Bill Summers (featured center, with his wife, Jo), president and chief executive officer of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, on Wednesday, September 9, was honored by state leaders in Weslaco with the renaming of a key South Texas roadway in recognition of his decades of public service on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. Summers many contributions to the people of Texas, particularly in helping promote an improved transportation system in South Texas that directly benefits economic development and jobs creation, sparked a new state law that renamed FM 1015 International Boulevard into the Bill Summers International Boulevard. The seven-mile long Bill Summers International Boulevard leads directly to the Progresso International Bridge, “which is fitting, given that Mr. Summers is also well-known for his strong ties to political, business, and community leaders in Mexico,” said Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco. Martínez was the House sponsor of Senate Bill 1997, approved by the Legislature last spring, which authorized the renaming of the roadway. Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, was the lead Senate author of that legislation, along with Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. “Bill has always been a very effective advocate for South Texas and the border region every time he came to visit us at the Texas Capitol,” said Hinojosa. “Equally impressive, he has the ability to make and keep friendships with people from all walks of life, even when they don’t agree with him. That speaks volumes about the man and his wonderful family, including his wife, Jo.” Featured, from left: Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City; Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco; Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg; Bill and Jo Summers; Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville; Weslaco Mayor Buddy De la Rosa; and Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito. See story later in this posting.
On Thursday, September 24, from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m., the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Committee, headed by Ramiro Garza, executive director of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, will host a public affairs luncheon featuring René Gutiérrez, the new superintendent of the Edinburg school district. Although the event is open to the pubic, there is a $12 per person fee, or $150 for a table of 10, which includes a hot lunch, beverage and dessert. The luncheon will take place at The Edinburg Activity Center located on 123 Palm Drive. Gutiérrez will address current topics being discussed within the school district including but not limited to the new schools being built. Featured, from left, promoting the luncheon, are: seated, Ramiro Garza with EEDC; Elva Jackson Garza with Edwards Abstract and Title Company; and Edinburg Superintendent Dr. René Gutiérrez. Standing, from left: Letty Reyes with EEDC; Letty González with Edinburg Chamber of Commerce; Cynthia Bocanegra with South West Funding; Lee Castro with Memorial Funeral Home; Lupita Cano with Sudarshan Eye Experts; Maria Reyna with Sudarshan Eye Experts; and Frank Lara with Sudarshan Eye Experts. See story later in this posting.
State Rep. René O. Oliveira, D-Brownsville, featured left, announced his bid for a 14th term in the Texas House of Representatives on Thursday, September 10, citing the need to bring an additional congressional seat to the Rio Grande Valley through redistricting in the 2011 legislative session. Oliveira represents House District 37 which encompasses the majority of Brownsville, Port Isabel, Laguna Vista, Bayview, and a portion of northern Los Fresnos. Launching his campaign for the 2010 March Democratic Primary election, Oliveira, 54, currently chairs the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, and is a member of the House State Affairs Committee which oversees electric and other major utilities. He is the eighth ranking member of 150 members of the Texas House. Oliveira is featured here, receiving the 2009 Legislator of the Year by the Texas Association of Counties from the group’s president, J.D. Johnson. See story later in this posting.
With effective legislative legacy guaranteed, Rep. Flores will not seek reelection in 2010, will concentrate on community interests, family
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview, whose legislative seniority and expertise have allowed him to successfully champion issues that are crucial to South Texans – including securing more than $1 billion for public education, transportation, and health programs for the Valley – on Tuesday, September 15, announced he will not be seeking reelection to an eighth two-year term in 2010.
Flores said his decision was influenced by recent indictments issued by a Travis County grand jury over information he says was properly submitted on his personal financial report.
The veteran lawmaker said he must concentrate on clearing his good name, but expressed regret that as a result of the controversy, Hidalgo County and the Valley are going to lose crucial power in the Texas Legislature.
“I worked effectively, fought hard, and delivered for South Texas,” he said. “I will not apologize for standing up for our region.”
Flores said he has never done anything to bring discredit to himself, his family, and his constituents.
“When I was first elected to represent my constituents, I took an oath of office to uphold the laws and ethics rules of this great state,” Flores said. “At no point during my public service have I intentionally or knowingly violated any state law or rule.”
Flores added that during the Travis County legal proceedings, he has been “fully cooperative and have disclosed any information required of me.”
He said he has set a high standard of effectiveness in his legislative work on behalf of his district and South Texas.
“As my former boss, the late Bob Bullock, used to say, he left Texas better than it was,” Flores recalled. “Well, as anyone can see, there is no doubt that I will leave House District 36 better than it was,” Flores said. “God bless Texas, and God bless District 36.”
The successful lawmaker pledged to continue working on major issues to benefit his beloved South Texas.
“I would like to thank my supporters and constituents for giving me the opportunity to shape South Texas into a better place for our youth, our families, the elderly, and our veterans. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning not only about the constituency of District 36 but also learning about the political process as a whole,” said Flores. “I look forward to working with the many influential community leaders and elected officials whom I have had the pleasure of meeting in order to continue making District 36 a better place for us all.”
Valley VA Hospital
Also, without a reelection campaign to take up valuable time, Flores said he and his staff will be able to concentrate resources on exclusively serving constituents, including shaping legislative policies that are crucial to South Texas.
“This fall, I will continue concentrating on helping secure state voter approval of Proposition 8, which will help lead to the construction of a Veterans Administration Hospital for South Texas,” Flores said. “With such a long-overdue facility potentially representing a state and federal investment of $175 million for its construction, a Valley VA Hospital will rank as one of the most important economic development and medical care achievements in the history of the Texas border region.”
The pressure from Flores, other legislators, and area veterans groups to bring a VA Hospital to South Texas has resulted in legislation, dubbed the Far South Texas Veterans Medical Center Act of 2009, being filed in Congress by local congressmen and Texas’ two U.S. senators.
That federal proposal, filed by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, would require construction of a full VA Hospital in deep South Texas. The nearest VA Hospital to the Valley is in San Antonio, which is more than 250 miles away from thousands of U.S. veterans who live in the Valley and in northern Mexico.
To help push the federal measure, Flores successfully passed legislation last spring to put Proposition 8 on the statewide constitutional amendments ballot, which will face voters on Tuesday, November 3.
Proposition 8, one of 11 proposed amendments, would require the state government to use key resources to work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to make a Valley VA Hospital a reality.
