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Death and Texas

The state's top criminal judge has inspired a parody website and a complaint from a group of lawyers that's dead serious.

The state's top criminal judge has inspired a parody website and a complaint from a group of lawyers that's dead serious.

Texas voters reelected Sharon Keller last year for another six-year term as presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. That panel's got the same juice as the Texas Supreme Court, only on the criminal side of the law. And it's become a lightning rod since Keller told lawyers for Michael Richards last month that she wouldn't keep the office open past five o'clock to receive their legal briefs.

With no legal papers in the works, Richards was executed that evening.

Keller apparently did that without asking her fellow judges, who contributed some of the most damning quotes in the news accounts that followed.

Keller has also inspired a parody website — SharonKiller.com— which includes links to, among other things, a parody MySpace page.

And something more serious, too: Now a group of prominent and not-so prominent defense lawyers is after her hide, sending a letter to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct that says her actions violated the judicial canons by denying a condemned man an appeal to which he was entitled.

"Judge Keller's actions denied Michael Richard two constitutional rights, access to the courts and due process, which led to his execution. Her actions also brought the integrity of the Texas judiciary and of her court into disrepute and was a source of scandal to the citizens of the state," they wrote.

The complaint was filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project; in their press release announcing it, they said it was signed by a group that includes former State Bar President Broadus Spivey, Houston criminal defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, University of Houston law professor Mike Olivas, former appellate judge Michol O’Connor, legal ethics author Chuck Herring, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, Southern Methodist Law School clinical supervisor Eliot Shavin, and former Nueces County Attorney Mike Westergren.

The last time that agency tangled with an appellate judge — Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht — he fought them in court and won.

Oops, in a Good Way

The state has $1.5 billion more in its general revenue account than predicted, according to Comptroller Susan Combs. That's on top of $7 billion she forecasted earlier this year.

In a letter to the governor and legislative leaders, the comptroller said the state ended the year with an $8.5 billion balance in GR. At the beginning of the year, Combs projected a balance of $7 billion. The state brought in more tax money than she expected, and spent less, she said her in letter. State sales taxes — the backbone of Texas state finance — increased by 10.9 percent over the fiscal 2006 mark.

Combs said the state's Rainy Day fund (officially, the Economic Stabilization Fund) will total $4.6 billion when she makes a required deposit later this year.

Experts who've been watching weren't surprised at the final balance, but can't quite put their fingers on the reason the state's economy is acting this way. Whatever the reason, they say it's good news.

"It means the state has some wiggle room," says Dale Craymer, economist with the Texas Taxpayer and Research Association. "If the margin tax doesn't make its estimate [next year], legislators will have some room."

The state's new business tax — sold as a way to pay for cuts in local property taxes — is due for the first time next May. Both the comptroller and legislative number-crunchers say the local tax cuts will cost more than the new tax will bring in. Lawmakers, with an eye on that, kept their mitts off billions that were available for current spending last session as a hedge against those projections.

Even if the money's not needed for that, there are other things to worry about. "This could give us a bigger cushion as a state than other states will have if the economy tanks," Craymer says. "There'd be less chance of a tax increase."

The size of the treasure chest already made it possible to "certify" a pay raise for state employees (two percent in the current fiscal year; two percent in the next one, totaling $242.7 million). A spokesman for Combs said lawmakers also appropriated about $300 million for transportation, contingent on the comptroller's certification that the money will be there. It will be.

Isett Pulls Out a Plum

Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, will head the Sunset Advisory Commission for the next two years.

He was on the panel before, but left it when he took leave of the Lege to serve in the Gulf War (he's in the Navy Reserve). House Speaker Tom Craddick appointed him, also naming Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, to that panel.

And Craddick reappointed Ike Sugg of San Angelo as a citizen member of Sunset.

It's the House's turn to name the chairman; until September 1, it was Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth. Isett has the gig until September 2009. Reps. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, and Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, are coming off the commission, to be replaced by Isett and Harper-Brown.

Three others are coming off, too, but Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst hasn't named their replacements: Howard Wolf, a public member, and Sens. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, and John Whitmire, D-Houston.

They've got some hot potatoes on their review agenda as they enter the next legislative session: the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Youth Commission lead the list, with their toll roads and their scandals, respectively, followed in no particular order by the Texas Department of Agriculture, the Texas Department of Insurance, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the Office of State-Federal Relations.

