Political Intelligence

Off the Rails


Barton’s Gravy Train

The federal campaign reports for January are out, and we now know who exactly was riding—literally—Texas Congressman Joe Barton’s gravy train last month.

On January 20, Barton (R-Ennis) rented out a train to take campaign contributors on a seven-hour trip from Fort Worth to San Antonio, part of a two-day fundraiser that included a tour of the Alamo and lots of buffets. Tickets cost $5,000 for political action committees and $2,000 for individuals, which happen to be the respective contribution limits for PACs and individuals under federal law.

In his invitation, Barton wrote, according to news accounts, “During the ride, we’ll have lots of time to talk, play some Texas Hold ‘Em, and enjoy some great down home Texas food. This is about as good as it gets.” A few thousand dollars for a train ride and some poker may sound a little steep, but if you’re a lobbyist, it’s a bargain for seven hours with the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Barton and his staff refused to tell reporters at the time who had contributed.

Fortunately, the recently released Federal Election Commission campaign finance reports are more forthcoming. About 20 PACs each handed over $5,000 checks around the time of the fundraiser, presumably for the privilege of riding with Barton.

Checks from energy companies, including Duke Energy Corp., American Electric Power, and the El Paso Corp., appeared on the campaign finance report within days of the fundraiser—not surprising since Barton’s committee oversees energy policy. Among other PACs listed are the American Podiatric Medical Association PAC, the Deloitte & Touche PAC, the Comcast Corp. PAC, and the TimeWarner PAC. (Barton’s committee will address several telecommunications issues affecting TimeWarner and Comcast in 15 separate hearings this Congressional session, including legislation determining television “decency” standards, and a bill overseeing the national transition to digital TV.)

The PAC contributions and individual checks reported around the time of the trip total $118,000, which accounts for most of the $169,800 that Barton raised during the first six weeks of 2006.

But before you start, um, railing against the culture of corruption in Congress, consider the comments of at least one energy lobbyist, who told the Observer that the train ride didn’t really provide the access you might have imagined. Dozens of people competed for time with the congressman, the lobbyist said. The big winner for Barton’s attention was a guy named Jack—the congressman’s new baby.

A Private Death

The horrors of the Texas prison system rarely escape the jailhouse walls, but a recent lawsuit filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project reveals a climate of negligence and violence in one privately run South Texas prison.

The suit, filed February 15 in San Antonio federal district court, alleges that 23-year-old LeTisha Tapia, a prisoner at the Val Verde County Correctional Facility, was allegedly raped, beaten, and deprived of urgent mental health care. Attorneys with the Texas Civil Rights Project filed suit on behalf of Tapia’s family against the private prison company, GEO Group, that operates the facility. A number of prison guards, the jail’s warden, and the United States Marshals Service are also listed as defendants. The complaint portrays the Val Verde prison, located in Del Rio, as a madhouse where guards allowed male and female inmates to have sex.

Tapia began her term at the Val Verde facility in January 2004. She pled guilty to possession of marijuana in June 2004 and expected to be released within a year. After a riot among the male inmates, jail officials moved some of the men into the women’s cell block where “security guards allowed the male and female inmates … to enter each other’s cell to have sex,” according to the complaint. Uncomfortable with the situation, Tapia, who was married and had a 5-year-old son, complained to the warden in March or April. The warden then moved a new set of men into the cellblock. As a result, some of the women, deprived of their partners, told Tapia she needed “to prove she was not the ‘snitch’ by having sex with a male inmate,” according to the suit. The women coerced Tapia into the cell of a male inmate who raped her, according to several prisoners who gave affidavits to Scott Medlock, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. There is no evidence that Tapia received immediate psychological or medical treatment, Medlock said. The complaint notes that Tapia’s “mental state began to deteriorate.” On her birthday, July 14, Tapia had a serious anxiety attack and asked to see a psychologist. Eight days later, on July 22, she had a meeting with the jail shrink, Dr. Robert Skinner, when she asked for the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. She told Skinner of her history of depression and about a previous suicide attempt. Skinner apparently didn’t offer Tapia any treatment, later telling a GEO-commissioned investigator that he “did not find her at risk,” according to the GEO investigative report. (GEO didn’t return a call from the Observer seeking comment.) Desperate to reach her family, Tapia took a phone from the psychologist’s waiting room and snuck it back to her cell. One guard, Lt. Eric Dugger, became furious with Tapia for taking the phone, physically assaulting and sexually humiliating her, according to the complaint and inmate testimony. Tapia was then strip-searched and thrown into a segregation cell naked without a blanket or hygiene products.