Under one scenario envisioned by Flores, area veterans groups, and other state lawmakers, the state government would help pay for building a Valley VA Hospital, while the federal government would be responsible for its operating and maintenance costs.
Strong voice for South Texas
His decision to not seek reelection was supported by his family, including his wife, the former Debra García, and their two sons, Ismael Jr., 25, and Eric, 17.
“My long tenure as a strong voice for South Texas in the House of Representatives has given me the opportunities to produce many meaningful funding and program initiatives for the good people of the Valley,” said Flores. “For 13 years, I have provided direct access to the people of House District 36 and worked hard for them to get them a seat at the table of power. I thank many people and supporters for the honor of representing them in Austin.”
He will continue to serve in office until his term ends in early January 2011.
House District 36 includes parts or all of the cities of Granjeno, Hidalgo, McAllen, Mission, Palmview, Peñitas, and Pharr.
Flores will be leaving with an impressive résumé, including influential roles as chairman of the House Licensing & Administrative Procedures, as well as serving three terms on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which writes the House’s version of the state’s two-year o perating budget.
His extensive professional and personal relationships in the Texas Legislature were forged early on, when he worked for six years under Texas Comptroller Bob Bullock and Texas Comptroller John Sharp, where he served as a division manager, overseeing and implementing a pilot program which cut government waste, saving millions of tax dollars.
Soon after his leadership role on behalf of those two statewide figures, Flores returned to South Texas, and was elected state representative in November 1996. Although he has faced several challenges, Flores has never been defeated as state representative.
Other groundbreaking achievements
Among the dozens of other key state laws which he has passed, Flores’s legislative legacy includes:
- Authorizing South Texas College to become one of a handful of community colleges in Texas to be able to offer four-year university degrees;
- Creating the Valley-wide system of world birding centers, which annually generate millions of dollars in tourism to South Texas;
- Securing millions of dollars in state funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which helps provide affordable health insurance coverage for the children of thousands of Valley working families;
- Successfully pushing for major expansions of state highway projects in the Valley;
- Supporting legislation that provided the largest annual pay raise for teachers, as well as pension increases for retired teachers;
- Creating and helping secure funding for the Tejano Monument, a sculptural masterpiece, to be located on the most visible southeast portion of the Texas Capitol grounds, which will showcase the vast contributions of Mexican Americans to the culture, history, and successes of Texas;
- Passing the “Texas Ag First Act”, which requires school districts to give preference to buying Texas grown or processed products, including vegetation for landscaping purposes, as long as the cost to the school districts are equal and the quality is comparable to non-state products;
- Passing a legislative resolution naming Mission as the “Home of Citrus”;
- Passing a legislative resolution, brought to him by 2nd graders from Marcell Elementary of Mission, designating “Chips and Salsa” as the official snack of Texas;
- Increasing financial survivor benefits for spouses and dependent children of peace officers and fire fighters killed in the line of duty;
- Eliminating college tuition and fees for students attending state colleges and universities if they have a parent in the U.S. armed services who is serving the nation in a combat zone;
- Providing up to a 100 percent property home tax break for disabl ed veterans; and
- Creating the multi-million dollar Alfredo González Texas State Veterans Home in McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley Veterans Cemetery in Mission.
Flores, a U.S. Army veteran who was part of the military team that helped develop the nation’s Patriot Missile system, is a graduate of the University of Texas-Pan American, and has maintained a successful business consulting practice.
Other public service positions held by Flores include serving for seven years on the La Joy school board as president, vice-president, and secretary. He also has served as vice-president of the Hidalgo-Willacy private industry council.
Public honors and recognitions
Also during his legislative career, Flores has received numerous honors, such as:
- Texas Society of Architects’ Distinguished Statesman;
- Legislator of the Year by the State Association of Fire Fighters;
- Legislator of the Year by the Texas Game Wardens Association;
- Texas Spirit of Education Award from the Association of Texas Professional Educators;
- He received recognition from the Combined Law Enfo rcement Association of Texas;
- He was inducted into the Texas Association of Realtors Hall of Fame;
- Named Friend of Texas Charities by bingo interest groups;
- He was recognized for his many contributions by Texas Citrus Mutual; and
- He received the Leadership Award from the Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce for his contributions to the Hispanic community.
Bill Summers, “Ambassador to the Rio Grande Valley”, honored by Rep. Martínez, Sen. Lucio, Sen. Hinojosa during event renaming roadway
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
“I always try to believe the best of everybody – it saves so much trouble.”
That famous quote, by famed British author and poet Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), perfectly fits the character of Bill Summers, president and chief executive officer of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, who on Wednesday, September 9, was honored by state leaders with the renaming of a key South Texas roadway in recognition of his decades of public service on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border.
Summers, 71, is credited with many contributions on behalf of his beloved South Texas, but is also well-known for his advocacy as a founding member of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, a grassroots organization he created in the Valley in 1990. It’s mission, according to its website, is “to making the public better aware of the costs and consequences of lawsuit abuse.”
But even though Summers spearheaded the creation of such a high-profile organization – which drew the praise of business owners but the criticism of trial lawyers – he has always been perceived by friends and rivals alike as a man of honor, according to Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
“Bill has always been a very effective advocate for South Texas and the border region every time he came to visit us at the Texas Capitol,” said Hinojosa, an author of the state legislation that renamed FM 1015 International Boulevard into the Bill Summers International Boulevard. “Equally impressive, he has the ability to make and keep friendships with people from all walks of life, even when they don’t agree with him. That speaks volumes about the man and his wonderful family, including his wife, Jo.”
Founded in the Valley in 1990, the CALA movement, through its press releases, states that it is dedicated to making the public better aware of the cost and consequences of lawsuit abuse.
But it has been Summers’ many other contributions to the people of Texas, particularly in helping promote an improved transportation system in South Texas that directly benefits economic development and jobs creation, that sparked the law to rename FM 1015 in Weslaco after the South Texas native son.
This seven-mile long Bill Summers International Boulevard leads directly to the Progresso International Bridge, “which is fitting, given that Mr. Summers is also well-known for his strong ties to political, business, and community leaders in Mexico,” said Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco.
Martínez was the House sponsor of Senate Bill 1997, approved by the Legislature last spring, which authorized the renaming of the roadway. Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, was the lead Senate author of that legislation.
In addition, Summers has played a key role in the state legislative process for the past two decades, including his high-profile mission in coordinating visits, through the RGV Partnership, of large groups of state lawmakers to the Valley every two years, added Martínez.
