Mad Libs

Campaign Trail


Houston attorney Kathie Glass, the Libertarian Party candidate for Texas governor, had two rubber stamps displayed on her campaign table at the party’s recent state convention at a Holiday Inn in Austin behind the Greyhound bus station. One stamp read “VETOED!” The other, “NULLIFIED!”

“I am so fired up about veto and nullification that I had two stamps made up at Office Max. I was thinkin’: I’m gonna be doin’ this so much I might get carpal tunnel syndrome,” she said. “I got one that says ‘Veto,’ and I got one that says, ‘Nullified your ass!’”

For a bunch as reverent of the Constitution as the Libertarians, Glass’ preoccupation with nullification—the long-discredited notion that individual states can declare federal laws unconstitutional—is surprising.

Her nomination for governor—by a 3-1 margin, no less—shows the party’s new direction. Her opponent was Jeff Daiell, a longtime Libertarian Party fixture who was its candidate for governor in 1990 and 2002. His radical ideas—he opposes all taxation and advocates elimination of public education—are softened by his seriousness and thoughtfulness, and by his remarkable resemblance to Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

Glass, by contrast, heads up a faction of Libertarians who identify with the Tea Party movement and who eschew thoughtfulness for sloganeering. “The end of the world as we know it is coming soon to a city near you,” Glass proclaimed during her opening remarks on the convention’s first night.

The Glass approach to closing Texas’ estimated $11-$18 billion budget deficit? “One-fourth of our state budget is spent on illegal immigrants,” she said. “That’s $45 billion! I just fixed the budget right there!”

I asked her about the provenance of those numbers, and she cited Dan Patrick, the Houston-based, right-wing Republican talk-radio host turned state senator in whose district Glass resides. “He’s a real policy wonk—he knows his numbers.”

Kinky Friedman fit right into the eclectic proceedings. The Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat-turned-Libertarian set up a table at the convention to sell his two latest books, and delivered a brief reading from one. I asked him why he came.

“Why the hell not?” he said. “I think I’m a Libertarian in spirit,” he said.

Whatever that might mean.

—Robert Green



drill, baby, drill

Accidents Waiting

This has been the Year of Kaboom. Every major fossil fuel has had its own terrible explosion in 2010. In April, the Upper Big Branch coal mine exploded in West Virginia, killing 29 miners. In April, the collapsed Deepwater Horizon rig began spilling millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. Now comes a turn for natural gas, which usually enjoys a cleaner reputation.

Over the past month, Texas saw two devastating blowups within 24 hours. On June 7, workers struck a 36-inch gas pipeline near Cleburne, causing a massive eruption of flames seen miles away. One worker was killed, and eight others were severely injured.  The next day, another pipeline explosion in the Panhandle killed two workers when their bulldozer punctured another gas pipeline.

Like the Massey coal disaster and the BP spill, the Texas pipeline explosions have focused attention on the dangers of innovative energy exploration. The more technology allows us to harness hard-to-reach reserves like those in urban areas or at the bottom of the ocean, the higher the risk that something will go wrong. In the past five years, 14,000 gas wells have been drilled in North Texas’ Barnett Shale, many in residential areas.

People in Fort Worth have long waited for the “big one,” a catastrophic pipeline explosion in a city or suburb that many believe is inevitable.

“What if that accident happened two blocks from an elementary school?” state Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat, asked the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I feel like what we’ve learned between the disaster in the Gulf and these two accidents in Texas … is that regulation has been entirely too lax.”

—Forrest Wilder



dept. of justice

Was Claude Jones Innocent?

It’s never been proven—without a doubt—that a state executed an innocent person.

DNA testing has exonerated nearly 20 death row inmates in the United States before they were executed. But there hasn’t yet been a case in which a person was put to death for a crime that DNA evidence would later prove conclusively that he or she didn’t commit.

That may soon change. On June 11, a state judge has ordered East Texas prosecutors to hand over key evidence from a 1989 murder case to the Innocence Project and The Texas Observer for DNA testing. The analysis may prove for the first time that Texas executed an innocent man.

The Innocence Project and the Observer filed suit in 2007 to obtain a strand of hair from the scene of a homicide at a liquor store in San Jacinto County.  The one-inch strand was key evidence that supposedly implicated Claude Howard Jones in the killing. Jones was put to death on Dec. 7, 2000—the final execution overseen by then-Gov. George W. Bush.

