Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Campaign Finance’ Category

Public Citizen Honors Tom “Smitty” Smith

 

Donate Here

After more than three decades of extraordinary work running Public Citizen’s Texas office, “Smitty,” formally known as Thomas Smith, is hanging up his spurs. Smitty is a Texas institution and a national treasure, and on February 1st, we celebrated him right.

Over 200 people attended a retirement dinner for Smitty at the Barr Mansion in Austin, TX on Wednesday evening.  Friends and colleagues from around the state who had work with Smitty on issues over his career that included clean energy, ethics reform, pollution mitigation, nuclear waste disposal, etc came to pay homage to a man who had dedicated his life to fighting for a healthier and more equitable world by making government work for the people and by defending democracy from corporate greed.

Mayor Adler and Council members Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchens

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea and Smitty

Dallas County Commissioner Dr. Theresa Daniel and Smitty

During the evening, Austin Mayor – Steve Adler, Travis County Commissioner – Brigid Shea, and Dallas County Commissioner – Dr. Theresa Daniel presented Smitty with resolutions passed by the City of Austin, Travis County Commissioners Court and Dallas County Commissioners Court all of which acknowledge Smitty’s contributions to their communities and the state of Texas.

 

 

 

Adrian Shelley (front left) and Rob Weissman (front right) at Tom “Smitty” Smith’s retirement event.

Public Citizen’s President, Robert Weissman, thanked Smitty for his service to Public Citizen for the past 31 years and introduced the new director for the Texas office, Adrian Shelley, the current Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.

Smitty’ impending departure fromPublic Citizen will leave a big hole in advocacy for progressive issues here in Texas, but both Smitty and Robert Weissman expressed confidence that Adrian would lead the Texas office forward into a new era of progressive advocacy.  Adrian is a native Texan from the City of Houston. He has served as the Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston since 2013. He first worked with Air Alliance Houston as a legal fellow in 2010, then as a Community Outreach Coordinator in 2012. In that time, Public Citizen has worked closely with Air Alliance Houston through the Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC), a coalition of nonprofits and community groups which advocates policies to improve public health and safety while encouraging economic growth.

So be assured that Adrian and the Texas staff of Public Citizen are committed to carrying on the battle for justice, for democracy, for air clean and  energy and for clean politics. We can and will protect our children and the generations to come. For this, we can still use your help.  You can make a tax deductible donation to the Texas office of Public Citizen to help us continue his vital work on climate, transportation, civil justice, consumer protection, ethics, campaign finance reform and more

Read Full Post »

Another state has officially called for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United!

Following a three-and-a-half-year campaign spearheaded by Public Citizen — On Wednesday, New York joined California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia.

Notably, New York is the first of these 17 states where one chamber of the legislature is under Republican control.

But it will NOT be the last.

Because eight out of ten Americans — Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike — believe Citizens United has to go.

And with Public Citizen leading the way — as we’ve done from the moment the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its disastrous decision — we will build on today’s momentum, including campaigns already underway in states like Arkansas, New Hampshire and Washington.

Please join the thousands of supporters from coast to coast who are donating to help make sure we can keep doing the painstaking, behind-the-scenes work — in hundreds of cities, in dozens of states, and in Congress and the White House — to ultimately win this amendment and restore our democracy.

Contribute now.

Read Full Post »

DA general 6If you pay any attention to politics, you might often wonder if the decisions being made are really what people want.  The answer is often no.

Wealthy donors, including corporations and individuals, are able to contribute unlimited money to super PACs (political action committees) to support or oppose candidates for elected office.  Although this money is technically separate from donations directly to candidates, super PACs are clearly working in lock-step with candidates’ campaigns.  On top of that, the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the door for unlimited spending on campaigns by political nonprofit organizations, which don’t have to disclose their donors.  So, wealthy individuals and powerful business interests can secretly spend unlimited money on elections.  And they are.  This results in elected officials who are beholden to those wealthy donors, not the people.  Does that sound like democracy?

In addition to the corrupting influence of money on politics, the basic right to vote is under constant attack.  In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, which required certain states, including Texas, to receive authorization from the federal government before changing how elections are conducted. That provision caused hundreds of proposed changes to be withdrawn or altered because the Justice Department was concerned that they may be discriminatory.  Now, those states can enact potentially discriminatory elections laws and they much be challenged through the court system by those who are harmed.  This adds expense and, much more importantly, results in the denying citizens their right to vote.  Another major blow to democracy.

Enter Democracy Awakening.  Over 200 organizations representing a broad array of interests – civil rights, the environment, labor, peace, students – are working together to bring national attention to the problems caused by the influence of money on politics and voter disenfranchisement.  There will be a large rally and other events in Washington D.C. and supporting events in cities across the country on Sunday, April 17.

Austin Rally: Sunday, April 17 at 1 p.m. in the southwest corner of the Capitol grounds in Austin.  There will be short speeches, music, tables with information and a march down Congress Ave.

Dallas Rally: Sunday, April 17 at 1 p.m. at the Reverchon Park Recreation Center (3505 Maple Ave).  The event will include speeches, activities, tables with information and a march to Lee Park.

