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The Texas Access to Justice Commission and Foundation has honored Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, featured center, with the Texas Access to Justice Legislative Hero Award for his contributions to improving access to justice in Texas.  The public recognition was bestowed on Wednesday, October 27, at the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid office in Edinburg. Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan L. Hecht, featured right, the Court’s liaison for access to justice issues, presented the award to Hinojosa. Lilia Ledesma (featured left), an attorney with Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, a national law firm with offices in Edinburg and Brownsville, also attended the public ceremony. Hinojosa was recognized for his outstanding leadership efforts in the 81st Texas Legislature during the spring of 2009 that led to an historic appropriation of $20 million for civil legal services for poor and low-income Texans. “Times are tough, and funding is scarce for the legal assistance low-income Texans desperately need, whether it’s a protective order to prevent abuse, obtaining benefits for the family, help with an eviction, or other legal services,” Hecht said. “Sen. Hinojosa understands, and he has supported this worthy cause with leadership, determination, and courage.” See story later in this posting.  

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Rep.-elect Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, featured right on Thursday, October 21, at the University of Texas-Pan American, was selected to attend the prestigious NALEO National Institute for Newly Elected Officials in Washington, D.C., which was held November 18 – 21. The three-day governance “boot camp,” hosted by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, is a professional development seminar designed to help newly elected officials acquire the skills needed for effective governance and establish professional networks needed to succeed in public office. Congressmen-elect Francisco “Quico” Canseco, R-San Antonio, and Raúl Labrador, a Republican from Indiana, were among this year’s participants. In addition to Muñoz, other new members of the Texas Legislature selected for the Institute were: Sen.-elect José R. Rodríguez, D-El Paso; Raúl Torres, R-Corpus Christi; Rep.-elect Larry Gonzáles, R-Round Rock; and Rep.-elect Naomi R. González, D-El Paso. For her part, Zaffirini  on Monday, November 8, pre-filed the first 44 Senate bills of the 82nd Texas Legislative Session that will convene on Tuesday, January 11. See stories on Muñoz and Zaffirini later in this posting.  

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McAllen banker Alonzo Cantú, featured left, and businessman Forrest Runnels, also of McAllen, on Wednesday, November 10, were sworn in by Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, as the newest members of the Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority Board of Directors during the RMA’s work session in Weslaco. Cantú was appointed on Tuesday, November 2, by then-Hidalgo County Judge René A. Ramírez, who is featured in the background, while Runnels was appointed, also on November 2, by Hidalgo County Precinct 4 Commissioner Óscar Garza at the request of incoming Precinct 4 Commissioner Joseph Palacios. Both appointments received unanimous approval of the county commissioners court. In late October, R. David Guerra, Vice President and Director of International Bancshares Corporation (not shown), was sworn in as an RMA board member, representing the City of McAllen, on Wednesday, October 27. “Alonzo, Forrest and David bring tremendous credentials, integrity and vision to one of the most important projects that will affect all Hidalgo County residents," said RMA board member Michael G. Cano of Pharr, an attorney with the national law firm of Linbarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, which has offices in Edinburg and McAllen. "For all of us, it is both very challenging and very gratifying to be part of history in the making. We encourage all Hidalgo County residents to provide their ideas, concerns, and hopes to us at any time." The seven-member governing board for the RMA is charged with many responsibilities that will affect the economic and transportation development of Hidalgo County, including planning and financing toll roads and other major highway improvements for the region. See story later in this posting  

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Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes,  featured here during his campaign victory party  in McAllen on Tuesday, November 2, has been elected as the 1st Vice Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC). The CHC is dedicated to voicing and advancing, through the legislative process, issues affecting Hispanics in the United States and Puerto Rico. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus aims to address national and international issues and the impact these policies have on the Hispanic community. The function of the Caucus is to serve as a forum for the Hispanic members of Congress to coalesce around a collective legislative agenda. Hinojosa, who was formerly 2nd Vice Chair of the organization, was promoted on Thursday, November 18. Congressman Charles A. González, D-San Antonio, was elected as Chair, Congressman Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, as 2nd Vice Chair and Congressman Dennis Cardoza, D-California, as Whip. "I am honored to have been elected 1st Vice Chair to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” said Hinojosa. "I, along with my colleagues in the CHC, will continue to work on the issues that affect our Latino community in the 112th Congress. Together, CHC members will follow our new Chair, Congressman González, in our commitment to finding solutions to the problems facing Hispanics. I look forward to serving in my capacity as the 1st Vice Chair of the CHC and as a U.S. Congressman. We will all work vigorously to address the challenges that face Latino families today.”  

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The Holiday season is upon us. This is the season where Americans share good times with loved ones and count their blessings. Let this also be the time of year where we give to others and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing we have brought a smile to someone’s face. The Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce would like to invite the community to join them in their efforts with the “Surprises from Santa” Toy Drive. With this toy drive, that will run from November 30 through December 17, they hope to collect as many new unwrapped toys as possible so that they may be distributed in some of the colonias of the Rio Grande Valley. “Financial contributions will also be accepted to buy toys and clothing for the more unfortunate children,” added Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, president and CEO of the RGVHCC. The drop-off location for anyone interested in donating toys will be the RGVHCC office, located at 3313 N. McColl Road in McAllen. Please call them for information at 956/928-0060. Featured making preparations for the “Surprises from Santa” Toy Drive are, from left: Melisa Tejada, membership director; Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, RGVHCC president and CEO; and Obie Calzada, events intern. Seated in front is Michael García, membership intern.  

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Ready to kick off the holiday season with your friends and family? Come to South Texas College’s Christmas Toys and Joys Family Night on Thursday, December 9 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the college’s Pecan Campus located at 3201 W. Pecan Boulevard in McAllen. The event is open to the public and admission is two canned goods for the RGV Food Bank, or a coat for Tim’s Coats, or an unwrapped toy for The Salvation Army. Activities include games and rides, music, holiday carolers, a lighted train tour and more. Children will meet Santa and his helpers. For additional information, contact Armando Ponce at 956/872-2515.  

