Friday, August 17, 2007

Independent Texans launches IMPEACHPERRY.COM

By Linda Curtis - Independent Texans - Aug. 17, 2007
Citizens across the state, and from across the political spectrum, have been calling their local civic and political organizations ever since the legislature went home last May, asking what they can do to remove Rick Perry from the Governor's office. The answer they get is this. Texans do not have the right to recall state office holders. But the legislature has the right to impeach state officials.

Independent Texans, the state's only association for the growing plurality of Texas voters who self-identify as independent, has launched an effort calling for the impeachment Rick Perry. The following statement was released by Independent Texans' founder, Linda Curtis about the effort:

"The only Texas Governor to be impeached was James "Pa" Ferguson back in 1917. It all started when he vetoed an appropriation for the University of Texas. Then a charge emerged that Ferguson was giving highway contracts to his friends in return for kickbacks. Perry's insistence on ramming his freeway toll and Trans-Texas Corridor scams down our throats, and the continued shell game with billions of transportation dollars, had already brought the call for Perry's removal to a near boiling point. When Rick Perry vetoed a very necessary appropriation for our community colleges, that's when the call for his impeachment began being taken seriously. We intend to take this campaign out across the state, to all political camps, and to neuter this administration. Whether or not that leads to Perry's impeachment will be up to the legislature. Let's see if history does indeed repeat itself."

Ten favorite reasons for Perry's impeachment (to which citizens can add), the impeachment process, targeting Perry's allies, and Impeach Perry bumper stickers can all be found at We encourage you to order stickers in bulk to spread the word and to help our mutual cause.

The Pearl Street Scam—Or How To Displace American Workers Without Quite Breaking The Law

By Rob Sanchez - - Aug. 14, 2007
Several people in places like Detroit, Michigan got suspicious when employment ads in local newspapers requested that their resumes should be sent to a location in Dallas, Texas —on Pearl Street. Without exception the people who sent resumes to Pearl Street never got replies. It’s as if their resumes were being sucked into a black hole.

For several months, there were discussions on and about the mystery of Pearl Street. Eventually several very clever people on those message threads pieced the puzzle together and figured out what was happening to their resumes. More importantly they cracked THE CODE. (Carrie’s Nation blog has a very good summary of the entire story.
Read entire article

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Stop the North American Union

By Daneen G. Peterson

The Speaker in Winter - True to his Golden Gloves past, Jim Wright answers the bell for another round

By PHOTOS AND STORY BY JEFF PRINCE - The Fort Worth Weekly - July 3, 2007
See Fort Worth Weekly for photos
Mornings begin with a trip to his spacious office and compiling a list of things to do. Days are spent knocking things off the list — from teaching chores to working on books and articles, to taking phone calls from former constituents asking for help, even though Jim Wright hasn’t been an elected official in almost 20 years. Other calls come from current politicians, such as Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief, tapping into the connections and expertise Wright gleaned over 34 years in Congress.

Then there are the lunches and other gatherings, such as the periodic pow-wows with former Fort Worth Mayor Bob Bolen and a group they call “The Speaker’s Table,” where they discuss the world’s problems, even if they don’t always come up with answers. Other hours go to writing a column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram or just spending time with his wife, Betty, and children and grandchildren.

Not to say time hasn’t taken a toll on this go-getter. ..“My glasses need glasses,” he said.

An ailment called ischemia makes him dizzy at times. The body is no longer straight and strapping like in those days when the tough, red-headed Texan with an Irish temper was a Golden Gloves boxer and a B-24 bombardier with a Distinguished Flying Cross. The orator’s voice that rang with authority over meetings attended by world leaders is now ravaged by surgeries and radiation treatments for mouth cancer.

His mind, however, remains sharp. The lion might be in winter, but he’s not ready for sleep — he’s not even yawning. He remains passionate about affordable healthcare and the environment, and he attends grip-and-grins when political candidates such as Hillary Clinton or John Edwards come to Texas. This fall, he’ll teach at Texas Christian University for the 17th year in a row, reach the ripe old age of 85, and continue showering his dwindling time and energy on his favorite city.

“I don’t want to be idle,” he said. “I want to get up every morning and look forward to having something to do.”

An editorial cartoon hanging among memorabilia at the TCU library pays homage to one of Fort Worth’s most celebrated residents. Wright was a caricaturist’s dream.

“They always draw me with bushy eyebrows,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know why they do that.”

Despite fading from orange to white over the past 84 years, those trademark eyebrows are no less flamboyant. And they still serve a good purpose. “They shade my eyes,” Wright joked.

The most telling part of the cartoon isn’t the eyebrows, though. It’s the punch line, which refers to the good fortune Fort Worth enjoyed because of Wright’s influence on Capitol Hill. A tough, ambitious — some say power-hungry — congressman for 34 years, he reached the pinnacle of that governmental body in 1987, presiding over the historic 100th Congress as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The cartoon, drawn that same year, shows two men talking while a bulldozer breaks ground for the new currency plant. One fellow says to the next, “Jim Wright brings so much money to Fort Worth, the currency printing plant thought it would be easier to just open a branch here.”

It’s no wonder Wright was portrayed as such a Cowtown cheerleader. Through the years, as congressman, majority leader, and speaker, his efforts provided jobs at General Dynamics and other local defense companies and federal support for projects like Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the Trinity Railway Express, renovation of Main Street and the Stockyards, flood control and creek beautification, and on and on. Forty years ago, Wright’s political finesse ensured a 14-story federal building pegged for construction in Dallas was instead built in Fort Worth. His early appointment to the Public Works Committee, which doled out money for public buildings, dams, and highways, helped him swing numerous projects for Cowtown over the years. His name is attached to Northwest Loop 820, which he helped complete by writing language into the federal Highway Act. His name also lives on in the contentious Wright Amendment, a federal law still being debated 30 years later.

The lifelong Democrat’s impact on his hometown has been so immense that local Republicans have trouble knocking him, unless by complaining that he did too much.

“He certainly was adept at bringing home the congressional pork, if you will,” said Tarrant County Republican Party Chairwoman Stephanie Klick. “If it’s a program or project that people want, and it’s good for the local economy and community, that can be good, but it can also be bad. We can agree or disagree as to some of the projects he brought to Fort Worth and whether they were good or excessive spending.”

If politicians are measured by their ability to shower attention on their home districts, few can surpass Wright’s legacy. Naturally, he has a stock answer for critics who argue that he was delivering surplus bacon. “One man’s pork is another man’s bread and butter,” Wright said.

That can-do reputation put a target on his back. Partisan accusations of ethical misconduct prompted Wright’s resignation, not in disgrace but certainly in disdain. He bowed out on May 31, 1989, saying, “I am not a bitter man. I am not going to be.”

These days, the man who stood third in line to the presidency likes to stay involved, although now his schedule is busy by design more than necessity. To that end, he and Bolen meet periodically. They make a list of issues, pick a date and place, and invite four additional guests. “We learned that if you get more than six people at a table, they tend to break up into two different conversations,” Bolen said.

The get-togethers are private, off-the-record exchanges, which may or may not lead anywhere. “It’s kind of social more than anything,” Bolen said. “We just talk and try to educate ourselves.”

Social interaction inspires Wright. His most recent book, The Flying Circus, published in 2005, was prompted by a grandson’s questions about his World War II experiences.

When Bolen stopped in at Wright’s office recently, it was obvious the two old politicians enjoy spending time together. Their next topic is a new process for saving gasoline and reducing emissions. A Dallas group is attempting to adapt hydrogen generators for use in automobiles, and Wright is interested. “It looks like it saves a little over 10 percent on gasoline, and there’s a 38 percent elimination of carbon dioxide and those things that produce global warming and pollution,” he said.

America’s sluggishness in switching to cleaner-running, more fuel-efficient vehicles irritates Wright. If there is a better way, he wants to know. He’ll pass along the information to whomever is in a position to do something. Retiring from politics doesn’t mean he quit caring.

On healthcare, for instance, he said, “It is long past time we should have developed some system to guarantee every American access to affordable healthcare. That’s been stalled longer than it should be.”

As for war in Iraq: “We’ve seen an increase in terrorism as a result of our occupying an Islamic and Arab nation. This has created more hostility toward us and more terrorists than all those we have slain and has miscast the United States in an unfamiliar role — the role of an aggressor. As a consequence we’ve lost friends in much of the Islamic and Arab world, and it’s difficult to see what we gained.”

Those thick eyebrows furl when Wright gets down to serious matters. Before long, however, he’ll spot an opportunity for a funny remark and ease the tension. And that can lead to any number of anecdotes from a lifetime in politics. Bolen has heard many of the stories, but doesn’t mind hearing them again. One of his favorites goes back to Wright’s days as Weatherford mayor in the early 1950s.

Wright was a mere 24 years old when he won his first election to the Texas House of Representatives, serving from 1947 to 1949. Afterward, he moved to Weatherford, worked with his father in a marketing business, and was elected mayor. He’d spend half of the day at his marketing job, the latter half on mayoral duties. But answering phone calls from constituents was a full-time job. The boozers tended to get ideas late at night after a few rounds and go fumbling for a phone, while older folks called early in the morning.

One morning, a woman complained about boys with BB guns shooting songbirds in her yard. Another woman called to complain about the grackles roosting in her trees. Wright went to the first woman’s house, picked up the boys with their guns, and drove them to the other woman’s house. Solving two separate problems with one simple act was a model of political efficiency and might stand as the zenith of his career, Wright joked.

Bolen rolled with laughter. Having been a mayor himself, he understands how hard it is to please everyone. “Of course, if you did something like that these days you’d have about four different groups after you,” he said.

