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March 14th, 2006:

Pro Tem investigation update

More documents have been taken by investigators from the District Attorney’s office looking into the improper bonuses paid to staffers in the Mayor Pro Tem’s office.

Earlier Tuesday, a source told 11 News five or six investigators took about five filing cabinets’ worth of documents from the office.

The district attorney said that other city officials, dating back years, may have misused city money.

They took out about eight boxes in all, but wouldn’t say much about them.

“We did kind of see some interesting things on first blush,” said DA Chuck Rosenthal.

Rosenthal said the document seizure was related to the well-publicized bonuses four now-fired employees of former mayor pro tem Carol Alvarado. They lost their jobs for giving themselves bonuses.

Rosenthal also said the probe gave his office a chance to look at something else, allegations going back several years that city officials were improperly using the mayor pro tem’s budget.

“Charging things through the mayor pro tem’s office as opposed to their own budgets,” Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal said the seizures were the result of a phone call he received from someone he trusts.

“It was his contention that there may be documents in the file cabinet at the mayor pro tem’s office that might disappear,” said Rosenthal.

He said the probe could go from any official on down.

The statute of limitations allows him to only investigate city officials who served during the Lee Brown and Bill White administrations.

blogHOUSTON links to and quotes from this KTRK story, but the quote they excerpted is not in that story. A search of the site suggests it was edited out. Weird.

Former Mayor Pro Tem Gordon Quan, whose tenure is covered in this expanded investigation, has this to say about it.

“Anything like that would have been highly suspect,” said Quan Tuesday. “I would have questioned who is this person turning in this request.”

Four months after he left office, the one time mayor pro tem has been contacted by the Office of Inspector General about the goings-on while he was in office.

“As far as special expenses to an office that favors that over another office, we really didn’t see that,” said Quan.

Quan, who took over the office in 2002, says he finds it hard to believe any city official, elected or not, would be able to siphon money through the pro tem’s office. He says while he was pro tem, every expense that went through that office was double checked.

“We would immediately call the councilmembers and ask ‘We just want to verify. Did you authorize that? And if you did, we nee your signature on this’.”

Quan admits some expenses from council offices were reimbursed by the pro tem’s office. They were items like coffee and supplies. Nothing, he says, that would merit improper expenses. Nonetheless, he welcomes the investigation.

“I feel like since the pro tem’s office name and council has been tainted, that it’s better to have a cleaning of the house and a clean bill of health for everyone,” added Quan.

Well, we’ll find out, I guess. As I blog this, the Chron story is pretty lean on details. I’ll check tomorrow morning to see if there’s a revised version up.

Finally, it was in the other stories, but here’s Carol Alvarado’s statement on today’s development:

“I am encouraged at this sign that the District Attorney¹s office is moving forward. I strongly believe that investigators should have access to all the information they need to get their work done and complete this investigation.”

Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Here’s today’s Chron story, which has some new information to go along with the revelation that Chuck Rosenthal is looking into the past as well.

A memo dated last April from a city employee who has been fired for receiving unauthorized bonuses asked then-Mayor Pro Tem Carol Alvarado to approve $5,500 in extra pay.

A spokesman said Tuesday that Alvarado doesn’t remember such a memo. She has said she didn’t approve any of the monthly bonuses that totaled $143,000 over about a year for four employees in the Office of Mayor Pro Tem.

“She has no memory of seeing such a memo. There is no copy of such a memo in her files or any of her staff files,” said Joe Householder of Public Strategies Inc., Alvarado’s recently hired spokesman. “There’s no knowledge that this memo was ever sent or received.”

The memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Chronicle, came to light Tuesday, the same day prosecutors investigating the City Hall payroll-padding allegations took documents from the pro tem office.

In the memo, pro tem office manager Rosita Hernandez, who received more than $50,000 in bonuses that city officials say were improper, asks Alvarado to approve payments to her and three other fired employees.

[…]

If Hernandez did send the memo, it could support — at least in this instance — her contention that bonuses were properly documented, though the four employees eventually collected far more than the amount requested in the memo.

Conversely, it could fit with the conclusion of police investigators that pro tem employees enriched themselves through misconduct that included fabricating documents.

[…]

The memo from Hernandez to Alvarado asks for $5,500 in incentive pay to be split in different amounts among Hernandez and her three employees: Florence Watkins, Christopher Mays and Theresa Orta.

[…]

The memo is dated April 14, two weeks after Hernandez and the employees shared $9,000 in bonuses, according to city payroll records obtained by the Chronicle earlier. They didn’t receive more payments until May 27, when they split another $12,000, the records show.

Householder said Alvarado’s assertion that she didn’t see the memo is supported by the fact that the bonuses the employees received came at different times and in different amounts than were in the memo.

