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Thousands of U.S. military families who come the Lone Star State will no longer have to pay the more expensive out-of-state tuition and fees to attend any of Texas’ public colleges and universities, and any student whose parent is deployed into a combat zone will pay no tuition and fees while the parent serves in harm’s way, according to Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, who served as a sponsor of the law. In this portrait, taken in Houston with Flores featured second from left, Perry signs into law a related measure that contains language drafted by Flores which will give up to a 100 percent exemption from all home property taxes for Texas veterans who are disabled as a result of physical and mental wounds suffered as a direct result of their U.S. military service.  On November 3, Texans will participate in a statewide election regarding Proposition 8 – another measure passed last spring by Flores – which is designed to speed up the state’s involvement in bringing a Veterans Administration Hospital to South Texas. Senate Bill 297, sponsored by Flores, which lowers tuition and fees for many veterans and their families, is the latest round in a series of major laws authored or sponsored by Flores last spring that will help many of Texas’ estimated 1.7 million veterans. See story later in this posting. 

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Lions Club leaders and members recently finalized an agreement with South Texas College administrators to set up new student chapters at three campus locations in McAllen, Weslaco and Rio Grande City.  Featured, seated from left: Lions Club member Salvador Claflin, who is a STC assistant professor of government; Joe Treviño, Lions Club District 2-A3 Governor; STC President Shirley A. Reed; and Lions Club P.D.G. Ernesto De Léon. Featured standing, middle row, from left: William Serrata, STC Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management; Joe Guerra, Lions Club member; Mark Alvarado, Second Vice District Governor; Raúl Leal, Lions Club member; and Jesús Rodriguez, McAllen Palm City Lions Club President. Featured standing, back row, from left: Juan Mejia, STC Vice President for Academic Affairs; Jerry Inmon, Lions Club Member; Mike Shannon, STC Dean of Student Life; and Armando Ponce, STC Coordinator of Student Activities. See story later in this posting. 

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The McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, August 12, will host its Legislative “Report Card” Dinner beginning at enter time at the McAllen Country Club. State legislators, including (from left) Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grandey City, Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, and Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, will have the opportunity to mingle and talk with members of the community and give a report on the recently concluded legislative session and plans for the legislative interim and next session. There is a fee to attend, however: sponsorships for the event include the following rates: Presidential $3,000; Governor $2,000; Statesman $1,000; and Civic Leader, $500. All sponsors will get to sit with an elected official. Individual tickets are $35. For more information on the Legislative Dinner and/or to buy tickets, call the McAllen Hispanic Chamber at 928/0060. Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, and Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, are also scheduled to participate.  

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McAllen construction magnate Alonzo Cantú, featured right with Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, was successful in helping convince the Edinburg City Council to invest more than $2 million towards the construction of a planned $14 million Edinburg Medical Conference Center, which will be owned by Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. Cantú, who is a leader of the DHR Board of Directors, says the state-of-the-art medical facility will have many benefits for the region and the city, including creating almost 300 new jobs, and could help bring to Hidalgo County a planned University of Texas medical school authorized by legislation co-authored last spring by Hinojosa.  The site for the medical school, which is scheduled to begin construction in 2015, will be determined by the UT System Board of Regents.  See the lead story on the Edinburg Medical Conference Center later in this posting. 

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Doctors Hospital at Renaissance lands $2.25 million from Edinburg to help build key $14 million center

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

Without any comment during the meeting by the elected leadership, the Edinburg City Council on Wednesday, August 5, unanimously approved giving Doctors Hospital at Renaissance up to $2.25 million from a special city fund that will go towards helping build the planned $14 million Edinburg Medical Conference Center. 

Although the planned 54,000-square-foot structure showcase Edinburg in its official name, it will be owned by DHR, which is one of a growing number of hospitals nationwide whose principal owners are physicians.   

McAllen construction magnate Alonzo Cantú is a leader of the board of directors at DHR. McAllen City Commissioner Jim Darling is DHR’s legal counsel. Both men have addressed the city council in previous public sessions to promote the construction of the facility and lobbied for the city’s financial help, neither of them were present for the August 5 city council meeting. 

