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Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, featured second from left, on Wednesday, March 4, presented legislation that would create a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley.  His measure, along with similar, but separate plans by Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, and Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, were considered by the House Committee on Higher Education. Peña’s measure, House Bill 110, would transform the Regional Academic Health Center, located in Edinburg and Harlingen, into a stand-alone, four-year medical school and health science center. The key legislative panel, which has no Valley lawmakers, heard testimony in support of the medical school idea, but no vote was taken. Featured during a break during the panel hearing to review the legislation are, from left: Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chair of the House Higher Education Committee; Peña; Martínez; and Lucio, III. See story later in this posting. 

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Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, presents a Texas flag to Edinburg native Captain Leonel A. Peña after honoring him on Tuesday, March 3, with a Senate resolution on the Senate floor at the Texas Capitol. Peña is the youngest person and first and only Hispanic to become conductor for the United States Army Band program. Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, not featured in this portrait, also was a co-author of the Senate resolution. See story later in this posting. 

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More than 200 educators from across the Rio Grande Valley, Texas and the nation gathered in early March to discuss methods to accelerate students through the education pipeline and into the workforce. Hosted by South Texas College, 2009 marks the fourth year for the event. During the day-long summit, attendees looked at student access and success through a variety of lenses, including issues related to the Latino student population, issues faced by migrant and impoverished students, and how technology and the global marketplace have changed the education pipeline. Featured, from left: Pricilla Hinojosa, MISD project manager for STC; STC President Shirley A. Reed; and Jessica Ray Rincones, a student in STC’s MCCTI Program with her parents Nancy and Ruben Rincones. See story later in this posting. 

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An intriguing list of presenters, events and activities will delight the community – young and old – at the third annual Festival of International Books and Arts (FESTIBA) scheduled for March 22-28 at The University of Texas-Pan American. FESTIBA is a weeklong celebration of the arts and humanities and promotes literacy and cultural awareness by providing students and the Rio Grande Valley community interactive, hands-on opportunities to experience books, theatre, storytelling, music, art, dance, and performance competitions. Participants in a February 20 press conference to announce FESTIBA 2009 activities were, from left: Dr. Peter Dabrowski, associate director, UTPA Department of Music and Dance; Laura Hinojosa, Hidalgo County Clerk and president of the South Texas Literacy Coalition; Stephen Leach, director of Government Relations and Community Outreach, Reading is Fundamental; Dr. Dahlia Guerra, UTPA dean of the College of Arts and Humanities and FESTIBA coordinator; and Dr. Steven Schneider, UTPA English professor, director of New Programs and Special Projects in the College of Arts and Humanities and Big Read project director. 

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Edinburg 2008 construction drops $45 million from 2007, with new homes down by more than 50 percent

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

Edinburg’s booming construction economy was evidently not immune from the national woes that have hit the rest of the nation’s housing markets since last year, as the city recorded a significant drop in total construction activities between 2008 and 2007. 

For all of 2008, the three-time All-America City reported $127.5 million in total construction activities, compared with $172.5 million in 2007, according to figures compiled by the city’s Code Enforcement Department. 

The construction figures include the value of everything from installing plumbing to building the structures, but not the price of the lots. 

Also, the city figures do not include the value of any construction work being conducted at the University of Texas-Pan American. 

In most major categories, Edinburg saw decreases in construction figures, especially in the number and total value of single-family homes and multi-family residences built in 2008 as compared with 2007. 

In 2008, building permits were issued for construction of 241 single-family homes in Edinburg, compared with 524 single-family homes in 2007. 

In general, a single-family home is a detached home, with one owner, typically consisting of a front yard, backyard, driveway and garage.  

The total value of new home construction in 2008 – not including the price of the lot – was $23.7 million, compared with $49.2 million in 2007. 

Multi-family residences – duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and apartments — showed an even worse performance in 2008.  Last year, building permits were issued for construction of new multi-family residences valued at $1.2 million, compared with almost $18.5 million in 2007. 

Those figures represent only 12 multi-family homes built in 2008, compared with 115 multi-family homes built in 2007. 

Commercial construction, however, remained a bright spot for Edinburg. 

Despite the lackluster home construction figures and the national economic recession, the value of commercial facilities built in Edinburg last year almost kept pace with the level set in 2007. 

In 2008, new commercial construction reached almost $61 million, compared with almost $64 million in 2007. 

Another bright spot showed that alterations and repairs made on non-taxable structures, such as government buildings and schools, in 2008 were almost double the amount reached in 2007. Last year, alterations and repairs to non-taxable structures totaled almost $22 million, compared with almost $12.6 million in 2007. 

Alterations and repairs to residential structures in 2008 were also about the same as in 2007. Last year, building permits were issued for alterations and repairs to residential structures valued at more than $4.2 million, compared with almost $4.4 million in 2007. 

What are building permits? 

The values of the construction are listed in building permits issued by the city’s Code Enforcement Division. 

Building permits are permits taken out in order to allow excavation and to protect public safety. 

Building permits represent the estimated cost of construction, not the selling price. 

The building permits do not include the price of the lot. 

A start in construction is defined as the beginning of excavation of the foundation for the building. 

A building permit is permission issued by a city’s planning department to oversee and approve any changes to structures. 

They are documents designed to guarantee that any construction work, from remodeling to demolition to building a new home or business facility, meets the city’s building codes. 

Most valuable projects 

From October through December 2008, the nine most valuable construction projects authorized by the city represented investments from between $450,000 and almost $4 million. 

Topping that list was the Edinburg school district, which in October received a building permit for $3.8 million of remodeling/repairs to its Administration Building, located at 411 North 8th Avenue. 

Placing second, also in October, was a commercial building, valued at $1,300,000, being developed by Jim Adian. That facility is located at 5934 North Highway 281 in the Texas Truck and Parts Subdivision. 

The English Seventh Day Adventist Church, located at 602 W. Wisconsin, in October was issued a building permit for $1 million in additions/repairs of its building. 

In December, David Tanner was issued a building permit for new construction of a facility, valued at $950,000, located at 2121 W. Trenton Road in the Trenton Crossroads Plaza Subdivision. 

