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July 29th, 2010:

Dirty deals, done dirt cheap

So I missed this DMN story from the weekend about Rick Perry’s excellent fortune in the real estate market.

Three years after Gov. Rick Perry’s biggest real estate score, questions persist about whether the governor benefited from favoritism, backroom dealing and influence-buying.

The Dallas Morning News found evidence that Perry’s investment was enhanced by a series of professional courtesies and personal favors from friends, campaign donors and the head of a Texas family with a rich history of political power-brokering.

Together they may have enriched Perry by almost $500,000, according to an independent real estate appraisal commissioned by The News.

BOR breaks it down into small, easy pieces. Short version: It’s good to be the king. It’s even better when your business partner in the deal forgets to disclose it, as required by law.

State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, didn’t list his September 2000 acquisition of the waterfront lot on Lake Lyndon B. Johnson in the disclosure form he filed for that year. He also didn’t note a year later the fact that Perry purchased the property from him in 2001, the documents show.

State law requires elected officials such as Fraser, a friend and political ally of the governor, to describe “any and all” interests they or their families have in real property. They also must disclose any proceeds they received when those interests are sold. Failure to file the forms on time can result in civil penalties levied by the commission, though Fraser will not face enforcement because the commission doesn’t have the authority to levy fines for a 10-year-old violation.

Fraser, a wealthy investor, listed numerous stock holdings and other financial information on the 52-page filing but omitted the land deal. He was traveling out of the state on Wednesday and was unavailable for comment, said his chief of staff, Janice McCoy, who declined to discuss the issue.

Andy Wilson, a research associate for campaign finance issues at the watchdog group Public Citizen Texas, said the senator’s failure to correctly file the forms is no small matter. “The public’s right to know on this is absolute,” Wilson said. “Considering that, for most Texans, their homes are the most important thing that they own, I’m surprised that someone would forget to put this on a financial disclosure — especially waterfront property on Horseshoe Bay.”

I dunno, you’d think that buying and selling a house is the sort of thing you might remember doing. Unless of course there was something about it that you didn’t want people to know about.

Turns out that’s not the only questionable dealing Perry has done. The good folks at the Back to Basics PAC have uncovered a few more, which they detail at their latest website, RicksDirtyDeals.com. From their press release:

Today, Back to Basics PAC launched a new website highlighting a few of the suspicious and murky land deals that have put hundreds of thousands of dollars in Rick Perry’s pockets.

Rick Perry said, “The idea that you’re supposed to go get an ethics report when you buy a piece of property might be a bit cumbersome for elected officials.”

We disagree, Governor. Back to Basics PAC believes Texans have a right to know about Perry’s dirty deals, and we will continue doing everything we can to make sure all Texas voters hear about his unethical and corrupt behavior.

Visitors can watch Perry play “Let’s Make a Deal” at www.RicksDirtyDeals.com.

Here’s the source for that “cumbersome” quote. Hey, if it’s too much trouble to report that kind of thing, there’s always life in the private sector, where you can use your cronies to get as rich as you want without anyone caring too much about it.

By the way, that Ricks Dirty Deals site pays homage to that classic game show “Let’s Make A Deal”. For those of you who are too young to remember the 1970s, here’s a short clip to give you a feel for it:

Is it just me or does anyone else think that Monte Hall’s hair is a primordial ancestor of Rick Perry’s? Among the many charms of this show was the silly costumes the studio audience members wore to get Hall’s attention – I’ve been picturing Troy Fraser and Mike Toomey in fright wigs and clown shoes as a result of all this – and vintage 70’s muscle cars, of the kind they don’t make any more. Those were the days, my friends.

Finally, as an aficionado of 70s-era game shows, I recognize the theme music they’re using on www.RicksDirtyDeals.com – not from “Let’s Make A Deal”; clearly the Back to Basics folks are too young for this – but for the life of me I can’t place it, and it’s driving me crazy. A little help here, please? Thanks.

Where’s Birdwell?

The Trib re-raises the question of the newest Senator’s eligibility to serve.

The newest member of the Texas Senate, Brian Douglas Birdwell, voted in the November 2004 presidential election twice, choosing between George W. Bush and John Kerry in Tarrant County, Texas, and again in Prince William County, Va., according to election records in the two states.