Cantú has also previously said once work begins on the medical conference center, the hospital leaders will also begin moving on a related plan to build a 100-room hotel, also be located near the conference center.  That facility would be designed to host families of DHR patients as well as provide lodging for participants attending all events at the Edinburg Medical Conference Center. 

The state-of-the-art facility, to be located on the local hospital system’s second of its two major campuses in southwest Edinburg, must be completed within 18 months as part of the development deal that city leaders contend will bring with it almost 300 jobs and an improved quality-of-life for the community. 

In addition, the DHR has agreed to allow the the city government the use of the center to host – at no cost to Edinburg – various community events.  Details on which portions of the facility and the number of times the city can use the Edinburg Medical Conference Center are not included in the contract.  Hospital officials say those aspects will be hammered out at a later date. 

Conflict of interest provision 

Also as part of the contract, which is a public document available from the City Secretary’s Office, the mayor and city council members state they are not in conflict of interest. 

In general, a conflict of interest is defined as any situation in which an individual or corporation (either private or governmental) is in a position to exploit a professional or official capacity in some way for their personal or corporate benefit. 

The city’s definition of a conflict of interest in its contract with DHR is stated accordingly: 

"The City of Edinburg represents and warrants that the real estate does not include any property that is owned by a member of its board having responsibility for approval of this Agreement." 

The first half of that amount – $1,125,000 – will be paid to DHR when the hospital system receives the building permit from the city for construction of the 54,000-square-foot conference center. The balance will be paid once DHR receives a certificate of completion from the city. 

Initially, DHR leaders had requested $4 million, but that figure was shaved to up to $2.25 million, which left enough money available from the Restricted Medical Authority Appropriations Fund to provide up to $1 million for an unrelated health project being sought by the Boys and Girls Club of the Rio Grande Valley, which primarily serves Edinburg.   

City manager provides overview 

In his letter to the city council, City Manager J.J. Rodríguez noted that DHR recently invested $85 million for the construction of a major addition to its flagship hospital. 

According to Rodríguez, the city has concluded that helping contribute to the construction of the Edinburg Medical Conference Center will have numerous public benefits, including: 

• Advancing physicians’ health educational programs to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of medical ailments; 

• Providing a venue for the medical community to inform and educate the citizens of Edinburg and surrounding communities of the medical resources and procedures available in the area; and 

• Bringing in specialists for training that has not previously been available to our medical community, thereby enhancing the availability of medical care for the inhabitants and citizens of Edinburg. 

McAllen City Commissioner Darling’s letter 

Some of Rodríguez’ highlights in his briefing to the city council was drawn from a July 16 letter addressed to the Edinburg mayor and city council members by Darling, which provided additional depth into the projected positive impact of the conference center. 

That letter follows verbatim: 

Dear Mayor and City Council: 

Doctors Hospital at Renaissance has been committed in maintaining and operating a state-of-the-art hospital dedicated to the provision of quality, compassionate and cost-effective patient care as part of these continuing successes: the hospital’s leadership has begun efforts in building a state-of-the-art Medical Conference Center. 

A 54,000 square foot facility at an approximate $14 million building construction investment (in addition to land cost), the Medical Conference Center will generate approximately 293 jobs within the Rio Grande Valley area. 

The conference center will be a vital part of the medical education and service components of the hospital and for the region. Monthly community health education seminars, which are free to the public, will be held. Quarterly nursing forums, monthly primary care physician education sessions, monthly CME (continuing medical education) seminars for physicians are planned, as well as numerous medical conferences attracting physicians from around the state.  We also plan to bring in specialists for training that have not been previously been available. 

The Conference Center will provide a support venue for the development of the Edinburg school district programs, such as art exhibits, music and dance performances and professional development programs within the community.  A flexible design that includes an 800-seat state-of-the-art auditorium makes it ideal for the performing arts events that may offer a home to the Rio Grande Valley Ballet. 

Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, in partnering with the City of Edinburg, is seeking financial support to accelerate what will be the beginning of a great asset to the city. 