In November, Bert Ogden Motors was issued a building permit for new construction, valued at $700,000, for a commercial facility located at 4208 N. Expressway 281 in the RC Vacor Subdivision 

The Edinburg school district in October received two building permits, totaling $554,000, for additions/repairs of the ECISD Bus Barn, located at 1101 E. Schunior. 

Magic Valley Electric Cooperative, located at 2910 S. McColl Road in the Calpine Subdivision, in November received a building permit for commercial repairs/remodeling valued at $500,000. 

Rolando Gómez in November received a building permit for the most valuable single-family residence authorized for construction during the last three months of 2008. The home, located at 3412 Monserat Drive in the Spanish Oaks Subdivision, was valued at $495,000. In November, Flores Builders began building a commercial facility, valued at $450,00, located at 3224 N. Highway 281 in the Tex Mex Survey Subdivision. 

TLC Properties rounded out the top nine most valuable projects authorized during the final quarter of 2008. 

In October, TLC Properties received a building permit for commercial additions/repairs, also valued at $320,000, for its facility located at 5014 S. Highway 281 in the Barrera Subdivision. 

Single-family new homes 

In December 2008, building permits were issued for the construction of 20 single-family homes, valued at $1,852,500, compared with 45 single-family homes, valued at $3,599,200, in December 2007. 

Eight of those homes built in December 2008  were each valued at $100,000 or more: 

  • Aaron Vela, 2511 North Jackson Road ($265,000);
  • Sitterle Homes Valley LLC, 1903 Alazán Street ($225,000);
  • Bill Carlson, 245 Austin ($180,000);
  • Beto Salinas, 5108 Gisselle Street ($115,000);
  • Rey Benavidez, 3617 Ripple Drive ($110,500);
  • Dolcan Construction, 1720 Damasco Avenue ($110,000);
  • Dolcan Construction, 2022 Chippewa Avenue ($110,000);
  • Key West Construction, 629 Barton Drive ($100,000). 

In November 2008, building permits were issued for the construction of 20 single-family homes, valued at $1,688,245, compared with 45 single-family homes, valued at $4,964,566 in November 2007. 

Four of those homes were each valued at $100,000 0r more: 

  • Rolando Gómez, 3412 Monserat Drive ($495,000);
  • Jaime Springer, 613 Barton Drive ($141,745);
  • Dolcan Construction, 705 Oregano Street ($110,000); and
  • Dolcan Construction, 643 Oregano Street ($100,000). 

In October 2008, building permits were issued for the construction of 16 single-family homes, valued at $1,790,000 compared with 33 single-family homes, valued at $3,049,871 during the same month in 2007. 

Ten of those homes were each valued at $100,000 or more: 

  • Julio and Delia Morales, 2013 Rochester Avenue ($190,000);
  • Laura and Samuel Aguilar, 3218 Lerma Drive ($185,000);
  • Sitterle Homes Valley LLC, 1713 Faccio ($180,000);
  • Rosie Ibarra, 3115 Iris Avenue ($161,000);
  • Randy Rives, 3208 Country Club Drive ($135,000);
  • Marcos Herrera, 426 Martha Louise Avenue ($125,000);
  • Andrés Lozano, 2612 Flipper Drive ($100,000);
  • Andrés Lozano, 2708 Flipper Drive ($100,000);
  • Dolcan Construction, 2019 Chippewa Avenue ($100,000); and
  • Dolcan Construction, 2026 Chippewa Avenue ($100,000). 

Commercial new construction 

In December 2008, the value of new commercial construction – not counting government facilities or churches – reached $1,525,000 compared with $2,255,500 in December 2007. 

In December 2008, building permits were issued for new construction of four commercial facilities. 

Three of those four new commercial buildings were each valued at $100,000 or more: 

  • David Tanner, 2121 W. Trenton Road ($950,000);
  • Estefana Galván, 2595 E. Monte Cristo Road ($300,000); and
  • Noé Ramón , Jr.l, 601 S. 10th Street ($200,000). 

In November 2008, the value of new commercial construction – not counting government facilities or churches – reached $1,615,000 compared with $5,728,000 in November 2007. 

In November 2008, building permits were issued for new construction of five commercial facilities.

Four of those five new commercial buildings were each valued at $100,000 or more: 

  • Bert Ogden Motors, 4208 N. Expressway 281 ($700,000);
  • Flores Builders, 3224 N. Highway 281 ($450,000);
  • Jeff Radesi, 427 E. Trenton Road ($250,000); and
  • Fairhaven Crossings Ltd., 2716 South U.S. Highway 281 ($140,000). 

In October  2008, the value of new commercial construction – not counting government facilities or churches – reached $1,691,500 compared with $2,916,500 in October 2007. 

In  October 2008, building permits were issued for new construction of five commercial facilities. 

Three of those commercial buildings were each valued at $100,000 or more: 

  • Jim Adian, 5934 North Highway 281 ($1,300,000);
  • S & S Ranching, 4704 S. Jackson Road ($200,000); and
  • Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, 5403 Doctors Drive ($125,000). 

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Hidalgo County levees get $110 million boost, could help complete construction of 80 miles of barriers

By CARI LAMBRECHT 

Hidalgo County’s levee system could be nearing completion in as soon as a year due to $110 million in “stimulus funds” that the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission has agreed to set aside for the Lower Rio Grande Valley Flood Control Program’s levee projects in Hidalgo County.  

Pct. 2 Commissioner Héctor “Tito” Palacios, Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 manager Godfrey Garza and Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas III traveled to El Paso last week to meet with IBWC Commissioner Bill Ruth. Ruth indicated at the meeting that the funds, which are about half of all stimulus funding received by the agency, would be put toward rehabilitating Hidalgo County’s levee system.  

With this influx of funds, the county’s levee system would be nearly complete, save for a small portion of levee from north of Baseline Road in Mercedes east to the Cameron County line and a small portion of the river levee east of Retamal Dam. 

Currently, about 80 miles of river levee and internal floodway levee are slated to be fixed with the $110 million. About 40 miles of river levee were rehabilitated in 2008-2009, 22 miles of which is the levee-barrier.   

