Thursday, November 02, 2006

Power to the people

About a dozen supporters of striking Houston janitors blocked the intersection of Westheimer and Post Oak, in the Galleria, this afternoon. They sat down in the middle of the road and handcuffed themselves to trash cans in order to call attention to the strike by the recently organized SEIU janitors for better wages and benefits.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

WFAA continues the beatdown on Abbott

Byron Harris of News8 Investigates piles on:

Last week, we revealed Attorney General Greg Abbott is using video shot at taxpayers' expense in his commercials.

Tonight we report that the video is evidence of a sweeping change in the way his communications office is run.

Wearing jackets labeled 'Texas Attorney General,' armed law enforcement officers sweep into an apartment house. The video, shot by an attorney general videographer at taxpayers' expense, now shows up in Abbott's television commercial.

One critic says it blurs public service and self promotion.

“It's disgusting. And that's why I took early retirement. It's just blatant misuse of state funds to promote Greg Abbott's name recognition,” said Bill Barnes, who worked for 18 years in the video departments of four Texas attorney generals, both Republican and Democrat.

He retired after Abbott took office. He says he saw the video department change from supporting the attorney general to promoting him.

“To increase general Abbott’s name recognition, there was nothing more important to the press office than that. That was what they were going to do,” Barnes said.

Salaries of press office staff increased to what amounts to more than $380,000 a year. A videographer was hired at $70,000 a year, just $22,000 less than the attorney general himself made at the time. Videos, such as one depicting busts being made by the attorney general's staff, were produced. Burns says he recognizes the videotape now being used in the attorney general's commercials.

The attorney general also built himself a TV studio. He says the world has changed with the internet and his beefed up operation is just trying to keep up.

Press secretary Jerry Strickland showed us the studio known as "the bat cave," which used to be a storage room. He says the attorney general did spend money for equipment here, but he doesn't know exactly how much. He says the studio produces videos on open government which are distributed to state officials.

The office also produces edited versions of the attorney general's press conferences and legal activities, which are distributed to television stations. We checked with attorney general offices in New York and California. Neither have a department like the one in Texas.

The attorney general's videos are edited for content. How is that not propaganda?

“It is a way for us to convey what people need to know in the state of Texas. We are providing information to the taxpayers and if the taxpayers would like more information we can provide that as well,” Strickland explained.

Strickland says unedited video shot by his office can be obtained by any citizen by filing a public information request. That's where all this material now on the website run by Abbott's political campaign came from. And how the campaign got the video now used in Abbott's commercial. The campaign says it's all totally legal.

The Abbott campaign is wrong. But -- as I asked previously -- who will charge the Attorney General with this felony?

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The Austin American-Statesman finally reports on Greg Abbott's misuse of state resources with an appropriately misleading headline. They manage to get the story right, however (bold emphasis mine throughout):

It looks like a scene from TV's "Cops."

Instead, the arrest video highlighted in a campaign commercial for Attorney General Greg Abbott was shot by a state employee at taxpayer expense. In fact, video of everything from Abbott's news conferences to the latest bust of suspected child predators can be found on his campaign and official state Web sites — all shot by his $70,000-a-year state-paid videographer.

In essence, candidate Abbott filed an open records request to Attorney General Abbott for the videos produced by the state. ...

As legal rationale, (Abbott campaign staffer Daniel) Hodge cited one line from a Texas Ethics Commission advisory opinion: "Any candidate may use publicly available government information for campaign purposes and an inherent advantage of incumbency is knowledge of what kind of government information is available to the public."

But the opinion continued, "The lawful advantages of incumbency do not, however, extend to the use of work time of government employees or other government resources to gather or otherwise prepare information for campaign purposes."

The legal fine line would be intent: Was the video shot to inform the public or further Abbott's political career?

The attorney general's office has a communications department with six employees, including videographer Neftali Gonzalez. It spends more than $500,000 a year informing the public about the office's activities. ...

Wow. Is this sort of thing ... unusual?

Bill Burns, a retired state employee who was a videographer for four attorneys general, including Abbott, said the job changed when Abbott took over four years ago. It became more about promoting Abbott, he said, as opposed to doing the legal, internal work.

"There is nothing more important to the Abbott administration than his name identification," Burns said. "It's all about him."

