Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner Sylvia Handy, shown here in early December 2008 successfully championing the extension of the proposed Hidalgo County Loop through her district, on Thursday, April 2, was named in a six-county indictment charging her, her spouse, Juan Gabriel Espronceda, 35, María De Los Ángeles Landa de Hernández, 27, and Eloisa Andrade Uriegas, 58, with harboring aliens for financial gain. An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law. Handy has said she is innocent. Following news of her indictment, Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas III released the following statement: “Today, we became aware that Pct. 1 Commissioner Sylvia S. Handy and three others were arrested on the allegation of defrauding taxpayers for personal gain. We will withhold our own judgment, as this is an ongoing investigation and is in the hands of the court system. However, my office has been in contact with Commissioner Handy’s chief of staff to offer our help. My office pledges to the public that all vital public services for the families of Pct. 1 will continue.” Featured in this file photo, to her right, is Congressman Ruben Hinojosa, and to her left, is Salinas. See story later in this posting.
Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who serves as the vice-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, led the workgroup on that panel that developed state funding for general government, the judiciary, natural resources, and regulatory services. The Senate Finance Committee, which writes the Senate’s version of the two-year state budget, on Wednesday, April 1, approved a $182 billion budget, which would cover the period between September 1, 2009 and August 30, 2011. This biennial budget is a seven percent increase over 2008-2009, but nearly half that growth is attributable to federal stimulus money. Actual state spending grows only about two percent per year over the next biennium. See story later in this posting.
On September 8, 1993, Gov. Ann Richards appointed the founding South Texas Community College (now South Texas College) Board of Trustees, which included Manuel Benavidez, Jr., of La Grulla in Starr County, who passed away on Saturday, March 28. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, whose district includes Starr County, expressed her condolences to his family and friends. "I am profoundly saddened by our loss of Manuel Benavidez, a champion of higher education, economic development and housing, and am among the countless South Texans who will miss him greatly," she said. "His legacy as a regent for South Texas College and the Starr County Housing Authority reflects his lifelong commitment to creating a brighter future for our families." Highlights of his life are featured in an article composed by one of his daughters, which is featured later in this posting. In this 1993 file photo, the founding board of trustees posed for their portrait, including, seated, from left: Rosalinda González and Pearl Mathis; and standing, from left: Glen Roney (vice chair); Manuel Benavidez, Jr.; Dr. Amparo Cárdenas; Gary Gurwitz (secretary); and Rubén Hinojosa (chair).
Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, and Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, recently welcomed the 2008-09 Leadership Mid Valley class, which visited the Capitol to gain further insight into the workings of state government. Leadership Mid Valley provides opportunities for developing leadership skills and increasing knowledge of vital public issues. Members of this year’s class, from left to right, are: Annette Turner, Nels Anderson, Allison Summersett, Martínez, Priscilla Castañeda, Jesse Colin, Yvonne Chamblin, Vicky De La Garza, Lucio, Mari Avilés, Nancy Peña and Rolando Pedraza. On Wednesday, April 8, a bill by Martínez which would designate the Mid Valley Airport in Weslaco as the emergency headquarters for the Valley during times of natural and man-made disasters will be heard by the House Defense and Veterans’ Committee. See lead story in this posting.
Weslaco airport legislation by Rep. Martínez set for House committee hearing on April 8
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
A House measure which seeks to designate the Mid-Valley Airport in Weslaco as disaster relief headquarters for the Rio Grande Valley has been scheduled for a public hearing in Austin on Wednesday, April 8.
The hearing, which will be held by the House Committee on Defense and Veterans’ Affairs, will feature House Bill 848 by Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco. HB 848 is among 15 legislative measures set for public testimony before that House panel on April 8.
The House panel will start its meeting on all the measures at 8 a.m. in Room E-206 in the Capitol Extension, a four-level underground complex which is located on the north side of the Capitol in Austin.
The proposed measures would require the governor to select the Mid-Valley Airport in Weslaco "as the state headquarters for providing disaster relief in the Rio Grande Valley following the governor’s declaration of a state of disaster in an area within the Rio Grande Valley."
Martínez is wasting little time to publicly champion his hometown’s airport as the best choice for the Valley, as both hurricane season approaches over the horizon, and the nation’s attention is beginning to focus on drug-related violence in Mexico.
Also for Weslaco, if Martínez’ House Bill 848 makes it through the legislative process, it could help enhance Weslaco’s growing reputation as the Valley’s "Homeland Security City."
"The Mid-Valley Airport is the perfect location to house or coordinate emergency responses for the Valley," said the three-term lawmaker, who, as a firefighter, licensed paramedic, and critical care flight paramedic, is an expert in life-and-death scenarios. "A major U.S. Border Patrol facility, a planned Department of Public Safety complex, and the Valley’s only Texas National Guard Armory are next to, or near, this airport. It makes sense to continue building on these resources by having the airport serve as the air transportation hub for major emergency actions taken by the state and federal governments during times of emergency."
Preparing for natural, man-made threats
Following the economic catastrophe that hit the Valley last July in the form of Hurricane Dolly, a category 2 weather behemoth which caused extensive flooding and resulted in more than $1 billion in insurance claims, South Texans are no longer lulled into thinking that hurricanes can strike anywhere but here.
Equally ominous, continuing national news coverage of drug cartel-related violence, including deadly shoot-outs between powerful criminal organizations and Mexican police and military forces, has raised the possibilities of more state and federal police and military power coming to the region to prevent the drug wars from spilling over onto the Texas side of the border.
In early March, Gov. Rick Perry emphasized the need to fight the threat of "translation gangs in our communities," calling on state lawmakers to provide $135 million over the next two years, beginning in September, for border security measures.
“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,” 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.”
The bottom line, Martínez said, is the Valley is the largest population center along the Texas-Mexico border, and his legislation for the Mid-Valley Airport is needed to help protect the region from natural and man-made threats.
