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August 5th, 2004:

Let me be your sweetheart dealmaker

And another entry in the Gregg Phillips files.

A deputy human services commissioner awarded a $1.2 million consulting contract to a company whose lobbyist employed the commissioner’s former business partner as a consultant.

Gregg Phillips oversaw the Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s award of a public information contract last year to Accenture to develop a strategy to inform the public and state employees about a state social services overhaul.

Accenture’s lobbyist in seeking the contract was Strategic Partnerships Inc. of Austin.

Shortly after Phillips became the No. 2 director of the state social services agency in March 2003, Strategic Partnerships hired Phillips’ former business partner, Paige Harkins, as a “senior strategy consultant” to advise companies how to lobby Phillips for contracts.

Strategic Partnerships’ founding partner Mary Scott Nabers said Harkins never directly lobbied Phillips and never worked on the Accenture account. Nabers said she also was unaware that Phillips’ wife, Helen, continued to work with Harkins in an unrelated business venture.

Nabers said she hired Harkins as a consultant because she worked with him in Mississippi when he oversaw the state’s social services restructuring.

“We really sought her out because we did not know what they had done in Mississippi, did not know anything about Gregg, did not know how to advise all of our clients, all of whom were interested in the consolidation,” Nabers said.

Nabers said she knew Harkins and Phillips had been partners in a Georgia-based company that Phillips had founded, Enterject Inc. But Nabers said Harkins had told her that she and Phillips had severed all business ties.

The Georgia Secretary of State lists Phillips’ wife, Helen, as the chief financial officer for Enterject. Phillips said his wife is just a part-time bookkeeper for the company.

Phillips last week announced plans to resign from the social services agency effective Sept. 3 for personal reasons.

Responding to questions by e-mail, Phillips said he never spoke to Harkins about any specific contracts awarded by the agency. Harkins, who works out of a Marrietta, Ga., office, could not be reached for comment.

Suzy Woodford, executive director of Common Cause of Texas, described Harkins employment by Nabers as a “sweetheart deal” because of Harkins’ relationship with Phillips and his wife.

Got all that? Whether any laws were actually broken or not – and I should note that the rest of the article mentions that the Texas Workforce Commission has determined there was no wrongdoing in the previous sweetheart deal that Phillips arranged – this whole process is awfully incestuous. Part of that is probably because there’s not that many people currently employed in the HHS privatization biz, and part of it is because any time there’s big fat juicy contracts to award there’s going to be a large incentive to give them to friends and colleagues who may someday have a big fat juicy contract to award to you. The latter is in my mind one of the stronger arguments against privatizing this sort of government function. I sure don’t see much evidence that a free market is the driving force here, so what benefit are we actually getting out of it?

Texas Supremes reject Rodriguez

I suppose one has to give Rep. Ciro Rodriguez credit for persistence in the face of continued rejection.

In a move expected by many legal and political observers, the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal filed by U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez in an attempt to resuscitate his Congressional District 28 re-election bid.

Citing a lack of jurisdiction, the state’s highest court issued a one-line order dismissing the case.

The decision — the third legal defeat for Rodriguez — effectively ends his protracted legal battle against Democratic opponent Henry Cuellar of Laredo, who has stood as the party’s nominee since a recount after the March 9 primary.

Rodriguez’s attorney, Les Mendelsohn of San Antonio, however, said he still believes the court has authority to hear the case and is considering asking the nine-member body to reconsider its decision with additional documentation to support his claim.

“I don’t know if it will make a difference to the court, but we may refile it because we think we’re right,” he said.

I would have preferred for Rodriguez to win, and I think that given more time he might well have been able to prove there was some funny business going on, but it’s time to concede defeat and contemplate what comes next. I suspect we’ll hear more from Ciro Rodriguez in the future, but whatever happens I wish him well, and I hope Henry Cuellar does as good a job in Washington as he did.

“It’s Worth It”

I’m moderately surprised that as of this blogging, none of my fellow Houstonians have commented on this.

Throughout its existence Houston has struggled to come up with an effective image campaign. There have been many attempts, but none like the latest.

Calling attention to flying cockroaches, pollution, flooding, construction and billboards, it’s called “Houston. It’s Worth It.”

