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The Whole Star

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott

Back in April, amid a growing legal battle over the responsibility of Texas hospitals to keep bad doctors from operating, Attorney General Greg Abbott took a bold stand. He sided with Baylor Health Care System in federal lawsuits filed by three plaintiffs who are former patients of the notorious Dallas spine surgeon Christopher Duntsch. The plaintiffs are arguing that Duntsch was a known drug addict and a dangerously incompetent surgeon, and Baylor should have never let him operate. (The shocking story of how Duntsch got away with maiming and killing his patients is detailed in this Observer story from last year.) Their lawsuits challenge a 2003 Texas law that grants hospitals near-total legal immunity for the mistakes of doctors they allow to operate.

How immune are hospitals? Under the current law, for Baylor to be liable for Duntsch’s mistakes, the plaintiffs have to prove that hospital administrators let him operate because they specifically intended to harm patients.

Soon after the three plaintiffs sued, Abbott’s office announced that it would be jumping in to defend the statute that shielded Baylor. In statements at the time, the attorney general’s office was clear: Abbott wasn’t defending Baylor or Duntsch. He was simply defending state law.

Earlier this week, Wayne Slater at the Dallas Morning News suggested that Abbott may have had other incentives to intervene. In June 2013 and January 2014 Abbott received two large donations to his gubernatorial campaign—$100,000 and $250,000 respectively—from one Drayton McLane, a Temple transportation exec and Republican who is also the chairman of the the board of trustees for Baylor Scott & White, the company that owns the Baylor hospital system.

The timing is a little suspicious. The $100,000 donation came the day after the Texas Medical Board suspended Duntsch’s license, ending an 18-month surgical career that had left two dead and many more paralyzed or in chronic pain. The $250,000 donation came the week after the second of the threelawsuits.

McLane has given Abbott money before, but it’s generally been much less; the most he had given in the past, according to the campaign filings the Morning News references, was $25,000.

This is not the first time that Abbott’s political donations have been linked to his official capacities as attorney general:

Abbott authorized scores of state bond issues in which he has received more than $200,000 from the political committees of law firms serving as bond counsel.

Earlier this year, Abbott ruled that the public cannot have access to state information about the location of potentially dangerous chemicals like those that caused the 2013 explosion in West that killed 15 people. The ruling came after Abbott received $75,000 from the Koch Industries political committee and executives, including the head of the company’s fertilizer division.

Abbott has collected more than $75,000 in the governor’s race from the Farmers Insurance political committee amid criticism that a proposed settlement in a long-running lawsuit against Farmers doesn’t adequately compensate homeowners for being overcharged.

So did Drayton McLane buy Abbott’s intervention in the Baylor case with $350,000 of his own money?

Abbott and McLane say there’s no connection between the donations and the intervention of the state in the Baylor case. McLane told the Dallas Morning News that he has no financial stake in Baylor Scott & White; that his chairman position is unpaid, and that he didn’t even know about the Duntsch case before giving Abbott money.

McLane further explains: “When you look at my cumulative donations over the years, I have supported other Texas candidates, whom I believe in, similarly to how I have chosen to support General Abbott.”

But it is a lot of cash. McLane gave Rick Perry less in his entire gubernatorial career than he gave Abbott just in the last year.

Abbott may have other reasons for so aggressively siding with Baylor and Duntsch. Tort reform, the conservative movement to make it much more difficult for people to win big judgments in civil courts, has been a centerpiece of Abbott’s political career. With the 2003 omnibus tort reform bill–as well as a number of favorable Texas Supreme Court decisions that limited hospital liability to an absurd degree—the movement won big.

And now, in the suits against Christopher Duntsch and Baylor, we have several particularly egregious, media-ready cases that are directly threatening one of the outposts of the tort reform bill: hospital immunity. If this part falls, there’s no telling what falls next—that is one lesson of the staggeringly quick collapse of the civil court system in the tort reform era. So, it is a little hard to believe that the prospect of tort reform fraying around the edges motivates Greg Abbott less than $350,000 in campaign money.

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Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.
Fracking near homes in Denton, TX.

Update 7:45am: Denton voters will decide the fate of fracking in their city come November after the City Council voted against the fracking ban this morning shortly before 3 a.m.

The Council seemed partial to the ban supporters during the hearing, which lasted eight hours, but in the end no one seconded Councilman Kevin Roden’s motion to pass the ban. The members voted 5-2 for a motion to deny passing the ban, so the initiative will now be on the November ballot. Activists had predicted their City Council would not adopt the citizen-led initiative, but the news was still disappointing and folks took to Twitter to say that industry won once again in Texas. We’ll be watching this come November, so stay tuned.