Hernandez, for example, asks in the memo for a $1,700 payment. But the next bonus she received wasn’t until weeks later — and it was $5,000.

“If you look at the city’s records, these particular bonus amounts are not reflected,” he said. “In fact, this is a far smaller amount than the $143,000 that was stolen from the taxpayers, something that resulted in the proper terminations of the four people.”

I don’t know what to make of that right now. Whether it was a real documentation trail or not you’d think there’d be more than one such memo. Maybe there’s still more to be found.

Soechting resigns

Charles Soechting, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, has resigned his position as of April 22. Andrew D has the letter and some thoughts as a former employee of Soechting’s. I too thought Soechting did a good job as Chair, and I wish him well in whatever comes next.

At this time, I don’t have a strong opinion as to who should succeed Soechting. There’s a lot of grassroots support already for Glen Maxey. I want to know more about both him and the other announced contender, Boyd Richie, before I make up my mind. Not that it matters that much, since the SDEC will make the pick, though there will also be a vote at the state convention in June. For now, all I want is a good, clean, open debate on the two contenders and their merits. Yeah, I know, but I can always hope.

DeLay get subpoenas stopped

Score one for Team DeLay.

A state appeals court Monday gave U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay a legal and public relations victory by throwing out more than 30 subpoenas issued by Travis County prosecutors investigating the Sugar Land Republican’s political finance activities.

The Third Court of Appeals said the subpoenas issued by District Attorney Ronnie Earle after a senior district judge stayed proceedings in the criminal case against DeLay in December are “null and void.”

Most of the subpoenas concerned political fundraising controversies involving DeLay, some dating back to 1996.

DeLay’s legal team has been insisting that Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle was issuing the subpoenas only to create bad publicity for the former U.S. House majority leader. They had asked the appeals court to quash the subpoenas.

[…]

Assistant Travis County District Attorney Bryan Case said the subpoenas were intended to do nothing more than get ready for a speedy trial once appeals are done on a pretrial ruling.

“We’ve issued these subpoenas in order to be ready for trial in a timely manner,” Case said. “We have great respect for the court’s ruling and we will, of course, abide by it.”

Earle has been issuing the subpoenas ever since Senior District Judge Pat Priest dismissed all or part of three indictments against DeLay. Earle appealed Priest’s December ruling, and the judge stayed the case pending a ruling by the Third Court of Appeals.

[…]

The panel, which is scheduled to hear Earle’s appeal on March 22, said Earle may not issue any more subpoenas while the stay is in effect; ruled all the ones issued after the stay are “null and void;” and any subpoenas issued before the stay are suspended while the appeal is pending.

If I read that correctly (and remember, I Am Not A Lawyer), I think that means that Earle can pick up where he left off once the Third Court of Appeals rules on Judge Priest’s dismissal of the conspiracy charges against DeLay. I certainly hope Earle considers the information that he’s seeking here to be merely supportive of his case against DeLay and not critical to it. If he didn’t have enough evidence to have a chance of convicting him when he secured the indictments, no subpoenas are likely to save his butt now.

With all the fronts in the DeLay Scandal-Go-Round, any good news he gets is almost always accompanied by some not so good news elsewhere, for DeLay and/or one of his good buddies (links via The Stakeholder. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? You may note, by the way, that the Daily DeLay blog has a new home, so update those bookmarks and RSS feeds.

Will Leininger’s legacy be real campaign finance reform?

There was one more interesting quote from that Express News story I excerpted in the previous post, which I’m putting here because it didn’t fit that one:

Leininger may not go away, but [Rep. Joe] Straus said maybe such huge contributions should. Leininger spent about $2.5 million attempting to defeat five Republicans who voted against school vouchers last year.

Straus last year received backing from Leininger, but he said this year’s record spending, though perfectly legal, helped drive unseemly campaigns. He called Leininger “this year’s poster child for grotesque funding of politics.”

“Ronald Reagan would be spinning in his grave,” Straus said. “It was a divisive and bitter negative campaign season where Republicans were piling on each other with campaigns of distortion and offensive attacks. It seems the more negative, the nastier, the less credible the attack, the better it worked.”

You can’t do much about the tone of a campaign, but you can do something about how much any single entity can spend on one. Straus was one of many coauthors of campaign finance reform bill HB1348 last year, which got killed on the floor when sponsor Craig Eiland tried an end run to get it out of committee, where Mary Denny was steadfastly blocking its path. I don’t recall if HB1348 had a donation cap provision (the text is a little too dense for memory-jogging purposes), but that’s certainly an agenda item among the reformers, so who knows? Now that some Republican incumbents have gotten a taste of what this is like, they may decide it’s in their best interests to push for limits on how much a single entity can give to a campaign. If so, the irony would be delicious.

