Political Intelligence

Dying for Nurses


When dozens of nurses from around the state rallied at the Capitol on March 4, everyone had a story. Anita Prinz, from outside Houston, told of nurses having to care for a dozen hospital patients at once. Tom Laughlin, from the Dallas area, said he frequently has to choose which critically ill patient to care for and which to leave alone for a few minutes. There were sad anecdotes about unattended patients falling, unnecessary deaths, and overworked nurses leaving the profession.

Even Rep. Senfronia Thompson had a tale. The Houston Democrat, who has filed legislation to require minimum nurse-to-patient ratios in Texas hospitals, told reporters that one of her grandchildren had been rushed to a Huntsville hospital a few days earlier with a temperature of 104.6. The child and mother waited four hours and eventually left without receiving treatment. (The next day, Thompson’s grandchild was diagnosed with strep throat and an ear infection.)

“This is why nurses quit,” said Beverly Leonard, a registered nurse for 40 years. “They can’t stand going home at the end of the day and thinking, ‘How could I not treat that kid with the 104 temperature?'”

illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

Texas ranks 43rd nationally in the number of nurses per capita, with roughly one RN for every 149 Texans in 2008, according to the Texas Board of Nurse Examiners. The Legislature is considering two competing proposals to address the shortage. Thompson’s House Bill 1489 requires hospitals and other inpatient facilities to meet bedside nurse-to-patient ratios. (Sen. Mario Gallegos Jr., a Houston Democrat, has a Senate companion.) That proposal is backed by the National Nurses Organizing Committee, a branch of the nation’s largest nurses’ union. The group says similar legislation enacted in California in 2004 has greatly improved the quality of care there.

The Texas Hospital Association, which helped kill similar legislation last session, opposes ratios, fearing the up-front costs. Hospitals prefer a bill by Sen. Jane Nelson, the Republican from Flower Mound who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Her legislation would give nurses more whistle-blower protection, but would only require hospitals to consider nurses’ input when deciding on staffing levels.

The RNs rallying at the Capitol think Nelson’s bill doesn’t go far enough. Hospitals, they said, won’t adequately address the nursing shortage unless they’re required to. Supporters of the Thompson-Gallegos bill also contend that mandated nurse-to-patient ratios would actually save hospitals money in the long run by reducing the number of wrongful death lawsuits and lowering turnover rates among RNs.

“Nurse-patient ratios work,” Leonard said. “I’ve been at the bedside for 40 years, and I’m here to tell you they work.”

Keystone Kounter-Terrorism


A bizarre, conspiracy-laden memo sent to almost 3,000 cops, fire marshals and public-health officials in North Texas links mainstream Muslim-rights organizations and anti-war groups to Middle Eastern terrorists, and calls on law enforcement to “report these types of activities.”

The leaked memo, dated Feb. 19 and labeled “For Official Use Only,” is one in a weekly series of “Prevention Awareness Bulletins” put out by the North Central Texas Fusion System, a regional intelligence-gathering center run by the Collin County Department of Homeland Security. Five such fusion centers, designed to consolidate and share intelligence with law-enforcement agencies, have been created in Texas since 9/11.

The bulletin has increased fears among civil libertarians and Metroplex Muslims that the North Central Texas Fusion System has edged into spying.

“This memo is not a plea for legitimate intelligence and seems to endorse discrimination against Muslims,” says Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. In a letter to state Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw, three Texas faith leaders have called for an investigation. The leaders say they find “troubling … the lack of predicate for Reasonable Suspicion before Islamic and Leftist groups are to be spied upon in the course of their constitutionally protected civic activities.”

Serious as those implications are, the bulletin has a decidedly Keystone Kops: Kounter-Terror Squad flavor to it.

The memo suggests that terrorists have deployed lobbyists to turn Americans into pro-terror jihadists. “A number of organizations in the U.S. have been lobbying Islamic-based issues for many years. These lobbying efforts have turned public and political support towards radical goals such as Shariah [sic] law and support of terrorist military action against Western nations. … The threats to Texas are significant.”

Who are these terror-loving lobbyists? The bulletin names names: The Council on American Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil-liberties group; the peace organization ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism); and the International Action Center, a group opposing imperialism and militarism founded by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

“Law enforcement should be aware of activities in their area,” the memo advises.

If it sounds like the fusion center analysis was based on right-wing Web sites prone to conspiracy-mongering, that’s because it was. Citations include an article on HumanEvents.com by the author of such books as The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America Without Guns or Bombs; and a review of Stealth Jihad on FrontPage magazine’s Web site.

It gets weirder. The author of the weekly Prevention Awareness Bulletin is James Johnson, son of Congressman Sam Johnson, a Republican who represents Collin County. James Johnson and his wife, Anita Miller, have received at least $1 million in no-bid contracts from Collin County since 2004 to design and run the fusion system.

James Johnson and Miller declined e-mailed requests to comment, but Collin County spokesman Tim Wyatt downplayed the significance of the memo.

“The bulletin didn’t direct any agency to investigate or target anybody,” he said. “I don’t think fire marshals in North Texas are out hunting for radical terrorists.” He did say that the county would review the sources and how the document was written.

Wyatt sent the Observer two January issues of the bulletin to show that most were concerned with more sober topics. One of the January bulletins does steer clear of the Muslim Menace altogether, discussing the law-enforcement implications of failing banks and progress made in preparing for flu epidemics. But the other, dated Jan. 22, includes a 12-point “Suicide Bombing Indicator Checklist.” FYI: Watch out for “inappropriate attire,” “sweating,” “mumbling,” and, of course, “last-minute indulgence in ‘sin’.”