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Pharr Mayor Palacios says STC board should appoint successor to fill vacancy  

By DAVID A. DÍAZ   

At least one Hidalgo County mayor is publicly expressing impatience with the ongoing deadlock by the South Texas College Board of Trustees to replace the late Mike Allen on the seven-member governing board.  

Pharr Mayor Leopoldo "Polo" Palacios, Jr. says he wants the STC board trustees to go ahead and appoint a successor for Allen, the former District 3 trustee with deep roots in Pharr, who unexpectedly passed away on Wednesday, August 25.  

District 3 includes southwest Pharr, south McAllen, Hidalgo, Sharyland, southeast Mission, and Granjeno.   

STC covers Hidalgo and Starr counties.  

Losing Allen, who lived in Mission but was a strong ally of Palacios, means Pharr’s political influence on the board is reduced, especially if the remaining board members decide to act in the coming months on a far-reaching, little-publicized plan that details landmark new construction for the STC system.  

Palacios is closely watching behind-the-scenes maneuvering by STC leaders, who in 2008 commissioned, but have taken no action on a plan that proposes a $134 million, 10-year expansion of existing STC campuses in McAllen, Weslaco and Rio Grande City – but which leaves out other major communities, including Pharr, Edinburg and Mission.  

"What about Pharr, San Juan, Alamo, Hidalgo?”  

"I believe in the next election, I would like to see – and I would support – someone who is running for the STC board who is from Pharr," Palacios said. "STC has trustees from McAllen, from Rio Grande City, from Edinburg, and probably from Weslaco and Mercedes, but what about Pharr, San Juan, Alamo, Hidalgo?”  

Palacios is determined that Allen’s successor be from the "Triple Crown City", a title bestowed upon Pharr by the state for the community’s consecutive national achievements of being named the National Preserve America City (2004), the National Main Street City (2005) and an All-America City (2006).  

Since Allen’s passing, STC board members have had two public meetings that included possible action on how to fill the vacancy, but to no avail.  

There was no action scheduled on the board vacancy for the STC Board of Trustees monthly meeting on Monday, November 22.  

STC trustees Dr. Alejo Salinas, Jr., Jesse Villarreal and Óscar Longoria support leaving the vacancy until District 3 voters can elect their representative in May 2011.  

STC trustees Gary Gurwitz, Rose Benavidez and Roy De León favor filling the vacancy, a move that would delay an election until May 2012.  

"Why are there people on the STC board struggling for political power to do whatever they want, but what about us here?" Palacios asked. "I feel a person who lives in the City of Pharr should be on the STC board, because we have, between Pharr, San Juan, and Alamo, more than 100,000 in population."   

Tri-City communities represent thousands of STC students  

Pharr, San Juan and Alamo are generally known in Hidalgo County as the Tri-City region because their residents come from similar backgrounds and way of life.  

He points to STC’s latest enrollment figures, which show that for the fall 2010 semester, the Tri-City communities account for a combined 4,687 students – about as many as produced by McAllen (4,776) and Mission (4,608), and 1,114 more than Edinburg (3,573).  

Palacios lamented a decision in the past, when STC decided to not build upon its initial presence in Pharr.  

"We shared a facility, a long time ago, with (STC president) Dr. (Shirley) Reed, hoping we would get an annex building to provide services for our community," the mayor recalled. "Then, STC left the City of Pharr, went to McAllen, and are expanding in McAllen. Our residents can make better use of a facility here, rather than driving all way to McAllen, with its traffic congestion."  

All STC board trustees share several communities in their districts, a geographical reality which Palacios fully intends to influence politically on behalf of his constituents.  

In addition to Allen’s former District 3, which includes southwest Pharr, Gurwitz’ District 1 has northwest Pharr, Salinas’ District 5 covers northeast Pharr, and Villarreal’s District 6 represents southeast Pharr.  

"Let the chips fall where they may"  

"If some of the STC trustees continue to be against filling that vacancy, whenever they come back to the City of Pharr asking me for support, I am going to have a hard time helping those people," Palacios warned, without naming names. "I do not believe their hearts are in the right place."   

The mayor offered his own nominee to fill the increasingly controversial vacancy – Allen’s widow.  

"I feel, with all due respect to all the years that Mike Allen – may he rest in peace – contributed to quite a bit of economic development to Hidalgo County and northern Mexico, that we show respect and name his wife, Mrs. Theresa Allen to succeed him until the next scheduled election," Palacios recommended.  

The mayor said Mrs. Allen had not asked him for such an honor.  

"From the years that I knew Mike Allen, first when he was a priest here in our parish, then when he went into the economic development field, the man did a lot of good for our community," Palacios explained. "So, why not show respect, what’s wrong with that? Appoint Mrs. Allen until the next election, then let the chips fall where they may."   

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Alonzo Cantú  among new leaders hoping to drive transportation goals of Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority 

By DAVID A. DÍAZ    

McAllen construction magnate Alonzo Cantú reacted with humility and surprise when a reporter, noting the significance of the economic development leader’s appointment to the Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority Board of Directors, portrayed the multi-millionaire banker, Democratic Party fundraiser, and philanthropist as being "renowned (famous) throughout the state and in parts of the country."    

"I didn’t know that," Cantú laughed midway through that observation, prompting another reporter participating in the interview to emphatically add, "Well, I agree. I agree."    

For the many public officials who supported Cantú’s recent selection to the RMA leadership team, it is precisely his far-reaching reputation as a mover-and-shaker in politics and business that helped earn him a coveted spot on this crucial transportation public entity.    

