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June 11th, 2008:

Was the fix in against the Rockets?

Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who is under criminal indictment for betting on NBA games in which he officiated, is now claiming that a pair of playoff series, including one in which the Rockets played, were fixed by the league.

Disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy charged Tuesday that NBA officials encouraged league referees to influence the results of playoff series, including the Rockets’ 2005 series against Dallas.

Donaghy made the allegations in a letter filed with the court by his lawyer. He did not specify teams in the letter, but he described the situation of the series in which Dallas owner Mark Cuban complained of illegal screens set by Yao Ming.

Donaghy, 41, pleaded guilty to felony charges of betting on games and taking cash payoffs from gamblers in exchange for providing privileged information. He faces up to 33 months in prison, with sentencing scheduled for July 14.

In the letter to federal Judge Carol Bagley Amon, Donaghy’s legal team argued that Donaghy “provided key information regarding game manipulation by referees.” Donaghy’s lawyer, John Lauro, has suggested his client deserves credit for coming forward before he was charged to disclose behind-the-scenes misconduct in the NBA.

In a statement, the NBA described Donaghy’s charges as inaccurate and designed to lighten his sentence.

“According to Mr. Donaghy, all of his allegations have previously been made to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney, and they are clearly being disclosed now as part of his desperate attempt to lighten the sentence that will be imposed for his criminal conduct,” NBA executive vice president and general counsel Richard Buchanan said. “The NBA remains vigilant in protecting the integrity of our game and has fully cooperated with the government at every stage of its investigation.”

Neither Richard Justice nor Jonathan Feigen believes him, with Feigen making a pretty convincing case that Donaghy is full of it. King Kaufman, who examined the Lakers-Kings series of 2002, also agrees, but notes that the accusation, not its veracity, is the problem here:

Unless the NBA really is fixing games, it’s biggest problem is that an accusation like Donaghy’s rings true for the fan base. It does pass the sniff test, does sound plausible. That’s a testament to just how bad, how inconsistent to the point of randomness, NBA officiating has been.

[…]

This column has maintained for years that that’s been the NBA’s biggest problem. Not the supposed thuggishness of the players, not even the sludgy, defensive-minded play of the 1990s, but the capriciousness of the officiating. One set of rules for stars, another for rookies. The same contact being a foul one time down the floor but not the next, or a foul in the middle of a quarter but not at the buzzer — like the no-call when Derek Fisher crashed into Brent Barry in the last seconds of the Lakers’ Game 4 win over the San Antonio Spurs in this year’s Western Conference finals.

The NBA’s unwillingness or inability to clean up its officiating, to formulate clear explanations of what constitutes a violation and why and when that violation is called, to achieve consistency in the way calls are made, has left it vulnerable to accusations like those made by Donaghy.

Stern dismissed Donaghy once again Tuesday as a rogue liar who should be ignored. Donaghy may be a rogue liar. He probably is. But if Stern ignores him, doesn’t move to fix that vulnerability, he’ll be continuing a long-running mistake.

It’s hard to argue with that, and I don’t know what the answer is. I think at some point, video technology can and will be used to assist baseball umpires, though it may take a long time to overcome the resistance to the idea. But baseball is a series of discrete events, which makes it amenable to technology for things like ball and strike calls that a flowing game like basketball just won’t be. Maybe the best answer is a complete re-working of the rules book, to make foul definitions more obvious, or less frequent, or something. I’m glad this isn’t my problem to solve, I know that much.

By the way, the same charge can be made about collegiate refereeing, which is at least as random and unfathomable as the pro version. It’s also certainly not immune to any Donaghy problems. Again, I don’t know what they can do about it, but like the NBA they really ought to be giving it some serious thought, lest they find themselves in a similar situation some day.

Council gets its turn with the city budget

Mayor White proposed his budget for 2009 last month, and now it’s City Council’s turn to have at it.

With oil prices on the rise and construction costs escalating, some council members plan to submit proposals they say could make city government more efficient.

For example, Councilwoman Toni Lawrence wants the city to consider consolidating all grass mowing operations under the Department of Parks and Recreation.

But Houston’s population continues to grow, along with demands for services. So, many of the proposed amendments, if passed, would cost money. They include calls for hiring more fire and neighborhood inspectors and increased spending on veterans, after-school programs and the homeless.