The story reveals much about Wright’s country-boy roots and problem-solving ways. Another tale, revealing his temper, involves a clash with Amon Carter, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher and about as close to a king as Cowtown’s ever had. After four years as Weatherford mayor, the 31-year-old Wright was ready to make a run at Congress. In 1954 he announced he would run against Carter’s chosen candidate, Wingate Lucas. Just before the election, the newspaper endorsed Lucas and denounced Wright in a front-page editorial. An angry Wright fired off a rebuttal, dug into his personal savings account, and paid $974.40 for an ad that took up most of a page. “An Open Letter to Mr. Amon G. Carter and Fort Worth Star-Telegram” blared the headline. (Later, Wright was told how a copy editor went to Carter and asked whether the paper should print the ad. Carter, according to Wright’s eyewitness, asked if Wright’s check was good. When told it was, Carter responded, “Run it!”)

Wright’s letter, written in the heat of passion, blasted Carter and the newspaper for ignoring his campaign while steering voters toward Lucas: “You have at last met a man, Mr. Carter, who is not afraid of you ... who will not bow his knee to you ... and come running like a simpering pup at your beck and call.”

His skill with words isn’t confined to oratory; the former journalist knows a thing or two about penning columns, books, and angry letters to newspapers.

“Is this how you have controlled Fort Worth so long?” Wright wrote back then. “By printing only that which you wanted people to read?”

Playing David to the powerful Carter’s Goliath allowed Wright to sling a decisive stone. The letter was the talk of the town, and Wright won the election with 60 percent of the vote.

But that was more than 50 years ago. Carter is long since dead. The stories live on, however, at the TCU library, which maintains Wright’s archives of more than a million documents.

For many folks, Wright remains Fort Worth’s go-to guy. Ancient constituents still call asking for help expediting a passport, bringing soldiers home from the military to tend to a family crisis, or dealing with any number of grackles-in-trees-type situations. “They are friends and people I used to serve, and I feel an obligation to try to get them some help,” he said. “I do these things for the community because I enjoy it.”

That same community has been debating the Wright Amendment ever since it was passed in 1979 to restrict flights out of Love Field after Fort Worth and Dallas combined efforts to build an international airport. Last year, efforts to repeal the amendment — a solution agreed upon by local leaders — stalled in a Washington committee led by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who was concerned about antitrust issues. Moncrief recalled that Leahy and Wright once served in Congress together, and he sought Wright’s intervention. Wright was happy to help — even though it meant repealing a namesake law.

“I called Pat and told him what I could, and everything worked out fine,” he said.

Marshall L. Lynam dropped a journalism career — he worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Fort Worth Press in the 1950s — to follow Wright into Washington, D.C.’s political trenches. For 27 years, Lynam worked side by side with the congressman and grew to love him like family. He wrote of those years in the insightful and funny Stories I Never Told the Speaker: The Chaotic Adventures of a Capitol Hill Aide, characterizing Wright as a hard-working and clever politician devoted to his constituents back home.

Blessed with a golden tongue and easy sense of humor, Wright became one of Washington’s most sought-after campaign stumpers. Former President Lyndon Baines Johnson once suggested that Wright address a Democratic candidate’s rally, describing him as “an eloquent, forceful speaker.” Wright was eager to oblige. If he helped other candidates raise money and get elected, he could depend on them for political support on down the line. Lynam, who now lives in Fort Worth, recalled how Wright once agreed to attend a 1964 fund-raiser for a Mineral Wells politician. Back then, Wright was a three-pack-a-day smoker, but he’d run out of Winstons on this trip. By evening, he was having a nicotine fit.

Coincidentally, a new company had recently opened in the little city and was offering an alternative to tobacco — lettuce cigarettes. Company representatives handed out cartons of the new product at the rally, and a grateful Wright, seated on a dais in front of 500 people, eagerly fished one out. With the crowd watching intently, his first drag sent him into a long coughing spell, hardly an advertisement for the innovative local product.

He was still getting over that painful attack when his turn at the podium arrived. Lynam recalled how Wright sheepishly admitted that it might take folks a while to get used to lettuce cigarettes. “But I’ll tell you one thing,” he said. “I’d rather smoke a lettuce cigarette than eat a tobacco salad.”

Lynam and Wright still get together every other Wednesday for lunch. “You could describe Jim as the type of man you’d like to have as a brother,” he said.

Some Republicans more likely viewed him as an agitating brother-in-law with a big mouth and bigger ambition. Before he found himself mired in a 1988 ethics investigation, his ambition was already leading to his undoing. Critics say he rubbed people the wrong way by flouting House rules, stepping on his colleagues’ toes, and trying to control foreign policy, something typically handled by the executive branch. “The blunt instrument of raw power was his tool, and he wielded it with such abandon that for the House to stand, Jim Wright had to fall,” Wick Allison wrote in the conservative National Review in 1989.

For two years, Republicans, led by U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, accused Wright of various infractions, including using bulk book sales to skirt House rules limiting the amount of speaking fees he could collect. Wright denied the accusations but said little publicly. Republicans smelled blood, and Democrats backed away from the froth.

Ethics complaints cut to the core of Wright, a child of the Depression hailing from a family with a strong work ethic and a firm sense of right and wrong. Members of Congress are showered with offers big and small, from a free drink at the corner bar to gratis use of yachts, planes, and condos. Few if any of them completely resist perks of the office. Wright was in that heady zone for many years, but he said his conscience is clean. His main purpose, he said, was to be a successful legislator and vote in a manner that was best for his district, the country, or the world.

What some politicians see as right and just, others blast as wrong-headed. Wright favored the Franklin D. Roosevelt philosophy of government having final responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. Wealthy businessman and former Texas Rangers baseball team owner Eddie Chiles once dubbed Wright a socialist, midway between capitalist and communist. Chiles disliked governmental interference and said so often on conservative radio spots (his tagline was “I’m Eddie Chiles, and I’m mad!”). Determined to oust Wright from Congress, Chiles vowed to spend buckets of money on Republican candidate Jim Bradshaw’s 1980 campaign. Bradshaw was willing to take on the incumbent despite Wright’s popularity.

“I felt we needed a more conservative voice representing this area, and I felt I could perhaps represent the people better than he could,” Bradshaw recalled recently. “Of course [Wright] didn’t agree, and he ultimately won. Jim represented the district well for many years — not that I agree with everything he did.”

Bradshaw is a political consultant and, until recently, was a Republican precinct chairman. He’s also Wright’s neighbor now, and though their political ideologies don’t always match, Bradshaw considers him a friend. “We live a few houses from each other and we take walks together and visit,” Bradshaw said. “He’s a very interesting person who is very much alive and active, and his mind is sharp as a tack. He’s a good man.”

Novelist and playwright Larry L. King (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) worked as a congressional aide before becoming a fulltime writer, including a two-year stint with Wright. Both King and Wright could be mercurial, and their working relationship was strained at times. King wasn’t used to having such a hands-on boss.

“One time we got in an argument about something, and Jim said, ‘I don’t remember the people of Tarrant County electing you to a damn thing.’” King recalled. “Jim threw himself into his job so much that he didn’t leave himself time for anything else. I know he came to rue that later, thinking he should have spent more time with his colleagues and his family, but he was really into the job and really ambitious. Nothing much existed for Jim at that time other than his job and his duties, and he did a hell of a lot for Fort Worth.”

Gingrich’s attack on his ethics hurt Wright more than anyone knew, King said. But the usually astute Wright decided against justifying the accusations with a response. King, who had left Wright’s camp by that time, called his former boss and urged Wright to go on the defensive, to no avail.

“It was an amazing bit of PR work, the dark side of PR,” King said of Gingrich’s attack. “Newt took this one little story [about book sales] and peddled it to newsmen all over the country, and it got to be a lot bigger deal than it ever was. Then the grand irony was — I don’t remember how much money Jim got from that book, but it wasn’t much — Gingrich was caught for the same thing, but it was [much more].”

Looking back, Wright acknowledged that King was right. If he had nipped Gingrich’s complaints in the bud, they might never have blossomed into full-scale media frenzy. Wright was never officially accused of breaking any laws, but was nonetheless portrayed as a scandalous sneak by top Republicans, including then-Congressman Dick Cheney, whose closet is crammed with Halliburton-sized ethical problems.

“I saw there wasn’t any way I was going to pacify those people,” Wright said. “It was dividing the House in such a way it was making it hard for us to accomplish anything.”

Wright urged both political parties to end “this mindless cannibalism,” encouraging a spirit of decorum, where legislators could disagree without being disagreeable regardless. Again, he had misread the writing on the wall. Democrats and Republicans have been at odds since the parties were established, but Gingrich’s attacks ushered in a new era of much more bitter partisanship in Congress that continues in the post-Tom DeLay era.

In summer of 1989, Wright resigned, saying his effectiveness as House leader was crippled. His attackers relied on a special counsel paid for by taxpayers. Wright footed his own legal bills, and when the tab hit $700,000 with no end in sight, he decided it was time to quit.

Carlos Moore, a political consultant for Wright, described the ambush as a severe loss, both nationally and locally. “It was a terrible thing to happen to Tarrant County,” he said. “He has not been replaced. They’ve got people trying to fill his shoes, but all they’ve done is built themselves some townhouses downtown and got their sons on government payroll and those kinds of things. I look forward to the day when somebody, if there is such a person of his caliber, comes along and fills Jim’s place.”

Critics who described Wright as power- hungry and single-minded “don’t know Jim Wright, and they don’t know much about history,” Moore said. “If you don’t have somebody who is a good strong leader who knows what he’s doing, you can see what happens. The country right now is leaderless.”

Gingrich would later resign his own position as House speaker in similar circumstances. But that was long ago, and Wright doesn’t dwell on the bad times. He prefers the one-liners and funny stories. His wit, recall, and experiences under eight presidential administrations make him a sought-after speaker, even today after surgeries have caused him to sound like a man who’s had a stroke.

