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June 26th, 2007:

Felony charge filed against Jay Aiyer

It pains me greatly to see stories like this.

Houston Community College Trustee and one-time City Council candidate Jay Aiyer is facing a charge of tampering with a governmental record, a felony that could cost him his law license, authorities said Monday.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office accused Aiyer of committing the offense in March 2005, by “unlawfully removing, destroying, and concealing, the original filing” of a portion of his campaign finance report and substituting it with another document.

The charges were filed in the 184th criminal court last Thursday. Aiyer posted a $2,000 bond the following day.

Aiyer, reached Monday, said he could not talk about the charges in detail.

“We will be able to work this thing out in a couple of days,” he said. “I think it’s going to be resolved.”

I consider Jay to be a friend, so I hope the charges against him are proven to be unfounded. We’ll see what happens.

Saw ’em off, I don’t care

As someone whose collegiate sports loyalties lie outside the UT/A&M axis, I found the lawsuit against an Aggie merchandiser for violating UT’s trademark on the Bevo logo to be more amusement than anything else. And while I generally side with the little guy in matters like these, it’s hard for me to say that the UT position was terribly unreasonable:

Defense attorney Allan Van Fleet argued that Saw ‘Em Off fell under traditional First Amendment protection of satire and parody.

Van Fleet estimated more than 50 hours were spent haggling a settlement that would allow the university to protect its cherished trademark and the Kalaouzes to keep selling Saw ‘Em Off merchandise without paying royalties on past, present or future receipts.

“(The $25,000) was just a one-time, what-does-it-take-to-make-you-go-away,” said Van Fleet, a Houston attorney who got his undergraduate degree from Rice, not A&M. “It just came down to them agreeing to take a payment that was minuscule compared to the cost of going forward.”

Louis Pirkey, an attorney for UT, noted the settlement also requires the approved symbol to be used in the clear context of the school rivalry and restricts color combinations to prevent confusion with UT’s orange-on-white or white-on-orange logo.

Fadi Kalaouze estimates legal expenses north of $200,000, about a third of which were defrayed by selling nearly 5,000 “Save Saw ‘Em Off” shirts emblazoned with the old, now-retired parody logo.

The Kalaouzes could have saved their money by agreeing to make a similar alteration when UT first objected in 2005, Pirkey said.

“We told the man a long, long time ago that we understand you want to symbolize the Aggie tradition of sawing Varsity’s horns off. What we have an objection to is using our exact logo to do it,” said Pirkey, who got his undergraduate degree at UT.

As I said, sounds reasonable enough to me. For some reason, this whole thing is reminding me of peeing Calvins, though without the famously reclusive copyright owner. Make of that what you will.

RIP, J. Fred Duckett

It’s a very sad day for outdoor football.

J. Fred Duckett, who heralded the exploits of “Jose Cruuuuuuuz!” as the Astrodome’s public-address announcer and proclaimed, “It’s a beautiful day for outdoor football,” to generations of Rice University fans, died Monday night at a Houston hospital. He was 74.

One of Houston’s most distinctive voices, Duckett was remembered by friends and former colleagues as Houston’s foremost expert on track and field and as the institutional memory for a half-century of athletics at Rice, his alma mater.

“He could bring such perspective,” said Bill Cousins, Rice’s former sports information director. “You can look at the picture of Dicky Maegle being tackled in the Cotton Bowl, and J. Fred could tell you the names of the Rice cheerleaders standing on the sidelines.

“He spanned generations, and he was always there when we needed him.”

Duckett grew up playing on the fields around Rice and attended the university in the early 1950s, competing in track and football as a member of the Owls’ scout team under legendary coach Jess Neely. Sidelined by an injury during his junior season, he began working with Bill Whitmore, the Owls’ longtime sports information director, and was involved with the program for the balance of his life.

Away from his alma mater, he was the PA voice of the Astros from 1969 through 1992 and also worked the mic for the Oilers and for several other local pro franchises.

“Strangers,” he said during a 1990s interview, “are always telling me, ‘I’ve heard that voice. I just don’t know where.’ ”

Fans were never unclear, though, about their love for Duckett’s exaggerated announcement of Jose Cruz’s name. Cruz was one of Duckett’s biggest fans.