Doctors Hospital at Renaissance is seeking a contribution of $4 million to help cover some of the investment that this endeavor will take, and have the City of Edinburg take part in what will become a destination point to the medical and professional community in the Rio Grande Valley area. 

We appreciate all the continued support and look forward to hearing from you. 

Sincerely yours, 

Jim Darling

General Counsel 

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Edinburg Medical Conference Center comes on the heels of newly-built $40 million DHR medical tower

By MARIO LIZCANO 

Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in late March opened its new four-story tower to further broaden health care options for South Texas. The new patient tower increases the hospital’s total number of beds to 497. The tower is on a 100,000 square-foot parcel. Nursing space will be tripled, while total space will be quadrupled, according to Marissa Castañeda, Chief Operations Officer for DHR.

The new tower has a first floor emergency room with 21 emergency room beds along with four additional fast-track beds. The fast track service allows patients with acute but non-life-threatening conditions to be treated more quickly and then released. This system is designed to improve the efficiency and decrease the waiting time in the emergency room when the greatest numbers of people seek emergency treatment.

The second floor includes a medical floor with an additional 25 beds that specializes in the care of adult patients with a broad range of diseases and significant, complex medical diagnoses. The additional beds will help meet the needs of the growing aging population in the Rio Grande Valley.

“We are the locally owned hospital meeting the needs of our community”  said Castañeda.

The third and fourth floors will showcase a new and improved pediatric service line with 36 pediatric beds, including dedicated pediatric oncology beds, and 12 state-of-the-art pediatric critical care beds.

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Edinburg Children’s Hospital cosponsoring workshop on Wednesday to help reduce fatalities among youths

By DALINDA GUILLEN 

Edinburg Children’s Hospital will be cosponsoring the Health Service Region 11 Child Fatality Review Workshop on Wednesday, August 12, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the South Texas College Cooper Center for Community Arts, located at 3200 W. Pecan Boulevard in McAllen. 

The meetings are designed to allow South Texas regional teams to network, and to learn about preventing deaths in motor vehicle accidents, suicide prevention, preventing births of premature and drug affected infants. Part of the goals will including developing future steps for prevention of this tragedies. 

As the Rio Grande Valley’s only free-standing pediatric hospital, Edinburg Children’s Hospital is working collaboratively with civic and health care leaders to ensure the safety of children in Hidalgo and Starr Counties as they study the causes of child fatalities that are common in the bi-county area. This event will draw child fatality committees from across south Texas.  

Saving children’s lives is the goal of a child fatality committee. In addition, child fatality committees work to develop programs and education initiatives that will lead to an improved response and awareness of children’s deaths in their communities. 

Child fatality committees are made of a multidisciplinary team of individuals including law enforcement, prosecutors, physicians, medical examiners, justice of the peace, mental health professionals, hospital trauma coordinators and other hospital professionals. 

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Thousands of veterans and their families to qualify for lower, even free, tuition and fees, says Rep. Flores

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

Thousands of U.S. military families who come the Lone Star State will no longer have to pay the more expensive out-of-state tuition and fees to attend any of Texas’ public colleges and universities, and any student whose parent is deployed into a combat zone will pay no tuition and fees while the parent serves in harm’s way, according to Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview. 

These new provisions, which go into effect on September 1 – in time for the fall 2009 semester – are contained in Senate Bill 297, by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. 

SB 297 was carried in the House by five major sponsors, including Flores. 

During the past few weeks, Gov. Rick Perry has been conduction ceremonial bill-signing ceremonies for SB 297 to help draw attention to a wide range of veterans legislation approved last spring by state lawmakers. 

In June, Perry signed into law a measure that contained language drafted by Flores which will give up to a 100 percent exemption from all home property taxes for Texas veterans who are disabled as a result of physical and mental wounds suffered as a direct result of their U.S. military service. 

On November 3, Texans will participate in a statewide election regarding Proposition 8 –  another measure passed last spring by Flores – which is designed to speed up the state’s involvement in bringing a Veterans Administration Hospital to South Texas. 