Regardless of what issue you care about most, the degradation of our democracy by denying voters their rights and allowing unlimited sums of money to determine political outcomes is a serious threat.  I need look no further than my top priority, climate change, to see many examples of how money, not voters are determining policy decisions.  A large majority of Americans want action to stop climate change, and yet Congress has failed to place limits or a tax on greenhouse gas emissions.

Please join us to rise up and defend our democracy by demanding reforms.

  • Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 2867, S. 1659)
  • Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 2867, S. 1659)
  • Democracy For All Amendment (H.J.Res. 22, S.J.Res. 5)
  • Government By the People Act/Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 20 and S. 1538)
  • Fair consideration of the nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy

Read Full Post »

Over the weekend, Governor Abbott vetoed over 40 bills. Perhaps the most notable bills to fall victim to Abbott’s veto was legislation by state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, (HB 3511 and HB 3637)  that were originally broadly geared toward ethics reform, one of Abbott’s five emergency items.  Eleventh hour amendments added by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, included a so-called “spousal loophole” that ultimately sank the two bills by Davis.  Even the author of the bills, had started to urge a veto after Sen. Huffman added the amendment to allow officeholders to conceal the assets of their spouses.

Earlier in the year, a citizen from Katy filed a complaint alleging that Huffman did not disclose multiple business interests of her husband, Houston businessman Keith Lawyer. In fact, according to Huffman’s personal financial statements, she lives on roughly $12,000 per year derived from her Senate salary and some stock dividends.

Texans for Public Justice and Public Citizen had been calling on Abbott for weeks prior to the June 21st deadline urging him to veto HB 3736 and HB 3511 because “both contain amendments by Sen. Joan Huffman which would have allowed Huffman and other officials to exclude a spouse’s assets from Personal Financial Disclosures.”

Late Saturday, Tom “Smitty” Smith with Public Citizen released a statement saying that Abbott’s vetoes “closed the doors to a new wave of corruption.”

“This is a community property state and so what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” Smith said. “If these bills had become law legislator’s spouses could have become enriched by those who wanted favors from the member and we’d never know if there was a payback.”

Below is Abbott’s statement on his veto of HB 3736.

Pursuant to Article IV, Section 14, of the Texas Constitution, I, Greg Abbott, Governor of Texas, do hereby disapprove of and veto House Bill no. 3736 as passed by the Eighty-Fourth Texas Legislature, Regular Session, because of the following objections:

At the beginning of this legislative session, I called for meaningful ethics reform. This legislation does not accomplish that goal. Provisions in this bill would reduce Texans’ trust in their elected officials, and I will not be a part of weakening our ethics laws. Serious ethics reform must be addressed next session – the right way. Texans deserve better.

Since the Eighty-Fourth Texas Legislature, Regular Session, by its adjournment has prevented the return of this bill, I am filing these objections in the office of the Secretary of State and giving notice thereof by this public proclamation according to the aforementioned constitutional provision.

GREG ABBOTT
Governor

Thank you Governor Abbott for standing up to efforts to weaken Texas’ ethics laws.

Read Full Post »

Late in the evening yesterday, the Texas House passed SB 19, the much talked about ethics bill.  The passage of the far stronger House ethics bill is a big step forward in the Governor’s goal of achieving substantial ethics reform this session and we are pleased that the house took on strengthening this bill.

The House version of SB 19 requires reporting of large sums of dark money, improved conflicts of interest standards, toughen disclosure laws,  creates a legislative ethics officer to advise members, requires electronic filing of personal financial statements  (PFS) in a searchable format. In addition it reduces pay to play politics by requiring PFS from Governor’s appointees at the time of appointment and disclosure of  their campaign contributions to the Governor.  While it does not shut the revolving door and prohibit lawmakers from immediately becoming lobbyists, it does prohibit legislators turned lobbyists  from using campaign funds to contribute to other members or candidates. It also prohibits secret of taping of members.

We expect that the Senate will reject the house version of the bill and so ethics will once again become a cliffhanger bill resolved on the last night of the session as it has been so often in the past.

Read Full Post »

Activist mourned the death of local control at the Texas capital today. Photo by Carol Geiger

Activist mourned the death of local control at the Texas capital today. Photo by Carol Geiger

Today, just hours after the House Energy Resources Committee heard from scientists at Southern Methodist University that oil and gas extraction and injection wells for fracking wastewater are causing earthquakes in Texas, the Texas Senate passed a bill that will almost completely end local control over oil and gas industry activities.

House Bill 40 was conceived of in the backlash against Denton’s ban on fracking, but it goes way further than overruling bans.  City ordinances adopted to protect public health and safety in are just a pen stroke away from being invalid and Governor Abbott isn’t going to veto this bill.  The Texas Legislature has decided that the people of Laredo, Dallas, Houston, College Station Nacogdoches, Southlake, Harlingen, Sherman, Port Aransas, Fort Stockton and so many other cities across the State of Texas shouldn’t have the right to protect the communities they live in from the very real dangers that fracking and other oil and gas industry activities pose.  This is an unprecedented retreat from Texas’ long tradition of local control.