His long, storied political career finally done, Wright moved back home to Fort Worth and became a professor emeritus at TCU. And then the cancers came in the 1990s, taking up much of his time as he battled to survive, although he still found time to write columns and books and to teach his classes. Turns out, leaving Washington probably saved him. The small lump he found at the base of his tongue in 1991 would have surely gone ignored during his busy House days, he said. Back home, he immediately visited a doctor who diagnosed the problem.

Adam Klick was a TCU senior in 2005 when he called his mother, local Republican Party leader Stephanie Klick, to ask whether he should take Wright’s political science class, “Congress and the Presidents.” Klick’s mother encouraged him, and he’s happy he signed up. Wright’s speech was often difficult to understand, but Klick and his classmates focused on every word, he recalled.

“It was a semester inside the mind of a political insider,” Klick said. “A lot of things came out of his mouth that you’re not going to find anywhere printed in a textbook.”

His material is largely anecdotal, and Wright draws from a deep well of memories, such as being one of the last people to have a conversation with John F. Kennedy before the president was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Kennedy had spoken in Fort Worth earlier in the day, even referring to Cowtown as “Jim Wright City.” On the short airplane flight from Fort Worth to Dallas, Wright was explaining to a curious Kennedy how the two Texas cities could be so close in proximity and yet so divergent in personalities. The plane landed, and Kennedy said, “We’ll finish this conversation on the way to Austin.”

Wright was riding several cars behind Kennedy when gunshots rang out, and he wondered if a car had backfired or maybe somebody had fired celebratory shots into the air. But as the motorcade continued and Kennedy’s car sped off down Elm Street, it quickly became clear what had happened.

“As we passed the crowd, I saw these looks of horror on people’s faces, and I knew they had seen something terrible,” he said.

Wright isn’t big on conspiracy theories of multiple shooters. “I could tell all three shots came from the same rifle,” he said.

A battered first-edition copy of Kennedy’s 1958 Profiles in Courage sits on a bookshelf next to Wright’s work desk (the book’s original price — $3.50 — is still marked on the jacket’s inside flap). He pulled it off the shelf the other day and handed it to a visitor. The first page contains a personalized inscription from Kennedy: “To Congressman Jim Wright, a public servant of courage with a great future before him.”

Wright worked with every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to the first George Bush and shares what he learned in those days, both pertinent and off-the-wall, with his students. Critics might have painted him as power-mad, but Wright never angled to be president. Moore said he tried many times to convince Wright to seek the top spot. “Some people would rather be over in Congress; they think you’re closer to the people over there,” Moore said. “He knew what the people wanted and knew how to communicate with them, but that’s why he should have been president.”

Actually, Wright admits to harboring presidential aspirations in his youth, before he went to Congress. Once there, he realized the House was where he belonged, and the speaker’s office was his ultimate goal. Getting burned in that role made him realize how hot the presidential seat would have been. “I’m not sure I have the temperament it would have required, the ability to endure a lot of criticism and misrepresentation of something I said or wanted to do, or having my motives misconstrued,” he said.

Watching Washington with a critical eye since then, Wright said he’s seen plenty of good things happen for the United States — the long, unbroken period of economic growth in the 1990s, the dozen years of peace between the first Gulf War and the Iraq invasion, and the reduction of the national debt in the late 1990s. Overall, however, the past 20 years haven’t been kind to the country, he said. Jobs are moving overseas, the national debt is again soaring, and the separation between rich and poor is growing wider.

“CEOs have retired with golden parachutes in the multimillions while the laboring families in America have continued to decline in wages,” he said. “I see a vast decline in their well-being and standard of living.”

Sometimes, Wright’s classroom lectures veer from political perils to personal passions, and he encourages them to avoid tobacco, using himself as an example. In 1978, Wright noticed he was having trouble with his vocal cords, making it difficult to speak at the many functions he attended. His doctor told him he would have to either quit smoking or quit talking so much. Wright mulled over the diagnosis while driving home.

“I reached in my pocket and pulled out my cigarettes and threw them out the car window,” he said

He quit cold turkey, but 13 years later he was diagnosed with cancer, which re-appeared in 1998. Radiation treatments left one side of his face unable to grow whiskers, to this day. Naturally, Wright seizes the chance for a joke. “Maybe if I live long enough, I can save enough money on razors to pay for my surgery,” he said.

His face was slightly contorted after doctors grafted part of a femur to his jawbone. Some men might have hidden from public view. Not Wright. He threw himself into teaching.

“It makes it a little difficult for me to enunciate some sounds,” he said. “But it doesn’t make me feel crippled, and I’m not going to let it handicap me and stop me from being a social and communicative person.”

Each year he figures is his last to teach, but then a new school year rolls around and he answers the bell. For 16 years, that has helped keep him going.

“The campus starts bustling with young life,” he said, “and I think, ‘I’ll do it one more year.’”

The Colonel Gets Fried - Jim Schutze and the Trinity Toll Road Election

By Jim Schutze - The Dallas Observer - Published: August 2, 2007
It's a different city now. Fundamentally. Here's why.

Last weekend the [Dallas] city secretary ruled that a citizens group had met the legal test for calling a referendum on building a major high-speed, limited-access toll road through the proposed river park downtown. But don't get all lost in that. You'll hear plenty about the toll road in the months ahead.

Right now the thing to know about the city is much bigger than the toll road issue. It's about what kind of city this is and what Dallas is going to be like to live in from here on out, compared with being here before last weekend.

Sunday night, at an intimate, very emotional victory celebration for the people who had gathered petitions for the referendum, I heard an excellent and pithy description of the way Dallas has always been. A wise man who cannot be named—one who plays at the top in Dallas but also has lots of experience around the country—was quoted by his wife as saying, "This city is no more corrupt or less corrupt than New York or L.A. or Chicago or any other big American city. It's just that in Dallas far fewer people share in the spoils."

Take the Trinity River project and try to imagine a fictitious scenario in which Dallas worked like other cities. Imagine that the old Dallas river-bottom landholding families could pull their own kind of insider country club strings to get a highway built through their land along the river downtown.

But imagine, too, that a bloc of ward-heeling laborites could use a different kind of under-the-table sleaze-ball pressure to get a big park by the river. And then imagine that the well-organized old inner-city black community could put the squeeze on through the Legislature to force some juicy contracts out of the deal. And imagine that Hispanics were able to leverage some campaign contributions for a shiny new Latino recreational center.

So in the end you would get a kind of corruption standoff in which there would be a road, park, economic development, rec center kind of thing. Under the American system of politics, that would be a real-world version of fair. Everybody gets a shot at a piece. Nobody gets the whole pie. Nobody gets left out.

In terms of pure political theory, it ain't pretty, but it happens to be the best way anybody has ever come up with yet of resolving complex, conflicting ambitions in a diverse, fast-moving molten society.

That's not how it worked here, before last weekend. We don't have ward-heeling laborites. We don't have a well-organized black political presence. We don't have any effectively organized Hispanic presence at all in spite of a growing Latino population.

All we have ever had was Colonel Belo.

Until right now—until this weekend when the TrinityVote petitions were certified by the city secretary, forcing a referendum on the Trinity toll road—Dallas has always operated under the Colonel Belo system of politics. Colonel Belo is up in his office tower looking out over "my little village," surrounded by a half-dozen of his dear old Confederate true-hearts.

He puffs on his cigar, thoughtfully strokes his snowy white goatee and then decides, no, by Jehoshaphat, we're not going to build all those lakes and geegaws the people voted for back in '98. It's just not going to be done. Instead we're going to have us a highway.

"I know we promised the little people some play-purties down there by the river, and I know it's their money, but sometimes we just have to do what we have to do."

Is it a crime against nature that Colonel Belo wants to corrupt the system? Not really. It's nature itself. The crime is that nobody else can corrupt the system back at him.

And then you have the devastating effects of the syndrome I call A.D., or "arrogant dementia." Colonel Belo-types suffering from arrogant dementia begin to identify getting their own way on everything with "clean politics." As long as they can bait and switch an entire bond issue and lie to the voters to get what they want for themselves, they believe that "our system is free from the sordid taint of politics."

But you let some outsider come shuffling up to the door, hat in hand, asking about the lakes and amphitheaters he was promised before the election: Well, that's nothing short of damned Yankee-style corruption.

That's what I call A.D.

Until last weekend when TrinityVote met the legal test for a referendum, there was never any real push-back here for "Colonel Belo," a name I have made up to represent the Dallas Citizens Council and the old elite. This place was run like a one-horse hick town.

It was run, of course, like every other major Southern city in America before the Civil Rights Movement. In all of these cities, small, tight-knit cadres at the top, imbued with cultural and historical disdain for democracy, used social and business pressure to guard local pyramids of power against the encroachments of loathsome voters.

The difference is that in most Southern cities those pyramids got blown up during the decades of the Civil Rights Movement. Not here. We could talk all week about why. But the fact is, it didn't happen here. In that sense Dallas is truly anomalous—the Lost Valley of the Pre-Civil Rights Dinosaurs, a place that anthropologists should have put on their critical lists decades ago.

Too late. It's gone. The old Dallas disappeared last weekend. The push-back finally happened.

Almost 90,000 human beings signed petitions calling for a referendum on that toll road. Allow me to put that number in perspective.

The new mayor, Tom Leppert, was elected by about half that number of votes. All of the sitting city council members who won office in two recent elections—a general and a runoff—failed to garner that many votes in toto. One council member, Steve Salazar, was elected by 717 voters.

The number of people who signed those petitions is staggering. It's three times the number who signed petitions in late 2003 and early 2004 for a chance to vote on the so-called "Blackwood strong mayor" reforms.