Valley economies to benefit
In addition to the public safety components, Martínez believes that allowing the Mid-Valley Airport to take on the responsibilities of homeland security for the Valley would be an economic boost for the entire region.
"The Valley is a growing economic powerhouse for Texas, and the state and federal governments must continue to invest in programs and policies designed specifically to protect our people and assets," he said. "The Mid-Valley Airport, and the surrounding law enforcement, public safety, and military resources, provide an important layer of civil defense that we need to help protect all our Valley residents. Designating the airport as the emergency response headquarters will pave the way for more public safety resources to be put into place."
Edinburg, which has included in its legislative agenda an effort to have its city-owned airport also designated as a state headquarters for disaster relief, would be able to concentrate on its major mission of transforming the South Texas International Airport at Edinburg into a major air freight cargo distribution center, Martínez said.
McAllen’s city-owned airport, McAllen/Miller International Airport, can focus on its efforts to increase commercial and private air passenger traffic.
"From the Mid-Valley Airport, we can get our emergency response resources quickly to any city in the Valley, especially to the coastal communities, which often get the hardest hit from tropical storms or hurricanes," Martínez said. "We are ready, willing, and able to serve as the disaster relief headquarters for our families, friends, and fellow citizens of this great region."
Hidalgo County Commissioner Handy indicted by federal government in immigration, payroll fraud
A six-count indictment charging Hidalgo County Precinct One Commissioner Sylvia Sue Handy-Espronceda, 52; her spouse, Juan Gabriel Espronceda, 35; María De Los Ángeles Landa de Hernández, 27; and Eloisa Andrade Uriegas, 58, with harboring aliens for financial gain was unsealed on Thursday, April 2, acting United States Attorney Tim Johnson has announced.
An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.
Handy has said she is innocent.
The defendants made their initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Peter Ormsby at 3 p.m. on April 2.
Handy and Espronceda, residents of Weslaco, were arrested on April 2 without incident. Handy and her husband are accused of orchestrating the fraudulent employment by Hidalgo County of Mexican nationals unlawfully in the United States beginning in March 2005.
The Indictment alleges that the primary object of the offenses was to have Hidalgo County monies pay for Handy and Espronceda’s child care and housekeeping provider, Handy’s servant services, and a $50,000 bill consolidation loan acquired by Handy.
According to allegations in the indictment, Handy would select a Mexican national who was unlawfully in the United States to be “hired” at her precinct. Handy would then direct Precinct One employees to process a fraudulent job application with the Mexican national’s unlawfully assumed identity.
Counts one and two allege that the fraudulent hiring was done with the purpose of having Hidalgo County monies pay for Handy and Espronceda’s child care provider/housekeeper, who was an undocumented alien they were harboring in their home.
Counts three and four allege that the fraudulent hiring was done so that an undocumented alien could be harbored and Hidalgo County monies could be used to pay for servant services and a bill consolidation loan Handy had acquired.
Counts five and six allege the fraudulent hiring was done so that an undocumented alien could be harbored and Hidalgo County monies could be used to pay for Handy’s child care/housekeeping provider and Handy’s bill consolidation loan.
As a result of Handy’s actions, according to the indictment, Hidalgo County paid in excess of $111,000 in fraudulently acquired salaries.
María De Los Ángeles Landa de Hernández, a Mexican national, voluntarily surrendered on April 2 to investigating agents. Hernández is accused in counts one and two of fraudulently signing time sheets and fraudulently endorsing and cashing Hidalgo County payroll checks.
Counts three and four allege Hernández was unlawfully in the United States between May 2001 and July 2005, concealed her presence though the use of an unlawfully assumed identity, submitted a fraudulent job application, fraudulently signed time sheets, fraudulently endorsed and cashed Hidalgo County payroll checks and used Hidalgo County monies to make monthly payments on Handy’s bill consolidation loan.
Counts five and six allege that between June 2005 through March 2006 Hernández’ participation included being unlawfully in the United States, concealing her presence through the use of an unlawfully assumed identity, fraudulently signing time sheets, fraudulently endorsing and cashing Hidalgo County payroll checks and using Hidalgo County monies to make monthly payments on Handy’s bill consolidation loan.
Eloísa Andrade Uriegas, a resident of McAllen, was arrested on April 2 without incident. Uriegas is charged in counts five and six of the Indictment. Uriegas’ alleged participation in the conspiracy included completing and submitting a fraudulent Hidalgo County job application in her name to facilitate the employment of Hernández and to acquire Social Security benefits for Uriegas. Additionally, Uriegas allegedly aided Handy and Hernández in acquiring Hidalgo County monies to harbor and conceal Hernández and aided in the payment of Hernández’ child care and housekeeping services to Handy and payment of Handy’s bill consolidation loan.
Each of the six counts carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison, without parole, and a $250,000 fine upon conviction.
The indictment was the result of an investigation conducted by the FBI, IRS Criminal Investigation and the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. The case will be prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel C. Rodríguez.
Sen. Hutchison co-sponsors measure to provide $550 million for U.S. efforts to fight Mexican drug cartels
By JEFF SADOSKY
After receiving a commitment from the amendment sponsors to include funding for local law enforcement along the border, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, on Tuesday, March 31, signed on as an original cosponsor to the Lieberman-Collins amendment to the Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 Budget.
The amendment would significantly strengthen U.S. efforts to fight violence caused by the Mexican drug cartels along the U.S.-Mexican border.
“We need to do more to put an end to the violence being spread along our border by drug cartels,” said Hutchison. “This amendment includes funding for our local police chiefs and sheriffs on the border, who too often find themselves outnumbered and outgunned, and it will fight the illegal flow of weapons into Mexico. These are two issues that I’ve worked on with Sen. Bingaman for many years.”