Councilman M.J. Khan will offer a number of proposals to save energy, such as studying whether some city workers could adopt a four-day workweek.

He also wants the administration to study whether outsourcing the crime lab could save money and increase accountability.

Khan, chair of the Flooding and Drainage Committee, also wants more money dedicated to flood control. Although the proposed budget would dedicate 0.3 cents of every $100 in assessed value to drainage projects, Khan said that was not enough.

He said he wants the administration to study other sources of funding, including a fee on new developments.

[…]

Lawrence and other council members may ask for more fire inspectors.

The Houston Chronicle reported Sunday that the Houston Fire Department’s 10 inspectors are overworked. Fire barriers, intended to prevent flames from spreading through attics in apartment buildings, cannot be inspected more frequently than every five years, senior inspector Mike Thomas told the Chronicle. Six more inspectors could shorten the inspection cycle to three years, Thomas said.

Other council members want more inspectors to help neighborhoods enforce deed restrictions, and to crack down on nuisances such as overgrown lots and dilapidated vacant houses.

Councilwoman Melissa Noriega wants the city to get a head start on designing and funding light-rail stations.

To make sure the stations have proper sidewalks, landscaping and amenities, she is expected to introduce an amendment to make sure the city coordinates with Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones in neighborhoods through which the light-rail lines will pass.

As you might imagine, I like that idea, as does Stace. Houston is fortunate to be in a position where it can look ahead and invest in some future needs, and I hope that opportunity will be taken.

The full budget so far is here, for those of you who like to pore through such things. That comes via Matt Stiles, who notes that District I Council Member James Rodriguez is proposing a large expansion of the red light camera program, which he intends to use to fund some public safety initiatives. I’d have to see the specifics of that before I could comment on it, but that’s a lot of cameras he’s suggesting. Expect a lot of pushback on that one.

TxDOT rethinks I-69

I suppose my main reaction to this story is what took them so long?

The Texas Department of Transportation said Tuesday it has abandoned plans to build part of the controversial Interstate 69/Trans-Texas Corridor through rural areas north and west of Houston.

Instead, TxDOT said, it will stick to major highways — principally U.S. 59 — for most of the route. Through the Houston area, it could stay on U.S. 59 or go on Loop 610 or the planned Grand Parkway.

[…]

TxDOT officials had planned to publicly announce the change today after briefing reporters privately Tuesday.

The story broke early, however, after others, including state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Palestine, spoke to news media about the change.

Nichols, a former member of the Texas Transportation Commission, said he sees the change as “a huge victory for the public,” KHOU-TV reported.

“I believe utilizing existing infrastructure will be more cost efficient and have far less negative impact on family farms and small communities,” Nichols said.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the change would have little impact on Harris County “because we already have a fully developed U.S. 59 and they’re not allowed to go in and toll. They can’t lease a highway that’s already been built.”

The Harris County Toll Road Authority is eager to develop the northwest segment of the planned Grand Parkway, which was being considered as long ago as 2000 as the route for a future Interstate 69. That project was folded into Gov. Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor plan, announced in 2002.

Under legislation enacted by opponents of the corridor idea, the county has first shot at developing the Grand Parkway if it can reach an agreement with TxDOT on its value.

Amadeo Saenz, the department’s executive director, said Tuesday that TxDOT is “working closely with HCTRA” on the project. “They are just as interested in getting this built as we are,” he said.

Saenz said a large share of the 28,000 comments received in 47 public hearings and 12 town hall meetings along the route expressed opposition to the project.

“A lot of them said, in essence, ‘We don’t want you, we don’t want the route, and we don’t want you across our farm,’ ” Saenz said. “And a lot of people said, ‘Why don’t you expand 59? You have a perfectly good road in 59.’ ”

Saenz said he will recommend to the Texas Transportation Commission, which sets policy for TxDOT, that only existing highways, principally U.S. 59, be considered for the route.

“Anything not on an existing highway will be set aside and not moved forward,” he said, adding that in the distant future — perhaps 50 years from now — that may become necessary.