Voting in the same election twice is a third-degree felony in Texas.

What’s more, Birdwell’s record of voting in Virginia from 2004 through 2006 would seem to place his residency in that state, not in Texas, which could imperil his spot in the Legislature. Birdwell voted a Virginia ballot in November 2006; if that’s enough to establish him as a Virginia resident, an issue that can only be settled in court, it means he’s not eligible to serve in the Texas Senate until at least November 2011.

The voting twice issue is new, and after initially not responding, Birdwell strongly denied that allegation. He did not, however, deny voting in Virginia in 2006.

Talk of Birdwell’s eligibility dogged his campaign all along, attracting news coverage and generating talk in political circles. State law requires senators to have lived in the state for the five years before they take office and to have lived at least the last 12 months of that time in the districts they seek to serve.

Indeed, now-retired Sen. Kip Averitt briefly contemplated not retiring if Birdwell won the special election over concerns about his eligibility.

Another, earlier date — November 2006, when Birdwell last voted in Virginia — may well hold the key to whether he’s a legal candidate or not.

“It’s a piece of evidence that’s hard to refute and usually fatal,” says Randall “Buck” Wood, an Austin lawyer and a Democrat respected across the political spectrum for his mastery of election law. The residency question, as Wood sees it, puts the courts in the position of deciding whether someone did something illegal — voting in an election in a place where they don’t reside — or simply is ineligible to run in another place because of that vote. He thinks most judges would choose the second option rather than deciding the candidate in question did something criminal. The crime, if there is one, would be voting in Virginia while residing in Texas. Wood thinks a court would most likely see no crime, saying instead that the voter was a Virginia resident and voter who is simply not eligible to run for Texas Senate.

Lawyers for the Republican Party of Texas haven’t looked into Birdwell’s case, according to Bryan Preston, a party spokesman, who said the matter was left to the campaign. Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which backed Birdwell in the special election, did research the residency question and decided he is eligible, according to Sherry Sylvester, a spokeswoman for TLR. “We have endorsed Senator Birdwell, and we have contributed to his campaign,” she says. “We have reviewed the questions surrounding his residency, and like 58 percent of the voters of Senate District 22 and the eight county chairs who nominated him over the weekend, we believe he is a Texas resident.”

Yes, and Tom DeLay’s lawyers were convinced that he could be replaced on the ballot in 2006 after declaring himself a Virginia resident and withdrawing from the CD22 race. Didn’t work out too well for him, as I recall. When and if somebody files suit – my guess is that will happen shortly after the Democrats pick their own candidate and the Republicans officially tab Birdwell – we’ll see what a judge has to say. And as the Waco Trib reports, there’s more evidence that Birdwell considered himself a Virginian pretty recently:

An attorney for Sibley filed Birdwell’s voting records and other documents with state election officials, asking them to disqualify Birdwell.

After the Secretary of State’s Office stored those away, all that was left was talk and news reports along the way. But the filing at SOS supplied the factual underpinning for the argument against Birdwell’s Texas residency.

In addition to some of Birdwell’s voting records, that package includes his “resident state fishing permit” from 2006 and another from 2008 for which he paid the Virginia resident rates — lower than those paid by out-of-staters.

Those fishing licenses include this notice: “I certify that the person named on this license meets residency requirements, is eligible to buy this license, and all information on this form is true to the best of my knowledge and belief.”

That might or might not be strong evidence in a legal residency case, but it’s spice for the political argument about whether Birdwell’s candidacy is legitimate.

Like I said, we’ll presumably see what a judge thinks. I look forward to it.

State sues the EPA again

Round and round we go

Texas has sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency for the second time in six weeks, escalating a feud over the state’s rules for air pollution from refiners and other large industries.

State Attorney General Greg Abbott said Monday he filed a petition with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking to block the EPA from disapproving the state’s so-called flexible permits.

State officials argue the federal agency had no legal or technical justification for rejecting the 16-year-old permitting program, which covers 122 refiners, chemical plants and plastics makers.