“This is history in the making. We’ve been warning of what could happen if we do not fix the levees for more than two years now, and people are becoming aware now that the cost of not fixing the levees is so much greater than the cost of fixing them,” Salinas said. “The Sutter study, commissioned last year, told us that the county would suffer $1.7 billion in property damages and lose $950 million in retail sales alone if the river levees were to overtop. Fixing our levee system is just the common-sense thing to do. 

“The Hidalgo County Commissioners Court has been firm on this issue that we would not stop until the levees are fixed, our people are safe and the threat of mandatory flood insurance was a wash. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Salinas added.  

The court is now concerned with the levee construction timeline. The IBWC generally uses its own equipment and consultants; however, the Commissioners Court has proposed that the Drainage District expand the existing MOU with the agency to complete the work at a more rapid pace. The IBWC’s proposed date of completion is 2011 or 2012, according to Garza. 

“My concern is that the project gets completed within one year,” Palacios said. “I’m not suggesting the IBWC can’t do it, but if we can do it faster locally, then we should. We can break ground within 90 days and have the funded projects completed within one year. We showed that it could be done with the levee-barrier, the joint project we did with DHS. We can use multiple contractors and probably get these 80 levee miles fixed faster than if the IBWC tried to do it alone. We should work together to get it done faster.”  

County commissioners await a formal response from IBWC on the timeline. They will also ask federal elected officials for the remaining funding to complete the entire levee system, as well as continue to seek reimbursement of local funds spent on the project. 

“We’re not letting them off the hook,” Salinas said. “We’re happy about the funding, but this is still a federal responsibility and it is something that should have been done a long time ago.” 

For more information, visit http://www.co.hidalgo.tx.us or visit Salinas on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/hcpio, his blog at http://www.judgejd.com and the Hidalgo County Judge’s Office Facebook group 

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Sen. Hinojosa, Rep. Martínez reflect on importance of DPS Regional Headquarters for Hidalgo County

By ARTURO BALLESTEROS 

The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), which recently announced plans to build their new South Texas regional headquarters in Weslaco, on Wednesday, March 4, noted that construction of the new facility will begin in early 2010. 

The public safety complex, to be built at the corner of FM 1015 and Mile 9 road in Weslaco, is expected to bring a total investment of $21 million to the community as well as an increased homeland security aspect, said two legislators instrumental in securing the DPS complex for the region. 

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, on Wednesday, March 4,  issued a joint statement supporting DPS’ strategic placement of their new headquarters, citing the Rio Grande Valley’s projected growth, specifically in Hidalgo County. 

“DPS and Texas are thinking of South Texas’ future needs. By establishing a regional headquarters in Weslaco, DPS is looking to ensure rapid responses to the region’s security demands. Our security issues along the Texas-Mexico border are changing. Our model for allocating resources to address those changes requires an approach based on more regional coordination. This new headquarters fits that model for securing our communities," Hinojosa and Martínez said. 

Weslaco’s new complex plans include three separate buildings totaling approximately 110,000 square feet of office space. Administrative offices and a crime laboratory will occupy the main building.  The two auxiliary buildings will house an aircraft hangar, an automotive shop, and a driver’s license office. 

Martínez commented further on the benefit to Weslaco. 

"This project signals Weslaco’s position in Hidalgo County’s continued growth. Geographically, Weslaco will be at the center of the Rio Grande Valley’s population in the coming years," Martínez added. "I believe DPS chose well in trusting Weslaco to be the anchor for regional security oversight." 

DPS plans to use the existing facility in McAllen as an area service center, offering driver’s license services and hosting a Highway Patrol Sergeant’s division.  More than 200 DPS employees from the McAllen and surrounding area offices will transfer to the Weslaco complex after construction ends. 

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Rep. Peña says House committee was receptive to legislation to create UT-Valley medical school

By ORLANDO SALINAS  

Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, on Wednesday, March 4, presented legislation that would create a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley before the House Committee on Higher Education. HB 110 would transform the Regional Academic Health Center, located in Edinburg and Harlingen into a stand-alone, four-year medical school and health science center.   

Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, and Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, also participated in the hearing, laying out their arguments for a medical school with their own respective, but similar measures. 

HB 110 now awaits a vote from the House Higher Education Committee before it can proceed.   

There are no Valley lawmakers on the House Higher Education Committee. Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, serves as chair of that House legislative panel. 

"The Rio Grande Valley expressed it’s the need for a medical school with a strong, unified voice," said Peña. "Our communities are one of the most medically undeserved regions in the state and nation. The programs, resources and intellectual capital associated with a medical school and health science center would not only transform our economy but increase the capacity for care in South Texas." 

Texas has the highest percentage of people without insurance in the nation with nearly 25 percent of the population uninsured. The Rio Grande Valley’s uninsured rate is one of the highest in the state at around 33 percent.  Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy Counties also lag behind the state average in the number of doctors serving the population.  Statistics show that doctors are more likely to practice medicine where they are trained.  The closest medical school to the Rio Grande Valley is in San Antonio. 

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, and vice-chair of the committee, and Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, were two of the members who publicly expressed support for a medical in South Texas. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has now recommended that the next medical school built in Texas should be in the Rio Grande Valley. 

"This was an important step in the process of take existing programs and resources at the RAHC in Edinburg and Harlingen and elevating them to a full fledged medical school and health science center," said Peña. "We need the combined resources of the private sector and local, state and federal governments to come together and not only build this medical school but create a veterans hospital in the Rio Grande Valley." 

In his testimony before the committee, Peña lauded the work of veterans to bring a hospital to South Texas. On Saturday, March 14, Valley veterans and their supporters will begin another march to San Antonio to symbolize the arduous travel that many face in order to receive hospital care at the nearest VA facility in San Antonio. The march will set off from the Sekula Memorial Library in Edinburg at 9 a.m. 

"A veterans hospital and medical school are not competing interests but are quite compatible," said Peña. "Funding, buildings, staff and resources can come together to provide care for those brave men and women who served our country and teaching and learning opportunities for our next generation of doctors." 

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Sen. Hutchison: Edinburg Regional Medical Center among area hospitals to provide VA medical care

By JEFF SADOSKY 

U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, along with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), on Thursday, March 5, announced that inpatient and emergency services contracts to immediately enhance access to local medical care for Valley Veterans have been awarded.  

Hutchison praised the Texas bipartisan delegation, including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen; Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco; Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, and Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, for their commitment to enhance VA health care delivery to veterans residing in the Valley service areas. 

