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Edwards Abstract and Title Company, headquartered in Edinburg, was recently recognized as the 2008 Affiliate of the Year by the Greater McAllen Association of Realtors (GMAR) during its Annual Installation Banquet, held at the McAllen Convention Center. More than 300 of the region’s leading real estate professionals attended the Saturday, November 22 banquet and the installation of the officers who will serve their terms during 2009. Roxanne Rydell-González, the outgoing GMAR president, announced the honor, which is bestowed upon a non-realtor member of the organization in appreciation for outstanding service and commitment to the organization during the past year. “The Greater McAllen Association of Realtors shines year after year because of the incredible volunteers and leadership that give of themselves and their time to face the challenges and tasks necessary to carry this great association forward and service buyers and sellers in the real estate industry,” said Rydell-González. Several members of the Edwards team were on hand at the installation banquet and they were honored to receive the award. Featured, seated, from left: Marilyn De Luna, McAllen branch manager; Mary Arce, Weslaco branch manager; Elva Jackson Garza, vice president/marketing manager and Mary Barrientos, Mission branch manager. Standing, from left: Clarissa Basaldúa, escrow officer; Lydia Gámez, examiner; Dick Henry, 2009 GMAR president; Roxanne Rydell-González, 2008 GMAR president; Vickey Terveen, escrow officer; Clay Sánchez, examiner; Norma Cano, escrow officer; Libby Luis, escrow assistant, and Miriam Lozano, escrow officer.

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Santa Claus is shown passing out one of the 24 bicycles donated to students at Robert E. Lee Elementary during a pre-Christmas event celebrating family literacy. Also present was keynote speaker, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, along with Principal Nelda Gaytán, Eddie Gonzáles, Operations Manager, and Paul Arrendondo, Assistant Manager, of Edinburg’s Academy Sports and Outdoors.

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An American soldier bravely stands at his post during this holiday season, protecting America from the forces of tyranny while bringing closer the dream of freedom to oppressed people throughout the rest of the world. A poem, featured later in this posting, captures the courage and sacrifice of tens of thousands of U.S. military veterans overseas, who have volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way, which ensured a safe Christmas 2008 for millions of Americans here at home.

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Flagship newspaper of Freedom Communications, owner of McAllen Monitor, Valley Morning Star, and Brownsville Herald, agrees to pay as much as $42 million in a settlement with newspaper carriers and carriers’ attorneys over employment lawsuit

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

A lawsuit closely watched by hundreds of thousands of American newspaper delivery professionals, and involving the flagship newspaper of Freedom Newspapers, Inc., owners of the McAllen Monitor, Valley Morning Star, and Brownsville Herald, was recently settled for up to $42 million.

The lawsuit, originally filed on July 7, 2003, is styled as González v. Freedom Communications, Inc., 03CC0756. It involves 5,000 current and former carriers for The Register who worked anytime from July 7, 1999 through June 2000.

The settlement was reached with The Orange County Register, located in Santa Clara, California, which is the premier newspaper in Freedom Communications, Inc.’s media empire.

The legal dispute involved the common practice of the majority of the nation’s newspapers, which classify newspaper delivery workers – also known as carriers – as independent contractors, freeing the publications from providing financial and legal benefits that most American workers take for granted.

Classifying carriers as independent contractors also shields the newspaper industry from paying payroll taxes, unemployment taxes, and providing workers compensation insurance.

According to the Newspaper Association of American, newspapers in the U.S. represent a $55 billion industry.

Daniel J. Callahan, of the Santa Clara-based law firm, Callahan and Blaine, represented 6,000 current and former Orange County Register carriers, against Freedom Communications, Inc.’s premier newspaper.

On Monday, September 30, the issue of whether newspaper carriers should be treated, under California law, as employees of The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, California finally went to trial.

In a statement he released last year, when he filed the lawsuit, Callahan contended that the level of control that the newspaper had over the carriers’ activities means they were employees of the newspaper, not independent contractors.

Dueling press releases

According to a news release on Monday, November 24, from Callahan, said The Register has agreed to pay $36 million in past damages and attorneys’ fees and an estimated $6 million worth of benefits going forward to existing and future carriers.

However, some of those figures are tentative, according to Freedom Communications, Inc. leaders.

In their own news release, also issued on November 24, The Orange County Register said that the newspaper “will pay to the class members not more than $22 million through a claims-made settlement process. The ultimate amount paid will be based on the number of claims submitted and validated through this process.

“No amount has been set for plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees,” newspaper officials added, contending that “it is up to the sound discretion of the trial court to determine the reasonable amount of such fees. Although plaintiffs’ counsel is seeking $12 million in fees, it is by no means certain that the court will award that amount, and it can award less.”

Freedom Communications, Inc., the national media conglomerate which owns the McAllen Monitor, Valley Morning Star, and Brownsville Herald, recently issued the following statement in response to the announcement of a settlement in the class action lawsuit by newspaper carriers:

Settlement “first of its kind”

According to Callahan:

This settlement is the first of its kind in the United States as many newspapers treat their newspaper delivery personnel as independent contractors rather than employees. The key determining factor is whether the company controls the manner and means employed by the carriers to deliver the newspaper. In The Register’s case, The Register gave detailed routes for the carriers to follow, instructions for delivery, and penalties for non-compliance. The Register also trained and supervised the carriers in the performance of their duties.

In the class action lawsuit brought by delivery persons for The Orange County Register newspaper almost five years ago, a settlement was reached in court today. The Register has agreed to pay $36 Million in past damages and attorneys’ fees and an estimated $6 million worth of benefits going forward to existing and future carriers.

The carriers are represented by Daniel J. Callahan of Callahan & Blaine, a Santa Ana,California law firm and Timothy Cohelan of Cohelan & Khoury, a San Diego, California law firm.

This settlement is the first of its kind in the United States as many newspapers treat their newspaper delivery personnel as independent contractors rather than employees. The key determining factor is whether the company controls the manner and means employed by the carriers to deliver the newspaper. In The Register’s case, The Register gave detailed routes for the carriers to follow, instructions for delivery, and penalties for non-compliance. The Register also trained and supervised the carriers in the performance of their duties.

