POLITICAL INTELLIGENCE Messin’ with Texas, Again punitive bills against them in the Legislature. “He’s down there in Austin trying to strip people like my client of their rights while he’s on retainer’: says one plaintiff’s attorney in a Harris case who wished to remain unnamed. HARRIS REDUX During the 1999 legislative session, The Observer reported had mired himself in a nasty conflict of interest. Harris had become co-counsel, with an attorney named Gail Friend, in defense of several Arlington-area nursing home companies sued for mistreating patients. Harris runs a small family law practice and had no experience defending nursing homes. But as a powerful state legislator, he proved quite useful. First, Harris’ involvement allowed Friend and the nursing homes to utilize “legislative continuance:’ which permits attorney legislators to postpone trials during the 140-day legislative session. While those cases were on hold, Harris came to Austin and crafted bills limiting admissibility of evidence against nursing homes in civil cases. Not only did Harris try to aid his clients with favorable legislation, but he was an intimidating presence when the cases were tried; it’s tough for a judge to interpret the law when the guy who helped create the statute sits at the defense counsel table. Harris’ Senate colleagues, uncomfortable with his apparent conflict of interest, shot down his pro-nursing home measure in 1999. And after The Observer story was published that April, Harris withdrew from the remaining cases and stopped representing nursing homes. Now, Harris has waded back into the same ethical morass, simultaneously defending nursing homes at the Capitol and in civil court. Harris’ law firm is defense co-counselagain with Gail Friendfor nursing homes in at least three civil suits, according to Tarrant County court records. At the same time, Harris is pushing legislation to limit the evidence nursing home victims can present in court and what the jury can award them. He’s filed SB 312 that, among other things, proposes to cap noneco nomic damage awards against nonprofit nursing homes at $250,000. Under SB 312, inspections of nursing homes by the Department of Human Services would be inadmissible in civil cases involving nonprofit nursing homes. Plaintiffs won’t be able to offer as evidence any DHS reports of dangerous conditions that lead to injury or death. At press time, SB 312 has been referred to the State Affairs Committee, of which Harris is a member. For his part, Harris claims not to know he’s involved in this mess, and his legislative director argues it isn’t a conflict. Asked about the propriety of legislating on behalf of business partners, Harris said, to his knowledge, he hadn’t represented nursing homes in years. “This is the first I’ve heard of it’: he said. “You hit me totally off guard: Michael Grimes, Harris’ legislative director, later clarified that Harris’ law firm had in fact helped defend a nursing home this year in one case that’s already settled. In a second case, Grimes said, Harris’ firm became defense co-counsel on March 21, unbeknownst to the senator. Grimes said he couldn’t account for the third civil case. He flatly dismisses the conflict of interest claim. Grimes argues that SB 312 applies to nonprofit nursing homes only, while the three civil cases in which Harris is listed as cocounsel all involve for-profit nursing homes. “It can only be a conflict of interest if the legislation directly affects those cases:’ he says. “This legislation would in no way affect for-profit nursing homes. There is no conflict of interest’: It’s a thin distinction, especially considering some nonprofit nursing homes are actually owned by for-profit corporations and management companies. There is something particularly unseemly about a state senator handling cases against nursing home victims as he files GOING WITH THE GLOW After failing in three previous sessions, it looks like Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons’ dream of personal enrichment by transforming Texas into a repository for federal radioactive waste may finally come to fruition. On March 31, HB 1567, sponsored by Rep. George “Buddy” West \(RHouse Committee on Environmental Regulation. The Senate companion authored by the powerful Finance Chair in committee. At press time, both bills were expected to reach the floor of their respective chambers within days. Simmons’ Waste Control Specialists will have their dump in western Andrews County. County officials from this area north of Midland appear thrilled that the legislation will open their area to not only waste from Vermont and Texas, but also 150 times that amount from federal and possibly state sites across the nation. To give a sense of what’s coming, the energy department estimates that this decade it will dispose of 249 million cubic feet, equal to a football field 433 stories tall. In an extraordinary rip-off of taxpayers, the state has agreed to assume all future liability for what will surely be a radioactive mess. In back-to-back committee hearings in the house and the senate, WCS mounted a formidable team of lobbyists, front groups, and pseudo scientists to pitch the legislation. Top of the list was retired US Navy Admiral Bobby R. Inman, a former Director of the NSA and Deputy Director of the CIA. Inman cautioned that Al Qaeda operatives fanning out across Texas could use the small amounts of radioactive waste stored in medical and academic facilities throughout Texas to fashion dirty bombs. While not making a direct statement for or against a priva 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/11/03
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