Update 12:42am: Word is there are more than 100 speakers signed up at this point, and we’ve heard from about 80 of them so far. They’re mostly Denton residents who are in favor of changing the city’s drilling ordinance to outlaw fracking; industry representatives appear to be gone for the night.

The testimony is starting to get a little repetitive and Council members are asking less questions. One man with Frack Free Denton called out several Council members, who he says promised to vote for the fracking ban if it went to Council during their respective campaigns. Councilman Greg Johnson clarified that he had promised to support the ban if that’s what Denton residents voted for, but none of the others commented. Smitherman’s letter to Council suggesting Russia’s involvement in the petition has provided ample fodder for jokes throughout the night.

Update 10:04pm: The night began with a string of folks opposed to passing the fracking ban in Denton, and about one-third of the speakers who were registered at the beginning of the hearing have now spoken. We’ve heard from two elected officials and a slew of industry reps, as well as some Denton residents. The City Council has surprised ban supporters by grilling industry representatives on inflated numbers regarding the economic benefits of fracking in Denton, as well as dismissing claims of easy solutions.

The Council is frustrated by the lack of inspection of natural gas wells and insufficient enforcement of regulations that are supposed to ensure companies practice “safe” fracking. At one point, Council Member Jim Engelbrecht asked an industry representative to “do a little ass-kicking” to help regulate fracking and another council member suggested Engelbrecht needed some chocolate. (He later announced he had secured the chocolate.)

Various council members have at different times throughout the night acknowledged the city’s shortcomings in creating an adequate gas drilling ordinance and protecting residents. Denton Mayor Chris Watts—who has been far more sympathetic to ban supporters than Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was in a similar City Council public hearing in Dallas in December—expressed the Council’s frustration that it had “come to this.”

 

Original: The Denton City Council will consider a proposed ban on fracking tonight, after a group of citizens gathered enough signatures to force a vote. The council will likely kick the decision to voters in November, but that isn’t deterring participation in the public hearing tonight. City officials expect record crowds and have hired additional police officers as security. If the citizen-led initiative eventually passes, Denton will be the first Texas city to impose an outright ban on fracking, though Dallas and Flower Mound have imposed strict setback requirements that have effectively ended fracking in their jurisdictions.

The decision is being closely watched because of its precedent-setting potential. If a city in drilling-friendly Texas—which accounts for one-third of the country’s total natural gas production—can ban fracking, then a city in any other state can do the same. That strikes fear into the hearts of oil and gas producers and heartens environmental activists. Denton sits atop the Barnett Shale and currently has 275 active gas wells within city limits (and an additional 212 wells in its extraterritorial jurisdiction).

In anticipation of tonight’s vote, Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman sent the Denton City Council a letter denouncing the ban. In the four-page letter, Smitherman suggests that Russia may be behind the effort, pointing to reports of Russia “secretly working with environmental groups in Europe.” In an editorial in the Denton Record-Chronicle, the president of the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association blamed East and West Coast activists “seeking to slow responsible hydrocarbon development through fear” for the petition.

North Texas drilling-reform activist Sharon Wilson, who helped organize the petition drive, joked that she hasn’t received her check from Russia yet. She said the suggestions of outside influence are insulting to Texans.

“We’re being influenced by our direct experience of living next to fracking,” Wilson said. “The problem that is terrifying industry is that Texans know fracking better than anybody, so if we can’t live with it, nobody is going to be able to live with it.”

If Denton outlaws fracking, it’s possible that at least some of the 19 companies active in the city will sue. After Dallas passed a de facto ban on fracking in December, a company with gas drilling permits sued the city for more than $30 million. The case is ongoing, but opponents point to a protracted legal battle as one of many potentially negative consequences Denton could face if it adopts the ban.

According to a study commissioned by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce released Monday, Denton will lose more than $250 million in economic activity as well as more than 2,000 jobs and $5.1 million in tax revenue over the next 10 years if the city outlaws fracking. The report was conducted by Waco-based Perryman Group, a firm frequently hired by business interests to make their case.

The hearing is set to begin at 6:30 p.m. As of 5:30, at least 79 people had registered to speak. The city expects that upwards of 500 people will attend, so the vote will likely take place well past midnight. We’ll be following via livestream, so stay tuned for updates.

Follow @pmozkeda for updates tonight. 

