At an unveiling last month, the Texas Department of Agriculture touted its map of broadband Internet availability as the first step in closing a "digital divide" that denies rural Texans critical services.
But a political divide has opened instead, as critics question the tool's accuracy and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples' relationship with the organization that created it.
Staples' Democratic rival, Hank Gilbert, and a handful of local providers, consumer groups and mapping organizations say the agency tailored the application to fit Connected Nation, the nonprofit selected by the department and the Texas Public Utility Commission to create the map. The Agriculture Department and the company defend the process, while their critics contend that the map will direct federal stimulus money toward major telecommunications companies at the expense of smaller Internet providers.
Last month we wrote about this here. I'm going to bring that excerpt forward for its background, because this is a difficult and tightly-woven scandal to understand.
(Hank) Gilbert lately exposed the incumbent for shady dealings regarding broadband internet access for rural Texans. Here's the press release from Connected Nation and Staples.
Connected Nation is well-connected, all right: to Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T. The company is first in line to collect federal stimulus dollars -- $4 billion -- earmarked for the massive project of determining where broadband access will go in the hinterlands of America. Staples, on behalf of of the state of Texas, has outsourced a $3 million dollar contract to CN despite serious questions about the company's work in other states, questions about the bidding process (Staples got $60,000 from the Texas Farm Bureau, whose former president is listed as a 'national advisor' of CN), and even questions about CN's business model. Read more about that here, and also at the Wall Street Journal. And when Staples' office started getting media attention about his relationship with CN, the Texas Department of Agriculture directed reporters to the Staples re-election campaign, which then regurgitated their previous negative attacks on Gilbert.
The Chron managed to do a drive-by (on what they consider the race for agriculture commissioner to be: an aggressive tit-for-tat). That sadly reflects the continuing decline in in-depth political coverage there. But The Texas Tribune picked up the item over the weekend, noting the smoking gun: that the Texas Agriculture Commission's first and continuing response was to hand all media inquiries over to the Staples 2010 political branch, which then directed reporters to a specifically-designed smear website against Gilbert. There simply would not be this kind of misdirection and obfuscation if there wasn't something rotten hiding.
Again, Texas progressive blogs have been talking about the entire scope of the issue for the past month; besides Burnt Orange's report in the excerpt above, Texas Kaos has been following the story, and Dos Centavos, and Off the Kuff as well.
And the DMN, who together with their Trail Blazers blog is working harder and faster than any other corporate media outlet in Texas this election cycle, finally gets it.
"It's a scandal, a total scandal," said Art Brodsky, communications director of Public Knowledge, a public interest group that follows digital culture. A longtime critic of Connected Nation, Brodsky has tracked the nonprofit since Kentucky officials accused it of overestimating broadband availability several years ago. The agency that grew into Connection Nation started there in 2001.
Brodsky said nondisclosure agreements make it difficult to see who really benefits from the mapping process.
Forget for a moment the beautiful payola scam that is Connected Nation. It's a story all its own, with similar iterations of incompetence and corruption appearing in every state in which they "operate". Let's just focus on what's going here in Texas.
Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples has used various Republican connections interwoven throughout interest groups like the Texas Farm Bureau and the biggest player/vendors in the telecommunications industry to grant -- with essentially only the slightest semblance of competitive bid -- a multi-million dollar contract, and reap the benefits. Not just politically, but financially for himself as well. And then used the power of incumbency in concert with his political machine not to address public concerns, but to viciously attack his electoral rival when questioned about it. In this respect (minus a few zeroes) he's just aping Rick Perry -- the Trans-Texas Corridor, the late Ric Williamson, and Cintra come immediately to mind, but the more recent example would be Merck, Mike Toomey, and the HPV vaccine -- and the gold standard for corruption of this ilk, Dick Cheney (Halliburton, Iraq).
Don't we have enough of this sleaze to mop up as it is without extending the shelf life of a wannabe like Todd Staples?