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Left Field

La Familia, Cop Call, The Bush Beat & Le Death Penalty
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La Familia

Laredo National Bank wants a retraction — and $10 million. The retraction would clear the good name of Mexico’s Grupo Hank, which bought into the Laredo bank and at one time controlled 70 percent of the its assets. The quarterly Latino journal El Andar, based in California, reported that the Hank family amassed some of its fortune in criminal enterprises — as well as banking and transportation enterprises that it takes credit for. It’s the reporting on the Hanks’ “criminal enterprises” that the bank (represented by the San Antonio firm of Davis, Cedillo, and Mendoza) wants retracted. The $10 million, the bank’s attorney Richard Cedillo writes in his demand letter to El Andar, will be used “to offset legal fees and expenses incurred in prosecuting your false and defamatory article worldwide.”

“Worldwide” might be a stretch, but the Hank family, previously untouchable by the Mexican press, is getting more negative coverage than it ever experienced at home — in the form of secondhand reporting of the El Andar story in Mexican news outlets. (One of the oldest rules of journalism: if you can’t report it yourself, report what was reported somewhere else.)

The Hank business combine is led by family patriarch Carlos Hank Gonzalez, a former Governor of the state of Mexico and a power broker in the dinosaurio faction of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). It was one of Hank’s sons, Carlos Hank Rhon, who bought into Laredo National Bank.

El Andar editor Julie Reynolds told Left Field that the magazine refused to comply with the demand that publication of the article be stopped. (Grupo Hank filed suit before the magazine published the article, in response to an El Andar press release outlining the story. The Hanks have also recently threatened to sue the Washington Post and the Canadian Broadcasting Company.)

In his demand letter, Cedillo insisted that “the Hank family has never been accused of any wrongdoing involving drug or money-laundering activities.” In July of this year, however, a confidential report by the National Center for Drug Intelligence was leaked to the press and published in the Mexican daily El Financiero and the Washington Post. The report concluded: “Grupo Hank poses a significant criminal threat to the United States. Its multibillion-dollar criminal and business empire, developed over several decades, reaches throughout Mexico and into the United States.”

Reynolds says Laredo National does not acknowledge the existence of the report. Lawyers from the bank did not return phone calls from Left Field. Reynolds speculated that the San Antonio law firm has been swamped with phone calls from Mexico since the El Andar story was picked up by the Mexican wire services, and therefore the lawyers have stopped commenting on the article and threatened lawsuit.

Department of Corrections

What do Kuwait City, Saigon, and Wimberley have in common? Left Field is still scratching its head over that conundrum, after an early November phone call from Regis DeArza, the commander of the Hays County Narcotics Task Force. DeArza was apparently delivering the official response to Nate Blakeslee’s investigative report on the shooting death of Wimberley resident Rusty Windle by a task force member last May (“Zero Tolerance,” October 29). Windle was shot by one of nine officers who surrounded his house before dawn to serve warrants on a charge of delivery of two half-ounce bags of pot. Before being shot, he allegedly came to the door with a rifle and pointed it at two of the officers.

In a five-minute tirade, DeArza (who phoned to object to the Observer’s “irresponsible journalism”) managed to cite as military precedent the 82nd Airborne Division, the Gulf War, and the Vietnam War. By the time he hung up (without saying goodbye), the one-sided exchange had revealed less about the Observer’s reporting than it had about the mindset of law enforcement in Hays County.

According to DeArza (who was not present at the raid), ski masks were not worn by the police at Windle’s house that night. Yet in two separate interviews with suspects whose residences were also raided that night, the sources reported that ski masks were worn by the black-uniformed task force officers serving the warrants. DeArza angrily declined to answer whether or not it was standard procedure for task force members to wear the masks, insisting only that none were worn at Windle’s house. He also noted that his task force works with only one A.T.F. agent, not two. That was it for corrections. In fact, DeArza was more concerned with what he considers omissions from the story.

In DeArza’s editorial judgment, for example, the story omitted crucial information: DeArza’s own police and military resume. The task force commander pointed out forcibly that he is a 31-year law-enforcement veteran, a former D.P.S. anti-narcotics officer, a former assistant director in the Governor’s narcotics control program, and a Vietnam veteran. Likewise, DeArza said, one of the officers at the door that night served during the Gulf War (in the 82nd Airborne Division).

DeArza took particular exception to the report that Windle’s gun was later found to be unloaded (although he did not dispute that it was). “I’ve had plenty of guns pointed in my face over the last twenty-five odd years, my friend,” he recalled angrily, “and when you’ve got a gun in your face, I’d like you to be able to tell me whether that son of a bitch is loaded or not.” DeArza was kind enough to offer our reporter the opportunity to serve as “point man” on the next raid, although he did not wait for a reply: “We’ll let you go up and knock on the door, Nate. We’ll let you do it, okay!? Punk!” With that, he slammed down the phone.

Left Field gives credit where it is due: DeArza’s explanation of how Rusty Windle came to be shot dead that night was more forthright than that offered by Detective Chase Stapp, the officer who actually shot him. Stapp, now DeArza’s assistant commander, was interviewed by the Observer in October, before we obtained the Texas Rangers incident report that confirmed Windle’s gun was unloaded. Asked how he had managed to get off four shots, while Windle (who allegedly had the drop on him with an assault rifle) never fired a round, Stapp replied, “That’s a good question. I guess we’ll never know the answer to it, will we?” Stapp, of course, knew the answer moments after he shot and killed Windle.