Details about those disabled veterans tax breaks and the Valley VA Hospital constitutional amendment are available by contacting Flores at his legislative office, located at 121 East Tom Landry in Mission, or by calling him at (956) 584-8999. 

SB 297 is the latest round in a series of major laws authored or sponsored by Flores last spring that will help many of Texas’ estimated 1.7 million veterans. 

Currently, military veterans and their spouses and dependent children (including step-children) who  are not Texas residents must pay non-resident tuition at Texas colleges and  universities.  Under Education Code, sec. 54.052, to establish status as a  Texas resident, a person must have established and maintained a residence  in Texas continuously for one year before a semester’s final enrollment date. 

"Senate Bill 297 does away with a burdensome residency restriction that has been putting the dream of a higher education degree out of reach for thousands of our fellow American citizens," said Flores, a U.S. Army veteran and graduate from the University of Texas-Pan American. "SB 297 opens the way for military families to move into, and stay in, Texas, and will also help boost enrollment in our public colleges and universities." 

In 2008, the difference between resident and non-resident tuition at a public institution for 30 semester credit hours for the school year was $8,100, while at community colleges, the average difference was $2,100, according to a bill analysis of SB 297. 

Free tuition, fees for children of combat troops 

Flores, who was also part of a 10-member legislative committee which helped forged the final version of SB 297, said he strongly supported an amendment to the bill, first adopted in the House, which eliminates the cost of tuition and fees paid by a student during a semester or semesters when a parent is serving overseas in a combat zone. 

That amendment, which was eventually adopted by the legislature, makes the following requirement of state government: 

"The governing board of an institution of higher education shall exempt from the payment of resident tuition at the institution a dependent child, including a stepchild, of a member of the Armed Forces of the United States who is a resident of this state or is entitled to pay resident tuition under this subchapter, for any semester or other academic term during which the member of the armed forces is deployed on active duty for the purpose of engaging in a combative military operation outside the United States." 

Van de Putte, Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs and Military Installations, portrayed SB 297 as right and just. 

"This legislation will make it easier for our proud service members and their families to pursue their dreams of a higher education and demonstrates the commitment of this state to them and their families," Van de Putte said, contending "this is not something we give, they have earned it."

Perry, who was in Corpus Christi last week for a ceremonial bill-signing ceremony, also praised the legislation authored by Van de Putte and sponsored by Flores. 

"Military service places unique demands on the men and women in uniform and their families, and as home to the second most active military duty families in the nation, Texas owes it to them to support their families and welcome them honorably when they return,” Perry said. 

Legislative analysis 

According to the legislative analysis by the House Research Organization, which is the research arm of the House of Representatives: 

The new law will allow veterans who were not Texas residents but who  qualified for the federal Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act of  2008 –  more commonly known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill – and other federal veterans education assistance, as well as their  spouses and children or step-children under the age of 25, to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities without regard to the length of  time the person had resided in the state.   

The Post 9/11 GI Bill provides financial support for education and housing to individuals with at least 90 days of aggregate service on or after September 11, 2001, or individuals discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days. You must have received an honorable discharge to be eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. 

The Post-9/11 GI Bill became effective for training on August 1, 2009. The amount of support that an individual may qualify for depends on where they live and what type of degree they are pursuing.

The person would have to register  officially an intent to establish Texas residency and would have to live in  Texas while attending the college or university.   

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board would be required to  establish a policy for a qualifying child under the age of 25 who suffered  from a severe illness or other condition that prevented the use of this  benefit before the age of 25.     

Supporters of SB 297 

Flores noted that SB 297 drew considerable support during House and Senate committee hearings.

Among the many reasons for the legislation were the following positions: 

• Rising college tuition costs often prevent some veterans who want to move  to Texas from doing so. By offering in-state tuition rates at Texas colleges and universities, SB 297 will provide a “welcome mat” to these  veterans and their families in thanks for their service to our country; 

• Asking that they sign a letter of intent to establish Texas residency would  help ensure that the Texas economy benefited from a more skilled  workforce;    

• Increasing the number of veterans attending college in Texas also would  benefit other students because veterans bring a unique perspective and life  experience to the classroom; 

• Texas colleges would not really be taking on the cost of the difference  between resident and non-resident tuition because those who would take  advantage of this opportunity likely would not otherwise have enrolled; and 

• Also, under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the federal  government provides funding to higher education institutions to help with  tuition and fees for veterans covered by the law. 

