With shovel blades and even the overturned earth bearing a gold coloring, Valley legislators literally and figuratively hit pay dirt in Weslaco on Friday, May 14, during the groundbreaking ceremony for the planned $40 million Department of Public Safety Regional Headquarters.
The complex will feature about 110,00 square feet and accommodate 212 employees, who will serve and protect area residents as a regional state public safety command center – including housing the Highway Patrol, Texas Rangers, and aircraft – plus focus on criminal investigations, intelligence and counter-terrorism, crime laboratory, communications, and emergency management. In addition, the complex will include a driver’s license facility, victim services, information technology, and agency support. It is expected to open for business by the summer of 2011. In 2007, the Texas Legislature, led by the Valley legislative delegation, authorized the funding for the construction of the facility, which will serve Hidalgo County. The Weslaco Economic Development Corporation, directed by Hernan Gonzalez, donated the 21-acre tract of land, which is located at the corner of FM 1015 and Sugar Cane Drive (Mile 9). Featured, from left: Rep.-elect J.M. Lozano, D-Kingsville; Steven C. McCraw, Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety; Weslaco Mayor Buddy De la Rosa; Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville; Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco; Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg; and Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
Leadership Edinburg Class XXI on April 19 held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for one of its projects, a "Welcome to the City of Edinburg" monument located on the town square at the corner of McIntyre and Closner. The group, which is growing organization that strives to encourage a better Edinburg through strong leadership skills focusing on politics, education, quality of life, and more, has more than 450 graduates. Graduates of Leadership Edinburg typically continue to apply what they learned and demonstrate it by showing interest in community involvement including serving on committees and at times politics. Residents interested in participating in the next Leadership Edinburg Class may contact Letty González at 956/383-4974. Featured, from left: Emilio Santos; Lisa Chávez; Sal Martínez; María Medina; Abel Vaquera; Juan Uribe; and Maris Aguirre. Front row, from left: Myra L. Ayala-Garza; Jensid Álvarez; and Rita Flores.
Edinburg’s "Market Day", a planned monthly service of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce and the Edinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, will begin on Saturday, June 5, with the inaugural event to be held at the Town Square from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Market Day – scheduled for the first Saturday of every month – is designed to help revitalize businesses in that key section of the city, assist small entrepreneurs, and provide family entertainment, according to Edna Peña, a "Market Day" committee member who also serves on the local chamber’s board of directors. "Market Day" will be free to the public, who will be able to purchase various items that will be offered by area vendors. Business owners who wish to sell their products and services during "Market Day" may set up a booth for a $25 fee. For more information, residents and prospective vendors may contact the local chamber at 956/383-4974 or by logging on at http://www.Edinburg.com. Featured, from left: Edna Peña; Imelda Rodríguez, Director of Tourism of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce; and Letty González, President of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce.
The City of McAllen, McAllen Chamber of Commerce, and McAllen Economic Development Corporation on Thursday, May 20, will be hosting a reception to allow constituents to meet Rep.-elect Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission. The event, scheduled from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, will be conducted in a casual and informal setting. Muñoz, an area attorney and Palmview Municipal Court Judge, faces no opponent in the November general election for the two-year term, paving the way for him to be sworn into the Texas Legislature when it convenes in mid-January for its five-month regular session. An RSVP is required, so area constituents are being asked to confirm their attendance by contacting Michelle Rodriguez with the local chamber by e-mail at email@example.com or at (956) 682-2871. In addition to hearing from residents on legislative issues important to them, the gathering also will allow Muñoz to share his vision for House District 36, which includes Granjeno, Hidalgo, southern McAllen, most of Mission, Palmview, Peñitas, and Pharr.
On Tuesday, May 11, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville (featured left), was presented a certificate in his Capitol office naming him to the Texas PTA Legislative Honor Roll by for his work during the 81st Legislative Session in 2009 to improve nutrition in public schools and address the childhood obesity epidemic. Lucio passed legislation that created the Early Childhood Health and Nutrition Interagency Council to develop an early childhood nutrition and physical activity plan. "Texas PTA applauds Sen. Lucio’s efforts to improve the health status of all Texas children," said Texas PTA President Sharon Goldblatt. "He was also honored for recognizing that students’ academic progress is directly tied to their physical health.” Presenting the honor to Sen. Lucio is Kyle Ward, executive director for Texas PTA. See story later in this posting.
Investing more state resources into helping border law enforcement agencies to crack down on the flow of guns, ammunition, stolen vehicles, and even criminal fugitives across the Texas border region’s international bridges into Mexico deserves a close look, says Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, featured right. That approach was proposed by McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodríguez – and endorsed by McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz – on Thursday, April 30, during a major legislative public hearing in McAllen by the House Committee on Border and Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Public Safety. Martínez was one of more than a dozen state lawmakers who heard day-long testimony from a wide range of law enforcement, political, economic development, and community leaders who gathered at the McAllen Convention Center to discuss the threat of border violence spill-over from the ongoing battles in Mexico between Mexican military forces and criminal drug cartels. "With so much attention being placed on the importance of the Texas border region because we are a key economic asset to Texas, we have the opportunity to invest more state and federal funds for law enforcement and public safety in our area," said Martínez. "Many important ideas came out of this legislative hearing, none more important, in my opinion, than what was proposed by McAllen." Featured, from left: Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City; Rep. Joseph E. Moody, D-El Paso; and Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez. See lead story later in this posting.
Rep. Martínez: McAllen’s call to crack down on sales of guns, ammunition meant for Mexican drug cartels drawing legislative interest
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Investing more state resources into helping border law enforcement agencies to crack down on the flow of guns, ammunition, stolen vehicles, and even criminal fugitives across the Texas border region’s international bridges into Mexico deserves a close look, says Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco.
That approach was proposed by McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodríguez – and endorsed by McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz – on Thursday, April 30, during a major legislative public hearing in McAllen by the House Committee on Border and Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Public Safety.
Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, is the chair of the House Committee on Border and Governmental Affairs.
Martínez was one of more than a dozen state lawmakers who heard day-long testimony from a wide range of law enforcement, political, economic development, and community leaders who gathered at the McAllen Convention Center to discuss the threat of border violence spill-over from the ongoing battles in Mexico between Mexican military forces and criminal drug cartels.
"With so much attention being placed on the importance of the Texas border region because we are a key economic asset to Texas, we have the opportunity to invest more state and federal funds for law enforcement and public safety in our area," said Martínez. "Many important ideas came out of this legislative hearing, none more important, in my opinion, than what was proposed by McAllen."
Martínez, who along with Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, successfully secured the upcoming construction of a $45 million regional headquarters in Weslaco for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said he will be working closely with the Valley legislative delegation to generate political and state financial support for the ideas promoted by McAllen officials.
"We are in an excellent position to champion these strategies, not only because they have been developed by experts from South Texas, but because we have the legislative leadership in place in Austin," said Martínez. "In both the House and the Senate, we have the influence to get these ideas into place."
The veteran lawmaker, who is an expert firefighter and paramedic, said he was impressed with the ideas promoted by witnesses who testified before the joint House panels, including recommendations by McAllen city leaders on how to improve public safety in the Valley.
Cortéz, following his welcoming remarks to the legislators, said improving the capabilities of local police agencies in their intelligence-gathering efforts would go a long ways toward reducing criminal alliances between Mexican drug cartels and Texas-based criminals.