Why, you might ask, would our elected officials choose to so dramatically curtail the rights of Texas citizens and cities?  The answer is money.  According to a recent report by Texans for Public Justice, the energy and natural resources industries were the number 1 financial contributors to non-judicial Texas politicians in 2014.  31 Texas senators received $1.7 million – an average of $56,000 each.  144 Texas representatives received $3.8 million – an average of $25,000 each.

The oil and gas industries’ use of campaign contributions to curry favor with elected officials is nothing new and it crosses political lines.  That’s HB 40 ended up with 78 authors, co-authors and sponsors.  The people who are elected to protect the people of Texas can’t wait to show the oil and gas industry how great of an investment they made with their campaign contributions.

The Texas Legislature is tearing apart local control to protect oil and gas interests instead of public health and safety.  Only voters can change this pattern.  Take a look at how your state representative and state senator voted and hold your elected officials accountable.

Read Full Post »

2015-03-09 Anti Corruption press conferenceOn Monday March 9th, the Texas Anti-Corruption Campaign held a press conference calling for the end of corruption culture in Texas politics. The Texas Anti-Corruption Campaign is a new growing alliance between a wide group of nonprofit and political organizations, including: Public Citizen, Audits in the Public Interest, Clean Elections Texas, Common Cause Texas, Libertarian Party of Texas, Texans for Public Justice, and TexPIRG.

The citizen’s movement began as a response to the patronage and cronyism that became synonymous with former Governor Rick Perry’s Administration and has grown as more and more Texas agencies are being investigated for inefficiencies. As Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of our Texas office here at Public Citizen said:

We believe that the people are ultimately responsible to hold the government accountable in the face of rampant corruption and abuse of power. We are paying a corruption tax-billions of our tax dollars are being wasted through cronyism and corruption. We need to stop efforts to defund and handcuff our state funded watchdogs at the Public Integrity Unit and the Ethics Commission. It’s time to take the muzzle off and give them new teeth.

Ethical issues in government were highlighted in the State of the State in which Governor Abbott declared that ethics would be one of the five emergency items he assigned during the 84th Legislature. He said:

“The faith and trust that Texas citizens place in their elected officials requires each of us to conduct the business of the state in the most transparent and honest manner possible. Strengthening our ethics laws relating to disclosure of state contracts with elected officials, prohibiting lawmakers from voting on legislation from which they could profit and increasing disclosure of campaign finance information will ensure a more responsible government for Texas.”

The Texas Anti-Corruption Campaign applauded Governor Abbott’s call for change and hoped to use the momentum to promote good government reform in the legislature. To help solve this issue, the coalition developed a 10-point plan to make progress toward their goal of ending corruption in government.
(more…)

Read Full Post »

Blog Post PicTwo non-profit and non-partisan investigative journalism organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News, have concluded through their joint investigation that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Railroad Commission protect the oil and gas industry instead of the public whom they claim to serve.

Fred Wright and Morris Kocurek were two oil and gas regulators working for the Texas Railroad Commission who received praise from their supervisors, promotions, and merit raises throughout their careers. But they may have done their jobs too well. They were fired in 2013 for what they believe to be their insistence in making sure oil and gas operators followed the rules and regulations in place to protect the public and the environment.

Wright was responsible for determining whether oil and gas wells were up to code to prevent groundwater contamination. He was often encouraged or coerced by his superiors to bend the rules, to say that operators had met compliance standards when they had not. In 2013, his superiors told him that complaints had been filed against him by the operators claiming he was “unreasonable to work with” and “does not attempt to offer solutions to bring them in compliance with commission rules”, citing that Fred’s methods for compliance would be “costly”. Wright’s boss at the time, Charlie Teague, insisted that Write approve oil and gas wells despite the fact that they were in violation of statewide rules.

As the enforcer of proper toxic waste disposal in the oil and gas industry, Kocurek faced very similar problems. He said his bosses made it clear that he was supposed to go easy on the industry. The violation notices Kocurek filed were usually processed very slowly and follow-up inspections were assigned to the more lenient inspectors. Eventually, Kocurek realized the influence that the industry had on its supposed regulators and his reports were all ignored. Violations would disappear after the right phone calls were made.

Documents obtained from the Railroad Commission through the open-records corroborate the stories of Mr. Wright and Mr. Kocurek. Wright has filed a civil lawsuit alleging wrongful termination. He has also filed a federal whistleblower complaint. Kocurek, on the other hand, hasn’t taken any legal action and would rather forget the whole thing.

According to InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity, the Railroad Commission is controlled by three elected commissioners who have accepted nearly $3 million combined in campaign contributions from the industry during the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. In the case of the Railroad Commission and the TCEQ, money talks and it’s louder than the voice of Texas citizens.

Read their extensive report here: [http://books.insideclimatenews.org/fired]

Read Full Post »

Overturn the Citizens United ruling, urge your senator to support a constitutional amendment.

Read the following statement of Robert Weissman, President, Public Citizen to learn more about what the proposed constitutional amendment being put forward will and won’t do.

Note: The Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee today approved an amended S.J. Res. 19, a constitutional amendment proposed by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) that aims to overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and other U.S. Supreme Court decisions relating to campaign finance.