[…]

[Al Armendariz, the EPA’s regional administrator based in Dallas,] said the EPA rejected flexible permitting because the rules fall short of the federal Clean Air Act’s requirements. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issues the permits on behalf of the EPA, but the EPA decides whether they are in compliance with the law.

Although Texas created the permitting rules in 1994, the EPA did not rule on them until after industry groups sued to force the agency to act.

That’s the irony of all this. Had industry groups not sued the EPA earlier, they might not be in this pickle now. So much for that. Given where we are now, I’m sure the faster and cheaper resolution, not to mention the one that allows for actual progress in cleaning up the air we all breathe, would be for the EPA to work with affected manufacturers to get them into compliance, which is what they’re already doing with many of them. But if you want to drag things out and make everybody spend a bunch of money on legal fees and you don’t really care about air quality, then litigating is totally the way to go. More background is here, here, here, and here

New jitney rules coming

City Council is preparing to make some changes to its ordinances regarding jitneys.

The goal of the new rules, some of which also will be established by mid-September in a “green” ordinance that will govern the use of zero-emissions vehicles, is to “allow the market to function appropriately,” said Chris Newport, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Administration and Regulatory Affairs.

Newport said the previous rules are outdated and inhibit new ideas.

“The changes create a flexible framework and set the foundation for the industry to grow without standing in the way of technology and investment,” he said.

Erik Ibarra, owner of Rev Eco-Shuttle, said that is exactly what the new ordinance will do. The changes to the ordinance may “regulate us out of business,” he said.

I’ve written about RevHouston before. Ibarra’s concern appears to be because his service is currently neither fish nor fowl. Jitneys are being defined as having between nine and 15 passengers and operating on a fixed route. If that sounds like the Washington Wave to you, go to the head of the class. RevHouston is using a jitney license that Ibarra got to keep from getting tickets for not complying with taxi ordinances, but his service is for six and fewer at a time, and really is more like a taxi since it’s not on a fixed route. The city says it has a plan for that:

Although Ibarra’s two six-seat vehicles would be allowed to continue operating under the law under an exception, he said the new ordinance may not allow him to grow or to purchase more vehicles.

City officials say Ibarra’s company will be able to operate as a pedi-cab under the “green” ordinance, which the council is expected to consider in mid-September.

[…]

Ibarra said he is concerned that his company’s growth potential will be limited before the new regulations are in place.

He agrees that many of the changes proposed in the ordinance will be good for the industry but questioned why his company will be left in limbo.

“Why not put the green ordinance first?” he asked, noting that he would be in “regulatory purgatory” for six weeks. “It just seems backwards to say, we’re going to regulate you out of the market first, but don’t worry, we’re going to set up a green ordinance for you. … If this passes, they’re not going to prevent other companies from growing, just my company.”

I’m sure there’s a reason Council is doing the jitney update before the green ordinance, but regardless of that it does potentially leave Ibarra in the lurch. What happens if the green ordinance doesn’t get passed, for example? It probably won’t matter in the end, but I can’t blame the guy for fretting about it. As for his concern about his company’s growth potential, I must say that classifying RevHouston as a form of pedicab makes sense to me. As long as the green ordinance wouldn’t forbid him from operating, say, a ten-passenger eco-shuttle, I don’t see the problem. Am I missing something?

If it’s not your car, why did you get mileage reimbursements on it?

The Back to Basics PAC has more questions about “Linda Harper-Benz”.

Remember our prior post on the scandal about how State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown was caught driving a brand-new 2010 Mercedes-Benz ME550 Sedan that was given to her by a state contractor, Durable Enterprises Ltd.? We’ve discovered shocking new information on the scandal surrounding Harper-Benz.

Apparently State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown billed the Texas Comptroller for $13,000 in mileage reimbursement funds. Now, this wouldn’t be a problem if the mileage reimbursement funds were used on her privately owned cars. However, she has three cars that were given to her by Durable Enterprises, Ltd., and Texan taxpayers have a right to know whether taxpayer funds were used on these cars that weren’t even legally hers.

This is based on a post by John Coby, who found the records from the Comptroller’s office that documented the reimbursements. Follow the links and see what they found. Back to you, Linda.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 26

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes Lois the corpse flower a restful and well-earned dormant period as it brings you this week’s blog highlights.

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