A contract was awarded to Valley Baptist Health Care System, which will provide the contracted care at its two medical center locations in Harlingen and Brownsville, Texas.  

Another contract was awarded to South Texas Health System, where veterans will be able to access inpatient and emergency services at McAllen Medical Center and Edinburg Regional Medical Center. Services provided under the contracts will include acute medical, surgical, and mental health care in an inpatient setting, as well as emergency services. 

“These VA contracts enhance the emergency services and specialty health care available to Valley veterans so that they can get these services locally right away,” said Hutchison. “This immediate step is one of many more to come that will continue to significantly expand access to VA medical care in the region. I will continue the fight to bring expanded and dedicated VA health care to the Valley for our South Texas Veterans.” 

Under these contracts, veterans will receive all but the most highly specialized inpatient care in the Valley, thus eliminating the need for four-to five- hour drives to San Antonio for hospitalizations. For emergencies, veterans will be eligible for services through the emergency room in any of the four locations. All veterans enrolled in the VA will be eligible for care under the contracts. It is anticipated that services will be available at each of these locations within 30 – 45 days after award of the contract. 

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Gov. Perry requesting $135 million from Legislature to continue border security programs and fight gangs

Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday, March 5, joined by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, and law enforcement officials to emphasize the need to combat the escalating threat of transnational gangs in our communities. Carona filed Senate Bill (SB) 11, legislation that if passed will significantly disrupt the operations of transnational gangs in Texas. 

“Today, we are sending a message to let these violent gangs know that they are not welcome here in Texas, and that we will do whatever it takes to drive them out of our state,” Gov. Perry said. “It is time to act and I believe we should devote the necessary resources to properly address this gang threat head-on in communities across the state.” 

Gangs like the Mexican Mafia, the Texas Syndicate, Barrio Azteca and MS-13 are a threat to Texas citizens and growing increasingly sophisticated as they work to expand their influence across our state, recruiting members from our schools, communities and prisons. 

SB 11 will create an offense for the online promotion of criminal gangs which will be a powerful tool in protecting young Texans and preventing them from being recruited into these illicit organizations. The bill will also allow parents, communities and government entities to file civil suits against criminal street gangs or individual gang members, enabling those parties to recover for damages caused by gang-related crimes. 

Perry’s gang initiative builds on the proven border security strategy of working with local law enforcement, increasing resources for surge operations, providing resources for investigations and prosecutions, and establishing a multi-agency gang intelligence section in the Texas Fusion Center.  

The initiative calls for a multi-jurisdictional gang strategy that includes: 

  • Expanding the sharing of vital gang information at all levels of law enforcement across the state;
  • Centralizing gang intelligence;
  • Expanding effective local law enforcement gang operations in identified “hot spots”;
  • Increasing resources dedicated to multiagency criminal enterprise investigations that target leaders of the most dangerous gangs;
  • Seeking enabling legislation to arm law enforcement with essential gang fighting tools; and
  • Expanding gang prevention efforts. 

Securing our international border is a federal responsibility that Washington has yet to fulfill. As a result, the Texas Legislature took decisive action last session by providing necessary funding to secure the Texas border. Perry has urged the 2009 Legislature for continued leadership on this issue by supporting $135 million to fund continued border security efforts and combat transnational gang activity across the state through the next biennium.  

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Sen. Cornyn To President Obama: Drug-related violence along U.S.-Mexico border a top priority; requires immediate attention and resources

Having recently returned from a security briefing by U.S. and Mexican officials in Laredo, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Subcommittee, on Tuesday, March 3, sent a letter to President Barack Obama expressing grave concern over escalating drug-related violence occurring along the U.S.-Mexico border, where there have been more than 7,000 drug-related deaths since the beginning of 2008.  

The violence is threatening to spread well beyond our nation’s southern border and threatening the security of our entire nation. In late February, federal agents announced they have arrested nearly 750 people in several states, including Maryland, Minnesota and California, with Mexican cartel connections. 

In the letter, Cornyn urges the President to dedicate immediate attention to the situation and provide full resources to support our law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal level. With kidnappings and arms smuggling already occurring in states along the southern border, Sen. Cornyn makes the case for immediate action to prevent further violence from spilling over into Texas and other border states. 

“We must ensure that our local, state, and federal law enforcement officials have what they need to combat narcoterrorism and prevent this violence from spilling over into the United States. The seriousness of this situation warrants your personal attention, and I urge you to make it a top priority,” Cornyn wrote in the letter. 

“To ensure our national security, the situation in Mexico demands that we dedicate sufficient attention to this problem and provide the tools needed to address it. No resource should remain unexpended to protect American citizens and prevent this cartel-induced violence from bleeding over into the border towns of Texas and our neighboring states,” he continued. 

Cornyn also encouraged President Obama to visit Texas’ border and see the situation firsthand. Cornyn was in Laredo last month where he met with U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials and received a briefing on several issues concerning security along Texas’ southern border with Mexico, including the rising drug cartel and gang violence in the region. 

Below is a full text of Cornyn’s letter: 

President Barack H. Obama

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20500 

Dear President Obama: 

I write today to voice serious concern over the escalating level of drug-related violence occurring along the U.S.-Mexico border. We must ensure that our local, state, and federal law enforcement officials have what they need to combat narcoterrorism and prevent this violence from spilling over into the United States. 

The seriousness of this situation warrants your personal attention, and I urge you to make it a top priority. With our ongoing military campaigns overseas, it is easy to overlook the significance of the alarming violence occurring on our southern border. To ensure our national security, the situation in Mexico demands that we dedicate sufficient attention to this problem and provide the tools needed to address it. No resource should remain unexpended to protect American citizens and prevent this cartel-induced violence from bleeding over into the border towns of Texas and our neighboring states. 

According to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, about 1,000 lives have been lost so far this year as a result of drug-related violence in Mexico. In 2008, the number of drug-related casualties topped 6,000, nearly doubling the number from 2007. In Ciudad Juarez alone, more than 1,800 people have been killed since January 2008, according to the U.S. State Department and Mexican authorities. The unspeakable brutality occurring at the hands of rival drug cartels in Juárez and the level of kidnappings occurring in Nuevo Laredo are alarming to say the least, especially given their proximity to U.S. soil. 