"The spill-over of violence potential is real and it is occurring in a slow process," said Cortéz. "We are becoming a breeding ground of those people, and in order for us to combat that, yes, we need help, but it is what type of help do we need."
Improving the law enforcement system for Texas border communities can be achieved with "more personnel and infrastructure for us to do more intelligence, to be able to find out where they are, what are they doing, when they are coming, through that type of enforcement, as opposed to (the U.S. sending) guns, grenades and tanks," Cortéz continued. "If you are going to send me tanks, guns, and bazookas, I am just going to put them on the floor, because that is not going to help us. What is going to help is to bring people here to do undercover work, to do intelligence work and investigations to find out the movements of these people."
Although a military presence is not needed, the information gathering system does take a page from military strategies, he noted.
"It’s also the process, and the process is, how do we communicate with one another, compare notes about what we know about the situation, and come up with a plan and strategy. The military does it all the time, they send out scouts and other intelligence work, put all the information together, the come up with a plan," Cortéz added. "If I have never been consulted, nor have I ever been given any information about the issue, and I am arguably the leader of this community, then how can we ever solve the problem?"
McAllen Police Chief Víctor Rodríguez, representing the leadership of that city, laid out their vision.
"I suggest we implement effective and efficient southbound inspections designed to deter exportation of guns, ammunition, stolen property, and fugitives," Rodríguez said. "I suggest that effective means 24/7, 365. We have built virtual fences. However, those fences have great big holes in them – the ports of exit."
Specifically, Rodríguez recommended:
• Rather than invest resources on establishing a military presence on the Texas side of the U.S. – Mexico border, Rodríguez recommended that federal and state funds be used to foil drug-related violence on the Texas side of the border before they can be carried out.
• Build up an intelligence gathering system, including improving how that data is shared by law enforcement agencies along the border, in order to closely monitor drug cartel violence in northern Mexico and develop plans to prevent and deal with all threats posed to Texas residents by that Mexican violence.
• Establish efficient and effective state police presence at Texas border bridges to crack down on the flow of guns, ammunition, illicit drug sale proceeds, stolen vehicles and property leaving Texas into Mexico;
• Utilize those proposed state police checkpoints on the Texas side of the international bridges to catch fugitives from U.S. and Texas law trying to flee into Mexico;
• Assign state police to more closely monitor the sales of weapons and ammunition by licensed dealers and gun shows in Texas in order to spot suspicious activities that indicate that arsenals are being bought to take to the Mexican drug cartels.
McAllen Police Chief Rodríguez outlines major strategies to stop flow of contraband to Mexico
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Lost among the hours of testimony from federal, state, county, and local law enforcement officials were the recommendations of McAllen Police Chief Víctor Rodríguez, who on Thursday, April 30, offered his strategies on how to reduce the threat of Mexican border violence from spilling over into the Texas border region.
Rodríguez, who appeared at the McAllen Convention Center before a rare joint hearing of two House legislative panels, said blocking the flow of weapons, ammunition, stolen vehicles – and even fleeing criminal fugitives and kidnapping victims – from Texas into Mexico is one of the best ways to hurt powerful Mexican drug cartels.
Highlights of Rodriguez’ recommendations, which came before the House Committee on Border and Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Public Safety, follows:
Police Chief Rodríguez:
It is an honor to come before you. On behalf of the City of McAllen, please accept our warmest welcome. I extend my thanks to you for the opportunity to bring my testimony before you today.
We are tasked to report to you about the effectiveness of state efforts at controlling drug-related crime and violence along our part of the Texas-Mexico border.
It is impossible to meet this task today without reference to the current state of violence in Mexico. Therefore, I will wrap these comments around how that situation relates to us.
The advent of 9/11 has provided us the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has made enforcement of immigration laws its top priority. Immigration has come to mean one thing: border security; and border security has come to mean one border – the U.S. – Mexico border.
As a U.S. city on the U.S. – Mexico border, we have come to see the effect of this narrowly-focused policy. All things border are now viewed and responded to by all of us through the Homeland Security lens created by 9/11. It has become convenient to tie many things to something in Mexico.
Do we experience crime? Yes. Do we experience violent crimes? Yes. Do some of these crimes have a drug-related nexus? Yes. Do illegal drugs have a Mexico nexus? Yes.
This should not be a question about whether we experience drug-related crimes or drug-related violence, and drugs have a Mexico nexus, then all such crimes have a Mexico nexus. In actuality, we can all make that leap. We can always find the Mexican nexus. Most crimes can be connected to a person whom is connected to someone with a Mexican nexus, as it relates to our business in our part of the state.
In 2002, we had four people killed in Donna – gang-related. In 2003, we had six people killed at one time in Edinburg. We call it "The Edinburg Massacre". Twelve gang members were charged.
The difference is time. I ask you to pause for a moment. What if these crimes happened today? And therein lies the problem for us. Today, the headlines would probably read, "Border Violence Is Here", or "Border Violence Has Led to Spill-Over", or "Trans-National Crime Is Here", or something along the lines of "A Thousand Troops Summoned To The Border". That’s what would happen today if those two crimes happened today.
Are gangs trafficking Mexican cartel dope? Well, think about that for one second. What other dope is there, if it’s not from Mexico? Where else does dope come from if not from Mexico? Do we have gangs? Yes. But I would suggest to you that we cannot begin to address the gang problem unless we get a little bit more realistic.
Return to fundamentals
We talk about addressing gangs in our community. Ladies and gentlemen, on this front our approaches have failed. We have gangs in even our most remote and most controlled environments: the prisons. The one place where we stand a chance to bring gang or gang activity under control is a place we control the most – prisons – and we failed there.
It is necessary to return to fundamentals.
A crime is a perceived wrong. That is an act by a person that is deemed a wrong act by another person. Crime is based on an opportunity to perceive a wrong, either visually or deductively. Perception is person-based. The greater the number of persons, the greater the number of possible perceptions, and thus, the greater the amount of crime.
We are a growing community. In fact, the U.S. and Texas have grown by millions, therefore yes, it is possible to have more crime today, but we are not Mexico. We should stop the hysteria. The sky is not falling. We are not being overrun at the border.
When we look at the Mexico situation through the 9/11 lens, we fail to act in a manner that is responsive to the realities and that is responsible to our communities.
I submit that violence in some Mexican cities has been more blatant than at other times. Some of this violence has been more gruesome and some has been simply ‘in-your-face’ type of violence. Although it is not new, we find ourselves at a new level, we find ourselves introduced to new sound bites like ‘spill-over’ or ‘trans-national’.
Recently, we have resorted to warning our communities about "spill-over". In these warnings, we have communicated a fear, as if to say that the battles in Mexico may not be contained in Mexico, and that those battles may spill over into the U.S., as if the Mexican violence was a conquering force threatening to next conquer us, and engage us in combat. This is the ‘spill-over’ picture we have painted, and our response has been, ‘We will send our troops to the border’.
The threat, my friends, is not a visible army of criminals, the threat is invisible. The threat is drug-trafficking money that creeps, that infiltrates, that corrupts our communities. The threat are the crimes that drug-trafficking money causes. The threat are the criminals that drug-trafficking money buys.
If anyone runs across the border, it is not "spill-over", it is an effort to escape the violence. It is a run to a safe haven where lawlessness does not rule. It just happened last week, at the Camargo/Rio Grande City port of entry. People ran across the bridge for safety, while those who couldn’t make it were being victimized within sight of U.S. officers.