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This Land Press

Let’s face facts: Magazines can be difficult to read while you’re out and about. Flipping pages on a crowded bus? Forget it. Reading cover to cover on your bike commute? An impossibility. Luckily, there’s a way to get your Observer fix hands-free.

We’ve partnered with This Land Radio (a production of This Land Press) to bring you classic Observer stories repackaged in a pleasant audio format. The first to roll out is “Walmart, I Can’t Quit You” by Joe R. Lansdale and originally published in 2010.

When This Land Radio produces more audio Observer stories, we’ll link to them here. In the meantime, check out This Land Press on SoundCloud for more audio goodness.

Migrantchildren
Eugenio del Bosque

While fears of immigrant children carrying disease persist, public health experts on the front lines offer reasons for calm.

The Dallas Morning News reported over the weekend that “the likelihood of [these kids] spreading disease is low.” The story cited health officials who have documented just three cases of flu, three cases of tuberculosis, and 23 cases of chickenpox among the 57,000 children detained in Texas.

This report comes while Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins—acting on his idea that “in Texas, we don’t turn our back on children”—prepares his county to receive 2,000 unaccompanied migrant kids.

The physicians and state health officials interviewed by the Morning News emphasized the same message that the Observer reported last week: The Central American kids streaming across the border pose very little threat to the health of Texans. They do need medical care—mostly for the fatigue, dehydration and twisted ankles that have resulted from their journey.

As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has repeatedly emphasized, each child receives a screening for infectious disease.

Texas Department of State Health Services spokesperson Carrie Williams told the Morning News that health risks in the detention facilities spring mostly from “the lack of hand-washing facilities.” The occasional cases of lice and scabies, which have excited the ire of a Border Patrol union, do not seem to impress the medical professionals much.

Astute readers will have noted that chickenpox (also known as varicella) is in fact a vaccine-preventable disease. In 1995, the U.S. became the first country to recommend universal vaccination against chickenpox, which is typically a mild disease. (I had it. You probably had it. Serious complications are rare enough that many American physicians questioned whether vaccinating against varicella was worth the trouble.)

Since the mid-’90s, only a handful of nations have adopted universal varicella vaccination. In developing countries that face more pressing health issues, it wouldn’t be cost-effective. Agencies like the World Health Organization and UNICEF don’t include rates of varicella vaccination in their worldwide reports, because it’s not a global health priority.

In tropical regions such as Central America, chickenpox tends to occur more in teenagers and adults, rather than exclusively in young kids. That’s another factor in these few cases at the border: Kids from a temperate region might’ve already had chickenpox; many kids from Central America are still “immunologically naive”—that is, they haven’t been exposed to the virus.

But please don’t flip out, Internet. Most Americans are immune to this pox, thanks to vaccination or prior infection. Here in Texas, 90 percent of kids are vaccinated against varicella by age 3, according to the Department of State Health Services.

Like lice and scabies, chickenpox spreads more quickly in crowded and unsanitary conditions. The refugee kids who get chickenpox are likely to be itchy and miserable—and quarantined—for a couple of weeks, until the virus subsides.

If we want to spare them that ordeal, adequate hand-washing facilities in the detention centers might be a good place to start. We could also offer the children prompt varicella vaccination, as a recently published article in the journal International Health recommends. We should also move kids quickly from detention centers into the safety of families.

I’ll be the first to admit that the Texas medical system has its problems. But if the biggest “health threats” these kids from Central America bring are head lice, some twisted ankles and 23 cases of chickenpox, well, Texas can handle that.

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Broadsword-Student-Advantage

Predatory student loan services are on notice this week after Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed lawsuits against two “scam operations that prey on student loan borrowers.” It’s the first lawsuit of its kind, and one of Madigan’s targets is Carrollton-based Broadsword Student Advantage.

Broadsword uses radio ads and other marketing tools to lure potential customers to its loan repayment services, capitalizing on a growing demand—the nation’s climbing student loan debt has tripled in a decade, and surpassed the $1 trillion mark two years ago. Broadsword is part of a new world of debt settlement firms, which promise to lower monthly payments in exchange for up-front fees, getting into the student loan business.

Some loan repayment services are already available for free through the U.S. Department of Education, but Broadsword claims that people are “turned off by its complexities and paperwork.” Instead, Broadsword and other loan repayment businesses charge high upfront charges and monthly fees to process loan repayments.