No, I mean, do other Republican incumbents do this?

Representatives of Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn said Monday that they have not mingled video paid for by taxpayers with their campaign work.

OK. So what exactly is going on here?

"It's stealing the taxpayers' money," said David Van Os, Abbott's Democratic opponent. "Greg Abbott is so sure of his entitlement to public office, he thinks he has a special privilege to steal public equipment and resources to promote himself."

So with the millions of dollars Abbott has raised --and spent on TV -- in contributions from "Swift Boat" Bob Perry and the state's largest corporations, with the apparent violation of the Texas Penal Code regarding abuse of office, this is the article's moneyshot:

He said it's inexplicable why Abbott, who has a $7 million campaign bank account, would rely on state video for his campaigns. ...

Last week, as his commercial aired, Abbott wrote his supporters, complaining about the high cost of campaigning and urging them to donate more.

All-righty then.

Why is Greg Abbott so worried? What is so worrisome about his name recognition as an incumbent that he has to spend millions of his own money -- as well hundreds of thousands of the taxpayers' dollars -- on television commercials showing his armed agents busting into a house and arresting someone? Or surrounding himself with laughing children?

Another question: why isn't Abbott's wheelchair visible in any of his commercials?

And a third question: Have you seen any polling in the election for Attorney General? Considering what a publicity whore he is, do you think that if the polling were favorable to Abbott you would have heard about it in the media by now?

Fund-raising and electoral troubles aside, we're not even close to the end of Abbott's legal woes. From The Lone Star Project:

Judge Blocks AG Abbott's Vote Suppression Scheme

A short while ago, US District Court Judge T. John Ward granted a preliminary injunction stopping Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams from enforcing a Texas Law that makes it a crime to simply mail or posses a sealed ballot. This year, Abbott has aggressively prosecuted at least 13 individuals, most of whom had done nothing more then help senior citizens vote by mail. Virtually all of those prosecuted are minority senior citizens and all are Democrats. Judge Ward's order says:

For the reasons set forth in the court's findings of fact and conclusions of law, the court orders Defendants, Greg Abbott, in his official capacity as the Attorney General for the State of Texas and Roger Williams, in his official capacity as Secretary of State for the State of Texas, their employees, agents, representatives, attorneys, and servants, and all other persons acting in concert, privity, or participation with the defendants, immediately to:

1. cease enforcing, pending a trial on the merits, Tex. Elec. Code § 86.006(f) under circumstances in which a person, other than the voter, has merely possessed the official ballot or official carrier envelope and such possession is with the actual consent of the voter"
(Source: Preliminary Injunction, Willie Ray v Texas)

Read the Preliminary Injunction Here
Read the Findings of Fact Here

Over the past several months, the Lone Star Project has issued a series of investigative reports highlighting Greg Abbott's abuse of the flawed statute. Read the reports here. The Lone Star Project called for legal action against Abbott's efforts and has supported the legal challenge mounted by the six citizen plaintiffs and the Texas Democratic Party.

The Lone Star Project Director Matt Angle said, "Greg Abbott was not only improperly enforcing a flawed statute, but creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear. Abbott has acted in a shameless manor, and Judge Ward's order is welcome protection for voters in Texas."

And from Boyd Richie:

The Texas Democratic Party has won a preliminary injunction stopping Attorney General Greg Abbott and Secretary of State Roger Williams from prosecuting voters who are trying to help seniors exercise their right to vote. Texas Republicans know that they would lose fair and free elections. That’s why they’ve done everything they can to stack the deck … even if it means willfully ignoring the law and abusing the power of their office. The examples of Republican misdeeds are numerous:

· Republicans blatantly broke the law when they pushed through an illegal redistricting plan that disenfranchised thousands of Hispanic and African American voters.

· They broke a long standing state law when they illegally used corporate money to fund state house elections.

· And, most recently, they tried to override the results of a legally held primary by attempting to remove Tom DeLay from the ballot when he decided to quit, instead of facing certain defeat at the ballot box.

It seems clear that the current Attorney General of Texas has created numerous problems for himself through misapplication of several laws, to put it as kindly as possible.

(Strangely, this message from the TDP chairman trumpeting his efforts never once mentions the Democratic candidate for Texas Attorney General. There could be a posting about whatever this means at a later time.)