"I think having roads and infrastructure are certainly important to the future growth of the Valley," Cantú reflected. "So, I think it is important that we do that, and do it right. There are people on the (RMA) board who will help out the county."    

Along with Cantú, two other McAllen leaders – businessman Forrest Runnels and R. David Guerra, Vice President and Director of International Bancshares Corporation, are the latest appointees to the RMA Board of Directors.   

Cantú and Runnels were sworn into office during the RMA’s board meeting on Wednesday, November 10.   

Guerra was sworn into office during the RMA’s meeting on Wednesday, October 27.    

They join four accomplished veterans on the RMA Board of Directors who bring equally impressive credentials to the table.   

Three new appointees "bring tremendous credentials"    

Dennis Burleson of Mission, a financial advisor, serves as chairman of the RMA Board of Directors. He is an appointee of Gov. Rick Perry.   

Michael G. Cano of Pharr is an attorney with Linbarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP in Edinburg.    

Ricardo Pérez is Palmview branch president for Rio Bank.   

Realtor Joe Olivarez hails from Weslaco.    

"Alonzo, Forrest and David bring tremendous credentials, integrity and vision to one of the most important projects that will affect all Hidalgo County residents," said Cano. "For all of us, it is both very challenging and very gratifying to be part of history in the making. We encourage all Hidalgo County residents to provide their ideas, concerns, and hopes to us at any time."    

According to its website (http://www.lrgvdc.org/RMA), the Hidalgo County RMA is an independent governmental entity created by the Texas Transportation Commission and the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court on November 17, 2005 to accelerate needed transportation projects in Hidalgo County.     

But for much of the public, the RMA is best known for trying to create a landmark highway loop around Hidalgo County which would be designed to handle heavy commercial truck traffic going through the region between Mexico – the state’s largest trading partner – and the major cities in Texas and beyond.    

That envisioned transportation system, which would eventually be similar to the famous Loop 410 that serves the San Antonio metropolitan region, is expected to take more than a decade, and hundreds of millions of dollars, before it becomes reality.    

State transportation funding no longer a given  

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who administered the oath of office to Cantú  and Runnels, underscored the vital importance of the RMA’s mission to improve the increasingly congested major highways and roadways in Hidalgo County.    

Previewing the upcoming five-month regular session of the Texas Legislature, which begins in early January, Hinojosa warned that a projected state budget shortfall – estimated between $18 billion and $25 billion – means state funds may be in short supply for the long list of transportation needs throughout Texas.    

"I think next session will be a very challenging session in lieu of the projected deficit in our state budget," Hinojosa told the full board. "We are very cognizant that transportation is very key, especially here in the Valley, since we are one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. We will continue to work with you locally, try to find ways to find finances and sources of revenue to continue our economic growth that will lead to more jobs, expansion of our economy, and a better quality of life."    

Cantú, an American success story who believes hard work always achieves noble goals, in early November accepted an offer from then-Hidalgo County Judge René A. Ramírez to serve on the RMA’s Board of Directors.    

But even for a man with his capacity to understand a broad range of topics, Cantú acknowledged the daunting workload that faces him in this, his latest leadership role.    

Environmental studies, pass-through financing, transportation reinvestment zones, the schematics for proposed roadway construction, and of course – the whirlwind of local, state and federal policies and politics required to lead to the construction of the Hidalgo County Loop –  have now been added to Cantú’s already full-plate of his many other private and charitable responsibilities.      

Up for the challenge   

True-to-form, he readily accepts this imposing new public responsibility, and shoots straight about his first RMA session.    

"(I have been) talking to some of the (RMA board) members, and with (Mario Jorge, P.E., district engineer for the Pharr District of the Texas Department of Transportation) – I met with them earlier – and by reading some of the materials they have given me," he described how he began getting up-to-speed for his first RMA board session.    

"It is pretty comprehensive and a lot of work," Cantú said. "It is confusing."     

Hidalgo County Judge Ramón García, himself a former member of the RMA Board of Directors, knows what is about to face his former colleagues and new board members.    

Addressing Cantú  and Runnels, the county judge welcomed them to their new roles.    

"I am very happy to see them wanting to be involved," said García. "I know they bring their experiences, background, and knowledge of the financial matters to the table, to this regional mobility authority. That, frankly, makes us at the county commissioners court – at least speaking for myself – feel more comfortable about what’s going on, what’s being done, and what is being requested of the county."    

Touching on the obvious, García couldn’t resist reminding Cantú and the rest of the RMA board members that the scrutiny and hopes of Hidalgo County are riding on what is accomplished by this governmental body.    

"I told Alonzo as we walked in, ‘Welcome to the public sector,’" García, an attorney, counseled.    

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Hidalgo County Commissioners Court to host joint meeting with Regional Mobility Authority in Edinburg on Monday afternoon, December 6 

By KARINA CARDOZA 

The Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority voted unanimously Monday night, November 29,  to sell almost $100 million in bonds on the financial market, and now the Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court will take the next step – approving a pledge agreement that would guarantee to the RMA the existing $10 vehicle registration fee charged to every Hidalgo County vehicle owner to fund major long-term transportation projects in Hidalgo County.  

Prior to action on this matter, Hidalgo County Judge Ramón García on Tuesday, November 30, requested a joint workshop between the RMA and the Commissioners’ Court, partly because both boards have new members and also because he said he feels all such projects should have a public “full and open discussion.”  

“I want to have a clear understanding of the current projects for which the RMA is pursuing financing,” García said. “I want to ensure that the public knows what their money is being spent on and that we can count on tangible results.”  

A joint workshop of the Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court and the RMA has been scheduled for Monday, December 6, from noon to 2 p.m. in the city council chambers at Edinburg City Hall, located at  415 W. University Drive.  The work session is open to the public. 

