Over 70 pending drug cases and convictions have been dismissed or vacated in Dallas in the wake of a police scandal broken last month by The Dallas Morning News and WFAA television. The prosecutions all involved large undercover buys of cocaine or methamphetamine by the same team of officers, using the same confidential informant. Belated testing of evidence in one case revealed that the dope was phony, which led to more widespread testing and the startling revelation that half of all the cocaine seized by the Dallas Police Department last year was actually powdered gypsum. You know it as Sheetrock, but the cops apparently didn?t know it from shit. Or did they? The informant, who earned about $200,000 in fees for his services last year, told the News that he wasn?t the one to blame for the phony drugs, raising the possibility that the officers (two of whom have been suspended pending the outcome of an FBI investigation) were in on the bogus deals. Then, just when things were getting interesting, Whoops! the talkative informant found himself deported. It remains to be seen what effect that untimely development will have on the investigation.
Several of the defendants have already been deported as well, so their dismissals will come as little consolation. But at least the Dallas District Attorney, Bill Hill, had the good sense to throw out the prosecutions, rather than stick by the questionable evidence. In some instances, Hill had no choice but to drop the cases, thanks to a new law passed by the state legislature last session. In press reports, spokespersons for police and prosecutors have cited a new evidence corroboration law as one reason they went back and took a harder look at the evidence in these cases. Sponsored by Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen), the new law was one of last session’s Tulia bills, conceived by the Texas ACLU and inspired by the Observer’s reporting on the Panhandle drug scandal of 1999-2000, a disaster which has some remarkable parallels to the current controversy. The new law prevents prosecutors from making cases based solely on evidence provided by a confidential informant. Several of the Dallas cases had no corroborating evidence (e.g. audio, video, eyewitnesses, etc.), hence they had to be thrown out, regardless of whether the dope was phony or not.
The Tulia cases were made by an undercover officer, not an informant, so the bill would not have applied in those cases. (The ACLU originally sought to have it apply to officers as well, and will likely come back to the lege with that change next session.) But the real difference between the Tulia and Dallas scandals has been the district attorneys involved. While Hill sought to come clean as soon as he saw the writing on the wall, Tulia D.A. Terry McEachern has stuck by his narc, Tom Coleman, despite the complete lack of corroboration of his testimony, the highly suspicious nature of the buys he made, and the seemingly endless cascade of unflattering revelations about his personal and professional past. To date there have been no reversed convictions or successful appeals in Tulia. Two outstanding indictments have yet to be prosecuted: They are Tanya White, set for trial on April 16, and Zuri Bossett, set for July 23. Both are represented by Amarillo defense attorney Jeff Blackburn.
As hundreds, if not thousands of investigators, auditors, and reporters struggle to untangle Enron’s accounting morass, it’s easy to forget that the company was more than just a Bermuda Triangle of financial partnerships. Enron had plenty of tangible assets too, a fact the air-breathing population of Houston knows painfully well. The company didn’t just help torpedo Houston’s economy, it also contributed significantly to the city having one of the worst smog problems in the nation.
For years the Enron Methanol Company Pasadena Plant has fouled the air in Harris County, racked up violations from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commis-sion, and even once suffered a window rattling explosion felt miles away. In 1997 it ranked 20th for air emissions in Harris County, no small feat for a crowded field that’s home to a higher concentration of polluting petrochemical facilities than anywhere else in the United States. Last year it was in the top five in TNRCC fine amounts for Harris County. Enron Methanol was also a prime beneficiary of George W. Bush’s Grandfathered facility “compromise” which allowed it to skirt pollution controls.
The $312,500 Enron and its executives gave to Dubya’s two gubernatorial campaigns, along with liberal spending on legislators, paid off handsomely in relaxed regulations for Enron Methanol. In addition to getting some slack on the grandfathered emissions, the facility filed at least one report under the 1995 Texas Environmental Health and Safety Audit Privilege Act. The law allows companies to investigate themselves. If they find violations and report them to the state, the companies can be immune from penalties and don’t have to publicly release the information, even for a civil or administrative hearing. Enron Methanol admitted to a “disclosure of violation” on March 8, 1996, the end of an audit process that began four months earlier in 1995, soon after the law was enacted.
The Enron plant produces methanol, a colorless, volatile gas which serves as a key component in MTBE, a reformulated fuel additive that is a suspected carcinogen with a tendency to seep into groundwater. In 1996 MTBE polluted drinking water in Santa Monica, California forcing the city to shut down half its supply and spend $3 million a year to purchase water that didn’t smell and taste like turpentine. The case led to California banning MTBE from the state.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, Enron Methanol increased its environmental pollution 158 percent between 1988 and 1999. In 1997, the plant emitted up to 250 tons of permitted ozone busters like oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds; that same year it also emitted more than 3,299 “grandfathered” tons of pollutants.
As recently as July of last year the regulatory-shy TNRCC hit Enron with a $20,325 fine for violations that included not fully reporting upsets and numerous unpermitted spikes in carbon monoxide emissions. Out of 29 facilities fined in Harris County for fiscal year 2001, Enron had the fifth highest penalty. Miraculously, Enron managed to pay the fine before it went belly up, according to the TNRCC.
On October 12, 1994 the Enron facility exploded, showering the neighboring Aristech chemical facility with “hunks of steel” and forcing both plants into emergency shutdown. Among the injured were three Enron employees and one from Aristech. Enron never explained to the public exactly what caused the accident. A lawsuit filed against Enron Methanol after the explosion accused the company of repeatedly violating basic safety standards at the facility.
There is one bright side to this litany of shameful polluting. It appears that a combination of high natural gas prices, the costs of bringing the plant into compliance for air standards under new grandfather rules, and the ongoing dismemberment of Enron likely means Enron Methanol will be forced to shut down.
HIGHTOWER ON THE MOVE
The indefatigable Jim Hightower has a new project: The Rolling Thunder Down-home Democracy Tour, a traveling county fair/political convention that will hit twelve cities over the next year. The tour will kick off in Austin at the Travis County Expo Center on Saturday, March 23. (Visit www.rollingthundertour.org for more info and dates.)
The tour was inspired by the turn of the century Chataqua movement. Founded in 1874 in southwest New York state, the enormously popular Chataqua concept evolved into a traveling fair, with speakers, crafts, food, and theater. Permanent parks, several of which still exist, were built to host the phenomenon, which at its peak featured 21 travelling companies and reached 35 million people a year.
Like Ralph Nader’s current Democracy Rising tour, the general idea is to whip up the grassroots, although Rolling Thunder will last all day (at least) and involve workshops on such day to day organizing skills as media outreach and fundraising. Hightower has lined up some heavy hitters as speakers, including Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) and Barbara Ehrenreich.
The most impressive aspect of Nader’s recent visit to Austin was the heavy turnout of young people, many of them affiliated with Campus Greens, the new Green Party arm. Hightower has considerable cache with that same crowd, by virtue of his outspoken criticism of the two-party system, his critique of globalization, and his willingness to support Nader in the face of reprisals from prominent liberals and some Texas Dems.