The amendment includes $260 million for Customs and Border Protection to hire, train, equip, and deploy 1,600 officers and 400 canine teams to the border to significantly increase the number of exit inspections. It also includes:
• $130 million to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for 350 full time investigators to work on firearm trafficking and money laundering investigations;
• $20 million for DHS to improve the tactical communications in the field for CBP and ICE;
• $20 million for CBP to modernize its database used to identify potential criminals at the ports of entry;
• $30 million for Operation Stonegarden to reimburse state and local law enforcement for their participation in border actions;
• $50 million to the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency to hire an additional 150 investigators and 50 inspectors to investigate firearms trafficking at the Mexican border;
• $10 million to provide assistance and equipment to local law enforcement along the Southern border and in the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas to combat criminal narcotics activity;
• $20 million for the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center at DHS to better coordinate investigations between federal, state, and local law enforcement;
• $10 million for DHS’ Office of International Affairs and the Undersecretary for Management to oversee implementation of the Merida Initiative and to increase its staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.
Senate approves $182 billion state budget, including $500 million more for workforce development
By SENATE MEDIA SERVICES
The Senate approved its version of the state budget on Wednesday, April 1, passing a bill that would spend $182 billion over the next two years.
This biennial budget is a seven percent increase over 2008-2009, but nearly half that growth is attributable to federal stimulus money. Actual state spending grows only about two percent per year over the next biennium, a fact Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst says shows the Senate’s commitment to fiscal responsibility.
"When families all around the state of Texas are tightening the belt," he said, "They know that, at least in the Legislature, our members are trying to do everything we can for people that are suffering."
Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who serves as the vice-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, led the workgroup on that panel that developed state funding for general government, the judiciary, natural resources, and regulatory services.
The Senate budget includes more money for higher education, including $134 million for student financial aid. Health and human services funding is up over last biennium, with $3.1 billion going to reduce waiting lists for state entitlement services. Most of the federal stimulus money for Texas would be spent on infrastructure construction, as well as $500 million for workforce development and re-training. Once House budget writers finish their version of the appropriations bill, members of both chambers will come together to formulate a final state budget, which should come up for a vote sometime in May.
The Senate passed two measures last week aimed at curbing drunk driving in Texas.
The first bill, SB 261 by Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, would expand the circumstances under which a drunk driving suspect would be compelled to take a breath or blood test. Suspects couldn’t refuse to give a sample if they have one prior felony intoxication conviction or two prior DWI convictions. They would also have to give a sample if they were pulled over while driving with a child in the car, or caused an accident that sends someone to the hospital.
The other bill, SB 298 by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, would permit the use of drunk driving checkpoints in urban counties. These checkpoints must be advertised prior to implementation in a newspaper or on the Internet, and cannot last longer than four hours. Locations must be determined based on prevalence of drunk driving, and not ethnic or socio-economic factors. A checkpoint could be set up at a given location only once a year, and a driver would be asked to show a driver’s license and insurance card only if there is a reasonable suspicion of drunk driving. Both bills now head to the House for further consideration.
In committee action last week, the Senate Business and Commerce Committee looked at a bill aimed at rebuilding the state’s catastrophic storm insurance fund. Bill sponsor Sen.Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said that the fund is almost depleted, and if another major hurricane hit the Texas coast, the state could owe as much as $80 billion in insurance payouts. This is because the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA), intended to be the insurer of last resort for coastal property holders, is now virtually the only entity writing insurance in that region. Fraser said this is a consequence of the low premiums offered through TWIA coupled with a lack of reinsurance for private underwriters.
Fraser acknowledged his plan won’t be popular with many people, because it asks both insurers and policy holders to help refill the catastrophic insurance fund, but he warned that the state must take action.
"Doing nothing is unacceptable. If we do nothing, we run the risk of bankrupting the state of Texas if we have a major storm," he said. His bill, SB 14, would require insurance companies to kick in $400 million to the fund, and would raise windstorm insurance premiums on coastal property owners by at least 20 percent. The bill remains before the committee.
Also in committee last week was a bill intended to expand coverage of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) by creating a buy in program for families currently above the eligibility limit of 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL).
The bill, SB 841 by Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, would create a graduated program that permits buy-in for families that earn up to 300 percent FPL, with the state contribution decreasing and the individual cost increasing as annual income approached that 300 percent level. Averitt believes this will get more children health insurance in Texas.
"I think we’re going to be able to attract more children who currently don’t have health insurance into the Children’s Health Insurance Program," said Averitt. The bill would also permit families that make more than 300 percent FPL, about $66,000 for a family of four, to buy insurance through CHIP, though they would have to pay the entire cost of the premium.
The Senate reconvened on Monday, April 6 at 1:30 p.m.
Senate clarifies how Texas funds, develops toll roads; also targets trans-fats in foods served by restaurants
By SENATE MEDIA SERVICES
The Senate approved two measures on Monday, April 6, aimed at codifying the way the state funds and develops toll roads.
When comprehensive development agreements (CDA) were approved by the Legislature in 2003, the law was unclear about who had authority to enter into a public-private partnership to build and manage a toll road. Many different regional mobility and toll authorities sprung up around the state, some with overlapping jurisdictions and authorities.
According to Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, it was only a matter of time until this led to serious confusion and disagreements.
"Truly there have been so many types of toll entities put together over a relatively short period of time…how they interact with each other, who has first right, what terms should be in [agreements], none of that has ever been established," he said. "Eventually those entities were going to collide."
Nichols said this led to a moratorium on public-private partnership toll projects for two years. His bill, SB 17, intends to make a fair, clear process to govern the CDA process in Texas.
SB 17 would give a regional toll authority first right of refusal to decide whether or not to develop a toll road as a public project. If the regional authority passes, then the Texas Department of Transportation could decide whether to develop the road as a public project. If neither body opts for the public route, then the regional toll authority gets first right to decide whether to develop the road as a private project. If they pass, then again TxDOT can decide to develop the road as a private project.
The bill also includes safeguards to ensure the public’s right of ownership over the project. A private entity developing a toll road must determine what the buy-back rate of the project up front; they cannot wait until the state or governmental entity wants to buy it back and then set the rate. It also restricts non-compete clauses, which could prevent the state from building roads near the private toll project, to 30 years and the non-compete zone only extends four miles from the toll road.
