff between the top two vote getters. In the Democrat-heavy district, the runoff winner is expected to go to Washington.

The pair expected to make the runoff are two state representatives, one former and one sitting. Garcia, a personal injury lawyer, served in the statehouse from 1996 to 2002, while state Rep. Marc Veasey, a real estate agent, has served since 2004.

The two are playing like rivals, accusing and alleging while vowing to be the man of the people.

Marc VeaseyMarc Veasey

Veasey recently headed over to the gates of a General Motors plant in the district and called out Garcia for claiming that GM was making gas-consuming products that were “not good for America.”

Garcia responded with a letter to supporters in which he called Veasey an “errand boy” for special interests.

GM is among Veasey’s donors. Of course, Garcia’s donor list includes people working for operations that others might consider not so good for America, among them MGM-Mirage and the big-lawyer American Association for Justice. The two have pecked away at each other for months, leaving local Democrats with a disheveled appearance.

“The Democrats haven’t even formed a coalition,” said Chuck Bradley, one of two candidates on the Republican side of the 33rd district primary. “They don’t like each other at all. And they’re beating each other to death and trying to save money at the same time.”

Both candidates pointed in separate interviews to the new seat with no incumbent as the reason for the personal attacks.

The opponent bashing “is one of those things that happens,” said Veasey. “This is a new seat with a lot of people vying, and for some candidates, being able to control their temperament is tough."

Domingo GarciaDomingo Garcia

Garcia agreed, at least on the first point.

“Whenever you have an open seat with 11 candidates and no incumbent, it’s going to be a free-for-all,” he admitted.  

Veasey and Garcia are as seasoned as it gets in the new district, which weaves through Tarrant and Dallas counties like a Democratic voter-seeking missile. Some claim that the race puts Hispanic voters, for Garcia, versus black voters, for Veasey.

To that, both immediately launch into their cross-racial support. Garcia notes he attended the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and is backed by Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, a black man.

Veasey said, “I don’t see the racial issue at all. I have a lot of Hispanic supporters, and my current [state] district is 35 percent Latino.”

The best candidate will be determined by his campaigning abilities, and so far, no one is winning. In fact it’s painfully obvious neither has D.C. experience, as they bicker over old and petty county rivalries.

And then there’s the paucity of dollars spent.

Veasey reported $104,983 on hand in his most recent filing. Among his contributors: Amber Anderson, wife of super Dem contributor Steve Mostyn; former Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr; Aimee Boone, an exec with Planned Parenthood in Dallas; and Charles Butt, CEO of the H-E-B grocery chain.

Veasey’s wife, Tonya, is a former lobbyist with the Eppstein Group and is now president of Open Channels Group, a PR firm that counts among its clients the Trinity River Vision Authority.

And he already has a knack for higher office; in 2007 Veasey spent $4,738 in campaign money to redecorate his office in Austin.

Veasey has been a member of committees on pensions, elections, law enforcement, state affairs and several others in his four sessions at the statehouse.

Among his successful legislation is a measure allowing county commissioners to authorize the destruction of so-called high-emission vehicles rather than selling them and another naming a highway in his district after Martin Luther King Jr.

In the 2009 session, Veasey introduced 53 bills, 28 of them resolutions honoring an individual or group or commemorating an occasion. It was an improvement over 2006, when Veasey authored 47 bills, 46 of them resolutions.

Garcia, a personal injury lawyer, has scored some super PAC dough already, $2,500 from the American Association for Political Justice PAC. He loaned himself $300,000 for the run and reported $241,003 cash on hand in his most recent filing.

He is infamous for his temper, which was ignited recently when the Dallas Morning News announced it was recommending Veasey in the primary.

He fired off an angry email to his supporters accusing Veasey of “promoting Republican priorities.”

Garcia took Republican donations in his statehouse days, including money from billionaire Harold Simmons and the Texas Dental Association PAC, which has been a steady financial backer of Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

In the statehouse, Garcia served on criminal jurisprudence and judicial affairs committees. Among his successful legislation: A bill making it a felony to photograph a non-consenting party for a sexual purpose and a bill increasing the penalty for tampering with standardized tests from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Both candidates concur on a couple of issues that they would deal with in Washington. On earmarks, Veasey said, “It’s every congressman’s responsibility to advocate for local jobs … but there needs to be transparency in earmarks.”

Garcia was equally accepting: “If there are clear guidelines, it’s a good way to get economic development to various parts of America. “

And despite the battle of words, each will vote for the other in November if it comes down to it.