Following the workshop, Commissioners’ Court will hold a special meeting where they may then decide to take action on the pledge agreement.  

Created in 2006 by the Texas Transportation Commission and the Hidalgo County Commissioners’  Court, the RMA Regional Mobility Authority is an independent governmental body with seven appointees, five of which are made by the county commissioners and judge, and the other two appointed by the Governor of Texas and the City of McAllen.  Hidalgo County began assessing and collecting the $10 vehicle registration fee on January 1, 2008 to fund long-term transportation projects, which the RMA oversees. To date, vehicle registration fees have generated more than $12.5 million, all of which have been paid to the RMA. At the current rate, the RMA could expect at least $4 million per year in revenues from this funding source.  

This reliable funding stream is what the RMA is counting on to secure low-interest rates on the bond market and increase debt capacity. The county’s support in the form of this agreement is critical at this juncture, said RMA Chairman Dennis Burleson.  

Burleson, a financial consultant based in Mission, is an appointee of Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican. 

Once the projects are begun, tolls from roadway users will be coming in, and other financing options such as monies generated from the transportation reinvestment zones created along the proposed corridor will be a viable source of revenue.    

The pledge agreement the RMA board would like the county commissioners to sign promises that the county will not cause a “reduction, abatement or exemption in the vehicle fee.” The agreement makes the obligation of the county to turn over the fees “absolute and unconditional … until such time as the bonds and the paying agent/registrar’s fees, if any, have been fully paid or provision for payment … have been made.” The authority, in turn, would be responsible for the construction and maintenance of the project and the issuance of the bonds.  

Eligible bond projects include engineering, right-of-way acquisition and preliminary design and construction. Two projects are in the works — the Trade Corridor Connector (TCC), a 12.7 mile east-to-west roadway that would link the Anzaldúas and Hidalgo International Bridges, and the International Bridge Trade Connector (IBTC), a 16.3 mile road that would connect the Pharr and Donna International Bridges to U.S. 281 and the Trade Corridor Connector.  

County residents will see many benefits from the projects starting with increased mobility. The ability to move people and products fast will in turn support enhanced economic development and the expansion of the county’s tax base which allow the provisions of services to residents. Safety on current roadways thanks to a designated through-truck roadway is also a major benefit.   

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the benefits of the projects are numerous,” García said. “But we must make sure that the scope of the projects is feasible given the current condition of the economy, and that the county is protected against rising costs and unmanageable timelines. When the court and the RMA sit down in the same room next week, I think we can strive to find answers to our questions and take appropriate action for our taxpayers.”     

The sale of the bonds was approved by the RMA board with the caveat that no final designs will be approved until Hidalgo County and the RMA work together to explore all options to finance a full loop and consider building the two bridge connectors as four-lane roads instead of two-lane roads.   

For more information on the RMA and projects, visit the RMA website at http://www.lrgvdc.org/RMA.   

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Sen. Hinojosa named "Legislative Hero" for improving access to justice to more than 5.7 million Texans who qualified for legal aid 

By ERIKA GONZÁLEZ  

The Texas Access to Justice Commission and Foundation has honored Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, with the Texas Access to Justice Legislative Hero Award for his contributions to improving access to justice in Texas.  

The public recognition was bestowed on Wednesday, October 27, at the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid office in Edinburg.  

Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan L. Hecht, the Court’s liaison for access to justice issues, presented the award to Hinojosa.  

Hinojosa was recognized for his outstanding leadership efforts in the 81st Texas Legislature during the spring of 2009 that led to an historic appropriation of $20 million for civil legal services for poor and low-income Texans.  

“Times are tough, and funding is scarce for the legal assistance low-income Texans desperately need, whether it’s a protective order to prevent abuse, obtaining benefits for the family, help with an eviction, or other legal services,” Hecht said.  “Sen. Hinojosa understands, and he has supported this worthy cause with leadership, determination, and courage.”  

“I believe in the fundamental right to legal representation.  That right is the cornerstone of our justice system – everyone has a right to access the judicial system for protection and relief,” Hinojosa said. “A person’s economic status should never interfere with their ability to participate in that system. I remain a staunch advocate for legal aid services. I am honored, but ultimately humbled, by this award. I began my legal career working for legal aid. Those are my roots. This is truly a recognition of the institution of legal aid services.”  

The Texas Access to Justice Commission and Foundation launched the Legislative Hero Award program in 2010 to recognize legislators who, through their efforts, have significantly advanced access to justice in Texas by assisting with the appropriation of funds and/or other substantive activities related to the provision of legal aid in the state. Hinojosa was the third legislator to receive the award.  

“Sen. Hinojosa’s efforts help us bring access to justice to all Texans closer to reality,” Richard L. Tate, chair of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, said. “Without his assistance, thousands of Texans would have had to face the legal system alone and without guidance. We are grateful and appreciative of his efforts.”  

As a member of the House of Representatives and Senate for more than 20 years, Hinojosa has made an impact in the growth and development of South Texas.  

He helped passed landmark legislation as a state representative, including the establishment of the Regional Academic Health Center that promotes physician training on the Texas/Mexico Border. As senator, Senator Hinojosa secured more than $84.7 million in construction funds for the University of Texas-Pan American and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and helped secure millions in funding to support the growth of Senate District 20, which includes Brooks, Hidalgo, Jim Wells and Nueces counties.  

Hinojosa is currently the vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and holds seats on the Senate’s Agriculture and Rural Affairs, Criminal Justice, Jurisprudence and Natural Resources Committees. He is the eldest of eight children and served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Vietnam War. Hinojosa graduated with honors from the University of Texas-Pan American with a bachelor’s degree in political science, and completed his legal studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.  

