Back to mobile

Blogs

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels
Rick Perry speaks outside the Travis County courthouse Thursday, August 19, 2014.

Rick Perry’s one of the best politicians around when he can play to a friendly crowd, but lately we haven’t gotten to see much of that. He’s a lame duck, after all. He doesn’t speak much in public in Texas anymore; he’s spending a lot of time in Iowa and South Carolina. So it’s been easy to forget that this is a guy whose tenure as governor is entering its teenage years for good reason—in the right setting, he is excellent at rousing a crowd.

The “right setting” apparently includes the courthouse where he’s being indicted for twin felonies. The drama that started last Friday will go on, presumably, for a long time. But make no bones about it—Perry’s winning the first act. Today, Perry got booked at the Travis County Justice Complex. He got fingerprinted, and got his mugshot taken. And he embarked on one of the most audacious adventures in modern American politics—can Rick Perry use twin felony indictments as a springboard into the White House?

Maybe that’s a stretch, but things are going very well for him so far. Of course, there’s the small caveat that the indictment just came down.

But in a defiant speech, Perry told the crowd—a mixture of the Texas press corps, a variety of left and right political types, and a handful of supporters, some of whom were beckoned here by Sid Miller (and who could ask for a better character witness than Sid Miller?)—that he would do it all again.

Perry spoke before and after he entered the courthouse. He was “standing for the rule of law” when he pressured Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign. The indictments were an “attack on our system of government,” and his legal team would “prevail.” He thanked the crew at the courthouse who booked him for their “great professionalism.” It was slightly less fiery than his press conference Saturday, when he seemed to threaten special prosecutor Michael McCrum with consequences for his grave overreach—but only slightly.

rickperrybooking3

There’s no Perry like Perry on attack. Could he come out of this better than he went in to it? Maybe. A few high-ranking Texas Democrats, who hope otherwise, were in attendance today. Will Hailer, the Democratic Party’s executive director, spoke to the media afterwards. Soon, Texas school kids would be heading back to class, Hailer said, and in civics classes across the state, they’d learn that their governor had been indicted.

Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, was also in attendance. He was less mournful. “The governor’s favorability is going up, not down,” he said. “This is absolutely going to help him.”

Munisteri added: “If he can resolve these charges before the Iowa caucuses, I think he’s gonna be a folk hero.” Could he still be president? “I think Gov. Perry’s going to run for president and I think he’s going to be a very strong contender.”

Those are strong words. The future leader of the free world celebrated his good day, as we all would, with ice cream.

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels

Judging from the reaction of national pundits and journalists, the verdict in the case of State of Texas vs. James Richard “Rick” Perry is already in: Rick Perry is not just innocent, he’s being railroaded by liberal Democrats in a vindictive, politically motivated prosecution. The rush to judgment happened almost immediately after the indictments came down on Friday, even as our friends in New York and Washington confessed that they knew little of Rick Perry’s legal troubles and in some cases hadn’t even read the two-page indictment, much less bothered to understand the issue in the larger political context. Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine called the indictment “unbelievably ridiculous” and fulminated that Perry “is exactly as guilty as” a “ham sandwich,” referring to the old saw that a good prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich.

On Twitter, top-shelf pundits were even more dismissive:

Obama adviser David Axelrod, who knows a thing about expansive executive authority, weighed in:

Axelrod’s tweets led to headlines such as “Rick Perry: Even David Axelrod Thinks Indictment Is ‘Sketchy.’

The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson wrote that she “felt sorry” for Rick Perry and compared the case against the governor to the congressional Republicans’ lawsuit against Barack Obama.

Even legal analysts seemed strangely lazy about the whole thing. UC-Irvine law professor and blogger Rick Hasen admitted he hadn’t “studied Texas law or the indictment closely enough” but nonetheless went on to make the sweeping claim that the indictment represents the “criminalization of politics.”

Among elite commentators, this seems to be the emerging consensus—that the pursuit of Perry somehow was a fundamental departure from legal norms and represents an attack on the very practice of politics. Incidentally, this is precisely the line that Rick Perry is taking. On Saturday, he called  the prosecution a “farce” and lamented that “some would use partisan political theatrics to rip away at the very fabric of our state’s constitution.”