I was recently in Laredo on the Texas-Mexico border, meeting with several U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials, who represent the front lines in the fight against narcoterrorism. I came away from that meeting with renewed resolve to help protect those who live, travel, and trade throughout the entire southern border region, while at the same time maintaining favorable relations with Mexico. I believe that doing so will take broad cooperation among leaders from the local, state, and federal levels, on both sides of the border, to ensure that law enforcement agencies are equipped to handle the unique challenges they face. 

I encourage you to come to Texas to visit the border and see the situation firsthand. It is clearly in our national interest to dedicate every available resource to preventing the violence in Mexico from reaching American soil. Thank you for your prompt attention to this critical national security issue. 

Sincerely, 

JOHN CORNYN

United States Senator 

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Alan Gómez of McAllen indicted for fraud and embezzlement involving First National Bank

A federal grand jury on Tuesday, March 3, indicted Alan Gómez  of McAllen for bank fraud and embezzlement, acting United States Attorney Tim Johnson.  Gómez was arrested by federal agents in McAllen on March 3. 

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law. 

The two-count indictment, returned under seal on Tuesday, February 24, 2009, and unsealed on March 3 following his arrest, accuses Gómez of executing a scheme to obtain thousands of dollars from his employer, First National Bank. Specifically, over a two-month period,  Gómez allegedly generated fraudulent cash-out tickets to take large sums of cash from a teller cash drawer.  Gómez later deleted the cash-out tickets from the bank’s computer system in an attempt to conceal his activities from the bank’s auditors. 

If convicted of either or both counts, Gómez, 22, faces up to 30 years in prison, a $1 million fine and a five-year term of supervised release as well as mandatory restitution. 

The investigation leading to the charges in this case was conducted by special agents of the United States Secret Service. Assistant United States Attorney Gregory S. Saikin is prosecuting the case. 

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Rep. Gonzáles files legislation to increase access to CHIPS, Medicaid insurance for Texas families

By RICARDO LÓPEZ GUERRA 

Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, on Wednesday, March 4, filed three bills aimed at increasing medical insurance coverage and health care services for more Texas children and families. 

"Many Texas children do not have health insurance and many Texas residents don’t have access to affordable health care. These are critical needs for our state and I filed these bills to address these issues," Gonzáles said. "Increasing access to health care improves the  quality of life for Texans and will save  money in the long run by cutting down on emergency room visits and high-cost procedures that could have been prevented by regular doctor visits." 

Gonzáles’ proposed legislation aims to increase health care insurance for children and help poor Texans receive quality health care. Texas has the highest number of uninsured children in the country, and Hidalgo County’s uninsured population is much larger than the state’s average. In Hidalgo County, an estimated 33 percent of children do not have insurance compared to 21 percent of children in Texas and 11 percent nationally, according to the Children’s Defense Fund and the U.S. Census Bureau.   

House Bill 2206 would enable more Texas children receive insurance coverage under the Texas’ Children’s Insurance Health Program (CHIP)  by increasing the family income level from 200 percent of the federal poverty level to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Now, a family of four making more than $44,100 annually is not eligible for the CHIP, while the average cost in Texas for private family health care coverage is $900 a month. If the bill is adopted, the state estimates an additional 155,200 new children will enroll in CHIP, enabling Texas to receive $328 million in matching federal funds. 

"Many families find themselves earning only a few dollars above the CHIP eligibility level, but still cannot afford private insurance," Gonzáles said. "Increasing the income levels allows hard-working families the opportunity to provide health insurance to their children." 

House Bill 2204 extends the Children’s Medicaid application period from six months to one year, meaning the state’s poorest children will only have to enroll in the program annually and would make the state eligible for increased federal funding.  A 12-month enrollment period can help increase insurance coverage by retaining patients for longer periods, as demonstrated in 2003, when the CHIP program experienced a 40 percent drop-off rate by decreasing enrollment periods from one year to six months.  A longer enrollment period would also cut administrative enrollment costs and reduce state workers’ caseloads. 

Increasing enrollment in both CHIP and the Children’s Medicaid program will enable Texas to recoup more funding from the federal government. Texas receives $2.52 federal match for each state dollar invested in CHIP, and $1.47 federal match for each dollar invested in Medicaid. Studies have also shown that medical costs decrease the longer a child has access to a doctor by preventing children from being sent to the hospital and emergency room, and reducing the local burden of covering uncompensated hospital care. 

House Bill 2205 would allow Hidalgo County to draw down more federal funding by including Medicaid costs reimbursed to the county for indigent care costs. Hidalgo County always spends beyond 8 percent of county revenue that is required to obtain a federal match. This bill would free up county monies for other purposes at no cost to the state. 

Gonzáles said she is committed to improving the state of Texas’ health care, which ranks among the lowest nationally, according to the United Health Foundation’s 2008 rankings. She is also working on legislation that will enable Hidalgo County clinics to provide primary health care services. Gonzáles sits on the House’s Public Health Committee, which considers bills relating to public health care. 

"It is my hope that the legislation enacted this session will provide more Texas families with the reassurance that they can afford to take their children to the doctor and access the health care services they need," she said. 

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Congressman Hinojosa elected 2nd Vice chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI 

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Thursday, March 5, was unanimously elected to the position of 2nd Vice Chair by his colleagues in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and vowed to help move forward the group’s agenda for the 111th Congress.  

“This is a great honor and I look forward to serving the CHC in this new capacity,” Hinojosa said. “We face difficult times ahead but also tremendous opportunities. I am confident that together with the support of the new Administration, we will be able to make a measurable difference in the lives of Hispanic families across the nation.” 

Serving in his seventh term, Hinojosa has led the CHC’s efforts to ensure that the nation’s federal education policy never loses sight of its youngest and fastest growing population. As the former chairman of the CHC’s Education Task Force, Congressman Hinojosa focused on a group of federal education programs critical to the Hispanic community, often referred to as the Hispanic Education Action Plan (HEAP), and helped to secure dramatic increases in resources that target Hispanic communities.  

This Congress, Hinojosa will chair the Commerce/International Relations taskforce.    