DeArza’s abrupt farewell also leaves Left Field with more than a few real unanswered questions. What does he know about Windle that his friends and family never did? What might drive a young man, with only a couple of misdemeanors on his record, to take on nine cops with an unloaded weapon, over a couple of fourth-degree felony warrants?

And why does the Hays County Narcotics Task Force require nine cops and black paramilitary uniforms to serve warrants on non-violent, low-level drug offenses? And what, we ask again, do Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the 82nd Airborne have to do with a sleepy resort community on the Blanco River? Regis DeArza has served in both Vietnam and Wimberley, so he ought to know the answer. Come to think of it, maybe he is the answer.

“Focus! Focus!”

Austin reporter Robert Bryce is one of the most dogged journalists in Texas (see “Nicotine Fit,” page 8), for whom no story ever seems to end. While researching the tobacco story involving Attorney General John Cornyn and Governor George Bush, Bryce turned up an odd confluence of money that has the Bush campaign paying almost $1 million to two political consulting firms owned by Ted Delisi — the Attorney General’s press spokesperson — and a business partner.

The relationships get pretty incestuous, as the money has moved first from the Bush campaign to what had been Karl Rove & Co., the direct-mail and consulting service owned by Rove. Rove has worked as a political adviser to Bush for years, and in the spring his boss asked him to sell his profitable business if he wanted to continue working on the presidential campaign.

Ted Delisi is the son of State Representative Dianne White Delisi, a Republican from Temple. Delisi serves on the Appropriations Committee, and if she ever were to face a serious opponent, might be in need of the services of the consulting firm run by her son. Son Ted, in addition to his official public labors on behalf of Attorney General John Cornyn, is the co-owner, with Todd Olsen (a registered lobbyist), of Olsen & Delisi (formerly Karl Rove & Co.) and Praxis List Company. Rove himself has previously worked for Phil Gramm, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and George Herbert Walker Bush (the former president). He also worked as a consultant for Philip Morris — the cigarette company, not the state rep.

Rove wasn’t too eager to sell his company, at least according to his sister, who spoke to Dallas Observer reporter Miriam Rozen for a profile of Rove in May of this year. Rove’s sister suggested that her brother’s hasty sale of his business might have cost him some money. But Rove told Michael Holmes of the Associated Press he was selling because Bush “didn’t want my focus diluted.”

Bryce called the A.G.’s press office to see if Delisi’s focus might be diluted by the political jobs he was holding while working for Cornyn. “It would not be appropriate for me to comment on this while I’m here,” he told Bryce. “I’ll have to call you back later from my cell phone.” Delisi never did call back, but Bryce’s story must have sharpened his focus. A week after it ran he resigned from Cornyn’s staff.

La Justice Americaine

“Past its prime,” a French journalist from Euronews said of Marie Claire. The monthly women’s fashion magazine does some good reporting, she added. “But it’s mostly fashion, with some news features, and sometimes it’s sensationalist.”

August’s issue fit that description, in particular the department “Le monde en face,” which includes: a lead feature about the neglect of French women by mainstream medicine; a photo-driven essay about smart, hip, young Japanese women and their problems finding and adapting to the birth control pill recently introduced there (as a result of Japanese women’s complaints that Viagra was approved in Japan in less than a year, while la pilule had been unavailable for four decades); a travel feature that took readers to a legendary beach resort which twenty years ago was a “new Nirvana known for culinary orgies and torrid nights” — and a long article on the death penalty in America.

Any article on the death penalty in America must inevitably find its way to Texas, and the report by journalist Nathalie Gathie is no exception. Two pages of the six-page feature are dedicated to death in Texas, and the feature begins with a screened monochromatic image of the Texas death chamber. There’s little news here for anyone who pays any attention to the quotidian grind of the executioner’s machinery in the U.S. There’s a story about Mumia Abu-Jamal, this country’s most celebrated death-row inmate. And a story about an epistolary relationship between a French woman and Robert Carter — who was executed at Huntsville last year, while his French companion stood by as a witness. There’s also a box with statistics on U.S. executions since 1976.

What is newsworthy is Gathie’s report of a French village adopting a death-row inmate in Texas.

Françoise Débéda — and her husband Claude, who is the Mayor of their small French village — began a local campaign to raise money for the defense of Farley Matchett, a 36-year-old African American convicted of killing a white man in 1991. The reporter, in a straightforward if somewhat editorial voice, describes Matchett’s trial as “a legal masquerade,” and “a process pushed through in five hours by a judge known as ‘the lynchman.’” Matchett, she writes, was convicted by a jury made up of eleven whites and one black. Not out of the ordinary in Texas, the reporter writes, where race is a big factor in who is prosecuted and executed.

The Débédas have collected 50,000 francs for Matchett’s appeal, while an additional 300,000 francs have been collected as the effort grew beyond the village. Matchett is represented by Austin attorney David Botsford, although he is identified in the story only as “maître Botsford, an attorney with a good reputation.”

Execution stories have become background noise in the U.S. Perhaps the best hope for paying for legal counsel for death-row appeals lies in European “adoption” schemes similar to those that appear in American magazines — where for a few cents per day an American couple can adopt a child in the Third World.

How much to adopt a death-row convict in the U.S.? The Débédas even have the requisite photo of Matchett in their living room. “He could be one of our sons,” said the Mayor.