“These are the hallmarks of an employment relationship and The Register engaged in this practice in an apparent attempt to avoid providing benefits otherwise required by California law,” said Callahan.

The trial commenced on September 22, 2008 and settled during the middle of trial after Callahan presented conclusive evidence that The Register exerted dominance and control over every aspect of the delivery system throughout all of its eight warehouses in Orange County. This was made clear in the testimony Callahan elicited during the cross-examination of The Register’s management team.

The case awaits final court approval but both sides believe that it will be granted. In order to achieve this settlement, The Register’s parent, Freedom Communications of Irvine, California, needed to secure the consent of its shareholders and lenders due to the failing or decreasing newspaper subscriptions and advertising revenue caused by subscribers’ move to the Internet media and poor economic conditions.

Callahan states that many newspapers are set up this way and are in direct and knowing violation of the California Labor Code and he intends to pursue other newspapers who engage in the same illegal practice.

Freedom Communications, which owns The Orange County Register also owns over 100 newspapers and television stations. The Hoiles family in 2004 sold approximately 50 percent of its ownership in Freedom Communications for approximately $2 billion to Blackstone Communications Partners and Providence Equity Partners. The Register also delivers other papers such as the New York Times, the OC Post, Investors’ Business Daily, Wall Street Journal and several other local newspapers and tabloids.

Freedom Communications also claims victories

In its November 24 news releases, Freedom Communications, Inc. put its own spin on the lawsuit and its implications:

In the settlement, the parties agree that in the future the carriers will continue to be deemed to be independent contractors, not employees. The Register has maintained throughout the lawsuit that the carriers are independent contractors and that status remains unchanged with this settlement. In addition, The Register retains full and complete flexibility to determine how to deliver its newspapers in the future.

Scott Flanders, CEO of The Register’s parent company, Freedom Communications, said, “I am pleased that the five-year protracted litigation has been resolved through a settlement that is fair to both sides. With this resolution, we bring certainty and finality to this issue, and we can move forward to address other challenges and to strengthen our business.”

The Register also has agreed to make certain modifications to the contract signed by the carriers that support, clarify and enhance the carriers’ status as independent contractors. Plaintiffs’ counsel has referred to these changes as “benefits going forward to existing and future carriers” and has stated that these changes have an “estimated” value of “$6,000,000.” The Register disagrees strongly with that calculation and has approximated the value at a much lower figure.

The trial commenced on September 22, 2008 and was expected to last until perhaps mid-January, 2009. During the trial, the jury heard evidence about the contract signed by each carrier confirming that the carriers are independent contractors, not employees. Todd Theodora, serving as trial counsel for The Register, stated, “There was abundant trial testimony that the carriers have the freedom and flexibility of the type enjoyed only by independent contractors, not employees. The jury heard evidence concerning the carriers’ widespread use of substitutes and helpers to perform all or some of the work covered under their contract.”

There was also much evidence presented concerning the carriers’ ability to deliver competitors’ products, to perform their route unsupervised and in any order they wanted, to take breaks whenever and wherever they wanted, and to determine their own vacation schedule.

The settlement incorporates the terms included in this statement, despite the premature and inaccurate statement released by plaintiffs’ counsel.

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A different kind of Christmas poem to remember and honor American troops fighting for our nation

Submitted by LCDR JEFF GILES, SC, USN

A DIFFERENT KIND OF CHRISTMAS POEM

The embers glowed softly, and in their dim light, I gazed round the room and I cherished the sight.

My wife was asleep, her head on my chest, my daughter beside me, angelic in rest.

Outside the snow fell, a blanket of white, transforming the yard to a winter delight.

The sparkling lights in the tree I believe, completed the magic that was Christmas Eve.

My eyelids were heavy, my breathing was deep, secure and surrounded by love I would sleep.

In perfect contentment, or so it would seem, so I slumbered, perhaps I started to dream.

The sound wasn’t loud, and it wasn’t too near, but I opened my eyes when it tickled my ear.

Perhaps just a cough, I didn’t quite know, then the sure sound of footsteps outside in the snow.

My soul gave a tremble, I struggled to hear, and I crept to the door just to see who was near.

Standing out in the cold and the dark of the night, a lone figure stood, his face weary and tight.

A soldier, I puzzled, some twenty years old, perhaps a Marine, huddled here in the cold.

Alone in the dark, he looked up and smiled, standing watch over me, and my wife and my child.

“What are you doing?” I asked without fear, “Come in this moment, it’s freezing out here!

Put down your pack, brush the snow from your sleeve, you should be at home on a cold Christmas Eve!”

For barely a moment I saw his eyes shift, away from the cold and the snow blown in drifts.

To the window that danced with a warm fire’s light, then he sighed and he said:

“Its really all right, I’m out here by choice. I’m here every night.”

“It’s my duty to stand at the front of the line, that separates you from the darkest of times.

“No one had to ask or beg or implore me, I’m proud to stand here like my fathers before me.

My Gramps died at ‘Pearl on a day in December.’ That’s a Christmas ‘Gram always remembers.

My dad stood his watch in the jungles of ‘Nam’, and now it is my turn and so, here I am.

I’ve not seen my own son in more than a while, but my wife sends me pictures, he’s sure got her smile.”

Then he bent and he carefully pulled from his bag, The red, white, and blue – an American flag.

“I can live through the cold and the being alone, away from my family, my house and my home.

I can stand at my post through the rain and the sleet, I can sleep in a foxhole with little to eat.

I can carry the weight of killing another, or lay down my life with my sister and brother,

Who stand at the front against any and all, to ensure for all time that this flag will not fall.”

“So go back inside,” he said, “harbor no fright, your family is waiting and I’ll be all right.”

“But isn’t there something I can do, at the least, give you money?” I asked, “Or prepare you a feast?

It seems all too little for all that you’ve done, for being away from your wife and your son.”

Then his eye welled a tear that held no regret: “Just tell us you love us, and never forget.

To fight for our rights back at home while we’re gone. To stand your own watch, no matter how long.

For when we come home, either standing or dead, to know you remember we fought and we bled.

Is payment enough, and with that we will trust, that we mattered to you as you mattered to us.”