“He gave me one of his bats from his last game as an Astro,” Duckett said in 1991. “When he signed it, he put about fifteen U’s in there.”

Cruz, now an Astros first-base coach, said Monday night from Milwaukee: “He meant a lot to me. He’s the one to come out with the way they announced my name. He was the guy to do that, and I’ll never forget him.”

Another lasting love was track and field. His notebooks of local track and field records dating back decades were an invaluable resource for researchers.

“It’s man and woman against himself and herself,” he said in an 1980s interview. “They’re competing against what they can do, not if someone can block for them or pass the ball under the basket.”

After graduating from Rice, Duckett earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Texas and taught at St. John’s and at Awty International in addition to working as an insurance salesman.

Duckett’s wife of 29 years, Baudine, died in January. Friends said he had suffered from leukemia for several months.

Rice football games won’t be the same without you, Fred. We fans will always remember you, and I sincerely hope that whoever they find to handle the announcing duties will keep telling us what a beautiful day it always is for outdoor football. Rest in peace, J. Fred Duckett.

More tributes to this local sports icon are here, here, and here.

Probate court

I’m not really sure what to say about the Chron’s rather harrowing series on how messed up the Harris County Probate Court system can be, other than I sure am glad we’ve done estate planning, and I sure as hell hope it never amounts to more than a formality. Couple of excerpts, just to give you a taste if you skipped past them. From Monday:

Perry ”Bit” Whatley, 84, a former Baytown refinery worker and lifelong Texan, spent his final days in self-imposed exile, a fugitive from a more than two-year-old fight with the state probate courts.

Whatley was living in Arizona when he died, but it was not where he wanted to be, away from his home, cut off from his family and his $2 million fortune.

[…]

Soon after the filing of the guardianship case, the Whatleys withdrew $500,000 from an annuity, incurring an early withdrawal penalty. They gave most of the money to their own newly hired attorneys to fight the guardianship. Those attorneys now say the costs for the fight have grown to nearly $1 million.

In Harris County Probate Court, [Judge Mike] Wood, who also claimed he was trying to protect Whatley as a disabled Harris County resident, eventually authorized payments of $360,000 from Whatley’s money to four lawyers, three he appointed and one hired on behalf of Whatley’s niece. They have not yet provided final accounting of how much of Whatley’s money was spent.

The judge openly attacked opposing attorneys as unorthodox renegades who abused the system and instigated Whatley’s disappearance. In one court appearance last summer, he said he might have to order Whatley into court “in chains” and that it would be the fault of Whatley’s legal team.

However, Whatley’s hired attorneys remain adamant in their claims that Wood prejudged their client — without ever meeting Perry Whatley — and demonstrated his bias in a series of comments and rulings that threatened Whatley’s savings, his independence and his marriage.

[Whatley’s niece Jeannie] Anderson has another view. She believes those hired attorneys ”raped my uncle of his estate.”

[…]

Whatley’s attorneys decided to personally sue the judge, his appointees and others in an attempt to freeze spending of Whatley’s assets. The lawsuit accused the judge and others of fraud, conspiracy and breach of fiduciary duties and asked for $15 million in damages.

Wood has called the suit frivolous and insisted he should be granted judicial immunity.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of attorneys suing a judge like that. I can’t imagine the suit will be allowed to proceed, but it still says something to me. How screwed up do things have to be for something like that to happen?

From Sunday:

Some of the fattest fees generated by any recent Texas probate case went to the accounting firm of Paula Miller, a former court favorite who is not a lawyer, a certified public accountant or a banker.

Miller, an accountant with two master’s degrees, did serve for a while, though, as Probate Judge Russell Austin’s campaign treasurer — something the family of River Oaks widow Doris Conte initially did not know.

Her family trusts eventually paid Miller and her company $1.38 million. Austin ordered more than $780,000 in additional payments to people assigned to work with her, according to court and family records.

[…]

In 1998, Austin personally introduced Miller to Doris Conte’s feuding children, Susan and Joe Conte Jr. The two at first agreed to allow Austin to appoint Miller to review accounting in their family trusts.

Initially, Miller charged the Contes more than $30,000 a month for what was supposed to be a temporary job. She later got the judge to approve hiring five law firms and a CPA, who got paid separately to help.