Combs for Rudy

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs will be state chairman of Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign.

Combs is the first and so far the only statewide elected official to endorse anyone other than former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson. Most of the statewides are staying out so far, but Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo, and Attorney General Greg Abbott have all pledged to Thompson.

Patterson, meanwhile, says a funder for Thompson in Fort Worth — sponsored by Ramona Bass, among others — attracted $200,000 before the event. They're aiming at $250,000.

Money on the Table

The seven people running to replace Rep. Anna Mowery, R-Fort Worth, in HD-97 filed their first money reports with a month to go before that special election.

In alphabetical order:

Dan Barrett, an attorney who's the only Democrat in the race, raised $36,788, spent $21,820, and had $10,380 in the bank as of September 27.

Craig Goldman, a Republican insurance salesman who used to work for then-U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, raised $181,453, spent $17,129 and had $162,692 on hand at the end of the month. His campaign folk say he raised more money in the district than anyone else. That's a defensive move; his opponents pointed out that he raised a lot of his money outside the district, from other spots in Texas and from other states and Washington, D.C. He got $2,000, by the way, from the Friends of Phil Gramm PAC, run by his old boss, and $2,500 more from Gramm his own self. His biggest single contribution — $10,000 — was from Edward Netherland of Lancassas, Tennessee.

Chris Hatch, a Republican accountant and Fort Worth school board trustee, raised $6,550, spent $15,498 and ended up with $5,680 in the bank. The accounting trick there? He spent $13,954 in personal funds — his own dough — on the campaign.

Jeff Humber, a business development exec from Benbrook, loaned his campaign $50,000. He raised $3,620, spent $22,104, and made it to the end of the month with $31,143 in the till.

• Former Rep. Bob Leonard, an attorney, raised $47,320, spent $42,012, and had $113,169 in the bank at the end. He loaned his campaign $100,000. Point of interest: His campaign treasurer is Fran Chiles, a former National GOP committeewoman from Texas. The biggest contributors were Mr. & Mrs. Charles Ringer, who gave $10,000.

James Dean Schull, a Republican attorney from Benbrook, raised $2,800, spent $2,500 and had $300 on September 27.

• Dr. Mark Shelton, a Republican pediatrician, raised $37,700, spent $15,423, and had $30,786 in the bank at the end of the period. His biggest contribution — $10,000 — was from the Texas Medical Association PAC. And he loaned his campaign $5,000.

Newbies

It's not time to file, officially, for the Texas primaries. But the campaign treasurer reports are steadily coming in...

This week's new campaign treasurer filings with the Texas Ethics Commission include Samuel "Sam" Murphey and Michael Pearce in HD-55 — where Rep. Dianne White Delisi is hanging up her running shoes. Murphey's a Democrat from Harker Heights and worked as a district guy for U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco. Pearce, a Republican, is a former teacher and now sells instruction programs.

Charles "Chuck" Randolph, a Democrat, filed a report showing his interest in HD-61, where the incumbent is Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford.

B. Allen Fletcher, chairman of the Greater Tomball Chamber of Commerce, is looking at HD-130, where Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, R-Tomball, is the current House member.

And Houston City Council member Carol Alvarado put in a treasurer report for HD-145, Rep. Rick Noriega's seat.

Political Cannibals

Republicans aren't the only House members targeting their colleagues from across the aisle.

Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, says the Democrats are doing the same thing. She doesn't particularly like the practice, but says Democrats who complain about it are "wimps, weenies, and whining yellow dogs," and accuses them of hypocrisy.

What apparently set her off was the exchange last week between Democratic Rep. Jim Dunnam and former Republican Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth. Then she got wind of a fundraiser held by Tarrant County Democrats for a "100 for $100" fund that'll support Democrats challenging incumbent House and Senate Republicans. Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, was at the kickoff (he's in the photos posted on the Mid-Cities Democrats website), and Reps. Paula Hightower-Pierson and Mark Veasey are listed as members of the host committee.

Truitt thinks the fratricidal campaigning makes legislating more difficult because it's hard to work alongside someone who tried to knock you off in the last election cycle. "I think it's not a good idea for us to work against sitting House members — it causes ill will... But don't say it's a bad deal if you're doing it yourselves.