(Giles is assigned to the 30th Naval Construction Regiment OIC, Logistics Cell One, Al Taqqadum, Iraq.)

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Former Comptroller Sharp, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, businessman Pickens to headline groundbreaking statewide economic summit in Austin

By ANN HATCHITT

Former Texas Comptroller John Sharp will join an impressive group of business and government leaders at the upcoming economic summit, Putting America Back to Work, scheduled for January 15 through 16, 2009 in Austin and hosted by the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC).

Sharp will open the second day of the conference as the breakfast keynote speaker. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will present opening remarks at the economic summit,

Top experts will gather to address critical regional and national economic challenges facing our nation today.

Sharp and Dewhurst will join other leaders in the areas of the economy, energy and manufacturing including:

  • Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples;
  • BP Capital Chairman T. Boone Pickens;
  • TWC Chairman Tom Pauken;
  • Texas Public Utility Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman; and
  • Former Texas Secretary of State Phil Wilson, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs, Luminant.

“The United States is at an economic tipping point,” said TWC Chairman Tom Pauken. “Now is the time for serious, long-term thinking on the major economic issues facing America.”

Following a keynote address by T. Boone Pickens, panel discussions will address Lessening Our Dependence on Foreign Energy, The Texas Economic Model, Rebuilding Our Manufacturing Base, and Challenges of Our Business Tax Structure.

Texas business, economic development and education leaders are invited to attend this important event to share ideas and develop strategies to move Texas forward during these challenging economic times.

To register, visit the TWC Web site at http://www.twc.state.tx.us/events.html#back2work. Seating is limited.

The conference will be held at the Omni Austin Hotel at Southpark, 4140 Governor’s Row. Special conference hotel room rates are available for $85 plus tax before January 5, 2009.

The Texas Workforce Commission is a state agency dedicated to helping Texas employers, workers and communities prosper economically. For details on TWC and the programs it offers in unison with its network of local workforce development boards, call (512) 463-8556 or visit http://www.texasworkforce.org.

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UT program offering Valley children suffering from leukemia access to cutting-edge trials and therapies

By SHEILA HOTCHKIN

A new program at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio seeks to bring more Hispanic children from the Lower Rio Grande Valley into clinical trials for leukemia, helping this under-served population get cutting-edge therapies.

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood or bone marrow.

Funded by a $100,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute, the program will place a “patient navigator” at the Health Science Center’s Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) in Harlingen starting in 2009.

The navigator will make patients’ families and physicians aware of clinical trials and help overcome barriers to participating in them.

Amelie G. Ramírez, Dr.P.H., the study’s principal investigator and director of the Health Science Center’s Institute for Health Promotion Research, anticipates the effort could increase recruitment rates by 20 percent.

The importance of having children from this medically underserved population represented in clinical trials is twofold. First, clinical trials often use cutting-edge therapies, and it’s important that all children have access to them. Also, researchers need to evaluate how these treatments affect different populations.

Hispanic children are at slightly higher risk of developing leukemia than non-Hispanics, and previous research by Ramírez indicates that children in South Texas are at greater risk of developing leukemia than their peers statewide or nationally.

“There is little knowledge about the risk factors for childhood and adolescent leukemia, and participation in clinical trials by disadvantaged populations and groups with higher incidence is critical,” Ramírez said. “The Latino population is being underrepresented in a number of research studies.”

Ramírez was approached about the grant due to her leadership role in a larger National Cancer Institute-funded project called “Redes En Acción: The National Latino Cancer Research Network.” Redes En Acción, which translates to “Networks in Action,” takes a multifaceted approach to combating cancer in the Hispanic population.

The new grant, a one-year project administered through Redes, could be extended if results appear promising. Luis Vélez, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor at the Institute for Health Promotion Research, and Anne-Marie Langevin, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the Health Science Center, also are heavily involved in the project.

Leonel Vela, M.D., M.P.H., regional dean of the RAHC, was pleased by the new collaboration between Ramírez and the 6-year-old campus in Harlingen and hopes it will be just one of many such partnerships in years to come.

“Why not work with researchers from San Antonio and, through their expertise, be able to apply for grants that will have a specific focus in South Texas that we can position here at the RAHC?” Vela said. “The idea is to have this collaboration where we’re able to provide support to researchers from San Antonio. And in return, they serve as mentors who train the next generation of researchers for the RAHC.”

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is the leading research institution in South Texas and one of the major health sciences universities in the world. With an operating budget of $668 million, the Health Science Center is the chief catalyst for the $16.3 billion biosciences and health care sector in San Antonio’s economy.

The Health Science Center has had an estimated $36 billion impact on the region since inception and has expanded to six campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. More than 24,000 graduates (physicians, dentists, nurses, scientists and other health professionals) serve in their fields, including many in Texas. Health Science Center faculty are international leaders in cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, aging, stroke prevention, kidney disease, orthopedics, research imaging, transplant surgery, psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, pain management, genetics, nursing, dentistry and many other fields. For more information, visit http://www.uthscsa.edu.

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Bronc Alert, a new emergency notification system, implemented for UT-Pan American community

By NAYELI AGUILAR

The University of Texas-Pan American recently implemented the Bronc Alert, a new emergency notification system, which enables campus authorities to notify the UTPA community via voice, text or e-mail when an emergency occurs on campus.

Bronc Alert’s main purpose is to keep the UTPA community aware in the event of an emergency and eliminate the loss of life and property. Although UTPA has an outdoor warning system and an indoor warning system, this new emergency messaging system will enable the UTPA community to receive text messages, voice mails or e-mail alerts to their personal accounts or phone numbers.

When an emergency occurs, the alert system will automatically send warning and safety instructions to the person’s electronic device.

“I strongly encourage all of you to join me in signing up for this very important service! This may prove to be the greatest protection for our campus community,” said Dr. Blandina “Bambi” Cárdenas, UTPA president.

Currently only 1,700 people have signed up, mostly staff and faculty, making up only 8-9 percent of the UTPA community.

“The Emergency Response System is only as effective as the number of persons signed up,” said Dr. Richard Costello, director of the Environmental Health and Safety department. “I would certainly hate for something to happen on campus (an emergency event) and that be the impetus for signing up, which is what we have found at some other universities. More importantly, we want to limit the loss of any life or property after an initial event,” Costello added.