Kathryn Freeman contributed to this article. 

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Congressman Hinojosa hails start of college benefits now available as a result of "Post 9/11 GI Bill"

By TENO VILLARREAL 

On Saturday, August 1, veterans started receiving college education benefits under the new GI Bill for the 21st Century (the “Post-9/11 GI Bill”).  An estimated 2.1 million members of the military who have served on active duty since September 11, 2001, including activated reservists and members of the National Guard, will be eligible for up to four years of education benefits, including stipends for housing and books.  

Last year, Congress enacted the new GI Bill for the 21st Century (the “Post-9/11 GI Bill”) to restore the promise of a full, four-year college education for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, making them part of the economic recovery.  On May 1, veterans were able to start applying for a certificate of eligibility for the new college benefits at the VA website https://www.gibill.va.gov/ 

This year, Congress extended those college benefits to all children of fallen soldiers (with no minimum military service needed to qualify).  

“We have a responsibility to serve those who bravely served us,” Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, said. “This full college education benefit for recent veterans will expand job opportunities for them, and strengthen our economy.  I’m proud that that Republicans and Democrats were able to come together on this key veterans issue.  This year, we were able to extend these benefits to all children of fallen services members after 9/11; who could be more deserving of our support than children whose moms or dads have died in military service to our nation? ” 

Generally, the measure provides up to four years of education benefits at a college or university for individuals with at least 90 days of active duty service on or after September 11, 2001 who have been honorably discharged from service. The benefits are correlated on a sliding scale to the total months served and to receive full benefits, you must have served on active duty for three years. This program will pay for: 

 • Tuition and fees of up to the maximum in-state tuition and fees at a public institution in your state; 

• A monthly housing allowance at the location of the school, based on the Basic Allowance for Housing for an E-5 with dependents; and  

• An annual books and supplies stipend of up to $1,000. 

These benefits are generally payable for up to 15 years following release from active duty. 

All of the children of service members who have died on active duty since 9-11-01 qualify for the full education benefit, regardless of the length of military service of their parent; these benefits expire 15 years after the 18th birthday of surviving military children. 

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Hidalgo County to receive $2.2 million to improve drainage to 10,000 homes, says Congressman Cuellar

By EDDIE ZAVALA  

Congressman Henry Cuellar on Tuesday, August 4, announced $2,744,813 in combined federal funding for Hidalgo County and the City of McAllen for their Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) programs as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that Congress passed earlier this year. 

Both government agencies will use the funding for drainage improvement projects. 

“Ensuring that our residents have access to basic services is an issue I take very seriously. There is no reason why citizens should be exposed to health hazards if the opportunities to improve living conditions are available,” said Cuellar. “I congratulate Hidalgo County and the City of McAllen for ensuring their residents are protected against diseases and illnesses, and also thank my colleague Congressman Rubén Hinojosa (D-Mercedes) for helping bring these funds to Hidalgo County.” 

Hidalgo County received $2,265,128 and will use the funds for projects in the county’s outlying areas. Most of the areas that will benefit from the funding are economically distressed and prone to flooding. It is estimated that 10,000 homes and more than 37,000 residents will be positively affected by the drainage project. 

 “This funding will help all precincts in Hidalgo County make additional drainage infrastructure improvements to those areas which need it. More than 37,000 residents, many of whom live in impoverished conditions, will be positively impacted by these improvements,” said Óscar Garza Jr., Hidalgo County Commissioner Pct. 4. “The Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court continues to make drainage improvements a priority because it is a health and safety issue in our communities.” 

Meanwhile, the City of McAllen will also use the funding for a shovel-ready drainage project that is expected to benefit close to 750 residents living on South 26th Street between Wichita and Jordan avenues. This area is also listed as economically distressed. 