“I have always supported the Democratic nominee,” Garcia said.

"I've always voted straight Democratic ticket, and that’s what I plan to do in the fall,” Veasey said.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo from the House floor on May 17, 2012, via the Office of the Clerk to the House of Representatives.

State Rep. Vicki Truitt's company secures no-bid contracts with Tarrant County Hospital District
Tuesday, Apr 10, 2012, 08:47AM CST
By Steve Miller
hospital IV

A firm owned by state Rep. Vicki Truitt has received $350,000 since 2004 through no-bid deals and contracts with the Tarrant County Hospital District, including contracts that were signed by donors to her political fund.

Truitt is president of Physician Resource Network, a consultancy and personnel recruiting business based outside Fort Worth. Her husband, Jim, is vice-president.

Documents obtained by Texas Watchdog show Truitt’s company signed two 12-month contracts with the hospital district in 2009 and 2010 for more than $160,000 each. Its task was to determine the physician staffing needs in the district and to improve recruitment for the district's family medicine residency program. The work was conducted for JPS Health Network, a business name used by the hospital district.

The lawyer of record on both contracts was Neal Adams, who has donated $7,800 to the Truitt campaign since 2001.

The Truitts' company submitted an agreement worth $40,000 in June, which was signed by Gary Floyd, executive vice president at JPS. Floyd has donated $1,700 and nine times to Truitt since she took office in 1999.

Floyd has also donated numerous times to the Texas Medical Association PAC, which has given Truitt $9,000 since 2003. Floyd was a member of the board of managers at the hospital district before taking his executive position in 2009.

In June 2004, Jim Truitt sent a $20,000 invoice to Jay Haynes, senior vice president and chief medical officer at JPS for the placement of a physician. Haynes at the time had given Truitt two $100 donations in August 2003 and he would give her $100 that September and again in September 2007.

Truitt said that she has had a contract with the Tarrant County Hospital District for years before her election to public office.

“Let me tell you something, we’ve had a small business that I started in 1984,” Truitt said. “My service to the hospital district has nothing to do with my humbling public office. I’ve had a long-standing relationship with the Tarrant County Hospital District that far predates the current contract and certainly predates my service in the Texas Legislature.

"I am entitled to make a living. Our contract goes back much farther than that.”

Records obtained from the hospital district show that the Truitts did not receive any money until the 2004 payment for $20,000.

Vicki TruittVicki Truitt

Floyd did not return calls.

Truitt, 58, has been a member of the public health committee since 2003 and chairs the Pensions, Investments & Financial Services committee.

Records show that she has both abstained and participated in measures that had the potential to benefit her own work.

Truitt abstained from voting on SB303 last session, a bill last session that made it easier for the district to detect fraud in its programs and included a provision specific to the way Tarrant County Hospital District hires physicians.

But in 2007, Truitt was the sponsor of HB 3065, which asked for a study that could increase the number of medical residency programs in the state. Another element of the bill would make available more physicians for underserved areas – which would broaden business for the Truitts, who state in their promotional materials that they have “brokered some 25 medical practices. … Several of these practices were local in rural communities.” They also boasted that “a significant number of our assignments over the years have focused on the recruitment of family physicians in rural communities.”

The bill failed.

“That is a bill that was absolutely good for the state,” Truitt said. “If you are familiar with the need for physicians in the state you know that we are far undersupplied.”

The same session, she also introduced HB1056, which proposed to have the state collect more data on health care professionals. As recruiters, the Truitts would have benefited from an easier way of accessing information of potential recruits. The bill would have cost an estimated $382,372 if it had been adopted. It got to a House vote - Truitt voted ‘yes’ - but it later died.

Truitt said she has never introduced legislation that would benefit her business.

Truitt faces an opponent in the Republican primary, a Tea Party-backed candidate named Giovanni Capriglione.

“These contracts should have been disclosed to voters before,” Capriglione said.

In the promotional materials included as an exhibit in their contracts, the couple claims Physician Resource Network “was established in 1984.” State records show it was first registered as a Texas business in 1992.

When she first ran for the Legislature in 1998, Truitt listed her occupation as a physician recruiter and her husband as a health care consultant. She said her husband had a business, Advanced Medical Strategies, and said he had an interest in a company called Management Support Inc. in Fort Worth, which is an injury management outfit.

In the promotional materials that are part of the contract with the hospital district, Vicki Truitt says she was “previously certified by the American College of Medical Staff Development.”

