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July 27th, 2010:

DA clears Metro

Nice.

Months after prosecutors took boxes of documents from Metro’s downtown headquarters and experts examined the agency’s computers, the investigation into allegations that Metropolitan Transit Authority administrators illegally destroyed public documents has ended, Metro officials said today.

In a letter to METRO, the Harris County District Attorney’s office wrote, “Our investigation found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing and those allegations were unfounded.”

The letter clears the agency of any wrongdoing.

That sound you hear is the wailing of all the Metro haters, who were convinced that evil was afoot and are no doubt disappointed to come away so empty. To recap, back in February Metro was accused of shredding documents related to an open records request Lloyd Kelley made. The DA opened its probe a week later. Shortly after that, Kelley admitted he didn’t have any actual evidence to back up the original claim of document shredding, which may or may not have had anything to do with the nookie that then-CEO Frank Wilson was allegedly engaging in with one of his staffers. Said alleged nookie apparently never happened, or at least if it did it wasn’t done on Metro’s dime. Kelley eventually settled his lawsuit with Metro, with an acknowledgment that there was no evidence of any shredding; Kelley also never said just what it was he’d been looking for in the first place. A grand jury heard evidence related to the alleged shredding in May. And now here we are. About all that’s left from the last days of Frank Wilson is the Pauline Higgins lawsuit and the ongoing Buy America saga. I think that about covers it. Mary Benton has more.

UPDATE: Hair Balls has more.

Fundraising: SBOE

Really only two races of interest here, SBOE 5 and SBOE 10. Let’s take a look.

http://www.ethics.state.tx.us/php/summary.php?rn=458837&form=COH

Totals From Report For Rebecca L. Bell-Metereau
Filed on: July 15 2010
Covering the Period February 21, 2010 Through June 30, 2010

Total Unitemized Contributions: $8,790.51
Total Political Contributions: $69,779.06
Total Unitemized Expenditures: $79.17
Total Expenditures: $29,172.85
Total Unitemized Pledges (Schedule B1 or B2) $170.00
Total Contributions Maintained As Of The Last Day Of The Reporting Period $43,076.61
Total Principal Amount Of All Outstanding Loans As Of The Last Day of the Reporting Period $0.00
Total Unitemized Loans: $0.00

http://www.ethics.state.tx.us/php/summary.php?rn=457461&form=COH

Totals From Report For Kenneth B. Mercer
Filed on: July 14 2010
Covering the Period February 21, 2010 Through June 30, 2010

Total Unitemized Contributions: $535.00
Total Political Contributions: $6,675.00
Total Unitemized Expenditures: $45.87
Total Expenditures: $24,969.83
Total Unitemized Pledges (Schedule B1 or B2) $0.00
Total Contributions Maintained As Of The Last Day Of The Reporting Period $1,720.77
Total Principal Amount Of All Outstanding Loans As Of The Last Day of the Reporting Period $0.00
Total Unitemized Loans: $0.00

Not a bad haul at all for Bell-Metereau. SBOE districts are enormous, twice the size of State Senate districts, so that money will only go so far, but in context, it’s quite impressive. Mercer presumably had a few bucks lying around from his previous campaign, and I daresay he’ll depend more on the partisan lean of this district to win rather than any actual campaigning. But if he does plan to run a race, he’ll need to find the money for it first.

http://www.ethics.state.tx.us/php/summary.php?rn=458836&form=COH

Totals From Report For Judith A. Jennings
Filed on: July 15 2010
Covering the Period January 01, 2010 Through June 30, 2010

Total Unitemized Contributions: $8,876.61
Total Political Contributions: $54,600.81
Total Unitemized Expenditures: $40.29
Total Expenditures: $26,214.86
Total Unitemized Pledges (Schedule B1 or B2) $150.00
Total Contributions Maintained As Of The Last Day Of The Reporting Period $36,406.78
Total Principal Amount Of All Outstanding Loans As Of The Last Day of the Reporting Period $0.00
Total Unitemized Loans: $0.00

http://www.ethics.state.tx.us/php/summary.php?rn=458786&form=COH

Totals From Report For Marsha L. Farney
Filed on: July 15 2010
Covering the Period April 04, 2010 Through June 30, 2010

Total Unitemized Contributions: $0.00
Total Political Contributions: $17,975.00
Total Unitemized Expenditures: $10.75
Total Expenditures: $101,875.04
Total Unitemized Pledges (Schedule B1 or B2) $0.00
Total Contributions Maintained As Of The Last Day Of The Reporting Period $4,049.86
Total Principal Amount Of All Outstanding Loans As Of The Last Day of the Reporting Period $0.00
Total Unitemized Loans: $0.00

Jennings has another decent Democratic haul. Note that Farney’s totals only cover three months while Jennings’ span six; this is because Farney was in a primary runoff that she won in April. However, if you add her contributions raised in the previous three periods to this, she collected $44,276 for the six months, meaning that Jennings still out-raised her.

You may also notice the large sum Farney reported spending in this period. In fact, she spent an equal or greater amount in the two prior periods as well, and going back to the start of the year has dropped nearly $400K on this race. Almost all of that is reported on the Schedule G form, which is for “Political Contibutions Made From Personal Funds”. The disclaimer on each item is “Reimbursement for political contributions intended”. In short, she’s loaned herself all this money but hopes to get future contributors to pay it back. It’s still money spent, but if you look at her most recent form, the vast majority of these expenditures were made in April; in other words, they were runoff expenses, and thus aimed at a limited audience. If she’s spent that much so far to get nominated, it stands to reason she’ll spend at least as much to get elected, and while as I’ve said there’s a difference between raising money and spending it, that will still be of great use to her. That said, Jennings clearly has the advantage in the breadth of her campaign.