Signing up is free and everyone can join. To log in, a person must enter their UTPA ID and password, and complete the information at: http://www.utpa.edu/emergency. The information includes personal e-mail, a cell phone number and a phone number where one wants the alerts to be sent. Campus notifications are for emergencies only and the information provided will only be used for those purposes.

For more information, contact the UTPA Police Department at 956/316-7151. For technical difficulties, contact the IT Helpdesk at 956/381-2020 or visit utpa.edu/emergency

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Hidalgo County, Edinburg Fire Department, others helping Valley become DTV ready for public safety

By CARI LAMBRECHT

Are you DTV ready? If you aren’t, Hidalgo County fire marshals and emergency management officials are waiting in the wings to help.

The Hidalgo County Judge’s Office Emergency Services Division has joined the fire departments of Mission, Edinburg, Raymondville, McAllen and Harlingen for a DTV technical assistance project.

Come February 17, 2009, American broadcasters across the United States will shut off analog broadcasting, remaining only with a digital signal. This will free up bandwith for first responders, as well as allow broadcasters to have greater programming capabilities. But residents without cable, satellite service or a converter box will lose television signals.

“Our stake in this project is that we need all Hidalgo County residents to have access to television, especially when the news stations are getting out critical emergency messages. It’s in our best interest to help our local television stations with the transition, because in the long run, we all rely on quick and accurate information to make informed decisions, especially during hurricanes or other storms,” said Tony Peña, Hidalgo County Fire Marshal and Emergency Management Coordinator.

“Sometimes finding the best solutions means looking outside the box, and working with community leaders to troubleshoot our mutual problems,” said Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas. “Fixing television sets is not going to be listed on a county employee’s job description, but we recognize that doing this helps our residents stay informed. Our mentality is that we will always be here to take on additional tasks that benefit our community. I’m proud of our fire marshals and emergency management staff for taking the initiative to get involved in this program.”

The problem is that some Valley residents, especially the elderly or disabled, will need help installing DTV converter boxes or adjusting antenna reception to make sure they are ready for the conversion.

The Fire Fighter DTV Project aims to help these homes receive digital signals, while at the same time checking smoke alarms and providing fire safety information. Residents must already possess the converter box and antenna – these will not be provided by participating Fire Fighters and Emergency Management personnel.

The program is being publicized via on-air Public Service Announcements on News Channel 5 and other local television stations. People are encouraged to call 2-1-1 if they need help installing a DTV converter box. After 2-1-1 screens the calls and determines if the caller cannot be helped over the phone, the service will forward the call to one of the participating agencies. A fire fighter/fire marshal/emergency management official will go to the home of the individual to troubleshoot the problem.

“We are so pleased that Fire Fighters and Emergency Management officials are willing to help our local residents make the DTV switch“ said John Kittleman, General Manager of KRGV News Channel 5 in Weslaco. “With digital television, there are more free, over the air channels than ever before. And the picture quality and the sound is excellent. But we have over 100,000 homes that have to make the switch to digital with less than two months remaining. So as a community, we need all the help we can get. We encourage other cities and county representatives to contact the station to join the program. It is critical that every home in the Valley is prepared to receive emergency messages from our local television stations.”

For detailed information on the DTV transition, visit News Channel 5’s web site at:

http://www.krgv.com/content/digitaltv/default.aspx

For more information, visit http://www.co.hidalgo.tx.us

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UT-Pan American Alumni Association organizing February 21 book sale to raise scholarship funds

Alumni of the University of Texas-Pan American have probably developed a greater appreciation for books during their time at the university. And most probably have stacks of books in their closets that they have read several times. Instead of constantly leaping over those stacks or throwing them out, hold on to them for a little while longer because the UTPA Alumni Association will be holding a region-wide used book sale on Saturday, February 21, 2009, in conjunction with the annual Homecoming events.

Currently, a steering committee is being formed to coordinate the entire event.

“This is going to be a big event and we need a lot of volunteers to get involved,” Arnoldo Mata (B.A. ’80) said. “We need volunteers who can help us promote the event and get the word out. We will also need volunteers to help collect and sort books. Then, we will also need them during the sale. You don’t have to be an Alumni Association member or even an alumni to get involved.”

“We would like to form a few committees to help us. We would like to get a couple in the Upper Valley (McAllen, Edinburg, Mission, Pharr) and at least one in the Mid-Valley (Donna, Weslaco, Mercedes) and one in the Cameron County area. So, I really would like to ask for volunteers from those areas,” Mata said.

“This is going to be a fund-raising and community service event,” Mata added. “Many of our alumni have wanted to get involved in some community service events. Through this sale, we want to promote literacy, especially in the area of children’s books. Instead of having these books thrown in the trash, we want to make affordable books more accessible to the public.”

“This will also give our alumni members a chance to get together for some fun and help the community,” said Debby Grant, UTPA director of Alumni Relations. “Anyone wishing to help out can contact us. We will be working with community organizations across the Valley and with area schools to promote the event.”

According to Mata, books of all types will be welcomed. “We will accept fiction and non-fiction in all categories. Children’s books, current fiction, bestsellers and cookbooks are always in high demand at used book sales.”

According to Grant, the volunteers and those wishing to donate books may contact the Alumni Relations Office at 956/381-2500. Arnoldo Mata can be reached at amataz@utpa.edu. Funds from the used book sale will be used for scholarships and other programs to benefit students at UTPA.

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UT-San Antonio receives approval from regents to launch $84 million program for college football

By MARIANNE BcBRIDE LEWIS

The University of Texas System Board of Regents on Thursday, December 18, approved UTSA’s Athletic Initiative Business Plan granting the university permission to expand athletics and add a football program

The plan calls for UTSA to develop an $84 million competitive athletic complex over the next several years and add an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS / formerly Division I-AA) football program with the intent to advance the athletics department’s existing 16 intercollegiate sports programs plus football to an NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS / formerly Division I-A) conference.

The Athletic Initiative directly supports the University’s academic mission as outlined in its strategic plan, A Shared Vision UTSA 2016.