The sweet sound of dissension in the ranks

Time once again to look at reasons why the upcoming special session on school finance is going to be a barnburner. The Express News hits most of the high notes here.

“Collegiality is strained,” said veteran Rep. Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso, who narrowly survived a GOP challenge himself.

Some House members may want to kill each other, he said, although the more likely outcome will be members killing each other’s bills.

“There’s a lot of discontent,” said Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who had no primary foe but was with Leininger-targeted Rep. Carter Casteel of New Braunfels on election night.

[…]

The infighting made it harder for Republicans to work together because “once you start a trend like that, there may be payback,” said Republican consultant Royal Masset.

“I don’t see how anything changed except they’re all madder at each other than they were before. If anything, it’s more difficult,” he said.

Masset figures lawmakers will do the bare minimum to satisfy the court ruling on school finance.

Harvey Kronberg, editor of the nonpartisan online political newsletter Quorum Report, said the main lesson of the primary is this: “When in doubt, vote your district. On the House side, all those freshmen and sophomores increasingly understand there may be a price to pay to giving the speaker a vote simply to move the process.”

El Paso Republican Haggerty agreed, saying members now realize they “will have to pay for hard votes.”

The House is an “immensely fractured” body, Kronberg said.

“The speaker’s power until now was his ability to rein in and direct the (Republican) caucus. … The speaker’s inability to (stop members from endorsing GOP colleagues’ challengers) and his unwillingness to put any of his own money into defending incumbents did not go unnoticed.

“Old-timers know one of the speaker’s primary jobs is to protect the institution and to protect the members,” Kronberg said.

I don’t think it’s so much a question any more of if Craddick could be dethroned as Speaker. At this point in time, it’s at least theoretically possible, which is something you could not have said in 2005. The stumbling block is going to be convincing an alternative Republican to put his or her neck on the block and announce a challenge to Craddick. As long as it’s a close call, I think no one will want to take that risk. If Al Edwards loses his April runoff to Borris Miles and if the Dems do pick up a few more seats in November, then the likelihood increases dramatically. (West Texas rep and Craddick acolyte Scott Campbell is also in a runoff, and he’s less likely to survive than Edwards is.) And of course, whatever armbreaking Craddick has to do in the special session to get a bill passed may come back to bite him later, too.

Link via Matt. For more tea-leaf-reading on the primary results, see Chris Bell‘s optimistic take and Greg‘s somewhat gloomier outlook.

Finally, in fairness, I should note that House Democrats, or at least the El Paso contingent, have their own share of kissing and making up to do, too. Hey, misery loves company, right? Link via South Texas Chisme.

Podcast this!

Fighting Jay Lee (none more surly than he) makes a great suggestion:

I was having a brief conversation this weekend with respected man about town, Bill Shirley, and the conversation turned as it will to politics and podcasting. While we both agree that it *might* be a good thing to have Kinky on the ballot we seem to be in agreement that having Kinky in office is another thing entirely.

No one I have talked to can really say why they’re for Kinky…what he stands for or what we can expect from him as governor. In some regards I think people just enjoy saying the word “Kinky” out loud or revelling in the perceived effect of the word prominently displayed on the bumper of their pick-em-up truck.

I mentioned that a good podcast subject might be to conduct interviews with random Kinky supporters (who seem to be in force on any given night at the Continental Club) to find out what they *really* know about the campaign of Mr. Friedman. It was agreed that it might be quite amusing to hear the results.

If anyone picks up that ball and runs with it, please let me know. I’d love to hear the results as well.

A buyer for Christus-Saint Joe’s

Christus-Saint Joseph’s Hospital has found a buyer.

Christus Health Gulf Coast and Health Care Partners of America signed the agreement Thursday, nine months after the 119-year-old Catholic hospital was put up for sale because Christus didn’t have the money to modernize its aging buildings. It pledged to find a buyer that would continue its historic mission as a comprehensive hospital that provides charity care.

“The offer we received from HPA meets all the criteria we established for our bidders when we started this process last summer,” said Pat Carrier, president of Christus. “They recognize and value the spirit and legacy of St. Joseph. This continuation of mission was a critical element in our selection of HPA as the winning bidder.”

Carrier said the deal should close on or before June 30. The final price has not been determined, and neither party would disclose the general range.

HPA, a for-profit, privately held company established in Charlotte in 2003, operates general acute-care hospitals in partnership with their physicians. Though it impressed health care experts by turning around Houston’s struggling Twelve Oaks Medical Center three years after buying it, HPA is not a major name in the industry.

When Christus announced St. Joseph would be put up for sale last June, industry analysts were skeptical. Questioning the validity of a downtown hospital faced with growing competition from the Texas Medical Center and a rising indigent population, some suggested converting it to a specialty care hospital instead. They emphasized that the lack of demand for a large acute-care hospital downtown was the reason it was put up for sale.