“It’s always good news to welcome Congressman Cuellar to our district and especially when he comes to assist our community.  We are excited about the federal funds for the storm sewer line on 26th Street between Yuma and Jordan,” said McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz. “The neighborhoods were developed in the 1950’s and 1970’s, and need an upgrade in infrastructure to keep the residents and their property safe and reduce the damage.  During heavy rains, the excessive water runoff and low lying areas in the southwest area of our city need an east and west storm water flow to avoid the damaging effects of excessive rain fall.” 

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Rep. Verónica Gonzáles honored by medical group, area girls scouts association for legislative work

By RICARDO LÓPEZ-GUERRA 

Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, has received two awards from organizations honoring her for passing beneficial legislation and for investing in the lives of young women.  

The Texas Association of Community Health (TACHC) named Gonzáles a "Legislative Champion" for a loan repayment program attracting physicians to medically underserved areas and the Greater Girl Scouts of South Texas will present Gonzales an "Award of Distinction" for her support of the group and her community improvement efforts. 

"It is an honor to receive recognition from both the Community Health Centers and the Girl Scouts. Both of these organizations make tremendous contributions to our region and the populations they serve and I am proud to share their passion for improving health care and empowering young women," Gonzáles said. 

Gonzáles, who is a member of Women Investing in Girl Scouting (WINGS), received the Girl Scouts of Greater South Texas’ "Award of Distinction", the organization’s most prestigious honor for those who show dedication and enthusiasm in improving their community, during an 8 p.m. reception on Friday, August 7 at the McAllen Convention Center. 

TACHC honored Gonzáles for a measure, passed in the 81st legislative session, that increases loan forgiveness for physicians who practice in medically underserved areas. Gonzáles added a floor amendment to House Bill 2154, by Rep. Al Edwards, D-Houston, and Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, setting up a structure for physician loan repayment program that provided escalating amounts of loan forgiveness for each year a physician serves in a medically underserved area, for a total of $160,000. TACHC called Gonzáles’ amendment "critical" because it draws physicians to areas like the border lacking health professionals.  

On Tuesday, August 11 at 10 a.m., Gonzáles was scheduled to receive the award at Nuestra Clinica del Valle, located at 801 West 1st First Street in San Juan. The award comes during National Health Center Week, which focuses on Federally Qualified Health Centers that serve uninsured and underserved people. 

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Lions Club sets up new "dens" at South Texas College

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR 

South Texas College administrators and members of the District 2-A3 Lions Club and the McAllen Palm City Lions met in early August to finalize arrangements to set up three new student chapters at the college. One chapter each will be based at the college’s Pecan Campus in McAllen, Mid-Valley Campus in Weslaco and Starr County Campus in Rio Grande City. 

“We are the world’s largest service organization and we are looking to bring in younger members that can continue our tradition of selfless service,” said Joe Treviño, District 2-A3 Lions Club governor. “I hope students also learn that what truly sets up apart from other groups is that every dollar raised by the Lions Club goes directly back into our community service projects. No funds are withheld for administrative costs.” 

The Lions Club is known for fighting blindness, raising funds to provide eyeglasses to those in need, as well as funding optical surgeries like corneal replacements. But, members also work to raise funds for worthy projects such as hearing restoration, diabetes prevention and treatment,  and disaster relief, just to name a few. 

“Our goal is to get our students, as well as staff and alumni, involved in the communities we serve, because the communities make our college possible,” said Sal Claflin, Lions Club member and STC assistant professor of government. “I look forward to getting the Pecan Campus chapter up and running immediately and rallying our STC family to the great cause of this global service organization.” 

For more information about the Lions Club visit http://www.lionsclub.org. For more information about the new Lions Club chapters at STC contact Sal Claflin at 956-872-2071. 

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Senate committee approves Sen. Hutchison’s bill to allow prisons to block calls from inmates’ cell phones

By COURTNEY SANDERS 

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Wednesday, August 5, approved bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, ranking member on the committee, to allow prisons to block calls from contraband cellular phones.  

The Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009 (S. 251), is cosponsored by Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), John Thune (R-S.D.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Jon Cornyn (R-Texas), David Vitter (R-La.), and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).  