“Athletics at UTSA has been the subject of much discussion for many months,” said UTSA President Ricardo Romo. “We are grateful to the Board of Regents for their support today to enhance our entire sports program and bring UTSA football to San Antonio” said Romo.

“Additionally, UTSA would not be here today without the support of the leadership and citizens of San Antonio and Bexar County who approved $22 million in funding towards building the new Athletic Complex.”

UTSA will fund the Athletic Initiative through student fees, corporate and private support and other revenue streams that do not draw from the institutional academic budget. In September 2007, UTSA students overwhelmingly supported a referendum to expand the athletics program and double the Athletic Fee over the next five to seven years from $10/semester credit hour up to $20/semester hour, capped at 12 semester credit hours.

The university’s intent behind the expansion of the sports program and adding football is to engage current students at new levels by providing them an enhanced and more complete university experience and draw former students and the San Antonio community closer to the University and its continued development towards national research university status.

FAQ: UTSA football program

Q: Now that football has been approved, what are next steps?

A: Next Steps are:

  • Launch a $15 million fundraising campaign
  • Begin looking for a head coach
  • After a head coach is hired, look for assistant coaches and recruit players
  • Build Phase One of the Athletic Complex
  • Continue UTSA’s commitment to research and academics and to be the next great Texas University

Q: What is the status of the search for a football coach?

A: The search can begin now.

Q: What is the ‘best case’ football timeline?

A: Timeline:

2009: Launch $15 million fundraising campaign

2009: Hire a Head Coach and two assistant coaches

2010: Hire additional staff, sign first recruiting class in February and begin practicing with red-shirted inaugural team in August.

2011: Expand team and play independent football schedule

2012: Play Southland Conference football schedule

Q: Where will the football team practice?

A: Until money is raised to construct football fields at the Athletics Complex, the team will practice either on the 1604 Campus or on surrounding high school facilities.

Q: Where will the football team play home games?

A: UTSA has a tentative agreement with the City of San Antonio to use the Alamodome for home games.

Q: When built, where will the $84 million Athletics Complex be located?

A: Loop 1604 & Hausman Road, on a 125-acre parcel one mile southwest of the UTSA 1604 Campus

Q: When will construction begin on the Athletic Complex?

2010: Goal is to begin construction in February 2010

2011: Completion of Phase One in October 2011

Q: What is included in Phase One of the Athletic Complex?

A: Phase One will include NCAA Division I quality facilities for soccer and track, roadway, surface parking and other related infrastructure. After that, depending on successful fundraising, we will add practice football fields.

Q: How is all of this going to be paid for?

A: The Athletic Complex will be paid with $22 million in funding approved by City and County Voters and the remaining funds will be sought through donations, sponsorships and partnerships. The cost to add football and advance the existing intercollegiate sports programs, will be paid in part from the increased student athletic fees. However, we will need to raise $15 million in donations and sponsorships and investigate the availability of other revenue streams that do not draw from the institutional academic budget.

Q: Will the football program include a marching band and cheerleading squad?

A: UTSA already sponsors a pep band and spirit program, which consists of a cheerleading squad and dance team. With the addition of football, we hope to expand these programs but it will involve additional fundraising.

Q: How will football affect UTSA’s commitment to become a national research?

A: UTSA has long been a university of first choice and provides access to excellence for more than 28,400 graduate and undergraduate students. Football will not change this. UTSA is still on target to become a national research university. That means an increase in the number of academic programs, more contributions to the economic success of San Antonio and the region and an enhanced student life. Now we simply add a championship-driven Division I football program to the list.

Q: Where can I get more detailed information on the Athletics Initiative Business Plan?

A: A full copy of the business plan and other pertinent information can be found online at http://www.goutsa.com

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Former Border Patrol agent Reynaldo Zuñiga, 34, of Harlingen, sentenced in drug smuggling conspiracy

Former Border Patrol (BP) agent Reynaldo Zuñiga, 34, has been sentenced to 87 months in federal prison for his role in a cocaine smuggling conspiracy, acting United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced on Monday, December 22. Zuñiga and two others were sentenced on December 22 by United States District Court Judge Ricardo Hinojosa in McAllen.

Zuñiga, of Harlingen, was arrested and charged by criminal complaint on June 6, 2008, for conspiring to distribute cocaine in the U.S. along with two civilian co-conspirators, Luis Alfredo Cruz, 29, and José Luis Arteaga, 25, both from Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico. On that date, surveillance by law enforcement of Zuñiga, Cruz and Arteaga revealed an illegal smuggling venture crossing the Rio Grande River west of the Hidalgo Port of Entry.

Following the arrest, Arteaga provided a statement outlining the smuggling scheme. He stated that a friend named Ramón requested he smuggle a backpack containing cocaine across the Rio Grande to which he agreed for a fee of $2000 in cash. He further stated he met a BP agent named Rey along the banks of the Rio Grande and that Rey drove him to a Whataburger in Hidalgo. Arteaga said he then contacted Cruz, who was to receive $400 to drive Arteaga to Pharr.

During an interview, Zuñiga stated he received $1,200, which was found in his shirt pocket, to transport an illegal alien from the Rio Grande River to Hidalgo. Cruz admitted he received $400 to transport Arteaga to Pharr though he was unsure of the contents of the backpack. However, he admitted that he thought it probably contained drugs.

Agents recovered 11 bricks of suspected cocaine, of which at least one kilogram tested positive for cocaine.

All three defendants entered pleas of guilty to the indictment on September 3, 2008, before Hinojosa in McAllen.

The defendants were given an opportunity to make a statement to the court during the sentencing hearing and each apologized for their conduct. Zuñiga received 87 months in the Bureau of Prisons, while Cruz and Arteaga received 18 and 46 months, respectively. The three will also serve three-year-terms of supervised release following completion of their sentences and will each pay a $100 special assessment.

The prosecution is the result of a continuing investigation conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), ICE Office of Professional Responsibility and the Department of Homeland Security – Office of Inspector General with the full cooperation of the United States Border Patrol. Assistant United States Attorney James McAlister prosecuted the case.