Border communities safer than big cities
That is a testament of faith and confidence in our law enforcement officers, in our criminal justice system. It is a testament of faith and confidence about the rule of law that our country is known for.
The realities are that the border communities are safer than Texas’ inner-most and largest communities. All review indicates that all significant border cities are less violent and less crime-ridden than all major cities in Texas. I cite briefly the following, the 2008 Uniform Crime Reporting Information:
• The highest murder rate in Texas occurs in Dallas, at 13.3 homicides per 100,000 population;
• Dallas’ rate is equal to approximately 200 percent greater than the highest murder rate in the most violent border city. Houston and San Antonio follow in that category;
• The highest rate of rape in Texas occurs in Forth Worth;
• The highest robbery rate in Texas occurs in Dallas;
• The highest aggravated assault rate in Texas occurs in Houston; and
• Based upon crimes of violence, Houston suffers the highest and most violent crime rates. When compared to McAllen, this is a crime rate that is 400 percent greater than McAllen’s.
All of this is not to say that we do not need resources to assist our daily battle against crime. However, what we ask for is action that is responsive to the realities of the situation. What we ask for is action without the rhetoric, and action without the sound bites.
I submit that it is prudent to be cognizant of the instabilities in our southern neighbor.
It is prudent to seek, to develop, and to analyze all the intelligence possible. It is prudent to contemplate worse-case scenarios. It is prudent to plan contingencies, and it is prudent to take measured steps. But let’s do so without rhetoric, lets do so with responsibility, let’s not allow rhetoric to drive our policy.
Border region not being invaded
We are not a lawless frontier.
"Spill-over" does not mean an invasion.
We should focus on action and not rhetoric.
I have three suggestions for you.
One is, we should study, propose and pass legislation that more tightly controls the sale, resale, purchase, multiple purchase, possession, and transportation of the weapons and the ammunition that are at the root of violence in Mexico and here.
Place a state police officer at every place of sale. Regulate gun shows and sales. Approximately 70 percent of murders in Texas are committed with firearms.
Few would contest that over 90 percent of weapons and ammunition in Mexico are U.S.-made. Few would contest that those weapons and ammunition have been illegally exported to Mexico. The very violence at the center of Mexico’s turbulence is at the hands of these weapons and ammunition. The very violence we decry is at the hands of the weapons and ammunitions made here and sold here.
My second recommendation is that we control our border southbound. Please study, propose and pass legislation that creates a state law enforcement presence at our ports of exit. I suggest we implement effective and efficient southbound inspections designed to deter exportation of guns, ammunition, stolen property, and fugitives. I suggest that effective means 24/7, 365. We have built virtual fences. However, those fences have great big holes in them – the ports of exit.
Let’s control our borders outbound. Let’s deter and stop the unlawful exportation of guns and ammunition. Let’s stop the daily, southbound, unimpeded flow of our citizens’ stolen vehicles and stolen property. Let’s stop the daily, southbound, unimpeded flow of murderers, rapists, sex offenders, and child molesters. It is time for Texas to step up to this problem.
Boost local police intelligence
Finally, I suggest, calm, cool and collected law enforcement policy.
Ask me – and I have heard all the ‘boots on the ground’ talk today – ask me, would I rather have the assistance of 500 troops or 24 investigators, and I would say give me 24 investigators. The real threat is illicit money, and its ability to criminalize persons and systems here. We need coordinated, regionalized law enforcement to help identify and to act against violent offenders and criminal organizations. We should move expeditiously to identify and to act against violent crimes. We should move against illicit funds and assets associated with criminal organizations.
After 9/11, we became wiser as a country. We placed more emphasis on intelligence and pro-active investigations. The situation we face now requires that kind of response. The Mexican situation requires the same kind of response. I would submit to you that the most important testimony to come to you today will come from the local (police) chiefs because it is in those local departments where the masses of the population are located.
Your dollar will have greatest impact in a metro area with hundreds of thousands of people in population if we are true about wanting to have more safe and secure communities. It would have greater impact impact where the population centers as opposed to where they are not.
Politicians, journalists bear much blame for images of "spill-over" drug violence on Texas border region
By DR. SAMUEL FREEMAN
In response to the article "McAllen battles unfair images of Texas border promoted by media coverage of drug cartels" (EdinburgPolitics.com, Wednesday, May 5), it is difficult for that image not to go forward when local political leaders, some in law enforcement, and the media routinely play into it. A meeting can be held in which they decry the image being developed, but they hypocritically work to sell that image.
Just watch local news casts or read local newspapers whenever there is some kind of drug-related (or maybe even not drug-related) violence. Some law enforcement official will draw the "spill-over link" one second, then deny it the next. What message will viewers/readers walk away with?
News casters/writers will insist on emphasizing the link even when law enforcement officials repeatedly insist there is no link. What message will viewers/readers walk away with?
Elected officials cruise the border for photo ops, discussing their concerns about the potential for spill-over. They may make passing references to there being no evidence of that, at least not yet; but this is under emphasized relative to their expressions of concern of what might happen. What message will viewers/readers walk away with?
Most of these clowns are manipulating this issue for news ratings, or for their own political agendas.
If they do not want the image being developed, virtually everyone involved in this – public officials, law enforcement, "journalists" (we have to use that term loosely down here since there probably is not a real journalist among the entire broadcast or print media) need to change the way they say things, change the messages they are sending.
Hypocrites who strive to stir hysteria while pretending to be trying to calm a situation, or who try to stop unfair images when they help to create them are despicable.
I do not want to paint with too broad a brush when referring to law enforcement officials. Some have been very good and perfectly consistent in their public statements rejecting the contention there is or has been "spill-over". But, from what I have seen and read, those law enforcement officials appear to be the minority, not the majority of those who have made public statements on the issue.
However, those law enforcement officials who have been very good and perfectly consistent certainly need our commendation and our thanks.
(Samuel Freeman, Ph.D., is a local political science professor, with over 30 years teaching experience.)
South Texas congressmen urge VA Secretary Shinseki to visit Valley veterans, get behind movement for Veterans Hospital in region
By PATRICIA GUILLERMO
The Valley’s three congressmen – Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, and Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi/Brownsville, on Wednesday, May 12, sent a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki requesting emergency and inpatient services for Rio Grande Valley Veterans.
The Valley congressional delegation also requested that Shinseki visit the Rio Grande Valley to meet with veterans.
“Our veterans in the Rio Grande Valley deserve the best this country can give them in return for all they’ve done for us," said Hinojosa. “Something must be done now to provide our veterans with quality healthcare services where they live and not hundreds of miles away”.
In their correspondence, the local congressmen praised the federal government’s decision to build a new outpatient medical facility in Harlingen for veterans, which is set to open in early 2011. However, their letter stated, "the facility will not include inpatient beds or an emergency room. Patients will still have to travel to San Antonio for inpatient services and receive emergency care at local hospitals that often have no understanding of the unique health care needs of these veterans."
Ortiz, who has filed legislation (H.R. 1232, the Far South Texas Veterans Medical Center Act of 2009), said that despite the major advances for area veterans, there is still one major step to go.
“Over the years, we have secured a number of services for veterans in South Texas," Ortiz said.
"Those include the construction of an outpatient facility in Harlingen, as well as agreements for health services through local hospitals. Much more needs to be done. I am well aware of this, but we’ve accomplished great strides in our efforts.”