Within seven years after her 1998 appointment, Miller had generated more than $1 million for her own firm. When the Contes’ cash ran low, Miller got more by selling properties and cutting lease deals, sometimes over family objections.

In an interview, Miller claimed her fees were similar to those a bank might charge for a complex trust case. “We did a tremendous amount of work,” she said.

However, when Miller prepared to leave the trusts in 2003, she collected estimates from banks who competed to replace her. Those documents show that their proposed fees were lower than her own.

Miller’s work at first included redoing five years of financial records, funding the trusts, overseeing accounting and monitoring several lawsuits. But she also frequently billed at $225 an hour for tasks such as buying a lawn tractor and arranging for household repairs.

From 2003 to 2005, her last three years on the case, she earned nearly $400,000 from the Conte trusts, the second-largest reported payout to any appointee in a probate case in the state of Texas, based on a Houston Chronicle analysis of fees paid in probate cases over a three-year period.

[…]

In 2001, Miller became Austin’s campaign treasurer.

Miller also was among Austin’s $5,000 campaign contributors. Others who worked on the Conte case gave Austin money, too, including an appraiser, a CPA, lawyers and the doctor who had examined Conte and recommended she be declared unable to manage her own affairs. Such contributions are legal and subject to Texas disclosure laws, though critics claim they may present an appearance of impropriety.

Texas judicial rules generally do not require judges to disclose campaign-related relationships in court. However, Lillian Hardwick, co-author of the Handbook of Texas Lawyer and Judicial Ethics, said it might have been prudent in this case for Austin to tell the Contes that Miller was serving as his treasurer.

Austin said he felt it was unnecessary because it was a matter of public record. He said Miller did not help him raise money, though her name appeared on fundraising letters.

In 2005, the Contes discovered Miller’s role as Austin’s treasurer in an Web search of Harris County records. They were furious.

That same year, Miller had requested authorization from Austin to put all the Conte properties on the market, including their home. After the Contes objected, Miller, who had previously talked about resigning, stepped down from their case. She also stopped serving as Austin’s treasurer.

But before her work ended, Austin signed one more document in Miller’s favor. This one could protect her from the Contes.

“For purposes of any future claims of liability the effect of judicial discharge shall be as though Paula Miller never served … No person or entity shall have any cause of actions against Paula Miller or any of her actions or inactions … ,” the order said.

“Might have been prudent in this case for Austin to tell the Contes that Miller was serving as his treasurer”. Yeah. Or maybe for her to stay out of his campaign, what with the appearance of impropriety supposedly meaning something.

Anyway. They’re good reads, and they shed some light on a part of the judicial system that I at least knew nothing about. Check them out.

Hu? What?

Are we sure it’s time for another debate about gender-neutral pronouns? Because I could swear we just had one.

Okay, here’s the thing. It’s very easy to invent a gender-neutral pronoun. It’s very hard to get anyone to use it, which is why we have this discussion every few years, when some earnest linguist takes another shot at it. What they all seem to not realize is that we’ve more or less already settled on a perfectly good gender-neutral pronoun:

The most common solution, using “they” or “them,” irks grammarians when the subject is singular.

Far as I’m concerned, they can take their irk and stick it, along with every silly attempt at inventing a new word no one will ever use, where the sun don’t shine. If you want to be technical, an invented word like “hu”, which last I checked ain’t in the dictionary, is also a grammatical error, so what’s the difference? I say the market has spoken, and it has decided that “they” and “them” (and “their”, too) can be singular as well as plural. Deal with it.

King versus Kenedy continued

They’re still fighting it out over wind farms – the Kenedy Ranch has ’em, the King Ranch doesn’t want ’em.

King Ranch President Jack Hunt has called for state legislation to regulate the farms – the lack of such laws governing wind farms making Texas a favorite spot for potential wind projects. He’s written newspaper opinion pieces and spoken to the media about what he sees as the dangers of the projects.

Hunt said he met with Kenedy Ranch overseers when the wind farms were first proposed a couple of years ago, hoping to get them to understand they’re “sacrificing the long-term value of a rare resource for short-term revenue.”

“But it sort of fell on deaf ears,” he said.

Marc Cisneros, who runs the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation from nearby Corpus Christi, has declined to shout back. But he said the project on his section of the ranch not only is environmentally sound but will allow the foundation’s charitable work to continue in an impoverished part of the state.