There is a third race that we’re all watching for the SBOE, of course, and that’s Michael Soto’s race in SBOE 3. Here’s Soto’s report – he raised $11K and has about $8K on hand. I didn’t add his report in like the others because he’s running in a strong D district – it’s about ten points more Democratic than SBOE 5 is Republican – and as such, I didn’t even bother to look up his opponent’s name. But here it is for your perusal nonetheless.

In case you need a reminder to vote this November

What we have to look forward to in Austin next year if nothing changes.

Legislators next year will face severe budget problems, divisive redistricting, school funding troubles and reviews of major state agencies, including the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality and the Texas Department of Insurance.

“We are going to have a very tough session,” said Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, chairman of the State Affairs Committee.

But addressing those over-arching issues will not be enough to satisfy Republican voters, he said: “They want us to deal with these other issues. It’s a line in the sand.

“Voter ID and immigration issues are right up there at the top. And nullification (of the national health care law) is a big issue,” Solomons said. “The Republican voters are wanting some things done if Washington isn’t going to do it. And they want states to start taking action.”

Note the problems that we face, and the problems that our Republican legislators will be pressured to deal with by their primary voters. Not much overlap, is there? Now imagine the difference between having Rick Perry there to egg them on, and having Bill White there to veto that kind of hateful stupidity. Puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it?

Full fees ahead

The cost of doing business for Harris County keeps going up.

Rising credit card fees have increased that portion of the county government’s banking bill by $1.7 million in two years.

In the year that ended in February, the county paid 36 percent more in fees for customers who pay with plastic to cover their tolls and taxes than it did two years before.

The fees are a tiny portion of the county’s $1.4 billion budget, but the higher bills come during a budget crunch that has resulted in layoffs and a hiring freeze. Just the recent increase in fees would be enough to put 31 new sheriff’s deputies on the streets of Harris County. Rising credit card fees were “a large part” of the reason the Harris County Toll Road Authority stopped allowing people to pay airport parking fees with their EZ Tags earlier this year, said Peter Key, the authority’s director.

The Chron story about the EZ Tag debacle did mention the processing fees, which amounted to $70,000 a month, as a reason. Looking back at what I wrote at the time, I must have assumed it was a flat rate that HCTRA was being charged, but clearly that was not the case.

[County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia] suggested that the county consider going out for bids for banking services again next year in hopes of getting another bank to offer lower fees or to pressure Amegy Bank to give the county a better deal.

Key pointed the finger not at Amegy but at the credit card companies as he spoke after the meeting of his frustration over the rising costs.

“They’re just jacking up the transaction fees,” Key said. “The cost ultimately is going to be born by the merchants,” he said, in this case the Toll Road Authority. The tax office, though, passes on charges of $3.95 per Visa debit card transaction and 2.15 percent for most credit cards.

“What has happened is not Amegy but Mastercard and Visa have exponentially increased their fees,” said Edwin Harrison, director of the county’s financial services division.

Indeed, and it’s something that Kevin Drum has written about a few times. Basically, the credit industry soaks the masses to reward the high end users with things like frequent flyer miles and cash back. I’m a beneficiary of that system, but it’s one I’d be happy to see changed, since it’s a huge transfer of wealth away from folks who can’t afford it. Not really something Harris County can do much about, though. Just keep it in mind the next time you hear someone yammer about the unrestrained growth of government spending. There’s an awful lot of it that’s just not in their control.

Another lawsuit against Farmers Branch over City Council districts

Trying again to force the city of Farmers Branch to create single member City Council districts.

The suit seeks an end at-large voting for City Council seats, arguing that the current method dilutes Hispanic voting strength. Nearly half the city is Hispanic, according to estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau over a three-year-period ending in 2008.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Dallas on behalf of several Farmers Branch residents by the Bickel & Brewer Storefront. Bickel & Brewer is firm that has sued the city over an ordinance that bans landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. Federal judges have declared two versions of the rental ordinance to be unconstitutional.

A federal judge dismissed an earlier voting rights suit, one that was filed shortly after the May 2007 council elections. That suit was brought by a San Antonio attorney and Dallas lawyer Domingo GarcĂ­a, whose firm is best known for its personal injury litigation.

The last news I heard on that was that the dismissal was being appealed to the Supreme Court. I presume SCOTUS did not agree to hear that appeal, or we’d have heard something more by now.

The new lawsuit was brought by 10 Spanish-surnamed residents. It said that under the current election system, all six City Council members could reside on the same block.

It noted that Hispanics are heavily concentrated in the northwestern part of the city. It said there are enough Hispanics within a small geographic area to allow a single-member district voting system in which Hispanics would form a majority in at least one district.

When the previous suit was dismissed, the judge wrote in his opinion that the plaintiffs did not prove that a majority-minority single-member district could be created. I’m guessing that this lawsuit is using updated Census figures to address that point. There are also more election results, such as this year’s in which all candidates were Anglo, that they can use. We’ll see if any of that makes a difference.