Legal aid organizations funded by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation help more than 100,000 low-income Texas families each year with their civil legal needs. Yet, for every person who is helped with legal aid, a qualifying Texan is denied assistance due to a lack of resources. Currently, only one legal aid lawyer is available to provide assistance for every 10,838 Texans who qualify.  

The Texas Access to Justice Commission was created in 2001 by the Supreme Court of Texas to develop and implement policy initiatives designed to expand access to and enhance the quality of justice in civil legal matters for low-income Texans. The Commission has created several initiatives to increase resources and awareness of legal aid. For more information, please visit http://www.TexasATJ.org.  

The Texas Access to Justice Foundation (http://www.teajf.org), created by the Supreme Court of Texas in 1984, is the primary state-based funding source for the provision of civil legal aid in Texas. The organization is committed to the vision that all Texans will have equal access to justice, regardless of their income. The Foundation administers a variety of funding sources, which are earmarked to assist nonprofit organizations in providing legal aid to approximately 100,000 Texans each year.  

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Rep.-elect Muñoz selected by NALEO for prestigious training in Washington, D.C. 

By PATRICIA GUADALUPE   

Rep.-elect Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, was selected to attend the prestigious NALEO National Institute for Newly Elected Officials in Washington, D.C., which was held November 18 – 21.  

The three-day governance “boot camp,” hosted by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, is a professional development seminar designed to help newly elected officials acquire the skills needed for effective governance and establish professional networks needed to succeed in public office.  

“I am honored and humbled to be selected for this unique, intensive training which will prepare me for my career in public office,” said Muñoz. “I am excited to take what I learn and apply it to tackling the problems we face every day in South Texas.”  

The Institute is a one-of-a-kind, non-partisan vehicle for newly elected officials who are serving in all levels of government. Sessions are tailored for each level of government and offer participants professional development opportunities related to public finance, policy, ethics and media management. Experts will walk participants through the policy-making process using specific case studies at various levels of governance.  

Congressmen-elect Francisco “Quico” Canseco, R-San Antonio, and Raúl Labrador, a Republican from Indiana, were among this year’s participants.  

In addition to Muñoz, other new members of the Texas Legislature selected for the Institute were: Sen.-elect José R. Rodríguez, D-El Paso; Raúl Torres, R-Corpus Christi; Rep.-elect Larry Gonzáles, R-Round Rock; and Rep.-elect Naomi R. González, D-El Paso.  

“The professional development provided by the Institute will give this year’s class of newly elected officials a strong knowledge of the fundamentals of public service so that they can each individually start making a difference in their communities,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director for the NALEO Educational Fund. “Throughout their time in office, each of them can count on the NALEO Educational Fund to continue offering them the professional development and networking opportunities needed for a successful career in public service.”  

The NALEO Educational Fund is the nation’s leading non-partisan, non-profit organization that facilitates the full participation of Latinos in the American political process, from citizenship to public service.  

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Sen. Hinojosa pre-files bills dealing with insurance reform, nursing programs, human trafficking, and menu caloric contents 

By ARTURO BALLESTEROS   

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, on Monday, November 8, introduced a series of proposals on the first day of early filing for the 82nd Legislative Session, which begins in January 2011. His legislative measures cover a broad policy spectrum, including issues related to consumer protections, health education and nutrition, and criminal justice issues.  

Hinojosa included the following bills in his initial legislative filings:  

• Senate Bill 147 – Requires the Texas Insurance Commissioner to approve increases in homeowner insurance rates prior to the rates taking effect;  

• Senate Bill 171 – Requires Texas chain restaurants to post calorie content for all items on the menu;  

• Senate Bill 145 – Reimburses nurses who commit to teaching in Texas nursing schools for student loan expenses; and  

• Senate Bill 146 – Creates enhanced penalties for criminals who unlawfully traffic undocumented people  

Commenting on the scope of this first round of filings, Hinojosa cited the growing diversity of Texas’ population.  

"Texas continues to grow through domestic and international migration.  Businesses and families seek out Texas’ climate of opportunity. In crafting this package of early filings, I focused on addressing the needs of a growing consumer base, a younger Texas population, growing demand for quality health care, and the grim reality of human trafficking.  These issues are relevant to all Texans, and as we prepare for a new session, I wanted to raise their profile and get to working with stakeholders," Hinojosa said.   

While the state faces a significant revenue shortfall next session because of a stagnant national economy, Hinojosa believes progress can still be made given the current conditions.  State agencies began adjusting budgets to reflect the new financial reality earlier this year.  

"This set of bills explores issues that impact all Texans. The point is to create and amend policies that help working families improve their quality of life," the South Texas senator explained. "From helping Texans insure their homes to aiding nursing academics who are preparing the medical professionals of the future, these bill make an investment in the well-being of every household in Texas."  

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Health guide to help medically uninsured and underinsured to obtain health care to be unveiled December 10 by Rep. Gonzáles

The South Texas Health Guide: Resources for the Uninsured will be unveiled at a press briefing in McAllen on Friday, December 10, with health care and community leaders scheduled to join Rep.  Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, for the event. 

The legislative briefing, which begins at 10:30 a.m., will be held in Conference Room 101 in the Texas A&M School of Rural Public Health, located at 2101 South McColl Road. 

The guide is a comprehensive listing of health care resources that are available to help uninsured and underinsured residents of South Texas meet their health care needs, providing contact information and health tips in an easy-to-use and easy-to-read format. The project was done in collaboration between the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN) and Pfiser Helpful Answers, a patient assistance program. 

The guide’s unveiling will be followed by a briefing to instruct community leaders on how low-income patients can use prescription assistance programs such as Pfizer Helpful Answers to obtain prescription medicines free or at savings. 