The Senate also approved a bill that would extend the ability of entities to enter into a CDA. The original enabling legislation set a sunset date on new public-private partnerships to September of 2009. SB 404, by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, would extend this deadline six more years, until September 1, 2015.
Restaurants in Texas would have to turn to healthier cooking fats and oils under a bill filed by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso.
Trans-fats are artificially produced fats that are believed to increase the risk of heart disease even at low levels of consumption. With obesity-related health care costs continuing to mount, Shapleigh said the state needs to do something about this public health issue.
"Across Texas, a silent epidemic of obesity is shortening lives, raising health care costs and putting more and more Texans at risk," he said. "With Senate Bill 204…we can make sure that more Texans live strong and healthy lives."
His bill would prohibit restaurants and other food service businesses from using trans-fats to package, store, prepare or serve food. Violators would be subject to a $25 to $200 fine. Shapleigh said that because 15 cities and California have passed similar laws, a market for healthy alternatives to trans-fats already exists.
He also doesn’t buy the arguments that this is an issue of personal responsibility.
"I think we heard, word for word, those same arguments for smoking, about 25 years ago, when you got on an airplane," he said. "What this will do is push healthier choices in restaurants, and make sure that those choices are available in Texas."
Shapleigh was joined at the press conference by Glen Garey, the general council for the Texas Restaurant Association, which supports the bill.
Sen. Lucio opposes legislation he says would increase coastal insurance premiums by up to 40 percent
By DORIS SÁNCHEZ
During the Senate Business and Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday, April 1, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, spoke out in defense of coastal residents and against Senate Bill 14, which would require residents of 28 coastal counties to pay rates of up to 40 percent higher for coverage under the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA).
Known as the Texas Catastrophe Property Insurance Association until September 1, 1997, TWIA provides wind and hail coverage to applicants unable to obtain insurance in the voluntary market and is authorized to write limited coverage for wind and hail in areas designated by the commissioner of insurance as "catastrophe areas."
Lucio’s comments follow:
This bill uses large surcharges to shift the majority of the burden of payment for TWIA from statewide policy holders to TWIA and coastal area policy holders. Quite frankly, this bill pits one area of the state against another.
We are all part of this great state and this bill seems to ignore all of the ways our coastal communities positively impact the rest of the state. Our coasts are an important tourist destination. Our ports serve as a critical entry point for goods that the entire state needs and wants. Texas’ oil refineries are located here.
No one seems to complain about all of the economic activity the coast generates for the state of Texas.
As a Texan, I don’t mind paying a little bit more on my policy to help those who have lost a home to a tornado or whose property has been severely damaged because of hail. They’ve suffered a catastrophe through no fault of their own, and I consider it my duty, as a member of this state, to support their recovery. This bill will put an unforgivable burden on Texans along our coast. They survived Dolly, Rita and Ike, and we’re thinking about making it even harder for them to move forward.
During the committee hearing on SB 14, there were statements made about the state subsidizing the lifestyle of Texans who choose to live on the coast through the current TWIA funding system. This statement is a gross mischaracterization of reality. Almost 24 percent of the state’s population lives along the coast. Moreover, 44 percent of Texas’ total income and 40 percent of all jobs are connected to the Texas Gulf Coast area.
If a Katrina level storm had hit our coast, the loss to the state would have been $52.2 billion in gross state product – the sum of all value added by industries within the state. There would have been a loss of 617,000 jobs and a loss of $1.8 billion in annual state revenue.
Not everybody along the coast lives in $2 million homes. Probably more do in Barton Creek (Austin subdivision) than in my district! These are average folks working to make a modest living in this coastal area.
The following areas are designated as catastrophe areas: the fourteen coastal counties (Aransas, Brazoria, Calhoun, Cameron, Chambers, Galveston, Jefferson, Kenedy, Kleberg, Matagorda, Nueces, Refugio, San Patricio, and Willacy) and those areas in Harris County that are located east of State Highway 146 and inside the city limits of the cities of Seabrook, La Porte, Shoreacres, Pasadena, and Morgan’s Point.
Edinburg man allegedly involved in arrest of Mission Border Patrol agent indicted on federal charges
A Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer has been arrested following the filing of a criminal complaint accusing him of bribery, alien smuggling and drug charges, acting United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced on Wednesday, April 2.
A criminal complaint is a accusation of criminal conduct, it is not evidence. Defendants are presumed innocent unless convicted through due process of law.
CBP officer Raul Montano Jr., 34, and Jaime Izaguirre-Leal, 39, an illegal alien from Mexico residing in Edinburg, were arrested on April 2 by agents of the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Professional Responsibility (ICE-OPR) as a result of the filing of a sealed criminal complaint signed by U.S. Magistrate Felix Recio in Brownsville.
Montano is charged with bribery, conspiracy and smuggling and transporting illegal aliens, conspiracy to import cocaine, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, and importation and possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
Izaguirre-Leal is charged with conspiring to and possessing with intent to distribute cocaine, conspiracy to import and importation of cocaine.
Montano, a U.S. citizen who resides in Weslaco, assigned to the Brownsville Gateway Port of Entry in Brownsville, was arrested this morning at the Port of Entry while on duty.
Izaguirre-Leal, an illegal alien from Mexico living in Edinburg, was arrested at his residence. Both are expected to make their initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Felix Recio on Friday, April 3, at 10:30 a.m. The United States expects to seek the temporary detention of both men pending a hearing on the issue of detention without bond pending further criminal proceedings.
According to allegations in the criminal complaint, which was unsealed on April 2 following the arrest of the defendants, Montano notified others when he would be working a particular lane at the Brownsville Gateway Port of Entry. That information was provided to drivers, including Izaguirre-Leal, who would then drive through Montano’s lane in vehicles carrying aliens, cocaine or sometimes both. Within days, Montano would be paid by one of the drivers for allowing the crossing of the undocumented aliens and contraband into the United States.
