Republicans may have discovered the whereabouts of the 51 quorum busters hiding out in Oklahoma by using the federal government’s expanded anti-terrorism powers to track the private plane of former Speaker Pete Laney (D-Hale Center). Unlike the other representatives who arrived in two buses on Sunday May 11, Laney flew to Ardmore where the group holed up in a Holiday Inn to thwart a vote on congressional redistricting. (Paul Moreno (D-El Paso) also arrived separately from New Mexico.) Laney explained that he flew because he was closer to the site than those who left from Austin.
The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reported that the Air and Marine Interdiction and Coordination Center (AMICC) based in Riverside, California, had been used to track Laney’s Piper Cheyenne airplane. The Center falls under the Department of Homeland Security. The AMICC claims it was contacted by an agent for the Texas Department of Public Safety inquiring about a missing plane. A statement issued by the AMICC says that the agency told the DPS agent to contact the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The AMICC does not look for missing airplanes. The DPS, which operated a war room adjacent to Speaker Tom Craddick’s office during the walkout has refused to comment to reporters on the matter. The FAA told the Star-Telegram that they have no record of contact with the DPS over the matter.
The Homeland Security Department has asked its inspector general to look into the matter. The Inspector General, Clark Kent Ervin, is a Houston lawyer and Bush loyalist.
On Wednesday, May 14, the entire Texas Democratic congressional delegation, with the exception of Ralph Hall (D-Rockwall), sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft on the subject. Some democrats believe that the impetus to use the AMICC came from U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land). DeLay had previously tried to justify federal intervention in the walkout because redistricting is a federal issue. The Dem’s letter demanded to know if newspaper accounts were accurate, and who had ordered that the AMICC be used. “Especially with the ongoing war on terrorism, any diversion of federal law enforcement resources for private political gain is an outrage reminiscent of Watergate,” read a press release by the congressmen.
Laney, who has clearly enjoyed the new found unity evinced by the Democratic caucus, believes the use of federal policing authority could come back to haunt Republicans. He says a house speaker from another state called him to say that if Tom DeLay could do this to Texans, anybody could be next.
“I would have saved them a bunch of money if they had just asked me where I was going,” joked Laney, standing in the Holiday Inn courtyard in Ardmore. He agreed that the surveillance was a little creepy. “The funds don’t bother me as much as the idea that someone was following me all the time.”
Nixon Goes to China
On May 1, one of the most progressive pieces of legislation this session quietly slipped through the Texas House of Representatives. House Bill 2668 passed without opposition or debate. Yet it represents a sea change in how Texas justice is administered. Under the bill, first-time drug offenders caught with up to a pound or less of marijuana, five or fewer doses of LSD, or a gram or less of most other controlled substances would receive probation rather than a prison sentence.
Although several Democrats co-sponsored the measure, the primary force behind the bill was a Republican, Rep. Ray Allen (R-Grand Prairie). Currently, every year as many as 5,000 first-time drug offenders are sent to prison for long-stretches where there is little likelihood they will receive any treatment. The end result is hardened convicts instead of recovered addicts. “What we have been doing is not good policy, and it’s not working,” Allen says.
Allen came to the conclusion through personal experience that Texas’ draconian drug laws needed reform. His wife’s three siblings have all struggled with intravenous drug abuse. Allen and his wife at different times took the family members into their small home to try and help. All but one of them has quit using. “Many of these people can be salvaged, if given the opportunity,” says Allen.
For Allen, the opportunity to push the legislation became apparent with the state’s fiscal crisis. The bill is expected to save Texas $30 million this biennium and $50 million in the next one. Allen says Governor Rick Perry has promised him that money for treatment centers to help the drug offenders the new law will place in probation will be found, either through federal funds or in the budget conference committee.