Scheduled to join Gonzáles at the public event are: Eddie Olivarez, Chief Administrative Officer, Hidalgo County Health Department; Gary Pelletier, Director of Pfizer Helpful Answers; and Angie Millán, President of National Association of Nurses. 

According to the most recent U.S. Census date, 6,258,700 people (26 percent of the Texas population) were uninsured between 2008 and 2009.  The South Texas Health Guide is a resource that connects uninsured or underinsured residents of this area with affordable health care programs. 

One of the valuable options referenced in this guide is Pfizer Helpful Answers, a family of assistance programs for the uninsured and underinsured who need help getting Pfizer medicines. 

These programs provide Pfizer medicines for free or at a savings to patients who qualify. In the last five years alone, Pfizer helped more than 5.9 million patients receive more than 48 million Pfizer prescriptions valued at $5.7 billion in free medicines and savings. 

To receive a copy of the South Texas Health Guide: Resources for the Uninsured, please call 1-800-720-1337. For more information on Pfizer Helpful Answers, please visit: http://www.PfizerHelpful Answers.com or call 1-800-706-2400. 

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Social Security is the primary income source for elderly women, says Congressman Cuellar 

By LESLEY LÓPEZ  

Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, has released a report by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee (JEC) that shows Social Security is primary income source for elderly women.  The report shows that Social Security accounts for more than two-thirds of all income for women aged 65 and over and that any efforts to tinker with this program could have a dramatic impact on retired women who count on their Social Security benefits to make ends meet.  

The report, Social Security Provides Economic Security to Women, includes a state-by-state snapshot of the 20.3 million women aged 65 and over who receive Social Security benefits.  The report, prepared by the Majority staff of the JEC, finds that without Social Security, half of elderly women would live in poverty. In fact, Social Security benefits bring the poverty rate for women aged 65 and older down to 12 percent.  

“Our nation made a promise to Americans 75 years ago to compensate a lifetime of hard work and dedication. We must not compromise these financial benefits for the more than three million seniors and other beneficiaries in Texas,” said Cuellar. “That’s why I’ll continue to protect this important program and its fiscal solvency for the long-term. By preserving this program and keeping it strong, we ensure future generations can also benefit from Social Security."   

The impact of Social Security is particularly striking among widows aged 65 and over: 58 percent of widows would be living in poverty without Social Security; with Social Security, the poverty rate drops to 15 percent.  

Nationally, women aged 65 and over represent 9.8 percent of the adult population; in Texas, elderly women make up 8.1 percent of the adult population. Social Security benefits are based on lifetime earnings, with the average monthly benefit for women aged 65 and over ranging from a low of $891 in Louisiana to a high of $1,126 in New Jersey.    

“Social Security is literally a lifeline for most elderly women,” said Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney, chair of JEC. “Senior citizens, and particularly elderly women, need to be wary of proposals that change the way Social Security operates. Social Security works. It keeps millions of people out of poverty. We cannot afford to mess it up.”  

A key finding of an earlier JEC report on Social Security is that with privatization, retirees will be subject to fluctuations in the performance of the stock market and overall returns will vary based on individual investment decisions, with significant swings in returns and account accumulations possible from year to year and even month to month.  

An annuity purchased in 2008 by a worker who had invested solely in the stock market over a 40-year work history would replace only 40 percent of his final income, down from 87 percent replacement just two years earlier.  For example, a worker expecting an annuity of $867 per month in 2006 would have received $399 per month if he retired in 2008.  

“Social Security should not be undermined by stock market risk,” said Cuellar. “As millions of Americans found out earlier this decade, the stock market is an inherently risky venture. The system was created and has served for generations as social insurance, not social investment and we owe it to our seniors and our children and ourselves to preserve that guarantee.  I hope that we can come together, on both sides of the aisle and find a reasonable, bipartisan solution to this problem.”  

••••••   

Veterans encouraged to receive flu immunization at VA clinics in McAllen and Harlingen 

By FROYLAN GARZA  

The Veterans Administration Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System (VATVCBHCS) is urging veterans to visit their nearest VA Clinic to receive the flu immunization in preparation for the upcoming flu season.  Enrolled veterans have the option of visiting their nearest VA clinic and reporting to the front check-in areas for their immunization.  Each clinic has a special set-up for this process in an effort to make the visit convenient and quick for the veteran.    

In the Valley, there are two such clinics: the McAllen VA Outpatient Clinic, 2101 S. Col. Rowe Bouleverd (956/618-7100); and the Harlingen VA Clinic, 2106 Treasure Hills Blvd. (956/366-4500).  

Influenza (flu) is a respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. Seasonal flu occurs each year and spreads easily from one person to another. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on average, 226,000 people are hospitalized and 36,000 people die from seasonal flu complications annually in the United States.  

The flu vaccine is updated every year to combat the flu viruses that research indicates are most likely to cause illness during the upcoming season. The 2010-2011 flu vaccine is being made in the same way as seasonal vaccines have been made for decades. It will protect against the 2009 H1N1 virus that caused so much illness last season, and two other influenza viruses (an H3N2 virus and an influenza B virus). About 2 weeks after vaccination, antibodies that provide protection against influenza virus infection develop in the body.  

Even people who were vaccinated with the 2009 H1N1 vaccine or last year’s seasonal vaccine need to be vaccinated with the flu seasonal vaccine this year. This season’s vaccine provides protection against other influenza strains that were not in either the seasonal or the 2009 H1N1 vaccine last season and immunity from a vaccine gotten last year may decline over time.  

For more information, visit http://www.flu.gov or http://www.publichealth.va.gov/flu or contact/visit your nearest VA Clinic.  

••••••  

Congressman Hinojosa elected 1st Vice Chair of the 112th Congressional Hispanic Caucus 

By PATRICIA GUILLERMO   

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Thursday, November 18, was elected as the 1st Vice Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC).   

