by Matt Stiles and Elise Hu, The Texas Tribune
On the day Gov. Rick Perry removed three forensic science commissioners, citing their expired terms, at least 100 appointees whose time was also up remained in their jobs.
The governor has said he followed the "the normal protocol of the state" in removing the three commissioners just 48 hours before they planned to review a report raising questions about an execution. But critics say Perry removed them to cover up the possibility that the state executed a man convicted on faulty evidence.
"These numbers are disturbing because, contrary to what Gov. Perry said, it was not a regular practice to remove these commissioners so quickly and on the verge of a very important hearing," said Barry Scheck, co-director of The Innocence Project, a group that helps the falsely accused. "It's more evidence that Gov. Perry's actions were not to get to the scientific truth of the matter but were self serving and calculated for political advantage."
The list of gubernatorial appointees who were serving after their terms were expired on September 30 also contains nine chairmen of state boards and commissions, according to data obtained by The Texas Tribune under the state's open-records law.
Chris Cutrone, a Perry spokesman, reviewed the list Monday afternoon and said some people with expired terms had been replaced or reappointed since September 30. The office did not have time to research each appointee's status, however.
"The majority of expired appointments are replaced when their terms are up, and these members were replaced," he said of the forensic science commissioners.
The appointees with expired terms represent just a fraction of the roughly 2,400 people serving now. The 103 people serving after their terms were up had overstayed their terms, on average, more than 100 days when the other commissioners were ousted. Several had overstayed their terms more than a year, the records show.
The Forensic Science Commission had scheduled a meeting to examine a report in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Corsicana man convicted of capital murder in the 1991 fire deaths of his three daughters. The state executed him in 2004, after numerous appeals, but some experts now question the investigative conclusions made by arson investigators at the time of the trial.
As the day of the commission's meeting approached, however, Perry announced the removal of chairman Sam Bassett, an Austin attorney, and two other panel members, including a Tarrant County prosecutor whose work has sent killers to Death Row.
Bassett said Monday that Perry aides questioned the scope and cost of the commission's work. He suspected he might be replaced when he learned that Perry aides were compiling a list of potential new commissioners.
"I'm not surprised that the commission was a priority for Gov. Perry because I know his office was concerned about the Willingham investigation," he said.
He said he remains proud of the work he and his colleagues performed on the commission.
"I'm sad that it has been delayed, and I hope that it hasn't been stopped," he said.
The new chairman, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, delayed the meeting, and it's unclear when or if it might be rescheduled. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the criminal justice committee has scheduled a meeting on the issue for November 10.
"There wasn't going to be enough time for me to learn about the case before the hearing," Bradley said after his appointment.
Craig Beyler, an arson expert hired by the commission, concluded that arson investigators in the Willingham case didn't use scientifically supported techniques and displayed "poor understandings of fire science."
Perry refers to people who question the evidence as "supposed experts," and strongly supported the execution and Willingham's conviction, calling him a "monster."
The forensic commission investigates complaints that allege professional negligence or misconduct in the use of scientific evidence from criminal cases. It doesn't have authority to make legal conclusions about Willingham's guilt or innocence, but it was expected to release its own report about the fire investigation.
"It is not unusual for gubernatorial appointments to lag, but this new information suggests a unique urgency in replacing members of the Forensic Science Commission on the eve of a critical meeting to review an independent, renowned expert's report on the faulty arson science used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. "This new information raises new questions about why Governor Perry replaced several members of the Forensic Science Commission when he did. Those questions need to be answered."
Cathie Adams is the new chair of the Republican Party of Texas.
Adams, who as head of the Texas Eagle Forum endorsed Gov. Rick Perry, said while she was running for this post that she'll now stay neutral in that race. She succeeds Tina Benkiser, who left the RPT to work for Perry. And both Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison publicly offered her congrats and support.
Adams will give up her spot at the Eagle Forum. She's the national committeewoman from Texas — a job she has held since 2008. And she's giving that up, too, though she'll go to those meetings now as the party chair.
Melinda Fredricks, a State Republican Executive Committee member from Conroe (also a Perry supporter), was also in the hunt. One difference: Fredricks wanted to serve Benkiser's term. Adams wanted the stub term and also plans to run for a full term at the GOP's state convention early next summer.
The entire party elects its chair at a biennial convention. But this was a smaller election, with just the members of the SREC voting. Adams won, 36-25.
Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas is dropping out of the race for attorney general. Texas Supreme Court Justice Dale Wainwright, who's been looking at the job, doesn't have time to raise the money to outrun former Solicitor General Ted Cruz. The GOP primary for that job is lining up.
It's not clear yet that AG Greg Abbott is stepping aside next year, but if he does, Cruz appears to have the advantage in next year's contest.
Branch dropped out Thursday. But Cruz has been busy raising money and locking up support that would otherwise go to another Republican. Wainwright, who'd have to leave the Texas Supreme Court to run for the AG job, would have about four months left to raise the money and pull together a competitive campaign against a guy who had almost $1 million at mid-year. Wainwright had $48,528.41 in the bank at the end of June.