According to the lawsuit, Broadsword ads target specific professionals with claims that their loans can be forgiven:

“Attention teachers, nurses, social workers, government employees, police officers, and firefighters if you’re still paying on student loans get ready for a special announcement. Your entire student loan can be forgiven. You heard correctly. Broadsword Student Advantage has free information on how you could potentially have the remaining balance on your student loan debt forgiven.”

Madigan’s suit says that these ads, along with Broadsword’s domain www.getforgiven.org, are a violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.

The domain appears to be a “source for consumers to obtain student loan debt forgiveness,” according to the lawsuit. In fact, student loan forgiveness is a federal program through the Department of Education with specific requirements. Broadsword doesn’t inform its consumers of these requirements, either, the suit claims.

In one instance described in the complaint, a public school teacher in Illinois called Broadsword after hearing a radio ad. She was pressured into giving her bank account number so the company could debit $499 for services (though the company’s ads claims it offers free information). After being told she qualified for loan forgiveness, the teacher found out several months (and $898.60 later) that her job as a teacher made her ineligible for loan forgiveness.

The lawsuit also alleges that Broadsword and its affiliates try to get power of attorney from their customers so the company can file documents, get information and even intercept communication from the loan servicer to the borrower.

When customers are charged for Broadsword’s services, they are billed by a separate financial planning firm called Affordable Life Plans. This company shares an address and phone number with Broadsword, and its About Us page includes the Bible verse “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

The lawsuit included complaints from people who hadn’t signed up with Affordable Life Plans, or gotten any financial advice beyond the loan service, yet were billed by Affordable Life Plans—possibly to minimize Broadsword’s risk. “Defendants are directing fees to Affordable Life Plans as a subterfuge in an attempt to escape liability for offering student loan debt relief services in violation of the Illinois Debt Settlement Act,” the lawsuit states.

Broadsword Student Advantage, LLC, was organized in August 2012 by its president, Kenneth L. Talbert, the man behind other financial firms like EFA Processing (a debt settlement company), DebtXS, Eckity Capital Markets, Safeguard Capital and CocoaLife of Texas, to name a few. Talbert’s interconnected business entities have been scrutinized before, and he’s been compared to Bernie Madoff by a former employee for his debt settlement business.

If the court finds Broadsword intended to defraud its customers, the firm could be charged a civil penalty up to $50,000 per violation. Broadsword didn’t return the Observer’s requests for comment.

Andrea Grimes
Jen Reel
Andrea Grimes

When we began reinventing the then-biweekly newsprint Texas Observer in 2010 as a glossy-paged monthly magazine, a passel of new columnists was core to the redesign. The first on board was Bill Minutaglio.

Bill was a relative newcomer to the Observer’s pages, but by the time of his inaugural column, in the Jan. 22, 2010 issue, he was already an oddly youthful èminence grise in Texas journalism circles, having worked at dailies in Abilene, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas, not to mention staff and stringer stints at top-shelf national outlets too numerous to mention. Nobody knew the ins and outs of the business more intimately, few practiced it more conscientiously, and from his perch as a journalism professor at the University of Texas, few were better positioned to watch the trade’s future scrolling across the transom. The fruits of his experience and insight have graced Bill’s State of the Media column since 2010. 

Until now. Bill has decided to turn his attention to scripts, screenplays and other projects piled up in his perpetually overstuffed pipeline, and if we can’t say we’re surprised, we’re certainly sorry to see him go. We’ve frankly never understood how Bill found the time to teach, write books, serve as a go-to bullshit detector for the national press corps on all topics Texas, and write a monthly column for this magazine, all the while sending us a steady stream of well-trained interns and acting as an on-call reference desk whenever some Observer reporter or frazzled editor needed a pointer to a source or a refresher on how—and why—to do what we do. 

So it’s with great gratitude that we want to acknowledge Bill’s departure from the State of the Media desk after the better part of five years.

“It was an honor to launch this column,” Bill writes. “The media needs watching, and thank goodness the Observer will continue to watch it.”

Indeed we will. Even as we bid Bill a fond adios—(fond and partial, since we fully expect to continue benefitting from his reporting and writing in other contexts)—we say hello to Andrea Grimes, a young Austin writer who’s been making her name not in the state’s legacy daily newspapers but online. Andrea is a former editor of Eater Austin, a former staff writer at the Dallas Observer, an occasional stand-up comedian, a senior political reporter with  RHRealityCheck.org, and the whip-smart human behind the indispensable Twitter handle @andreagrimes. We’re excited to invite you to follow along as she guides the State of the Media column down its next new path.