Saturday, June 09, 2007

Ethics issues confront Calif. politicians

By Erica Werner - Associated Press - June 9, 2007
WASHINGTON — Hollywood party girls don't have a monopoly on trouble in California. A disproportionate number of the state's congressional Republicans are facing ethics questions that threaten to sink their careers and their party's political fortunes too.
Of 201 House Republicans, at least six are known to have attracted the attention of federal investigators — and four are from California. Their woes come in the wake of the lurid corruption scandal that sent ex-GOP Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of San Diego to prison last year for taking $2.4 million in bribes.
Although their situations have a few common threads, some analysts attribute the cluster of California cases to coincidence, plus the state's large size and district lines drawn to protect incumbents.
"When your seat is so safe that you're not concerned about perception, you become too wedded to Washington and you lose touch with your constituency, and you lose touch with your real purpose," said Karen Hanretty, a Republican strategist and former California Republican Party spokeswoman.
Rep. John Doolittle, a nine-term Northern California conservative under investigation in the influence-peddling scandal around jailed GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has his own theory about why federal corruption investigations seem to be concentrated in California.
Read more

Sheehan's protest site in Crawford to be peace memorial

Associate Press - June 9, 2007
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) -- Cindy Sheehan will sell her war protest site near President Bush's ranch to a California radio talk show host, who will preserve it as a peace memorial, her spokeswoman said.
Sheehan, who announced on Memorial Day that she was stepping down as the face of the anti-war movement, will sell the 5-acre site in Crawford for $87,000 to Bree Walker, Sheehan spokeswoman Tiffany Burns said.
"Cindy is happy the land is going to be used for something positive," Burns said. "But Cindy does not plan to have a continued presence there."
A telephone message left Friday with Walker, a former TV news anchorwoman who hosts a weekend talk show on KTLK-AM in Los Angeles, was not immediately returned.

Read more

Friday, June 08, 2007

Comment to the NCTCOG RTC by e-mail

The RTC Meetings on changes to the Transportation Improvement Plan for the region and funding for toll roads, highways, and rail in the region are over. However, the public can still submit comments to the RTC.

The RTC established a policy to fund necessary expansion of existing state and federal highways in the region and to fund new construction with toll revenue. They expect to spend available gas tax revenue on Hwy 75 and LBJ Freeway.

They surveyed some attendees at public meetings (March-May 2007) along the SH 121, SH 183 and SH 161 corridors. They asked them some questions about toll rates,\ and whether they wanted CDAs applied to projects in Collin County. Out of a population of over 6.5 million people, there were 214 respondents to the questionaair. Not all counties were surveyed and it was not administered to citizens from the southern side of the region.

The RTC established a policy to fund transportation construction and expansion with toll revenue and they established a policy to set the toll rates higher than required to retire the debt and maintain the roads. They decided to set the toll rates high enough to generate billions of dollars of upfront toll revenue to fund other transportation projects.

The citizens of this region were never given opportunity to vote on this policy. Yet we will be required to retire the debt on these proposed state (and federal) highway projects. The contracts are for 50 years. Talk about taxation without representation. Many future citizens who have not been born yet will pay the largest share of these escalating upward toll fees.

They ignored the will of the people expressed in their limited survey. They ignored the hundreds of citizens who testified at TxDOT TTC hearings against private public partneships and exercise of eminent domain for private development and profit.

If you were unable to attend these three public meetings (or unaware that they were occurring) please use the link to their e-mail form and submit written comment to the RTC.

Leaders of the RTC (Judge Glen Whitley for one) are urging member governments to write the governor urging him to veto the eminent domain bill passed by the Legislature to correct excesses which were enacted in the previous two sessions of the Legislature. If you think 675 miles of toll roads is good for this region, please use that form and thank them. If there is something which concerns you about the plan, please use the form and tell them.

The deadline is July 6th.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Perry stared down legislative blitz

Ben Ware - Austin American-Statesman -Monday, June 04, 2007

You may have heard that the Legislature this session approved a moratorium on toll roads.

If so, you heard wrong. No legislators that I ran into this session wanted to snuff out tollways.

Or you might have heard or read that lawmakers passed a moratorium on long-term toll road leases with private companies. This is true, but only in the most qualified sense.

This prohibition — contained in Senate Bill 792, which Gov. Rick Perry hasn't yet signed but almost certainly will when he makes it back from Turkey — is perforated with exceptions.