Judge Paul Murphy issued a one-page order commanding the San Jacinto district attorney’s office to turn over the hair for DNA testing. The Innocence Project and the Observer hope that DNA tests on the hair will confirm Jones’ guilt or prove he was innocent, as he always claimed. Prosecutors can appeal the ruling.

Questions linger about Jones’ guilt.

In late 1989, Jones had just been paroled and was hanging out with two other men, Kerry Dixon and Timothy Jordan. On Nov. 14, 1989, witnesses said that three men pulled into a liquor store in rural San Jacinto County, about 80 miles northeast of Houston. One man went inside and shot the owner, Allen Hilzendager, three times. Witnesses who were standing across the road couldn’t positively identify the killer.

The key question: Was the lone killer who entered the store Jones or Dixon?

Jones claimed he never entered the store, but Dixon and Jordan said he did. Both men were spared the death chamber for their testimony. (Jordan later recanted).

The only reliable evidence that linked Jones to the murder was the strand of hair found on the liquor store counter. At Jones’ 1990 trial, a forensic expert testified that the hair appeared to come from Jones.

Advanced DNA testing—which didn’t exist at the time of trial—could prove whether Dixon or Jones committed the shooting inside the store. After Judge Murphy’s recent ruling, we’re one step closer to finding out.

—Dave Mann



dept. of the disabled

Reform on Hold

Imagine working a demanding job for low pay, and if your replacement doesn’t show up, you can’t leave. You’re forced to work up to 16-hour days, unable to pick up the kids or care for elderly relatives. That’s what you deal with if you’re a direct-care worker at Texas institutions for the mentally disabled. Some employees say the policy is hurting attempts to improve care at the facilities.

The state operates 13 sprawling institutions—known as state-supported living centers (formerly called state schools)—that house about 4,000 Texans with mental retardation. The centers care for some of the most vulnerable Texans, many of whom need 24-hour care. The state has underfunded and understaffed these facilities for years. Several years ago chronic staff shortages led the agency that oversees state schools, the Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS), to implement a policy known as “holdover.” The policy states that direct-care workers—those who watch over residents—can’t leave until a replacement arrives, for up to eight hours.

Direct-care workers who spoke anonymously with the Observer say facilities employ the holdover policy far too frequently—almost daily.  “I don’t know anyone who works any other job who would stay in a position where you … pretty much give up your life outside of work on a regular basis,” a worker wrote in an e-mail. About half the direct-care workers leave their jobs every year.

The turnover rate was one of the main causes of an abuse scandal that has embroiled Texas’ institutions for the disabled since 2005.

Last year, the Legislature—prodded by the federal government—instituted reforms that included a 12-percent funding increase and added staff. But the holdover policy remained.

State officials acknowledge the policy is tough on workers, but say it’s necessary to ensure continuous care for vulnerable residents. Allison Lowery, a DADS spokesperson, says the agency hopes holdover will be used less frequently as staffing levels increase.

It will be difficult to raise staff levels—or improve care—unless the turnover rate drops.

—Dave Mann


underwater texas

From the Depths

During last summer’s drought, Central Texas lakes Travis and Buchanan fell to their lowest levels in 30 years.

By August 2009, Lake Travis was more empty than full, having fallen 54 percent. As the water level fell, long-covered areas of lake bed were exposed—and with them, decades-dormant debris full of mysteries and secrets. Police recovered a motorcycle and two cars, one that had been missing since 1988. That was far from the strangest thing that has emerged from the lakes. In 2006, a boater on Lake Buchanan reported a 55-gallon barrel sticking out of the water. When the barrel was opened, police found the remains of a human body stuffed inside. They were eventually identified as those of 79-year-old Charles Maynard Wyatt, a colorful character who was convicted of being part of one of the largest marijuana smuggling operations in the U.S. before becoming a Florida real estate investor. He went missing in 1990, until being found in the submerged barrel, still wearing his familiar diamond ring.

There were more ancient finds. A boater on Lake Travis spotted parts of a human skeleton poking out of the mud along the water’s edge. The police passed the bones on to Lower Colorado River archaeologists, who determined that it was the remains of a male, middle-aged, arthritic hunter-gatherer who lived about 1,000 years ago.

In Lake Buchanan, the ruins of Bluffton, a 19th-century town that had been submerged since the completion of the Buchanan Dam in 1937, poked above the surface. Rains last fall have drowned these memories again, for now.

—Robert Green