Cuellar reiterated the burdens that Valley veterans must endure in order to get service at a VA Hospital – the nearest one being the Audie L. Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio.
“We have to continuously uphold a promise to our servicemen and women. Providing to them quality, accessible health care is a vitally important part of showing our gratitude for their service,” said Cuellar. “We need immediate solutions to bridge the gap between where our Valley veterans live and where the VA hospitals are. Our local veterans face tremendous difficulty in getting to San Antonio and that’s why we need to work together to get this resolved.”
The letter from Hinojosa, Cuellar, and Ortiz to Shineski follows:
Dear Secretary Shinseki,
We are writing on behalf of the thousands of veterans of Deep South Texas who continue to drive more than 300 miles to receive VA inpatient care. These veterans proudly served their country and they deserve to have the best health care possible. Deep South Texas is one of the fastest growing regions of the country and the migration of retired veterans either permanently or for good portions of the year will continue to significantly contribute to this population explosion.
As you know, the VA is currently building a new medical facility in Harlingen which will address many of the health issues these veterans face. We appreciate your support for this facility and the speed with which it is being completed. We understand that it will open in early 2011. However, the facility will not include inpatient beds or an emergency room. Patients will still have to travel to San Antonio for inpatient services and receive emergency care at local hospitals that often have no understanding of the unique health care needs of these veterans.
In this regard, we respectfully request that you come to South Texas and hear first- hand from our veterans the difficulties they face. We also urge your support for adding emergency and inpatient services to the medical facility in Harlingen so that the veterans of Deep South Texas will finally have the full hospital that they have been pleading for over the past forty years.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.
Congressman Rubén Hinojosa
Congressman Solomon Ortiz
Congressman Henry Cuellar
Sen. Hutchison and Sen. Cornyn ask VA Secretary for action on VA Hospital in Valley
U.S. Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, on Monday, May 10, called on Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to add inpatient facilities to the existing and already expanding South Texas VA Health Care Center in Harlingen.
“While I applaud the VA for increasing outpatient services for our Valley veterans through the expansion of the Harlingen VA health center, the need for inpatient facilities for this growing population of veterans must be addressed," said Hutchison. "Veterans living in the Rio Grande Valley should not have to travel five hours or more to San Antonio for hospital treatments. The time is right to make the South Texas VA hospital a reality."
Hutchison is a Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Military Construction Appropriations Subcommittee.
“From the first world war to today’s ongoing military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, South Texas continues to send their finest to the front lines," Cornyn added. "These veterans have made enormous sacrifices for our nation, and it is unacceptable that any of these brave men and women have to drive long distances to access high-quality health care. I am committed to securing adequate, local health care for these men and women to whom we owe our gratitude and full support."
The full text of their joint letter to Shinseki follows:
Dear Secretary Shinseki:
We write today out of continued concern for the lack of adequate VA inpatient health care services available to veterans in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas and to ask for your support. There are currently an estimated 100,000 veterans living in this region without adequate access to a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. Based on current enlistment rates in the Valley and the increasing number of veterans choosing to retire in South Texas, this population of veterans will continue to grow.
For the most part, we have been very pleased with the VA’s expansion thus far of the Harlingen clinic to provide a broad range of outpatient care to area veterans, as well as its partnering with high-quality private inpatient hospitals in the region. These have certainly been welcome and significant improvements for the veterans of South Texas, who have waited far too long for the quality health care they have earned through their service. However, additional steps are required to fully address the health care shortfall for these veterans, particularly in the area of inpatient health care.
A number of veterans in the Rio Grande Valley are still forced to drive five hours or more to receive inpatient care at VA facilities in San Antonio or elsewhere. These heroes deserve, and their service demands, that we do more to properly care for them when inpatient care is required.
We believe the solution to this problem is simple and straightforward: adding new inpatient care facilities to the existing South Texas VA Health Care Center in Harlingen. We request your support for this common-sense approach.
Momentum continues to build in the movement to bring a new VA hospital to the Rio Grande Valley. Numerous state and local government officials and community leaders in the surrounding area have joined in strong support of this effort. We remain hopeful that you will support it as well. Thank you for your service on behalf of America’s veterans.
Gov. Perry releases Texas Homeland Security Strategic Plan 2010-2015
Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday, May 11, released the Texas Homeland Security Strategic Plan 2010-2015, a strategic plan that will guide the state’s preparation, preparedness, response and recovery efforts for all types of threats over the next five years. The plan serves as a high-level roadmap to allow for adaption to evolving situations in an ever-changing threat environment.
“Texas faces a diverse array of challenges to our safety and security, requiring a unique approach to preparedness, response and recovery efforts,” Perry said. “This plan was developed with the input of state agencies, law enforcement and emergency management personnel that form the homeland security community in Texas, ensuring the most accurate assessment of the risks in our state and the best recommendations on how to address them.”
Over the last five years, Texas has:
• Increased the scope and magnitude of its coordinated border security operations;
• Committed more than $230 million to fund border security operations;
• Significantly improved radio interoperability;
• Established a state health and medical operations center; and
• Earned national recognition for its response to the spring 2009 novel H1N1 influenza outbreak.
Over the same period, Texas responded to seven hurricanes, two tropical storms, 18 tornadoes, drought, wildfires that burned more than two million acres and one terrorist attack at Fort Hood.
The Texas Homeland Security Strategic Plan 2010-2015 builds on the successes from the past five years while incorporating new initiatives to address new and evolving threats. This plan places additional focus on:
• Unified investigations and prosecutions of high threat gangs;
• Increased information sharing between all levels of government, law enforcement and the public; and
• Enhanced public-private partnerships.
A complete copy of the Texas Homeland Security Strategic Plan 2010-2015 can be found at:
Five Texas border congressmen dispute Gov. Perry’s assertion that federal government not providing enough funding for border security
By ASHLEY PATTERSON
Five Texas congressmen on Tuesday, May 11, released a joint statement regarding Gov. Rick Perry’s contention that the federal government must do more in helping pay for border security measures in Texas.
(Editor’s Note: The federal leaders – all Democrats – took issue with recent state reports that indicated less than 10 percent of federal homeland security grants were being provided to the Texas border region each year.)
The statement was distributed by Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, Congressman Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, Congressman Ciro D. Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, and Congressman Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso.
Their shared comments follow:
"Gov. Perry’s own rhetoric indicates that he considers the border a critically sensitive area. We agree. Yet, Gov. Perry has disputed some clear-cut facts about border security funding. He contends that the federal government has failed in its duty to fund sufficient resources and secure our homeland along the Texas border.
"We agree that more can and should be done, and that takes partners across all levels of government.
"We’ve worked – often across party lines – to make sure this region receives what it needs, including supporting a recent bill introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and supported by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) to increase grant money for border law enforcement.
"But we’re constrained by regulations that give the governor discretion on how to spend some of that money. In April, we formally called upon the governor to send more federal funds given to the state to the border. We noted that an average of $125 million annually in Department of Homeland Security funding has gone to the state since 2006. And yet, Gov. Perry has consistently sent less than 10 percent of those funds to border law enforcement agencies, where they are most needed.
"We will call upon the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct an analysis detailing how much federal funding given to the state has been allocated to the border.
"Collectively, we have 65 years of experience representing the border region. We understand the needs and challenges that life on the border brings. We agree that more can be done, but we cannot do it alone. And we need to deal in facts, not myths."