The CHC elected Congressman Charles A. González, D-San Antonio, as Chair, Congressman Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, as 2nd Vice Chair and Congressman Dennis Cardoza, D-California, as Whip.  

"I am honored to have been elected 1st Vice Chair to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,”  said Hinojosa. "I, along with my colleagues in the CHC, will continue to work on the issues that affect our Latino community in the 112th Congress. Together, CHC members will follow our new Chair, Congressman González, in our commitment to finding solutions to the problems facing Hispanics. I look forward to serving in my capacity as the 1st Vice Chair of the CHC and as a U.S. Congressman. We will all work vigorously to address the challenges that face Latino families today.”  

The CHC is dedicated to voicing and advancing, through the legislative process, issues affecting Hispanics in the United States and Puerto Rico. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus aims to address national and international issues and the impact these policies have on the Hispanic community. The function of the Caucus is to serve as a forum for the Hispanic Members of Congress to coalesce around a collective legislative agenda.  

Hinojosa served as the 2nd Vice Chair before being elected to 1st Vice Chair on November 18.   

••••••   

Sen. Zaffirini pre-files 44 bills; priorities include jobs, education, public safety, and health  

By WILL KRUEGER  

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, on Monday, November 8, pre-filed the first 44 Senate bills of the 82nd Texas Legislative Session that will convene on Tuesday, January 11.  

"My bills reflect the priorities of the families of Senate District 21: creating jobs, improving educational opportunities and treating our neighbors with dignity and respect," Zaffirini said. "With Texas facing a significant budget shortfall, we must emphasize efficiency and accountability in state government, while maintaining our commitment to higher education and to the very young, the very old and persons with disabilities."   

Of those 44 bills pre-filed by  Zaffirini, 10 relate to higher education; 14, health and human services; and 6, public education. Others focus on areas ranging from veterans services and government transparency to job training and public safety. Her bills include the following:  

• Senate Bill (SB) 26, which would eliminate the use of the hurtful word "retarded" in state statutes and agency names.  

• SB 27, which would require school districts to develop policies that protect children at risk of food allergies.  

• SB 28, which would prioritize financial aid for high-achieving students who need help paying for college.  

• SB 34, which would establish the Texas Women Veterans Program to address the specific needs of women veterans.  

• SB 36, which would enhance college advising, thereby increasing student success.  

• SB 38, which would make for-profit colleges subject to the state’s accountability system, thereby protecting students seeking alternative higher education pathways.   

• SB 39, which would improve the children’s health insurance (CHIP) and Medicaid programs.   

• SB 41, which would protect persons with disabilities.  

• SB 42, which would protect children from cyber-bullying.  

• SB 43, which would protect persons with mental illnesses.  

• SB 46, which would prohibit texting while driving, thereby increasing safety on Texas’ roadways.  

• SB 51, which would expand career and technical education in rural areas.  

• SB 52, which would limit sales tax on college textbooks.  

• SB 57, which would improve the standard of care for persons with traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries.  

• SB 59, which would allow easier tracking of political contributions and expenditures, thereby promoting transparency in government.  

• SB 68, which would reform state agency contracting practices, thereby increasing efficiency.   

"I look forward to working with Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and my colleagues to pass these and other bills critical to moving Texas forward," Zaffirini said.   

Bills are numbered chronologically as they are filed, though 1-25 were reserved by Lt. Governor David Dewhurst for his priorities, which include education, higher education, and health and human services.  

Because hers were the first Senate bills pre-filed for 2011, Zaffirini’s are numbered 26-30 and 32-71. SB 31 was reserved for the decennial redistricting bill.  

"My staff and I worked purposefully during the interim to reach out to our 17 Senate District 21 counties and craft a legislative agenda that reflects the needs of South Texas families," she said. "We look forward to filing additional bills, especially as we finalize the interim report developed by the Senate Higher Education Committee, which I chair."  

Zaffirini has passed 648 bills since 1987, including 65 during the 2009 session. She also has sponsored and passed 52 substantive resolutions and co-sponsored and passed another 365 bills.  

"Constituent feedback is essential to my meeting my top priority in the Texas Senate: improving the lives of the families of our district and of our great state," she said. "Some of my best bills were suggested by constituents. Accordingly, I urge anyone interested in the legislative process to contact me or my staff so that we can consider any suggestions for improvement or additional legislation."  

Zaffirini is Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee and a member of the Legislative Budget Board and the Senate Finance, Economic Development, Health and Human Services, Administration and Redistricting Committees.  

"Count on me to continue to prioritize early and higher education; health and human services, including for persons with disabilities; job creation; and public safety," she said. "Because of my committee assignments and because I am the second-highest ranking state senator, I am uniquely positioned to continue to have a positive impact on these issues."  

••••••   

Mike Allen to be honored posthumously by RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on January 22 

The RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors will be honoring Mike Allen posthumously with  the Golden Eagle Award at their annual Noche de Gala scheduled for Saturday, January 22. Allen was one of the most respected individuals on both sides of the border.  His dedication to economic development of both sides of the border, education and plain humanity will be his legacy.  

Allen, who passed away on Wednesday, August 25, also served as a member of the South Texas College Board of Trustees, representing District 3, which includes southwest Pharr, south McAllen, Hidalgo, Sharyland, southeast Mission, and Granjeno. He had been reelected to a second, six-year term on the STC governing board in May.  

Allen was named the McAllen Economic development Corporation (MEDC) president and CEO by the late Mayor Othal E. Brand, Sr.  He was tasked by Brand with three main objectives: better relations with Mexico; operating the Foreign Trade Zone as a business with a positive cash flow; and to create and maintain jobs in McAllen. During his tenure, the McAllen area flourished, attracting 206 new businesses and creating thousands of jobs. His efforts also successfully attracted 292 new businesses to the Reynosa area, creating thousands more jobs and economic prosperity for both sides of the border.   

