Political Intelligence

Saints of Insecurity

Security Meltdown

With nuclear power on the cusp of a renaissance, how secure are Texas’ nuclear plants? Not very. A new report on the South Texas Project, a nuclear facility near Bay City, details a disturbing breakdown in security. NRG Energy Inc., the City of Austin, and the San Antonio utility CPS Energy jointly own the plant. The report was authored by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a D.C.-based environmental and scientific nonprofit. It documents eight gaping holes in security wide enough to drive a truck bomb through.

“Somebody could try to infiltrate the plant, attack the plant on the ground … due to these vulnerabilities,” says David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the UCS. “They would be able to cause either damage to the reactor core or release of radiation from the spent fuel that’s stored on-site. That could harm people living downwind and downstream from the facility.” Examples of security vulnerabilities cited in the report include an “unsecured weapons locker”; lax inspection of vehicles entering the plant; and malfunctioning surveillance cameras. When unionized security guards employed by Wackenhut Corp., the private security contractor for the plant, pointed out these breaches to the company and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Wackenhut supervisors allegedly retaliated against the employees, according to the report. The employees passed documents and eyewitness testimony on to the UCS. Lochbaum says that South Texas Project officials have an excellent track record on security and that Wackenhut management seems to be the, um, core of the problem.

In response to the report, the NRC, which regulates nuclear plants, announced that it would investigate the allegations. NRG Energy has contended in press reports that the company has already addressed security problems at the plant.

Despite the alleged security flaws, NRG Energy recently announced a plan to install two new nuclear reactors at the site. The $5.23 billion expansion would be up and running by 2014 if all goes as planned.

Missionary Positions

So a priest walks into an abortion clinic… If that sounds like the setup for a sick joke, it is. And in Amarillo, where an army of militant anti-abortion priests is being raised, it’s no laughing matter. After refusing an order from his bishop in New York to return to life as a parish priest, Father Frank Pavone decided to move his anti-abortion group, Priests for Life (PFL), to Amarillo last year. From his Panhandle digs, Pavone is assembling a new Catholic society of men, called the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life. The Missionaries-just a handful so far—make a lifelong commitment to fighting what Pavone calls “the plague of the culture of death”—abortion and euthanasia. The men also receive training in direct action, preaching, and weekly protests at the Amarillo Planned Parenthood office (the only remaining such clinic in the Panhandle). While Pavone has publicly disavowed violence against abortion doctors, pro-choicers say the man keeps some rough company. “Priests for Life has been associated with the most radical elements in the anti-abortion movement, Catholic and non-Catholic,” says Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. For example, Pavone has defended and raised funds for fellow traveler Joseph Scheidler, “a close PFL ally… found guilty of extortion and threats of violence for his obstruction tactics at abortion clinics,” according to Kissling’s organization.

On August 24, Pavone, along with some of the leading lights of the “pro-life” right-including Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade, and the parents and brother of Terry Schiavo, gathered in Amarillo to break ground on the Missionaries’ new national headquarters. President Bush sent Pavone a letter congratulating him on his new priestly army, according to the Priests for Life Web site. At the ceremony Pavone vowed he would “devote [himself] full-time to my brothers and sisters whose right to life is under direct attack and to be, especially for the unborn, the voice they do not have.” The pro-life padre is “fully” in support of the Iraq War and has a nuanced position on the death penalty—sometimes it’s justified. “As an American citizen I am proud to trust the decisions of those who have the awesome responsibility to make them,” he told a group of supporters in 2004.

Pavone frequently endorses candidates—Republicans all—and rails against the separation of church and state. But with godless Democrats threatening to roll back Republican control of Congress this year, Pavone is collaring up for a big fight, tax-exempt status be damned. “Everything we did in the 2004 cycle will be repeated, intensified, and multiplied, without compromise and without apology,” he recently wrote in the National Catholic Register.