The next night, Tapia was found hanging from a bed sheet in her cell. She was pronounced dead later that evening.

The lawsuit partially blames Tapia’s death on the jail’s inadequate medical care and supervision of the inmates. Medlock says this kind of corner cutting on prisoner treatment is common in private prisons. “It’s pretty obvious that privately run facilities are in it to make a profit,” he said. “They try to provide that to the company at the expense of inmate safety and health.”

Rename One for the Gipper

It was clear right from the opening prayer that the unveiling ceremony for the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway (heretofore known as Interstate 20) on February 16 in Arlington wasn’t going to be the usual nonpartisan, civic dedication of a piece of public infrastructure. “Lord…we thank you for the defense buildup and the tax cuts,” intoned Rev. Dwight McKissic in his opening invocation to the several hundred true believers—including Gov. Rick Perry, House Speaker Tom Craddick, and a quorum of the Arlington city council—gathered at the Knights of Columbus Hall, just off the highway. “We thank you because [Reagan] would not have become president without your will.”

After the prayer by McKissic—a fundamentalist preacher at an Arlington mega-church who’s working with Perry’s re-election campaign—Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck took the podium to explain where the idea of renaming I-20 after Reagan came from. He said a local citizen suggested honoring the 40th president shortly after Reagan’s death in the summer of 2004. “We stumbled around wondering what we could do—rename city hall—but nothing seemed fitting,” Cluck said. Then, he recalled, someone suggested I-20, which “fit perfectly, and we grabbed it and ran with it.”

Last spring, Arlington Rep. Kent Grusendorf and Sen. Chris Harris introduced Senate Bill 170 that officially renamed the stretch of I-20 in Tarrant County after Reagan. The bill originally included Dallas County as well, but state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) objected and amended the bill to exempt his county. (You’ll be glad to know, dear taxpayer, that no public funds were used to create the Reagan highway signs. Befitting Reagan, the Arlington Chamber of Commerce raised private money to cover the costs.)

Grusendorf, who was facing a tough primary fight, schemed to pair the Reagan Memorial Highway dedication with a big-money lunch fundraiser for his re-election campaign, held just prior to the unveiling in the same building. In the 10 minutes between the fundraiser and the highway dedication, Grusendorf staffers scurried around the hall covering up his campaign signs with blue cloth to present a veil of nonpartisanship at a supposedly civic event—a very thin veil, it turns out, since Grusendorf’s signs were easily visible through the cloth.

Not to be outdone at Gipper glorification was Arlington Mayor Pro Tem Ron Wright, who announced from the podium that, “We know now that [Reagan] was right and his critics were wrong. He was right about tax cuts. He was right about SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative].”

For soaring Reagan rhetoric, though, none of the speakers matched the governor. “The day that Ronald Reagan became president was a day that changed the world,” said Perry, one of the final speakers before a highway sign bearing Reagan’s name was unveiled. “Coming out of a period of great malaise…he ensured that America will remain that shining city on a hill. My hope is that every time a Texan travels that stretch of highway, they think about that man and that he was a modest man who changed the world.”

Bidin’ his Time

The Joe Biden for President bandwagon came through Austin in late February. Biden is still the senior U.S. senator from Delaware, and he hasn’t yet declared himself a White House candidate. But the oft-mentioned 2008 presidential hopeful has been busy marketing his views around the country recently, especially his hawkish stands on national security.

