Political Intelligence

Dust in the Wind

Courting Favor

The lesson in the tale of Bob and Jane Cull-the North Texas homeowners who recently lost their politically charged case before the Texas Supreme Court-is don’t buy a home from the biggest campaign donor in the state.

The Culls bought a $233,000 home in 1996. The house had severe structural and foundation problems, and the Culls have spent the past 11 years trying to recoup their losses from builder Perry Homes. The company is owned by Bob Perry, who, in his spare time, spends several million dollars every election cycle to finance the campaigns of the state’s most powerful politicians and judges.

The Culls initially filed suit against Perry Homes in state court. Just before trial, they changed their minds and opted for binding arbitration instead. The building industry usually prefers arbitration because builders usually win. In fact, the builder-dominated Texas Residential Construction Commission-the state regulatory agency that Perry helped create and on which Perry’s corporate attorney serves-implemented a set of rules designed to funnel housing disputes into arbitration. Arbitration hearings have become the place homeowner complaints go to die.

Except this time the Culls actually won and were awarded an $800,000 judgment, no less. Having lost at its own game, Perry Homes challenged the award in court. A district judge and an appellate court both sided with the Culls. But the Texas Supreme Court-in a 5 to 4 ruling-threw out the arbitration award. The justices decided that the Culls, by suing in state court and then belatedly deciding to file for arbitration (to win compensation for their faulty house), had in fact treated Perry Homes unfairly. They ruled the arbitration invalid and commanded the Culls to take their case back to a trial court, where they had originally filed suit nearly eight years ago.

Since 2000, Perry and his family have contributed $135,000 to Supreme Court justices. The Perry-funded HillCo PAC has given another $172,000. The most unseemly of those contributions went to Justice Nathan Hecht. In early 2007, Hecht solicited donations from numerous corporations with business before the court to pay off a large legal bill he had incurred fending off an ethics investigation (see “Hecht of a Job,” July 27, 2007).

Among those that came to Hecht’s aid was HillCo, which gave $16,000 the month before Hecht and the court heard oral arguments in Perry’s case against the Culls. Yet Hecht refused to recuse himself. More than a year later, Hecht was one of the five justices who poured out Bob and Jane Cull in favor of Bob Perry.

Teardrops from Tulia

Joe Moore, one of the defendants in the infamous Tulia cocaine bust of 1999, died April 27 after a long illness. Moore was the first person tried in the sting; he served nearly four years of a 90-year sentence before Gov. Rick Perry pardoned him in 2003, after the undercover officer in the case was exposed as a fraud.

Moore, a hog farmer and sometime bootlegger, became a cause célèbre after his case was profiled in a variety of media outlets. Unable to even raise bail after his arrest, he wound up being represented in his appeal by a top litigator at one of the nation’s most prestigious law firms.

“One sweetheart of a person is gone,” said Moore’s longtime companion in Tulia, Thelma Johnson. She recalled that Moore, who was 57 and in poor health at the time of his arrest, worried he would die in prison. “I think he was glad when his time came that he was free,” she said.

Moore, who received a cash settlement after his release, bought land in the country and spent several years raising hogs and growing vegetables before he became too ill to continue. He lived long enough to see the undercover officer in his case, Tom Coleman, convicted of perjury, and the local prosecutor, Terry McEachern, defeated at the ballot box.

Moore’s case, along with similar scandals, also led to the eventual dismantling of much of the statewide system of drug task forces, which at one time employed over 700 narcotics officers, mostly in rural areas. His last remaining nemesis, Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart, who directed the undercover operation in Tulia, announced his retirement shortly before Moore’s death. According to Johnson, Moore had already moved on. “He forgave everyone,” she said. He was 65.