As originally filed, Allen’s bill would have made these first-time drug offenses a misdemeanor charge instead of a felony. The ACLU, which has vigorously pushed the legislation, believes that the felony charge wrongfully stigmatizes the offender. Allen agreed, but Perry let it be known he would not sign the legislation unless the felony charge remained. At press time, the bill is in the Senate Criminal Justice committee, where its chair, Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) will be a sponsor.
Where’s the VP? If the vice president of the United States gives a speech in Dallas and the press and the general public is excluded, does the vice president really exist? Okay, it’s not exactly a Zen koan, but the visit by Dick Cheney, the-usually-at-an-undisclosed-location-vice-president, to Southern Methodist University on May 7 was just as confounding. Cheney’s trip to Dallas was a carefully orchestrated event at which security was tighter than a frog’s bottom. At least 100 police and Secret Service personnel were on-site. Dozens of police cars, a paddy wagon, bomb dogs, half a dozen mounted police, and no fewer than two dozen motorcycle cops were within a block of the venue, SMU’s McFarlin Auditorium. The SMU police department counted exactly 74 pro-peace demonstrators, who marched a few blocks to the campus to demonstrate against Cheney’s visit. (One sign read “Dick Cheney: financially secure, morally bankrupt.”)
The protesters–and the press–were kept far, far away from the VP. The White House dictated that no pesky reporters or TV cameras be allowed to record Cheney’s remarks. No transcripts of his remarks were made available. Photographers were allowed inside McFarlin for exactly 10 minutes–with sound recording equipment turned off–to get a quick shot of Cheney on the stage, then they were hustled out of the building.
Cheney’s appearance was restricted to about 2,500 SMU supporters holding season tickets to the Tate Lecture Series, an ongoing event that brings guest speakers to the school. Cheney did not meet with students while on campus.
He apparently did not commit any news during the event, which featured Time magazine writer Hugh Sidey asking the veep a series of questions about his life in politics. Sidey evidently decided not to ask any controversial questions, including ones about Cheney’s old employer, Halliburton Co., or its military contracts in Iraq. Nor did Sidey ask Cheney why he is still on Halliburton’s payroll, collecting deferred compensation from the oil services company through 2005.
A Bush Not A Lincoln
Actions speak louder than words. That was certainly the case with General–oops, we mean President–George W. Bush’s ballyhooed fly-in to visit the sailors aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1. Bush arrived on the carrier not by helicopter but aboard an S-3B Viking aircraft. After landing on the carrier, the appropriately costumed president, dressed in a full flight suit with “George W. Bush, Commander in Chief” emblazoned on the chest, shook hands and posed for pictures with the ship’s crew. Bush then changed into a suit and tie to deliver a speech which contained information that everyone from Baghdad to Burbank already knew–the war in Iraq is pretty much over.
The next day, Bush went to Santa Clara, California, to give a speech at a plant owned by United Defense Inc., which makes the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The White House insisted the visit was to thank the workers at the plant for their work on the Bradley. Perhaps it was. But Bush’s junket to the plant and the carrier were also high-profile public relations stunts that benefited two key weapons makers.
The S-3B Bush flew to the carrier is made by Lockheed Martin Corp., which holds enormous federal weapons contracts including the gold-plated Joint Strike Fighter (expected contract value: $250 billion) and the F/A-22 fighter (expected contract value: $67 billion). As for United Defense, it is owned by the Carlyle Group, the Big Name venture capital firm whose key players include former defense secretary Frank Curlicue, former British prime minister John Major, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, and of course, the president’s daddy, George H.W. Bush, who is paid about $100,000 every time he makes a speech or does glad-handing on behalf of Carlyle. One other former Carlyle investor of note: the family of Osama bin Laden. (After 9/11, the Carlyle Group unceremoniously dumped the bin Ladens and returned their investment money.)
A few Democrats in Congress have had the audacity to question the cost and appropriateness of the president’s S-3B jaunt to the carrier. An outraged White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, castigated the naysayers thusly: “it does a disservice to the men and women of our military” to suggest that the president, “or the manner in which the president visited the military would be anything other than the exact appropriate thing to do.”