Which is pretty much what we’ve been hearing all along. Here’s some new information, which is greatly of interest to me:

The disagreement lingers even as Babcock & Brown and PPM Energy of Portland, Ore., prepare the sites for the turbines, which they both hope to have spinning sometime next year. PPM’s initial phase calls for 84 turbines on about 15,000 acres owned by the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust – a $400 million investment that’s expected to generate 200 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 60,000 average-size homes.

PPM spokesman Jan Johnson said the company, part of Spanish power utility Iberdrola, has worked diligently to make sure the turbines will have as little effect on the area as possible. She said it already scaled back the number of turbines nearer the coastline in part to protect some birds’ flight patterns.

Jim Sinclair, the local biologist who studied the birds for PPM, said he’s been surprised at the relatively small number of birds he’s seen near the wind farm site. The area’s hundreds of varieties include mourning doves, long-billed curlews, hawks, orioles and redhead ducks. In general, Sinclair said, many of the birds stick close to the water and large clusters of oak trees, and the turbines are far enough away not to pose too much of a threat – information PPM says it’s shared with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others.

“We simply haven’t seen a lot of them in the rotor-swept areas,” Sinclair said.

If the issue is birds and the danger that turbines pose to them, then this is pretty compelling. I’d say the ball is in the King Ranch’s court now.

I’m not unsympathetic to the idea of regulation here. Lord knows, we don’t do enough to regulate other forms of energy – more precisely, we don’t do enough to enforce those regulations. If we were talking about this being part of a comprehensive set of reforms – the kind that never seems to make it through the Lege unmolested – it’d be one thing. But until we can separate the King/Kenedy acrimony from what might or should be done, I’d rather be careful. Let the King Ranch show some evidence that the cost of what the Kenedy is doing is higher than they claim, and we can go from there. Link via South Texas Chisme.

Once again with jury duty

What John says.

Most people do not want to sit on a jury, and I was no different. Being away for a couple of days was quite disruptive (and this was a very short trial). Everybody has other things they want to do.

And that’s fine, but it was amazing to me how many people there started spouting rationales that clearly were designed to get out of jury service. “I couldn’t possibly convict someone based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt – it would have to be absolute proof.” Well, by that standard, nobody’s even getting convicted. “If a police officer testified, I would believe him no matter what!” You couldn’t evaluate what was being said? I have great respect for police, but let’s face it, like any other group of human beings, some are not credible.

The judge – a cranky guy who was substituting for the regular judge that day – was having none of it. The people saying this stuff got brought up, one by one, to discuss it with him.

Now, there are people who legitimately hold those views. It was painfully obvious that most of these folks were not among them. One woman kept saying, “I can’t be impartial!” “Why not?” “I can’t be!” “Why not?” “I just can’t!”

The worst was a 20-something woman who approached the bench, and after some muttered conversation we couldn’t hear in the back of the room, was sent away by the judge with a quite audible dismissal – “Just go be seated!” and came back to where we were sitting with a smirk on her face. Ha ha, I got out of it!

And while we all would have liked to have gotten out of it, the reality is that if we want to live in a country where we get a trial by a jury of our peers – whether in a criminal or civil case – somebody’s got to sit on those juries. If not us, then who?

It’s one thing to be honest about your biases. It’s fine to honestly say, “I do not understand what that law you’re describing means.” But to sit and just spout crap to get out of it marks you as somebody who doesn’t deserve the benefits of our system of justice.

You can’t give up a few days of your life? Go find a nice dictatorship where, if you run afoul of the law, you’ll be tossed in prison without the niceties of a trial. It is apparently what you prefer.

Perhaps someday Ms. Smirk-a-lot will find herself or a family member in court, hoping for sympathetic people to sit on the jury, and watching them weasel out of it.

I’ve written about this before, and I’ll say it again: People who distort their beliefs to get out of jury duty, for the reason that they don’t feel like being on a jury, are beneath contempt. If you have a legitimate reason for not being able to serve, that’s fine – tell the judge and be done with it. Otherwise, suck it up. I’ve been in Houston 19 years now, and I’ve served on exactly two juries, one of which was for traffic court where they guarantee up front you’ll be out the same day. If that’s your idea of an excessive burden, I pity you.