He also serves as the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness. As chair, he helped guide into law the historic College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which represents the single largest increase in student financial aid since the GI Bill. Congressman  

Hinojosa has also succeeded in vaulting Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) to a position of prominence in higher education. In the 1998 amendments to the Higher Education Act, he succeeded in establishing a separate title of the Act dedicated to the development of HSIs. As chairman in 2008, Hinojosa successfully included in the Higher Education Opportunity Act a provision that established the first-ever program for graduate degrees at HSIs. 

Since its founding in December 1976, the CHC has been dedicated to advancing issues affecting Hispanics in the United States and Puerto Rico through the legislative process. In addition to its substantial legislative role, the CHC also monitors Executive and Judicial issues.  The Caucus is comprised of 25 members of Congress of Hispanic descent, and is governed under the Rules of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

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Capt. Leonel Peña of Edinburg honored by Texas Senate for professional, military accomplishments

Captain Leonel A. Peña of Edinburg, the youngest person and the first and only Hispanic person to become conductor for the United States Army Band program, was honored on Tuesday, March 3, by the Texas Senate. 

According to its official website, the Army Ground Forces Band serves as an outreach asset for United States Army Forces Command, headquartered at Fort McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia. The 58 soldiers assigned to the band have passed a highly selective audition and are among the finest musicians in the United States Army Band Program. The majority of the band’s members have studied music at some of the finest universities and conservatories in the United States and abroad. 

The legislation, Senate Resolution 335, was authored by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and co-authored by Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen. 

SENATE RESOLUTION NO. 335 

WHEREAS, The Senate of the State of Texas is pleased to recognize Edinburg native Captain Leonel A. Peña, who has the distinction of being the youngest person and the first and only Hispanic selected as a conductor for the United States Army Band program; and 

WHEREAS, Captain Peña is one of only 20 commissioned officers authorized for the worldwide United States Army Band program; his latest assignment is as director of the United States Army Soldiers’ Chorus and Associate Bandmaster of the Army Field Band at Fort Meade, Maryland; and 

WHEREAS, Captain Peña’s first assignment in the Army was as the Executive Officer and Associate Conductor of the Army Ground Forces Band; he has also served as the Staff Bands Officer for the United States Army Forces Command at Fort McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia, and as Commander of the Staff and Faculty at the Army School of Music in Norfolk, Virginia; and 

WHEREAS, He earned a bachelor of music degree from Southwest Texas State University, a master of science degree in administration from Central Michigan University, and certification from the Contemporary Commercial Music Vocal Pedagogy Institute at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music; and 

WHEREAS, He has earned numerous awards and commendations during his career in the Army; he has performed as a soloist on national television and recorded with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus and the Virginia Symphony Chorus, and he is widely recognized for his musical talents and his professionalism; and 

WHEREAS, Service to the American people has been an important part of our nation’s military history, and music is an important part of that tradition; as an officer in the Army Band program, Captain Leonel Peña passed a highly selective audition and demonstrated superior leadership capabilities, and he is among the finest musicians in the United States; now, therefore, be it 

RESOLVED, That the Senate of the State of Texas, 81st Legislature, hereby commend Captain Leonel A. Peña for his many talents and his exceptional achievements in the United States Army; and, be it further 

RESOLVED, That a copy of this Resolution be prepared for him as an expression of highest regard from the Texas Senate. 

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Sen. Zaffirini files measure promoting establishment of additional national research universities

By CELESTE VILLARREAL 

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has filed Senate Bill 9, which would create a pathway for seven "emerging research universities" to become national research universities. 

As chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, Zaffirini is collaborating with Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chair of the House Higher Education Committee, and who has filed similar legislation, House Bill 51. 

SB 9 would provide performance funding to create additional national research universities and foster development of high-quality comprehensive regional universities.   

"The need for additional national research universities is becoming increasingly urgent," said Zaffirini. "The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University are our only public universities that are recognized at this level, in comparison to California, which has nine." 

Focusing on the Texas Competitive Knowledge Fund that currently benefits UT-Austin, A&M, Texas Tech University and the University of Houston, her bill defines eligibility for additional universities, including UT-Arlington, UT-Dallas, UT-San Antonio and the University of North Texas. 

"We hope this will enable universities to recruit and retain more high quality faculty and to enhance research productivity," Zaffirini added. Funds would be distributed to eligible institutions based on degrees awarded, number of nationally and internationally recognized faculty and federal research expenditures. 

SB 9 also would establish the Texas Centers of Excellence Performance Funding that would create premier public comprehensive universities with a focus on strong undergraduate curricula and limited research centers of excellence. 

Funds would be distributed among eligible universities categorized by the Higher Education Coordinating Board as comprehensive, doctoral or master’s universities. The distribution would be based on annual average number of degrees awarded, increase in number of degrees awarded and number of National Merit Scholars and students who were graduated in the top ten percent of their high school classes. 

To enhance research productivity and recruit and retain high quality faculty at emerging research universities, SB 9 would create the Texas Research Incentive Program (TRIP). It would match private gifts at a specific rate in relation to gift amounts not to exceed $10 million per source per year. 

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Summit sponsored by South Texas College brings together P-16 educators from across Texas, nation

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR 

More than 200 educators from across the Rio Grande Valley, Texas and the nation gathered in early March to discuss methods to accelerate students through the education pipeline and into the workforce. Hosted by South Texas College, 2009 marks the fourth year for the event. 

“This is our fourth summit on college readiness and success and we have worked together to open access to higher ed for all students, but now we have to find a way to accelerate the process of getting students through high school, into college and on to the university,” said STC President Shirley A. Reed. “We have to focus on what is good for students, not blaming each other for what isn’t working. We must continue to work collaboratively to accelerate student success in school and the workplace. The future of our nation depends on it.” 

During the day-long summit, attendees looked at student access and success through a variety of lenses, including issues related to the Latino student population, issues faced by migrant and impoverished students, and how technology and the global marketplace have changed the education pipeline. 

“We have to create the will in the nation to make a change in the way we look at our students and address their needs,” said Sarita Brown, president of Washington-based Excelencia in Education. “It takes bravery to invent on a public stage and that is exactly what is happening in South Texas. There is good work going on in this living laboratory as you deal with poverty as the undertone for everything you do.”