Under SB 792, private toll road contracts similar to the one already reached with Cintra-Zachry for Texas 130 could be done on seven projects in Dallas-Fort Worth, a proposed Interstate 69 from near Victoria to Brownsville, anything in Cameron County and all but one project in El Paso County, and on Loop 1604 in San Antonio.

And, oh yes, after Perry threatened to veto an earlier version of SB 792, the Legislature removed language that would have made it impossible to do private toll road contracts on the Trans-Texas Corridor tollway twin for Interstate 35.

Even taking the two counties and the corridor out of the discussion — lawmakers made it clear that no contracts should be signed on the corridor for the next two years, even if they didn't outright ban them — we're talking about $20 billion in contracts on those other nine roads. That's 10 zeros short of a freeze.

The obvious question, given all the public pressure and the periodic displays of legislative umbrage this session at a Texas Department of Transportation "run amok": How can this be? Everyone said they wanted to vote for a moratorium, but we didn't really get one?

It's all about commitment. In politics, all other things being equal, the side that wants it the most and is willing to do whatever it takes is going to win most of the time. In this case, that side was Perry and the Department of Transportation.

Legislators were conflicted. They wanted to please constituents, particularly rural ones, who don't want a bunch of new tollways "owned" by foreign companies cutting through farms. They were nervous about 50-year toll road leases that might outlive their children, and about corporations toting away profits that might otherwise go to building other roads.

But lawmakers also wanted urban highways, as many as possible and as soon as possible, and the Houston and Dallas delegations in particular wanted to build and run most tollways in their areas. And legislators also didn't intend to raise the gas tax, no matter how much the fiscal logic of the situation tells them they should. Those are, taken together, competing imperatives.

So the legislative commitment to stop private toll roads stretched from one end of the Capitol to the other, but it was about a centimeter deep. Perry, on the other hand, and his compadre Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, have a passion for their agenda taller than the Capitol dome. Perry said he'd veto bills that materially curbed private toll roads and made it clear to legislators behind closed doors that he would call special sessions ad infinitum until he got what he wanted. Legislators believed him, and they blinked.

The Wednesday before lawmakers adjourned for good May 28, Williamson hosted his monthly briefing with reporters at Transportation Department World Headquarters, across 11th Street from the Capitol. By then it was looking like SB 792, which emerged as the toll road bill of choice after several pretenders had skidded into the ditch, would pass and would be acceptable to Perry.

Williamson, spotted several weeks earlier huddling with confederates at the Capitol after the Legislature passed a much tougher toll road bill, had looked grim. (Perry vetoed that earlier bill.) This day, though, Williamson sauntered into the room seeming pretty pleased with life. As he swung into his chair, he tossed some party favors onto the table, royal-blue plastic wristbands with white writing on them. The words succinctly captured why SB 792 turned out the way it did.

The Churchillian message: "Never ever give up."

Parties at toll agency invite new scrutiny

Auditors investigate roles of donors in Christmas bashes, golf tournaments
By BILL MURPHY, RAD SALLEE and PAIGE HEWITT - Houston Chronicle - with contributions by Chronicle reporter Dale Lezon - June 6, 2007

The Harris County Auditor's Office said Tuesday it is investigating whether the county's Toll Road Authority relied on donations from firms that do business with it to pay for Christmas parties, golf tournaments and summer outings during the past five years.

The widening probe follows last week's forced retirement of Toll Road Authority Director Mike Strech amid revelations that county contractors had paid thousands of dollars to fund an employee party at SplashTown last year.

Public Infrastructure Director Art Storey said earlier this week that Strech told him he planned to solicit contributions for a similar party at SplashTown in July, in direct violation of Storey's order not to hold such events or ask vendors to donate.

Also Tuesday, county officials released several documents involved in their investigation, including a "sponsorship list" for an employee picnic held at SplashTown last June.

The list of 31 county contractors, many of them engineering firms, is broken down by the amount each donated or pledged. The amounts ranged from $250 to $5,000, with companies classified as copper-, bronze-, silver-, gold-, or platinum-level donors.

The total sponsorship was listed as $59,750. Of that, the authority spent $45,000 on the SplashTown outing, leaving $15,000 an off-the-books social account, district attorney's investigator Dan McAnulty said.

Several vendors contacted by the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday said they had no problem with the parties, to which they and their families were invited. They said they did not feel pressured to contribute and did not receive any improper benefits.