The required number of certified signatures to put Blackwood on a ballot was 20,000. The required number for the TrinityVote ballot was 48,000. City Secretary Deborah Watkins found about 52,000 valid signatures on TrinityVote's petitions, meaning the rest of them failed to meet rigid requirements for certification.

But the total number is still 90,000. In 1998 the Trinity River project was authorized on the backs of a total of 39,000 "yes" votes. The number who signed petitions for this referendum is more than twice that.

Even the smaller number certified by the city secretary is one and one-third times the number who voted for the project in '98. By the way, it's 105 percent of the number who voted for the new mayor in the June 16 runoff election.

So what does this kind of push-back mean? Oh, it means everything. I don't even want to talk yet about the debate on the toll road, except as it illuminates this sea change in the politics of the city.

Local media, for example, with the exception of the Dallas Observer and some of the better TV news operations, have always been the Lost Valley mouthpieces of the Beloans. That has to change now, even at Belo Corp., the company that owns the city's only daily newspaper, because even the Beloans are obligated to speak seriously to the 90,000.

Right up to last weekend, The Dallas Morning News consigned principal coverage of the TrinityVote movement to two local columnists, Steve Blow and Jacquielynn Floyd, whose offerings were dismissive and silly, without even an attempt at real reporting.

Last Sunday—the day the city secretary had to announce her findings on certification—the News ran on its front page a well-written, fully reported and balanced story by Bruce Tomaso profiling city council member Angela Hunt, who has led the TrinityVote effort.

I just can't over-emphasize what an important shift that is. It means that Hunt and her group have demanded and received respect from the News after months of goofy derision and slights. How did they demand the respect? With that number we've been talking about—the 90,000.

And that's the other side of this coin. Can you really blame Colonel Belo for running the show single-handed when there was never anybody around who had the bones to force his hand? That's really what this moment comes down to. Someone has shown up to force his hand. In fact, 90,000 someones.

The day after the signatures were certified, Mayor Leppert told the Morning News he had asked the district attorney to investigate possible fake signatures. If Leppert found 42,000 fake signatures, the petitions would still pass certification. He has to know that. It's a simple refusal on his part to show respect for the huge number of voters who did sign properly.

You're going to hear other unbelievably A.D. arguments against the referendum from the people who support putting a massive toll road through the park downtown. One is a kind of technical gotcha on the voters. This argument says that even if the road called for by the state at the time of the election was a quiet little park road, and even if no toll road was even mentioned on the 1998 ballot, lots of people were talking about a toll road in '98 and you should have noticed that and you should have been smarter.

Nah-nah-nah on you.

Now that is really what I call A.D.

How about, "No, nah-nah-nah on you, because I'm going to vote against your stinking toll road in November."

That's what I call a real city.
Read more in the Dallas Observer

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Justice facing criminal and ethics probes in Austin - Hecht accused of accepting discount legal work from a high-profile firm

By CLAY ROBISON - Houston Chronicle - Aug. 9, 2007

AUSTIN — Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, under investigation by Travis County prosecutors after being accused of accepting an illegal contribution from a law firm, also is facing questions from the Texas Ethics Commission.

Hecht has declined to comment on the case, which involves a discount he received for personal legal services from the Jackson Walker law firm.

But he has retained attorney Wayne Meissner of Austin to represent him, and Jackson Walker has hired lawyer Roy Minton.

"Justice Hecht is responding to Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's investigation, and we hope to resolve the matter as soon as possible," Meissner said Thursday.

The district attorney's office acknowledged last month that it was reviewing a complaint filed by Texas Watch, a government watchdog group, against Hecht.

The group also filed complaints with the Ethics Commission and the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct, but neither agency, citing confidentiality laws, will discuss the case.

An attorney with the Ethics Commission, however, has directed Hecht to respond in writing and under oath to allegations that he failed to report the lowered fees as an in-kind political contribution and that the discount exceeded the $30,000 limit on judicial donations from a single law firm.

The Houston Chronicle got a copy of the Ethics Commission's letter from Texas Watch.

The controversy stems from Jackson Walker's successful defense of Hecht last year in a dispute with the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

The judicial commission admonished Hecht for promoting President Bush's short-lived nomination in 2005 of Harriet Miers, a longtime friend of Hecht's, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It said Hecht had violated a rule prohibiting Texas judges from publicly endorsing other candidates for office. Hecht appealed and, represented by Jackson Walker, won a dismissal of the admonition from a three-judge panel last October.

Hecht solicited contributions from lawyers to help pay his legal fees, and, according to reports filed with the Ethics Commission, paid Jackson Walker $342,416 from his political fund.

Chip Babcock, a Jackson Walker partner who handled the case, said Hecht's bill was reduced by 25 percent because the case involved a key public issue — freedom of speech.

Babcock said the discount was legal and denied the law firm was trying to curry favor with a Supreme Court justice.

Alex Winslow, Texas Watch's executive director, said it is illegal for state judges to accept gifts, except for campaign contributions, from parties the judges know are likely to appear before them. A violation is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by as much as one year in jail and a $4,000 fine, he said.

The Ethics Commission could assess a civil fine against Hecht if it determines he violated reporting requirements.

Read more

Man's past didn't keep him from HUD grant - Supportive Housing for Mentally Ill exploited

By LEE HANCOCK - The Dallas Morning News - Sunday, August 12, 2007
It sounded good on paper: A Dallas nonprofit could transform a run-down Oak Cliff apartment into supportive housing for people with mental illness. All it would take was $1.1 million in federal housing money.

The catch was in other federal, state and local government files. Ryan T. Jones, the man in charge, had just left the Dallas Police Department as a dirty cop and felon. He ran a string of low-rent boarding homes and a crumbling apartment building that had a permanent place on police and code enforcement radars.

How could a million dollars go to a group with no discernible history, controlled by a man like Mr. Jones – whose rap sheet involved a multimillion-dollar computer theft ring? How could it happen through a charitable program that's been a feel-good story for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development since 1990?

It may be the price of official indifference toward some of Dallas' most vulnerable residents. Despite a decade of problems, no one in government has kept up with the Joneses.

Dallas city code inspectors have repeatedly found broken doors and walls and windows, leaking sewage, bad wiring and filth at Mr. Jones' properties. They closed cases after the Hummer-driving DeSoto resident did some repairs and promised others. In 2006, a state agency found that one of Mr. Jones' boarding homes was an illegal, unlicensed assisted-living facility.

But it did nothing beyond sending him a warning letter.

Dallas police have responded to so many disturbances at Mr. Jones' properties that they have labeled some neighborhood nuisances. Those include the apartments that became federally subsidized housing and his main boarding house. But police have also told worried neighbors that there's not much they can really do.

In April, city code officers again started targeting Mr. Jones' main boarding house. He has agreed to pay more than $3,000 in fines for code violations. Last month, city attorneys sued to try to force his home to comply with health and safety standards or close. It is the first such lawsuit against a Dallas boarding home in years.

The city's actions came only after The Dallas Morning News began asking questions about Mr. Jones' properties.

HUD officials shifted their position, from praising the project to sending inspectors there Thursday for an earlier-than-scheduled management audit. This came after The News asked what the agency knew about Mr. Jones' past and his role in the group that got the million-dollar grant.

HUD's inspector general may be asked to investigate because at least one document required for the nonprofit's grant was apparently faked, a representative said. Dallas officials say a letter on city stationery and an accompanying HUD form required for the application wasn't from City Hall. A document expert who examined those records for The News said it is "highly probable" that both are "cut-and-paste" forgeries.

Mr. Jones, 38, declined to be interviewed about the apartments or at least seven board and care homes he has run in Dallas since 1999. He and his wife refused to release financial records or tax returns for his nonprofit organizations, though state and federal laws require it.

His wife, Mariscia Sanders Jones, executive director of the nonprofit that got the million-dollar federal grant, says her husband is "a Christian-based man" helping people with nowhere else to turn.

"He has a passion for it. If he didn't, it wouldn't be in business that long," she said in a brief interview. She declined to answer most questions. "We're basically hardworking people whose first priority is to make sure we take care of those clients.

"It's not a slum. It may look like one because it's you or me trying to do upkeep," she said of their property. "We can't keep it as a beautiful mansion and this and that, but keep it where it can be successful."

Chaotic places

Mr. Jones' apartments and board and care homes are chaotic places, current and former residents say. A mental health caseworker says one of the homes went weeks without a toilet in winter 2006. Its residents had to relieve themselves in the yard or walk blocks to a convenience store bathroom. A resident of the same house said it had no hot water for most of the following summer.

Since 2004, police and ambulance crews have been called weekly to Mr. Jones' properties, records indicate, costing taxpayers more than $2,500 a month for emergency runs. The 911 calls range from assaults and drug overdoses to a resident who had to be subdued with a Taser after swinging a nail-studded fence post at police.

A pastor says his ministry's van was chased from Mr. Jones' main West Louisiana Avenue house. The driver was told not to return after the ministry helped a mentally retarded resident there relocate.

That resident, who has the mind of a slow 9-year-old, was preyed on by other residents, court and police records indicate. He once had to be hospitalized after another resident bashed in his nose. His family says he lived there several years because they couldn't find anyplace else to take him. There are few options in a region where the mentally disabled cycle between locked hospital wards, jail cells and an underworld of unregulated flophouses that experts call "mental health slums."

Melvin Smith, 51, a former resident of the North Marsalis Avenue apartments who has schizoaffective disorder, said drug abuse was so rampant in the apartments that "you practically didn't have a choice. Everybody in there was doing drugs." Before he moved out earlier this year, Mr. Smith recalled, Mr. Jones confiscated his ATM card. He "told me I was using way too much money on cocaine. He was telling me I couldn't continue to pay my rent otherwise."