“It really makes a difference during the legislative session when lawmakers from other parts of Texas have seen first-hand, through these crucial fact-finding tours organized by Mr. Summers, the successes and challenges facing us in higher education, transportation, job-creation, and health care” Martínez explained. “Those visits make it so much easier for other lawmakers to understand the importance of these South Texas issues, making it easier to pass legislation that helps our region.”
Lucio said the newly-minted Bill Summers International Boulevard was created to “commemorate the lifetime achievements of one of my dearest friends, and a champion of economic development for the Rio Grande Valley.
“Mr. Bill Summers has paved the way for progress, from mobility improvements to rural empowerment, not just in his own community, but as far away as Mexico,” Lucio continued. “He has been the greatest ambassador between the Valley and the Texas Senate, and between our two neighboring countries. This long overdue honor is well-deserved, and is a small token to Bill of our deepest appreciation and admiration.”
The mid-afternoon ceremony drew other dignitaries as well, including Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, and Weslaco Mayor Buddy De la Rosa, along with dozens of other of his family members, friends, and well-wishers.
Edinburg’s retail economy during July 2009 shows third monthly consecutive drop from 2008
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Edinburg’s retail economy during July 2009, as measured by the amount of local and state sales taxes generated by a wide range of local businesses, was down almost 5.4 percent over the same month in 2008, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.
The latest figure represents the third consecutive decrease when comparing monthly figures between this year and during 2008.
For the month of July 2009, Edinburg generated $1,088,701.20 in local sales taxes, compared with $1,150,770.26 in July 2008 – a decrease of 5.39 percent.
In June 2009, the monthly sales tax figure was 2.46 percent lower than the same month the previous year.
In May 2009, the monthly sales tax figure was almost five percent lower than the same month the previous year.
However, year-to-date – from January 2009 through July 2009 – Edinburg was holding on to a positive showing, with the local retail economy during the first seven months of 2009 up 7.15 percent over the same period last year.
During the first seven months of 2009, Edinburg’s retail economy generated $11,160,679.81 in local sales taxes, compared with $10,415,898.74 during the same period in 2008.
The report represents the latest figures compiled by state, and announced on Friday, September 11. The state and local sales tax figures represent sales that occurred in July, were collected by the state in August, and distributed back in September to local governments by the comptroller’s office in the form of rebates.
Retail businesses are required to collect both the local and state sales taxes and send them to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. The state government then sends the local share of the sales taxes to the communities in which they originated.
The local sales tax is used to help pay for dozens of major city services, ranging from new streets to city personnel.
Local sales taxes in Edinburg are generated by the city’s 1 1/2 cent local sales tax, and the 1/2 cent economic development sales tax that is administered by the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation.
The EEDC, which is a city government entity, is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council. It sits on a public treasury of millions of dollars.
McAllen – the largest economic engine in South Texas – showed an even more dramatic monthly drop in July 2009 compared with July 2008.
For July 2009, McAllen generated more than $4 million in local sales taxes, compared with more than $4.7 million in July 2008 – a drop of almost 15.5 percent.
In June 2009, McAllen generated more than $4.9 million in local sales taxes, compared with more than $5.5 million in June 2008, a drop of more than 11 percent.
Year-to-date, McAllen’s retail economy remains sluggish. From January through July 2009, McAllen generated more than $41.3 million in local sales taxes, compared with more than $45.1 million during the same period in 2008 – a decrease of almost almost 8.4 percent.
For the month of July 2009, all cities in Hidalgo County generated almost $9.2 million in local sales taxes, compared with $10.1 million in July 2008, a drop of more than nine percent.
The county itself does not collect a local sales tax.
Comparable cities in Hidalgo County also posted negative numbers for July 2009.
- Pharr’s latest monthly retail sales activities dropped more than 10 percent, generating more than $817,000 in July 2009 compared with almost $818,000 in July 2008;
- Mission also showed a drop, although much smaller than Pharr. In July 2009, Mission generated $1,049,865, compared with $817,638.40, a decrease of more than 2.8 percent; and
- Weslaco fared slightly better than Mission, generating more than $681,000 in local sales tax activities in July 2009, compared with more than $692,000 in July 2008, a drop of 1.62 percent.
Also posting decreases were the two key communities in Cameron County.
- Brownsville, the Valley’s most populated city, saw its retail economy in July 2009 generate less local sales tax revenue from the same month in 2008. In July 2009, Brownsville generated more than $2.4 million in local sales taxes, compared with more than $2.6 million in July 2008 – a drop of nine percent.
- Harlingen did not do much better than Brownsville in July 2009. In July 2009, Harlingen reported more than $1.4 million in local sales taxes, compared with almost $1.6 million in July 2008, a decrease of more than eight percent.
- All cities in Cameron County generated a total of almost $4.9 million in local sales taxes in July 2009, compared with almost $5.2 million in July 2008, a drop of 5.3 percent. Cameron County does not collect a county sales tax.
At a statewide level, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Susan Combs offered the assessments, including noting that the state in July 2009 generated $1.75 billion in sales tax, down 12.5 percent compared to a year ago.
Monthly sales tax collections continue to decline as most major sectors of the economy, including oil and gas, construction and retail trade, continue to struggle,” Combs said. “For fiscal 2009, which began in September 2008, state sales tax collections totaled $20.9 billion. Collections grew through January 2009, but monthly declines since that time resulted in overall collections dropping by 2.7 percent for the state fiscal year.”
Local governments will receive $428.3 million in monthly sales tax allocations on Monday, a 12.9 percent decrease compared to a year ago. So far this calendar year, local sales tax allocations are down 3.3 percent compared to the same period in 2008.
Combs will send monthly sales tax allocations of $290.3 million to Texas cities, down 12.2 percent compared to last year. Texas counties will receive sales tax allocations of $25.8 million, down 16.5 percent compared to a year ago.
The 152 special purpose taxing districts around the state are getting $16.4 million in sales tax revenue, a decrease of 11.6 percent compared to a year ago. Ten Texas transit systems will get $95.8 million in sales tax, down 14.4 percent compared to a year ago.
For details of sales tax allocations to individual cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose districts, locate the Monthly Sales and Use Tax Allocation Comparison Summary Reports on the Comptroller’s Web site http://www.window.state.tx.us/taxinfo/allocsum/compsum.html.
The Comptroller’s next local sales tax allocation will be made on Friday, Oct. 9.