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Valley, coastal courts land on “Watch List” for uneven justice, according to Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse

By JESSICA DAMERON

Civil courts in the Rio Grande Valley and the Texas Gulf Coast – long considered “judicial Hellholes” – are inching out of infamy as the nation’s worst judicial jurisdictions with a slight improvement to “Watch List” status, according to an annual report released by the American Tort Reform Foundation (ATRF). The move to “Watch List” was made with “extreme caution,” according to the report because of “historic unpredictability of decisions in the Rio Grande Valley and the Gulf Coast could easily result in backsliding.”

“Indeed Texas has made great strides to curb rogue jurisdictions where jackpot justice is commonplace,” said Bill Summers, president and founder of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse of the Rio Grande Valley. “However, continued efforts by some personal injury lawyers to undo progress make our continued vigilance more important than ever. Rolling back civil justice reforms will land us back on the hellhole list in a hurry.”

The report, released on Tuesday, December 16, indicates improvements to the Texas litigation climate have been spurred by comprehensive legislative reforms and appellate courts that have reined in lower court decisions that fly in the face of evidence and/or yield excessive awards.

However, trouble brews elsewhere in Texas where several developments could spawn future judicial Hellholes. Although the state’s medical liability reforms are benefiting Texans statewide, the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear a case to settle the constitutionality of the medical liability limits. According to the report, “this puts the reforms in a precarious and uncertain position, which could quickly reverse many of the hard-fought gains should a lower, plaintiff-biased court declare them unconstitutional.”

Excessive awards and outrageous attorneys’ fees continue to plague parts of Texas. A record $688 million from the Enron settlement went into lawyers’ pockets, according to the report. A single law firm is poised to collect about $400 million while an incarcerated class action kingpin is slated to pocket $50 million for his early role in the case.

“Justice is intended to serve the truly injured, not line the pockets of the lawyers,” said Chip Hough, a board member of Bay Area Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. “Clearly, the Texas legal landscape is a long way from genuine balance.”

The now infamous quote from personal injury lawyer Dickie Scruggs sums up the personal injury lawyer view of some Texas jurisdictions where “cases are not won in the courtroom. They’re won on the back roads long before the case goes to trial. Any lawyer fresh out of law school can walk in there and win the case, so it doesn’t matter what the evidence or law is.”

“Personal injury lawyers are not through with Texas,” said Summers. “Even now, as the climate improves, some are looking for loopholes, inventing new ways to sue, and generally making a mockery of our communities. Our steadfast intolerance to peddlers of lawsuit abuse is the only way to protect the proud landscape of Texas.”

••••••

Attorney General Abbott, Sen. Estes propose bill to protect Texans from foreclosure rescue scams

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, recently announced a legislative initiative that will help protect Texas homeowners from foreclosure rescue scams. If enacted, the proposal would enhance the Attorney General’s enforcement authority, provide new protections for homeowners, and place new restrictions on foreclosure prevention consultants.

“At a time when regulators, policy makers and stakeholders are working to help struggling families, unscrupulous operators are scheming to profiteer at homeowners’ expense,” Abbott said. “Too many scam artists attempt to target homeowners with large fees and the false promise that they could help Texans avoid foreclosure on their homes. The legislation that Sen. Estes and I encourage the Legislature to pass would give the Office of the Attorney General increased authority to crack down on these unlawful foreclosure rescue scams.”

The Foreclosure Rescue Fraud Prevention Act would require foreclosure prevention consultants to provide customers a written, plain language contract memorializing their services agreement. It would also require that these consultants obtain their customers’ written consent, in the form of a signature, before beginning any services or accepting any fees. An additional requirement mandates a written disclosure statement instructing homeowners to contact an attorney or a housing counselor before signing mortgage rescue agreements.

“While most homeowners may never feel the threat of home foreclosure, it is an issue that can impact all of us when it strikes our neighbors, friends, and family,” Estes said. “This issue has impacted constituents in my district and across the state, we are here today to send a very clear signal that these actions by unscrupulous mortgage foreclosure consultants will not be tolerated.”

The written agreements mandated by the proposed law would apply to both foreclosure prevention consulting and equity purchase contracts. Both types of agreements would have to include plain language cancellation procedures.

In addition to new disclosure requirements, the proposal would place new limits on equity purchase agreements. To protect Texans’ interest in their homes, the law would require equity purchase agreement buyers to pay at least 82 percent of the property’s fair market value.

The Foreclosure Rescue Fraud Prevention Act would give the Attorney General’s Office expanded authority to crack down on mortgage rescue fraud scams under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

Foreclosure rescue scams prey upon people who have fallen behind on their mortgages and face foreclosure. Using notices that mortgage lenders publish before foreclosing on homes, the scam identifies potential victims who are promised help avoiding foreclosure. These scams are often marketed as “foreclosure consultants” or “mortgage consultants,” and their businesses as a “foreclosure service” or “foreclosure rescue agency.” But, instead of providing the services promised, the scams take homeowners’ money, ruin their credit record, and wipe out the hard-earned equity victims built up in their homes.

When announcing the legislative proposal, Abbott revealed the results of a recent enforcement action against a mortgage rescue fraud scheme.

Arizona-based Abell Mediation, Inc., and its president and vice-president, Elizabeth Cory and Michael Cory, respectively, were charged with fraudulently claiming that their company could save homeowners from imminent foreclosure. Homeowners who were delinquent on mortgage payments responded to the defendants’ solicitation cards and Web site. The defendants’ cards claimed that “Abell Mediation, Inc. has saved over 7,000 homes from foreclosure,” boasted about a “staff of highly trained loss mitigation specialists” with established relationships with mortgage lenders and banks nationwide and promised to “achieve results that no one else can.”

Under an agreement secured by the Attorney General, the defendants are permanently enjoined from conducting a foreclosure mitigation business in the future. The defendant is also required to pay a total of $1.55 million in fines, restitution and attorneys’ fees.

Texas homeowners who believe they have been targeted by a mortgage-related scam should contact the Office of the Attorney General at (800) 252-8011 or file a complaint online at http://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov.