The college exists no longer. Records show the organization once existed, giving presentations around the U.S. and run by Roger Bonds, who is currently head of the Fulton County Republican Party in Georgia.

He is now the owner of an online physician group called the American Academy of Medical Management, which offers online training in medical administration. Bonds said he ran the college for a while but he has had the academy for “over a decade.”

“It’s a membership association,” Bonds said. “It’s a very serious program and we have six or eight different credentials available.”

He said a fee is required to be a member, which is necessary in order to be certified.

The requirement for bidding on consulting contracts by the district is murky. The state Attorney General’s office cited two dictates that determine the need for a bidding process that would apply.

A section in the Texas Heath and Safety Code governs the authority to contract. The section also directs the board to seek out minority or female-owned businesses. Physicians Resource Network, although owned by Vicki Truitt, is not registered with the state as a woman-owned business.

A more explicit rule regarding bidding is a section in the Texas Government Code. It states that competitive bidding is not required on deals for "professional services" such as accounting or surveying.

It's not clear whether the section would relieve the hospital district from contracting for the type of personnel services Truitt's firm has provided.

"Everything that we are legally required to put out for bid, we do," said Diana Carroll, a public information person at JPS. "This consulting services is not the kind of thing we are required to send out for bid."

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Texas reps maintain support for $1.4 trillion Joint Strike Fighter project beset with delays and cost overruns
Monday, Apr 02, 2012, 10:43AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Congress

You know what they always say in government, in for a dime, in for $1.4 trillion.  As long as the money keeps coming to Texas.

The Defense Department calls it the Joint Strike Fighter, but what it is is Congressional pork on the hoof, gorging itself for a decade on horrendous spending overruns at the Lockheed Martin assembly plant in Fort Worth, according to a story by the Dallas Morning News.

Why, that’s in U.S. Rep. Kay Granger’s district. The Republican has gained a measure of dubious renown for her facility in getting the public to fund a Fort Worth downtown redevelopment project headed by her son, JD.

Granger, it seems, worked her magic at one time to make a present to the Joint Strike Fighter of its very own congressional caucus. A quarter of the 48 members of the caucus are from Texas.

Granger, in turn, was the single biggest beneficiary of contributions - $45,700  - from people connected to the Joint Strike Fighter project, a Center for Responsive Politics report in December, said.

Members of the Strike Fighter Caucus, on average, received twice as much in contributions from the interested parties as their fellow, not as fortunate representatives, the report says.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, whose fondness for family has also been expressed with our tax money, lobbied for funding for an optional engine for the fighter that the Defense Department had even given up on.

Even U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who never seems to make the annual lists of pork barrel divers, has taken to reflexively defending the most expensive defense project in history, one that cost as much as a decade fighting the Iraq War.

“We’ve put all our eggs in the F-35 basket,” Cornyn told the Morning News.

To steal shamelessly from Chief Brody in Jaws, you’re going to need a bigger basket.

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

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Photo of U.S. Capitol by flickr user cliff1066, used via a Creative Commons license.

Tea Party activists aim to ‘clean our own house’ in 2012 Congressional primaries
Tuesday, Oct 11, 2011, 06:27AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
U.S. Capitol

Offered up the twin fat pitches of Republican-drawn legislative districts and an increasingly unpopular Democratic president, conservative activists in Texas are, instead, sitting on a curve.

Very quietly and very early, networks of Tea Party affiliates are working to make the March 6, 2012, primary a referendum on the performance of Republican incumbents in Congress, a delegation generally thought to be among the most conservative in the country.

Recent history, conventional wisdom and big party money suggest long odds for real change. All three factors, however, ignore the genuine and growing dissatisfaction Americans feel for the political process, irrespective of party, Alice Linahan, a national and state Tea Party organizer and political blogger from Argyle, south of Denton, says.

Alice LinahanAlice Linahan
“What you aren’t hearing right now are the people I meet every day who want to know how the people they elected did in the last cycle, to hold them accountable for the way they voted,” Linahan says. “We think the primaries ought to be the time when we clean our own house.”

Exactly where the cleaning will begin and how much overall change the 2012 primaries will bring it is much too early for Linahan and others to say. The first day of filing to have your name placed on the Congressional ballot isn’t until Nov. 12 and the last is Dec. 12.

The Congressional redistricting map itself is being challenged in federal court on the grounds that it discriminates against minorities, one of hundreds of Voting Rights Act challenges to redistricting across the country.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio issued an order Sept. 29 preventing the state from putting the maps in place until he and two other federal judges complete their review.