Since uninformed speculation is apparently the coin of the realm, allow me to opine on what I think is going on. In the last few months, political reporters have begun writing the Rick Perry 2.0 Comeback story. National Journal had a particularly credulous piece—titled “The New Rick Perry”—that spent more than a thousand words allowing Perry to explain his decision to adopt those MSNBC glasses. More significantly, the piece basically chucked out almost everything we’ve learned about Rick Perry over his decades in politics to posit that he’s suddenly, mutatis mutandis, some sort of serious “bipartisan uniter” who’s shucked off the focus groups and polling and is finally just being his charming, fun-loving awesome self. It’s at best meta-level campaign bullshit, but this is how political journalism is practiced. The indictment—and the possibility that Perry could be knocked out of the running and even facing prison time because he’s a corrupt bully—blows a giant hole in the script.

There’s also a tendency on the part of political journalists to criticize anything that sanitizes the bloodsport of partisan politics. Like those football fans who belly-ache about new safety-conscious rules that “sissify” the game, political junkies are wedded to the idea that all’s fair in politics. That’s one reason, I think, why the press outside of Texas has been so incapable of seeing this through anything other than a partisan lens. The zealousness with which that line has been pursued—and reinforced by Perry’s allies—has led to some serious factual blunders and misconceptions. In the interest of trying to bring this episode back to reality, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Partisan Democrats Are Not Leading the Perry Prosecution

The criminal complaint against Perry was filed in June 2013 by the liberal Texans for Public Justice but it was assigned to a Republican judge in Bexar County who appointed Michael McCrum—a former police officer and prosecutor in the George H.W. Bush administration—as special prosecutor. McCrum was previously tapped by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (both conservative Republicans) to be the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas. There is no evidence that McCrum has a partisan axe to grind—quite the contrary.

The Travis County DA’s office, including Rosemary Lehmberg, had nothing to do with the indictment.

It’s Not About Rosemary Lehmberg’s Disgraceful Behavior… Or Even Perry’s Veto

As much as Perry and some in the media would like to make this about Lehmberg’s outrageous drunk driving—Perry’s legal team played a tape of her buffoon-ish behavior at the jail—the legal case against Perry is not about that.

I was someone who thought Lehmberg should have resigned for the simple reason that it is unseemly for a prosecutor guilty of drunk driving to send people to jail for the same crime. However, the process for removing Lehmberg is a local one. The local system opted not to remove her and Lehmberg pleaded guilty and went to jail. She plans to step down at the end of her term.

The Travis County DA is no different, in almost every respect, than the more than 300 local elected prosecutors in Texas. She is locally elected and is a servant of the jurisdiction she represents. The only thing unique about the Travis County DA’s office is that it contains the Public Integrity Unit, which polices corruption in state government. Practically speaking, this anti-corruption unit is one of the few checks on the power and influence Perry has accumulated over 14 years in office.

The Public Integrity Unit is largely funded by the Texas Legislature. That money isn’t earmarked for Rosemary Lehmberg; it’s earmarked for the oversight function of the Travis County DA’s Public Integrity Unit. It is that money that Perry threatened to line-item veto if Lehmberg did not resign. When she did not, and Travis County opted not to remove her, Perry then yanked the funding. Afterwards, he continued to make offers to restore the funding in exchange for Lehmberg’s resignation, according to media reports. One account says he signaled that he would find Lehmberg another well-paying job within the DA’s office. Had she resigned, Perry would have appointed her successor.

The criminal case against Perry centers on his “coercion” of a local elected official using threats and promises. It is not premised—as has been repeatedly misreported—on the veto itself. Craig McDonald, the head of Texans for Public Justice and the original complainant, has said as much. As McDonald told CNN:

“The governor is doing a pretty good job to try to make this about [Lehmberg] and her DWI conviction. But this has never been about his veto of her budget and about her. This is about his abuse of power and his coercion trying to get another public citizen to give up their job.”

There is a Lot We Don’t Know…Yet

It is quite possible that the case against Rick Perry will fizzle. Perhaps it is “flimsy” and “thin” and all the rest. Credible legal experts have said they think the prosecution will have a difficult time securing a conviction. However, none of us is privy to the evidence and testimony presented to the grand jury. According to Peggy Fikac of the San Antonio Express-News, McCrum said he “interviewed more than 40 people, reviewed hundreds of documents and read many dozens of cases.” Fikac and other reporters who staked out the courthouse long before the national press spent five minutes reading the indictment watched “current and former Perry staffers, Travis County employees and state lawmakers” entering the grand jury room over the summer.