I suppose Judge Emmett’s statement is the answer to my question. This is good news for HCTRA and its grand plans for the Grand Parkway. I’m curious as to what impact on 59’s traffic this is projected to have here, given that it’s already pretty darned congested and there’s apparently no extra capacity for the Houston area in the revised plan. We may have a “fully developed 59”, but we also have a very full 59, at least as you approach downtown. What are the plans for that? And no, routing it around 610 instead isn’t a good answer.

While it certainly makes sense for TxDOT to change its thinking here, the move to 59 raises a lot of questions that now need to be answered. I hope they’re more forthcoming this time around than they were when the TTC was first announced. McBlogger has more.

Interview with Robert Miklos

Continuing with my series of candidate interviews from the convention, next up is Robert Miklos, who is running for HD101 in Dallas County. Miklos is a former prosecutor with the Harris County DA’s office (he worked under Johnnie Holmes) and with the city of Dallas, and he’s now in private practice specializing in land use issues. The seat he’s running for is one of several reasonably purple districts (PDF) in the Metroplex area – Bill Moody got 48.8% of the vote in 2006 – and will have its third representative in as many cycles after current Rep. Thomas Latham, who defeated Elvira Reyna in the 2006 GOP primary, lost in the 2008 GOP primary to Mike Anderson, so it’s not averse to change. The interview is here, as always in MP3 format.

PREVIOUSLY:

State Rep. Dan Barrett, HD97.
Wendy Davis, SD10.

Commuter rail lines recommended

Get ready for some commuter rail proposals.

A commuter rail study for the Houston area, unveiled Tuesday, recommends starting with five lines — but none would provide direct service to Sugar Land, The Woodlands or Kingwood, or to Bush and Hobby airports.

Alan Clark, who heads transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, where the plan was presented, said conflict with heavy freight rail operations would prevent commuter rail to those destinations in the near future.

But that does not mean the areas cannot be served by light rail or other transit such as dedicated bus lanes, he said.

The commuter rail plan would cost about $3 billion — although no funding plan was included — and the trains would share tracks that have light freight traffic, said consultants Sam Lott and Joe Wilhite, of Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc.

The five recommended routes are:

  • U.S. 290, with a passenger terminal and maintenance facility near Metro’s Northwest Transit Center. This would connect to Metro’s planned Uptown light rail line.
  • Texas 3 to Galveston
  • Texas 249 to Tomball with “back door” service to The Woodlands
  • Texas 35 to Pearland
  • Almeda Road, later turning west and providing an indirect route to Fort Bend County

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he will push for commuter trains to start running as soon as possible on the U.S. 290 and Texas 3 routes, even though the overall plan may not be developed yet.

Lines to Galveston and along 290 have been in the works for awhile, and ought to have a fairly quick start if they get approval, since there are existing tracks that can be used. The story says it’s not been determined who would operate these lines – Union Pacific says it’s not interested. I’m pretty sure that there’d be some demand for this service, since commuter rail boardings are on the rise (via), thanks to the ever-rising price of gas. There’ll be a public hearing at H-GAC headquarters on July 1, so we ought to learn more by then.

The state of solar power in Texas

The wind energy industry is going strong in Texas, but the solar energy industry is working to catch up.

Solar advocates say high costs, a lack of incentives and resistant homeowners associations are clouding the nascent industry’s future in the state.

At stake is an opportunity for the state, already a major player in the oil and gas industry, to have a prominent role in the growing $10.6 billion global solar energy market, a May report by the state comptroller’s office says.

Advocates concede solar is not the end-all solution for the state’s energy needs. High costs still keep the technology inaccessible to many consumers, though opinions differ on just how long that will last, given the rapidly rising cost of conventional energy sources.

But incentives and rebate programs to help consumers realize a faster payback on their investments would help, solar advocates say.

A typical solar electric system for a home can cost between $20,000 to $29,000.

Consumers can take a federal tax credit of 30 percent of the cost of a system, up to $2,000, but the tax break expires at year-end. Federal lawmakers have introduced a bill that would extend the break beyond 2008, but Congress hasn’t agreed on how to pay for it.

Some states — but not Texas — offer rebates funded by a surcharge on electric bills and cover about half the cost of solar systems.

Last year, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, introduced a bill that would create a similar program in Texas, but it never made it out of committee and faced opposition from the Association of Electric Companies of Texas.

Walt Baum, executive vice president of the association, said the group opposed the bill mainly because it would have put the money to fund the rebates in the same fund that helps low-income Texans pay their electric bills — a fund that previously has been diverted for other uses by the state.