Until the case is decided, no Democrat has come forward to run in District 25, since 1994 the liberal Central Texas redoubt of Rep. Lloyd Doggett reconfigured to favor Republicans.

Doggett announced in June that he would run for a seat in a newly created District 35 configured to favor Democrats, which includes parts of Travis County and heavily Hispanic Bexar County. San Antonio Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro, whose identical twin, Julian Castro, is the mayor of San Antonio, said he intended to take on the long-time congressman, pending a final decision on the map.

“The map as passed by the Legislature is illegal, and my hope is it will be changed drastically,” Andy Brown, chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party, says. “The uncertainty puts every candidate who might want to run at a disadvantage.”

This uncertainty has not been shared by Republicans, eight of whom asked that their names be placed on a ballot for a straw poll Sept. 25 in Lago Vista that drew more than 400 voters.

Michael Williams, the former chairman of the State Railroad Commission, took 27.2 percent of the straw vote. Dave Garrison, a retired USAA executive who has never run for public office, lost to Williams by a single vote.

The strengths of a newcomer’s showing against a name Republican politician, however early, was not lost on Rosemary Edwards, chairman of the Travis County Republican Party.

“Right now, I think you are going to see a lot of scrutinizing of individual candidates for their conservative credentials,” Edwards says. “I think we’re at a time at every level where you are going to see very fluid situations.”

There are already four Republicans who have announced their intention to run for the seat Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas City, is giving up in coastal District 14, which includes Galveston.

Fluidity in a district with an open seat is one thing. Ralph Hall, R- Rockwall, Joe Barton, R-Ennis, Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, and Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, with more than 85 years of combined service in Congress, already have Republican primary opponents.

Michael Burgess, a Republican from Flower Mound in office since 2003, is so far facing two Republicans and an independent.

And Blake Farenthold, a former conservative talk radio show host from Corpus Christi, who deposed longtime Democratic Congressman Solomon Ortiz by the slenderest of margins two years ago, will be tested by at least one Republican in 2012. One of them might be Debra Medina, who has not formally announced, but who scored with Tea Party voters when she challenged Gov. Rick Perry in 2010.

Of the 535 members of Congress, the American Conservative Union in its last annual study issued 75 scores of 100 for what it considers a perfect conservative voting record. Thirteen of those were Texas representatives, including Brady and Thornberry. Hall, Barton and Burgess got scores of 96.

But in her 20 years of conservative activism in East Texas, JoAnn Fleming, the chairman of the Tea Party’s advisory committee to the Legislature in the last session and the executive director of Grassroots America in Smith County, has seen a change in how voters are judging conservatism.

The public has been buffeted as much by uncontrolled government spending in the Republican administration of George W. Bush as they have by the current Democratic leadership, Fleming says.

JoAnn FlemingJoAnn Fleming
While she says it is too early for the Tea Party to come out for or against specific candidates, Fleming says Barton’s tireless efforts to aid the oil and gas industry and the work of Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, to groom candidates through the Republican Congressional Committee, are just two examples of politicians being beholden to a system rather than to voters.

“I think incumbents ought to realize that voters are looking at their performance. Do they use their office to pick winners and losers,” she says. “We can’t afford these people who like big government. You aren’t a Constitutional conservative just because you have an 'R' behind your name.”

The ground-level lift for 2012 came not from presidential overreach or congressional arrogance but from the hubris displayed by Republican state representatives who supported Joe Straus for speaker of the House at the start of the past legislative session, Linahan says.

Constituents were made to feel promises the politicians made to one another were more important than their pleas to elect a more conservative speaker, she says.

“People are starting to connect the dots from the local races on up,” Linahan says. “I think there is this perception of all of these rock hard conservatives, and I don’t think we have true conservatives in certain races.”

Linahan says it might be another month or more before Tea Party organizers identify who those candidates lacking in conservative credentials are and what they plan to do about it.

Identifying the candidates is one thing. Marshaling the broad support and the funding to do something about it is another, Chris Britton, a prominent consultant to Republicans in Texas, says.

Britton thinks the open seats in districts 14 and 25 which, unless the map is redrawn, will almost certainly go to Republicans and will probably say more about the voters in those districts than the current bent of conservatism in Texas.

Medina’s presence in a District 27 race, although not at all guaranteed, will change the Republican dialogue but based on the 2010 election returns is unlikely to shift the Democratic base that kept Ortiz in office for more than 30 years.