The charged drug offenses carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years with a maximum of life imprisonment and a $4 million fine. The charged immigration violations carry a maximum punishment of 10 years imprisonment. A conviction for bribery carries a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment. The immigration and bribery offenses also carry a maximum fine of $250,000.
The charges are the result of a joint investigation conducted by local agents of the FBI and ICE-OPR.
Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Ramón to participate in new initiative to improve elections
By CARI LAMBRECHT
Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón will participate in a new initiative established by Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade to improve key election forms used by voters and election officials across the state.
Ramón will serve with nine other county election officials from across Texas in a users group that will evaluate and recommend changes to the forms.
Hundreds of forms are used in the election process to accomplish such tasks as registering to vote, obtaining a ballot by mail, filing for a place on the ballot and completing various affidavits at the polling place, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
“Our goal is to ensure these forms are user-friendly to citizens, poll workers and other election officials,” said Andrade. “County election officials will be valuable in this effort since they have expertise in processing the forms and often work directly with citizens and candidates that fill out these forms.”
The users group will meet in Austin on April 15 to begin work on the first group of forms to be reviewed. The group will evaluate the wording and design of the forms and make recommendations to improve readability and comprehension. They will also evaluate if any forms are duplicative and could be combined or eliminated.
The Secretary of State’s Office plans to have some of the new forms available for the November election.
“I am honored to be part of this Elections Form User Group,” Ramón said. “Our department is working diligently to make changes that will improve the election process for Hidalgo County, so being chosen to be part of a decision-making faction fits perfectly into our course of action.”
Congressman Hinojosa announces the release of emergency funding to local school districts
By TENO VILLARREAL
Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, announced on Wednesday, April 2, that an estimated $72 million in emergency education funding has been released for schools in the 15th congressional district to help save education-related jobs and maintain programs for low-income students and students with disabilities. Specifically, schools in the 15th congressional district will receive an estimated $45 million in Title I funds and an estimated $27 million in IDEA funds.
Nationwide, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides $13 billion in Title I funds, which helps low-income students, and $13.5 billion in IDEA funds, which helps students with disabilities. This is the first of two installments of direct funding for Title I and IDEA programs that school districts will receive under President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; the second installment of funds will be released to districts in the fall of this year.
“This is great news for the students, teachers, and families of Deep South Texas” Hinojosa said. “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act promised to bring relief to our communities and this announcement is further proof that help is on the way. These funds are going to be put to work in our schools quickly and they will help protect jobs, improve schools, and support our families.”
In addition to the Title I and IDEA investments, the economic recovery plan also created a state stabilization fund to help stabilize state and local budgets and restore harmful cuts to education. States can also now apply for this funding. The Obama administration also issued guidelines on the use of these funds and what role states, school districts, and colleges and universities play in determining what the priorities are for funding.
The guidelines confirm that while states allocate the funds, it should be up to local school districts and colleges and universities to decide how to use this emergency aid, not up to states. The guidelines also reaffirmed that state stabilization funds should be used for three goals: to backfill harmful cuts to elementary and secondary education and higher education, to stave off teacher layoffs, and to modernize school facilities – which could create new jobs. State stabilization funds can be used for any purpose allowable under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including school modernization.
IDEA is the major federal program that provides funding for special education and related services to students with disabilities. The Title I program provides funds to low-income school districts that are in even greater need during the economic downturn. The funds appropriated through the Recovery Plan are distributed through the previously defined IDEA and Title I formulas.
Gov. Perry suggests that Internet, with its pros and cons, changing the fate of Texas daily newspapers
Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Texas Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio – all Republicans – were special guests at the 2009 Texas Daily Newspapers Association convention held in Corpus Christi on Monday, March 23.
Perry spoke of tough times in the economy and newspaper industries and stated that Texas has the most transparent government of any state in the U.S. Hutchison, while focused on the national scene, left no doubt she was interested in a run for governor in 2010.
Perry’s remarks, which he drew from his his prepared speech, follows:
Thank you, Gary [Borders, TDNA Board Chairman] and thank you all for inviting me here today.
It is a treat to speak with the folks who call the shots at media outlets across the state, and share with you my new plan to boost your readership.It’s pretty simple, really—just make sure you put my picture on the front page of every issue with an article that says nice things about me.
I don’t have any research to back up my idea, it’s more of a gut feeling, but maybe you could give it a try for a year or so, and see how it affects your circulation numbers.
I kid, but I do appreciate the pressures that you’re experiencing in your industry. There is no question that our world is changing and you’re being challenged to keep pace.
My interest in your future is driven by a firm belief in a free press…and a belief that its demise would coincide that that of our republic.
Like any elected official, we have had an up and down relationship. Fortunately, we tend to share a love for Texas, a passion for justice, and a commitment to freedom.
We might differ on the way to lead our state, but I am energized by engagement with passionate people, who are willing to defend their position, and challenge me to defend mine.
I admire folks who have devoted their life to the news business. It’s not an easy way to make a living, but most ink-stained wretches I’ve known aren’t drawn to your business just for a paycheck, the business essentially chooses them.
There is a public service component to your calling that is a lot like mine. We’re the kind of folks who want to make a difference.
In that way, I suspect you and the elected officials who have descended on Austin for another legislative session are a lot alike. Perhaps the main difference is that we get measured by votes and you light candles to the gods of circulation numbers and ad sales.
We also share in common a shrinking supply of resources as we go about our life’s work. In your world, you find yourself battling the inroads that the Internet is making on your audiences and advertisers. In mine, we’re working with the Legislature to forge a balanced budget in the midst of global economic turmoil.
We both know that throwing up our hands and complaining doesn’t move us in the right direction, which is why we’re all examining innovative approaches to succeeding in tougher times, keeping spending down while looking to invest in those things that are proven to create forward progress.
For you, that may be investing in an expanded Web presence, email marketing and promotional partnerships.
For us, that means holding government spending down, while seeking to replenish key economic development efforts, like the Enterprise Fund, Emerging Technology Fund and Film Incentives.