Branch, who had $1.1 million on hand at mid-year, found himself on shifting sands. While he and others waited to see whether Kay Bailey Hutchison would resign from the Senate and start the chain reaction that could open the AG's seat, other Republicans were lining up to run for his Dallas House seat. "There may be a vacancy," he said, "But it was not a timely vacancy."
Branch said all along that he intended to run for reelection but would run for AG if it opened up at the right time. And several candidates put together contingency bids, hoping to succeed him in the House. As he backed out, so did they. Lisa Luby Ryan is out. Margaret Kelliher is out. Bryan Pickens is out. Branch is hopeful.
Hutchison said earlier in the summer that she would leave in October or November, but more recently wrote to supporters saying she'll remain in the Senate while the health insurance fight is going on. Branch, watching the candidates growing larger in his rearview mirror, opted out of the uncertain AG's race and will seek a fifth term in the House.
That'll save Cruz some money, especially if Wainwright and other Republicans decide not to play. On the Democratic side, there's just one candidate at this point: Houston attorney Barbara Ann Radnofsky, who unsuccessfully challenged Hutchison in last year's elections.
Scott Asks Feds to Reconsider
by Brian Thevenot, The Texas Tribune
State Commissioner of Education Robert Scott said his agency will press federal education officials to reverse a decision that could strip credentials from thousands of teachers and cause districts administrative headaches.
"The real issue here is, you don't do something like this after school starts," Scott said. "And you don't just decide it in a letter or an email... They leave themselves open to criticism and litigation when they do something outside the rule-making process."
When U.S. Department of Education monitors ruled recently that some newly hired elementary teachers had not met federal requirements to be considered "highly qualified," they essentially made a new rule without going through the standard process or collecting input from Texas. The teachers in question had not taken a general education exam, but rather subject-specific tests.
TEA officials insist the federal interpretation creates new law; a federal spokeswoman disagreed, saying Texas simply had not followed existing rules.
The state's policy had been the same during a previous federal monitoring visit, in February 2006, and the monitors never raised an issue, TEA officials said. Scott said he generally understands the federal reasoning in requiring all elementary teachers to take the general test — but it should only apply to teachers hired next year, not those who already met the existing standard.
"We're just asking them not to make it retroactive," Scott said.
Cheap Housing, Big Families
by Emily Ramshaw, The Texas Tribune
Want a cheap house for your large family? Texas has you covered.
The state is home to the largest average household and lowest median home value in the nation, according to new data from the Census Bureaus American Community Survey.
Odessa takes the prize for cheapest home; the median home value is $68,200.
Meanwhile, Laredo shares its largest average household ranking – 3.5 people per home -- with Provo, Utah. In Provo, 88 percent of residents are Mormon, a faith known for its large families.
Texas is also home to the U.S. city with the highest percentage of people who speak a language other than English.
More than 84 percent of people over age 5 in McAllen speak a language other than English at home, compared to 1.8 percent in Charleston, West Virginia, which is on the other end of that ranking. The language isn't specified in the survey, but it's a safe bet that it's Spanish.
The second place city is also in Texas. In El Paso, more than three-quarters of people speak a language other than English.
The American Community Survey covers socioeconomic, housing and demographic characteristics for the three-year period between 2006 and 2008.
With two days left to go, only 125,444 Texans had voted early on 11 proposed constitutional amendments in the state's biggest counties.
The turnout was bad even in Houston, where races for mayor and other city posts are on the ballot. According to the Texas Secretary of State's office, just under 52,000 had voted in Harris County, which includes Houston. That's about 2.8 percent of the registered voters there. The next best number was 13,167, in Bexar County, barely enough to fill a high school football stadium (and not enough, if you've got a mega-stadium in your area).
The vote totals aren't available for all of the 254 counties in Texas, but the SOS reports daily on activity in the top 15 counties. Through the first nine days of early voting, 1.6 percent of registered voters had voted in those counties.
Early voting ends on Friday. Election Day is November 3 — next Tuesday.
Teel Bivins, 1947-2009
Former U.S. Ambassador and Texas Sen. Teel Bivins, a Republican from one of the old Panhandle ranching families, died today of pneumonia after a long illness. He was 61.
Bivins became a senator in 1989 and served until 2004. He chaired the Senate Finance Committee, the Nominations Committee, and the Education Committee. He was one of three Republicans — Bill Ratliff and David Sibley were the others — who led that party in the Senate as it moved from a Democratic to a Republican majority.
President George W. Bush chose Bivins to be Ambassador to Sweden in 2004 and he held that post until 2006, when he returned to Texas. He had been diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy and died from complications of that disease, at home, surrounded by family and friends.
Bivins received a B.A. from Tulane University in 1970 and a J.D. from Southern Methodist University in 1974. Instead of running out to join a law firm after he passed the bar exam, he bought some cattle. He spent the next 24 years making money in the cattle and oil and gas exploration business.