“No one doubts that the Tea Party has a core group of committed individuals - in fact most of these congressional districts will have an active Tea Party - but can they come together to engage constructively, mount a campaign and win an election. I don’t know that we’ll be seeing that.”

A look at the recent past shows how difficult it is for a Republican to upend an incumbent Republican in Texas. Long before his revival as a Tea Party godfather, three Republicans challenged Ron Paul in the 2010 primary. Paul got more than 80 percent of the vote without a single challenger getting as much as 10 percent.

After winning a primary runoff in 2002, Burgess’ primary numbers climbed to 75 percent, dropped to 60 percent and went back up to 67 percent in 2010. Brady took 79 percent of the primary vote that same year. Thornberry’s last primary was in 2000, Barton’s in 1998.

Hall drew four Republicans in the 2008 primary and finished with 73 percent of the vote. Two years later, with five challengers he moved on with 57 percent.

Each of these incumbents is hundreds of thousands of dollars in fundraising ahead of the challengers so far, margins that will likely swell as the March primary gets closer. From the totals kept by Open Secrets several of the opponents have so far reported raising nothing at all.

From these many races, Britton suggested the Tea Party focus its efforts with care. “You have to be wise about the battles you pick,” he says. “Because every time you fail it’s a blot on your effectiveness. You can potentially undercut everything you’re doing.”

Britton’s is precisely the agnostic consultant’s view of the political process Linahan says she and other activists are determined to wipe away.

“It’s this narrative of huge donors with deep pockets, consultants, polls, ads and special interests, the political establishment,” she says. “For it to change the people are going to have to take control of the narrative and fix it themselves. And the way to do that is for Republicans to hold Republicans accountable.”
 
***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of the Capitol by flickr user wallyg, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Texas sunset panel: Dissolve the Transportation Commission, appoint single commissioner
Thursday, Jan 13, 2011, 01:02PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
texas 188 sign

A week after a panel created by the Transportation Commission called for wholesale changes at the top of the Texas Department of Transportation, the state Sunset Advisory Commission did the same for the Transportation Commission.


The Advisory Commission voted 7-5 to establish a single Transportation Commissioner appointed by the governor and dissolve the five-member commission the governor currently appoints, according to a Dallas Morning News story


The split vote from an advisory commission consisting of state representatives suggests the recommendation will not have an easy time of it in the House and the Senate. The five senate members on the Commission voted against a single transportation commissioner. The Legislature, as it has many times over the history of the Sunset Advisory Commission, is also free to ignore its advice.


Last week the Transportation Restructure Council appointed by the Transportation Commission recommended the transportation department clean house among its top management. Council Chairman Howard Wolf, who has suggested that the department needs desperately to remake its vision for the the state's transportation future, predicted failure if the department succumbs to internal and external political pressures.


Wolf stopped short of expressing an opinion about the commission that appointed him.


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

 

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 feed in your newsreader. We're also on MySpaceDiggFriendFeed, NewsVine and tumblr.

 

Photo of Texas road sign by flickr user ahknight, used via a Creative Commons license.

Bill White's city of Houston travel forms missing business purpose, other details
Thursday, Oct 07, 2010, 11:24AM CST
By Steve Miller
suitcase

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White failed to provide reasons for travel on required disclosure forms during at least nine trips during his tenure as mayor of Houston.

While the city asked rank-and-file employees to provide details on all travel, in the trips reviewed by Texas Watchdog, the mayor left blank information such as the purpose of the trip, other employees traveling and business to be transacted -- information the city collects to ensure employees have a valid reason for taking a trip.

The omissions included trips to Washington D.C. in '07 and '08 and to New York in '07 and '08.

 

Forms are also missing for 2007 trips to Seattle and Midland, Texas. The Midland trip also included an unexplained additional fee paid to Advantage Travel, at that time the city’s travel agency, for a one-way ticket on the same flight booked previously.

 

In another 2006 transaction, which appears to be a single flight booked twice with an additional flight folded into a single invoice, White flew to D.C. in March and May, both times for unstated reasons. According to records, the city paid Advantage a service fee twice for the same March flight.

 

And for this 2009 trip to D.C., there is no authorization form at all in city records.

 

Campaign spokeswoman Katy Bacon couldn't say why White's office did not fill out the travel authorization forms, and that details of his meetings could be found on his weekly schedules, which she said were always disclosed.

"The information is on his calenders," Bacon said.

Bill WhiteWHITE

White refused a Texas Watchdog request last year for his calendar, only releasing it after a state attorney general's ruling.