"You have to learn how to survive. You never know when somebody might come with a knife," said Gaylord Guajardo, a former resident who has severe depression. The 31-year-old said he lived there for much of 2006 before finding a place to move so he could get away from the fights and access to prostitutes and crack cocaine.

"This project shows how easily the program can be abused," said Ann O'Hara of the Technical Assistance Collaborative, a Boston group known for disability housing work. "If HUD had people reviewing these applications who know something about housing and disability services, this project would never have been funded."

Dallas cop

Mr. Jones began running boarding houses as a Dallas cop. A South Oak Cliff High graduate, he took community college criminal justice classes and worked as a jailer before getting into the Dallas police academy in 1991.

His police personnel file suggests an average patrol career, with a few notes of praise and a few unfounded complaints.

One 1999 police internal affairs report indicates that Mr. Jones dealt with mental illness within his own family. His father accused him of assault after Mr. Jones came to his parents' home in uniform and confronted his father about getting rough with his mother. Mr. Jones was cleared after relatives told investigators that his father had a history of mental problems.

Mr. Jones was working patrol in Oak Cliff in April 1999 when he registered the name of a new business, Superior Boarding Homes.

Three months later, he and partner Stanley Durane Williams got a contract to house and feed clients of the Dallas County Welfare Department. Mr. Williams, an insurance adjuster then on probation for state felony theft, could not be reached for comment.

Like other boarding home operators, Mr. Jones and Mr. Williams were promised $10 per day per person to provide safe, supervised shelter and meals for each indigent county client, county records indicate. The typical client was homeless and mentally ill.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Williams rented a 44-year-old boarding house at 114 W. Louisiana Ave., on a weedy street of run-down houses between South Beckley Avenue and Interstate 35E.

They sent the county a handbook touting Superior Boarding as "home away from home." It listed the two men, Mr. Jones' wife, and one of her relatives as directors. Superior Boarding would serve people with "a pronounced history of physical, mental, visual or hearing and speech handicaps."

"You are the most important person in my Superior Boarding Home," the company handbook told would-be residents. "I promise to care for you with kindness and courtesy, and I will never forget that you are a guest in my home. I will go the extra mile to have qualified staff, the right supplies and equipment, and caring people available to help you heal."

Mr. Williams and Mr. Jones shared another sideline – one that had the attention of the FBI.

FBI investigation

Investigators had evidence that Mr. Williams was selling hot goods for a computer theft ring plaguing shippers and Fortune 500 firms across North Texas. His confederates grabbed shipments. Mr. Williams then peddled the hot Apples, Compaqs and other gear as far away as California, according to court and police records.

Police began chasing the ring in 1997, the year Mr. Williams was arrested for state felony theft.

By September 1999, FBI agents had enough evidence to get a wiretap on Mr. Williams' phone, court and police records indicate. Former FBI agent Tom Hugonett said investigative evidence and informants indicated that Mr. Williams and Mr. Jones frequently discussed their boarding home business. It was striking, the former agent said, how the two men ridiculed their residents' pleas for food and medicine.

"They'd be laughing," said Mr. Hugonett, now a detective for the Austin Police Department. "They were saying things like, 'That guy wants to eat; he's asking for groceries. They can forget about it.' "

The police officer and his partner discussed their boarding home making "three to four times" what a rent house might bring, and they made plans for more, Mr. Hugonett said. "You could tell, whatever they were involved in, they weren't in it for the care of the individuals. They were in it for the money."

It was also clear that Mr. Jones was involved with the hot computers. That September, Mr. Jones and Mr. Williams discussed a stolen computer that Mr. Jones was trying to sell, court filings indicate. Two weeks later, records indicate, Mr. Jones loaned his pickup to move nine stolen iMac computers.

"We knew he was a dirty cop," Mr. Hugonett said.

Business shift

The men's focus appeared to be shifting to boarding homes. Prices on stolen tech equipment were falling and heists were getting harder, the former agent said. "Slowly but surely, they [Mr. Jones and Mr. Williams] were getting out of the computer business."

More worrisome, Mr. Jones discussed using police contacts to get confidential information and then did that, telling Mr. Williams the name of one of his associated who was under investigation. Mr. Jones was overheard assuring his partner that fellow cops also would alert him before anyone came after them.

Turmoil ensued within the FBI and Dallas police headquarters over the apparent police corruption. The computer case dragged on more than a year.

In the meantime, Mr. Jones filed papers in November 2000 registering "Community of Family and Friends" as his business at the West Louisiana address. Eleven months later, he bought the house on West Louisiana that he and Mr. Williams had rented for their boarding home. He signed the deal a few weeks before police raided the place for evidence in the computer case.

Mr. Williams began cooperating with the FBI and pleaded to theft charges in March 2001. The next month, Mr. Jones and 11 others were indicted on charges of conspiracy and interstate transport of stolen property. Mr. Jones was also charged with obstruction of justice and false statements.

In June 2001, Mr. Jones pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. He resigned from the Police Department, writing that he was "going into the real estate business."

Playing 'the game'

He wasted little time. He kept the contract to house county welfare clients. He also kept buying run-down rent houses in Oak Cliff, turning some of them into boarding homes.

In September 2001, Mr. Jones incorporated Community of Family and Friends Resource Center as a Texas nonprofit. Its corporate address was his neat, two-story brick home in DeSoto. Its three directors were Mr. Jones, his mother and his wife.

Mr. Jones returned to federal court the next month and got three years' probation.

He bought a decaying, 12-unit apartment building on North Marsalis Avenue in June 2002, almost a year to the day after he pleaded to federal charges. One in a row of faded, '50s-era apartments along Marsalis, the two-story building neighbored an elementary school. Mr. Jones financed it with two notes totaling $207,000.

Over the next two years, city code inspectors would repeatedly document leaking plumbing, a hole-riddled interior, bad wiring and no working smoke detectors. In November 2002, a code inspector reported the second floor had no power.

But Mr. Jones was only fined once, in 2005, paying about $500 for a fire code violation. City reports indicate Mr. Jones kept inspectors at bay by starting some repairs, promising others and pleading that he was a new owner.

"It appears that he knows how to play the game," said Tyrone McGill, a supervisor with the city's code compliance department.

In June 2003, the Joneses' nonprofit applied for a federal HUD 811 grant. It wanted HUD funds to buy the apartments from Mr. Jones and rehabilitate them as supportive housing for people with severe mental illness.

The 811 program

In 1990, Congress created the 811 program to address a national shortage of safe, affordable housing with supportive services for people with disabilities.

The lack of such housing is acute nationwide. A recent study by the Boston-based Technical Assistance Collaborative estimated that average rent for efficiency apartments in Dallas would eat 98 percent of a monthly Social Security disability check in 2006, and a one-bedroom apartment would take 109 percent.

HUD officials and outside housing experts say the 811 program has helped thousands of Texans who otherwise might be marooned in substandard housing or institutional care. The program is small – statewide, there are 93 projects with 964 units. Dallas County has five projects with 72 units, and Tarrant County has 12 projects with 125 units.

New 811 grants are awarded annually to nonprofit organizations. They don't have to be repaid if a project houses qualified residents for 40 years. HUD also provides each 811 project ongoing rent subsidies amounting to 75 percent of annual operating costs.

In exchange, rent can be no more than 30 percent of a tenant's adjusted gross income. That's not much, because most qualifying residents get only Social Security disability – about $623 a month in Texas.

Most grants in the region have gone to established housing providers such as Volunteers of America and mental health providers such as Behavioral Health Services in Dallas. Experts say smaller, newer groups don't often apply because the process is complicated – so much so that many applicants hire grant consultants to navigate it.

"It requires a lot of expertise," said HUD spokeswoman Patricia Campbell. "We want to make sure the money is well spent and is going to benefit the people the program was designed to benefit."

An 811 application must include certifications from the city and state that the project is consistent with local planning goals and has a support plan that meshes with the mental health system.

That plan must detail how the organization will help residents connect with mental health providers, job training and other services. Such support is considered crucial to keeping residents stable and out of the destructive cycle of repeat hospitalization, homelessness and jail.

But HUD's expertise is in development – not social work. As a result, some experts say, agency reviewers don't closely examine a support plan.

"The only thing that usually governs who gets this money is the art of writing a good application," said Ms. O'Hara, a former Massachusetts assistant housing secretary who reviewed Mr. Jones' 811 application for The News.

"If you hire one of these consultants who can generate a cut-and paste job like this one and have a [development] site and a bunch of lower-level people in a [mental health and social support] service system who are willing to sign a letter saying you've got a good program," Ms. O'Hara said, "you can get a million dollars."

Grant application

Mr. Jones hired consultant G. Keith Harlin of DeSoto to prepare a HUD application for Community of Family and Friends.

Mr. Harlin was a one-time social worker who had worked for Dallas's Day Resource Center, the Dallas County Welfare Department and area social service groups. He said he met Mr. Jones in spring 2003 at a Dallas meeting for groups involved with the homeless. Mr. Harlin had just started a grant consulting business.

He said he worked with Mr. Jones and his wife to prepare a nearly 300-page application for Community of Family and Friends and to get the Joneses through the grant process. He said he couldn't recall or find records of his fee. The nonprofit reported paying him $24,000 in grant funds.

Mr. Harlin said he was impressed with Mr. Jones' interactions with his residents, most of which he witnessed by watching Mr. Jones field phone calls.

"I think that he was doing the best that he could do with what he had to work with. Ryan, I believe, cares deeply for these folks. These people call him at all hours," Mr. Harlin said. "He has the patience of Job.

"Some of these folks are the hardest people to serve," he added. "They are people that can't go anywhere else because of their histories, because they burned down buildings or they had violent histories or they are noncompliant with medicine. These are peopling that, but for boarding homes, would be homeless."

