Political Intelligence


At press time (February 23), seventeen executions were on the Huntsville schedule (through mid-July). The high profile pending cases were Betty Lou Beets (February 24) and Odell Barnes (March 1).

Beets, who killed her husband, was a victim of lifelong abuse preceding her crime, and Barnes is very probably innocent of a Wichita Falls murder that was subject to a bungled investigation and a slanted prosecution. Abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean recently spoke out in defense of Beets, who is appealing for clemency on the basis of a 1991 Texas law requiring the review of the murder convictions of victims of domestic abuse. Her lawyers sued the Board of Pardons and Paroles for failure to review her case. (However, of more than 300 convictions reviewed to date, not one has been overturned.)

In the Barnes case, the extensive defense documentation of police and prosecutorial malfeasance (including possibly suborned witnesses and planted blood evidence) provoked an angry response from Wichita County District Attorney Barry Macha, who accused the defense lawyers of misrepresentation.

Meanwhile, the 1984 conviction of death row inmate Calvin Burdine may be set aside, following a court of appeals ruling that he had inadequate counsel. Burdine’s Houston attorney slept through much of the proceedings, prompting Fifth Circuit Judge David Hittner to rule that a sleeping lawyer is the same as none at all. At press time, prosecutors had failed to meet a filing deadline for a retrial, making it likely that Burdine would go free.


Television reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, locked in a legal battle with their former station (WTVT-Tampa), came through Texas last month to recount the story that cost them their jobs. In 1997, Akre and Wilson had prepared an investigative report detailing the controversy over the use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) to boost milk production in cows. Although Monsanto Corporation, which markets the artificial hormone, insists it is safe for cows and consumers, Akre and Wilson pointed to evidence of illness in animals and potentially dangerous hormonal effects in people who drink the milk. Just prior to airdate Monsanto complained to the Fox Network, and station management got cold feet and pulled the broadcast.

After nine months of “editing” (including more than eighty re-writes), Akre and Wilson were fired when they refused to include material they say is false: most specifically, that there is “no difference” between milk produced with and without rBGH. (They also turned down a large severance offer which would have required their silence.) Saying they had effectively been asked to violate the law as well as F.C.C. regulations, the reporters sued WTVT under Florida’s whistleblower statute. Station management insists that under the First Amendment the courts cannot intervene in internal editorial decisions.

After many delays, the trial is scheduled to proceed June 12, and Akre and Wilson have been traveling the world telling their story and garnering public support. Most recently, the reporters defeated the station’s attempt to exclude “expert witnesses” as unnecessary, a tactic Wilson told Political Intelligence was primarily aimed at Ralph Nader, scheduled to testify on the meaning of “the public interest” as applied to broadcasting. “So the trial will proceed and Nader will testify,” said Wilson, who added that the station’s lawyers had apparently hoped to wear them down with lengthy and costly delays.

Readers interested in more detail — including video versions of the original stories and related materials — can consult the reporters’ extensive website at www.foxBGHsuit.com. Wilson and Akre, who are now supporting themselves with part-time projects, are also soliciting donations to their legal defense fund, the Citizens’ Fund for the Right to Know, 25400 U.S. 19 North, Suite 192, Clearwater, Florida 33763.ZEUS McCAIN? Republican waters troubled by the Bush-McCain presidential splash-fight reached a theological boil last month, as conservative New York Times pundit William Safire accused the Christian newsmagazine World, edited by U.T.-Austin journalism professor Marvin Olasky, of Bush-inspired religious sandbagging of the McCain campaign. At issue was a World feature on McCain written by Bob Jones IV, son of the eponymous South Carolina university’s current president. Safire denounced the article (which attacked McCain’s wife and suggested he’s a poor husband) as a “hatchet job,” a “nastily personal” screed motivated by Jones’ presumed ties to the Bush campaign, as well as editor Olasky’s status as the Governor’s “revered intellectual guru.” Safire also complained that the non-profit journal (forbidden under federal law to endorse candidates) had been distributed gratis to members of Congress and the D.C. press corps. “Such backdoor backing of candidate Bush,” Safire wrote, “strikes me as religio-political sleaze in action.”

In a column published the following day in the Austin American-Statesman, Olasky responded, “Bill Safire is an honorable journalist, but he messed up this time.” Olasky defended the Jones profile as an accurate outgrowth of World’s policy to “take personal morality very seriously.” Olasky explained that he had earlier recused himself from presidential coverage and therefore hadn’t seen the McCain feature prior to publication, and he referred to favorable World profiles of other Republican candidates, but not of Bush, “because, ironically, Bob Jones IV requested but did not receive interview time with him.” He described the Congressional distribution as a marketing plan unrelated to the McCain story. After a blast at the Clintons, Olasky noted, “McCain is no Bill Clinton” and suggested he might make a good Bush vice-president.