The campaign is creating a buzz around town and has among its fans Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, director Peter Marzio, and Hermann Park will incorporate it into its 90th anniversary party.

The branding campaign is the brainchild of David Thompson and Randy Twaddle, partners in the local marketing firm ttweak.

No municipal body has commissioned or endorsed “Houston. It’s Worth It,” a self-financed, guerrilla-style operation that aims to build grass-roots support.

“Houston. It’s Worth It” spotlights Houston’s 20 “afflictions,” which include: “The heat. The traffic. The sprawl. The ridicule. The air. The no mountains.”

Its intent isn’t to focus on the negatives, but to create a vehicle for which people can express their reasons for liking Houston despite the hardships, Thompson said.

Before I get into my opinion of this, I just want to say that “Twaddle” is perhaps the perfect surname ever for a marketing guy.

I confess, I kinda like this scheme. I don’t think anyone who lives in Houston will dispute the basic fact that there are things about it that aren’t so nice, though some of us don’t find the heat to be a negative. Those of us who like it here simply believe that the positives about Houston outweigh them. It’s not like Houston is the only city in America with issues related to local fauna, weather, traffic, or any of the various other items on the list, after all. We don’t focus on those things because there are better and more relevant things to focus on.

Something that often gets overlooked when a city’s negative traits are discussed is that to the locals, some of those traits are a badge of honor. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who claim that their hometown has the world’s worst drivers in it, for example. It’s a way of demonstrating one’s toughness by noting all of the things one has to overcome just to make it through the day.

And let’s face it, given Houston’s official attempts to market itself, it’s not like Thompson and Twaddle can do any worse:

[Jordy Tollett, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau] acknowledged that it has been a challenge over the years to come up with the right slogan.

“We’ve probably spent an excess of $75 million in the past 30 years on image campaigns, and we keep coming back and saying, ‘Well, that didn’t work.’ ”

One of the more embarrassing moments came in 1997 during the “Houston. Expect the Unexpected” campaign.

The Houston Image Group, a city-sponsored commission, spent $500,000 for an ad in Time magazine featuring a scratch-off sweepstakes game. Only one person among 4 million Time subscribers claimed one of the 33 prizes.

Pretty much speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Anyway, I think these guys are on to something. I’ll have to check out their web site to see what other reactions they’ve gotten. In the meantime, Sue gives her reason for why Houston is worth it.

Bazan withdraws lawsuit against Jackson Lee

Nice catch by Kevin: independent Congressional candidate Tom Bazan has withdrawn his lawsuit that alleged Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee failed to file her candidacy papers on time.

A candidate hoping to unseat U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, in November has filed a notice to withdraw a lawsuit challenging her candidacy. Tom Bazan, an independent candidate for the 18th Congressional District, did not file his lawsuit on time and filed notice Monday to withdraw it, his attorney said. Bazan had claimed Jackson Lee had failed to file her application in time for the Democratic primary earlier this year.

As I said earlier, barring an accusation of perjury Gerry Birnbirg’s sworn statement should be the end of the matter. Whether Birnbirg’s testimony and Bazan’s retreat are related or not I can’t say, but the end result is not a surprise. Too bad Tim Fleck is no longer at the Press and George Strong is on vacation. I’ll bet one of them would have known what was going on here.

The Keyes to the Senate

So the Illinois GOP has asked Alan Keyes to run for Senate against Barack Obama.

Keyes told a news conference Wednesday night that he would make an announcement by Sunday.

“If I do step forward to accept this challenge, I will be laying it all on the line,” he said.

Sweeeeeeet. Of course, as ArchPundit reminds us, Keyes is probably taking the time to determine if he can spin his way out of something he said about another candidate who moved to a new state in order to run for the Senate:

“I deeply resent the destruction of federalism represented by Hillary Clinton’s willingness go into a state she doesn’t even live in and pretend to represent people there, so I certainly wouldn’t imitate it.

I await with bated breath his final answer. I suspect if he does run it’ll be along the lines of “It was wrong for Hillary to do it, but it’s totally different for me.”

So-Called Austin Mayor has a theory as to why the Illinois GOP would ask Keyes to take on this mission. It’s a bit conspiracy-theoryish, so take it for what it’s worth.

Continuing on the Alan Keyes Greatest Hits Parade, Josh Marshall recalls Keyes’ Michael Moore-sponsored mosh pit dive (wonderful quote by Moore: “We knew Alan Keyes was insane. We just didn’t know how insane until that moment.”); TBogg notes that Keyes has made a pretty good living out of his runs for public office; and Byron points out that Keyes lost by a 71-29 margin to Barbara Mikulski in 1992.

So there’s your potential standard-bearer, Illinois Republicans. All I can say is thanks for making the Texas Democrats look good.

UPDATE: Dwight is also rooting for a Keyes candidacy.

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out

Buh-bye, Ron.

State Rep. Ron Wilson of Houston, a 27-year legislative veteran unseated in last spring’s Democratic primary, has resigned from the Texas House five months before his final term ends.

“It was fun. Now, it’s time to move on,” Wilson said Wednesday. He declined to discuss his plans but said he had “lots of options.”

Wilson, an attorney, said he quit quietly Saturday in letters sent to Gov. Rick Perry, Speaker Tom Craddick and the chief clerk of the House. His term officially ends at noon Jan. 11, the day the next regular legislative session begins.

If Perry wants to fill the seat before then, he will have to call a special election for the remainder of Wilson’s term. Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said Wednesday no decision has been made on whether to call such an election.

That sure seems like a flaw in the elections code, doesn’t it? Wilson was knocked off in the primaries by a candidate who is now running unopposed in the general election, and it’s long past the filing date for other potential challengers. Wouldn’t it make more sense in this instance to give the Governor the option of appointing the primary-elected unopposed-in-the-general candidate instead of calling a special election which would almost assuredly be won by that candidate anyway? It’s a moot point anyway, since barring an extremely last minute special session there’s no compelling need to fill the seat before November.

Whatever. So long, Ron. It’s not been nice knowing you.

Guilty plea in SI Ferry crash

The captain of the Staten Island Ferry that crashed into a concrete pier and killed 11 passengers has pleaded guilty to manslaughter, admitting that he was drugged up and completely derelict in his duty. The report mentions but goes into no detail about the fact that the director of the Ferries has also been charged with manslaughter for overseeing a system that was completely out of control. This Newsday story has much more.

“The Barberi crashed as a result of the criminal negligence of two individuals, Assistant Captain Richard Smith and ferry director Patrick Ryan,” U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf said Wednesday. “This was a tragedy waiting to happen.”

Prosecutors said Ryan neglected long-established safety practices, including the requirement that a ship’s captain and assistant captain share the wheelhouse during docking. The two-pilot requirement was put in place in 1958 to prevent an accident if one person was incapacitated, prosecutors said.

But Ryan never told new pilots about the rule or enforced it, prosecutors said. After the crash, he falsely told his superiors and federal investigators that the rule was in place, prosecutors said, leading to additional charges of making false statements and obstructing justice.

Ryan’s attorney said he had no immediate comment on the indictment. The city’s corporation counsel, Michael Cardozo, quickly issued a statement defending Ryan.

“We do not believe that Captain Patrick Ryan was guilty of manslaughter in the performance of his duties … as the indictment alleges,” Cardozo said. “Patrick Ryan has been a respected and loyal employee who brought about many improvements to the ferry over his long history of service.”


The plea and indictments followed a 10-month investigation into the crash, when a routine trip across New York Harbor turned into a nightmare of shattered glass and twisted metal as the boat slammed into the pier.

The crash tore open a 250-foot-long gash that ran 8 feet deep into the ship’s hull.

The accident revealed serious problems with safety rules on the ferries. Insiders leveled allegations of problems ranging from overtime abuse to retaliatory beatings. The city has revamped its procedures, requiring three crew members in the wheelhouse, for example.

“Retaliatory beatings”?? Good grief. I rode the Ferry for four years as part of my high school commute, plus two summers more for jobs. I was on board for a collision in 1981, though that one wasn’t the ferry captain’s fault. “Appalled” doesn’t begin to describe how I feel about this.

Here’s what the Newsday front page looks like today. Captain Smith could get up to three years in jail for his plea to 11 counts of manslaughter, which I have to say doesn’t seem like enough to me. It won’t be enough for Patrick Ryan, either, if he winds up getting convicted.