Political Intelligence

MAKING A BUCK ONLINE

A Texas Web site, www.live-shot.com, could well be the pinnacle in the state’s evolution. It marries two irreconcilable ideas to produce the perfect Lone Star service. House-bound enterprising sportsmen can finally have it all, by using the site to hunt over the Internet. Forget the camouflage outfit, the long drive, the schlepping through the woods. Now you can blow away Bambi without taking your feet off the desk. It’s a real gun, real bullets, and real dead animals.

No, America Online did not appoint Elmer Fudd chairman of the board. Cyber hunting is the creation of San Antonio resident John Lockwood. He’s an avid outdoorsman who owns a 300-acre hunting ranch outside of town. Like so many of humanity’s greatest innovations, online hunting was the product of a bull session. Last year, Lockwood and a friend were watching a hunting Web site that has live camera shots of the wild. When a white-tailed buck wandered into view, their next thought was only natural. “My co-worker said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could put a gun on something like that,'” Lockwood said. “I thought, ‘There’s no reason you couldn’t do that.'” So he constructed a $10,000 platform on his ranch, topped with a computer, a video camera, and a .22 caliber Remington. The camera streams live video over the Internet, and the Web site gives paying members remote control of the rifle to pick off wildlife that strays in front of the platform. Lockwood contends that the process is completely safe. A ranch hand monitors all shooting sessions from the platform, answers questions through instant messaging, and controls an electronic safety for the gun to prevent any cyber hunting accidents. The attendant won’t release the electronic safety until he’s sure the customer has a safe shot. “Just like in a real hunting situation, you’re not going to have your safety off until you’re sure it’s a safe situation,” Lockwood said.

Lockwood says that his ranch already hosts deer, sheep, and pigs and that he plans to import blackbuck antelope to boot. As word of the site has circulated on the Internet, outraged animal rights activists have taken aim at Lockwood’s project. No provision in Texas law, however, even mentions hunting on the web. According to Lockwood, the only restriction is that aspiring web hunters must obtain a state hunting license. And no dial up.

The Web site also offers 20-minute, paper-target practice (for the low, low price of $5.95) and 30-day memberships ($14.95). The actual remote hunting costs more than $1,000, although prices vary depending on what animal you shoot. For just a few hundred dollars more, Lockwood will ship you the meat, and send your kill to a local taxidermist to make the head presentable for your wall.

CLEANING UP TX POLITICS

When the Sharpstown banking scandal shook up state government in the early 1970s, a surge of reform followed. Efforts to make the Legislature more open and accountable had foundered for years. Reformers were ready for the opportunity when the Lege returned to session. In the end, Sharpstown spurred good-government legislation on campaign reporting, ethics, lobby registration, open meetings, and open records as well as a number of consumer protections.

Three decades later, a Travis County grand jury has returned one set of indictments in a growing campaign scandal. A second grand jury will be impaneled in January to further investigate an apparent conspiracy to use illegal corporate money to elect a compliant slate of Republican legislators in 2002. The three biggest individual beneficiaries of this scheme were U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, now-Texas state House Speaker Tom Craddick, and postmodern lobbyist Mike Toomey. (For more on Toomey, read Andrew Wheat in this issue.) And once again, those who have been agitating for genuine reform for years are ready.

Marshalling under the banner “Clean Up Texas Politics” (Cleanuptexaspolitics.com), a public interest coalition has formed to push four simple measures in the coming legislative session. “These changes will make elections competitive again and enhance the role of smaller donors,” says Fred Lewis of Campaigns for People, one of the groups involved. “They will put the voter back in charge in Texas.”

First on the list is to close the corporate and union money loopholes. This will require three actions: A ban on pseudo-issue ads like those used by the Texas Association of Business in 2002 that appear within 60 days of an election and refer to a candidate or target that candidate’s electorate. A ban on the use of corporate or union funds to influence elections by new types of corporate entities such as limited liability companies, partnerships, and professional companies. And a ban on contributions from out-of-state PACs and political parties that commingle corporate and non-corporate funds like the Republican State Elections Committee did in 2002.