But in his syndicated column published only a few days before Safire’s attack, Olasky opined that McCain was suspiciously enamoured of “classical” virtues like honor and duty and insufficiently devoted to Christian “faith, hope, and charity.” To Olasky, reporters enthusiastic about McCain have exchanged true biblical morality for a sinister brush with Zeus-worshipping pantheism: “McCain is as erratic as the Zeus of mythology, with a history of throwing thunderbolts in all directions.” “The question now,” Olasky thundered, “is whether the American public has become so unmoored from biblical understanding that, by Jove, it will believe in Zeus McCain?”

Asked by Political Intelligence if he didn’t think that describing McCain as a pagan deity in this context isn’t tantamount to implying the candidate is satanic, Olasky responded, “I’m playing off Tom Wolfe [author of the novel A Man in Full, which features a character who worships Zeus] and the tendency of some reporters to search after a human god, one they can worship without concern about being called to account. [McCain’s] no Clinton and no Satan; actually, I bet with his sense of humor he’d like the ‘Zeus McCain’ label.”

Political Intelligence ponders the Olympian possibilities: if McCain is Zeus, does that make Bush Uranus?


It sounds like something Coronado never found: La Entrada al Pacífico. In fact it’s a pipe dream of a more recent vintage. For years, Midland-Odessa boosters have been trying to rally support for a super-highway connecting Amarillo to the Pacific coast of Mexico by way of the Permian Basin. They promise a river of gold, as the highway boosts tourism in the Big Bend and redirects some El Paso-bound NAFTA traffic to a new improved crossing at Presidio, just west of Big Bend National Park. The highway would head southwest from Presidio (through the sleepy border town of Ojinaga) to Chihuahua City, then presumably west across the state of Sonora some three hundred miles to the Gulf of California. At the northern end, I-27 (the world’s shortest “interstate,” connecting Lubbock to Amarillo) would be extended south from Amarillo to Midland-Odessa, follow I-20 for a ways, and then run along state highway routes through Fort Stockton, Alpine, and Marfa, on down to the border. One possible route on the Mexican side has the super-highway going through rural Copper Canyon, one of Chihuahua’s most scenic train rides.

The boosters, including the Midland/Odessa Transportation Alliance (MOTRAN) and the Odessa Chamber of Commerce, got support in early February (the Odessa American reported) when the Mexican government agreed to commit $7.5 million to the reconstruction of the existing road between Ojinaga and Chihuahua City. The announcement was apparently the product of a junket to Chihuahua funded by the Odessa Chamber of Commerce. The project also recently got a $15 million boost from the Texas Transportation Commission, for a short bypass around Midland. Currently, about $120 million worth of commerce comes across the bridge at Ojinaga annually. Compare that with $30 billion coming across at El Paso/Juárez. To get a piece of that action, Midland/Odessa dreams of becoming a distribution center for maquiladoras located in Chihuahua. All they need is a highway. After all, the Permian Basin — smack dab in the middle of nowhere — is still on the way to somewhere. But some Big Bend residents are more concerned about the prospect of long lines of idling trucks, which have plagued El Paso in the NAFTA era (and before), meaning extra pollution for the already declining air quality in the Big Bend.LET ‘EM STARVE. For the second year in a row, Michigan Congressman John Conyers, joined by California Republican Tom Campbell, sent a letter to President Clinton calling for an end to the economic sanctions against Iraq. They cite what by now have become familiar figures for readers of the alternative press (though these numbers are still rarely seen in the front section of mainstream daily papers): over 1,000,000 dead, mostly civilians, since the war’s end in 1991, as a result of the harshest economic embargo in history. According to UNICEF, several thousand children are still dying each month from malnutrition and preventable diseases, like dysentery, associated with the country’s inability to rebuild its most basic infrastructure — including water purification, sewage treatment, and medical facilities, as well as electrical, transportation, agricultural, and industrial production systems – destroyed in the Gulf War. Increasingly, as the letter observes, the U.S. goal seems not to be to force compliance with weapons inspections, but to end Hussein’s reign altogether, making the sanctions a sort of indefinite siege with civilians as the victims.

Conyers and Campbell secured the signatures of seventy colleagues (up from forty-three last year), but only two Texans: Houston Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee and maverick Republican Ron Paul. Political Intelligence surveyed the state’s nominally progressive Members — including Democrats Lloyd Doggett of Austin and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, among others — to ask why they refuse to condemn the sanctions. The silence was deafening. Only Houston Democrat Ken Bentsen provided an official response. “I share the concerns that many Americans have about the economic sanctions against Iraq, but I strongly believe that responsibility for these consequences lies completely with Saddam Hussein…. He could quickly bring an end to sanctions, as well as the suffering of his own people, by fully complying with the U.N. resolutions and ceasing activities to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

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Published at 12:00 am CST