UT-Pan American to receive $100,000 state grant for workforce training, says Sen. Hinojosa
By ARTURO BALLESTEROS
The Texas Department of Agriculture has announced a $100,000 grant award to give students at the University of Texas-Pan American workforce training. The grant comes from the TDA’s Parallel Pathways to Success Pilot Grant Program, an initiative designed to match the growing demand for skilled workers in rural Texas.
This award will go directly to UTPA’s START project, a program offering 60 top students from the region an opportunity to receive workforce training. Students in the START project also earn college credit hours while in high school, said Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
UT-Pan American is one of only five institutions receiving funding through the Parallel Pathways to Success program.
“This program targets a specific need for a skilled workforce in South Texas. This grant allows students to chance to acquire relevant workforce skills that they might not otherwise be able to attain,” said Hinojosa.
UTPA is expected to receive the award quickly to begin reaching out to eligible students. This award follows a legislative session wherein Hinojosa championed several agricultural projects.
Citrus growers received added resources through bills passed by Hinojosa to defend against citrus greening, a growing problem in Florida. That bill was authored in the House of Representatives by Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco.
Rep. Oliveira seeks re-election; congressional redistricting top local legislative priority
By ANTHONY GRAY
State Rep. René O. Oliveira, D-Brownsville, announced his bid for a 14th term in the Texas House of Representatives on Thursday, September 10, citing the need to bring an additional congressional seat to the Rio Grande Valley through redistricting in the 2011 legislative session.
Oliveira represents House District 37 which encompasses the majority of Brownsville, Port Isabel, Laguna Vista, Bayview, and a portion of northern Los Fresnos.
Launching his campaign for the 2010 March Democratic Primary election, Oliveira, 54, currently chairs the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, and is a member of the House State Affairs Committee which oversees electric and other major utilities. He is the eighth ranking member of 150 members of the Texas House.
“I want to lead the fight to create another Rio Grande Valley congressional district in the next legislative session. Our population is growing and we deserve it. The Valley’s long-term prosperity depends on it,” he said. “I’ve made the decision to run again without hesitation. I offer proven experience and leadership in these tough economic times. My goals are to bring more representation to the Valley, continue investing properly in education, creating jobs, and keeping Texas safe.”
Among his many public recognitions, Oliveira was recently named the 2009 Legislator of the Year by the Texas Association of Counties. He also was honored with the National Coalition for Capital 2009 Champion of Small Business Award.
“We had a strong session with active community involvement. Working together, we have proven that we can accomplish great things for the Valley,” he said.
This year, under Oliveira’s direction, the Ways and Means Committee heard more bills than any other committee in the Texas Legislature’s history. Major legislation passing the committee included additional homestead exemptions for veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces, property appraisal reforms, and a sales tax holiday for school supplies.
As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Oliveira also is a member of the Legislative Budget Board and the Legislative Audit Committee which monitor state revenues and expenditures. He previously served as Ways and Means Chairman, and a member of the Legislative Budget Board and the Legislative Audit Committee from 1999 to 2003, and was reappointed to both posts this year by House Speaker Joe Strauss.
First elected to the Texas House in 1981, Oliveira is a past chairman of the House Economic Development Committee and a past vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee. He has served on the House Appropriations Committee, Public Health Committee, Regulated Industries Committee, and the Insurance Committee. He also served as past co-chairman of the Joint Select Committee on NAFTA and GATT, and the Legislative Workforce Oversight Committee.
Oliveira has also served on the national board of directors for the National Petroleum Council, National Association of Latino Elected Officials, and National Council of La Raza. He is also former chairman of the Cameron County Democratic Party, and has served as a Cameron County delegate to several Democratic National Conventions.
A partner in law firm of Roerig, Oliveira, and Fisher, he is a father of two adult children. He is a graduate of Brownsville High School, the University of Texas, and the University of Texas School of Law.
“My experience and seniority give our area a strong voice in Austin,” said Oliveira. “The Valley has too much at stake not to put that experience and seniority to work.”
Gov. Perry urges federal government to approve request for National Guard resources along border
In what Gov. Rick Perry calls an absence of adequate federal resources to secure the state’s southern border, the governor on Thursday, September 10, announced the state’s latest border security enhancement using highly-skilled Ranger Reconnaissance (Ranger Recon) Teams to address the ever evolving threat along the Texas-Mexico border.
He also repeated his call for Washington to approve the 1,000 Title 32 National Guard troops he has been requesting since January. Additionally, the governor announced the award of $2 million in state criminal justice funds to the Border Sheriff’s Coalition for continued utilization of video surveillance technology along the border.
“Texas’ proven border security strategy is based on putting boots on the ground and equipping those personnel with the technology, training and funding they need to stem the flow of contraband across our border. Deploying Ranger Recon Teams to high-traffic, high-crime areas along the border will enhance our efforts,” Perry said. “This is the latest in a series of aggressive actions we’ve taken to fill the gap left by the federal government’s ongoing failure to adequately secure our international border.”
Comprised of Texas Rangers and Texas National Guard Counterdrug forces, the Ranger Recon Teams are supported by the Operation Border Star Unified Command, including Texas sheriffs, Highway Patrol strike teams and Department of Public Safety aviation resources. This effort was launched in early August to address the increased burglaries of rural homes, ranches and hunting camps in remote areas along the Texas-Mexico border.
With nearly 73 percent of Texas’ 1,254 mile border privately owned, landowners along the boundary often face extortion or threats from violent criminal organizations that smuggle drugs, people and weapons across the border. The Ranger Recon Teams will identify high-intensity smuggling routes in remote areas, and conduct operations to reduce border-related crime in these corridors. These activities are also an essential element of a proactive strategy to deter spillover violence.
In addition to drug and human smuggling, increasing violence in northern Mexico poses a significant threat to Texas communities. More than 5,700 homicides occurred in Mexico in 2008, with roughly 1,600 in Juárez alone, which borders El Paso on the southern side of the Rio Grande. Already in 2009, Juárez has seen more than 1,500 brutal homicides.
In order to maintain operational security, the specific number, composition and location of the Ranger Recon Teams will not be disclosed.
Additionally, since January Perry has repeatedly urged the federal government, through letters to President Barack Obama, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, to approve his request for 1,000 Title 32 National Guardsmen to support civilian law enforcement efforts to enhance border security in Texas.