Harlingen airport to receive advanced security imaging technology to better screen passengers
By PATRICIA GUILLERMO
Harlingen/Valley International Airport has been awarded a Backscatter Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) security screener by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Congressman Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, announced on Thursday, May 13.
The Backscatter AIT screens passengers for both metallic and non-metallic threats, including weapons and explosives. It detects items which may be concealed under a passenger’s clothes. It also allows the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to screen without physical contact.
“In this day and age, we must take extra precautions when it comes to public safety”, said Hinojosa. “This new technology gives TSA employees a distinct advantage in the prevention of terroristic events”.
The Backscatter AIT’s are being funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which Hinojosa supported.
Currently, TSA has 58 of these units at 24 airports and there are plans to have 450 more in place by the end of 2010 and 500 more have been requested for the year 2011.
The Backscatter AIT projects low level X-ray beams over the body to create a reflection of the body, which is displayed on the monitor. The image produced resembles a chalk etching.
TSA has implemented strict measures to protect passenger privacy, which is ensured through the anonymity of the image. The image cannot be stored, transmitted or printed, and is deleted immediately once viewed.
Backscatter AIT’s have also been awarded to the Brownsville/South Padre Island International and McAllen Miller International Airports.
U.S. government approves first of two requests by Congressman Cuellar to use unmanned aircraft to patrol border for illegal activities
By ASHLEY PATTERSON
Effective June 1, an unmanned aerial aircraft will begin patrolling a portion of the U.S.-Mexico border from Arizona to the El Paso region, according to Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen.
The South Texas congressman, who serves as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism, on Friday, May 14, announced that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has approved a Certification of Authorization (COA) for aircraft.
This is one of two COAs that have been submitted to FAA to approve the flights of unmanned aerial vehicles along the Texas-Mexico border.
“This is the first of two steps in getting unmanned aircraft vehicles approved to patrol the entire Texas-Mexico border,” said Cuellar. “This is very good news for Texas, as we seek to provide additional security measures along the Rio Grande in light of escalated border violence. However, more needs to be done. I will continue to push for the second pending COA when I meet with the FAA Administrator on May 20.”
Cuellar has long advocated for an additional COA currently pending before the FAA. If approved, this COA would approve the use of an UAV from El Paso to Corpus Christi. The Arizona-to-El Paso COA announced on May 14 is one of two certifications to ensure the entire Texas border will be approved for UAV flights.
President signs law to help provide caregivers of wounded veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan
By ASHLEY PATTERSON
Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, and Congressman Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Thursday, May 6, announced that a landmark veteran caregiver bill passed by Congress two weeks earlier is now law.
The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act provides unprecedented new benefits to veteran caregivers including training, counseling, health care and financial assistance. President Obama signed the bill into law on Wednesday, May 5.
“This landmark legislation stands by our troops and supports those caregivers who continue to stand with them,” said Cuellar. “Everyday, millions of military families support men and women in uniform, making sacrifices for the sake of our country. These caregiver benefits are vitally needed and well-deserved.”
The act provides support services to family and other caregivers of all veterans, including stipends for caregivers living with severely wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The act will also create two distinct caregiver programs within the Department of Veterans Affairs, one for all caregivers and one specifically designed for those supporting Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
“We have made historic investments to improve veterans’ health care, raised our troops’ salaries and helped smooth their return from the battlefield,” said Hinojosa. "This bill will help us address the changing medical needs of our veterans and it will ensure our veterans have full access to quality health care.”
The new law builds on a record of accomplishments for veterans and troops over the last three years under the Democratic-led Congress – including the new G.I. Bill to provide returning troops with the promise of a college education; historic investments in veterans’ health care and providing that funding one year in advance to prevent political or legislative delays; expanding economic opportunities for returning soldiers and improving care for those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Caregivers are defined as family members of veterans or non-family members who live with a veteran. Training, education, counseling, mental health services, lodging, financial assistance and subsistence payments for accompanying veterans on medical care visits will be provided to qualifying caregivers as a result of this legislation.
In addition, caregivers will be provided health care services through the Civilian Health and Medical Program (CHAMPVA) of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
To address the unique needs of the growing number of returning women soldiers, the act also improves health care services for the nation’s 1.8 million female veterans and for the first time provides up to seven days of post-delivery health care to a newborn of a female veteran.
The veterans’ legislation also improves access to care for veterans in rural areas by improving VA transportation services to veterans living in remote regions. Servicemen and women will also have access to counseling and other mental health centers, including members of the National Guard and Reserves who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, but are no longer on active duty.
A broad coalition of veterans groups including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Wounded Warriors Project and the National Military Family Association support the landmark legislation.
For more information, please visit the House Committee on Veterans Affairs:
Patricia Guillermo contributed to this article.
Sen. Lucio honored by Texas PTA for law to fight childhood obesity, promote exercising
By DORIS SÁNCHEZ
Leaders with the Texas PTA on Tuesday, May 11, presented Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, with a certificate naming him to the PTA’s Legislative Honor Roll for his work during the 81st Legislative Session, which was held during the spring of 2009. Presenting the award was Kyle Ward, the organization’s executive director.
"There is nothing more important than the health and safety of our children," said Lucio." I am extremely honored to be included in this Legislative Honor Roll. Scientifically, we know that good nutrition is equivalent to good learning – a healthy body learns more. We also need to continue to address obesity in children for their optimal health and longevity, so that they outlive their parents instead of the other way around."
In October 2009, Texas PTA created the Texas Legislative Honor Roll to recognize state officials who support the group’s legislative agenda. Criteria for selection include the following:
• An elected or appointed official at the state level;
• A strong advocate for children’s issues;
• A supporter of legislation or actions that benefit children and youth; and
• A strong commitment to one or more priorities on Texas PTA’s legislative agenda
Lucio was recognized for passing Senate Bill 395 creating the Early Childhood Health and Nutrition Interagency Council, which will develop an early childhood nutrition and physical activity plan.
Texas PTA has a strong interest in improving nutrition in public schools and addressing the childhood obesity epidemic through education about nutrition, serving more nutritious foods at school and ensuring that children are able to be active for a portion of every school day. Lucio has taken a step toward examining these issues and developing a plan.
"Texas PTA applauds Sen. Lucio’s efforts to improve the health status of all Texas children," said Texas PTA President Sharon Goldblatt. "He was also honored for recognizing that students’ academic progress is directly tied to their physical health.”
Individuals recognized for the Texas PTA Honor Roll demonstrate initiative to enhance the quality of life for children and youth and improve their quality of education. They also support strengthening families, improving child safety standards, and lending support to a current Texas PTA legislative priority.
"I appreciate the leadership of the Texas PTA and look forward to working with their leaders and members this coming session on issues that improve and protect the lives and health of Texas children," added Lucio.
Texas PTA is the largest grassroots organization in Texas with 600,000 members: parents, teachers and others who have a special interest in children, youth, families and schools. Texas PTA is a noncommercial, nonsectarian-nonpartisan organization that does not endorse any candidate or political party.
For more information on Texas PTA, log on to:
or contact the state office at 800-TALK-PTA.
Texas Medical Association PAC endorses Rep. Gonzáles for reelection to House District 41
By RICARDO LÓPEZ-GUERRA
Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, has received the endorsement of the Texas Medical Association’s (TMA) TEXPAC for her dedicated commitment to improving the health care of Texans.
