Political Intelligence

Crazy In Need


New Orleans has Brad Pitt. Devastated farmers have Willie Nelson. Galveston Island, however, is still searching for that special someone who can shine some national attention on its multibillion-dollar recovery effort.

Five months after Hurricane Ike, island residents feel like they’ve been forgotten. The city needs an estimated $3.6 billion to rebuild after the nation’s third-costliest natural disaster. The storm’s timing was an additional misfortune, striking during a historic presidential election and a worsening economic crisis.

“With the rest of the nation losing jobs and struggling with foreclosures, it’s difficult to ask for help right now,” says Alicia Cahill, spokesperson for the city of Galveston.

illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

City officials are lobbying for federal and state funds, but the money has been slow to materialize. Many of the shops and restaurants in the historic district that suffered storm surges of up to eight feet are still closed. Islandwide, population is estimated to be down by 30 to 40 percent. (See “The Castaways,” Dec. 12, 2008, and “Island of the Lost,” Feb. 20).

Some islanders believe that only the power of celebrity can put Galveston’s recovery effort on the national radar. In a recent blog post, the editor of The Galveston County Daily News wrote about an anonymous city official ruminating over the island’s plight. “Galveston needs a Brad Pitt,” he posited. “Who could possibly raise the profile of this community as it struggles to recover?”

Two names are on many islanders’ minds: pop singer Beyoncé Knowles, famous for such hits as “Crazy in Love,” and country singer Glen Campbell.

Beyoncé, born and raised in Houston, has close ties to the island. Her mother was born and raised in Galveston. The singer also owns a home on Galveston’s West End, according to Heber Taylor.

Campbell, of course, sang about Galveston “for like 30 years,” says Ted Hanley, an island resident for the last two decades. Hanley, who runs a nonprofit social service agency called Jesse Tree, sent an impassioned letter to the singer asking if he would lend a hand. Campbell never responded.

Beyoncé did donate $100,000 after the storm. She also held a fundraiser at Houston’s House of Blues last December. The majority of the money went to Houston’s recovery efforts, according to Roshelle Gaskins, public relations manager for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.

To be fair, Gaskins and Cahill say that island officials haven’t reached out to Campbell or Beyoncé for help. The Observer decided to contact Beyoncé’s management to ask whether the singer might be willing to be Galveston’s celebrity angel.

“Send the question in an e-mail,” her publicist barked. Days passed. Beyoncé’s response never came.

-Melissa del Bosque

Benching Sharon Keller


Sharon Keller, perhaps the most infamously unjust judge in Texas, will soon have to stand trial herself.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct announced on Feb. 19 that Keller, chief justice of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals-the state’s highest criminal court-will be tried publicly on charges that she exhibited “incompetence in the performance of her duties in office” when she declined to accept an appeal from a condemned inmate. The commission hasn’t yet set a date for the trial. Keller, who’s served on the Court of Criminal Appeals since 1995, faces removal from office, censure, or exoneration. The irony is that the incident that finally landed Keller in ethical trouble may be the least of her numerous transgressions on the high criminal court. (See “The Worst Judges in Texas,” Feb. 10, 2006.)

The charges stem from Sept. 25, 2007, when Keller refused to keep the clerk’s office open a few minutes past 5 p.m. to accept a last-ditch appeal from Michael Wayne Richard. Earlier that day, the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to hear a Kentucky case that would examine the legality of lethal injection. Richard’s attorneys figured they had a good chance to win a stay-and, in fact, two days later, the U.S. Supreme Court would grant a stay to another Texas inmate and executions would be halted for eight months. As Richard’s attorneys rushed to file a last-minute brief that would have saved his life, at least for a little while, computer problems caused a delay. They notified the clerk’s office that the brief would arrive a few minutes past 5 p.m. Keller responded, as reported at the time by the Austin American-Statesman, “We close at 5.” Richard was executed a short time later.

Before an execution, judges are usually available after business hours for last-minute appeals, sometimes late into the night. Keller’s devotion to punctuality in a life-and-death situation was apparently too much for most of the Texas legal establishment. Her actions drew protests from advocacy groups, dozens of lawyers, and even fellow conservative judges. Several lawmakers and newspapers have called for her impeachment. But however cold-hearted her actions in the Richard case, she has done worse in the past.

Keller once joined a majority on the court to allow an execution to go forward even though the defendant’s trial lawyer had suffered from severe mental illness and had his license suspended three times. She determined the defendant had received adequate representation. In 1996, Keller ruled that death row inmate Cesar Fierro’s forced confession was valid, even though it was obtained after police threatened to allow Mexican authorities to torture his family.

But her most stunning performance came in the case of Roy Criner. Keller refused to grant Criner a new trial even after DNA tests showed the semen found on the woman he supposedly raped didn’t match Criner’s. In a cringe-worthy interview with the PBS show Frontline, Keller argued that just because the DNA evidence excluded Criner didn’t mean he hadn’t committed the rape; perhaps he had worn a condom or not ejaculated, she said. Further DNA evidence would implicate the actual rapist. Criner received a pardon in 2000, but not before he spent an additional two years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit-solely because of Keller.