"If we didn't donate, that wouldn't affect our relationship with the authority," said V.N. Vijayvergiya, president of Geotest Engineering, Inc. "It's a request. It's not an obligation."

Robert Barnett of the engineering firm Sparks, Barlow & Barnett Inc. called the events "a community effort."

"We get jobs through the Commissioners Court, but we want the authority staff to know we appreciate them," he said.

Strech, who made $153,275 annually, said Tuesday he would not comment while under investigation by the district attorney's office.

District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal on Monday said his office had found no criminal wrongdoing in the solicitations.

Steve Garner, chief assistant county auditor, said officials have found two off-the-books bank accounts overseen by Strech that were used to pay for parties and celebrations for Toll Road Authority employees.

Garner said that in one instance, Strech took $1,800 from an "HCTRA Helping Hands" fund, set up for needy toll road workers, to rent Tin Hall in Cypress for a 2006 Christmas party.

Strech later paid back the fund with $1,800 taken from another account, where money solicited from toll road vendors was deposited, Garner said.

Peter Key, who was appointed deputy director of the authority by Storey 20 months ago, said Tuesday that Strech said he would seek the Commissioners Court's approval to use toll road funds for the party.

An Oct. 18, 2006, e-mail to Strech and Key from the authority employees' "Celebration Committee" says the party — with barbecue, a deejay and a gift for each employee — would cost about $30,000 based on a "pre-head count" of 900 attendees.

Key said he initially approved the expenditure at Strech's request, then withdrew his approval the next day.

"I decided it was just not appropriate to use public funds to hold a Christmas party," he said.

Key said Storey told Strech "not to have any more events or parties." But later, Storey said, he learned that the authority was planning to solicit donations from vendors for an employee picnic at SplashTown in July. A similar event had been held there in 2006.

In a letter delivered Thursday, Storey told Strech he would fire him if he didn't retire before the end of Friday. Strech retired, and his executive assistant, Diana Wilcox, resigned.

Garner said auditors also will look at whether Electronic Transaction Consultants, a Toll Road Authority vendor, paid for an authority golf tournament in February.

"We're not going to comment on this," ETC spokeswoman Carla Kienast said.

County Judge Ed Emmett said the public should not be concerned that vendors were winning county contracts based on their contributions.

Even if no crime was committed, Key said afterward, "it looks bad, it smells bad, and it calls into question the integrity of this agency and the people who work here."

Read more

Three Heroes in Mesquite

Monday, June 4, 2007, three Registered Nurses’ employment by Health Management Associates at Dallas Regional Medical Center in Mesquite was terminated. Why?

They complained that their nurse to patient ratio was being raised critically high, so as to possibly endanger patients.

Normally, the nurse to patient ration in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) would be 1:2. They were being ordered to increase that ratio to 1:5. Patients in ICU are in critical peril, and increasing the ratio only means that each critical patient will get less necessary attention.

Michael B. Rothburg, M.D., MPH, assistant professor of medicine at Tufts University and a physician at Baystate Medical Center, Springfield, Massachusetts, conducted a cost effectiveness study that seems to apply to the Mesquite case.

Dr. Rothburg found that the standard of an average ratio of 1:4 patients throughout the whole of the facility was maximum effective. Such a ratio could save 72,000 lives annually, and could result in fewer patient complications that increase patient stays by three to four days, “at a cost of $4,000 and $5,000 per day.” [“Study Finds Nurse-to-Patient Ratios Cost-Effective” by Christina Orlovsky, NurseZone, Wednesday, June 6, 2007]

Considering the health of the patients and even the cost efficiency, the three Registered Nurses took the correct position to complain to their Supervisor. However, they were terminated.

All Nurses take an Oath --

The Florence Nightingale Pledge

I solemnly pledge myself before God and in the presence of this assembly, to pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully. I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous, and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug. I will do all in my power to maintain and elevate the standard of my profession, and will hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping and all family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling. With loyalty will I endeavor to aid the physician in his work, and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.

Obviously, the choice of these Nurses was a morally difficult one if they knew their employment might be jeopardized. They decided to uphold their own Oath, and now they will pay the price to Administrators who fail to understand that both patient care and bottom line economics share one decision. The three Nurses were right.

