Political Intelligence

First-Class Action

Flying High on the Hog

If you really want to get irritated about corruption in Congress, next time you’re sitting next to a baby with colic in the back row of a Southwest Airlines flight out of Midland, struggling to open a lousy bag of peanuts, imagine your trusty congressman and staff sipping champagne with some high-powered lobbyist on a private jet over the Rockies. They’re doing it more often than you think. Your public servants in Congress and their staffs accepted nearly $50 million worth of free trips between January 2000 and June 2005.

That insight comes courtesy of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Public Integrity. With so much recent attention on the cozy relationship between lobbyists and elected officials—fueled by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal—the group decided to investigate the practice of special interests bankrolling junkets for politicians and their staffs. “It’s significant just because of the numbers that we’re showing,” says Samuel Stein, the center’s press secretary. “When Congress and their aides are spending close to 81,000 days away from Capitol Hill, that is a significant amount of time.”

It is also important because these trips—and the unfettered access that they represent—offer lobbyists time to persuade members of Congress to support special interests. The Texas delegation, in particular, rarely seems to turn down an opportunity to travel. Texas congressmen, senators, and their staffs took 1,773 trips that cost access-seekers $3.7 million, according to the center’s data.

The Hill’s leading junket-taker during the five and a half years was—who else?—former House Majority Leader Tom Delay, the Sugar Land Republican. He and his aides (and sometimes their spouses) went on 216 trips costing more than $500,000. Their missions were to places such as Nicaragua, French Guiana, Puerto Rico, and Italy.

Three other Texas politicians’ offices were among the top junketeers, accepting more than $200,000 in free travel. Rep. Joe Barton, an Ennis Republican and now the most powerful Texan in Congress, made 252 trips worth about $370,000. Some destinations for Barton and his staff included Aspen, Telluride, Jackson Hole, Costa Rica, and San Francisco. Barton’s office didn’t return calls for comment.

Not far behind Barton on the Texas list was former Rep. Larry Combest (R-Lubbock), who served from 1985 to 2003. He and his staff traveled 213 times at a cost of about $224,000. Some their favorite spots were New York, New Orleans, and New Zealand.

You can’t forget about the Democrats. They need to travel, too. The No. 4 position among Texas’ high-flyers belongs to Corpus Christi Democratic Rep. Solomon Ortiz, who the center says took 46 trips worth about $209,000. Ortiz’s office didn’t return requests for comment. Records show that he and his staff have an affinity for East Asia; they visited—among many other places—Taiwan, Japan, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Warning on Warming

Like George Costanza on Seinfeld, the state of Texas is experiencing significant shrinkage.

Sea levels are inching up, and the rising tide from the Gulf of Mexico is expected to gobble up some of Texas’ coastal communities within the next 100 years. Environmental watchdogs recently warned that Galveston Island could become a swampy uninhabitable wasteland and South Padre could be end up sleeping with the fishes. All these scenarios are contained in a scientifically well-documented report by Environmental Defense—which has the unambiguous title “Fair Warning: Global Warming and the Lone Star State.” The report states that unless Texas and the world wise up, then already-oppressive Texas heat waves will become even more brutal and warmer Gulf of Mexico waters will increase the severity of hurricanes. “Texans can expect many dramatic changes as global warming continues,” Jim Marston, director of the Texas office of Environmental Defense, bluntly said in a statement accompanying the report. (Marston is on the board of the Texas Democracy Foundation, which publishes the Observer.)

The report depicts a Texas in which low-lying communities are flooded, and the wildlife dies off as the sea drinks up essential coastal ecosystems. For the more economically focused Texans, the environmentalists note that the multibillion-dollar coastal economy would suffer tremendously if the seas encroach and the hurricanes destroy billions of dollars of prime coastal real estate.

The Environmental Defense report also warns that global warming will threaten the health of the 1.6 million Texans who live near the coast. There will be more frequent heat-related deaths, more mosquito-borne diseases, and more wildfires, the report predicts.

What frustrates environmentalists is state leaders’ preference for even more coal-fired power plants that are some of the biggest producers of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming. Eleven new coal plants are currently planned for construction around the state. The study’s authors say that too few lawmakers in Austin are willing to follow the example of decision-makers in places like California and Connecticut, where efforts are already under way to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. Marston wants Texas legislators to create a global warming task force that could look at methods to reduce Texas’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Texas residents can also help, the study says. The authors of the study encourage simple things like shopping for the Energy Star logo, carpooling, and keeping low-emissions cars well tuned. Also, the study asks, why not choose a company that sells energy which is gathered from renewable sources?

Cartoon by Danziger

The Wire-Tap Dance

At the beginning of May, USA Today reported that telecommunications companies such as AT&T, Inc. and Verizon had provided the National Security Agency with records of phone calls made by millions of Americans. The ACLU has called it “the most massive invasion of privacy in American history.”

A group of Texans recently joined the fray by filing a class-action lawsuit against San Antonio-based AT&T, Inc. alleging that the corporation illegally sold their private records to the government.