(Editor’s note: Gonzáles, an attorney whose House District 41 includes southwest Edinburg and northeast McAllen, is facing a challenge in November by McAllen businesswoman Rebecca Cervera, who is also from McAllen.)
"TMA’s support of my re-election campaign is very meaningful to me because it comes from the physicians of Texas," Gonzáles said. "Having sat on the House Public Health Committee for the last two sessions, I have had the privilege of working closely with TMA on many legislative issues affecting the practice of medicine. The experience has broadened my perspective of the challenges our physicians face and their endorsement is affirmation of my work in office."
TMA’s TEXPAC, the association’s political action committee, praised Gonzáles for her work to bring more doctors to Health Professional Shortage Areas through increasing the Physician Education Loan Repayment program. Her support of legislation to improve wellness and prevention was also applauded.
"Our profession and our patients have no better friend in Austin than Rep. Verónica Gonzáles and that is why TEXPAC has endorsed her" said Susan Strate, MD, Chair of the TEXPAC Board in a letter to TMA members. "We must put legislators in the Capitol that will protect the physician/patient relationship, ensure patients have access to effective and efficient care and who can improve the balance between physicians, small business owners and the powerful health insurance industry."
Strate added, "The 82nd Texas Legislature is sure to present both opportunities and challenges facing Texas and Texans today. For all these reasons, Rep. Gonzáles earned TEXPAC’s endorsement. She worked with us in the past and we know she will listen and work for the physicians and patients in her district."
Edinburg man sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for second felony drug conviction
By ANGELA DODGE
Julio Garza, 36, of Edinburg, on Thursday, April 13, was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison after his second federal felony drug conviction, United States Attorney José Angel Moreno announced.
United States District Court Judge Hayden Head handed down the sentence. A federal jury convicted Garza of possessing with intent to distribute 10 kilograms of cocaine following a trial in August 2009.
At trial, the defense presented the testimony of several witnesses in an attempt to convince the jury that Garza was not guilty by reason of voluntary intoxication. Defense witnesses claimed Garza had ingested a mix of prescription pills and alcohol for approximately two weeks prior to his February 2009 arrest at the Falfurrias Border Patrol checkpoint where inspectors found 10 kilograms of cocaine in an Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV driven by Garza. However, the evidence presented by the United States showed that at the time of his arrest, Garza provided a detailed confession and exhibited no signs of intoxication or impairment. He was convicted on August 10, 2009.
Garza’s prior federal conviction was a 2002 federal felony conviction for possession with intent to distribute marijuana in the Southern District of Texas. Under a provision of federal law, Garza’s prior conviction increased the mandatory minimum sentence to 20 years in prison without parole.
Investigators from Customs and Border Protection and the Drug Enforcement Administration conducted the investigation that led to the arrest and subsequent indictment of Garza. The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Rob MacDonald in Corpus Christ.
Two Edinburg men among eight arrested for drug trafficking and money laundering
By ANGELA DODGE
A sealed indictment was partially unsealed on Friday, May 7, following the arrest of eight men from the cities of Donna, Edinburg, San Juan and Weslaco during an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) led multi-agency enforcement action, United States Attorney José Angel Moreno and Jerry Robinette, ICE special agent in charge, have announced.
The arrests are the result of an ICE investigation which began in January 2009.
An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. A defendant is presumed innocent unless convicted through due process of law.
The coordinated ICE-led joint enforcement action resulting in the May 7 arrests included agents and officers of the FBI, Hidalgo County District Attorney’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force (HIDTA), Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department, the Hidalgo County Constable’s Office – Precinct 4, Pharr Police Department, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations, Texas Department of Public Safety and San Juan Police Department.
“The ICE investigation leading to this morning’s coordinated multi-agency cooperative law enforcement effort in the Rio Grande Valley demonstrates our continuing efforts to work together to dismantle and disrupt drug trafficking activity by not only targeting the product of drug trafficking but also the proceeds generated by the illegal activity and holding accountable those allegedly involved,” said Moreno.
“The safety of our communities is one of ICE’s top priorities,” said Robinette. “By pooling our information and resources, ICE, along with its state, federal and local law enforcement partners, succeeded in its efforts by arresting those allegedly behind this criminal scheme and we will continue to target drug smuggling and money laundering organizations and related criminal elements.”
Those arrested on May 7 include David Tijerina, 41,Jesús Davila, 28, and Jaime Galván, 29, all of Weslaco; Ramón De Luna, 53, and Jesús De Luna, 31, both of San Juan; Ramiro Gracia-Cantú, 36, and Carlos Valdéz, 30, both of Edinburg; and Juan Guerra, 29, of Donna. All were arrested as a result of the return of a nine-count superseding indictment on December 29, 2009.
All eight defendants appeared before United States Magistrate Judge Peter Ormsby at 10:30 a.m. on May 7, and were ordered temporarily detained without bond pending arraignment and detention hearings which were set for Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 9 a.m. The indictment remains partially sealed pending the execution of an arrest warrant which remains outstanding for one other charged but not as yet in custody.
All eight men arrested on May 7 are charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances between October 2004 and May 19, 2009, allegedly involving more than five kilograms of cocaine and more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. With the exception of Valdéz, the remaining defendants are also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering during the same time period.
Several of the defendants are charged in substantive counts of drug trafficking or money laundering alleged in the indictment.
Four of the eight defendants, Tijerina, Davila, Gracia-Cantú and Galván are charged separately with laundering of approximately $1,975,261 in alleged drug proceeds in January 2009. Tijerina, Davila, Gracia-Cantú and Valdéz are charged with possessing with intent to distribute 89 kilograms of cocaine on February 12, 2009.
Tijerina, Davila, Gracia-Cantú, Ramón De Luna and Guerra are charged with the laundering of approximately $389,900 in alleged drug proceeds on February 24, 2009.
Tijerina, Davila, Gracia-Cantú, Jesús De Luna and Guerra are charged with laundering approximately $390,050 in alleged drug proceeds on February 25, 2009.
Tijerina, Davila, Gracia-Cantú and Valdéz are charged with possessing with intent to distribute 72 kilograms of cocaine on March 5, 2009.
Lastly, Gracia-Cantú is charged with possessing with intent to distribute approximately 1,915 kilograms of marijuana on May 19, 2009.
The charged drug trafficking offenses carry a punishment of no less than 10 years up to life imprisonment and $4 million in fines, upon conviction. The money laundering charges carry, upon conviction, a maximum punishment of 20 years imprisonment and thousands of dollars in fines.
The May 7 arrests bring the total of persons arrested as a result of this indictment to 12. Four others were previously arrested as follows: Michael Talamantes, 33, of Edinburg on March 5, 2009; Óscar Martínez, 39, of Edinburg, and Óscar Villarreal, 39, of Donna on May 18, 2009; and José Ángel Castillo-Reyna, 44, of Edinburg, on May 28, 2009.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Aníbal J. Alaniz and Linda Requenez Rossborough.
Former CEO of Sweezy Construction convicted on bank and bankruptcy fraud
By ANGELA DODGE
Mitchell Kent Sweezy, 58, the former CEO of Sweezy Construction Inc. (SCI), has been convicted of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and bankruptcy fraud, United States Attorney José Angel Moreno announced on Tuesday, May 11.