It is possible that McCrum has gathered more information on Perry’s motives that will come to light later. Although the indictment doesn’t mention it, the Public Integrity Unit is investigating a scandal involving the $3 billion Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, a fund close to the governor’s office that suffered from cronyism and lax oversight. The Public Integrity Unit indicted one CPRIT official in December for deceiving his colleagues and awarding an $11 million grant to a Dallas biotech firm without a proper vetting.

What else, if anything, did McCrum turn up in his interviews and document search? At this point, we just don’t know.

This doesn’t make for explosive headlines but the fact is, we’re just going to have to wait and see how the case unfolds.

Lets-Be-Cops-poster

Let’s be cops!

Let’s just run with the premise of this weekend’s biggest box-office laugher. Let’s find a buddy and go on a little pro bono neighborhood patrol. Let’s assert a little authority around here!

We wouldn’t be the first to try it lately.

Let’s parade through Houston’s black communities in a crowd of white guys with guns!

“We think that an armed society is a polite society,” said Open Carry’s C.J. Grisham. “We want to encourage citizens in the Fifth Ward to take back their community from the criminal element.”

Let’s use philosophy!

“If people tell you not to exercise a right, do you not exercise that right,” asked Grisham.

Let’s explain why someone else’s neighborhood is better off with our assault weapons!

“I told him that emotions would run very high on the outset and that there were better ways to come into our community,” Quanell X says.

“I would never tell a black man or anyone that he is not welcome in any part of this country, but that’s what they did to us,” Grisham says.

“He needs to do some history homework. He will learn and see why black people don’t like white men coming to the Fifth Ward,” said Quanell X on Thursday. He points to a history of racial unrest in the area dating back decades, of night riders and blacks being told to get inside before sundown.

Well hey, let’s just hold off for now. Maybe let things cool down a little.

mclennan-county-sheriff-posse

Or let’s join a posse!

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara says he has been overwhelmed with community support after posting to social media his idea to form a “posse.”

“I’m very excited about it,” he said. “I’m overwhelmed by the response. I really am.”

mclennan-county-posse-facebook

Deputy Danie Huffman, the Parker County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, said she can’t say enough good things about the Parker County Sheriff’s Posse, which was formed in 1947.

“Posses these days are really not the same as posses years ago,” she said.

Let’s maybe consider this plan in light of the Texas Monthly 1998 story on McNamara’s previous posse, “The Last Posse“:

We don’t hang horse thieves anymore, which is lucky for the men who took Marisa McNamara’s sorrel mare. But as the band of old-time Texas lawmen who hunted them down will proudly tell you, frontier justice is alive and well.

I know, let’s join a militia! Let’s secure the border and give those drug lords what-for!

“What I was told is (the militia groups) are on private property, helping ranchers and owners to keep illegals coming onto or through their property … and there haven’t been any problems,” [State Rep. Doug] Miller told the Express-News. “When (the groups) are coming into an area, they’ve been very forthright, letting (law enforcement) know they were there so there wouldn’t be some type of negative interaction.”

 

So many places to protect! Where to go first? Let’s just vent our impotent rage for a bit!

east-texas-militia-facebook

 

Oh, holy crap. If this is a game warden, let’s be game wardens!

Let’s be politicians! Let’s loosen up our flag-print ties, throw on some tactical gear and take a gunboat cruise along the Rio Grande!

State Rep. Doug Miller (R-New Braunfels), right.
Doug Miller/Facebook
State Rep. Doug Miller (R-New Braunfels), right.

Let’s be governor! No. Commander-in-chief!

“You now are the tip of the spear in protecting Americans from these cartels and gangs,” Perry said in a visit to Camp Swift near Bastrop, where the Guard is training. “As they are able to get past you, they could be headed to any city, any neighborhood in this country, and they’re spreading their tentacles of crime and fear.”

Let’s better watch out for those other folks spreading fear!

Or let’s start our own country and just defend it ourselves!

A 60-year-old Corinth man who shot at officers and firefighters Monday in Far North Dallas espoused anti-government views and claimed to be starting his own nation called “Dougie-stan,” police said Tuesday.

Police say they had found no link between Douglas Lee LeGuin, a Corinth homeowner with no criminal past, and any specific anti-government groups or movements. There was also no clear link between LeGuin and the Far North Dallas house where police said he planned to “occupy” the new nation.

[...]

He also said he was upset with Dallas police for “shooting the mentally handicapped.”

 

Not that it’s done anything to dampen the political bluster, the border vigilanteism or the enthusiastic firepower parade here in Texas, but this really isn’t the week to play cops.