A porous border places Texas and the nation at risk from international terrorists, organized crime cartels and transnational gangs. Until the federal government fulfills its responsibility of securing our border, Texas will continue filling in the gaps by putting more boots on the ground, providing increased law enforcement resources and leveraging technology along the border.
These efforts include the Virtual Border Watch program, a system of cameras along the border which creates a virtual online patrol presence, allowing the public to view and report suspicious activity to law enforcement. Members of the public may assist law enforcement by participating in the Virtual Border Watch program online at http://www.blueservo.net.
Under the governor’s leadership and thanks to action taken by the Legislature, the state has dedicated more than $110 million to border security efforts in each of the last two legislative sessions.
New Edinburg superintendent Gutiérrez to keynote September 24 luncheon at Edinburg Activity Center
By EVANA VLECK
On Thursday, September 24, from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m., the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Committee, headed by Ramiro Garza, executive director of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, will host a public affairs luncheon featuring René Gutiérrez, the new superintendent of the Edinburg school district.
Although the event is open to the pubic, there is a $12 per person fee, or $150 for a table of 10, which includes a hot lunch, beverage and dessert.
The luncheon will take place at The Edinburg Activity Center located on 123 Palm Drive. Superintendent Dr. Gutierrez will address current topics being discussed within the school district including but not limited to the new schools being built.
Gutiérrez was named Superintendent of Schools for Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District in June 2009. He is an immigrant who came from Mexico to the United States at the age of nine. Prior to moving with his family to McAllen, he attended schools in Mexico. His mother and father were migrant farm workers at the time he was born in Bakersfield, California. He worked in the fields picking tomatoes, pepper, and onions until he was about 13 years old.
He attended McAllen schools and graduated from McAllen High School and then attended Texas Southmost College at Brownsville, where he received an Associate Degree in Applied Science. He received a Bachelor in Business Administration (BBA) from Pan American at Brownsville; a Master of Education Degree from the University of Texas – Pan American; and a Doctoral Degree in Educational Leadership.
His doctoral dissertation is entitled: “Factors Contributing to the Academic Achievement of Mexican-Origin Immigrant High School Students.”
He holds the following Texas Educator Certificates: superintendent, mid-management administration, counselor, and secondary mathematics.
His experience includes serving as: assistant superintendent for administration and finance; director of federal programs; elementary school principal; migrant program coordinator; facilitator; counselor; and high school math teacher.
As an elementary school principal, Gutiérrez led his school to be a TEA Recognized and Exemplary Campus for six years in a row. He has presented to local and state conferences on migrant students; has been involved in curriculum writing and grants writing; and has served as a mentor to college students who are obtaining Administrator Certification.
For more information or to make a reservation, area residents are asked to call the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce at 956/383-4974.
Fred Palacios of Edinburg is named Planning Commissioner of the Year by state organization
Fred Palacios, who has served for 18 years on the Edinburg Planning and Zoning Commission, will be recognized statewide for his role in the guided growth of Edinburg, according to Juan R. López, AICP, Director of Planning and Zoning for the three-time All-America City.
Palacios has been named Planning Commissioner of the Year by the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA), a national nonprofit organization representing over 39,000 practicing planners, officials, and citizens involved with urban and rural planning issues.
The mission of the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association is to advocate the profession of planning, providing expertise and processes that empower citizens to be engaged in the development and sustainability of Great Communities in Texas
“He’s very influential,” López described Palacios. “Working with people and different groups, he understands the issues. He is a consensus builder.”
The honor will be bestowed upon Palacios on October 9 during the 2009 Conference of the Texas APA to held in Galveston. Edinburg Planning and Zoning nominated Palacios on the merit of his 18-plus years of work on the P&Z Board, according to Lopez.
Palacios said the most important thing about P&Z is making sure the city heads in the right direction by keeping residential, commercial and industrial growth in place
“It’s a great experience being a boardmember, getting involved with the community…you know what the city is doing, you know where we’re going,” Palacios said. “I have been very lucky that I have had very good people working with me, and Edinburg especially with its great residents…I feel great.”
Palacios also serves on the board of directors for the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.
UT-Pan American to receive $213,837 grant to help provide scholarships for health care students
By TENO VILLARREAL
Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Friday, September 11, announced that the University of Texas-Pan American has been awarded $213,837 in grant money by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The grant monies are part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds intended to train health professionals.
“I am proud that the Recovery act we passed in Congress continues to have an impact on our communities in Deep South Texas,” said Hinojosa. “With these funds, UT-Pan American can provide needed scholarships to students pursuing careers in the health field. And, given the current need for additional health resources, this funding comes not a moment too soon.”
The funds are part of the one of the agencies programs, Scholarships for Disadvantaged Students. This program funds health professions schools and training programs which, in turn, provide scholarships to full-time health professions students, with priority given to those with financial need.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced awards totaling $33 million to expand the training of health care professionals for institutions across the country, including $2.6 million awarded to institutions in Texas.
Agriculture Commissioner Staples to present South Texas College with $100,00 grant on Wednesday
By VERÓNICA OBREGÓN
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples announced on Thursday, September 10, that the Texas Department of Agriculture has approved $552,400 for the Parallel Pathways to Success Pilot Grant Program.
The funding includes a $100,000 grant to Duel Enrollment Medical Science Academy sponsored by South Texas College in Rio Grande City.
The purpose of the grant is to align educational resources with workforce needs by supporting the develop of programs that offer rural high school students expanded opportunities for concurrent enrollment. The $100,000 grant for the Starr County area will help continue STC’s focus on ensuring every student has an opportunity to attend college.
Staples is scheduled to make a formal presentation of the STC grant on Wednesday, September 16, at 9:30 a.m. The public ceremony will be held in Room E1.606 (Auditorium) in the Academic Building on STC’s Starr County Campus, which is located at 142 FM 3167 in Rio Grande City.
The state’s Parallel Pathways to Success Pilot Grant Program is designed to provide eligible high schools, institutions of higher learning and other similar organizations with funding to give rural Texas students the opportunity to acquire workforce skills and training, and earn college credit prior to graduation.
“Last year more than half of the jobs created in the U.S. were in Texas, proving that demand for skilled workers in the Lone Star State is growing,” said Staples. “Unfortunately, our supply of trained workers is not keeping up with the demand, and if employers do not have a skilled workforce, we risk the chance of them leaving the state. That’s a risk I’m not willing to take. Our new grant program will assist us in keeping businesses in Texas by funding initiatives that give students the necessary training to secure a job.”
