Political Intelligence

WHO GETS THE CALL (CENTER)?

he competition to manage the state’s social services enrollment is on. Bids from private companies to run the controversial call centers that will replace thousands of state workers who screen and process applications for state programs like Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program were due September 30 (after some delay) to the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC). The four contenders include rival outsourcing glitterati Accenture (the reincarnation of Andersen Consulting), BearingPoint, and an IBM subsidiary, as well as the little known—and by comparison, no-name—Effective Teleservices, Inc. (ETI). Who will win the affection of Texas’ privatizing heart? Will the state go with a heavyweight heartthrob to handle the sensitive screening of needy Texans, or will it opt for the neighborhood newbie, Nacogdoches-based ETI?

It’s difficult to say. For example, BearingPoint, with business in 39 countries, has professional athlete credibility. A spokesperson boasts that golfer Phil Mickelson advertises the company on his caps. Maybe the company’s proposal includes “Win a Chance to Enroll for Food Stamps with Mickelson Day.” (This couldn’t be confirmed because HHSC won’t publicly release proposals until after bidding is complete.) Accenture, on the other hand, has that whole bad-boy Arthur Andersen-Enron residue thing going, in addition to employing more than 80,000 people in more than 110 offices worldwide. The possibility of long weekends at the company’s Bermuda headquarters might pique the interest of the state (“Right now, our 10th Medicaid caller wins a Caribbean island getaway!”) That may be no match for the global muscle and reputation of IBM, however, whose Business Consulting Services is the world’s largest. All three big contenders have a slew of lobbyists trying to primp them properly for potential admirers.

The underdog is ETI, with offices in Lufkin as well as Nacogdoches and around 1,300 employees. Formerly owned by BellSouth, the company was primarily known for its telephone book advertising business. In 2003, Creative Choice Group out of Florida bought the company. CCG also has investments in Gujarat, India, adding some culture to ETI’s provincial charm. The company’s Web site exclaims, “The Best of the Far East Combined with the Heritage of the Far West.”

The state may just play hard to get. HHSC hasn’t announced when it will choose a company to run the new untested enrollment system. HHSC continues to maintain that it’s still considering whether to privatize the call centers at all. The agency will evaluate the four bids and then decide whether to hire a private firm and deal thousands of state workers some serious heartbreak.

TIGER BY THE TAIL

After months of lengthy court proceedings, on October 27, ExxonMobil agreed to drop its civil suit against Greenpeace USA over a direct action at the company’s Irving headquarters in 2003. (See, “Tiger Tussle,” April 23, 2004).

In the out-of-court settlement, Greenpeace and the 36 defendants in the case agreed not to engage in illegal activities on ExxonMobil property in the United States or illegally interfere with company meetings for a period of seven years. As a result of the settlement, the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office dropped its criminal case against the 36 activists at the company’s request.

| The lawsuit stemmed from a Greenpeace direct action protest at ExxonMobil’s Texas headquarters on May 27, 2003, one day before the company’s annual shareholder meeting. It formed part of a larger Greenpeace campaign to expose ExxonMobil as one of the principal contributors to global warming. The Greenpeace activists infiltrated the oil giant’s command center in suburban Dallas, a number of them dressed as cartoon tigers. The activists divided into teams. One group handed out literature, another climbed to the roof of the main building, and a third chained itself to the gates surrounding the compound. Before police arrived and began arresting the protesters, a tussle ensued in the lobby between a security guard and a costumed activist. The elderly security guard alleged that he had been injured in the scuffle, which led to an initial charge of felony riot and a threat of jail time for the activists.

Although the Dallas County prosecutor never indicted the protesters, the events of that day became fodder for a civil lawsuit against Greenpeace by ExxonMobil. As part of the proceedings, a judge ordered an unprecedented nationwide injunction against the environmentalists, barring them from illegal activities on ExxonMobil property. The injunction held up on appeal. Shortly before the announcement of the settlement, the Texas Supreme Court denied a final petition presented by a Greenpeace lawyer. It was clear that Greenpeace would have no luck in Texas courts. A seven-year injunction likely looked better than one that could last indefinitely.

Greenpeace says it has no intention of reigning in its campaign against Exxon. In a message written by Greenpeace International Executive Director Gerd Leipold, the organization vowed to continue to “campaign vigorously against Exxon,” which includes the launch of a “cyberaction” demanding reductions in pollution. Hardly chastened, Greenpeace USA’s website promotes a “stay away” campaign. “They want us to stay away from their property,” it reads. “We’re staying away from ExxonMobil, let them know that you will stay away too.”