Here’s how the world will be different after final ratification of the constitutional amendment today approved by the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee:

The 28th Amendment will give Congress and the states authority to regulate and limit the raising and spending of campaign funds, eliminating various barriers and obstacles imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court. It will overturn Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) and McCutcheon v. FEC, among other Supreme Court decisions that have facilitated the rise of a de facto oligarchy. Specifically, Congress and the states will be able to:

  • Limit or forbid all corporate spending on elections.
  • Regulate campaign spending to advance the objectives of democratic self-government and political equality, rather than just to prevent criminal bribery.
  • Impose robust controls and strict limits on outside spending by super PACs and dark money conduits like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch Brothers organizations, potentially forbidding significant outside spending altogether.
  • Impose limits on the total amount any person can donate to candidates, parties and PACs.
  • Regulate the amount of spending by self-financed candidates.
  • Adopt limits on the total amounts candidates and their supporters may spend.
  • Adopt small-donor empowerment and public financing systems that provide extra funding to candidates who face heavily funded opponents who do not opt into the system.
  • Adopt mandatory public financing systems.

Following the public mobilization that will eventually obtain ratification of the 28th Amendment, we should expect Congress and the states to respond to that same public demand to restore our democracy – by enacting robust public financing systems, major curbs on outside spending and prohibitions on corporate spending in elections.

The amendment and subsequent legislation will not cure all of our nation’s ills, but it will help restore our democracy and remove key blocks to addressing the great problems facing the nation: putting people back to work, addressing deepening inequality, averting catastrophic climate change, fixing our schools, ensuring quality and affordable health care for all, and much more.

It shouldn’t need saying, but because of an intentional disinformation campaign by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other opponents of the amendment, it’s worth emphasizing what the amendment will not do: It will not “shred” or otherwise amend the First Amendment. It will not enable Congress and the states to adopt rules that discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity or viewpoint. It will not permit Congress to adopt a law banning campaign expenditures by just the Sierra Club, or just the National Rifle Association.

What the amendment will do is strengthen and restore the First Amendment, which has been weakened and distorted by the Supreme Court. The 28th Amendment will amplify the voices of the People, and make their speech meaningful. As Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer noted in his McCutcheon dissent, “Speech does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, political communication seeks to secure government action.” And, he explained, “Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard.”

With the 28th Amendment, we put an end to the plutocrats paying the piper, and enable the people to again call the tune.  Urge your senator to support a constitutional amendment.

Read Full Post »

Our partners at Progress Texas are hosting a special screening of the documentary Koch Brothers Exposed at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar on Monday, December 3rd at 6:30 PM.  They have already sold out more than half the theater – be sure to reserve your seats now before they sell out!

From director Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed, WalMart: the High Cost of Low Price), comes a terrific documentary film on Charles and David Koch—two billionaire brothers who have bankrolled a vast network of organizations that work to undermine middle class interests on issues ranging from Social Security to the environment to civil rights. This film uncovers the Kochs’ corruption—and points the way to how Americans can reclaim their democracy.

After the screening, Progress Texas will host a 30-minute discussion and Q/A with invited speakers Texas State Representative Garnet Coleman, Austin Chronicle Political Reporter Richard Whittaker, and others.

Purchase Ticket

The price per ticket for a non-sustaining donor is $20. This includes entry for the movie AND a $10 credit towards the purchase of any food or drinks.

As always, Progress Texas sustaining donors get in free, but space is limited. To make sure you have a seat you will need to reserve your ticket for $10. That $10 will be put directly to a food and drink credit. If you are a current sustaining donor and interested in attending this event or have questions, please contact [email protected] for more information.

Check out the trailer below and make sure to get your reserved seat ticket today!

Koch Brothers Exposed

Read Full Post »

The controversial 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United – that gave corporations untold influence in our electoral system and said “money” is “speech” – has created an environment in which millions of dollars in corporate cash is drowning out the voices of Texans.

It is time for Texans to demand the end of unlimited money in our elections and take action on a local level.

We are proud to support a homegrown Texas grassroots movement called Texans United to Amend in their efforts demanding local governments across the state of Texas pass resolutions supporting a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and declare that only human beings are entitled to rights under our constitution.

We are joining Texas United to Amend to ask for you to make a difference in your community and sign this petition urging your local government to pass a resolution that seeks an amendment of the U.S. Constitution that firmly establishes that money is not speech, and that only human beings, not corporations are entitled to constitutional rights.

Sign the petition today and call on your local government to pass a resolution.

You might be asking – why local governments? Isn’t this a federal issue?

Social change has always come from grassroots groups, with speeches and marches in the street. This has been true of both the direct election of Senators (17th Amendment) and Women’s Suffrage (19th Amendment). The movement for a constitutional amendment to remedy Citizens United is, at its core, a grassroots one. It is driven by real concerns about the health of our democracy that reverberate in each and every community in Texas.

Passing local resolutions at the local level in Texas is the necessary first step toward restoring free and fair elections to the American people, both locally and nationally. Your work, along with coalitions like Texas United to Amend, can make a difference.

Click here and join Texans United to Amend in calling on your local government to pass a resolution that seeks an amendment of the U.S. Constitution that firmly establishes that money is not speech, and that only human beings, not corporations are entitled to constitutional rights.

