Political Intelligence

Weed Patrol


When it comes to stemming illegal immigration along the Rio Grande, the U.S. Border Patrol is getting lost in the weeds.

Border Patrol officials contend that an invasive plant called carrizo cane is blocking their view of the river and of Mexico, and making it harder to catch smugglers and people crossing illegally. The patrol is proposing to spray herbicide along the river from a helicopter to wipe out the cane.

Brought to Texas by Spanish settlers, carrizo, scientifically named Arundo donax, sucks up river water and can grow four inches a day, crowding out native species and thwarting the most high-tech night-vision goggles.

Weed Patrol. Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

The Border Patrol had planned to begin spraying on March 25 with a 1.1-mile pilot project in Laredo. Mexico, however, asked for a delay while it examines the herbicide’s safety.

The proposal has angered residents and divided Laredo’s City Council. For nearly a year, residents on both sides of the Rio Grande have protested the plan because of concerns about the long-term effects of the herbicide—known as imazapyr—on the environment and the region’s sole water source. Some critics have compared the plan to the U.S. military’s Agent Orange operation in Vietnam.

An environmental assessment by the Border Patrol concluded the spraying wouldn’t be harmful. But Tom Vaughn, an associate professor of biology at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, points out that the assessment lifted information from studies sponsored by BASF Corp., which makes the herbicide. “As a scientist,” Vaughn says, “that has me very concerned.”

Roque Sarinana, public information officer for the Border Patrol’s Laredo sector, says the $2.1 million pilot project includes three methods: cutting the cane manually and painting the stumps with imazapyr, using mechanical equipment to dig the cane out by the roots, and spraying herbicide from a helicopter. Sarinana says he can’t comment on the product’s safety.

Vaughn doesn’t have a quarrel with removing the cane. He just wants to see it done in a way that will be safe for the environment and residents on both sides of the border.

He points out that the herbicide will be dropped next to the south campus of Laredo Community College, near Nuevo Laredo’s water plant. The mayor of Nuevo Laredo, Ramon Garza Barrios, has protested the spraying.

If the herbicide works, the Border Patrol plans to spray up to 130 miles of riverbank. “There’s no doubt that aerial spraying is effective,” Vaughn says. “I just wouldn’t drink the water downstream.”

Reeling in the Years

An Innocence Project Homecoming

On Friday, March 20, in a small conference room at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, amid colored corn chips, congealing queso and soda cans, men and women, proudly or with visible discomfort, stated their names, numbered the years they’d lived behind bars, and named the dates they’d been exonerated and set free.

In the room were more than 50 former prisoners, falsely convicted and eventually released, oftentimes with the help of a state affiliate of The Innocence Project—the pro bono wrongful conviction outfit founded in 1972 by attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. The Innocence Project of Texas hosted this year’s Innocence Network Conference of national (and international) IP affiliates. No one mentioned that beyond the walls lay Houston, the belly of the beast in terms of prosecutorial aggression and evidentiary ineptitude.

Inside were white women who’d served unearned time, white men, a few Hispanics. As in prison black men were disproportionately represented. They had served five years or 37 years, and a lot had spent 20-some years locked away for rapes and murders they didn’t commit. The lucky ones had girlfriends and wives by their sides.

Innocence Project staff attorney Vanessa Potkin described them all as inspirations. “We who do innocence work are in awe of you,” she said.

The low-key reception was an opportunity for exonerees to meet and mingle. The three-day conference was designed to educate and motivate the exonerators.

The first part of that mission took place in an atmosphere created by the National Academy of Sciences’ February release of a congressionally mandated report that found dramatic deficiencies in forensic sciences so often used to help convict criminal defendants. The finding gives substantial ammunition to lawyers working to overturn wrongful convictions.

The motivational mission got a powerful lift Friday evening, when Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton delivered the keynote. The two have just co-written a book, aptly but unfortunately titled Picking Cotton, describing their mutual ordeal. Thompson-Cannino, white, then in college, and now middle-aged, was raped by a tall, young black man. She identified Cotton, positively and repeatedly, as her rapist. Cotton went to prison on her testimony and spent 11 years there, until someone else’s jailhouse confession and a DNA kit set him free in 1995. Eventually they met, Cotton forgave Thompson-Cannino, and the healing began. They’ve become activists in the aftermath.