“As a nation, we are starting to truly understand that Latinos are the largest group of college students and they are the youngest minority in the country, so they are the ones that will be our future leaders, our professionals, our doctors, lawyers and engineers,” she added. “So it makes enormous sense for you to sit here, coalescing as educators to come up with pathways for success locally, given that Latino students also tend to stay closer to home to earn their higher educations.” 

During the course of the day’s activities, speakers highlighted a variety of successful initiatives to accelerate student success from early college high schools, to dual enrollment academies, to drop-out recovery programs. Attendees heard from education experts at Region One, The University of Texas-Pan American, The University of Texas At Austin, The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the Communities Foundation of Texas and WorkForce Solutions, just to name a few. 

Students were also given a voice at the event. A panel of five diverse college students discussed their dreams, hopes and motivation for continuing their higher educations. Their messages about college access and opportunity resounded with the audience of superintendants, principles, counselors, teachers and policy makers. 

“I wasn’t really focused on my future and I didn’t know much about college and that is why I failed the ninth grade,” said Jessica Ray Rincones, a student in STC’s MCCTI ninth grade drop-out recovery program with the McAllen Independent School District. “But with the recovery program I have not only gotten back on track, I am actually ahead of my peers in high school and am looking at taking college courses next year. The program has offered me a new chance and I see a brighter future.” 

“It starts in kindergarten,” said Juan José Mireles, STC Dual Enrollment Engineering Academy student who is earning an associate’s degree from the college during his junior and senior years in high school. “Show students the true options in life when they are young and keep up the message. Don’t lower the bar and in fact, raise your standards. Students will rise to the challenge and, ultimately, it is up to us to take advantage of all the opportunities afforded to us. I saw the hard work my father did in construction and I can remember traveling up north and the hardships we faced. But now I am earning a free college degree because I see the value and opportunity and I am taking advantage.” 

A theme throughout the event was that much has been accomplished, but that there is much more to be done. 

“Yes, we have a long way to go, but we are making progress,” said Dr. Brenda Cole, director of research and analytical services for STC. “There is an increase in six of the seven counties in our region in the number of high school graduates pursing higher education. In fact, 57 percent of Hidalgo County high school graduates from the class of 2007 are pursuing a college education and 61 percent of Starr County 2007 high school graduates are enrolled in higher education. These numbers are up from the 40’s just five years ago. But, while there is major improvement, there is still room for progress. We must keep up with the world and the technology-based forum we live in. Acceleration is critical.” 

For more information about South Texas College’s annual summit on college access and success contact Luzelma Canales at 956/872-6760. 

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Roger Garza kicks off reelection campaign for third term on McAllen Public Utilities Board

By BRIAN GODÍNEZ   

Roger Garza has initiated his re-election campaign to serve a third term on the Board of Trustees of the McAllen Public Utility Board, Place 4. Garza kicked off his re-election campaign for friends and supporters on Wednesday, March 4. 

One of McAllen’s numerous elected board, the Board of Trustees of the McAllen Public Utility was created February 2, 1945 to oversee all aspects of water and sewer for the City of McAllen. The board consists of four members elected at large by place, in a citywide election for four-year terms and one ex-officio member appointed by the mayor. 

The Public Utility Board of the City of McAllen meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, convening at 4:00 p.m. at the City Commissions Chambers on the 3rd floor. 

Commenting on his 10 years of service to the City of McAllen as a PUB Trustee, Garza said, “I want to complete the task that I started when I first got elected, and that is the final expansion of the largest utility system south of San Antonio and the expansion of the Northwest McAllen Wastewater Treatment facility”. 

During Garza’s term of service, the city has been upgraded by Standards & Poors (S&P) bond rating, the second highest in the country. This has occurred twice since Garza has served on the board. McAllen has been recognized for Quality Water Optimization, and ranked 4th lowest water rates in the state of Texas. The operating budget has been balanced every year and increased capacity at both water plants to almost 38 million gallons a day. In addition, the PUB has replaced all operating equipment with state-of-the-art technology and equipment. 

“We have continued to be fiscally responsible every year since serving on the board. I wish to thank the public for its confidence in our operating systems and also for trusting me during these last several years," Garza said. “I am grateful for the support and will continue to be a dedicated and hardworking servant to this great community for the next four years. 

Garza is a professional risk management consultant and CEO to Valley Risk Management Consulting. The firm’s services are employed by several school districts in Texas and oversee $40 million of employee benefit plans.  

For additional information contact Grace Garza at (956) 664-1430. 

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Attorney General Abbott: Criminals disguised as financial consultants are out to swindle Texans

With the nation’s economy in a recession, high-profile financiers under investigation for fraud, joblessness on the rise and home foreclosures increasing, Texans are understandably nervous about the nation’s economy. And hard times always raise new questions for Texans who are looking for the best way to protect their hard-earned money. 

Generally, a well-balanced financial strategy combines insurance and investment options, but it can be difficult to understand all of the options available in the current marketplace. So it is imperative that Texans educate themselves about their financial opportunities and make sure they are dealing with reputable companies and sales agents. 

The Office of the Attorney General works with the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI) and the Texas State Securities Board to help protect investors from fraud and deception in the financial services industry. Specifically, the OAG monitors how insurance companies market their products and pay benefits. Under the Texas Insurance Code and the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, the OAG is authorized to pursue anyone in the “business of insurance” who seeks to defraud their Texas customers. 

The State Securities Board, which is the state’s primary securities regulator, is authorized to investigate when Texans complain about the sale of securities, notes, limited partnership interests, commercial paper, oil and gas investments, and investment contracts. The board is responsible for detecting and preventing violations of the Texas Securities Act, including the illegal sale of unregistered or non-exempt securities, securities sales by unregistered dealers, and fraud committed in connection with the sale of securities and investments. 

When the State Securities Board refers a case to the OAG, assistant attorneys general are empowered to take immediate and appropriate enforcement action. If a complaint indicates a criminal violation occurred, the board may refer the case to a local district attorney or U.S. attorney for prosecution. 