White’s campaign, along with some open government advocates, has hammered incumbent Gov. Rick Perry on his refusal to turn over travel records.

In an Associated Press story last month about Perry’s travel:

“(White spokeswoman) Katy Bacon said Perry should 'stop hiding the facts on fiscal issues like what he's charging taxpayers for travel.'"

Today, the White campaign alleged that Perry used secret schedules to cover up his use of state resources for campaign time.

 

Texas Watchdog reported Monday that White used the services of Advantage Travel, which tacked a $35 fee onto each flight booked by the city. Following Texas Watchdog's investigation finding more than $90,000 in fees in a five-year period, Houston Mayor Annise Parker ended the city's relationship with the agency and said the extra fees had been paid for years because of "bureaucratic inertia." Advantage had no contract with the city, so the mayor had the power to halt its use with a simple edict.

 

White also used Advantage to book hotels for himself and his staff in some cases.

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

Photo of a suitcase by flickr user Mamboman1, used via a Creative Commons license.

Prosecutors: Rep. Kino Flores demanded payment from contractors in Hidalgo County, was known as "Mr. Ten Percent"
Tuesday, Oct 05, 2010, 10:26AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
100-dollar bills

Less than two weeks before the trial of state Rep. Kino Flores, Travis County prosecutors have added to the court record a narrative including 59 allegations that portray the Rio Grande Valley lawmaker as "Mr. Ten Percent" for taking a cut from businesses with state and local contracts.

The Austin American-Statesman today says prosecutors do not intend to add the 10 pages of allegations to the charges of ethics violations and perjury against Flores, D-Palmview. But they intend to introduce them in court after the trial begins Oct. 18.

A grand jury indicted Flores in July of 2009 with 16 counts of tampering with government records and three counts of perjury after years of criminal investigations into his financial dealings. Flores was charged with leaving off his required financial disclosure forms between $115,000 and $185,000 in income for each year from 2004 to 2009. Flores failed to report property sales and gifts of airplane transportation, according to the indictments.

If convicted, Flores faces up to two years in jail and could be fined thousands of dollars. Texas Watchdog was unable to reach Flores for comment.

At the time he was indicted, Flores, who is not running for reelection after 13 years in the House, told reporters, "At no point during my public service have I knowingly or intentionally violated any state law or rule." He attributed the charges against him to politics.

The new court document presents a picture of an operator whose every move was knowing. Flores "insisted upon being paid in cash and, if paid by check, cashed the check rather than deposit it to avoid a paper trail and to facilitate his evasion of income tax on those amounts," according to the filing. This included more than $97,500 in "unexplained deposits of cash into his bank accounts" between 2001 and 2007.

"The defendant was known by many as Mr. Ten Percent," the filing continued, "because of his insistence of being paid that percentage by people and companies awarded contracts for construction or other services" in Hidalgo County. "Anyone that failed to pay him lost their contract."

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

Photo of 100-dollar bills by flickr user jtyerse, used via a Creative Commons license.

DMN profiles Rick Perry donor and Austin businessman David G. Nance, whose companies got $6.5 million from state fund
Monday, Oct 04, 2010, 10:03AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
100-dollar bills

The Dallas Morning News today follows a strong investigation into millions of taxpayer dollars going to the companies of political donors to Gov. Rick Perry through the Emerging Technology Fund with an intriguing look at one of those donors, a risk-taker who has twice filed for bankruptcy.

Companies started or run by Austin business developer David G. Nance have received $6.5 million from the Emerging Technology Fund, according to the News story. Nance has also donated $80,000 to Perry's campaign since 2000.

 

Nance is among a group of large donors to Perry whose companies have gotten more than $16 million from the Technology Fund, the newspaper reported Sunday. Since its creation by the legislature in 2005, Texas has given $173 million in taxpayer money to 120 companies, or roughly 7.5 percent of the 1,600 applications for funding. Another $161 million has been given to Texas universities to fund research.

 

State law requires the governor, the lieutenant governor and the House speaker approve all applications. The governor, however, makes the recommendations, and his staff administers the program. Perry, who pushed for the creation of the technology fund and whose selections are the stuff of Perry press releases, has said politics do not play a role in which companies get funded.


Perry, who told the Morning News he was unaware that Nance had filed for bankruptcy in the past, has appointed him three times to state technology commissions. "I think he is a very, very bright innovator," Perry said.

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

Photo of 100-dollar bills by flickr user jtyerse, used via a Creative Commons license.

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