The process for removing Keller from office is a lengthy one. She has 15 days to respond to the Commission on Judicial Conduct’s report. The commission will then appoint a special master to oversee a public hearing and make a recommendation on Keller’s fate. The full commission will hold its own hearing, after which it can censure Keller or dismiss the charges. To impeach Keller, though, the commission must recommend removal to the Texas Supreme Court, which appoints a panel of seven appellate judges, who hold yet another hearing. At that point, Keller might be impeached, although even that decision can be appealed to the conservative Texas Supreme Court for final ruling.

With Sharon Keller, justice always seems delayed.

-Dave Mann


Locked Down


One day in late October 2006, Adan Muñoz Jr. received an urgent call from someone in Pecos. There were county inmates at the Reeves County Detention Complex, the caller said. Muñoz had been on the job as executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for only a month, but he understood the significance right away. This was a rare chance to get one of his inspectors into the troubled prison.

The Reeves Detention Complex is an odd place: a county-owned jail that rarely has any county inmates. Instead, the remote facility is jammed with more than 2,000 federal inmates-mostly undocumented immigrants convicted of federal immigration crimes-and overseen by the world’s second-largest private prison company, Florida-based GEO Group Inc.

In 2003, at the behest of Reeves County officials, Rep. Pete Gallego, a Democrat whose district includes the county, shepherded a bill through the Texas Legislature that exempted county-owned jails and prisons holding only federal prisoners from oversight by TCJS. Gallego said that he wanted to eliminate duplicative regulation by state and federal agencies. The legislation left 18 such facilities-and an estimated 18,000 inmates-outside the purview of the state jail commission. Under the new law, state inspectors could enter only if they somehow learned that county inmates or out-of-state prisoners were being held.

Upon receiving the phone call, Muñoz immediately dispatched one of his four inspectors to Pecos for a surprise inspection. Good thing he did: The inspector found only 14 guards on site for 855 inmates, a 1-to-61 guard-to-inmate ratio. TCJS standards require a minimum of 1-to-48.

“That’s a tremendous red flag,” Muñoz says. “I’ve yet to find another facility that high.”

TCJS hasn’t been able to go back to the Reeves prison since October ’06, despite reports of several suspicious inmate deaths and two riots in recent months. Other GEO-run facilities in Texas have had a rash of suicides and human rights complaints. In the last 18 months, GEO Group has had its contract yanked at three Texas facilities, including two prisons housing Idaho inmates that officials from that state said had appalling conditions.

In February, Munoz told a House appropriations subcommittee that he wanted commission’s powers to regulate private, county-owned lock-ups restored. Doing so could help prevent such heinous problems in the future, Munoz says. “I would strongly suspect that knowing you’re going to have annual inspections and surprise inspections sometimes… would lead to the facility being brought up to standards.”

The prisons in question already fall under federal standards. In fact, the troubled Reeves prison has “a few” federal overseers on-site full-time, according to a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson. But “it’s clear that the federal government is not regulating these facilities,” says Bob Libal, a coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based organization that opposes private prisons. “You don’t have multiple people dying and full-scale riots where basic standards are being met.”

State Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-Corpus Christi, is expected to file a bill restoring the commission’s oversight. Gallego did not return several phone calls to his office.

-Forrest Wilder

The Benefits of Camouflage

The Price of Profit


Insurance companies in Texas are getting what they can while the getting’s good.

Texans continue to pay the highest rates for home insurance in the nation. Meanwhile, the industry has enjoyed some of its most profitable years on record-despite the occasional hurricane. That’s due in part to a lax regulatory system in which the Texas Department of Insurance has little power over the market. Insurance companies in Texas can raise rates whenever they wish, and simply have to inform regulators. This decidedly industry-friendly arrangement, called a “file and use” system, was implemented in 2003, during the last crisis over home insurance. Insurers have been taking full advantage lately.

The most recent increase came courtesy of Farmers Insurance Group, the state’s third-biggest carrier, which in mid-February implemented double-digit rate hikes. Roughly 700,000 Texas homeowners will see their rates jump 10 percent to 12 percent.

Farmers announced the rate hike late last year. The insurance department-which can contest increases only after the fact-reviewed the proposal, decided the rates weren’t exorbitant, and chose not to challenge them. Last year, State Farm Lloyds Inc., the state’s largest insurer, raised rates 3 percent.

“These kind of double-digit rate increases at a time when homeowners are struggling with the economy are pretty unconscionable and really arrogant,” says Alex Winslow with Texas Watch, a consumer advocacy group. “They’ve got to know that the Legislature is considering serious reforms, and to arrogantly come in and raise their rates that way is disappointing.”

State lawmakers are likely this session to alter the way the home insurance market is regulated. Many legislators would like to give the insurance department a say over rates before they go into effect. This is known as prior approval, and it’s a popular idea with Texans, according to a recent poll commissioned by Texas Watch. The group hired Hill Research Consultants, a polling firm with a reputation for independence and a history of working with Republican candidates. About 600 randomly selected voters were surveyed, and 75 percent favored prior approval. Only 16 percent were against it. The margin of error was 4 percent.

Of course, the industry still holds a lot of influence at the state Capitol, and has gotten its way many times before. But if Texans favor more regulation as strongly as the Texas Watch poll suggests, then the industry’s golden period of unfettered rates may soon end.

-Dave Mann