PILE ON

Environmentalists have gained a new ally in their fight to clean up El Paso’s toxic industrial legacy (see, “Clean Up or Cover Up,” October 8, 2004). The United Steelworkers of America have launched a media campaign against government and industry efforts to raise the acceptable level of lead contamination in the soil. The most common clean up target for lead is 500 parts per million (ppm) in the soil. There is evidence that under the right circumstances this level can be dangerous to children. To date, using the 500 ppm standard, there are almost 600 properties in El Paso that should be cleaned. ASARCO (the company that many blame for El Paso’s contamination) and the EPA have suggested that only properties with as much as 640 ppm of lead contamination should be cleaned. Reducing the number of eligible properties could save as much as $5 million in cleanup costs, according to the union.

In a recent media conference call, officials from the steelworkers revealed a memo from an EPA toxicologist stating that more than 5 percent of children under 6 years of age living in areas with more than 500 ppm of lead in the soil had elevated levels of lead in their blood. “EPA is ignoring its own internal analysis and standards and publicly advocating a less stringent cleanup that will not protect El Paso children from lead poisoning,” charges Diane Heminway, environmental projects coordinator for the steelworkers.

The EPA is currently accepting public comments on the proposed 640 ppm standard. “The agency has not selected a final clean-up level and will do so only after considering all comments,” said David Bary, an EPA spokesman.

In the past, the union has been a strong company supporter in El Paso, even when ASARCO faced complaints of environmental problems. This year, however, the union finds itself bogged down in a messy contract negotiation with the metals processor. The union’s contract expired at the end of June, and the two sides are deadlocked over issues of pensions, health care, and wages. The impasse occurred despite the fact that the price for copper has risen. ASARCO is the third-largest copper producer in the world.

As part of a campaign to put pressure on the company, the steelworkers are linking ASARCO’s environmental problems with its labor policies wherever they can. Union officials deny that their concern about El Paso is just a negotiation tactic. “We look at ourselves as a good citizen of the communities where we work, and I think that this reflects that,” said Terry Bonds, who is the director for the union in 12 states including Texas.

The steelworkers’ environmental activism comes at a time when the Sierra Club has made pollution on the border and particularly in El Paso a major focus. Both the union and the Sierra Club agree that El Paso needs to be cleaned up at the 500 ppm level and as soon as possible. The two sides part ways over whether ASARCO’s El Paso facility, shut down since 1999, should be allowed to resume operations. The environmental group’s position is one that the union, eager for jobs, cannot support. “The Sierra Club would like to see the operation stopped because nobody can guarantee that there won’t be more contamination,” says Jose Manuel Escobedo, the environmental justice chair of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club.

A hearing in El Paso by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to determine whether ASARCO’s air quality permit should be renewed has been set for November 30.

A VOTE OF CONFIDENCE

As of this writing, a few days before November 2, it’s still a distinct possibility that the election will devolve into an orgy of recounts, lawsuits, and allegations of vote suppression and voter fraud. However, the early returns in Texas and new efforts to safeguard the vote point to a renewed civic vitality in the Lone Star State.

This election is drawing more Texans to the polls than ever before. On October 26, Secretary of State Geoff Connor estimated that 48 percent of voting age Texans would vote in the general election. That would match, and slightly eclipse, the highest recorded turnout since the secretary of state began counting in 1970 (47.7 percent in 1992). The high turnout estimates are based on record numbers of people voting early (up 8 percent since 2000). The secretary of state’s office believes the high turnout is partly due to the presidential election, but mainly because of heated local races. Dallas County, in particular, boasted an increase of more than 10 percent in the number of early voters thanks to a tough county sheriff’s race, and the bitter redistricting-inspired congressional campaign between Democrat Martin Frost and Republican Pete Sessions.

As Texans flood the polls, People for the American Way has teamed with nearly every civil rights group in the state in an unprecedented effort to protect voting rights on election day. The Election Protection Coalition will staff a legal command center in Houston to respond to problems in Harris County and answer a statewide voting hotline (1-866-OUR-VOTE). The coalition will also post more than 400 volunteers outside polling stations all over Harris County, particularly in minority areas with a history of voter suppression and intimidation. Volunteers will distribute copies of Texas’ voting bill of rights and answer voter questions.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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