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Federal Reserve approves rules that will better protect credit card users from certain interest fees

The Federal Reserve Board on Thursday, December 18, approved final rules that would better protect credit card users by prohibiting certain unfair acts or practices and improving the disclosures consumers receive in connection with credit card accounts and other revolving credit plans.

The final rules prohibiting certain credit card practices were adopted under the Federal Trade Commission Act, and are being issued concurrently with substantially similar final rules by the Office of Thrift Supervision and the National Credit Union Administration. Among other things, the rules will:

  • Protect consumers from unexpected interest charges, including increases in the rate during the first year after account opening and increases in the rate charged on pre-existing credit card balances;
  • Forbid banks from imposing interest charges using the “two-cycle” billing method;
  • Require that consumers receive a reasonable amount of time to make their credit card payments;
  • Prohibit the use of payment allocation methods that unfairly maximize interest charges; and
  • Address subprime credit cards by limiting the fees that reduce the amount of available credit.

In finalizing the rules on unfair credit card practices, the board carefully considered information obtained through consumer testing and more than 60,000 comment letters received during the comment period.

“The revised rules represent the most comprehensive and sweeping reforms ever adopted by the board for credit card accounts,” said Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. “These protections will allow consumers to access credit on terms that are fair and more easily understood.”

The board is also adopting final rules to revise the disclosures consumers receive in connection with credit card accounts and other revolving credit plans to ensure that information is provided in a timely manner and in a form that is readily understandable.

These rules amend Regulation Z (Truth in Lending) and conclude a comprehensive review of the open-end credit rules.

The final rules under Regulation Z require changes to the format, timing, and content requirements for credit card applications and solicitations and for the disclosures that consumers receive throughout the life of an open-end account. Many of the changes reflect the result of consumer testing conducted on behalf of the board during its review.

“Our intent is to increase transparency and fairness in how credit card and deposit accounts operate, thereby enhancing competition and empowering consumers to better manage their accounts and avoid unnecessary costs,” said Federal Reserve Governor Randall S. Kroszner. “The rules represent a significant step forward in consumer protection. By ensuring fairness and making credit terms easier to understand, these safeguards should allow more consumers to benefit from using credit.”

Both of the final rules addressing credit card accounts take effect on July 1, 2010.

The board is separately proposing rules to protect consumers that use overdraft services offered by their bank. The rule solicits public comment on proposed amendments to Regulation E (Electronic Fund Transfers) intended to provide consumers a choice regarding their institution’s payment of overdrafts for automated teller machine withdrawals and one-time debit card transactions. The Board is proposing two alternative approaches to providing consumer choice, including a proposed requirement that would require institutions to obtain consumers’ affirmative consent (or opt-in) before any overdraft fees or charges may be imposed on consumers’ accounts. The comment period for the Regulation E proposal ends 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

In a related move, the board is adopting final amendments to Regulation DD (Truth in Savings) to address depository institutions’ disclosure practices related to overdraft services. The effective date for the final rules adopted under Regulation DD is January 1, 2010.

••••••

Tribune Company latest media conglomerate seeking bankruptcy protections, files for Chapter 11

Tribune Company on Monday, December 8, announced that it is voluntarily restructuring its debt obligations under the protection of Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware. The company will continue to operate its media businesses during the restructuring, including publishing its newspapers and running its television stations and interactive properties without interruption, and has sufficient cash to do so.

Tribune is America’s largest employee-owned media company, operating businesses in publishing, interactive and broadcasting

The Chicago Cubs franchise, including Wrigley Field, is not included in the Chapter 11 filing. Efforts to monetize the Cubs and its related assets will continue.

“Over the last year, we have made significant progress internally on transitioning Tribune into an entrepreneurial company that pursues innovation and stronger ways of serving our customers,” said Sam Zell, chairman and CEO of Tribune. “Unfortunately, at the same time, factors beyond our control have created a perfect storm — a precipitous decline in revenue and a tough economy coupled with a credit crisis that makes it extremely difficult to support our debt.

“We believe that this restructuring will bring the level of our debt in line with current economic realities, and will take pressure off our operations, so we can continue to work toward our vision of creating a sustainable, cutting-edge media company that is valued by our readers, viewers, and advertisers, and plays a vital role in the communities we serve. This restructuring focuses on our debt, not on our operations.”

While the company has sufficient cash to continue operations, to supplement its cash availability in the event of even more significant declines in its operating results, the company has negotiated an agreement with Barclays to maintain post-filing its existing securitization facility. Barclays has also agreed to provide a letter of credit facility.

Since going private last year, Tribune has re-paid approximately $1 billion of its senior credit facility. During this time, the company has been rewriting the business model for its media assets with the goal of building a sustainable, innovative, competitive company that provides relevant products for its customers and communities.

For further information on Tribune Company’s Chapter 11 filing, please visit Tribune.com or http://chapter11.epiqsystems.com/tribune, or call 888-287-7568. The company will provide updates regarding ongoing operations plans as they become available.

In publishing, Tribune’s leading daily newspapers include the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, Sun-Sentinel (South Florida), Orlando Sentinel, Hartford Courant, Morning Call and Daily Press. The Company’s broadcasting group operates 23 television stations, WGN America on national cable, Chicago’s WGN-AM and the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Popular news and information websites complement Tribune’s print and broadcast properties and extend the Company’s nationwide audience.

••••••

Hispanic journalists support open media policies, Internet access proposed by Obama Administration

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists has signed on with a movement spearheaded by the nonprofit Free Press urging President-Elect Obama and the new Administration to fulfill its promises of an open media system where the Internet is open to all, connectivity is available to all and where media ownership and coverage is diverse and open to all.

Obama’s campaign promises include net neutrality, universal broadband and media ownership reform.

The letter sent to the President-elect follows:

December 18, 2008

President-elect Obama:

We congratulate you for putting crucial media and technology issues in the public spotlight. Not only did your campaign embrace new technology and innovative media, you have embraced these values in your policy agenda. Your commitments and detailed plan represent a fundamental shift toward communications policy in the public interest. We happily offer our support and service in pursuit of our common goals.

We look forward to working with the leaders you will appoint to the White House, such as the Chief Technology Officer, the positions on the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, Corporation for Public Broadcasting and in the Commerce, Education, Justice and Agriculture Departments. We urge you to select strong proponents of the public interest who will embrace and enact the policy proposals you made on the campaign trail to shape the future of the media, the Internet, the economy – and our democracy.