A question-and-answer period moderated by defense attorney Jeff Blackburn bent under the weight of the evening’s emotions when an impeccably dressed exoneree broke down in angry tears trying to ask Cotton how he’d dealt with his rage behind bars. Cotton was impassively—or impressively—mild in his handed-it-over-to-God response, as the man’s friends gathered around and walked him back to his seat. Getting out of jail may be the hard part, but when you’ve had the better part of your life taken away from you, the freedom isn’t always easy, either.

Economic Litercay, Politico

The Sperm-Donor Lobby

SPENDING Big Bucks at the Legislature

In one of the strangest instances yet of in-kind political contributions, massive infusions of premium deer semen are lubricating the expansion of one of Texas’ fastest-growing political action committees.

The Texas Deer Association more than tripled its political spending in the 2007-2008 election cycle, to $324,000. The growth was made possible by sales of deer sperm, supplied by some of the state’s biggest bucks, to ranchers seeking to buff up their herds. This creative fundraising netted the association more than $200,000.

Members lease their land to deer hunters willing to pay dearly for a shot at a big buck with awesome antlers. Asked what genetic traits breeders favor, Leo Hicks of Alto, in East Texas, told the Observer, “Size and points is all we care about.” He should know; Hicks contributed almost $32,000 to the PAC, including $5,000 worth of deer sperm.

What can deer association money buy in Austin? In recent legislative sessions, breeders have gradually increased their control over mule and white-tailed deer, which technically belong to the state. Still, those who swipe the breeders’ genetically enhanced animals are subject only to charges of transporting publicly held deer without a permit.

Democratic Rep. Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles of Alice wants to change that (in House Bill 4284) by upgrading deer-napping to a felony, punishable by at least six months in jail and fines up to $10,000. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, has authored a companion bill in the Senate, S.B. 948. Republican Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, with Senate Bill 948, wants to let deer breeders qualify for state loan guarantees of up to $250,000—the kind of support any industry might hope for in rocky economic climes. Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Kileen, has authored a House companion to Estes’ bill, H.B. 1444. (Estes’ campaign received $4,000 from the association during the 2007-2008 election cycle, while Harris got $5,000 and Aycock $500. Gonzalez Toureilles got no direct contributions from the group.)

Given the potent increase in the association’s funding, more breeder-friendly bills will surely follow.

Trouble in Triage

Can Texas’ nonprofit legal services survive?

For 25 years, Texans who couldn’t afford an attorney have turned to a safety net of nonprofit law firms like Austin-based Texas Legal Services Center. Staffed by 17 lawyers, the center assists low-income folks with civil legal matters such as FEMA disaster-assistance denials, protective orders for abused spouses, and appeals on foreclosures and evictions.

Now the 40 nonprofit legal service organizations in Texas are in danger of folding or severely curtailing their services. Since the economic crisis began, their funding has all but disappeared. The money comes from interest from a pooled fund of lawyer trust accounts, called IOLTA, which is expected to reach an all-time low in 2009. With current interest rates at zero to 0.25 percent, little or nothing is accumulating in the accounts. The nonprofit Texas Access to Justice Foundation, which administers IOLTA, estimates a drop from $20 million in 2007 to $1.5 million this year.

Betty Balli Torres, executive director of Texas Access to Justice Foundation, says the foundation hopes for a one-time appropriation of $37 million—enough to make up the difference for two years—from the Texas Legislature to keep the nonprofits running until interest rates climb again.

The funding is critical, says Balli Torres, because Texas has a triage system for pro bono legal assistance. Even with the centers, she says, “only about 20 percent of low-income Texans get the legal representation they need.”

Randy Chapman, executive director of the Legal Services Center, says his organization could lose 60 percent of its funding this year. Among other things, that would mean shutting down a legal assistance hotline staffed by lawyers who counsel low-income families in need—bad timing, indeed, considering the difficulties so many of those families now face.

Even with Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson advocating for the emergency funds at the Legislature, Balli Torres is not confident the nonprofit law firms will get their $37 million. (A Senate proposal recommends $22 million.) “We’ve still got a long way to go,” she says, “and there is a lot of need in the state.”