Based in Amarillo, he was elected to represent Texas Senate District 31 in 1988 and served until 2004.
In 1989, after a successful first session as a state senator, Texas Monthly named Bivins a Rookie of the Year in its regular list of the best and worst legislators. The magazine honored him two more times – in 1997 and 2003 – both times in the Best category. His 200 write-up said, He spent his days and nights fighting the bad guys, and it almost did him in.
In 2000, he was a Bush Pioneer, an individual who raised over $100,000 for the presidential campaign. In 2004, he was promoted to Ranger for raising over $200,000. Bivins was rewarded with the position of U.S. Ambassador to Sweden. Health problems forced him to step down in early 2006 and he returned to Texas.
In 2006, not long after his health forced his return from Sweden, Bivins was visited by members of his former staff. Robyn Hadley, his former administrative assistant, posted online, Teel is noticeably slower in everything he does - walking and talking, especially, but he is still very sharp and funny. He made us laugh many times with a well-placed quip.
Hadley remembered that, when in office, Teel was one of the fastest-moving senators around. Ask any lobbyist who had to "walk with him" while explaining a bill. The man had a long stride.
He was the second of four boys, and leaves four children.
Flotsam & Jetsam
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Hank Gilbert's new transportation plan includes an eight-cent-per-gallon increase in gasoline taxes, which would then be indexed to something called the highway cost index. He wants an elected transportation commission replacing the one appointed by the governor. And he'd kill toll roads, with the exception of toll roads that first won approval from voters.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney will endorse Kay Bailey Hutchison for governor, her campaign said today. Cheney, who lived and worked in Dallas before he became vice president to George W. Bush, will do a fundraiser in Houston on November 17 for Hutchison's gubernatorial campaign.
The Texas Medical Association's PAC voted to endorse Gov. Rick Perry over U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican gubernatorial primary. So did the PAC of the Texas Association of Builders.
Gov. Rick Perry personally endorsed Doug Hoffman, a Conservative Party candidate who's running for Congress in New York's CD-23 against a Republican. That's a little off the beaten path. The address the governor listed in his email endorsement wasn't his campaign office, the Capitol, or the home he's renting in West Austin. It was the address for the Governor's Mansion, which is being rebuilt after an arson fire.
While we have the travelogue open, Perry got campaign visits (in Fredericksburg and Dallas) from Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
Former major league pitcher Nolan Ryan endorsed former minor league pitcher Roger Williams for U.S. Senate. Williams, a former Texas secretary of state, wants to run for Kay Bailey Hutchison's seat if the senator resigns to run for governor.
Rep. Carol Kent, D-Dallas, won't get a second term without a fight. Republican Geoff Bailey announced he'll run in HD-102 next year. His resume includes time on Vice President Dick Cheney's staff in Washington, and he says he now works for T. Boone Pickens. Kent won the seat away from Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas. It's GOP turf, at least on paper, but Democrats slowly increased their numbers until 2008, when Kent overcame the red tide.
Political People and Their Moves
Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas was appointed to be regional administrator of the General Services Administration and his replacement — elected by the commissioners — is Rene Ramirez. The new judge has been chief of staff to Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-Brownsville, and told the local folks he'll serve out the last 14 months of the term and doesn't plan to seek election to it next year.
Colby Beuck is the new chief of staff to Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring. Beuck was previously with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Donna Warndof takes over as interim Veep for the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners. She had been their director of public affairs. That job opened with Adam Haynes left TIPRO for Chesapeake Energy.
Deaths: Houston lawyer and political financier John O'Quinn, in a car wreck. He was 68. O'Quinn, a prominent Houston lawyer and a real nemesis to tort reformers, gave heavily to Democratic candidates. An example: he gave $2.4 million to Chris Bell for the 2006 elections, including a $1.4 million contribution to pay off Bell's loans the year after the Democrat lost the election.
Quotes of the Week
Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West, quoted in the Texas Observer: "At least 98 percent of what I deal with is drug trafficking. If you took away the border, my county would be like Mayberry. We'd be spending our time taking cats off the roof."
Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Neerman, talking about new state party Chair Cathie Adams in the Dallas Observer: "She has been part of an issue group that has gone after Republicans, and I don't know how she can shift gears and go from being an issue-group leader going after Republican candidates and elected officials to now being one where she has to try and grow the party."
Cathie Adams, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman on her view that Kay Bailey Hutchison should resign from the U.S. Senate to run: "If she's going to run for governor, I think that it would be best for our party if by January 4, filing deadline, that we know clearly who is running for what."
Gubernatorial candidate Mark Thompson of Garland on two other candidates in that five-person race, quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "Right now Im just re-evaluating because in a three-way race, I think Id have a very good chance. [Tom] Schieffer has problems being a Republican and Kinky Friedman has problems being Kinky Friedman."
Texas Weekly: Volume 26, Issue 41, 2 November 2009. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2009 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.
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