Flotsam & Jetsam

• U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Clute, will apparently have a primary opponent. Andy Mann, a Republican whose resume includes staff time with former U.S. Rep. Jack Brooks, D-Beaumont, plans to join that contest. He says he likes the incumbent, but doesn't stop there. From his website: "If you are like me, you like our current representative — and you might even agree with his basic message — but when you look at his whacky voting record as well as his recent comments while running for president, you realize that he doesn't really share our values."

• Minnesota U.S. Senate wannabe Al Franken will make two Texas stops — Dallas and Houston — to raise money for his challenge of U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minnesota. Franken's a Democrat (in case you weren't watching), and one of his Texas hosts is former gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell.

• Remember that set-to a few years ago about Mexico's water debt to Texas? The country to the south just closed the year — for the first time in 15 years — with no water debt to the U.S.

• The state chapter of the Sierra Club is officially opposed to fences and barricades between the U.S. and Mexico now, saying walls could be hard on the environment. They're afraid the barriers will keep critters from running around, whether they stop human immigrants or not. It would be hard on the ecosystem along the Rio Grande, they contend, and in turn, on eco-tourism in the state. They're asking the federal government for more time for public comment and a complete environmental impact statement before any walls or fences go up. The group once filed suit to stop a wall on the Texas border; that was settled in 2000, when the federal government backed off its building plans.

Political People and Their Moves

Refugio County Commissioner Raymond Villarreal plead guilty to tampering with government records during the March 2006 primary elections. He'll resign, spend 90 days in jail, pay a $1,500 fine and spend five years on probation, according to the attorney general's office.

Nick Dauster is the new director of government affairs at the Texas Department of State Health Services, moving up into a spot opened by Kirk Cole's promotion earlier in the year. Dauster's been at DSHS for several years, and worked in the Pink Building before that.

Dustin Lanier is leaving the Department of Information Resources to run the Council on Competitive Government.

Ray Martinez is closing his consulting shop and will be the new director of government relations at Rice University. He'll remain in Austin and shuttle between there, Houston, and Washington, D.C.

Gov. Rick Perry's latest round of appointments includes these hookups:

• San Antonio attorney Rolando Pablos of to the Texas Racing Commission. His company specializes in business development and international trade promotion.

Richard Earl McElreath of Amarillo and Norman Parrish of The Woodlands to the State Pension Review Board. McElreath is a consultant with A.G. Edwards and Sons. Parrish is a retired consulting actuary.

Tony Gilman of Austin to the Health Professions Council. His day job: executive officer of the Texas Health Care Policy Council and Perry's liaison to the state's health profession licensing boards.

Irene Armendariz, an exec with Superior HealthPlan in El Paso, and Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger of Horseshoe Bay to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Tracye McDaniel of Houston to the Texas Economic Development Corp. She's with the Houston Partnership now, but used to toil in the state's economic development office.

Retiring: Dr. Kern Wildenthal, the president of the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, in September 2008. That'll end a 22-year tenure at the helm.

Quotes of the Week

Elizabeth Villafranca, whose family has a Mexican restaurant in Farmer's Branch, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on a new effort to regulate paint colors on houses there: "I believe controlling the color you paint your house is basically profiling the Hispanic community. We all know who paints their homes tropical colors."

Former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, asked at UT Pan American to compare the Berlin Wall with the barrier proposed on the U.S.-Mexico border, quoted by the Rio Grande Guardian: "Well, I cannot repeat what President Reagan once said, but take each historically: the Great Wall of China, or the Berlin Wall, and other walls. They have not been particularly effective; not particularly efficient."

Longview Mayor Jay Dean, talking to the Longview News-Journal after local official confronted their local state reps at a meeting: "One of the things we're trying to do is bring our region together to try and help these guys, these legislators, focus on what we consider our primary issues. When they're politically involved on opposite ends of issues or support of a speaker, that breeds ill feeling. The election of a speaker is tough-duty politics. I don't think it's easy to forget and forgive once a vote is taken, because that's how they play ball."

Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, on legislative politics: "This is a blood sport. If you don't like it, do something else."

Washington Supreme Court Justice James Johnson, in an opinion — quoted by The New York Times — knocking down a state law that made it illegal to lie about material facts in political campaigns there: "It naively assumes that the government is capable of correctly and consistently negotiating the thin line between fact and opinion in political speech."


Texas Weekly: Volume 24, Issue 17, 15 October 2007. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2007 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (512) 302-5703 or email biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.

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