Across the country, ordinary citizens like you are making their voices heard.  Nine states have already passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and many more states are considering the same. If you want to do more, let us help you set up an organizing meeting the week of October 8.  This will be an exciting way to begin planning for the third anniversary of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling and to prepare to gather petition signatures on election day when millions of potentially interested voters go to the polls.  Click here to get more information and sign up.

Read Full Post »

By Michael Tahmoressi, St. Edwards student and Public Citizen intern

Texas can be characterized as a pay to play environment.  Politicians bend to their districts business interests and gubernatorial appointees seem to be selected based on the amounts they contribute to the governor.

Contributions Equal Access and Appointments

Rick Perry has taken this to a new extreme with the deal he appears to have struck with Harold Simmons, a billionaire chemical industry mogul whose latest project is a radioactive waste repository in Andrews county Texas. Simmons single handedly pushed his project forward, boasting about it in a rare interview in 2006.  Click here to read D Magazine’s article “Harold Simmons is Dallas’ Most Evil Genius.

State engineers and geologists strongly objected to licensing the dump, expressing concern that radioactive material could contaminate groundwater in the region.  Three staff scientists at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality resigned rather than sign off on the licenses. Nevertheless, Rick Perry spearheaded the approval of the waste dump, operated by Waste Control Specialists (WCS) and the TCEQ executive director, Glenn Shankle, approved the application, just a few months before he went to work as a lobbyist for WCS.  Click here to read Public Citizen’s report The Repository and the Risk.

The next step of the plan was to open the facility up to allow other states to dump their waste in the site.  That decision lay in the hands of the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission (TLLRWDCC), comprised of six Texas commissioners appointed by Perry.  Two additional commissioners appointed by Vermont fill out the Compact Commission.  In 2010, eleven days after Governor Perry was re-elected, the Compact Commission voted 5-2 to approve rules that would make Texas the radioactive waste disposal site for the country.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission flagged this potentially huge liability problem in its report on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality:

“Texas, and not the Compact Commission nor the disposal facility licensee, holds liability for compact waste brought into the state. Low-level radioactive waste can be radioactive for a long time, and potential future contamination could not only have a severe impact to the environment and human health, but to the State, which bears the ultimate financial responsibility for compact waste disposal facility site.”

A Texas observer article goes on to explain that the state would not only be forced to take care of any potential contamination problems but also the closure of the waste dump. This is clearly illustrates the biggest problem in our state the power does not lie in the hands of the people but in the business sector. Click here to read the article from the Texas Observer.

Double Dipping: An Acceptable Practice?

The case of State Represenative Joe Driver, (R-Garland) is another example.  Driver, who was convicted of felony abuse of official power, admitted in an interview in 2006 that he pocketed taxpayer money for travel expenses that his campaign had already paid. Click here to read the Texas Tribune article.  For years he had been double dipping, submitting the same receipts to his campaign and the state for airline tickets, meals, incidentals; collecting thousands of dollars in state mileage reimbursements for travel in vehicles for which his campaign had already spent more than $100,000 since 2000. This resulted in his campaign covering these travel costs, while he pocketed the profit by reimbursing himself with taxpayer money.

The Attorney general has not done enough to stop criminals like Driver.  Abbott’s ethics probes have been terribly inadequate.  Of the 57 probes he has started since his term in office began in 2002 only half of those resulted in convictions and a majority of those were for only minor infractions.

Abbott is a power broker with a political war-chest of over 8 million dollars.  Ninety nine percent of that can be traced back to business interests, more than $1 million from the business sector with the top contributors Houston homebuilder Bob Perry who gave the attorney general $470,265 in addition to Houston’s John Nau, Kenny Troutt, who made a fortune from his Excel phone company and energy and water investor T. Boone Pickens following close behind.

Texans need a justice agency they can trust to stop this hijacking of our democracy politicians that are either being rented by big business lobbies or are trying to get a cut of the action.

It Was A Gift, Not a Contribution

Legislative power broking has become normal practice in Texas.  Lobbyists’ daily activities in the capital involve massaging the backs of legislative members and their staff with gifts of food and activities, and functional bribes, in the form of monetary campaign promises or the problem State Representative Kino Flores (D-Palmview) in the valley encountered.

Flores had been receiving money from local businesses for years and not properly filing required reports on them. He was indicted for accepting gifts and failure to report them to the state. Overall, he failed to disclose $115,000 to $185,000 of income each year from 2004 to 2009.

Blatant corruption taints our democracy, how can citizens believe in their governments officials to manage the state, when the balance of power has gradually shifted to the moneyed elite. The general population is so removed from policy implementation they usually only show interest in issues that directly affect them; making it appear that they are okay with a level corruption when the reality is that they are unaware of the corruption or feel powerless to do anything about it. This is inherent to our economic system that demands efficiency and results at the expense of ethics.

Politicians for Sale or Rent, Rooms to Let – 50 Cents

Politicians aren’t for sale in Texas, they are for rent.  There was a study done by Larry Bartels professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Government about economic inequality and congressional response. Bartels found that senators are more likely to respond to concerns brought forward by members of the top ⅓ of their district’s total constituency. Bartels also found that senators never voted or responded to the concerns of the lower economic ⅓.  Click here to read the report.