R. James George, a partner at George & Brothers, L.L.P., filed the lawsuit on behalf of five Texas-based plaintiffs including Austin Chronicle Editor Louis Black and Richard Grigg, an attorney for detainees in Guantanamo Bay. All five plaintiffs use AT&T services to communicate confidential information with either clients or sources. Yet since it’s a class-action case, the suit would require AT&T to “pay damages to everybody that they did wrong who lives in Texas,” George said.

The complaint contends that AT&T has committed an invasion of privacy by providing the NSA with such details as the phone numbers customers dial and the lengths of each call made. The suit also says that AT&T illegally profited from this arrangement since the NSA paid for the phone call records.

AT&T, Inc., which recently merged with SBC Communications and Southwestern Bell, has denied doing anything illegal, according to several news accounts. An AT&T spokesperson didn’t respond to requests for comment from the Observer. George says that when he asked AT&T’s lawyer Kent Hance whether the company gave the government access to phone records, Hance responded, “I can’t tell you one way or the other.”

Jim Harrington, the director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, is a listed plaintiff in the suit. He said that AT&T’s actions violate not only the U.S. Constitution, but Texas law as well. “Generally, the requirement of the law is that you can’t get personal information like that without a warrant,” he said. “The government says, ‘we don’t need to get a warrant because it’s a national security issue,’ and this is saying that anytime the government says the mantra of ‘national security’ then it suspends the Constitution.”

The ACLU and other groups have brought several lawsuits of this sort against AT&T, with hopes that the company will pay damages and that, more importantly, this type of surveillance will stop. (Or, at the very least, that they’ll offer cell phone plans with more minutes.)

WE’RE NO. 1! WE’RE NO. 1!

Pollution at BP PLC’s Texas City refinery increased dramatically between 2003 and 2004, according to figures recently released by the EPA. In March 2005, 15 workers were killed and more than 170 injured in an explosion at the same refinery.

The EPA’s latest annual Toxics Release Inventory report for the facility owned by BP (formerly British Petroleum) shows the plant produced 10.25 million pounds of pollution in 2004, mostly formaldehyde and ammonia—up from 3.03 million the previous year—making it the worst-polluting plant in the country. According to BP spokesman Scott Dean, nothing in the firm’s production process has changed, just the math. (Under federal law, companies get to choose their own method for calculating pollutants.) This time BP engineers used a new equation, based on advice from external consultants and new research, said Dean. Because of 1986 legislation, companies that store or release certain polluting chemicals have to report them to the EPA. (End-of-the-worlders and other students of numerology might note that there are 666 chemicals and compounds on the list). Every year some 23,000 manufacturing facilities—roughly 1,800 of them in Texas—take stock of how many pollutants and how much toxic material they have. Those numbers are used to calculate—theoretically—the pollution that the material should produce. Those unverified pollutant numbers are then submitted to the EPA. According to Dr. Mort Wakeland of the EPA regional office in Dallas, the agency does not verify the figures, but compares them with data from the previous year. Of approximately 1,800 sites in Texas, EPA investigates only about 40 a year.

MORE NUMERICAL VOODOO

Now that the Bush Administration has trotted out two of its favorite hobbyhorses—illegal immigration and gay marriage—to distract the public from policy debacles in Iraq and at home—what else can we expect in the way of manufactured crises? How about a massive PR campaign to deny Americans access to courts—otherwise known as “tort reform” in the Orwellian language of its proponents. Last month we were treated to a sneak preview of things to come when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst issued a press release announcing, “Recent study ranks Texas first in overall tort climate.” (Tort climate, it goes without saying, is not to be confused with global warming. )

The study in question, “U.S. Tort Liability,” was produced by the Pacific Research Institute and the American Justice Partnership, which concluded that Texas was the best state in the country for business, thanks to massive legislative changes enacted in 2003—restrictions on class actions, limits to punitive damages, and caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. Of course, it helps to know that PRI and AJP are not exactly impartial sources, but part of a web of PR firms, think tanks, industry-funded organizations, and industry friendly experts. PRI is a California-based think tank of right-wing free marketers à la Milton Friedman. According to its Web site, PRI’s chairman of the board, Clark S. Judge, is managing director of something called the White House Writers Group—”a strategic communications company” filled with former Reagan and Bush I speech writers and apparatchiks. The National Association of Manufacturers launched PRI’s partner organization, AJP, last year to—surprise! surprise!—coordinate lobbying for “tort reform,” legislation that restricts the public’s right to sue in civil courts. Currently presiding over the NAM, which wrote the introduction to the “U.S. Tort Liability” study, is John Engler. In 1995, as governor of Michigan, Engler signed a bill that made it impossible for a pharmaceutical firm to be sued over a drug that had been approved by the FDA.

Despite the glowing marks awarded to Texas for its business friendly, anti-litigation climate, the authors of the report concluded that the state had still not reached “judicial nirvana.”

Although they failed to define the term, judging by the organizations that produced the report, it’s easy to guess what judicial nirvana might look like: Anyone who ever dares to file a product-liability or negligence case shall be forced to stay after school and write 100 times on the blackboard, “I’ll never sue another corporation again. I’ll never sue another corporation again. I’ll never sue … .”

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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