 

Troopers lead a woman out the Capitol's east doors Friday evening.
Patrick Michels
Troopers lead a woman out the Capitol's east doors during a contentious debate on House Bill 2.

House Bill 2, the sweeping anti-abortion bill shuttering clinics around the state, emerged last summer from a paroxysm of legislative and popular uproar—some of the most unusual events the Capitol had ever seen. But now that the bill’s snaking its way through the courts, spontaneity has given over to a grim legal march that’s likely to hold few surprises until it—or a measure like it—goes before the Supreme Court, too late to stop the cull of abortion providers in the state. Even if the bill’s supporters ultimately lose their legal defense of the measure, they’ve won.

On Wednesday, the two sides made closing arguments in the second of two legal efforts to reverse parts of HB 2. The first, which took place last year, challenged provisions in the bill that toughened restrictions around medication abortions, and required doctors to get admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. In that case, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel sided partially with abortion providers, but his ruling was quickly overturned by the conservative Fifth Circuit.

This time, a legal team representing a group of abortion providers challenged different provisions of the law in the same court, arguing that the admitting privileges requirement and a separate stipulation that abortion facilities be built to the standards of a surgical center would eliminate access to abortion in wide swathes of the state. Clinics in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso have been or will be shuttered, leaving Texans seeking abortion with the prospect of overnight trips to other parts of the state, or travel across state or national borders. The diminished access, the plaintiffs argued, would impose an unconstitutional “undue burden” on women seeking access to an abortion.

Yeakel seemed receptive to that argument—at times, he pushed the abortion providers’ attorney, Stephanie Toti, to go further. If it would be an undue burden for a poor woman seeking an abortion to travel 550 miles to abortion clinic, wouldn’t it also be an undue burden to travel 150 miles? Wouldn’t it be an undue burden even for a “wealthy woman in a Mercedes Benz who drives fast” if that woman had to take a day off work to get a medical procedure she could have received in her home town?

“I have a problem with believing that it’s reasonable to ask anyone to travel 150 miles to get medical care they could get closer to them,” Yeakel said. He pressed Toti: Was there any other medical procedure the state had limited access to so severely? Would it be acceptable to force someone to travel 150 miles to get treatment for a sprained ankle?

The state’s closing argument boiled down to a simple message to Yeakel: Your hands are tied. The Fifth Circuit ruling that overturned Yeakel’s decision, along with other Supreme Court rulings on abortion restrictions, left the judge with little discretion, argued Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell.

Mitchell seemed relaxed and comfortable as he made his closing argument: He was bowling with the bumpers on. Ignore the Fifth Circuit’s recent ruling, Mitchell argued, and the court would “issue a decision that will be overturned.” Yeakel can rule how he wants, but we know where the Fifth Circuit, overseen by hyper-conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, stands. Only the Supreme Court itself could sort out these concerns, and that will be some time away.

So unless the Fifth Circuit surprises just about everyone, the raft of abortion clinic regulations will go into effect on September 1, a little more than two weeks from now. Toti told the court that “less than seven” abortion clinics are fully in compliance with all parts of the new law: Ultimately, seven may be operating, all in major cities in the San Antonio-Houston-Dallas/Fort Worth triangle. Yeakel told the court that his opinion would be issued as soon as possible—but his ruling, if he chose to issue an injunction against parts of the law, could be itself overturned with equal speed.

Even if the matter is taken up by the Supreme Court and parts of the law are ultimately ruled unconstitutional, the bill will have done what supporters, like Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, promised it would: Gut access to legal abortion in Texas. A network of clinics and providers had been built up over time, and action by the Supreme Court, when and if it ultimately comes, can’t restore that. The legal challenges will continue to provide drama, but for pro-choicers, it’s a lose-lose.

Texas Rangers pose on a South Texas ranch in 1915 after one of their notorious "bandit raids."
The Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, image 00097, courtesy of The Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin
Texas Rangers pose on a South Texas ranch in 1915 after one of their notorious "bandit raids."

 
The far ends of our colorful political spectrum rarely cause me much worry. I trust the armed militias reportedly roaming the U.S.-Mexico border and the convoy of flag-waving protesters from Murrieta, California that traveled to the Rio Grande Valley will keep their rightful place on the fringe of our political conversation. It’s the center that I watch closely. That’s the contentious territory where ideas and notions from dark chapters in Texas history often reappear, redefining our sense of normalcy and decency.