This program gives students the opportunity to earn an Associate of Science degree in biology before the end of their senior year in high school.
In total, five proposals ranked in the scoring process to receive funding through the TDA Parallel Pathways to Success Pilot Grant Program. More information about the program is available at TDA’s Web site:
Helen J. Escobar contributed to this article.
McAllen, Weslaco, Donna to share in about $75,000 in anti-crime grants, says Congressman Hinojosa
By TENO VILLARREAL
Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, announced on Thursday, September 10, that economic stimulus money to fund anti-crime programs is on its way to the McAllen and Weslaco.
The City of McAllen is set to receive $46,538, the City of Weslaco will receive $17,135, and the City of Donna will receive $10,843 under the Department of Justice’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program.
The JAG funds for McAllen, Weslaco, and Donna are provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the Economic Stimulus Bill. On February 17, President Obama signed the final version of this historic bill into law. This legislation will create or save 3.5 million jobs, immediately cut taxes for 95 percent of workers, and begin a historic economic transformation that will make the nation more globally competitive and energy independent. The money is to be invested quickly in the economy – with an estimated 74 percent spent in the first 18 months, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
This vital anti-crime program provides support for a diverse range of law enforcement, prosecutorial and other initiatives to prevent and control crime.
“I am proud that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act we passed this year is providing our law enforcement agencies with the necessary resources to keep our communities safe is incredibly important,” Hinojosa said. “Unfortunately, due to current economic conditions, too many of our cities and counties are stretched to the limit. This stimulus money will arrive not a moment too soon. It will help make sure our communities remain safe while preventing harmful cutbacks that threaten the viability of our local law enforcement agencies.”
McAllen will use the JAG funds to purchase 12 handheld mobile citation issuing systems for the police department. The project goals are to enhance law enforcement capabilities and promote a safer business and commerce-friendly environment for citizens, businesses, and international visitors.
Weslaco will use the JAG funds to enhance communication capabilities for the police department by purchasing four (4) mobile video/audio recording units and six (6) radio microphones. The project goal is to provide officers with the necessary equipment to accurately document traffic stop information and citizen complaint resolutions.
Donna will use the JAG funds to enhance their law enforcement efforts by purchasing five (5) level three tactical vests and ten (10) night vision scopes for tactical rifles. The police department’s goal is to provide protection for their SWAT team officers so they may perform operations in a safer environment.
Gov. Perry’s executive order directs comprehensive cost review of Texas’ public higher education system
Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday, September 9, underscored his commitment to higher education excellence, accessibility and affordability through an executive order to improve cost efficiencies across state higher education institutions.
“As stewards of taxpayer dollars, our universities must be mindful that the dollars they spend come out of the pockets of hardworking Texas families and students,” Perry said. “While Texas continues to make great strides in higher education, we must build on our achievements to ensure students have access to the highest quality institutions and graduate ready to compete in a global economy.”
The governor’s executive order directs the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) to work with Texas institutions of higher education to undertake a comprehensive review of system-wide opportunities for achieving cost efficiencies. The directive includes a review of state funding based on student course completion, restructuring the state’s financial aid programs, consolidation or elimination of low-producing academic programs, faculty workload, transfer agreements between two and four year institutions, cost of instructional materials, and alternatives to creating new campuses through practices such as distance learning.
The executive order also directs the THECB to review higher education cost-saving measures implemented in other states and countries. The THECB report and cost cutting recommendations will be submitted to the governor, Legislature and public institutions of higher education by Nov. 1, 2010.
“As college students again fill our campuses and the state starts a new biennial budget, it’s more important than ever to ensure Texas universities are on track to spend student and taxpayer dollars in the most efficient and effective way possible,” Perry said.
This effort will further enhance the improvements made by Perry and Texas lawmakers during the 81st Legislative session, which include increasing financial aid for college students by $186.4 million, a 44 percent increase; modifying the top 10 percent automatic admissions law by capping the percentage of the entering freshman class at 75 percent; and promoting increased accountability for educators and greater transparency in course information for students during class registration. Gov. Perry and lawmakers also took important steps this session to help establish new and maintain existing Tier One universities in the state.
To view the governor’s executive order, please visit:
Texas Obesity Awareness Week draws attention to unhealthy lifestyles now plaguing border children
By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR.
In 2007. the 80th Texas Legislature designated the second full week of September as Obesity Awareness Week.
While this new observance in Texas was created to raise awareness of the obesity problem that continues to plague us, we are making inroads and continue to push ahead.
According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “Two-thirds of American adults are either obese or overweight. In 1991, no state had an obesity rate above 20 percent. In 1980, the national average for adult obesity was 15 percent.”
The Department of State Health Services reports that in the 32 border counties, 72 percent of the adult population is obese or overweight, compared to 66 percent for the state.
The price on human health and health care costs for Texas is overwhelming. The annual direct and indirect cost of obesity is expected to rise from $10.5 billion in 2000 to between $18.8 billion to $39 billion in 2040.
It was obvious something had to be done. When I first became involved with the obesity/overweight issue 10 years ago, it was a challenge just to bring attention to the problem. Over the course of our last three legislative sessions, much more thought has been directed toward this crisis in our state.
In 2001, I passed a bill that created the Food for Health Advisory Council to coordinate health research programs with the added goal of improving fruit and vegetable consumption. I also supported legislation by Sen. Jane Nelson that required 30 minutes of PE in elementary schools.
The following year, a joint interim committee to study health and nutrition in public schools that I created through legislation and headed involved statewide experts to closely examine our school children’s problems with obesity and overweight. We proposed solutions that primarily attempted to improve the foods and beverages sold and served in our schools.
During the 80th session, I introduced a bill that created a worksite wellness program for state employees allowing state agencies to adopt policies permitting employees to devote 30 minutes, three times a week to exercise. The purpose was to help employees achieve more desirable weights and lifestyles for optimum health.
To further our mission, I additionally passed legislation that created an interagency council among three state entities to make recommendations on how to better address obesity prevention in Texas.
My legislative efforts also enhanced a long-standing diabetes risk assessment program at the Border Health Office at UT-Pan American University.
That same session, the Legislature expanded PE requirements for middle schoolers.
Yet the challenge remained daunting. This past session, we approved a bill that created grant programs through the Department of Agriculture to provide nutrition education to children in early education and child care centers. We moved the focus from school age children to the very young. Why?