For example, just last month Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott charged the owners of two investment plans with orchestrating a fraudulent scheme that targeted retirees and teachers. According to the state’s enforcement action, Howard G. Judah Jr. of Houston and Gregory F. Jablonski of Castle Rock, Colo., falsely guaranteed lucrative investment returns, misrepresented their “life settlement” policy investment offerings, failed to disclose material information to investors, and committed multiple violations of the Texas Securities Act. 

The district court judge overseeing the case granted the OAG’s request for receivership and issued an order seizing more than $19 million from several bank accounts under the defendants’ control. Those investor resources will remain safely out of the defendants’ control until the case is resolved. 

So what can Texans do to avoid investment scams? First, investors should do their research. For example, Texans seeking information about an insurance product should check with the TDI to make sure the sales agent and insurance company are in good standing with authorities. For information about stocks, bonds and other securities, investors should request a Central Registration Depository report from the State Securities Board at (512) 305-8300 or e-mail at records@ssb.state.tx.us. It is also helpful to check with the Better Business Bureau and conduct an Internet search, which will often reveal what other investors have to say. 

Potential red flags 

• An agent with guaranteed results. No legitimate investment adviser or seller will guarantee positive results. Though they can offer past performance data, honest advisors should freely admit that the past is not a predictor of the future. There is always risk. As a result, it is always possible that an investment will fail and money will be lost. 

• Agents in a hurry to close the deal. Tell-tale signs of a scam are high-pressure sales and demands for secrecy. Real investment opportunities rarely require instant decision-making. Serious investors almost always take time to research their decisions. 

• Offers from unsolicited telephone call, postcard or e-mail. Texans should be skeptical of unsolicited offers for services from unknown companies. Though some legitimate brokerage firms will contact potential investors, an online search can help distinguish between small-time operators and established firms. 

• Phony companies that promise huge crude oil profits. In Texas, especially when the price of oil is high, investors complain about bogus oil and gas investment opportunities. The State Securities Board oversees oil and gas investments, so Texans who are considering an oil and gas investment should contact the board and request information about the producer. Also, the Texas Railroad Commission can tell investors whether the seller is registered as a producer in Texas and the commission can also provide information about the leases the producer has operated in the past. 

Texans should also be particularly cautious about investment offers that involve friends of friends, or even friends of family members – rather than professional, registered securities dealers. 

Investors should consider consulting with an independent financial advisor to learn about the types of investments and insurance that fit their goals and risk tolerance. It is critical that Texans learn as much as possible about their financial investments, including past performance. 

No matter how Texans choose to invest their money, there will always be a degree of risk involved. But education and due diligence can help to make the odds more favorable for investors. 

Texans who believe they are victims of financial fraud can file a complaint with the Texas attorney general’s office at (800) 252-8011 or online at http://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov

Other Resources 

Texas Department of Insurance
(800) 252-3439
(888) 327-8818 to report fraud
http://www.tdi.state.tx.us 

Office of Public Insurance Counsel
(512) 322-4143
http://www.opic.state.tx.us 

Texas State Securities Board
(512) 305-8300

http://www.ssb.state.tx.us 
Securities and Exchange Commission
(888) SEC-6585

http://www.sec.gov 

Federal Trade Commission
(877) FTC-HELP
http://www.ftc.gov 

Better Business Bureau
http://www.bbb.org 

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Former congressional staff member indicted for corruption relating to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff  

A grand jury in the District of Columbia returned a three-count indictment on Friday, March 6, charging a former staff member in the U.S. House of Representatives with corruption offenses, Acting Assistant Attorney General Rita M. Glavin of the Criminal Division announced.  

An indictment is merely an allegation. Defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law. 

Fraser C. Verrusio, 39, was charged by the grand jury with conspiring to accept an illegal gratuity, accepting an illegal gratuity, and making a false statement in failing to report his receipt of gifts from a lobbyist and the lobbyist’s client on his 2003 financial disclosure form. 

According to the indictment, during the relevant times, Verrusio worked as the policy director for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The indictment names Todd Boulanger and James Hirni, who were lobbyists working for an equipment rental company interested in inserting three amendments into a Federal Highway Bill, as Verrusio’s co-conspirators. The indictment also names Trevor Blackann, who worked as a legislative assistant to a U.S. senator, as a co-conspirator. According to the indictment, the committee for which Verrusio worked had responsibility for the Federal Highway Bill in the House of Representatives. Similarly, the indictment states that the senator for whom Blackann worked served on a committee with responsibility for the Federal Highway Bill in the Senate. 

According to the indictment, in October 2003, Verrusio and Blackann accepted an all-expenses-paid trip to Game One of the 2003 Baseball World Series from Hirni, the equipment rental company that was his client, and a representative of that company. The indictment alleges that Verrusio accepted the trip for and because of his official assistance provided and to be provided to the equipment rental company’s efforts to secure favorable amendments to the Federal Highway Bill. 

According to the indictment, the all-expenses-paid trip accepted by Verrusio and Blackann included round-trip commercial airline travel to and from New York City; use of a chauffeured sport utility vehicle for transportation while in New York City; a ticket for each official to Game One of the World Series; a souvenir baseball jersey for each official; as well as lodging, meals, drinks and entertainment at a strip club. The indictment alleges that, while on the trip, Verrusio, Blackann, Hirni and the equipment rental company representative discussed the Federal Highway Bill and the equipment rental company. 

The indictment also alleges that federal law required Verrusio to report his receipt of gifts valued at more than $285 per year from a single source on a 2003 annual financial disclosure form. The indictment alleges that Verrusio made a false statement on that form when he certified that the form was, “true, complete and correct,” when in truth and in fact Verrusio knew and believed the form to be incomplete and incorrect in that it did not identify Hirni and the equipment rental company as the source of a reportable gift, did not describe the World Series trip or any of its reportable parts, and did not report the value of the trip or any of its reportable parts. 

Blackann, Boulanger and Hirni have all pleaded guilty for their roles. The case is part of the ongoing investigation into the activities of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associates. Eighteen individuals, including lobbyists and public officials, have pleaded guilty or are awaiting trial as a result of the investigation, including Abramoff, who was sentenced in September 2008 to 48 months in prison. 

This case is being prosecuted by trial attorneys M. Kendall Day and Peter C. Sprung of the Public Integrity Section, headed by Section Chief William M. Welch II. The investigation is being conducted by the FBI.

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