The migration of extreme notions into the mainstream was recently laid bare in a Newsweek cover story that described ranchers who are “hunting humans” as simply “dealing first-hand with the problems caused by the influx of undocumented immigrants.” The piece, “Hunting Humans: The Americans Taking Immigration Into Their Own Hands” was reported from Brooks County some 70 miles north of the border in South Texas, and quotes three ranchers—Michael and Linda Vickers and another who went only by “B.J.” Not apparently comfortable enough to use her full name, B.J. refers to migrants as if they were prey.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” says B.J. with a grin, driving through ranch trails. Her Heckler & Koch P2000 pistol rests in the cup holder next to her right knee. She starts by looking for footprints—they are most noticeable on the sand tracks she has set up next to the trails that she smooths by dragging tires. When she sees a fresh set, she speeds through the trails, finds the migrants, chases after them until they tire out, corners them and then yells, “Pa’bajo!”—Spanish for down.

Seven years ago The Texas Observer reported, “like some other ranchers, [Michael] Vickers has installed a faucet near a windmill and painted it blue to make it easier for trespassers to find and drink from easily.”

That humanitarian provision, later described in the Newsweek article, is nonetheless part of an attitude that equates people with animals: “In any case, says Vickers, the windmills provide a water source which is safe for cattle, and therefore for migrants.”

Last year, U.S. News and World Report described Vickers’ group as “simply back-up for U.S. Border Patrol. The goal of the volunteers is not to engage with the ‘criminal trespassers,’ as they call them, but alert border patrol of their findings.” One year later, the ranchers are described as hunting migrants while laying out traps and chasing them down. Maybe these ranchers viewed the migrants not simply as trespassers but as prey all along and now they feel free to express such opinions. It’s difficult to know. But reporters who had interviewed the Vickers before told me they were alarmed at what they described as a sharp shift in rhetoric.

The press becomes complicit in ushering extreme ideas into the center when “hunting humans” is treated as acceptable behavior and counterbalanced with images of ranchers installing life-saving water barrels for migrants. It is a false balance.

Nearly 90 percent of the population in Brooks County is Latino, with five percent foreign born. Many ranches predate the U.S.-Mexico War. And when I read those quotes I’m reminded of the image of a group of Texas Rangers mounted on horseback, the ends of their rope tied around the ankles of three ‘Mexican bandits’ laying face down on the ground. Prized game. The image, captured near Brooks County a little over a century ago, was sold as a postcard and distributed widely.

Back then, the justification for hunting Mexicans was banditry and rebellion but, as history has shown, then as now, the concept of border security was woven from the dark thread of race. The Vickers were once associated with the Minutemen, the militia group described by former President George W. Bush as “vigilantes.” The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Minutemen and the Vickers’ ‘border volunteer’ outfit as a nativist extremist group.

From the media to the political arena the racially tinged side of “security” and normalized violence has found its way into the center. On July 5, just over two weeks before the Newsweek story was published, Bud Kennedy at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that a Facebook page created for GOP convention delegates included statements such as:“Americans are not breeding while ‘the bronze master races is’… We will die out and they will win.” Kennedy told me some readers complained that he had overstated the importance of Facebook comments. But the page belonged to a faction of the Texas Republican Party that had been instrumental in shaping the state GOP platform. “What I’m concerned about is a Republican Party that has become infiltrated by John Birchers and white nationalists,” he said.

Brooks County Deputy Chief "Benny" Martinez
Jen Reel
Brooks County Deputy Chief “Benny” Martinez

Gov. Rick Perry cruises the Rio Grande with Sean Hannity, posing together on gunboats. The Dallas Morning News reported U.S. Rep Sam Johnson (R-TX) provoked laughter at a groundbreaking event for defense contractor Raytheon Co. when he said: “I don’t know how people cross that river. Maybe Raytheon can figure out a new silent gun.” He then cocked his finger like a pistol. Johnson later apologized.

Lost in the headline-grabbing displays of “border security” is a discussion of whether the border  enforcers are in fact breaking the law. I reached Brooks County Deputy Chief Urbino “Benny” Martinez by telephone and read him a Newsweek tweet about the story: For a few ranchers, setting traps for migrants, chasing after them and being intimidating is a hobby.

“That shouldn’t happen, I’ll make that very clear to you right now. That’s the first time I’ve heard that,” he said, distressed. Martinez added that he intended to investigate what is happening on the ranches. “This is not a show, this is not a reality show, this is for real.”

Martinez’s reaction should offer some relief for it shows that, at least for some leaders, border security radicalism has yet to overwhelm our good sense and humanity.