It would prevent prison inmates from using smuggled cellular phones by allowing states to petition to operate wireless jamming devices in particular correctional facilities. The bill now moves to the full Senate for consideration. 

“Imprisoned convicts are using contraband cell phones to coordinate murders, plot extortion schemes, and run drug trafficking, credit card fraud, and identity theft enterprises,” said Hutchison. “Prisons are meant to stop the commission of crimes, but cell phones inside prisons mean business as usual for dangerous felons. With innocent lives on the line, Congress has a responsibility to make available all technologies that can prevent the illicit use of cell phones in prisons. America’s dedicated law enforcement and corrections professionals need this important capability and this legislation will help ensure criminals behind bars are no longer able to terrorize the public.” 

Last year, Texas State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, was threatened by a death row inmate who used a smuggled cell phone to make threatening calls. The smuggled phone was later found, but officers found 11 additional phones belonging to other death row inmates while looking for it. In 2008, corrections systems across the country reported large numbers of confiscated phones. California reported nearly 3,000 phones found with inmates, while Mississippi had nearly 2,000, while the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported they confiscated more than 1,600 phones.  

The legislation is supported by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, South Carolina Department of Corrections, Washington, D.C. Department of Corrections, Association of State Correctional Administrators, American Jail Association, American Correctional Association, National Sheriffs Association, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, Fraternal Order of Police, National Association of Governors, and the Council of State Governments. 

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Seven McAllen, Mission residents convicted for mailing drugs through U.S. Postal Service

In two separate cases, seven residents of McAllen and Mission on Tuesday, August 4, were convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana, United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced. 

McAllen residents José  Adán López, 20, Ernesto Damian Caballero, 23, and Heriberto Emmanuel Vera, 32, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana by mailing packages containing dried chili peppers as a masking agent, while in a separate case Leopoldo Rodríguez, 41, Juan Carlos Hernández, 21, Victor Hugo Mares, 25, and Margarito Gallardo, 45, all residents of Mission, pleaded guilty on August 3 to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana by mailing packages containing. 

On Tuesday, August 4, in open court before U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, López, Caballero and Vera admitted they were members of a conspiracy that mailed at least 510 kilograms of marijuana in parcels that were primarily dropped off at the Progresso Post Office from March 2008 to May 2009.  López packaged and mailed the parcels, while Caballero purchased the packaging supplies and López guarded the marijuana at a stash house.  

The charges against these men was initiated in March 2008 when United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) inspectors discovered similarly wrapped parcels containing marijuana in the U.S. Mail. The investigation identified López, Caballero and Vera as involved with mailing the parcels. The parcels, themselves, were similarly packaged. The marijuana, wrapped in cellophane, was surrounded by dried chili peppers as a masking agent. Later, the parcels would also contain fiberglass insulation, along with the chili peppers in a further attempt to mask the odor of marijuana. López, Caballero and Vela were identified as responsible for these packages. 

On Monday, August 3, in a second case, Rodríguez, Hernández, Mares and Gallardo admitted to their roles in mailing parcels containing marijuana through the U.S. Postal system. Evidence proved that Rodríguez, Hernández and Mares mailed parcels on a continual basis for at least one year. The parcels, themselves, were similarly packaged and contained raw beans, sealed in the cap of a can of spray foam to create a rattling sound. Additionally, the packages were found to contain expandable foam and marijuana wrapped in thick plastic. Later, the packaging changed to contain mustard, salt and pepper placed in the cellophane as masking agents around the marijuana. Gallardo not only mailed parcels, but also cashed money orders that were sent via the postal system as payments for the marijuana. 

In this second case, inspectors seized 131 parcels with an approximately net weight of 772.46 kilograms connected to this group in McAllen. Another 61 parcels were marked and referred for investigation at their final destination. These parcels contained an approximate net weight of 438.26 kilograms of marijuana. Another 77 parcels with an estimated gross weight of 447.11 kilograms were identified as related parcels based on having similar packaging as those seized. In all, inspectors were able to connect approximately 1657 kilograms of marijuana to this group.   