Shifting Winds

Environmentalists have cheered the fact that Texas leads the nation in wind power. Wind is virtually pollution-free, doesn’t contribute to climate change, and is increasingly cost-competitive with coal and nuclear energy. However, a lawsuit may signal that the romance with wind is winding down. The Coastal Habitat Alliance, a coalition of conservation groups, is suing to stop two large wind farms under construction in Kenedy County, 100 miles south of Corpus Christi. Joining the environmentalists is the King Ranch.

The alliance objects to the location of the wind farms-in the heart of what scientists refer to as Texas’ “last great habitat,” a swath of undeveloped coastal land in South Texas that is home to a cornucopia of native wildlife. It also serves as a rest stop on the feathery superhighway traveled by neo-tropical birds making their spring and fall migrations.

Environmentalists contend that the wind farms, which will consist of as many as 290 turbines, each standing more than 400 feet tall, as well as transmission lines, roads, and concrete pads, amount to the “industrialization” of 60,000 acres of fragile habitat. One scientist testifying for the alliance, Ron Sass of Rice University, has concluded that the infrastructure “will have a catastrophic impact” on wetlands and the hypersaline Laguna Madre by choking off freshwater flow, according to an affidavit.

The lawsuit asserts that the Texas Public Utility Commission and the General Land Office violated federal law by not considering the environmental impact of the development or providing the public any opportunity to intervene, as required under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act.

Babcock & Brown and Iberdrola Renewables are the two companies developing the project. They accuse the alliance of trying to scuttle a $1.2 billion investment in clean energy based on dubious science. Jan Johnson, a spokeswoman for Iberdrola Renewables, said its independent experts found the site acceptable. “We are very confident that this site will have no significant impacts, and where we did see some concerns we modified the site; we moved some turbines.”

At an estimated 700 megawatts, the Kenedy wind farms will generate as much power as a modest-sized coal-fired power plant. A motion to dismiss the suit will be heard in Austin on June 3.

Gone But Not Forgotten

Ever since a storied pesticide formulating plant in Mission shuttered in 1972, its industrial remains on Holland Avenue have served as a spooky reminder of a facility that produced poison in a poor residential neighborhood (see “Slow Death, Slower Justice,” June 29, 2007).

Not anymore.

At a public meeting May 1, EPA officials told residents that the cleanup of the old Hayes-Sammons Chemical Co. site is complete after the destruction of the mixing plant, which was built in 1950 to supply Rio Grande Valley citrus groves and cotton fields with yield booster.

Abandoned for years, it looked like an aqua-blue airplane hangar with holes in the roof, the walls tagged with spray paint. During its heyday, mounds of granulated chemicals were piled outside. Lacking a fence, the facility was like a community sandbox for curious kids, residents said. Strong Gulf winds blew the gunk throughout the neighborhood. Some of the organochloride chemicals handled there, such as DDT, were eventually banned as potential carcinogens.

Millions of dollars have been spent on federal and state cleanups of the site and nearby residential yards. In a cautiously worded statement at the meeting, health authorities assured there is “no apparent public health hazard associated with the existing conditions” at the site.

Roque Duran, 53, a community activist, said after the meeting that he’s thankful the mixing plant is gone, but says there is still fear about what remains in South Mission. “This has nothing to do with all the other homes that were contaminated,” he said. Though many yards were remediated during previous cleanups, some were not. Residents worry that contamination lurks in attics, crawlspaces, and other areas.

Duran is one of 1,600 plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Hayes-Sammons and scores of other companies that ran or were affiliated with the site. Residents and former employees allege the chemicals caused cancer and other maladies. Each plaintiff’s case is to be tried separately. Since the suits were filed in 1999, several plaintiffs have died waiting for trial. Plaintiffs had hoped that the first trial would begin soon, but some defendants filed an emergency appeal on April 28. A previous appeal delayed the case for two years before the Texas Supreme Court kicked it back to a trial court in Hidalgo County.

It is uncertain what will become of the old formulating plant site. An open space now, it sits near homes and a school bus depot. Duran suggests building a memorial.

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Published at 12:00 am CST