Support the Texas Observer
Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.
Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.

Energy companies have been injecting diesel underground during fracking operations—without permits to do so—in a dozen states including Texas, according to a new report from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. The report, released Wednesday, found that between February 2010 and July 2014, nearly 13,000 gallons of diesel were injected underground in Texas alone. During that period, the study found that 33 companies injected diesel into 351 wells across the U.S.—but because the study relies on self-reported data in the chemical disclosure registry FracFocus, the actual total could be much higher.

The Environmental Protection Agency once had the power to regulate fracking fluids injected into the ground. But in 2005 Congress stripped the agency of nearly all of that authority, in what came to be known as the Halliburton Loophole—only diesel injection remained under EPA’s permitting authority. Diesel contains various known carcinogens, including benzene, that easily seep into groundwater, where they can threaten drinking supplies.

“[The EPA] may not be able to make the majority of wells safer, but they can do it with diesel and they should,” says the report’s author, former EPA enforcement attorney Mary Greene. “It’s not clear to me why they’re not.”

The report casts doubt on repeated assurances from industry players that diesel hasn’t been used in fracking in many years, at a time when the media and academics are challenging other industry talking points. For example, oil and gas companies have insisted that their operations don’t threaten water supplies. But last month, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection said that oil and gas activity had, in fact, damaged water supplies in the state at least 209 times since the end of 2007. Pennsylvania is among the states with the most fracking activity in the country.

In January the Associated Press investigated oil and gas-related contamination complaints in four states including Texas. It found confirmed cases of water contamination in three states, including Pennsylvania, but none in Texas. At the time, Texas Railroad Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye told the AP the agency hadn’t confirmed any cases of drilling-related contamination in the past decade. The regulatory agency reiterated that point yesterday in response to the new report. Greene, the report’s author, says her review only looked at diesel use, not the possibility of water contamination.

Of the 351 wells mentioned in the report, only 27 are in Texas, but the highest volume of diesel was injected here. The Environmental Integrity Project confirmed that at least 12,808 gallons of diesel were injected in Texas, mostly in counties sitting atop the Eagle Ford Shale.

Because companies control what they submit to FracFocus, and can claim any fracking fluid is a “trade secret” exempt from disclosure, Greene believes the use of diesel is much more common. Her review also found that many operators, after initially reporting diesel use to FracFocus, removed it from their disclosure list after the EPA reaffirmed its ban on diesel; companies can alter their disclosures at any time without noting the change.

Hours after the report was released, the industry news outlet Energy in Depth posted an article calling the research flawed and claiming, among other things, that energy companies removed diesel from their disclosures because of errors in their original submissions. The article mentions one company that said it had listed diesel due to a typo. The article also notes the number of wells cited in the report is a small fraction of the gas wells in the country.

“It only takes a small amount of benzene and some of these other chemicals that are in diesel to contaminate a whole lot of groundwater,” Greene says in response. “And it only takes a very small amount of these chemicals to cause significant health damage in people including increased risk of cancer. You take that coupled with the fact that the wells I uncovered in this report are not the entire universe of wells fracked with diesel out there … this is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Texas Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott gave the media a great gift this summer when he opened his mouth—and then quickly attempted to shut it—about his ruling on how much information companies that handle hazardous chemicals have to share with the public.

On May 22, Abbott ruled that the general public has no right to Tier II chemical inventories, which could be “likely to assist in the construction of an explosive weapon.” In July, responding to a growing outcry about the ruling, which seemed to contradict federal “right to know” laws, Abbott backpedaled, sort of, telling reporters that any Texan “can go to any chemical facility in the entire state of Texas and say, ‘Identify for me all chemicals you have on your facility,’ and you are entitled to get that information within 10 days.”

How would folks know where those facilities might be? “You know where they are, if you drive around,” Abbott said.

The problem with suggesting that folks “drive around” poking their noses into the dealings of chemical companies and fertilizer manufacturers is that, well, folks are probably going to do it. Especially if they get to bring a camera crew along. Abbott inadvertently issued the open invitation of every TV news producer’s dreams: confrontation with corporate baddies, film at 11.  

Indeed, Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA has been on the story since reporters there broke the news of Abbott’s ruling in June, having asked the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) about Tier II chemicals housed at a storage facility in Athens that caught fire in late May. DSHS responded that it could make those inventories available only to first responders and emergency officials, per Abbott’s May 22 ruling.

Just our trusty AG doing his part to fight the terrorisms.