If the game is rigged towards the top ⅓ of our population because money buys influence, what are the rest of us supposed to do to get our voices heard? 

Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen and 15 other advocates from legislative watchdog groups had an answer. On April 10th, testifying in front of the Texas Sunset Advisory Committee they urged the committee to make the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) an enforcement agency and to expand their authority to investigate beyond minor infractions.  In addition, they recommended that a TEC enforcement director be given greater authority to subpoena records, that the legislature expands what is disclosed by candidates each election cycle and that they create a limit on the amount that individuals can contribute.

Public watchdogs speaking out against corruption at the TEC Sunset hearing is tantamount to sustaining what is left of our democracy in Texas. It’s impossible to place personal responsibility on the people for not participating in rooting out corruption because the power is not in their hands and the very folks responsible for representing them are being bought by big business groups.

Public Citizen and other watchdog groups are the vanguard of citizens who are committed to accountability.  We hold those in the government, who believe their positions put them above the law, accountable and demand that there be a reverse in the flow of power back to the people.  Public hearings like the one on April 10th allow us the ability to present our grievances.

The system may be sluggish and cumbersome, but Public Citizen is committed to maintaining and expanding a network of allies who are committed to holding Texas government officials accountable for the misuse and abuses of power.

Read Full Post »

Statement by Tom “Smitty” Smith, Director of the Texas office of Public Citizen

It’s time to unshackle Texas’ ethics watchdog and give it some teeth.

A recent study by the  Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity found that when it comes to government openness and accountability, Texas ranks in the lower half of all states.

While the language of the laws received a B- grade in the study, when it came to implementing the laws (or disclosing and enforcing them), Texas got a D+

Among the faults found in the study, four stand out as most egregious: The Lone Star State’s poor financial disclosure laws make it almost impossible to tell when an officeholder has a conflict of interest; lobbyists can make unlimited contributions to legislators to influence policy; contributors or their employees can be appointed to regulatory agencies – and adopt policies to benefits their business interests; and the revolving door is kept spinning by loopholes that allow government officials to go to work for the businesses they regulated or had legislative control.

While Texas should be performing better, the ethics commission isn’t to blame. It has been handcuffed since it started. Instead of policing the politicians, the watchdog is protecting them.

It is time for Texas to get tough on political crimes, stop protecting the politicians and treat the ethics commission as if it were just another professional regulatory agency. The commission should have the authority to take enforcement actions and hear complaints without needing to check in with a board of political appointees.

The Ethics Commission will undergo Sunset review this year. In advance of discussions about necessary reforms for the commission, which are slated for April 10, ethics watchdog groups will make public a comprehensive reform package. It’s time to give Texas the ability to rein in out-of-control, unethical behaviors.

Check out the excellent coverage of this issue by the Texas Tribune

Texas Gets a D+ in Public Integrity Study

Texas: The story behind the score

Read Full Post »

According to the Texas Energy Report, state environmental regulators appointed by Gov. Rick Perry issued a permit in January for a Houston-area industrial waste injection well to a company whose top investors include some of Perry’s close friends and campaign contributors.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) approved the permit over the objections of the Texas Railroad Commission (whose commissioners are elected) and every state and local official representing Montgomery County, and in spite of an administrative law judge’s recommendation to deny the permit because the well might pollute groundwater.

Perry’s presidential campaign opponents have criticized him for “crony capitalism,” the appearance of a pay-to-play culture that gets favorable state government treatment for his campaign donors. Perry also has been criticized for state environmental regulation that appears to put business ahead of environmental quality and safety.

All those issues are raised in the environmental commission’s actions on the permit sought by TexCom  Inc. of Houston and its investors with close ties to Perry.

Major investors in the injection well include Texas A&M University System Regent Phil Adams and Barry Switzer, a former football coach for the University of Oklahoma and the Dallas Cowboys.

Adams is a friend of Perry’s from their days as students at A&M. He has donated almost $300,000 to Perry’s state campaign fund, and at one time or another he has employed both of Perry’s children in his Bryan insurance agency. Another Adams investment became controversial in Perry’s gubernatorial re-election campaign last year when it was revealed that the company received a $2.75 million grant from the state’s Emerging Technology Fund.

Switzer raised more than $57,000 for Perry’s 2010 re-election and attended Perry’s primary election victory party. This August, Switzer hosted a fundraiser for Perry’s presidential campaign that took in $273,500.

Adams and Switzer are investors in a subsidiary of TexCom Inc. The company fought for five years to obtain the permit for a Montgomery County site for an injection well for industrial waste, mostly generated by the oil and gas industry. TexCom has reported that the site has the potential to generate $20 million a year in revenue.

Switzer became involved with TexCom in 2006 when he led investors to put $6 million into the company. Then in 2007, Switzer and two other Oklahoma investors founded Foxborough Energy Co. LLC and Montgomery County Environmental Solutions, which together bought at least a 60 percent share of the TexCom subsidiary that was seeking the Montgomery County well permit.