New evidence suggests that children are entering kindergarten overweight. The Center for Children’s Health Innovation reports that 26.2 percent of children ages two to five in this country are overweight or obese. This trend is especially problematic because the earlier weight problems develop, the more difficult they are to overcome.
To create an early childhood nutrition and activity plan, I passed a law that is now coordinating studies and providing better oversight to the state’s existing nutrition and physical activity programs and requirements in early childhood care centers.
I am confident that with concerted effort, we can reverse the growing trend of overweight/obesity problems and poor nutrition conditions beginning with our youngest Texans.
It seems that our busy lifestyles and lack of nutrition information have caused a malnourished, overweight and obese population with children who may die of health related illnesses while we’re still in our twilight years.
I urge our South Texas communities – officials, educators, medical professionals, nutritionists, parents and even business leaders – to do your part to improve your health through better food choices and exercise, and to get involved in the crusade against the obesity/overweight epidemic in Texas.
Attorney General Abbott says federal court has dismissed challenge to Texas Open Meetings Act
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has dismissed a lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA), according to Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott defended the Act, arguing that the lawsuit filed by former Alpine city council members Avinash Rangra and Anna Monclova (Rangra and Monclova v. Brown and Abbott) is now moot. The court’s en banc panel late Thursday, September 10, agreed and dismissed the case as moot by a 16-1 vote.
“Open, transparent government is fundamental to our democratic system of government,” Abbott said. “The Texas Open Meetings Act ensures that elected officials conduct the taxpayers’ business in the light of day and in a manner that informs the public about government decision-making. Texans have a right to know about their government, their elected representatives and the policies that are being adopted on the public’s behalf.”
“The en banc ruling marks an important victory for the state,” said Solicitor General James Ho, lead counsel for the appellees in the case. “It protects the fundamental principle of open government in Texas, and it preserves our federal court victory upholding the Texas Open Meetings Act.”
In addition to defending TOMA against constitutional challenge, the brief filed by Attorney General Abbott in late August also argued that the case became moot when the plaintiffs left office. It argued that “only a ‘member of a governmental body’ covered by TOMA can commit a crime under the Act—an ordinary citizen cannot.” The brief explained that TOMA no longer applies to either plaintiff, because Monclova vacated her council seat in May 2006 and Rangra left the council in May 2009. The court’s decision confirmed the attorney general’s argument and dismissed the case.
Rangra was indicted in February 2005 for violating TOMA after sending e-mails to a quorum of the Alpine City Council. Because those e-mails discussed official government business, Rangra was charged with conducting an illegal, closed meeting. The charge was later dropped.
Rangra and Monclova, however, subsequently challenged TOMA in federal court, claiming the law violates the First Amendment. Their lawsuit sought an injunction preventing TOMA’s enforcement. The federal district court rejected the lawsuit, but a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit court later sent the case back to the trial court to review TOMA under a stricter standard of review. The three-judge panel ruling was vacated in July when the entire court decided to rehear the case at Attorney General Abbott’s request. The September 10 opinion leaves intact the district court ruling that supported TOMA’s constitutionality.
To learn more about the Office of the Attorney General’s efforts to ensure openness in government, visit the agency’s Web site at http://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov.
Emma Vigil, 48, of McAllen, charged with defrauding Lone Star National Bank of more than $600,000
A federal grand jury on Thursday, September 10, indicted Emma Vigil, of McAllen, and charged her with five counts of bank fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft, United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced. Vigil, 48, was arrested by FBI agents at her residence Friday morning, September 11, and was arraigned at a hearing that afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Ormsby in McAllen.
An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. A defendant is presumed innocent unless convicted through due process of law.
According to the indictment, returned under seal on Thursday, September 10, 2009, and unsealed following Friday morning’s arrest, Vigil, 48, used her former position as a loan officer at Lone Star National Bank from May 2005 to September 2008 to conduct numerous fraudulent and unauthorized debit transactions from her loan customers’ accounts. In many instances, Vigil targeted customers with high-balance, high-activity accounts to conceal her scheme.
The indictment also alleges that Vigil generated and submitted two commercial loan applications that she knew to contain materially false information. In addition to manufacturing the applicants’ names for both loans, Vigil allegedly secured funding on at least one of the loans by using information belonging to her legitimate loan customers including dates of birth, mailing addresses, passport numbers and financial statements.
As a result of Vigil’s alleged fraud, Lone Star National Bank and its customers have sustained losses totaling in excess of $600,000.
If convicted, Vigil, faces up to 30 years in federal prison for each bank fraud count and a mandatory two-year-term of imprisonment for the aggravated identity theft count. The mandatory two-year sentence for an aggravated identity theft conviction must be served consecutive to any sentence imposed for a bank fraud conviction; there is no parole in the federal system.
The investigation leading to the charges was conducted by special agents of the FBI and is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Gregory S. Saikin.
Franklin Beltre, D.P.M, Houston podiatrist with San Juan office, indicted for health care fraud
A federal grand jury has indicted podiatrist Franklin Beltre, D.P.M., of Houston, for health care fraud, United States Attorney Tim Johnson and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced on Monday, September 14.
The eight-count indictment was returned on Thursday, September 10.
An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence.
The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.
Beltre, 39, was arrested Monday morning, September 14, at his office at Valley Medical Foot Care in San Juan, and made an initial appearance before United States Magistrate Peter M. Ormsby. He was being held in federal custody without bond pending a bond hearing on Tuesday, September 15.
Also charged along with Beltre is Manuela Alana, 40, an unlicensed podiatrist, of Pharr. A warrant remained outstanding for her arrest as of Monday, September 14.
Beltre and Alana are accused in each of the eight counts of the indictment of defrauding Medicaid and Medicare of thousands of dollars by means of false and fraudulent claims in connection with the use of unlicensed podiatrists and unqualified medical personnel between August 2004 through September 2009. Beltre allegedly billed for medical services purportedly performed by him on dates when he was actually traveling outside the State of Texas and outside of the United States.
Beltre and Alana each face a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000, if convicted of health care fraud.
The investigation leading to the charges in this case was conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, the Texas Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit and the FBI. Assistant United States Attorney Carolyn Ferko is prosecuting the case.
Since 1979, Texas crime victims have received $1 billion to help cover crime-related medical costs and other expenses, says Attorney General Abbott
The Texas Compensation to Victims of Crime Fund, which is administered by the Office of the Attorney General, has distributed $1 billion in financial assistance to crime victims and their families since its creation in 1979.