The Dallas Morning News followed up in July, suggesting an alternative to the AG’s bomb-thwarting reasoning: Perhaps the ruling had more to do with a $25,000 contribution to Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign from the head of Koch Industries’ fertilizer division—a first-time contribution delivered five months after the West fertilizer explosion that killed 15 people and injured 200 more in April 2013.

We don’t know for sure whether terrorists could use information about Tier II chemicals to make explosives. What we do know for certain is that Texas facilities where Tier II chemicals are stored—and where they are under-regulated, which more or less means “in Texas”—pose a significant and demonstrated threat to public safety.

Without chemical inventories in hand, the public—and the media, acting as the public’s advocate—have no means by which to hold corporate entities and government agencies accountable for harm done. And history shows that harm will inevitably be done.

But in this case, knowledge alone isn’t necessarily power. Without a robust regulatory system, Texans can do little more than try to steer their families, schools, nursing homes, businesses and hospitals clear of these potential powder kegs—if they have the means to do so. For folks who cannot afford to move out of the line of fire or who lack the political or financial capital to lobby decision-makers for change—say, by making $25,000 donations to candidates—there may be little to do besides pray that the local fertilizer plant keeps a lid on it, as it were.

The media must and should be empowered to act as watchdog on behalf of those whose concerns would otherwise go ignored by the powers that be, and perhaps more important, by the powers that fund the powers that be. You could say Abbott’s ruling has backfired, leading more Texans than ever to get interested in the goings-on at their local chemical storehouse. 

But while WFAA’s reporting on the availability of Tier II chemical information has certainly been dogged, and makes compelling TV for those of us who are able to work through the second-hand embarrassment that comes from watching grown adults wilt in front of television reporters, it’s not particularly useful for those members of the public who need results more than ratings.

The best practical reporting on the Abbott/chemical kerfuffle has come from the Houston Chronicle’s Austin bureau reporter, Lauren McGaughy, who dryly detailed, in just a few hundred words, the outright rigmarole that Texans must now go through to obtain Tier II reports directly from chemical facilities—after, that is, they’ve driven around and found them. 

Road trip, anyone?  

Support the Texas Observer

Rick Perry at Swift Camp
Gov. Perry surveys the GOP terrain.

As part of his continuing get-tough-on-the-border campaign, Gov. Rick Perry addressed several dozen National Guard soldiers today in a sweltering hangar at the Camp Swift training facility near Bastrop. While he provided little in the way of information on his deployment of troops to the Rio Grande Valley, he did provide some striking visuals for his presidential bid.

The press had been invited to attend presumably to learn more about Perry’s deployment of the National Guard to the border. But as we all stood fanning ourselves in a metal hangar in mid-August, the only new piece of information we gleaned was that 2,200 guardsmen have volunteered for the deployment and will be sent in rotation—1,000 soldiers at a time. There was no talk about rules of engagement, or what exactly the troops will be doing, or how long they will be on the border. When asked when they might be deployed, Perry said he didn’t want to tip the cartels off.

We did learn about the federal government’s inability to secure the border and how the good people of Iowa and South Carolina, not just Texas, are scarred by illegal immigration. Incidentally Iowa and South Carolina are key presidential primary states that Perry has been barnstorming in the past few weeks, always a few steps behind the competition Sen. Ted Cruz.

Lately, Perry’s been enjoying a political boost from the “border crisis” and it’s no secret he’s considering a 2016 presidential bid. Since he announced last month that he’d send 1,000 National Guard soldiers to the border, the governor has received standing ovations from some GOP voters. Never mind that the influx of Central American children and families, which constitute the recent “border crisis,” are mostly presenting themselves to immigration officials and asking for asylum.

It was clear Wednesday that Perry—with such a bump in the polls—couldn’t pass up another photo op with the National Guard. And even better, have it in a controlled setting on a military facility in Bastrop far from the border where he might face protesters who don’t want their communities turned into a war zone.

What Perry wanted the press to know today is that he’s protecting the nation from the “tentacles” of “narco terrorists.” The cost to Texas taxpayers isn’t an issue, he said, “because Texans support a secure border.” In a not-so-curious stroke of timing, Perry also released a web ad last week, paid for by his new RickPAC. The ad is all about border security and features numerous talking heads from Fox News, making Perry look like the last line of defense from the horde of brown invaders from south of the border.