No matter how much your industry changes in the months and years to come, I don’t believe that spirit of public service will change, but the way it is lived out is probably going to look different.
I mentioned earlier that I am a long-time customer of daily papers, but I’m also using electronic media more and more with every passing day.
It’s hard to beat the immediacy of Twitter, or match the intimacy of Facebook, and even harder to verify the accuracy, objectivity or authorship of a blog.
I’ve noticed a lot of print reporters walking the halls of the capitol weighed down with video equipment. I’ve even seen the legendary video of the Statesman’s Mike Ward laying on the floor of the rotunda, while he shared his thoughts on the legislative session.
I’ve also seen the Rocky Mountain News going out of business, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer going all-electronic.
Times are changing and, in a lot of ways, the Internet has turned the media business into the Wild West. That’s good when you consider the enormous potential, but not so good if a spirit of lawlessness takes hold.
I find that some of the greatest dangers in life take shape in the absence of accountability.
When a blogger can write under a pseudonym, or a person can comment on an article under the name “anonymous,” they can be as hurtful, inaccurate and irresponsible as they like.
When a government can make financial decisions in the darkness, hidden from the inquiring eyes of its citizens, great harm can take root as well.
That’s why I’m continuing to press for more transparency in the way public entities spend taxpayer dollars.
I believe that our citizens are a whole lot smarter than those they elect would sometimes like to admit. The more we can do to listen and respond to their needs the better off we will all be.
We have seen a positive trend in citizen involvement that has grown out of putting our state agencies’ checkbooks online.
I was proud to read that Sunshine Week recently tagged Texas as the number one state in terms of government transparency. When people know how much money is going where, to whom, and for what, they do not hesitate to express their opinion. That’s a great thing in a free society.
That’s why I would like to see even more financial transparency at the local level and at our institutions of higher education. When taxpayers can see where their dollars are going, it causes those spending the dollars to be a little more diligent, and it keeps them connected to reality a whole lot better.
The whole notion of transparency is the foundation of your industry and a responsibility that will keep you relevant in the years to come.
I wish I could predict the future for your companies, but I would say that you are in the best possible state to be in business. Generally speaking, as other states are shedding jobs and population, Texas has done better than average.
I believe that our low taxes, controlled government spending and fair legal system give us a leg up on other states, and will ultimately get us healthier quicker than anyone else.
Like oil companies did after the tough times in the 80’s, I hope your industry will continue to innovate, seek out new markets, and emerge from these tough times stronger than ever.
You are essential to a free society, and a vital part of the Texas community.
I pray that God will bless your labors and that, through you, he will continue to bless the great state of Texas.
Sun-Times Media Group latest major newspaper publisher to file for bankruptcy protection
Sun-Times Media Group, Inc. on Tuesday, March 31, announced that it and certain affiliates (the "Company") filed voluntary petitions under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The filing was made earlier today in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware.
The company and its principal operating subsidiary, the Sun-Times News Group, will continue to operate its newspapers and online sites as usual while it focuses on further improving its cost structure and stabilizing operations. The company has retained Rothschild Inc. to commence a process for the sale of assets pursuant to Section 363 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The Company believes it has sufficient financial resources to continue customary day-to-day operations during this process.
The company operates 59 newspapers and their corresponding online sites. Those titles include: the Chicago Sun-Times, the SouthtownStar, Beacon News (Aurora), Courier-News (Elgin), Herald News (Joliet), Lake County News-Sun (Waukegan), Naperville Sun, Post-Tribune (Merrillville, Ind.), and weeklies published by Pioneer Press and Fox Valley Publications. The company also publishes free shoppers and content on all of its corresponding online news sites and other sites such as YourSeason.com.
"Over the past several months, the company has taken several steps to reduce costs and strengthen our organization. However, the significant downturn in the print advertising environment that has affected newspapers across the country has continued to severely impact us," said Jeremy L. Halbreich, Chairman and Interim Chief Executive Officer of Sun-Times Media Group. "Unfortunately, this deteriorating economic climate, coupled with a significant, pending IRS tax liability dating back to previous management, has led us to today’s difficult action. Importantly, we firmly believe that filing for Chapter 11 protection and exploring the potential sale of assets or new investment in the Company offers us the best opportunity to protect our respected media properties for the long-term."
Halbreich added, "With today’s filing, it will be business as usual as we continue to operate our newspapers and online sites. We provide the area’s best source of local news and information and remain committed to continuing to serve our readers, advertisers, and communities. We have enjoyed a long, rich history in the Chicago area and our goal is to preserve and sustain these strong print and online news and information assets that are such an integral part of the fabric of Chicago and its neighboring communities."
The company intends to move through the Chapter 11 process as quickly as possible and expects the process to be completed in 2009.
The Sun-Times Media Group’s legal advisor is Kirkland & Ellis and its financial advisor is Rothschild Inc. Huron Consulting Group is acting as restructuring advisor to the Company.
More information about the Sun-Times Media Group’s bankruptcy case is available by clicking on the "Chapter 11 Information" link at http://www.thesuntimesgroup.com.
Sun-Times Media Group, Inc. endeavors to be the premier source of local news and information for the greater Chicago area. Its media properties include the Chicago Sun-Times and Suntimes.com as well as newspapers and Web sites serving more than 300 communities across Chicago. Further information, including updates about the reorganization, can be found at http://www.thesuntimesgroup.com.
Congressman Hinojosa notes 82nd anniversary of U.S. farmworker labor leader César Chávez
By TENO VILLARREAL
Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, released the following statement in honor of the 82nd anniversary of César Chávez’ birthday on March 31st:
“Today, we celebrate the birthday of a great American hero, César Chávez. His life taught us that dignity and sacrifice can inspire a movement and bring about change. His work with the United Farm Workers, especially his activities in Deep South Texas, helped shine a bright light on the issue of workers rights and the educational needs of migrant families and seasonal farm workers.