Takes One to Know One

Here’s a pop quiz. How many people working on the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) recently created Task Force on Test Security have experience themselves with cheating: a. none; b. one; c. two; d. three; e. all of them. The answer, as always, is ‘c.’

Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley appointed the task force in early August to “examine security issues” and oversee investigations of cheating on the all-important state tests. Among the five task force members is Bill Hammond. Yes, that Bill Hammond—the head of the Texas Association of Business (TAB). Hammond and the TAB, you’ll recall, were key players in the wide-ranging effort to funnel corporate money into the 2002 election that ushered in a Republican majority in the Texas House. A Travis County grand jury indicted the TAB for its controversial, 2002 corporate-funded mailer campaign that allegedly violated state campaign finance law (a judge threw out some of those charges in July). Hammond and TAB have also been the subject of a civil suit alleging that they cheated during the 2002 campaign.

TEA has also contracted with consultant Olga Garza to serve as a staff member for the task force. Garza served on the board of the Austin Independent School District from 1998 to 2002. She was a board member in 1998, when AISD was embroiled in a test-cheating scandal in which district officials instructed principals at three schools to delete students with low test scores from data submitted to the state. (That’s exactly the kind of scam the task force is charged with investigating.) Though Garza wasn’t implicated, the scandal led to criminal indictments of the deputy superintendent and the school district itself in 1999. It was the first school district in the country ever indicted for test cheating, though no one was ever convicted.

“That’s not really a fair shot at Olga,” says TEA spokesperson Debbie Graves Ratcliffe. She adds that as a board member, Garza wasn’t directly responsible for the cheating. As for Hammond, Ratcliffe says, “He represents all kinds of businesses, and the commissioner wanted that perspective on the committee.”

The task force met for the first time on August 21 and initially recommended that TEA investigate 699 schools that exhibited testing irregularities. They plan to meet again in October.

Calling Out the Candidates

A session with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) can be a fearsome thing for a political candidate. In Texas, the IAF is comprised of 12 community- and church-based organizations from across the state that try to organize communities around social-welfare issues. During their so-called accountability sessions, leaders of the foundation fire questions at political candidates who have a limited time to respond. The interrogators demand specifics and forbid candidates from mentioning opponents. When former Comptroller John Sharp introduced himself to the group at their two-day Austin conference in early September, he prefaced his remarks by saying, “I am John Sharp. I am from Victoria, Texas, and I’ve been scared of you ever since I met you.”

Sharp isn’t on the ballot this election cycle, and that wasn’t the only departure from the IAF’s usual practices. Organizers billed the event not as an accountability session, but as a “legislative issues conference.” Nonetheless, the four main gubernatorial candidates were invited to give short speeches and answer questions. Only Democrat Chris Bell and independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn agreed to run the IAF gauntlet.

When Strayhorn, the self-styled, tough-talking grandma, appeared before the group, she promised to support IAF issues ranging from raising the minimum wage, to universal health care for Texas children, to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Carried away with enthusiasm, Rev. John Bowie of True Light Baptist Church in Houston even gave grandma a hug. After the session, Strayhorn presented a different face when she met with reporters; she criticized the state practice of offering in-state tuition at state colleges to illegal immigrant residents.

Bowie’s fellow leaders insisted that he also hug Bell, who appeared the day after Strayhorn. As one said, “Once you hug one, you have to hug them all.” Though the IAF doesn’t endorse candidates, in order to win Bell needs strong support from its roughly 300,000 members, and he embraced their agenda. “You’re my favorite kind of nonpartisan organization,” he told them. When it came to the questions, Bell had all the right answers. Asked whether the immigration debate should involve more than just securing the borders, Bell made a pitch for a more comprehensive approach. “People talk about building a 20-foot wall,” he said. “Well, all that will do is create an incredible market for 21-foot ladders.”

The crowd responded by giving Bell a warm reception, and then he was told his time was up.

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Published at 12:00 am CST