Mr. Jones mentioned being a former officer, Mr. Harlin said, so he assumed that Mr. Jones, "like a lot of other cops, got burned out."

Told of Mr. Jones' history, Mr. Harlin said: "Oh, my God ... I had absolutely no idea. I don't do background checks on the applicants. Maybe I should."

Mr. Harlin couldn't explain why the nonprofit's HUD application listed Mr. Jones' wife as its executive director when Mr. Jones was really in charge.

Odder still, Mr. Jones' wife signed the HUD application for the nonprofit using her maiden name instead of her married name. A review of deed records by The News found that Ms. Jones has used her married name in real estate transactions for nearly a decade.

The June 2003 HUD application also obscured Mr. Jones' key role and family ties to others involved in the nonprofit project, though there are clues.

One filing named Mr. Jones assistant executive director and contact person for the nonprofit's 811 application. A copy of the nonprofit's original incorporation papers listed Mr. Jones as a director. And there was also an option to buy the apartments from Mr. Jones.

But the paperwork didn't explain Mr. Jones' relationship with the organization or its other principals. And he wasn't on the 10-member board of directors identified in the nonprofit's application.

In August 2003, Mr. Jones' wife sent annual corporate reporting forms to the Texas Secretary of State listing only herself, her husband and her mother-in-law as Community of Family and Friends' directors. She signed her name Mariscia Jones.

One possible reason Mr. Jones' involvement wasn't made clearer to HUD: He was on federal probation. HUD requires applicants to submit a sworn statement that no board members, key employees, directors, management or other principals have recent convictions. The required disclosure form warns that falsehoods or misrepresentations could mean losing the grant – even prosecution.

Mr. Jones' wife signed the disclosure form on June 1, 2003. Using her maiden name, she affirmed that none of Community of Family and Friends' principals had criminal convictions within three years for violations including false statements. Mr. Jones pleaded guilty to that offense two years before.

'Life changing'

Community of Family and Friends' HUD application to renovate and run the Marsalis property as supportive housing described its programs in effusive but vague terms.

The focus was on allowing people with serious mental illness "to live with a certain amount of dignity." The group said it offered such services as free transport and group and individual counseling with two staff social workers.

"CFFR offers life changing treatment, practical support, useful education, comfort and understanding to those in the greater Dallas area who are suffering from neurobiological disorders," its application stated. To demonstrate its qualifications, the nonprofit pointed to its experience in helping and housing people with mental illness at Louisiana House.

The group sent recommendation letters from Veterans Affairs' homelessness outreach program in Dallas, the county welfare department and several regional mental health providers. Of nine recommendations, eight referred to Mr. Jones as owner, executive director or operator of Community of Family and Friends.

Many of the officials who wrote the letters said they had met Mr. Jones only in passing and knew his grant consultant. Mr. Jones seemed well-meaning, they said, and housing was in short supply.

Ms. O'Hara, the housing expert, said mental health providers and advocates "will sign anything," because the housing is so needed. "It's not about whether these people are qualified," she said.

The nonprofit's 811 application included an environmental consultant's report that the Marsalis property had no "open or outstanding" city code violations as of June 5, 2003.

There was no mention of its checkered code history because HUD didn't ask. The building's problems would escalate in the next two years, city records indicate, including failing a 2004 multifamily housing inspection. Dallas police tagged the apartment building as a nuisance after a May 2005 police report described it as "a known hangout for drug users and burglars."

Federal rules require that anyone displaced during an 811-funded renovation must be helped with relocation. The nonprofit's application said only that Mr. Jones planned to move 12 Marsalis apartment residents – all low-income people with mental illness – to Louisiana House, while the Marsalis property was renovated.

"It's very surprising to me that HUD did not investigate that further," said Ms. O'Hara, the housing expert. "The feds have to pay for residents to be relocated. That's why they usually avoid projects that have tenants in the property involved."

Louisiana House was described in the application as "a secure, supervised living environment." Among its amenities: "access to planned recreational activities, shopping, sports, gardening, tending to animals and other opportunities."

There was no mention that the house was in such disrepair that city inspectors would cite it repeatedly within a year for structural hazards. Again, HUD didn't ask.

The pastor

Joel Pulis, head of an Oak Cliff ministry for the mentally ill, said Louisiana House was decrepit from the time he and other volunteers began giving residents rides to church in mid-2002.

He said he began visiting as he started The Well Community at Cliff Temple Baptist Church. The first resident he met there was a man in a wheelchair so incontinent that the room he shared with three younger men reeked of urine. The minister added that beds in the house were crammed three or four to a small room.

"You had females cohabitating [with male residents], and we'd hear stories about a lot of sexual stuff going on," he said.

Several Cliff Temple Baptist Church members joined him in distributing Christmas gifts in 2003. One member was so overcome by the stench in the house, the minister said, that he bolted outside and threw up.

Mr. Pulis and a mental health caseworker who visited regularly said they never saw counselors or social workers there other than state-funded mental health workers. Residents of Louisiana House were ragged and dirty, he said, and they complained that what little they had was often stolen. He added that he saw residents panhandling for drug money or waiting for dealers whenever he drove through the neighborhood.

"The mental health of the guys at Ryan's places are absolutely the lowest we've come in contact with," said Mr. Pulis, whose ministry has received national recognition for its work with people with mental illness.

In November 2005, soon after residents moved out of the Marsalis apartments, Dallas County probate court investigators went to Louisiana House to see a resident under court guardianship. When they arrived, they said, one resident was masturbating in the yard, another ranted at the sky and others huddled around a car in which there appeared to be drug use.

HUD approval

HUD reviewers approved an 811 grant for Community of Family and Friends, plus a rent subsidy of $31,800 a year.

The original grant amount, $769,900, was later upped to $1,118,500 by HUD after the nonprofit reported that no other government agencies or foundations would contribute. HUD officials and housing experts say that such increases are common.

HUD reviewers noted that the nonprofit had no development experience or local government support. But they gave it high marks for experience in disability housing, community ties and fundraising, all based on what the group said on paper.

A state mental health agency official gave no response when asked to assess whether the nonprofit's support plan was "well designed to meet the needs of [its tenants] with disabilities." HUD's internal review forms indicate that anything but a positive assessment from the state agency should have meant automatic rejection of the application. A HUD representative confirmed that the agency never followed up with the state.

Meanwhile, the HUD official who oversees 811 grant reviews said the agency never visited Mr. Jones' boarding homes or did criminal checks on the nonprofits' key personnel.

That's because HUD doesn't require such background checks. "We look at what they put in their application," said Charlotte Mitchell, regional 811-program manager. "We look at the [neighborhood] and what they're trying to do there."

"I think they were a good group," Ms. Mitchell said earlier this summer. "They did what we asked them to do to get their project together."

The nonprofit was named a grant winner in November 2003.

In the 17 months that followed, HUD required the nonprofit to set up a subsidiary nonprofit that would actually own and run the apartment complex.

Mr. Jones was incorporator of that subsidiary, Cherbonay at Marsalis Independent Living Inc., state records indicate. Its business address was – and is – Mr. Jones' main boarding house on West Louisiana Avenue.

HUD did require disclosure of the subsidiary nonprofit's board members. The list submitted to the federal agency included two disabled apartment residents, Mr. Jones' wife, his mother and another of their relatives.

The board chairman, Keith Police of Mesquite, said last month that he got involved because Mr. Jones attended church with him. Asked if he was still on both boards, Mr. Police said. "Yeah, I think so."

"If I've been to meetings, it's been a while," he said, refusing further questions. "I pretty much can't tell you anything other than that. I think you'd have to ask him [Mr. Jones] if you want information."

Mr. Police and Mr. Jones' wife and mother each sent sworn statements to HUD that they had no family ties to the seller of the property or anyone else involved in their project. Their conflict-of-interest statements and a similar form signed by Mr. Harlin, the consultant, also said that they knew of no such ties between the nonprofits' other board members, the property seller or anyone else on their development team.

The disclosure forms, required by HUD, included a warning that false statements could lead to prosecution.

As its paperwork flowed into HUD's regional office, the nonprofit submitted a budget proposing to pay $242,000 for the apartments – $10,000 more than the price suggested by their own appraisal.

In January 2005, a HUD appraiser wrote a concerned letter calling the nonprofit's appraisal "one of the worst that I have seen." It had "incomprehensible" writing, "errors and inconsistencies," the HUD official wrote. There were "large and small violations" of appraisal standards. Bottom line, the HUD official told an 811 program manager: It overstated the building's value by more than $42,000.

Ultimately, HUD approved the $200,000 price tag recommended by their internal appraiser.

Mrs. Jones said she and her husband haven't made money from housing people with disabilities.

"Even from the beginning of it, if you want to talk about a net profit or a loss on it, it was a loss. It wasn't just about, 'I want to put money in my bank account.' You have expenses that overrode," Mrs. Jones said. "Some people [running boarding homes] are driving the fancy cars. This business here is a totally different business."

The Joneses haven't been hurting. Since Mr. Jones was forced out of the Police Department in 2001, they have amassed a real estate portfolio valued at over $1 million. It includes two boarding homes, three recently shuttered boarding properties, seven rent houses and the house occupied by Mr. Jones' mother. Mr. Jones bought four condos in Arlington last year. He and his wife owned little of that in mid-2001, when they bought their 2,811-square foot home off Belt Line Road in DeSoto.

Mr. Jones drives a Hummer H2. He bought it in February 2005, weeks after the nonprofit told HUD they couldn't do the project without a 45 percent increase in the federal grant. The luxury SUV's price was nearly $50,000.

Dead corporation

In December 2006, the Texas Secretary of State suspended Cherbonay's corporate charter for failure to comply with annual public-information and franchise-tax rules. Under Texas law, Cherbonay is a dead corporation.

In February, city code inspectors visited the apartment building and found it in compliance with health and safety codes.