Together, we have a unique opportunity to break with the past, lift the stranglehold industry lobbyists have had on communications policy, and put the public’s priorities first. In your own words, you pledged to protect an open Internet:

  • To “take a backseat to no one in my commitment to Net Neutrality” and “protect the Internet’s traditional openness to innovation and creativity and ensure that it remains a platform for free speech and innovation that will benefit consumers and our democracy.”
  • Promote universal, affordable broadband to see that “in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online” by bringing “true broadband to every community in America.”
  • Diversify Media Ownership to create “the diverse media environment that federal law requires and the country deserves.”
  • Renew Public Media: To foster “the next generation of public media,” and “support the transition of existing public broadcasting entities and help renew their founding vision in the digital world.”
  • Spur Economic Growth to “strengthen America’s competitiveness in the world” and leverage technology “to grow the economy, create jobs, and solve our country’s most pressing problems.”
  • Ensure Open Government to reverse “policies that favor the few against the public interest,” close” the revolving door between government and industry,” and achieve “a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America’s citizens.”

The more than one hundred people who signed onto this letter — and the millions more we represent in our organizations, workplaces and communities – join your call to create a more vibrant and diverse media system and to deliver the benefits of the open Internet and new technology to all Americans.

Sincerely,

(Organizations):

  • Free Press
  • ACLU
  • Action Coalition for Media Education
  • Alliance for Community Media
  • American Federation of Musicians American Library Association
  • Benton Foundation
  • Brave New Foundation
  • BuildTheEcho.net
  • Campus Progress
  • CeaseSPIN.org
  • Center for American Progress
  • Center for Creative Voices in Media
  • Center for Digital Democracy
  • Center for Economic and Policy Research Center for New Words Change.org Change Congress Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP)
  • Chicago Media Action
  • ColorofChange.org
  • Common Cause
  • Consumer Federation of America
  • Consumers Union
  • CTC VISTA Project
  • Democracy for America
  • Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
  • Entertainment Consumers Association
  • Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
  • Feminist Majority
  • Future of Music Coalition
  • Green for All
  • GreenChange.org
  • Harry Potter Alliance
  • Hip Hop Caucus
  • Hip Hop Congress
  • IL PIRG
  • In These Times
  • League of Young Voters
  • Manhattan Neighborhood Network
  • Maui Community Television
  • Media Access Project
  • Media Alliance
  • Media Equity Collaborative
  • Media Matters for America
  • Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund (MALDEF)
  • Mid-Atlantic Community Papers Association
  • Minnesota Immigrant Network
  • Mother Jones
  • MoveOn.org
  • National Association of Black Journalists
  • National Association of Hispanic Journalists
  • National Federation of Community Broadcasters
  • National Hispanic Media Coalition
  • National Organization for Women (NOW)
  • Native Public Media
  • Netroots Nation
  • New America Foundation
  • New Moon Girl Media One/Northwest
  • Participatory Culture Foundation
  • Participatory Politics Foundation
  • People’s Production House
  • Public Knowledge
  • R.E.A.C.
  • Hip Hop Coalition for Media Justice
  • Reclaim The Media
  • RH Reality Check
  • Service Employees International Union (SEIU)
  • Sunlight Foundation
  • Tech President
  • United Church of Christ, Office of Communication, Inc.
  • UNITY: Journalists of Color
  • U.S. PIRG
  • We The People Media
  • WhiteHouse2.org
  • Women In Media & News (WIMN)
  • Women’s Information Network (WIN)
  • Women’s Media Center
  • Writer’s Guild of America, East
  • The Young Turks
  • YouthNOISE

(Individuals)

  • Josh Silver, Free Press
  • John Aravosis, Americablog
  • Joe Sudbay, Americablog
  • Craig Klein, Bonerama
  • Robert Greenwald, Brave New Films
  • Jeff Chang, CantStopWontStop.com
  • Sean Gibbons, Center for American Progress
  • John Halpin, Center for American Progress
  • Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research
  • Tim Wu, Columbia University
  • David Colarusso, CommunityCOUNTS.com
  • Craig Newmark, Craigslist
  • Markos Moulitsas, DailyKos
  • David Sirota, Davidsirota.com
  • Deanna Zandt, Deannazandt.com
  • Shireen Mitchell, Digital Sisters/Sistas Inc.
  • Duncan “Atrios” Black, Eschaton
  • Jane Hamsher, FireDogLake
  • Christy Hardin Smith, FireDogLake
  • Jonny 5, Flobots
  • Van Jones, Green For All
  • Davey D, Hard Knock Radio
  • Heather “Digby” Parton, Hullabaloo
  • Baratunde Thurston, Jack and Jill Politics
  • Mieka Pauley, Mieka.com
  • Jay Harris, Mother Jones
  • Eli Pariser, MoveOn.org
  • Kathy Spillar, Ms. Magazine and Feminist Majority
  • Jim James, My Morning Jacket
  • Jerome Armstrong, MyDD
  • Josh Orton, MyDD
  • Jonathan Singer, MyDD
  • Kim Gandy, National Organization for Women
  • Sascha Meinrath, New America Foundation
  • Rosa Clemente, 2008 Green Party VP Candidate
  • Zack Exley, New Organizing Institute
  • Judith Freeman, New Organizing Institute
  • Chris Bowers, OpenLeft.com
  • Matt Stoller, OpenLeft.com
  • Stone Gossard, Pearl Jam
  • Micah L. Sifry, Personal Democracy Forum
  • Mike Mills, R.E.M.
  • Glenn Greenwald, Salon.com
  • Josh Nelson, TheSeminal.com
  • Barbara van Schewick, Stanford University
  • Lawrence Lessig, Stanford University
  • Garlin Gilchrist II, The SuperSpade
  • Robert W. McChesney, University of Illinois
  • Waterflow, The Wageble Band
  • Tracy Russo, Women in Politics and Media
  • Carol Jenkins, Women’s Media Center
  • Michael Winship, Writer’s Guild of America, East
  • Cenk Uygur, The Young Turks

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