In his speech at the LBJ Auditorium at the University of Texas at Austin, the 33-year veteran of the Senate outlined the core principles of his foreign-policy “Prevention Strategy” (not to be confused with President Bush’s Doctrine of Pre-emption). Biden’s proposed strategy echoes the combative credo propagated by the Senate’s hawkish Democrats, a group that condemns the Bush administration’s mishandling of the war in Iraq, but maintains that the U.S. should “stay the course” and, according to Biden and his colleague Sen. Hillary Clinton, even increase troops. Biden, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned the audience that there would be a “heavy price to pay” if U.S. troops leave Iraq too soon.

Biden believes America’s current security situation is bleak. The country’s current strategies, he says, won’t address what he sees as the two biggest threats: the spread of “radical fundamentalism” and the possibility of the “world’s most dangerous people” obtaining weapons of mass destruction (Read: Iran). Biden’s solution, his Prevention Strategy, may sound like an anti-STD campaign, but it’s filled with intellectual heft. He proposes a threefold approach of prevention, effective alliances, and democracy-building in the Middle East. A strategy, he says, that if done right will “expand American power.” Now where have we heard that before?

Even though Biden claims to be turning the Bush Doctrine upside down, his rhetoric has a familiar, Bush-y ring to it. The “axis of evil” is still thriving, and the world is divided between “civilized nations” and “innocents.” When he coupled these catchphrases with scathing indictments of the Bush administration, the auditorium filled with silent befuddlement. And after harsh criticisms of the administration, Biden told the audience that he considers President Bush a friend. That kind of centrist rhetoric might not fly with Democratic primary voters in 2008, especially after John Kerry failed with a similar approach in 2004. But Biden’s got a few years to work out the kinks.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?

If you think gubernatorial candidate Kinky Freidman speaks his mind, you should hear the 95-year-old Democratic candidate in the 10th Congressional District. Sid Smith of Austin isn’t afraid to call former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay “an asshole.” He’s equally uninhibited when referring to the Republican incumbent in his race as “DeLay’s stooge.”

Smith, whose house smells like bacon and whose white hair falls down to his collar, insists he genuinely wants to represent the district that runs from northern Austin to suburban Houston. He says he wants to remain in Congress for only one term—as his campaign slogan asks, “at 95, who needs term limits?”—to help correct the mistakes from the DeLay era. One clear blunder, in Smith’s mind, was DeLay’s sculpting of the 10th Congressional District during the 2003 redistricting feud, which enabled first-term Republican Mike McCaul to win the seat.

In the now-conservative district, Smith is the longest of long shots. But don’t tell him that. He says he has a real chance of beating three Democratic primary opponents and winning the general election, even if he has raised little money and his campaign strategy consists mainly of distributing stickers and planting yard signs.

And whatever you do, for the love of God, don’t suggest to him that he’s too old to run for office. Try it, and he’ll tell you in colorful words to go commit a sex act on yourself that only a hermaphrodite could imagine carrying out.

A true Austin liberal, Smith talks a lot about his ideas for change. He says he wants a constitutional amendment to make sure everyone has health insurance. He also wants to pull American troops out of Iraq. He’d like to offer statehood to Mexico and Canada. That would certainly solve the immigration issue.

During a recent chat at his house that overlooks Lake Austin, Smith opines that he wants to spark another safe-sex campaign. “Use rubbers,” Smith says, adding that it’s a message for everyone, straight or gay. After that setup for a question about gay marriage, Smith responds, “As long as nobody hits on me, I’m for it.”

For all his talk—and the man certainly can pontificate—Smith’s reasons for entering the race are simple. “There’s one main thing: I want to annihilate Tom DeLay’s stooge,” he says. The 95-year-old paused and quickly reconsidered his inflammatory remark. It seemed for a moment that Smith, like so many politicians in our news-saturated society, wanted to substitute his heated rhetoric with something more measured, something more in line with modern sensibilities. Scratch “annihilate,” he says. Instead, he wants to “decimate the stooge.”