Sweezy, formerly of Harlingen, pleaded guilty on Friday, May 7, 2010. Two other defendants, business entities KPS Texas Dev. Inc. (KPS) and Santorini RE Investments Ltd. (Santorini), pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge on May 11.
Sweezy appeared in federal court before United States District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville on May 7, and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud, wire fraud, mail fraud and bankruptcy fraud. Sweezy admitted during the May 7 hearing that he and former Chief Financial Officer Claude McMillon, who has previously pleaded guilty to a bank fraud conspiracy in this case, engaged in a scheme to obtain bank loans from federally insured banks and construction performance and payment bonds from AIG for SCI construction projects using false SCI financial statements from 1999 – 2001.
Sweezy admitted the financial statements were manipulated in various ways to make SCI appear to be profitable and financially sound when, in fact, it was insolvent. While these events were occurring, Sweezy admitted he set up a multi-layered trust structure in 1999 and began transferring his and SCI’s assets into the trust structure in the year 2000. These transfers continued through the year 2004. The bulk of these assets were placed in the name of a limited partnership, Santorini RE Investments Ltd.
Sweezy also admitted he transferred assets to his son. All transfers were for little or no consideration. According to pleadings filed in the case, more than $500,000 in cash that was transferred to the trust structure via transfers to Santorini was then transferred back to Sweezy for his own use. He accomplished this by using KPS, an entity that was the general partner of Santorini. Sweezy was the president of KPS and used this authority to effect the transfers.
On May 11, KPS admitted its role was to control assets of Sweezy and SCI produced by the scheme, along with other assets that Sweezy hid from creditors by placing them in the trust structure. Santorini admitted it was to hold the assets hidden in the trust structure and to disburse portions of them back to Sweezy.
SCI failed as an entity in August 2001 and its bonded projects were taken over by AIG. Various lawsuits were then filed against SCI and Sweezy, which resulted in judgments in excess of $30 million. Sweezy filed for bankruptcy in June 2004, claiming negligible assets and debts of more than $32 million. In his bankruptcy petition, Sweezy failed to disclose extensive asset transfers into the trust structure and to his son. According to pleadings filed of record in this case, the transfers to the trust structure exceeded $2.2 million and included a 1,020 acre ranch in Cameron County. In addition, Sweezy’s transfers to his son consisted of several hundred thousand dollars of real estate in Texas and Louisiana.
The United States agreed that the charges against Jentex Construction Inc., upon successful completion of pre-trial diversion, will be dismissed, provided Jentex makes restitution to HSBC Group in the amount of $138,000. HSBC Group provided financing for the equipment of SCI. The charges against the remaining entity defendants will be dismissed.
Sweezy is facing a sentence of up to seven years confinement. As part of the plea agreements, Sweezy, KPS and Santorini have agreed to provide restitution by the transfer of the 1,020 acre ranch and three properties transferred to his son to the bankruptcy trustee. The trustee will be responsible for liquidating these assets and distributing them to the unsecured creditors of Sweezy.
Sentencing for Sweezy, Santorini and KPS is set for October 7, 2010.
The case was investigated by the FBI and prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Charles Lewis, William Hagen and Michael Wynne.
Canines newest members of Hidalgo County Fire Marshal team, helping protect people from wildfires, bomb threats, arson and other crimes
By CARI LAMBRECHT
When a prank caller phoned a 911 dispatcher on April 28 and threatened that a bomb might explode at the Hidalgo County Courthouse, hundreds of employees and citizens evacuated the building, but Shark and his handler Deputy Fire Marshal Wesley Bradley strode right in. Shark’s nose went straight to the ground; he searched all five floors of the 1950s building — with its numerous nooks and crannies — searching for a device armed with incendiary explosives. When they found nothing, security declared the site safe and employees were allowed to come back to work. Shark got a pat on the head and some time with a chew toy.
Shark and his buddy Outlaw, both Golden Labrador Retrievers, were rescued from a shelter in Central Texas only one short year earlier. Today, they are the newest employees of the Hidalgo County Fire Marshal’s Office. Searching for incendiary bombs and accelerants is all in a day’s work.
“An accelerant detection dog can detect one nanogram of gasoline in a 15-foot-deep debris pile. Their sense of smell is 220 million times stronger than a human’s. They are a living, breathing scientific machine,” Bradley said. “There was a need in this community to have this resource.”
In addition to responding to bomb threats, assisting with wildfire management, issuing burn permits, conducting fire prevention activities, assessing buildings, and assisting Hidalgo County Emergency Management, the Hidalgo County Fire Marshal’s Office investigates on average over 200 structure fires per year, 40 percent of which are determined to be arson cases.
There are few witnesses in arson cases, said Juan Martínez, Hidalgo County Fire Marshal. So it helps that the fire marshals can hit the streets as soon as possible to gather intelligence. Taking days to determine the source of a fire is oftentimes frustrating and time consuming.
“The dogs help us to be more efficient, and more thorough,” Martínez said.
Accelerant detection dogs don’t come cheap, though, and Bradley was aware that approaching county budget handlers with a $12,000 request during a time of budget cuts might not go over so well.
So instead, Bradley approached his co-workers with an idea, and together, they created the RGV Arson Dog Association to raise the money to purchase Shark and Outlaw. The non-profit organization formed in March 2009, and the fire marshals held various fundraisers and solicited funds while off-duty from businesses sympathetic to the cause. In March 2010, after four vigorous months of training at the Canine Academy in Austin and another two to three weeks in training with Bradley and Deputy Fire Marshal Marco Romero, the dogs once destined to be euthanized had found loving homes and jobs with Hidalgo County.
“We raised the money and donated the dogs back to Hidalgo County,” Bradley said. “And they are available to any other jurisdiction in the region that needs help in investigating structure fires.”
The word is still getting out about Shark and Outlaw, Martínez said. The labs have been working with the Fire Marshal’s Office for about two months and have been deployed on more than 20 incidents.
Shark lives with Bradley, while Outlaw lives with Romero. Their personalities are as different as night and day. Shark will do anything for food, but Outlaw — “he’s his own dog,” Romero said. When not out on an assignment, Bradley and Romero engage in dog training and conditioning and practice upkeep on the animals.
“We can’t let them get used to the ‘pet lifestyle,’ even though they do live with us,” Romero said. “We do have to draw that line. We develop a bond, but they are not the family pet.”
Martínez said he sees a good future for Shark and Outlaw with the Hidalgo County Fire Marshal’s Office.
“The dogs are utilized every day, and we even see other uses aside from fire investigation. Shark and Outlaw can also track humans, so in the event of a search and rescue operation, we have this valuable resource,” he said. “They aren’t biting dogs either, so Shark and Outlaw will become a valuable education tool.
“Arson is a costly crime. It increases insurance premiums, damages property values, and drives out business. It destroys more than buildings. It affects whole communities. During Arson Awareness Week (May 2 – May 8) we wanted to bring to the public’s attention the resources and support to abate this crime.”
Seven more states join Texas’ legal challenge to President Obama’s health insurance reforms
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and a bipartisan multi-state coalition from across the nation – which now includes 20 states – on Friday, May 14, took the next legal step necessary to advance their challenge to the recently enacted Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Act”).
An amended complaint filed in federal district court reflects the addition of the following seven states to the original 13 state coalition: Indiana, North Dakota, Mississippi, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia and Alaska. In addition to adding new parties to the challenge, the amended complaint raises additional constitutional problems with the new health care law.