But HPA officials said the plan is not only to maintain the hospital’s current operations, but to expand them. Noting downtown’s residential population is projected to increase 300 percent in the next four years, they said they will invest in capital improvements to enhance the nearly 1.2 million-square-foot facility.

“We think this is a very intriguing business opportunity,” said Terry Linn, HPA’s chief development officer. “The Texas Medical Center is formidable competition, but it has issues — access, parking, turnover — that make it open to competition from a downtown hospital. And not many downtown hospitals have the facilities, services and accommodations that St. Joseph does.”

I’m glad to hear this. The situation sounded awfully bleak when St. Joe’s was put up for sale. I confess I’m a little uncertain how this will work out financially for HPA, and I’m a little surprised that Rob Mosbacher’s consortium idea went exactly nowhere (this editorial published three days after the original story is the last I heard of it). Be that as it may, I’m glad that the hospital where Olivia was born once again has a future.

We are all individuals, even us parents

I found this article from Sunday on so-called PunkyMoms to be reasonably interesting, not so much because I know a few women who’d fit right in with them, but because of this little snippet:

Punkymoms encourage each other to be good moms yet maintain their individuality.

“We try to recognize that we had a life before kids,” [Becca] Rawson says.

It reminded me of something I drafted a few months ago but never got around to blogging about. Matt Yglesias flagged this article in The Atlantic about how marriage is being increasingly defined as a for-the-kids kind of activity. A sample:

At vacation time my husband and I don’t drag our little boys through the Louvre, as I was dragged at a tender age (because my parents wanted to see it, and it would never have occurred to them to consult their children about where to go on holiday). Rather, we check into hotels with elaborate children’s pools and nightly fireworks and huge duck ponds.

I never got taken to the Louvre by my parents because any exotic travel during my childhood was done by them sans rugrats (having two grandmothers within walking distance of our house who were willing to babysit undoubtedly helped with that). When we travelled as a family, we mostly went to the Jersey shore, like everyone else on Staten Island and thereabouts. It never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about them taking their own vacations, and even if we hadn’t had free accomodations down in Mays Landing, I’m sure it never would have occurred to them to seek out a hotel like the one described above. Well, maybe one with a pool, but then my dad liked to swim anyway, and mom was always happy enough reading a book in the sun.

So far, Olivia has travelled with us to visit family and on a business trip of Tiffany’s. We’ve talked about taking her to Italy – a friend of ours is the son of a former diplomat who speaks the language and who has invited us to co-rent a cottage with his wife and kids. The only reason we wouldn’t take Olivia to the Louvre is that Tiffany prefers the Musee d’Orsay. I’m not a hotel-with-fireworks kind of guy, and neither is Tiffany.

I knew going into parenthood that I’d have less time for myself, but I did not and do not believe that this means that everything we do from this point forward would be about our children. Maybe it’s easy for me to say that now, before Olivia becomes involved in all of the usual things that kids get involved in, and maybe it’s easy for me to say that now while we still only have one child. If I believe that it’s good and healthy for all of us if Tiffany and I not only maintain some of our individuality but also maintain the expectation that there will be times that Olivia will go along with what we want to do and may even enjoy it, then maybe it will continue to be easy for me to say those things later as well.

On the one hand, I do expect we’ll strive to make it to every T-ball game and recital/play/whatever Olivia is in. My folks were good about that, and I think that’s important to kids that their parents see those things. And there’s certainly much to be said for kid-friendliness in hotel accomodations and travel activities. On the other hand, I aim to take Olivia to Rice sporting events so she can see me play with the MOB, and I plan to teach her to play bridge so she can someday partner me in an ACBL event. She’s already accompanied me to a political event or two. And yes, some day I’ll help her start her own blog. I want her to know that her Dad was somebody before he was her dad, and that while he may have had to scale back on some of those things once she made the scene, he still is that person inside. Some of my best memories from my youth are about watching my dad play softball with his all-lawyer team The Barristers. I hope Olivia will be able to say something like that someday about an activity of mine that I took her to.

As Paul Simon put it, somewhat starkly:

That was your mother
And that was your father
Before you was born, kid
When life was great

You are the burden
On my generation
I sure do love you
But let’s get that straight

I think Olivia deserves the best of me as her father, and I don’t see how I can be that if I have to chop off or subsume parts of who I am to be her father. To tie things back to the original article, I think that recognizing one’s pre-kid life can still exist in some modified form is a good and healthy thing, and makes for a parent that’ll be more of a person some day to his or her children. Okay, maybe not while they’re teenagers, but a boy can hope, can’t he? And at least this way I’ll have something to do while she mocks my squareness. I call that a win-win.