The Texas State Senate puts a lot of stock in congeniality. Members often justify an unpopular vote to their constituents by saying they just want “to help move the process along.” Since Republicans took charge in 1999, most Democratic senators have shown a high degree of flexibility, often changing positions on a single vote numerous times in an effort to get a little bit more out of the deal. It’s this political culture of elasticity that made the tenure of Austin Democratic Senator Gonzalo Barrientos—who announced his retirement on September 7—so exceptional.
When Barrientos committed on an issue, you never had to wonder where he stood. When most senators agreed to support a budget they knew was a turkey, for “the process,” Barrientos would stand up and denounce it, even though its passage was a certainty. He’d chide his colleagues with the truth: they could do better. In particular, they could do better for the constituencies that Barrientos most cared about: the poor, kids, the elderly, the disabled, and, as he said at his retirement announcement, “anyone who has been traditionally discriminated against.”
Barrientos, 64, knew from discrimination. Born in Galveston into a family of migrant farm workers, he lived the civil rights movement and became one of the state’s first Latino legislators, winning a place in the House in 1974. He served five terms in the House and moved to the Senate in 1984.
“Things have changed in the Legislature,” said Barrientos. “Some of the old camaraderie and goodwill has succumbed to partisanship.”
Yet, in typical bulldog fashion, he said he was proudest of the unsuccessful fights he launched in the new GOP era. After serving out his term through 2006, Barrientos said he hopes to launch a Spanish-language radio talk show to take on the right-wing supremacy on the radio dial. “My heart is telling me to continue to fight for the things I believe in but to find another way to continue that fight.”
The end of summer saw a wave of seven new indictments issued by a Travis grand jury over the misuse of corporate money in the GOP’s 2002 election campaign. At press time, the grand total of indictments in the ongoing investigation stands at 39. Four of the new indictments were levied against the Texas Association of Business, which spent $2.3 million in corporate cash on television ads and more than four million mail pieces in a largely successful attempt to eliminate almost two dozen Democrats in 2002. (See “The Rise of the Machine,” August 29, 2003.)
This is the first time the TAB has been formally charged. When presenting the indictments, Travis County DA Ronnie Earle made sure to emphasize that the investigation had taken two and a half years in part because the TAB had tried to stymie it through multiple appeals. Andy Taylor, the mastermind of that defense strategy and a man quick with a quote, was oddly nowhere to be found in press accounts of the indictments. The TAB’s more experienced criminal defense attorney, Roy Minton, has argued that the business organization’s campaign was covered by the First Amendment and pre-approved by lawyers.
The TAB’s indictments feature more than 100 counts, including fraudulent solicitation of money from corporations, illegal corporate contributions, illegal expenditures, and coordinating these illegal efforts with “other groups, PACs, individuals, and entities.” Each count is a third-degree felony that carries a maximum penalty of $20,000.
The indictments also revealed, for the first time, the full list of the 28 companies and associations that contributed to the TAB’s secret corporate campaign. Not surprisingly, the list of donors is dominated by insurance companies who were under fire during the 2002 campaign for skyrocketing rates. Also included in the list are two Texas public works engineering firms—J.F. Thompson, Inc. and Dannenbaum Engineering Corporation. They gave a combined total of $100,000 to the campaign. It’s unclear if the two companies hoped their donations would curry favor with state leaders when it came to contracting for Texas’ massive highway project, the Trans-Texas Corridor. Repeated calls for comment to both firms were not returned. A search of state records by the campaign watchdog group Texans for Public Justice revealed that James Dannenbaum is a generous campaign funder, personally giving $275,697 in the 2004 election cycle and $225,650 in 2002, mostly to Republicans.
While the TAB indictments did not include charges against specific individuals, a number of them were mentioned prominently in statements such as “And the Grand Jury further presents that the conduct that constituted the commission of said offense was authorized, requested, commanded, performed, and recklessly tolerated by a high managerial agent of the Texas Association of Business, namely, [TAB President] William Hammond.” The indictments also mentioned Mike Toomey, a high-profile lobbyist and former chief of staff to Governor Rick Perry, as well as TAB staffers Lara Laneri Keel, Jack Campbell, and lobbyist Eric Glenn. The prominent mention of these individuals in the indictments has led to speculation that they too could be indicted at a later date.
The indictments did not ignore the Tom DeLay-founded Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC) either. Prosecutors seem to be tightening their case against TRMPAC and its operators by refining several of the charges they had already filed. On first-degree felony money-laundering charges, the grand jury re-indicted John Colyandro, the former executive director of TRMPAC, and Jim Ellis, the director DeLay’s national PAC, Americans for a Republican Majority. The charges carry a 5- to 99-year sentence and a fine of up to $10,000. The grand jury also added lesser felony charges of making a corporate contribution to a political party within 60 days of an election and indicted TRMPAC as an organization.
While Tom DeLay is still not an official target of the grand jury, the majority leader (apparently wishing to avoid receiving a subpoena) agreed to an informal meeting with Ronnie Earle on August 31. DeLay’s office released a subsequent statement insisting that his role in TRMPAC was “limited.”
Bill Black is no stranger to dirty politics. In the 1980s, he helped to expose the thieves in suits who raided $125 billion from the savings and loan industry. In the process, Black himself became a target of a group of U.S. senators and their well-heeled patrons in the industry. Black, former litigation director for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, moved on to an academic career. Meanwhile, the criminals went to jail, and the senators were mildly chastised.
Now, in the age of Enron and WorldCom, the wages of Black’s righteous crusade is petty revenge. At the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, Black developed a novel interdisciplinary theory that explains how CEOs, or “control frauds,” can make off with millions in an industry without proper regulation (see “Trash for Cash,” May 24, 2002). Despite that, and having spent nine years as an assistant professor, Black has been denied tenure by the university. Fourteen of the 15 external reviews solicited from academics around the country were positive, including one from George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize–winning economist who wrote, “Black is an unusually fine scholar” who “defines what an excellent academic should be.”
A committee of LBJ faculty members recommended Black in 2004, but “the Tower,” as Black wryly calls the phallic UT administrative building, decided not to give him tenure. The President’s Committee on Tenure and Promotion, which consists of top UT administrators, has full veto power over all tenure candidates. No records were kept of the meeting in which the decision was made—no minutes, no tally of the votes, no reasons offered. Black didn’t learn that he had been denied tenure until he received an e-mail from a colleague during the 2004 Christmas break with his apologies.
Black was shocked. “I’m exactly the kind of person they say they want,” he says. “This is a multidisciplinary school where they hire professionals who have done things in the real world.”
The only negative item in Black’s tenure file was a hostile letter from Black’s old boss, James Pierce, at the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement—the federal commission empowered to investigate the causes of the S&L crisis. Now an economics professor at Berkeley, Pierce attacked Black in the letter for being “ignorant of economics” and called him a “whistleblower,” not an academic.
“Many economists just cannot look at people in nice suits and see criminals,” said Black. “[Pierce] has such faith in the market that he unerringly believes it prevents fraud, but that is not what the world is showing.”
Ex-LBJ Dean Ed Dorn declined to speculate on the reasons for the Tower’s decision, citing privacy concerns, and insisted he didn’t recall whether he was present for the vote.