Adams’ state financial disclosure reports have shown him as an investor in the two Oklahoma companies since 2008.

Texas Ethics Commission undergoing Sunset Process

The Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) has responsibility for civilly enforcing our state’s campaign finance laws. In the agency’s Self-Evaluation, they reported that in in 2009 they received 274 complaints from the public and there were zero initiated by the agency.  In 2010, they received 374 complaints from the public and again, zero initiated by the agency.  If the TEC is to be an effective enforcement agency, it must be restructured so that it operates like all other civil state law enforcement agencies.

Those concerned about the appearance of pay-to-play politics should ask the Sunset Commission to recommend the legislature make changes to the Texas Ethics Commission that:

  • Prohibit any contributor of more than $100 from being appointed to any board commission or office or contracting with the state  for 2 years after the contribution is made
  • Prohibit state agencies from contracting or giving grants to contributors of the Governor, Lt Governor or Speaker of the House.

Any community could fall victim to “crony capitalism” and Texans have an opportunity to ask their representatives to make it stop!

Read Full Post »

Bastrop Texas wildfires

Wildfires rage over Labor Day near Bastrop, TX, southeast of Austin


Our hearts, prayers and thoughts go out to the people currently evacuated and who have lost their homes this holiday weekend. I, myself, having gone through losing a home to fire I send my best to all of you affected, and have already contacting folks via our church to find out how we can help. I’ll post links as soon as I can get them to give directly to disaster relief. UPDATE: KVUE has a great list they are updating with where to donate. Please give what you can.

This puts into focus several things that have been ruminating in my head all weekend, and it all comes back to this one question– Why does Rice play Texas?  This weekend, two of our nation’s best universities met on the football field. And while both Rice and University of Texas can duke it out on relatively equal footing on the basis of academics, Rice is. . . shall we say, not the athletic powerhouse that Texas is. So, why does Rice always begin its football season with a drubbing of 34-9 (hey, tip of the hat for getting 9 points on the scoreboard– I guarantee there will be teas that do less this year), with the Owls now having lost 41 games out of the last 42 meetings to the Longhorns? And here the answer lies with the other goings-on of this long weekend.

It started with a bang and whimper as our Caver-in-Chief, President Obama, announced he would overrule both the Supreme Court in Whitman v American Trucking Associations and the EPA in pulling back on the agency’s interstate smog rule that has been in the works since the Bush Administration. As Prof of Law Lisa Heinzerling points out in an excellent post over at Grist called Ozone Madness, this decision is wrong based on the law, the science, the economics, and the transparency.

While the President is trying to, I’d assume, take what he sees as the high ground and compromise with those people who claim that these regulations kill jobs, the opposite is, in fact, true. These National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS, are set by the Clean Air Act and, defined by the Supreme Court, are to be based on the best available science about what levels of pollutants are healthy for human beings (people like you and me) to breathe. Tea partiers and some of their corporate paymasters in the fossil fuel industry have been caterwauling that these rules will be “too expensive” to implement, and therefore shut down a lot of old, dirty power plants.

coal smokestacks polluteUmmmm.. . . yes, please? Couldn’t we, nay, shouldn’t we shut them down? Our best available science tells us these pollution sources are making us sick. We need these life-saving regulations to help all of the sick children, the elderly, and just the plain folks who  suffer from asthma and other respiratory disease. Count up the missed school days, the missed work days, the premature deaths– count how they hobble our economy. How can children compete in a global economy if they are missing days from school sick because they can’t breathe? How much work is done not on time? How much lost productivity have we hamstrung our economic engine with to cater to people who don’t know how to compete in a modern energy economy against cleaner forms of production? Because the new EPA rules won’t shut down all power plants, only those who can’t compete, who can’t run cleanly. And since there is also good evidence to show that these sorts of life-enhancing regulations actually help, not hurt,  the economy. It also rebuts the White House’s own stated position that they posted just one. day. earlier. that clean air helps the economy, preventing in this year alone:

  • 160,000 premature deaths;
  • More than 80,000 emergency room visits;
  • Millions of cases of respiratory problems;
  • Millions of lost workdays, increasing productivity;
  • Millions of lost school days due to respiratory illness and other diseases caused or exacerbated by air pollution.

So aside from the doublespeak and the just plain bad policy, it looked like the Obama Administration is also taking early steps to signal that they will approve the Keystone XL pipeline to bring the world’s dirtiest and most carbon-intensive source of oil on the planet to Texas Gulf Coast refineries, despite weeks of protests involving thousands of people and hundreds of arrests.

The impact on the climate if this is approved? Well, according to Jim Hanson, one of our top climate scientists, he called it “essentially game over.” Or, as Bill Paxton in Aliens put it:  (WARNING: NSFW for swearsies, including the dreaded f-dash-dash-dash word)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsx2vdn7gpY]

Ok, well, all kidding aside because this is deathly serious, as in the fate of the planet’s climate, THIS is what Jim Hanson told climate protesters outside the White House just before he was arrested for his part in the protest.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lii5Q-meoro]

Bill McKibben, environmental activist and one of the ringleaders of the several weeks long protest event, said this on Friday about how this is not the end of the protests, it’s only the beginning:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcBCLXBzYLg]

These are serious stakes. “Game Over” stakes. What does that mean? Well, for climate, if you’ve liked the record-breaking heat this year in Texas, you’re in luck, as this could easily become the new normal with climate change. And with the heat, we’ve got the huge economic impacts of the drought. For farmers and ranchers, the Dallas Morning News is reporting a 5 billion dollar loss. Thats Billion with a B, folks.

