With the generals reporting progress in the war in Afghanistan, this might be a good time to pause for a few updates from America’s war on itself. In Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Bush’s unfortunate nomination of John Walters as drug czar (head of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy) on November 8. It was W’s last cabinet spot to fill, and once again he went to the well for one of his dad’s cronies. Walters, who served under Bush senior’s drug czar William Bennett, is known as a lock ’em up hard-liner with little interest in drug treatment, which made his nomination controversial in the Senate, where some murmurings of reform have been heard of late. Bush was almost out-cronied by opponents: None other than Betty Ford herself showed up to testify against Walters. Nobody knows more about drug treatment (and which famous people have been through it) than Betty Ford. Still, even with Ford, a host of drug policy reform advocates, and Judiciary Committee chair Pat Leahy (D-Vermont) opposing the nomination, four Democrats joined Republicans voting aye, allowing Walters to limp through. He’s expected to be approved by the full Senate.
Back in Texas, more grim tidings. In a case closely watched by the Texas ACLU, a Caldwell man was convicted in early November of delivery of cocaine on the testimony of a confidential informant (a snitch). Sentencing is pending for the defendant, who is facing 25 years to life. The case was considered a likely candidate for the first application of one of the “Tulia bill” drug reforms passed last session, specifically, the law stipulating that a conviction may not be obtained solely on the uncorroborated testimony of a confidential informant. Although the judge instructed the jury about the new law, the prosecution did present some tape recordings (described by trial observers as marginally incriminating at best) as corroboration, which apparently satisfied jurors. There is some hope: Defense attorneys plan to appeal based on the Tulia law, which they will argue was not properly explained to the jury.
Also in Austin, drug war critics were disappointed to learn that there will be no interim legislative study of the state’s drug task forces. Speaker Pete Laney declined to include that as a subject of study for the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, as Chairman Juan Hinojosa (author of the Tulia bills) had requested. Hinojosa (D-McAllen) said he was disappointed but not discouraged. “It’s an issue that’s not going to go away,” he said.
There are some promising developments in the Panhandle. In an unexpected turn, the last two remaining defendants charged in the original 1999 Tulia bust, Zuri Bossett and Tony White, have been set for trial February 2. Neither defendant was in Tulia when the initial slew of arrests were made, and what little effort authorities initially made to track them down dwindled to zero as the entire operation became the subject of nationwide controversy last year, following revelations about the character and methods of the undercover narc, Tom Coleman. This fall, Bossett’s warrant came to light during an unrelated traffic stop and she was arrested and returned to Tulia. Shortly thereafter, White turned herself in, after retaining ace Amarillo attorney and drug war critic Jeff Blackburn, who will be representing both defendants. The defendants have announced their intention to fight the charges in a jury trial, setting up a showdown in which Coleman would be required to return to Tulia to testify in person. “I’m looking forward to it,” Blackburn said. Meanwhile, Tulia defendant Billy Wafer, who had charges against him dropped when Coleman’s testimony did not stand up, has finally won a settlement from Swisher county.
Living wage advocacy groups around Texas recently received letters from the Employment Policies Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, requesting copies of their past tax returns, annual reports, and tax-exempt application forms. But it wasn’t the information requested–which nonprofits have to provide all requestors as a condition of their tax-exempt status–that has groups concerned, as much as who is doing the asking … and why. The Employment Policies Institute (EPI), a group that researches issues regarding so-called “entry-level” or minimum wage workers, is partially funded by employers of such workers and has become known nationally for its anti-living wage stance. “Living wage mandates are at best an inefficient and inferior policy vehicle for helping poor families. At worst, they harm poor families by reducing their work opportunities and income,” a July report by the institute read. The EPI website contains opposition research on the living wage movement, presumably for use by opponents of living wage initiatives, which seek to set a local wage floor significantly higher than the federal minimum wage, and which have become increasingly common in cities across the country.
The exact number of letters sent to Texas groups isn’t known, but at least two groups have reported receiving them: Valley Interfaith, a coalition of churches and schools in the Rio Grande Valley that works for social, political, and economic improvements in the area, and San Antonio’s Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), a broad-based organization that works to channel housing and public services into inter-city neighborhoods. Joe Hinojosa, a leader of Valley Interfaith, suspects the motive is harassment. “It’s kind of upsetting to think that someone — and we have no idea exactly who is funding these people — is insinuating that we have something to hide when all we are doing is trying to help people earn a decent living,” he said.
Larry Mishel, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute (the other EPI), a progressive Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said these aren’t typical tactics of a research group. “I’m not aware of any D.C.-based think tanks that have done research on competing organizations and their funding,” he said. ” It’s unusual, and it’s not economics.” Asked about the letters, John Doyle, a spokesman for the Employment Policies Institute, said that his group has sent out hundreds of such letters to groups around the country in an effort to research foundation funding and the groups that benefit from it. Doyle says the idea of harassment is absurd, since all of the information is public record.
But Andres Sarabia, a leader of COPS, isn’t so sure. “We organized in 1974. Why 27 years later are these inquires happening? Is this a prelude to a major battle against living wages?”
HOMELAND THOUGHT POLICE.
In a proudly defiant gesture that suggested recent alleged ethics violations aren’t about to interfere with the State Board of Education’s religious mission, Texas’ wackiest governing entity rejected one environmental science textbook November 9, and accepted another only after the publisher agreed to a list of changes proposed by the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation. Although state law allows the board to consider only factual errors in voting to reject a textbook, board-watchers suspect that the vote had less to do with the facts than with a parade of witnesses at the board meeting who denounced the books as ” against Christianity,” “intended to subvert the values taught by the student’s church and family,” and liable to “frighten and indoctrinate our youth.”
“You have the right to counter the lies of radical environmentalism,” witness Bill Ames exhorted the board (emphasis added). The books, he said, “should conform to Texas law to include factual text, support the free enterprise system, and encourage patriotism.”
Looks like the SBOE’ ten Republican members may be trying to shore up their fundamentalist Christian bases, in light of continuing developments on the public corruption front. In recent weeks, it has emerged that financial advisers to the board may have tried to bribe members to place the Permanent School Fund in the custody of a particular bank which is a client of those same advisers. The new allegations will be investigated by a legislative committee–the same committee that last year found plenty of other problems with the SBOE’s management of the fund.
Legislation that would have established a committee of independent financial advisers and strengthened ethics rules for the SBOE passed out of both houses last session, but ended up on the governor’s chopping block. This month, Governor Perry defended that veto but recommended to the board that it appoint an advisory committee.