In April, one apartment resident said, Mr. Jones began getting Marsalis tenants to sign lease agreements – a HUD requirement. Another resident and two former residents who lived in the apartments after the renovation said they never had leases.

All four said they paid $250 to $350 per month for a one-bedroom apartment shared with another paying tenant. The rent was half or nearly half of their monthly income – above the maximum rent HUD allows.

Contacted by The News, Mr. Jones refused to release financial records for his nonprofits, including paperwork for federal tax-exemption.

"I have to show my books to a reporter?" he said in May. "Have you asked to look at anybody else's?"

"I can't give you what I don't have," he said in June.

He and his wife have since not responded to repeated written requests for information.

In June, the IRS said neither nonprofit has filed any 990 tax returns, which are required for nonprofits that take in more than $25,000 per year.

Ms. Campbell, HUD's spokeswoman, said agency officials are concerned. But she added that HUD has no documentation that it is anything but a success.

"The property was properly rehabilitated and the nonprofit corporation that's receiving the funds has done their contract, as far as we know," she said. "We're concerned about this because the 811 program is a really successful program. It's been successful for many years. It's helping many people."

Neither Mr. Jones' criminal history nor his marriage to the executive director of Community of Family and Friends was disclosed to HUD, Ms. Campbell said. The relationship also would be "something we would look into" as a possible conflict of interest, she said, because Mr. Jones sold the apartment building to the nonprofit and was paid through federal funds.

Ms. Campbell confirmed Friday that agency auditors did visit the project Thursday for a management review. She declined to say what they found, noting that they will take several weeks to prepare a report and then ask the nonprofit for further comment.

"HUD takes allegations of fraud and mismanagement very seriously," she said. "When allegations are appropriately substantiated, they are referred to HUD's Office of Inspector General for investigation."

Ms. O'Hara, the housing expert, expressed disbelief that HUD didn't spot potential problems sooner. "I'm shocked," she said, "that HUD would fund such a shoddy application."

Read more in the Dallas Morning News

Letter to Hud shows signs of forgery

Dozens of lawmakers failing to meet ethics rules - Analysis shows lawmakers rarely report details of campaign credit card spending

By R.G. RATCLIFFE and LISE OLSEN - Houston Chronicle - Sun. Aug. 12, 2007
The Texas Ethics Commission has fined three legislators in the last year for failing to properly disclose credit card expenses charged to their campaigns, but a Houston Chronicle review has found that dozens of other lawmakers have done the same without being sanctioned.

Texas legislators slapped down the plastic to charge more than $1 million in political expenses since January 2005, but failed to disclose who actually received the bulk of the money, nearly $900,000, the analysis shows.

The Chronicle's review of ethics commission records between Jan. 1, 2005, and June 30 found few complying with a 1981 law that requires disclosure of the person or company that receives a credit card payment and the purpose of the expense.

But because the ethics commission only audits candidates when it receives a sworn complaint, most lawmakers have gotten a pass on how they report their credit card spending, the Chronicle found.

The lawmakers who have been fined include:

Rep. Jonn Davis, R-Clear Lake, who received a $1,000 fine last November for failing to explain $42,000 in credit card charges over two years.

And Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, who was hit in June with an $8,500 fine — one of the largest fines to arise from a sworn complaint in the commission's history — for failing to detail $80,800 in political spending during a two-year period.

Belated transparency
The commission's disciplinary actions and related advisories that were sent to candidates have prompted some — such as likely U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, who had more than $19,000 in unspecified charges — to amend their reports to disclose the details.
The Chronicle found that Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, had the most undisclosed credit card charges, with $88,000 in payments that are detailed only with phrases such as "campaign expenses" or "charges for swearing-in ceremony."

Uresti defeated Sen. Frank Madla in the Democratic primary last year in part by attacking his lavish campaign spending.

Uresti said his disclosure shortcomings arose from a fast-paced political year in which he was charging campaign expenses to his credit card and then raising the money to pay for them. He said he is going through his expenses now to file amended reports.

"It's a tedious task," Uresti said. "It's not like we're trying to hide anything. It has to be done."

Before amending his reports, Noriega had $19,300 in unspecified credit card expenditures. About half of the charges occurred while Noriega's wife, Houston City Councilwoman Melissa Noriega, was serving for him in the Legislature while he was deployed with the National Guard in Afghanistan.

Noriega consultant James Aldrete said Noriega became aware that his reports were not correct when the ethics commission sent out a "tips" sheet in June on common errors in campaign finance reports and how to avoid them, including not detailing credit cards.

Aldrete said Noriega amended the reports as quickly as possible.

"He made a concerted effort to catch up on that."

Since 1981, state law has required politicians to make full financial disclosure of political expenses. When the ethics commission was created in 1991, one of the first things it did was adopt a rule that said: "A report of a political expenditure by credit card must identify the vendor who receives payment from the card company."

When a politician creates a political committee, the treasurer receives a two-page letter from the ethics commission directing that person to the commission's Web site for information on state laws, commission rules and directions on how to fill out the campaign reports.

But the lion's share of credit card charges are still reported merely as payments to American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa, among others.

In the 1980s, former Attorney General Jim Mattox broadly interpreted the state law for himself as allowing him to report only his payments to the credit card companies. Mattox said the law was not intended to force politicians to let the media or their opponents know how they were spending their campaign money.

Ethics Commission Vice Chairman Tom Harrison, who was the agency's executive director from 1995 to 2003, said Mattox's attitude is why the commission rule was adopted to clearly spell out how disclosure should be done.

"Just showing Visa or MasterCard for tens of thousands of dollars doesn't show you whether the money was spent on political advertising," Harrison said. "It's kind of like hiding behind the credit card."

'Good library, poor cop'
Campaign finance reform advocate Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, said politicians have little incentive to meet the requirements of the law because the ethics commission does not audit reports without a sworn complaint.

"The Texas Ethics Commission is a pretty darn good library, but a pretty poor cop," McDonald said.

Commission Chairman Raymond "Tripp" Davenport III said the commission can start auditing campaigns when the Legislature funds the staff to do it. He said the staff now has its hands full handling complaints.

Harrison said he believes the complaint system is working well.

"We have what I call 'sore losers' who go in and scan the reports of the winners, and we've got people in the general public who have taken it upon themselves to scan the reports and file complaints with the commission," Harrison said.

It was citizen complaints that resulted in the fines against Kuempel and Davis.

The commission in June also issued fines of $800 against Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, and $3,600 against former state Rep. Bob Griggs, R-North Richland Hills, for failure to report the details of credit card purchases.

As part of the ethics commission investigation, Kuempel amended his reports to disclose his expenses.

Some of his newly disclosed expenses included travel to help re-elect President Bush in 2004 and meals with constituents in Seguin.

Kuempel's amended reports also showed that he has used his campaign credit cards to pay for $7,152 in travel to legislative conferences and then repaid the money when he was reimbursed by the Texas House. His original report showed the credit card expenses but not the reimbursements, which appeared on an optional page listing credits in his amended reports.

The commission also found Kuempel had violated state law by using $2,500 in campaign funds for personal items in 2004. That included a $1,300 airplane ticket for his wife and a $70 purchase at the Jockey underwear store.

Kuempel said the problems with his report were nothing more than an accounting problem.

"We thought we were doing them correctly, but we weren't," Kuempel said. "It wasn't anybody's fault but mine."

Kuempel's accountant, Tim Fox, said he is unhappy that Kuempel got fined because he thought he was disclosing the credit card charges the way the ethics commission staff told him to six years ago.

Fox said the personal expenditures were never a misuse of campaign funds because Kuempel used the campaign credit card for personal charges and then reimbursed the campaign for the expenses.

"It's a wash," Fox said.

Davis also amended his reports as part of a commission investigation last year.

Some of what he had not previously disclosed included a $2,538 hotel bill at the Gaylord Texas Resort while attending a legislative conference; $887 in constituent gifts from the Texas Capitol Gift Shop; and more than $5,000 in meals at a variety of restaurants.

Davis consultant Allen Blakemore said Davis had tried to follow the law and filed corrected reports when he was told he was wrong.

John Cobarruvias is a Clear Lake political activist and blogger who was one of the first to disclose problems with Davis' reports, including the use of $1,500 in campaign funds to purchase custom-made cowboy boots. The ethics commission in February ruled the boots were a personal conversion of campaign funds and fined Davis $1,000.

Cobarruvias said that the widespread credit card use and potential abuse in dozens of lawmakers' campaign finance reports in Texas show just how ineffective the TEC is.

"We have always heard that the ethics commission was toothless and worthless," he said. "It's worse than that. I think they're incompetent."

Blakemore said that most politicians' reports are not produced in a sinister attempt to hide spending.

Volunteer help
He said honest mistakes occur because most legislators typically cannot afford professionals. Blakemore said the reports are filled out "typically by using volunteers and family members with little or no training."
That is the case of state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, whose 72-year-old mother produces his campaign finance reports. Coleman had $50,000 in credit card charges that did not detail the expenses.

"I can't fire my mother," Coleman joked.

Coleman said his mother found the ethics commission's electronic filing software difficult to use to show that the payee was a company rather than the credit card firm. Coleman gave all his campaign bills to the Chronicle to show he had not misused the money, and he promised to file amended reports.

But if Coleman's mother had trouble with the software, imagine the embarrassment of Galveston CPA Bill Ansell, who files the reports for Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston. Eiland had $56,000 in undetailed credit card expenses.

Ansell said Eiland gave him all the information and that sometimes his staff filled in the disclosure software correctly and sometimes it did not.

"It (the software) is built to accommodate expenses paid by check. So to do credit cards, you have to revise and devise," Ansell said. "It's certainly not Craig's fault."

Eiland said amended reports will be filed as soon as possible to keep him in compliance.