So next time someone starts talking about how it’s “too expensive” to deal with climate change, do what the Violent Femmes say to do and “Add it Up.” (warning:song lyrics also NSFW because of those darn swearsies)  Loss from hurricanes like Irene, loss from this summer’s floods and tornadoes in Joplin, loss from drought, loss from wildfires, loss to the economy from dirty air (since hotter temperatures mean worse smog), and tell me that just continuing to do nothing and just putting more carbon into the atmosphere is potentially the most expensive thing we can do.

JFK speaking at Rice University

So, what does this have to do with Rice vs Texas? Well, what we have here is political expediency and taking the easy path instead of fighting for what is right. Regulations, regardless of their impact on a multinational corporation’s bottom line, save lives, and improve lives. This is what Ralph Nader fought for when he wrote Unsafe at Any Speed. Corporate whining and their record-breaking profits are not more important than people, and people’s’ rights to breathe clean air, or live in a stable climate. I, for one, am not willing to give up on Central Texas, and let this become the new normal for climate. When I first came to Austin, my literal first impression of the area was “I now understand why people were willing to die at The Alamo to protect this land.”


Decades ago, another President came to Texas to challenge a nation to go to the moon before the end of the decade, and asked an assembled crowd at Rice University the magic question.

“Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” … But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

President Kennedy answered his own question:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Climate change is the same challenge, which I previously hit on in another blog post where I also used this quote. It is certainly one we must be willing to accept, unwilling to postpone, and which we intend to win.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ouRbkBAOGEw]

But, most importantly, he notes that “But this city of Houston, this state of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward.”

Let me take liberty with JFK’s speech where he talks about the need to build a space industry and replace it with a clean energy economy. “If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The [creation of a clean energy economy] will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for [clean energy].  Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of [energy]. We mean to be a part of it—we mean to lead it.

Our economic torpor, our environmental problems, and yes, our hurricanes and droughts and wildfires, are ALL things we can solve if we are willing to take this same leadership role. Surely there will be pollution in the future, there will be recessions, there will be storms and droughts and fires– but they will NOT be supercharged by an ever-increasing blanket of carbon making our planet warmer and warmer. We must stop doing the same things over and over, relying on fossil fuels, and expecting different results. We must put our courage to the sticking place, and say that we will not allow the voices of a few, economically powerful and well-connected industries to wreak untold havoc on us and our neighborhoods.

You’ll notice, in JFK’s speech, he talks about the costs that a trip to the moon will require. He advocates not spending money recklessly, but in spending a large amount of money to win this challenge.

To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. This year’s space budget is three times what it was in January 1961, and it is greater than the space budget of the previous eight years combined. That budget now stands at 5 billion 400 million dollars a year—a staggering sum, though somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year. Space expenditures will soon rise some more, from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents a week for every man, woman and child in the United States, for we have given this program a high national priority—even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us. But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240 thousand miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25 thousand miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun—almost as hot as it is here today—and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be bold

However, I think we’re going to do it, and I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don’t think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job.”

President Obama will be giving a speech on jobs later this week. In it, I’d love to hear even a smidgen of the boldness and realism of Kennedy. I’d love for him to recant his statement on the EPA smog rule, and say that he will stop the Keystone XL pipeline, as it will only increase our dependence on oil when we need to be quitting it. But I doubt it.

But, it could be worse. We could be realistically thinking about electing as President of the United States someone who believes climate change is a hoax, that climate scientists are in it for the money, and the best way to run a state is to slash the budget of the Forest Service, the agency responsible for fighting fires in Texas, by $34 million– almost one-third of its budget– on the eve of one of the most destructive fire seasons ever. It is worth noting that during the sunset hearings on the Texas Forest Service I testified as to the need of the Forest Service to engage in extra forecasting as to what a climate-change-fueled fire season would look like and be prepared to fight it, so this is a little bit of a personal issue for me.

Apologies for the political birdwalk and the sniping at the two likely major-party candidates for the Presidency. What is clear is what JFK was talking about: we must do things like fight climate change not because they are easy, but because they are hard, and because they are a challenge we are willing to accept and unwilling to postpone. It is a fight we must win, it is a fight for our very existence as we know it here in Texas.

This Saturday my alma mater will be coming to Austin to play Texas, and as my BYU Cougars sit as 4.5 point underdogs against the Longhorns, they and we must remember that this is why Rice plays Texas. This is why BYU plays Texas. To challenge ourselves, and organize our best efforts to make us better. That is why Rice plays Texas. And that is ultimately why we must get our head in the game on clean energy and quit our addictions to fossil fuels and their campaign contributions.

###

For updates on where exactly wildfires are raging in Texas, please visit http://ticc.tamu.edu/Response/FireActivity/

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »