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January 13th, 2005:

Opiela to drop electoral challenge?

Developing, as they say, at The Red State. Suspicion all along has been that like Jack Stick, Eric Opiela’s challenge was a stalking horse for Talmadge Heflin and his quest to overturn the election of Hubert Vo, but if both Stick and Opiela drop theirs before the hearings begin, his cover is gone. Nothing on this that I can see in Google News as yet, so stay tuned.

UPDATE: Andrew D is hearing the same whispers.

UPDATE: And now it’s official.

Former Republican House candidate Eric Opiela has withdrawn his election challenge for the South Texas seat, his attorney confirmed Friday.

Wonder if the letter he got from State Sen. Hinojosa had anything to do with his decision.

Daily DeLay in Sugar Land

David Donnelly of The Daily DeLay was in town yesterday to meet up with various locals and talk about the lay of the land for 2006. You can read his writeup here. He’s here today and in Austin tomorrow, so look for more later on.

Another rock station bites the dust

The DC area loses a longstanding rock station.

WHFS-FM, the Washington area radio station that was a pioneering purveyor of alternative rock to generations of young music fans, did a programming U-turn yesterday by ditching the genre for a Spanish-language, pop-music format that transforms it into the largest Spanish-language station on the local dial.

[…]

The switch reflects both changing demographics and a corporate war of attrition involving Washington’s two major radio station owners, Infinity Broadcasting, which owns WHFS, and Clear Channel Communications, which owns WHFS’s chief competitor, DC-101.

[…]

WHFS was among a handful of stations that developed the album-oriented format: The music was alternative and free-form, featuring such groups as Led Zeppelin, the Who and Yes, but with the occasional bluegrass or other unexpected ditty. Disc jockeys weren’t confined to the strictures of a corporate-mandated playlist. They played what they wanted.

[…]

WHFS began as a classical music station, then switched to pop music in the early-to-mid-1960s before turning to rock about 1968. The moves were orchestrated by Jake Einstein, who began as an advertising salesman and became one of the station’s owners in the mid-1960s.

Einstein’s son, Damian, a longtime on-air personality on WHFS, said yesterday that the station’s reputation as a maverick programmer began to decline more than a decade ago, at the beginning of a rapid consolidation of ownership in the industry.

“They really weren’t interested in the music anymore,” said Einstein, who was one of WHFS’s best-known personalities and who is now the program director at WRNR-FM, a small alternative rock station in Annapolis. “There really wasn’t that much creativity there. Having been there for so long and having done so many things there, of course it’s sad. But I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.”

We feel your pain. Greg Greene laments the loss, while Jim Henley thinks that the station’s format had been dead for a long time.

Tulia update: The sheriff needs a lawyer

The prosecution has now rested in the perjury trial of disgraced former undercover cop Tom Coleman, and the first witness for his defense, Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart, may be in legal trouble of his own.

“We believe there are significant variations in his testimony, and it’s problematic,” special prosecutor Rod Hobson said.

District Judge David Gleason met privately with Stewart and announced that Lubbock attorney Chuck Lanehart had been retained to represent the sheriff. Stewart, who was on the witness stand when jurors recessed for lunch, did not return to the stand. But he is expected to return once his attorney has had time to compare Wednesday’s testimony with what he has said in some of the Tulia drug trials and at a 2003 hearing about the cases.

Because of a gag order in the Coleman trial, prosecutors could not discuss their reasons for advising Gleason to appoint Stewart an attorney.

[…]

Some of the Tulia defendants and their relatives, who were sitting in the rear of the courtroom, were elated when they heard Hobson tell the judge that Stewart might need an attorney. One woman silently pumped an arm as she realized the significance of Hobson’s statements. After court recessed, some former defendants talked with reporters and watched as Coleman’s defense team left for the evening.

“We always felt the sheriff had something to do with it, too,” said Kareem White, 28, who spent more than three years behind bars before being released.

“I still feel Tom Coleman and [former Swisher County District Attorney] Terry McEachern had more to do with this than Stewart, but they all deserve the blame.”

McEachern, who was voted out of office, faces a disciplinary trial that accuses him of lying in court and concealing evidence from defense attorneys that Coleman had an arrest record.

Alan Bean, executive director of Friends of Justice, a group formed to challenge the drug convictions of the 46 defendants in Tulia, said the news about Stewart will likely divide Tulia once again.

“We have always felt that Sheriff Stewart should be held accountable for what he did in these drug investigations, and we hope there will be a full inquiry into his actions,” Bean said. “… At the same time, the Tulia establishment is not going to like this one bit. They have always stood behind Sheriff Stewart, and I’m sure they will continue to stand behind him even if this goes forward.”

Speaking of the Rev. Bean, he covers Sheriff Stewart’s problems here and the wrapup of the prosecution’s case here. Will the sheriff be indicted? Stay tuned.

Elsewhere on Grits, there’s an action alert for Harris County residents.

As Tom Coleman’s perjury trial continues this morning, a few Texans have an opportunity to directly help get rid of our corrupt drug task force system. ACLU is asking Harris County residents to contact their elected officials, urging them to spend federal Byrne grant funding on drug treatment and crime lab improvements instead of the county drug task force.

Click through and check it out.

Will this ruling help Ronnie Earle?

The US Supreme Court has apparently made it easier to get a conviction in cases involving money laundering.

Justices [unanimously] upheld the convictions of two people accused of pocketing more than $1.2 million as part of a nationwide religious investment scheme.

David Whitfield and Haywood “Don” Hall were convicted in Florida of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

They were leaders of the Greater Ministries International Church, which told people during roadshow meetings that God would double their money.

The church, which targeted Mennonite, Amish and Christian fundamentalist communities nationwide, took in hundreds of millions of dollars from 1996-99 and donors got little if any money back. Other church leaders were convicted of various charges.

The Supreme Court used appeals by Whitfield and Hall to clarify a matter that has divided lower courts, the proof required in money laundering conspiracy cases.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the court, said that because the federal law does not “expressly make the commission of an overt act an element of the conspiracy offense, the government need not prove an overt act to obtain a conviction.”

The cases are Whitfield v. United States, 03-1293, and Hall v. United States, 03-1294.

I’m not a lawyer, but all the charges against John Colyandro, Jim Ellis, and Warren Robold involve money laundering. Will this ruling make Ronnie Earle’s life easier? If anyone can clarify, please leave a comment. Thanks to AJ Garcia for the tip.

First school finance ideas floated

In the 78th Lege, the Senate and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst took the problem of school finance seriously (unlike Governor Perry and Speaker Craddick), and proposed a real overhaul to both the state tax structure which would allow for a more solid foundation of the school finance structure. They’re first out of the gate on this issue again, but I fear they’ve got some fuzzy math going.

The plan outlined by Dewhurst would eliminate the school tax for maintenance and operations — now capped at $1.50 per $100 assessed valuation — and replace it with a $1 statewide property tax. Such a statewide tax would require a change in the Texas Constitution that would have to be approved by voters.

Local districts would be allowed to raise an extra enrichment tax of up to 15 cents. Some property-wealthy districts would still have to share some of the local enrichment with less wealthy districts so that school funding would remain equal.

[…]

The new business tax would apply to corporations and partnerships, but not sole proprietorships. Dewhurst said by expanding the base, the 4.5 percent franchise tax rate could be cut in half.

The plan also relies on increases in sales, tobacco and alcohol taxes, and closing a loophole on sales taxes for used cars. The Senate did not specify how much the sales tax would be increased.

Dewhurst said most Texans would not end up paying more taxes because of the offset of lower property taxes.

“This plan, thank God, doesn’t raise the net overall tax burden on Texas,” Dewhurst said.

Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said extra money could come from existing state revenues, which have been growing as the economy improves.

The existing corporate franchise tax, which raises about $1.7 billion a year, would be replaced with an expanded tax that partnerships also would pay. It would raise about $3.5 billion in fiscal 2006 and $3.7 billion the second year of the biennium.

[…]

Dewhurst said it would cost $1.1 billion to give the state’s 276,000 teachers a $4,000 pay raise.

Let’s tot things up. The property tax cut will cost up to $5 billion, since every ten cents in property tax is a billion in revenue (I don’t know how many districts are maxed out at the $1.50 cap, so I can’t say for sure how much this cut will cost), and the teacher pay increase another $1.1 billion. Let’s say $6 billion total in costs. The franchise tax change will generate an extra $1.8 to $2 billion in revenue.

That leaves a $4 billion gap. A better economy will probably generate more revenue from existing sources, though I hope by now we’ve learned that we can’t rely on good economic times forever That leaves a bunch of as-yet unspecified increases in sales, tobacco and alcohol taxes.

First things first: How can we cover a billion dollars in new spending without an increase in the “net overall tax burden on Texas”? Well, you can’t. I’m sure Dewhurst meant that statement to reinforce what he said about most individuals not paying more in taxes, but that’s still a misleading statement. Apartment dwellers won’t do much better, and until we know how the sales tax will be changed, we can’t say how big a variation there will be from one person’s burden to another. Last time, the Express News tried to quantify all this for different state rep districts. We’ll need that same sort of analysis this time around, too.

One thing we apparently won’t get this session is more gambling. Governor Perry has thrown in the towel.

“I don’t think video lottery terminals or any form of gambling is as attractive to this Legislature as it was six months ago. I’m not sure it was very attractive then,” Perry said in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.

His plan to legalize slot machines at racetracks and on Indian reservations, which contradicted the official anti-gambling position of his own Republican Party, died during a special session last spring.

But track owners — who are seeking an economic boost for their industry — and other gambling interests are expected to try again this year. The issue poses a tough fight because additional gambling would require a constitutional amendment, which must be approved by two-thirds votes in the House and Senate.