After the press conference, the media were herded on to buses and taken to a firing range to watch Gov. Perry look through the viewfinder of what appeared to be a large box draped in camouflage. We were told by a National Guard public information officer that the contraption provides “specialized training for enhanced optics.” It was the only glimpse we were allowed into what the soldiers will be doing on the border. Regardless, the “border crisis” has provided plenty of “enhanced optics” for Perry’s presidential ambitions.

Support the Texas Observer

Jane Nelson Takes the Gavel

At Tuesday's meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, few policy details—but a preview of a potentially rocky road next session.
Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) at Wednesday's press conference discuss SB 7 and 8.
Beth Cortez-Neveal
Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound)

These days, we like our politicians to act and talk like us, and the Texas Senate is no exception. Long gone is the time that booze-soaked good ol’ boys hammered out legislation under the watchful eyes of Lt. Governor Bob Bullock. In recent years, the chamber’s relied to a large degree on independent dealmakers, figures like Tommy Williams and Robert Duncan, to take on the heavy legislative lifting. But that job has been getting tougher—Williams, the chair of the all-important Senate Finance Committee last session, had a hell of a time getting an important transportation funding package though the Lege, and he needed a special session to do it.

But Williams and Duncan will be gone next session, and the Senate appears to be otherwise lean on statespeople. There’s a decidedly populist mood in the air, which is a polite way of saying that there’s a few more cranks. New recruits like Don Huffines and Bob Hall, who beat dealmaker incumbents in the Republican primary, cast themselves not as small-r republicans but as champions for the voters—or rather, the minute number of people who voted in the GOP primary. And those are not people who are amenable to compromise.

Still, a budget must, by law, be drafted, and someone must take on the unenviable task of dragging it through the gauntlet. Enter state Sen. Jane Nelson, (R-Flower Mound), the new chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst appointed her, but she’ll likely keep the post if Patrick takes over. She’ll be one of the Legislature’s most powerful people next session, and Tuesday afternoon provided her the opportunity for a coming-out party of sorts—the first meeting of her committee. She began it with a quick selfie.

Nelson’s rise to power—like the rise of Patrick and others—is more than a little remarkable given her origins. A socially conservative member of the State Board of Education at the beginning of the ’90s, she won a Senate seat in 1993. Her biggest legislative brawl that year was a fight over retaining the state’s ban on sodomy. It had already been ruled unconstitutional in Texas courts, and state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) argued passionately for stripping it out of the state’s criminal code. Nelson fought it tooth and nail. She introduced an amendment to keep the ban on gay sex. “I’m not interested in having a politically correct penal code,” she said. She lost the fight over the amendment 16-12, but her side ultimately won that year. (The sodomy ban is still on the books in 2014.)

For the next decade, her name doesn’t pop up much in coverage of the Legislature. She supported a ban on human cloning, and wanted the state to divest from companies that produce violent or explicit music. But time served is king in the Senate, and she ultimately took on the mantle of senior stateswoman. As the long-serving chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, she’s been the Senate’s ringleader for health system overhauls, although she thinks the women’s healthcare system is doing just fine. Next session, her hands will be on everybody’s purse strings.

If you watched the hearing yesterday for clues about the Lege’s priorities next session, you wouldn’t have come away with much. Representatives from the comptroller’s office and the Legislative Budget Board came to give testimony about Texas’ fiscal circumstances. Dan Patrick, who could be running the Senate come January, frequently conferred with his deputy, state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), but otherwise mostly kept mum. More than half of next year’s Senate class was in attendance, including Huffines and Hall, who sat in the audience to watch.

Next session’s budget battles are unlikely to look like those of the last few sessions. For one thing, the state will have a lot of money to play with next year. The economy is humming relatively smoothly. Oil revenues are skyrocketing. Which leads to a big question: Will the Legislature invest the surplus into roads, schools and services, or will it use the money to lower taxes or alter the way the state finances itself?

Here’s another question: How well are next year’s senators, with more freshmen and more ideological firebrands, prepared to do the dirty work of hammering out a budget? Here’s a slide the Legislative Budget Board prepared for senators on the shape of the budget process—information that will no doubt come in handy for the Senate’s new outsider-politicians:

It all makes sense now.
Legislative Budget Board
It all makes sense now.

To supplement the slideshow, the budget board prepared a thick compendium of information on the state budgeting and finance. Nelson, in her down-home, charming manner, loved it. She recommended it heartily to her fellow legislators. She took it on vacation with her, and read the whole thing. And it’s great bedtime reading, she added, because it puts you right to sleep. The 2015 session will probably not be so soporific.

1 7 8 9 10 11 273