César Chávez knew first hand the hardships faced by migrant farm workers and their families. Working the fields he saw the injustice, the poverty, and the poor health conditions that faced these families who were working to make America the breadbasket of the world Throughout his life he fought to improve these conditions not only for his fellow farm workers, but for all American workers and their families. César Chávez served as an example to all of us who live in this great country of how important it is to serve and work for the betterment of others.
I am proud to continue supporting Mr. Chávez’ efforts by supporting the programs and policies he advocated. We should fight to see that every child receives a quality education so they can obtain a good paying job. American workers should have health care and safe working conditions and the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families.
“Today, on César Chávez’ birthday, let us once again remember that change can be achieved by working together. There is nothing we cannot accomplish if we believe in our cause and commit ourselves to it. In his famous words, let us always remember “Sí Se Puede!”
STC trustee Manuel Benavidez played major roles in key developments, successes of South Texas College
By ROSE BENAVIDEZ
Manuel Benavidez, Jr., a life time resident and proponent of Starr County, entered into eternal rest at his home in La Grulla, Texas, March 28, after a two-year battle with Merkel Cell Cancer. He was 57.
A former migrant farm worker, he was driven by his personal trials and experiences to improve the quality of life for his community by providing access to higher education and enhancing local services.
He began his advocacy by facilitating numerous presentations and taking an active leadership role in the local, state, and national Migrant Council Conferences.
In 1993, Gov. Ann Richards appointed him as a founding member of the South Texas Community College – later renamed South Texas College – Board of Trustees to represent Starr County in the development of a new community college district, legislatively created to serve the needs of over 600,000 people in Hidalgo and Starr counties previously not served by a community college.
He was elected to a six-year term in May 2000 and re-elected in May 2006. As a trustee, he served as Chair, Vice Chair and Secretary of the Board of Trustees.
Benavidez was instrumental in helping galvanize a successful campaign to encourage voters to approve a taxing district and authorization to issue $20 million in bonds for the initial construction of five campuses/centers for STC.
During his term as Chair, he played a critical role in helping the College pass a $98.7 million bond election for the construction and expansion of the College’s five campuses/centers and an additional tax increase to fund the operating costs of the College.
His community work and efforts in bringing higher education to the region were recognized when the Starr County Commissioners’ Court declared November 2002 as "Manuel Benavidez, Jr. Month" in Starr County. State representatives and local officials joined the college in honoring him by recognizing his many contributions to increase access to higher education and a better quality of life in Starr County.
Benavidez was a passionate advocate for community colleges and maintained close communication with members of the Texas Legislature to promote for expanded access to higher education and additional higher education funding for STC and the communities it serves.
He was always on the forefront of championing many innovative programs for STC and the deep South Texas region of the state. His testimony before the Texas Legislature was instrumental to passing House Bill 415 (HB 415), which allows eligible high school students to dually enroll in college level technical courses while attending high school.
Through the dual enrollment program, students receive both high school and college credit for their coursework. This opportunity was not previously available to Texas high school students prior to the passage of HB 415. Texas families have benefited significantly and saved millions in tuition because the tuition costs are waived for students in dual enrollment programs.
Because of his leadership in the passage of HB 415, STC was able to implement a Dual Enrollment Medical Science Academy (DEMSA) in Fall 2005 to serve high school students in Starr County and which was expanded to include a Dual Enrollment Engineering Academy (DEEA) for high school students in McAllen and Weslaco. Students in these programs will earn both a high school diploma and an Associate of Science degree.
Benavidez was involved since the genesis and was an articulate advocate before the Texas Legislature to represent STC in its successful bid to become one of three Texas community colleges selected by the Texas Legislature to pilot offering the bachelor’s of applied technology.
His vision of a Rural Technology Center for Starr County became a reality with the passage of HB 2235 authored by Representative Ryan Guillen. The grant program under the office of Rural Community Affairs funded the $3.5 million construction and equipping of a state-of-the-art rural technology center for the residents of Starr County, a project he championed throughout the preceding three legislative sessions before it became a reality.
Two weeks ago, South Texas College, paid tribute to his commitment by naming the facility in his honor.
Additionally during a recent special legislative session, he was successful in helping the Legislature appropriate $6 million in funding for the University of Texas-Pan American to construct an upper level university center in Starr County. This new facility will open the door for numerous partnerships between the community college and the university.
Benavidez’ leadership for community colleges extended to the state, regional and national levels. In 2005, he was recognized at the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) Annual Congress as the recipient of the Lifetime Membership Award for his exemplary leadership and strong support in the areas of diversity and equal opportunity. His service to the nation’s community colleges extends well beyond serving the citizens of Starr County and the students of STC.
He served on the ACCT Board of Directors from 2003 to 2005 and served as the chair of the ACCT Diversity Committee from 2003 to 2005. He was also the Western Region representative for the Association of Latino Community College Trustees. His efforts on behalf of STC received national acclaim and in 2006 he earned the Western Region Trustee Leadership Award, given by the ACCT. He was one of five regional award winners selected from nominees located across three countries, including the United States, Canada and England.
Benavidez had a long tenure as an active participant in local and state public education and community service. He had served on the board of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Workforce Development Board and also served as President of the Association of Texas Professional Educators in Rio Grande City; as area V Director for the Texas Association of Pupil Transportation and President for the South Texas Association for Pupil Transportation.
He served as the Board Chair of the Starr County Housing Authority and continued to be actively involved making affordable housing available in the community. He also served as the past Chair for the Starr County Democratic Party.
Born in La Grulla in 1952, Benavidez graduated from high school in Rio Grande City, he received a bachelor’s degree from Pan American University in 1986, completing a major in bilingual education. After beginning as an educator, in 1994 he was named Transportation Director for the RGCCISD, where he remained for the rest of his professional life.
He was preceded in death by his father Manuel P. Benavidez, and his mother Maria Elsa. In addition to his wife, Rosario V., he is survived by five children, including Rosie, Manuel IV, Sofia, Ande and Ben; two grand children, Dominique Marie and Manuel V; two brothers Jose and Roberto and sister Alicia Panzarino.