[…]

Perry said Wednesday that he backed video slot machines last year because the state had limited revenue options. Now, lawmakers are beginning work with a $400 million surplus projected by Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

“Gambling was always a function of not having enough resources,” Perry said.

We’re really hanging our hats on that “surplus”, aren’t we? I wonder how many times it’s been spent already.

Lastly, on a tangential but related matter, the Attorney General has given up seeking reimbursement for fees paid to a lobbying firm for drafting gambling legislation.

The move, made formal in a letter dated Monday from Assistant Attorney General Barry McBee, came after the regional head of a national watchdog organization filed a lawsuit claiming that the state overstepped its authority when it agreed to pay the firm as much as $250,000 for legal advice.

“They blinked,” said Russ Verney, who heads the Dallas office of Judicial Watch. “It looks like there won’t be any lottery money going to those lawyers in Las Vegas.”

The firm of Lionel, Sawyer and Collins, which represents some of Nevada’s best-known casinos, drafted legislation that would have legalized video slot machines at Texas racetracks and Indian reservations. The proceeds were to have been used to help reduce local property taxes and fund public schools in Texas under a new education-finance plan.

The measure was defeated during a special legislative session last year, but many observers say they expect the matter to resurface during the 140-day regular session that started Tuesday. Gov. Rick Perry says overhauling the school-finance system, declared unconstitutional last year by a state district judge, a legislative emergency.

[…]

The firm’s hiring in December 2003 has evolved into a political football, with some lawmakers questioning its propriety and state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn refusing to reimburse the attorney general’s office the $176,373 it paid to the firm in the spring. The attorney general’s office had wanted the lottery commission to repay the legal fees.

Strayhorn has also said she will not pay the additional $185,293 that the firm has billed the state — nearly $113,000 more than the state agreed to pay. Spokeswoman Angela Hale said the attorney general’s office has no plans to ask Strayhorn to pay the firm any more money.

Good. More background on that can be found here.

Yates juror speaks out

One of the jurors for the Andrea Yates case says his decision to convict was affected by Dr. Park Dietz’ testimony.

Ron Jones, juror No. 7 on the panel that decided Yates’ fate, told state District Judge Belinda Hill in a letter that the controversial testimony from Dietz about a Law & Order television episode convinced him to change his mind from finding Yates to be insane to voting to convict her. The episode never aired.

[…]

Jones’ comment came in a letter to Hill after the trial. Jones could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

In a letter to Hill dated April 5, 2002, Jones said he was the only juror not convinced about finding Yates guilty during jury deliberations. At one point, he said, he went to the bathroom for a few minutes to pray “and the understanding came to me.”

Jones said he summarized that Yates watched the Law & Order program two weeks before her children’s death. At the same time, Yates also had been taken off the antipsychotic drug Haldol.

“I figured if she watched the program, only been off of Haldol that day. Her mind should have been sane,” Jones wrote in his letter. “(An) easy way out of her horrible situation, I thought. This I told everyone of why I changed my mind from insane to guilty. That was the preponderance of the evidence that sealed her guilt to me.”

I believe that should pretty much close the issue, though I see that some other jurors are not happy with the appellate court.

Another juror wrote to the Houston Chronicle this week, saying Dietz’s testimony played no role in determining Yates’ fate.

In a letter to the editor, juror No. 5, Kenneth L. Blanchard, said he was disappointed in the appellate court’s decision.

“I cannot speak for the other jury members, but I can say definitely that the inaccurate portion of Dr. Park Dietz testimony had no impact on my decision,” Blanchard said. “I also recall an informal poll in the jury room prior to our release in which we were asked if the controversial portion of Dr. Dietz’s testimony factored into our decision. The opinion of the other jurors appeared consistent with mine that it had no bearing.”

Blanchard said despite the rhetoric about the nobleness of jury duty, the appellate court decided to set aside the jury’s verdict based on a few statements made during three weeks of testimony.

“I appreciate the opinions and perspectives on both sides of this tragedy and the earnest support of those around Ms. Yates,” Blanchard wrote. “Another thing we agreed on was that Andrea Yates was a sick woman. However, the question was simply did she know right from wrong at the time she drowned her children. In our opinion, the evidence independent of Dr. Dietz’s misstatements overwhelmingly supported that she did know right from wrong.”

Juror Robert Buxton agrees with Blanchard, saying Dietz’s testimony did not influence the jury’s decision. Buxton said the crime was so horrendous that Yates will “never be sane again.”

“It’s just another way for her to get another trial the way other people do to use the system,” Buxton said. “I’d sure hate to see it.”

These people are missing the point. I’m not a lawyer, so those who are lawyers are welcome to correct me on this, but I believe the standard is not whether a juror was actually influenced by the false testimony but whether a reasonable juror could have been influenced by it. Even without Ron Jones’ letter to Judge Hill, it should be clear that this standard was met, and so the appellate court made its unanimous ruling. Sharon Kelleresque shenanigans aside, I don’t see how the court could have reached any other decision.