"If there's a fine, we'll pay it," Eiland said.

According to reports filed by three legislators fined by the Texas Ethics Commission, here are some charged expenses that previously went undisclosed:

State Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, fined $8,500
• $2,666 in travel to campaign for President Bush's re-election in 2004
• $1,470 in travel to Montana for an Association of General Contractors meeting

• $270 to entertain constituents at Ciros Cocktail Bar in Seguin

• $522 in lunches with constituents at El Ranchito in Seguin

• $4,623 for legislative meals at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse Houston

State Rep. John Davis, R-Clear Lake, fined $1,000
• $4,638.62 for a year's worth of gas.
• $2,538 hotel bill at the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine for 2005 legislative conference.
• $887 in gifts from the Texas Capitol Gift Shop.

State Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, fined $800
• $423.49 for hotel stays and meals in 2006 at the Austin Clarion Inn.
Source: Reports at the Texas Ethics Commission
Houston Chronicle reporter Chase Davis contributed to this report.
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School boards in legal limbo over expression law

By Martha Deller and Jessamy Brown - Star-Telegram Staff Writers - Fri, Aug. 10, 2007
A new law meant to create more opportunities for students to express religious viewpoints in public schools has left Texas school districts in a quandary.

The Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, which passed during the spring legislative session, gives districts until Sept. 1 to adopt a policy designating school events where a public forum will be provided for students who want to speak.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, took the unusual step of including a model policy for school districts to adopt.

"We thought it would be very, very simple for them," said Houston attorney Kelly Coghlan, who drafted the law and the model policy. "They could look at the legislation, adopt the policy, and by adopting the policy they would be in complete compliance with the law."

But school district attorneys aren't so sure.

Some are certain that the law conflicts with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and will lead schools straight to the courthouse.

"Both sides are going to sue," said Dennis Eichelbaum, an Austin attorney whose firm represents about 100 Texas school districts, including Castleberry in River Oaks.

"You may have the ACLU on one side saying this promotes prayer, and you may have Liberty Legal Institute on the other side saying you can't discriminate against this person based on their religious viewpoint."

Districts are getting conflicting advice on adopting a policy to comply with the law.

The Texas Association of School boards has written a sample policy for districts that differs from the model policy, prompting Coghlan to warn school districts that adopting the TASB policy could open them up to lawsuits.

What districts are doing

This week, the Carroll school district's attorney and administrators backed off their original recommendation that the school board adopt the TASB policy.

On Monday, the district's attorneys advised using the model policy, so administrators changed their recommendation and canceled a school board discussion that night.

"We are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. We feel like our best position is to go with the state version," said Derek Citty, Carroll's assistant superintendent for administrative services. "We are trying to the do the right thing by our kids and do something we can defend legally."

Cleburne school officials followed a similar path before deciding to adopt the model policy.

"We were considering the model one, then we looked at the alternative one, then we went back to the model one," Assistant Superintendent Carolyn Cody said.

The Castleberry school district will not adopt the model policy, Superintendent Gary Jones said.

The district plans to adopt either the TASB policy or a version written by Eichelbaum's law firm.

The Grapevine-Colleyville, Mansfield and Arlington school districts, like most others, have not made a decision. The Fort Worth school board will discuss the law at its meeting Tuesday.

Many districts won't have a policy in place by the deadline because "there has not been enough time to make an informed decision," said Joy Baskin, TASB's director of legal services.

Howard, the state representative, said he was surprised by the controversy when he recently returned after nearly a month out of state.

"I understand that the Texas Association of School Boards wants to rewrite the law, which is not their prerogative," Howard said.

Districts do not have to adopt the model policy, so long as they adopt a policy that follows the law.

But in hindsight, Howard said, it might have been better for the Legislature to mandate the model policy because some "renegade administrators may think they don't have to follow the law."

"That's why we have lawsuits," he said.

Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act

Questions and answers about the new law, the model policy and the TASB policy.

What does the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act require?

A school district must adopt a policy that designates school events where students can speak publicly in any capacity. Graduation is the only event that must be included in that list. Districts may designate other events.

The policy must include "neutral criteria" for selecting students who will speak publicly at the event(s).

Districts can adopt the model policy that accompanies the law, the policy drafted by the Texas Association of School Boards or a policy drafted by their own attorneys.

What are some provisions in the model policy that accompanies the law?

Student speakers will introduce football games, and make opening announcements during the school day and other events to be designated by the district.

Students who are eligible to speak include those in the top two grades of the school who are student council officers, class officers in the school's highest grade, football team captains and students in other positions of honor designated by the district.

Students who meet those criteria and volunteer to speak publicly will have their names drawn randomly and assigned to speak at one of the events.

A student must stay on the subject of the event and may not engage in obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd or indecent speech.

The district will state orally or in writing that the district does not endorse the student's speech.

How does the alternative policy drafted by the Texas Association of School Boards differ from the model policy?

Student speakers will be given a forum once a week. They will introduce student pledges and the required daily moment of silence, and they will be given a 30-second forum after the pledges and moment of silence. There is no mention of football games in the TASB policy.

Students who are eligible to speak include those in the highest two grades of the school who are not in a disciplinary placement at the time of the event.

A student must stay on the subject of the event and may not engage in speech that is obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd or indecent; that promotes illegal drug use; that creates cause to believe it will interfere with school activities or others' rights; that violates intellectual property, privacy or personal rights; that defames another person; or that advocates or is likely to incite lawless action.

The TASB policy defines the phrase "to publicly speak" as addressing an audience at a school event using the student's own words in a message that has not been approved in advance. It also states that a public forum for student speech will not be created at events where other students are merely making brief introductions or announcements.

Reactions from two attorneys:

Kelly Coghlan, the Houston attorney who wrote the state's model policy, says the TASB's definition of "to publicly speak" would let school districts avoid the required public forum altogether by simply requiring all student introductions and speeches to be approved in advance. "The act is entirely thwarted and turned on its head via the TASB definitions," Coghlan wrote on his Web site.

Dennis Eichelbaum, an Austin attorney whose law firm represents Texas school districts, says the model policy is an attempt to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Doe vs. Santa Fe ISD, in which the court held that the Santa Fe, Texas, district's policy of broadcasting student-led prayers at football games was unconstitutional.

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E-voting machines under fire in Tarrant

By AMAN BATHEJA - Star-Telegram staff writer - Sun, Aug. 12, 2007
Electronic voting machines are under fire around the country because of security concerns, and the growing outcry may lead to changes in the machines used in Tarrant County.

The California secretary of state recently banned the use of several voting machines, including the types used here. The machines cannot be used in California in next year's elections unless extra security measures are put in place.

The move followed a report highlighting work by University of California researchers who hacked into three widely used electronic voting machines. The report found vulnerabilities in all the machines, including Hart InterCivic's eSlate and eScan systems used in Tarrant County.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, plans a hearing in September on the report. She and other Democrats in Congress are trying to pass a bill requiring all voting machines in the country to be outfitted with a voter-verifiable paper backup.

"I was very surprised to read how easily these machines could be hacked into and election results distorted," Feinstein said in a statement.

Disputed findings

Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn said the study was done under unrealistic circumstances.

"Right now, I don't have any undue concerns," he said.

Among the study's findings, researchers found a way to trick Hart's electronic voting machine to generate the same vote multiple times.

On the eScan machines, which digitally scan paper ballots and count the votes, researchers bypassed some of the machine's defenses and predicted that, given more time, they could have altered the vote tally.

Some of the methods researchers used to infiltrate the machines were "low-tech and required tools that could be found in a typical office," according to the report.

Hart InterCivic has disputed the study, calling a test in which researchers had unfettered access unrealistic.

Raborn agreed, noting the researchers didn't factor in the security procedures counties have put in place, including locks and numbered seals on the machines.

Security concerns

For all the focus on paper trails, some remain skeptical about whether they will make electronic voting machines more secure.

A report released last month by the New York University School of Law and the University of California at Berkeley School of Law said paper trails give only an illusion of security. Many states that employ them aren't doing enough to ensure that the tallies from the electronic machines match the paper results, the report said.

"It's obvious and easy to imagine how you can go about compromising a machine and make it appear on the paper trail that it wasn't compromised," said Jerry Lobdill, a Fort Worth Democratic activist whose research on the issue was published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and was cited in the report. "It's just a technical nightmare, really."

On the trail

Many voting rights activists hope the renewed attention on voting machines will lead to Texas adding paper-trail systems to its electronic voting machines.

Considering the options

A paper backup would consist of a cash register-style printer in a sealed case attached to each machine. Voters could check their ballots against receipts. The paper trail could then be consulted in the event of a recount.

Stumbling blocks

The major obstacle to the move has been the Texas secretary of state's office, which is required to approve all election equipment in Texas but has refused to validate any paper-trail systems.

Former Secretary of State Roger Williams has said all the systems on the market are susceptible to compromising the secrecy of voters' ballots. Scott Haywood, a spokesman for the secretary of state, could not say how Williams' recent replacement, Phil Wilson, would act on the issue.

Legal wrangling

The Tarrant County Democratic Party and four local voters filed a federal lawsuit last year in Tarrant County against the secretary of state, claiming that the electronic voting machines used in the county are unconstitutional and violate federal law without a paper trail.

In December, both sides agreed to put the suit on hold until June to see whether the Legislature would pass a bill requiring paper trails. None of several such bills filed became law. Art Brender, chairman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, said he is pursuing the case. Another federal suit was filed by the Texas Democratic Party.

Looking ahead

Thirty states require voter-verifiable paper records. Several members of Congress have said they want to require paper trails on all voting machines nationwide by 2008. Most have since agreed that a 2010 deadline is more feasible.

Whether any voting machine legislation will make it to President Bush's desk this year is unclear.

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