“It had nothing to do with us not supporting the solar industry,” Baum said. “We had committed to legislative leadership to getting the fund to where it was supposed to go.”

Coleman said he plans to reintroduce the bill next year.

“To me it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “I think it’s doable. Almost every company that’s a fossil fuel energy producer is investing in the manufacture and sale of solar panels. Shell is, BP is, and so are a lot of others. They understand that they have to diversify their business offerings for a day when fossil fuels are not going to be the biggest part of their business.”

Solar seems to be more about end users than providers, as is the case with wind. I agree that making rebates available to mitigate the cost of installing solar panels on existing houses is a good idea. Doing something similar for new construction would also make some sense. I’ll keep an eye on these bills in the next legislative session.

Running prosecutors

Being in Austin last week meant I got a chance to pick up a copy of the Austin Chronicle. I know, I know, I can read it online, but when you’re traveling and don’t have your usual access to the Internet, having some nice hardcopy stuff to read is a blessing. Anyway, a couple of things caught my eye in this edition, starting with a letter to the editor, in response to this story about Third Court of Appeals Judge Charlie Baird, in particular this passage:

Much to his dismay, Baird recalls, the district judges he appeared before not only didn’t read the cases, but they didn’t seem to care. To Baird, that meant they weren’t following the law – “and I would not get a reason for them not following the law,” he said. At first he thought he would be vindicated on appeal, but that didn’t happen either. The cases wouldn’t go anywhere, and Baird was left feeling like the courts weren’t interested either in participating in the process or, indeed, following the rule of law. “It was just a high level of frustration,” he said.

By the beginning of the new decade, Baird had decided what to do about it. He’d run for a seat on Texas’ highest criminal bench, the Court of Criminal Appeals. “I’ll just run for the court,” he recalled, “and I’ll fix this problem myself.”

He ran, from El Paso to Texarkana and everywhere in between, and won – due in part to the strength of the 1990 statewide Democratic ticket, with Gov. Ann Richards at the top – becoming the youngest judge ever to sit on the high court’s bench. Over the next eight years, Baird developed a reputation as an independent-minded jurist. “Judge Baird has a national reputation for fairness and independence,” says Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights and a law professor at Yale, who met Baird while he was on the CCA. At the time, Bright was researching and writing about a “disturbing trend” of judges being voted off the bench for “standing up” for the Constitution, instead of gauging the pulse of political concerns before meting out justice. In Houston, for example, Bright said he found that if district court judges didn’t “agree” with the positions taken and arguments made by the District Attorney’s Office, then-Harris Co. D.A. Johnny Holmes would simply “run one of his prosecutors” against the offending judge in the next election. It was a sure way to keep the black robes in line. “In many courts, prosecutors are used to getting their way,” Bright says. “Of course, that’s not how it is supposed to work.”

That drew this reply:

I worked in that office during the 1980s and 1990s, and I take complete issue with that statement. Under D.A. Johnny Holmes: 1) Any assistant D.A. who chose to run against an incumbent judge had to immediately resign from their job as soon as they filed for office or announced to run. 2) Assistant D.A.s who lost such election bids did not get rehired back into their former jobs. They had to go work elsewhere. 3) I never saw or heard D.A. Holmes publicly endorse any candidate for office. I never saw Holmes appear at any political event. 4) Nothing involving any politicking was allowed to go on in that office, and a nonpolitical culture was present throughout. It is not “simple” to run for election in Harris County. It is expensive and time-consuming. Couple that with the requirement of quitting your job and the decision to run against an incumbent judge becomes something less than “simple.” I personally knew several assistant D.A.s who made their own decision to run against judges they thought should be replaced. Most of those people lost. I never had anybody tell me that D.A. Holmes was supporting them, or had asked them to run.

I was not following local politics very much back then, but this letter is certainly in line with Holmes’ reputation. I’ve never heard anything to the effect of what Professor Bright claims, though I wouldn’t consider my recollections here to be remotely authoritative. My question to those of you who were in a position to know these things back then is: Who’s right? Was then-Harris County DA Johnny Holmes vindictive in that way towards judges he didn’t like, or is that a scurrilous accusation? Leave a comment and let us know.