Billy Wafer, one of the defendants in the now notorious Tulia cocaine bust of 1999, is a free man. Wafer had been accused, along with three dozen other black defendants, of selling cocaine to undercover agent Tom Coleman (see “Color of Justice,” by Nate Blakeslee, June 23) in the tiny Panhandle ranching town of Tulia, near Lubbock. Because Wafer was already on probation at the time, his first stop was a revocation hearing held last February, where he could have gotten twenty years. But a judge declined to revoke his probation, because Wafer had a rock-solid alibi.
He has been out of jail since that time, but not quite out of the woods. Determined to stick to his guns (and his narc, despite mounting evidence that Coleman may have been an unreliable witness), Swisher County D.A. Terry McEachern declined to drop the charges against Wafer, forcing Wafer to take his case to the Seventh Court of Appeals in Amarillo last month. When Wafer finally got his hearing, McEachern didn’t even show up, and the charges were thrown out, once and for all. Wafer is now co-chair of Friends of Justice, an organization formed in the wake of the bust to support the defendants and raise awareness about their cases.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation of Tulia law enforcement continues. According to sources in Tulia, FBI investigators have visited several inmates already in prison as a result of the bust. According to at least one inmate, the meetings went well, and investigators strongly suggested that defendants would at least receive retrials.
In other Tulia drug war news, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported December 3 that a U.S. district judge in Amarillo has finally ruled against the Tulia school district in a three-year-old suit over random drug testing at the school. Judge Mary Lou Robinson (of Oprah Winfrey-Veggie Libel law fame) found that the policy violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unlawful search and seizure. The suit was filed by the son of Friends of Justice member Gary Gardner. The elder Gardner (who argued the case himself) was the only member of the school board to object to the policy, which covered all students in grades 7-12 involved in extra-curricular activities, or about 80 percent of the student body. (A similar suit in nearby Lockney, previously reported on in these pages, is still pending.) The school board is expected to appeal the decision. Similar policies, which single out kids involved in extra-curricular activities as opposed to all students, have been held to be constitutional by higher U.S. courts.
S.B. 1, ANYONE?
It may not be Senate Bill 1, traditionally reserved for the biggest issue facing the lege each year, but it’s a safe bet that a bill forcing the TNRCC to consider a permit applicant’s compliance history will be high on the list this year. That’s one effect of Senator Bill Ratliff’s elevation to the lieutenant governorship. As Robert Bryce reported in our December 8 issue, compliance history has been a pet issue for Ratliff ever since chicken-king Bo Pilgrim, whose East Texas Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plants have an atrocious environmental record, announced he was moving in next door to a ranch owned by the senator’s in-laws. Ratliff has already prepared a bill that would require the agency to track compliance history, and he has announced that he plans to continue to represent his district and sponsor legislation, even though he is now the senate’s presiding officer. The difference is that now he controls the fate of that legislation, which has to be bad news for Bo Pilgrim’s pending permit application.
Compliance history is high on the list of recommendations put forward by a working group of environmentalists and public interest advocates who monitored and participated in the TNRCC’s Sunset hearings (in which the lege reviews each state agency’s performance), held this past year. During those hearings it was revealed that, after considerable effort, Sunset staff had been unable to locate a single instance in which a company had been denied a permit due to a poor compliance history. Furthermore the TNRCC apparently had no uniform definition of compliance history or reliable means of tracking said history. It was a mess, in other words.
In the House, San Antonio Democrat Ruth Jones McClendon will be carrying much of the rest of the working group’s recommendations, in a package that includes 1) forcing the agency to consider cumulative risks in permitting decisions, 2) removing the executive director’s role as an advocate (generally for industry) in contested case hearings, 3) creating a truly independent Office of Public Interest Counsel, and 4) improving the agency’s complaint response system. This last bill is largely in response to the snafu involving the Huntsman chemical plant in Odessa, where a particularly bad “upset” in December of 1998 enveloped a nearby neighborhood in thick black smoke for days. The resulting 3,100 complaints received by the TNRCC were grouped and logged as one single complaint, prompting the agency’s commissioners to note that the public did not seem overly concerned by the incident. Agency press flaks, meanwhile, proudly stated that complaints from the public were trending downward in recent years, evidence of a job well done.
WATER ‘EM DOWN
It’s a session of low expectations, so don’t expect to see that major water regulation overhaul the state has needed for years. For groundwater, the rule of capture (he who has the biggest straw can suck the most water with no limits and damn the consequences) still applies in much of the state and isn’t likely to be tackled this session. A giant survey of the state’s water holdings and needs is set to be completed by the Water Development Board by the end of this year, and folks are ostensibly waiting for the results of that before attempting any global regulation of groundwater in Texas. According to Myron Hess of the National Wildlife Federation, the state may take up another contentious issue, however: the junior rights provision for interbasin water transfers. This provision stipulates that, when water is piped from one region to another, consumers in the home region have first dibs if there’s not enough to go around. This makes water-poor regions much less interested in procuring contracts for surface water held in water-rich regions of the state, since they may get shafted during droughts. Senate Natural Resources Committee Chair Buster Brown has been trying to get the provision removed for years, even going so far as to hold several newly created groundwater conservation districts hostage last session. It didn’t work. This time around, Brown’s interim committee on groundwater has recommended removing the junior rights provision for surface water (a little out of the committee’s purview, but what the hey). It’s a big-city versus rural Texas fight that rural Texas usually wins.