People who stand by their morals, even when risk is real, are Heroes.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Bill Moyers Journal - Cleaning House

Today is Bill Moyer's birthday. Bill Higgins posted a tribute to him on epluribusmedia

He included this UTUBE video of Moyers coverage of lobbyist!
Higgins wrote:
Born on this day in 1934

"America's corporate and political elites now form a regime of their own, they're privatizing democracy. All the benefits, the tax cuts, policies and rewards flow in one direction: up."
Bill Moyers

I happened to be reading Moyer's Blog early this morning looking for his interview with Public Citizen's Joan Claybrook which I missed when it aired on PBS last Friday on "Bill Moyers Journal."

The subject of the segment was lobbying and lobbyists and their pervasive influence on our political system.

I have a large measure of respect for both Moyers and Claybrook and an enormous loathing for lobbyists and their destructive influence on MY country and I was disappointed to have missed the program.

I responded:

Bill Moyers continues to serve
He's from my hometown, Marshall, Texas, and although he was in Washington before I was aware enough to care deeply about the issues he champions and the dark corners he brings to the foreground through intellectual examination and discussion, I like having ties to him, however remote.
Lobbying is not evil in itself. We have laws that can monitor it. However, the way that much of it operates today is out of acceptable boundaries.

We have seen Transportation Codes of states and the Federal Government changed through sophificated change management re-engineering strategies funded by international business and US firms who smell dollars they can transfer from public coffers and private citizens pocketbooks into their corporate bottom lines.

Kansas City Southern (de Mexico) RR, Carter Burgess, Zachry Construction, BSNF Railway, Ross Perot, Jr and the Alliance group, Ed Bass and others involved in the Texas Pacific Group (who are negotiating to buy TXU electric), and other international player (all members of NASCO) helped underwrite legal, educational, lobbyist and other logistical initiatives resulting in more changes to the Texas Transportation Code in two legislative sessions than had been enacted in 50 years plus major changes in US Transportation Code.

Identical language migrated into many bills in both houses of the Texas Legislature during the 78th and 79th sessions. They were accepted by the Legislative Counsel office and the parties presenting the language are legally allowed to remain hidden, protected behind the attorney client priviledge of the attorney who carried the language to the Legislative Counsel. Despite lobby disclosure laws and rules which require lobbyists to disclose their clients, amounts of money spent on contacts with legislators, most of the heavy hitting special influence peddleing is done without ANY DISCLSOURE REQUIRED because of such practices.

Now it is apparent where much of the funding came from for these far sweeping iniatives which have literally changed how America funds public infrastructure. This past weekend in Fort Worth NASCO held its annual conference. Confident that they have succeeded in enacting enough changes that there is little chance that America will revert to practices which have sustained our system for generations, they are now listing resumes of their board members on their websites and taking credit for their efforts.

It was apparent that change agents, opinion leaders, stakeholders were identified about a decade ago. Along the corriders they anticipated developing, they identified local elected officials, courted them, and incorporated them into their organizations. Contacts with folks with very deep pockets are very enticing to ambitious city commissioners and county commissioners. They established a number of non-profit educational 501s. (Educational 501s can act similar to PACS but do not have to comply with the same financial disclosure laws).

They invited Universities, local governments, transportation planning groups, and corporations to join their non-profit educational organizations and attend their seminars. Local and county governments began to help finance the "change management" initiatives by paying membership fees and fees to attend the seminars.
Local elected officials in key counties were invited to join the board of directors. No one yelled about City Council people and County Commissioners holding offices in these educational 501 non-profit transportation organizations (even though their mission statement was lobbying) because the county or city was also a member. No one stopped to consider the responsiblity that an elected official accepts when accepting an elected office: To give fair and impartial consideration to issues coming before the body.

There is no way a person can give fair and impartial consideration to an issue before the local city council or county commission if they are an officer or board member in an organization with a stated mission to adopt one of the alternatives placed before that body for consideration!

In the past decade we have seen formulation of transportation policy move out of the elected bodies and into the private non-profit forums funded by for profit corporations.

Now we are seeing our gas tax money and city tax money used to fund transportation projects where private partners will charge citizens tolls for 50 years to ride on what was previously state or Federal highways. Citizens no longer can control what gets funded by refusing to approve a bond initiative at a bond election. (American rarely vote down transportation bond initiatives --- even though the toll proponents try to create that illusion).

Bill Moyers understands how the process works, how it used to work and how it should work. I'm thankful that he continues to stimulate discussion, inform the people, and question the holes in the system which is designed to protect citizens and preserve Constitutional government in Texas and the USA.

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