Unhappy Returns


As the economy melts down, even Texas’ tort warriors and their kin are turning to civil courts to recover losses from ruined financial firms. Dallas energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens-a $1 million donor to Texans for Lawsuit Reform-filed a lawsuit last October to recoup $60 million from bankrupt Lehman Brothers. In January, a family foundation affiliated with a Texas tort-reform giant filed a $1.8 million claim against hammered Dallas hedge fund Highland Capital Management LP, depicting the foundation as a victim of deceit.

Amarillo’s Mary E. Bivins Foundation is named for the great-grandmother of former Republican state Sen. Teel Bivins, whose family established the charity to benefit Panhandle nursing homes and other causes. In 1995, then-Sen. Bivins authored or co-authored each of the four major tort-restriction bills that then-Gov. George W. Bush signed into law.

The Bivins lawsuit says the foundation invested $1.75 million in a Highland Capital fund in 2006, but in March 2008 the fund balked when the foundation invoked its contractual right to withdraw its money. Rather than pay a lump sum, Highland informed the charity that it would pay the money over nine months. Then Highland closed the fund in October as the value of its investments in high-yield, high-risk debt tanked. Investors like Bivins were informed that they would receive a pro-rata (proportionate) share of Highland’s remaining assets.

The lawsuit counters that the Bivins Foundation is entitled to all of its money because it sought to withdraw it months before the fund closed. A statement issued by a Highland spokesperson says the lawsuit “is based on a misunderstanding by the Bivins Foundation” about the hedge fund’s closing.

Even back in the heyday of tort backlash, it was clear that Teel Bivins was not a purist when his personal interests were at stake. The Amarillo Republican wasn’t alone. The same Texas lawmakers who shredded plaintiff rights in 1995 also opened the courthouse door to a new brand of lawsuit. Texas’ so-called 1995 “veggie libel law” made people liable for the “false disparagement of perishable food products.” Supporters of the measure included Bivins and Gov. Rick Perry, who was then agriculture commissioner. Plaintiffs quickly found a deep-pocketed pantsuit to sue.

Cattlemen led by Amarillo’s Paul Engler-a Bivins donor running one of the planet’s largest cattle-feeding operations-sued Oprah Winfrey in 1996 for disparaging American beef in a show on mad cow disease. The cowpoke plaintiffs attributed $12 million in losses to the show, whose host announced on-air, “I have just eaten my last burger.” An Amarillo federal judge drove the cattlemen out of court empty-handed in 1998, ruling that they failed to prove that beef prices track Oprah.

Bivins was an elite “Pioneer” fundraiser, raising more than $300,000 for the presidential campaigns of tort warrior George W. Bush. He became Bush’s ambassador to Sweden in 2004. Bivins did not return calls seeking comment for this story; a member of his household said he had just returned home from an unspecified surgery.

Canyon-based West Texas A&M University announced last October that the Bivins Foundation would help endow a new academic chair in Teel Bivins’ name. If the foundation hits pay dirt with its lawsuit and plows some of the winnings into this academic chair, it could prompt some fascinating lectures by A&M’s Teel Bivins Professor of Political Science.

Fourth Estate Sale - Politico

Justice Gone AWOL


Groucho Marx quipped that “Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.” What would he say about Texas military justice? Pushed by the top lawyers in the Texas National Guard, Rep. Dan Flynn, a Republican from Van, is carrying a bill that would create the harshest potential punishment in the nation for wayward soldiers.

The proposal follows on the heels of toughened sentences passed just two legislative sessions ago. Since 2005, a Texas Guardsman who is court-martialed can receive up to a $1,000 fine and one year in jail. That’s among the strictest penalties in the nation. Flynn’s legislation would increase the max to a $10,000 fine and five years in jail. Courts-martial can be triggered by offenses under the Texas Code of Military Justice, which include “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman,” using “contemptuous words against the governor,” and failure to show up for drills.

If Flynn’s bill had been law in the early ’70s, George W. Bush could have faced five years behind bars for skipping required training in the Texas Air National Guard.

Most states have maximum penalties of six months jail time and a few hundred dollars, according to research by the GI Rights Hotline. Those laws are rarely used. Only seven states, including Texas, are known to occasionally prosecute National Guard members for being AWOL or missing drills, the most frequent offenses.

David Counts, the state judge advocate general of Texas, says that while courts-martial are rare in Texas-between none and two a year-he is concerned that the penalties on the books are too lax. “We seldom have courts-martial,” says Counts. “I want to make sure that when we do, it’s relevant. If the punishment doesn’t mean anything, then what good is it?”

The National Guard has other methods to deal with a substantial number of soldiers who try to avoid deployment. Though commanders rarely resort to courts-martial, they often make arrests, use nonjudicial punishment (such as confinement to base or forfeiture of pay), and threaten soldiers with jail time.

Attorney J.E. McNeil, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Conscience and War, says Flynn’s bill is an attempt to ratchet up the threat to disobedient military personnel.

John Withers Jr., a Dallas defense attorney and JAG officer in the Army Reserves, sees the logic. “Some guy might be willing to risk 20 days in jail but might not be willing to risk 365 days in jail,” he says.