The fund receives its money from fees, court costs and restitution paid by those convicted of a felony or misdemeanor in a state, county or municipal court. When eligible victims and their families have exhausted all other means of financial support, the fund helps offset the expenses that stem from violent crime.
“With $1 billion in awards distributed, the Texas Compensation to Victims of Crime Fund has helped victims and their families get the financial assistance they need to help rebuild their lives,” Attorney General Gregg Abbott said on Thursday, September 10. “The Office of the Attorney General continues to work cooperatively with local law enforcement, service providers and advocacy organizations to inform crime victims about the Fund and respond to their needs. Together, we will continue working to help crime victims down the path to healing and recovery.”
Since December 2002, the Attorney General’s Crime Victim Services Division provided more than $500 million from the fund to help victims pay for medical and out-of-pocket emergency expenses and other costs associated with the crimes committed against them. In addition to the money distributed from the Compensation to Victims of Crime Fund, the OAG also distributed more than $300 million in grants to nonprofits and victim advocacy organizations since 2002. These state and local organizations provide services such as grief counseling, emergency shelter for abuse victims and other assistance.
To help victims navigate the crime victims’ compensation application process, the Office of the Attorney General provides training to victim advocates, hospitals and law enforcement officials across the state. The training, along with informational pamphlets and the agency’s Web site, http://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov, are intended to help victims and their advocates better understand application and payment procedures.
For more information about the Office of the Attorney General’s crime victims program, contact the Crime Victim Services Division at (800) 983-9933.
Concepción González, 38, of Mission, indicted for mailing marijuana through U.S. Mail
Concepción González has been charged with drug offenses arising from a scheme to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana through the U. S. Mail and laundering the proceeds, United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced on Monday, September 14.
Indicted by a McAllen grand jury on August 25, 2009, González, 38, of Mission, made his initial appearance in federal court on September 14 before U. S. Magistrate Judge Peter E. Ormsby and was denied bond on the federal charges. González is charged with one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana and one count of laundering the proceeds derived from the distribution of drugs.
González was one of several defendants charged by criminal complaint on May 5, 2009. That complaint alleged that González and others charged in a separate but related indictment were allegedly involved in mailing parcels containing marijuana through the mail system. 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.
During the course of a 10 month investigation, according to allegations in the complaint, USPIS inspectors identified a group of persons allegedly responsible for mailing more than 2000 parcels containing approximately 1657 kilograms of marijuana from various post offices throughout the Rio Grande Valley since May 2008. The packages were destined to various addresses throughout the United States with most of the packages being sent to Connecticut, Puerto Rico, New York and Florida. Of the parcels mailed by the group, at least 36 were intercepted and seized by USPIS inspectors.
As a result of the investigative effort, charges were brought against González. González, in state custody, was transferred into federal custody for the September 14 court proceeding. Trial is set for November 2, 2009 before U. S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa.
If convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana, Gonzalez faces a no less than 10 years up to a maximum of life imprisonment, and/or a $4 million fine. The conspiracy to launder the proceeds of drug trafficking charge carries a maximum of 20 years imprisonment, and the greater of a $500,000 fine or twice the amount of the transaction.
U.S. Postal Inspectors are increasing their efforts to protect the U.S. Mail from criminal misuse in South Texas. Specifically, 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, USPIS 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 USPIS office at 956/971-1721. The 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.
Assistant United States Attorneys Juan F. Alanis and Patricia Rigney are prosecuting the case.
New York lawsuit forces national credit company to improve services to customers with disabilities
Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, D-New York, recently announced a nationwide agreement with HSBC Card Services, Inc., a company which serves millions of customers, that requires the company to enhance its policies and systems to accommodate customers with vision and hearing impairments.
HSBC, which has its U.S. headquarters located in New York, helps many leading merchants offer financing to their customers, including Best Buy, Bon-Ton, CompUSA, Costco, Helzberg Diamonds, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Sony, Yamaha and many more.
Under the agreement, the company will offer customers with disabilities improved communication options and services, as well as a fully accessible Web site.
The agreement resolves an investigation triggered by a complaint from a blind credit card holder in New York. HSBC representatives repeatedly told the customer that she could not dispute a charge on her statement unless she completed a written form, which she could not read due to her disability,” said Cuomo. “The Attorney General’s office reviewed the company’s existing policies and training with respect to offering accommodations to customers with disabilities, and concluded that they were insufficient to guarantee full and equal access.
“Failing to provide customers with a way to use services or receive assistance regardless of disability is discriminatory and illegal,” added Cuomo. “HSBC’s willingness to overhaul its policies and systems sets a new precedent in customer service for individuals with disabilities, and I commend the proactive action it’s taken today.”
The settlement requires HSBC Card Services to make significant changes to its policies and procedures. Specifically, it will:
- Overhaul its website to ensure that customers with disabilities, including those with vision loss and hearing disabilities, can utilize its website and services;
- Offer statements, notices, standardized forms, and informational materials in alternative accessible formats, including on-line HTML versions for customers with visual impairments;
- Make reader services available via its toll-free customer assistance line for customers with visual impairment;
- Train customer service staff on responding to calls placed by customers with hearing or speech impairments through a TDD/TTY or a Telecommunications Relay Service, and monitor such calls for quality assurance purposes;
- Adopt clear and uniform procedures on how to receive, review, track, and promptly respond to accommodation requests; and
- Designate an ADA Coordinator to ensure that the company effectively meets the needs of customers with visual and hearing impairments.
Carl R. Augusto, President & CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind, said: “We applaud the Attorney General Cuomo for reaching this groundbreaking agreement to give customers with vision loss options to access their financial information, whether via the web, telephone, or hard copy. There is no greater sense of security than knowing you can easily and immediately review information regarding your financial accounts and statements. This agreement serves as a model for other financial services companies to better meet the needs of all consumers, including those with vision impairments.”
Michael Rothenberg, Executive Director of the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said: “The law requires companies to offer aids and services to ensure that persons with disabilities are not denied services available to other customers. We applaud Attorney General Cuomo’s leadership in enforcing the law and urge other companies to enhance access to their services for persons with vision and hearing impairments, including expanding the accessibility of their Web sites.”
This case was handled by Jeffrey K. Powell, under the supervision of Counsel for Civil Rights Spencer Freedman and Civil Rights Bureau Chief Alphonso B. David.