The second reform calls for reasonable limits on campaign contributions. In 2004, Houston homebuilder Bob Perry spent more than $2.7 million on state elections. In 2002, almost half of the $127 million in contributions given to Texas state candidates came from 382 donors. The coalition has suggested that no single individual should be allowed to give more than $25,000 total in each state election.

The coalition is also calling for giving the state’s alleged campaign watchdog some teeth. In 12 years and more than 1,000 filed complaints, the Texas Ethics Commission has never subpoenaed a witness or document and never conducted a full audit of any campaign. Finally, echoing a call from most major state newspapers, the group urges that all legislative votes be recorded. Currently, there is a good chance average citizens will never know how their representative voted on many pieces of important legislation.

Not content simply to propose reforms, the coalition—whose other partners include Public Citizen, the AARP of Texas, state chapters of the League of Women Voters, the Baptist Christian Life Commission, American Jewish Committee, and Texas Impact—is stirring up the grassroots and backing specific legislation. As part of the campaign, they are holding summits across the state. The first occurred in San Antonio on December 1. About 70 people showed, all believing that the public has been shut out of their government, and now is the time for change. Additional forums will be held in Dallas and Houston.

“There is a broad consensus growing among activists, Capitol insiders, and the public that our current system is out of control and shuts off access and input,” says Fred Lewis. “If the public will get off its rear end and fight for change we have a good chance of getting it.”

TRIAL RUN

“There aren’t any satellite trucks,” said a camouflage-clad public affairs officer, gazing around the mostly empty parking lot outside Fort Hood’s main gate. He sounded a tad disappointed. It was just past 6 a.m. on December 4, and still dark. About a dozen shivering reporters were gathered, waiting to be led into the world’s largest military base, where, a few hours later, pre-trial hearings would begin for three of the soldiers charged with committing infamous abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. The military had moved the trials from Baghdad to Fort Hood without explanation, and the army seemingly expected a battalion of press to descend on the post. But the crowd never came. The army’s directive that reporters wanting to cover the hearings—which didn’t start till 9 a.m.—arrive at the remote base by 6 a.m. likely thinned the media ranks.

Those reporters who dragged themselves to the base in time saw a hint of how the government would prosecute the defendants, all reservists in a military police detachment based in Maryland. The three Fort Hood defendants are Sergeant Javal Davis, 27 (accused of stepping on detainees’ hands and feet in the famous naked prisoner pyramid); Specialist Sabrina Harman, also 27 (caught smiling in photos with a dead body and with naked detainees), and 36-year-old Specialist Charles Graner (the alleged ring-leader for much of the abuse, and supposed father of Pfc. Lynndie England’s baby). England is on trial at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Davis’ pre-trial hearing, the first of the three, lasted three hours. The attorneys spent much of the time haggling over which witnesses the military would allow to testify for the defense at trial. The army counsel, wearing perfectly pressed dark green dress uniforms, tried to convince the judge to limit the number of military intelligence officers and commanders from the prison who would testify. The government’s case is simple enough: the accused soldiers acted on their own and out of the chain of command. It’s essentially the “few bad apples” theory postulated by President Bush and Pentagon chieftains. Davis’ civilian attorney, Paul Bergrin, previewed his defense strategy by arguing that the defendants were under orders from military intelligence officers to soften up prisoners for interrogations. He theorized that the abuse was a direct result of U.S. military policy emanating from the Pentagon and White House.

The judge in the cases, Col. James Pohl, ruled that the army had to produce roughly two-thirds of the military witnesses that Bergrin asked for, though he denied several key ones, including the military intelligence commander at Abu Ghraib, Thomas Pappas. Pohl declared that Pappas and other military intelligence higher-ups weren’t connected to the specific assault charges that Davis faces. “[But] Pappas approved the use of dogs [for interrogation] in violation of every law known to mankind,” pleaded a frustrated Bergrin in his heavy Brooklyn accent.

“I’m not dealing with every law known to mankind,” shot back the folksy Pohl. “I’m just dealing with the laws that I know.” His ruling was final. Pappas wouldn’t testify.

Graner will be the first to stand trial, beginning on January 7. Trials for Davis (early February), and Harman (late March) will follow. A few more reporters, and perhaps a few satellite trucks, will likely be on hand for those.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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