Court documents filed by the states explain that the Act infringes upon state sovereignty in violation of the Tenth Amendment and Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution.
As the amended legal challenge explains, the new law – which will cost Texas taxpayers an estimated $27 billion over a 10-year period – improperly forces states to spend billions of additional dollars on taxpayer-funded social programs the states cannot afford; unconstitutionally requires state agencies to carry out initiatives for the federal government; improperly commandeers state resources to implement federal regulatory prerogatives; and interferes with the states’ abilities to govern their relationships with their own state employees.
“The new federal health care law violates the U.S. Constitution and unconstitutionally infringes upon Texans’ individual liberties,” Abbott said. “Our nation’s founding fathers had the wisdom to limit the federal government’s authority by specifically enumerating the powers given to Congress – and Congress does not have the authority to force individuals to buy a service from a private insurance company as a condition of being a law-abiding American.”
The May 14 legal filing augments the challenge that 13 states filed last March, which detailed how the Act infringes upon Americans’ constitutionally protected individual liberties; encroaches upon the states’ constitutionally guaranteed sovereignty; forces states to spend billions of additional dollars on entitlement programs; imposes an unconstitutional tax; and violates the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Under the Act, for the first time in the nation’s history, the federal government is attempting to force individual Americans to enter into contracts and purchase services from private companies – in this case, insurance companies – or face a penalty, the lawsuit contends.
The states are challenging this so-called individual mandate requirement, explaining that such an imposition on the American people exceeds Congress’ authority and violates Americans’ constitutional rights.
The 20-state coalition, which includes Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Washington, Colorado, Michigan, Utah, Alabama, South Dakota, Idaho, Indiana, North Dakota, Mississippi, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia and Alaska, filed its amended complaint in the Federal District Court in the Northern District of Florida.
The original complaint, which was filed shortly after President Barack Obama signed the bill into law, names the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Treasury and Labor as defendants because those federal agencies are charged with implementing the Act’s constitutionally impermissible provisions.
Rather than cite the Act’s significant – and harmful – financial impact on each state, the amended complaint cites data from the State of Florida as a representative of all 20 states. However, statistics provided to the Texas Attorney General’s Office by the state Health & Human Services Commission indicate that the new federal law will have an even more harmful impact on the state of Texas.
During the current biennium, Texas will spend more than $22.6 billion on Medicaid to provide coverage for an estimated three million persons. Under the new law, which forces the states to dramatically expand their social welfare programs and requires taxpayers to cover an even larger portion of the population, Texas will have to spend another $5.4 billion in the next biennium covering an additional 2.1 million individuals – a dramatic spending increase at a time when the state is already facing a multi-billion budget shortfall.
In addition to forcing states to expand Medicaid coverage, the legal challenge explains that the Act also infringes upon state sovereignty by interfering with the states’ independent ability to govern their relationships with state employees. Under the new law, states are subjected to federal penalties and taxes depending upon the nature of the health insurance coverage they provide to state employees. By attempting to limit the states’ independent ability to procure the goods and services necessary to carry out state functions, the Act violates the Tenth Amendment – and the constitutional principles of federalism and dual sovereignty upon which the United States as founded.
The amended complaint filed on May 14 adds seven additional states, as well as two individuals and the National Federation of Independent Business, an organization that represents small business owners from across the country.
Former Rep. Hodge of Dallas sentenced to 12 months in federal prison for bribery, extortion
By KATHY COLVIN
Former Rep. Gladys E. Hodge, D-Dallas, also known as “Terri Hodge,” was recently sentenced by U.S. District Judge Barbara M. G. Lynn to 12 months in prison, following her guilty plea on February 3, 2010, to fraud and false statements on an income tax return, announced U.S. Attorney James T. Jacks of the Northern District of Texas.
Hodge must surrender to the Bureau of Prisons on June 22, 2010.
The sentence was handed down on Tuesday, April 27.
In sentencing Hodge to the high end of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, the court noted that while Hodge pleaded guilty to a tax offense, the court did not view this solely as a tax matter. The court further noted that Hodge was in a position of trust and her actions constituted an abuse of that trust.
Hodge was to go on trial in March 2010 on charges outlined in a 31-count indictment that charged 14 public officials and their associates with various offenses related to a bribery and extortion scheme involving affordable housing developments in the Dallas area. At the April 27 sentencing hearing, Lynn granted the government’s motion to dismiss the remaining charges against Hodge in that indictment.
As a condition of her plea with the government, Hodge, who was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, District 100, in 1996, and re-elected to the same position in 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008, agreed to resign her office and never seek or hold future public office. She announced her resignation on the day of her guilty plea and tendered her resignation to the Governor and Speaker of the House on March 8, 2010.
According to the factual resume filed in the case, over the course of her tenure as a state representative, Hodge supported Southwest Housing Development Company, Inc. (SWH) developments which, among others, included affordable housing developments in District 100.
Co-defendant Cheryl L. Potashnik, the wife of co-defendant Brian L. Potashnik, a real estate developer and the founder, president and a principal of SWH, served in multiple roles in management and development of SWH, including that of chief operating officer and principal of SHW. Cheryl Potashnik pleaded guilty to bribery in connection with benefits given to Hodge by the Potashniks and SWH.
Brian Potashnik also pleaded guilty to bribery of various public officials. A sentencing date has not been set for the Potashniks.
According to the factual resume filed, sometime on or before February 27, 2002, Hodge asked Brian Potashnik for assistance in the form of affordable housing for herself within the geographical boundaries of her political district. She indicated that she had financial problems and could not afford to pay the full rate for housing.
Beginning in April 2002, the Potashniks made arrangements to provide Hodge with housing in one of SWH’s market-rate affordable housing development units, which was located at Rosemont at Arlington Park in District 100. Hodge moved into the apartment on April 1, 2002, and renewed her lease, at the same rental rate of $200 per month, in November 2002 and again in March 2003. As reflected in the executed lease agreements, the market rate for this unit was $899 per month, and the difference in rent was paid by the Potashniks.
In addition, the Potashniks paid the utility bills on the apartment from their development funds and provided new carpeting for her house located on Abrams Road in Dallas. The carpeting cost $1,995 and was paid for by the construction arm of SWH, a company named Affordable Housing Construction, Inc.
The total value of the rental subsidies, utilities and carpeting provided to Hodge by the Potashniks from 2002 through 2005 was $32,541. None of this amount was included as income on the corresponding federal income tax returns for the tax years in which it was received by Hodge.
The plea documents further state that Hodge had additional income, in tax years 2001 through 2005, totaling $41,465, comprised, in part, of campaign contributions which she used for her own personal benefit and which she did not include as income on the corresponding federal income tax returns for the tax years in which she received it.
Hodge admits that she filed a U.S. Individual Income Tax Return, Form 1040, with the IRS, that she well knew omitted income of $6914 in 2001; $27,062 in 2002; $13,402 in 2003; $19,908 in 2004; and $6720 in 2005. Hodge further admits that as a result, she owes the following in taxes (excluding penalties and interest) to the IRS: $1,937 for 2001; $1,496 for 2002; $1,908 for 2003, $3,887 for 2004, and $1,680 for tax year 2005, for a grand total of $10,908.
The case was investigated by the FBI and IRS-Criminal Investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sarah Saldaña, Chad Meacham, Chris Stokes, Steven Fahey and Leigha Simonton prosecuted.