The funeral arrangements were as follows:
Viewing was held Tuesday, March 31, at noon in the Sanchez Funeral Home, 301 E. 2nd Street in Rio Grande City. A rosary followed at 7 p.m.
Viewing was also continued on Wednesday, April 1, 2009 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Funeral Mass was held Wednesday, April 1, 2009, at 2 p.m. at Holy Family Catholic Church Church, 107 W. Private Lazaro Solis Street in La Grulla.
A memorial service celebrating the life of Benavidez followed the mass service at the Golden Hill Ballroom (Rd. 2360 & Hwy. 83), Alto Bonito, at 4 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made to the Manuel Benavidez, Jr. Migrant Student Memorial Scholarship.
Attorney General Abbott launches cyber safety education public service announcements statewide
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Wednesday, April 1, joined with the Texas Cable Association to launch a statewide education campaign that will protect Texas children from Internet predators. For the next three months, cable service providers will broadcast cyber safety public service announcements in every metropolitan area in Texas.
The public awareness campaign comes on the heels of a series of sex offender arrests by the Attorney General’s Fugitive Unit. The arrests involved convicted sex offenders who used the Internet in violation of their parole. Some suspects established profiles with online social networking Web sites, like MySpace.com.
“Sophisticated, dangerous child predators are using the Internet to prey upon young children,” Abbott said. “The public service announcements launched today help educate parents and children about the dangers posed by Internet predators. Thanks to the Texas Cable Association, a critically important safety message will reach families all across the state.”
One of the PSAs addresses the anonymity that the Internet affords online predators – and explains how predators use anonymity to disguise their identity, pose as children, and lure young users into predatory online discussions. The second PSA highlights how cyber predators use Internet chat rooms and social networking Web sites to arrange meetings with children.
The Texas Cable Association is a coalition of cable television companies that provide service to Texans across the state.
Robert V. Moel, chairman of Texas Cable Association and regional vice president of operations for Time Warner Cable’s North Texas division, said: “We’re pleased to be able to devote air time on our cable systems throughout Texas, at no charge, to this important campaign to warn parents and children about the dangers of online predators. As the Internet has expanded to include social media sites like MySpace and YouTube, so have the number of child predators who continually find creative ways to target innocent children.”
Ray Purser, vice chairman of Texas Cable Association and vice president of government and public relations for Comcast, said: “The cable industry has a long-standing commitment to help parents manage the media coming into their home using innovative parental controls – whether it’s over the television or on the Internet. And our partnership with the Attorney General’s office is another tool to help accomplish our goal of keeping families safe.”
Kevin Allen, director of government affairs for Charter Communications, said: “As a father of two small children, I want what all parents want for their kids – the opportunity for children to enjoy a fulfilling and safe experience online. By airing the public service announcements on our cable systems, our aim is to raise awareness of how to protect kids from cyber stalkers.”
During a series of news conferences announcing the public service announcements, Abbott discussed the suspects recently arrested by the Fugitive Unit. Gary Dee Gause, 54, of Fort Worth was arrested after he maintained a MySpace.com account in violation of his parole. He was paroled after serving 25 years in prison for sexually assaulting two women in 1982 – one in Harris County and the other in Tarrant County. The Fugitive Unit also arrested Michael Jermain Harris, 26, of Houston for violating his parole.
After Harris’ 2004 conviction for attempted sexual assault a 14-year-old girl, he was paroled and prohibited from using the Internet. Despite that prohibition, Harris logged onto the Internet and maintained a MySpace.com account and a Facebook.com account. A third suspect, Brian William Yoas, 27, of Austin, was arrested by the Fugitive Unit for violating his parole by logging onto the Internet and maintaining a MySpace.com account. In 2005, Yoas was convicted in Williamson County of possessing and intending to distribute child pornography.
Since taking office, Abbott has earned a national reputation for aggressively arresting and prosecuting online child predators. Since 2003, the Fugitive Unit and the Cyber Crimes Unit, which protects children from online sexual exploitation, have arrested 33 men for accessing the Internet and maintaining online social networking accounts in violation of their parole.
Morse code and its use in South Texas to be featured on April 19 at Museum of South Texas History
By JOEL A. GARZA
For more than 100 years, the telegraph was a primary source of communication among individuals separated by large distances. Today the technology seems obsolete with the advances made to make communicating easier. However, the code is still as useful as it was 50 years ago.
The Museum of South Texas History’s Sunday Speaker Series presents Fred Mann and Bill Parry’s Code is Still Alive on Sunday, April 19 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Morse code was developed in the United States by Samuel Morse in the 1840’s. The code is essentially a simple way to represent letters and numbers using long and short pulses. Morse telegraphy became the standard method of electrical communication throughout the United States, Europe and Mexico.
Code is Still Alive will explore the history of Morse code in south Texas and its many uses today. Mann and Parry will also demonstrate the sending and receiving of a coded message. Practice sending your own message on the telegraph machine located in the River Crossroads exhibit at the museum.
Mann is currently a professor of Journalism at the University of Texas- Pan American. Mann received his Bachelors degree at Texas A&M–Kingsville in History and Geography, and his Masters from Texas A&M–Commerce in Education Technology with a concentration on Television. He served honorably as a commissioned officer, Major, in an infantry branch in the United States Army Reserve, and is now retired.
Parry was raised in the Rio Grande Valley and received his Bachelors and Masters from Texas A&M University. He has an extensive career in education throughout San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley, retiring as principal of Nikki Rowe High School in 2001. He currently teaches Education Administration part time at the Education Service Center in Edinburg.
Presentations in the Sunday Speaker Series are included with admission to the museum. All FRIENDS of the Museum enjoy free admission. For more information on the Sunday Speaker Series, or becoming a FRIEND of the Museum, call 956/383.6911, or visit http://www.mosthistory.org.
The Museum of South Texas History is located on the Courthouse Square in downtown Edinburg.