Through physical and video surveillance and the execution of search warrants, postal inspectors determined that both of these groups were responsible for mailing more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana from various post offices throughout the Rio Grande Valley. The packages were destined for various addresses throughout the United States 

López, Caballero and Vera were all originally arrested on May 6, 2009, and appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos the following day. None of them made bond and remained in custody pending final sentencing. Rodríguez, Hernández, Mares and Gallardo have been in custody since May 4 or 5, 2009, and were remanded to custody pending final sentencing. 

Sentencing for López, Caballero and Vera is scheduled for November 9, 2009 before Judge Hinojosa at which time they face a possible prison sentence of five to 40 years in federal prison and a potential fine up to $2 million. Rodríguez, Hernández, Mares and Gallardo will be sentenced on November 4, 2009, and face a prison term of 10 years to life and a potential fine of up to $4 million.  

These cases represent the increasing efforts by U.S. Postal Inspectors to protect the U.S. Mail from criminal misuse in South Texas. The USPIS is focusing on drug traffickers that attempt to use the mail to distribute illegal narcotics out of the Rio Grande Valley. Along with agents from the Hidalgo County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force and the Department of Public Safety narcotics unit, postal inspectors are aggressively investigating to identify and arrest persons engaged in the mailing of narcotics. 

Anyone having information about persons responsible for mailing narcotics is encouraged to contact the local Postal Inspector’s office at (956) 971-1721. USPIS will pay up to $50,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of individuals who use the U.S. Mail to distribute narcotics. 

The case is being investigated by USPIS. Prosecution will be handled by Assistant United States Attorneys Juan F. Alanis and Patricia Rigney. 

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NAHJ condemns Venezuela government’s proposed ‘media crimes’  law, shutdown of opposition press

By IVÁN ROMÁN 

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists on Tuesday, August 4, condemned the Venezuelan government’s shutdown of 34 private radio stations and strongly opposes a proposed law that would put journalists behind bars for a broad swath of supposed “media crimes.” 

By its own admission, the government’s targeting of these 34 radio stations is a first step in considering similar actions against some 200 other stations across the country. President Hugo Chávez’ declared war on certain opposition media reached a new level of aggressiveness on Monday, August 3, when 35 pro-government militants stormed the Globovisión television station, brandished weapons, threw two tear-gas canisters, and injured two people. 

NAHJ calls on authorities to investigate the incident at Globovisión and arrange effective protection for the station’s journalists and employees. (Press reports indicate that the leader of the violent incident, Lina Ron, was arrested Tuesday, August 4.) NAHJ also urges the government to reconsider its attempt to pass the Special Law Against Media Crimes, which the journalists consider a true and far-reaching attack on freedom of expression and a free press. 

The draft of the bill presented to the country’s legislature by Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz calls for jail sentences varying from six months to four years for journalists and media owners who publish or broadcast “false news,” or who “manipulate or distort the news” resulting in “generating a false perception of the facts or creating a mindset among society, so long as such action has damaged the social peace, domestic security, public order, and public health or public morality.” 

It also calls for jail time for journalists or media owners who refuse to identify their sources or “who willingly and without any justification refuse to report on facts or situations whose lack of dissemination may harm the right to information” under the country’s constitution. In essence, journalists would be jailed for publishing the “wrong” information in the government’s view, or failing to publish what the government wants them to. 

Government officials have said that the crackdown on the radio stations and some television stations are an effort to “democratize” the media and take back for the people airwaves controlled by particular interests in Venezuela. 

Although there is a place and a necessity for government-sponsored media, increasing government control of media is another matter. It is clear that the sustained campaign against certain private-owned media is an attempt to silence dissent and criticism of the government. As attorney general Ortega herself stated, “The Venezuelan state must regulate freedom of expressions. I demand that a limit be placed on this right.” 

NAHJ leaders said they stand with their colleagues marching in Caracas or broadcasting in protest over loudspeakers in a public square in denouncing this as an attack on freedom of the press, which the organization contended is not conducive to civic dialogue and the free airing of views essential for a healthy democracy.

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