To create better relations with Mexico, Allen formed and organized the Texas Border Infrastructure Coalition – later renamed the Texas Border Coalition – an organization comprised of mayors, city managers, chamber of commerce and economic development corporations, as well as influential business leaders from Brownsville to El Paso. He helped his counterparts in Mexico with his guidance and expertise. He consulted with state governors and economic teams in Guerrero, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Merida, Campeche, Tabasco and Puebla by sharing his insight and knowledge on how to attract growth and industry to their respective regions.  

He was either instrumental or part of the team that campaigned for the development for the  planned Interstate Highway 69 and the Anzaldúas Bridge. He served as a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Management and Labor Relations. He recognized the importance of education and worked hard to provide necessary job training for our citizens, as well as provide access to higher education. He served as a South Texas College Board of Trustees since 2004 and was serving as Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the time of his death. He was a member of many organizations and received many recognitions.   

Allen is survived by his wife Theresa, step-sons Alan and Richard Skinner (Jenny), his brothers and sisters, Cassie Musso Ribelin and Theresa Allen (Joe), Pat Allen (Ginger), Charles Allen (Sharron), James Skloss (Carole), Virginia Phillips (John), Joyce Skloss, Lawrence Skloss (Paula), Mary Susan Walker (Douglas) and his 22 much loved nieces and nephews.  

“Mike was always very helpful to the Hispanic Chamber, noted Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, RGVHCC president and CEO. “He always included us in his projects.  He even went with us to Salt Lake City to address the Board of Directors of the United States Hispanic Chamber on Immigration issues.”  

Sakulenzki added: “He always reminded us on what an important role the RGVHCC played in the Rio Grande Valley.”  

The annual formal affair will be celebrated this year with a different twist.  The theme will be “Jeans and Gems”. Fancy country western wear will be the proper attire. There will be a dinner, country dance, silent and live auction, and the ever-famous Las Vegas Casino.   

Several Mexico, U.S. and state officials have been invited to attend to recognize Allen.  

••••••   

House passes bill by Sen. Cornyn to extend disaster recovery program for victims of Hurricane Dolly and Hurricane Ike 

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on Friday, November 19, issued the following statement regarding House passage of his bipartisan legislation to extend the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) program, which supports the recovery efforts of residents impacted by hurricanes and other natural disasters.  

While Cornyn was able to secure Senate passage of his legislation prior to the SSBG’s expiration deadline of September 30, 2010, the House did not act in time and the program expired. The November 19 action by the House, however, will ensure the program is reinstated and the deadline for applicants is extended to September 30, 2011.  

As a result, approximately $44 million in disaster recovery funding will still be available to impacted communities in Texas. Cornyn’s legislation was cosponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas; Sen. Kit Bond, R-Missouri; Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois; Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana; Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri; and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida.  

“While overdue, I’m pleased the House acted today to extend the SSBG program. This will be welcome news for thousands of Texans who are still working to make a full recovery from the devastation left by Hurricanes Ike and Dolly," Cornyn said. "My bill ensures that impacted communities in Texas can access the more than $40 million in unused SSBG funds for another year. I hope the President will sign this extension into law as quickly as possible.”    

Background:  

• Entities that received SSBG funding were required to spend the funds by September 30 of this

year or the dollars would be de-obligated and returned to the U.S. Treasury.   

• The Senate passed Cornyn’s legislation to extend the deadline on September 29, 2010. The House

failed to pass the extension in time, allowing the program to expire.  

• The November 19 action by the House of Representatives, however, will ensure that states,

communities, and organizations are able to utilize this funding to aid in disaster recovery efforts.     

• A similar extension was granted for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita SSGB disaster recovery funds in

2007.  

• According to the Congressional Budget Office, the legislation would not add to the deficit.   

According to Gulf Coast Interfaith, failure to extend the program will prevent several Southeast Texas nonprofits, including Neighborhood Centers Inc., Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities, from continuing to offer services to hurricane victims such as providing medical care and counseling services, making repairs to damaged homes and replacing ID’s and other essentials lost during the storms.  

•••••• 

Congressman Cuellar announces bilingual websites to help more South Texans better prepare for emergencies and disasters 

By EDDIE ZAVALA  

Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, on Wednesday, December 1, announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has updated its website and has now included several sites in Spanish.  

This is done is an effort to keep the growing Spanish-speaking population informed on how best to react during an emergency or disaster and how the private sector can effectively communicate with FEMA. The information is also aimed at fostering and developing effective public-private partnerships.  

Also included are several emergency simulations, including a realistic disaster scenario and discussion of how an organization would plan, protect, respond and recover during a disaster. Each exercise includes full instructor’s notes.  

“We can never predict or know for certain when a disaster will strike, but one thing is for sure: we can all be better prepared,” said Cuellar. “These links will help us achieve this goal.”   

Below is a set of links prepared by FEMA to help prepare for disasters or emergencies.  

FEMA Private Sector Focus (Home page)

Spanish: http://www.fema.gov/esp/sectorprivado/index.shtm

English: http://www.fema.gov/privatesector/   

Public Private Partnerships

Spanish: http://www.fema.gov/esp/sectorprivado/asociacionespp.shtm

English: http://www.fema.gov/privatesector/ppp.shtm   

Emergency Planning Exercises for Your Organization

Spanish: http://www.fema.gov/esp/sectorprivado/ejercicios.shtm

English: http://www.fema.gov/privatesector/exercises.shtm   

About FEMA Private Sector Division

Spanish: http://www.fema.gov/esp/sectorprivado/acerca.shtm

English: http://www.fema.gov/privatesector/about.shtm   

Private Sector Preparedness Tip of the Week

Spanish: http://www.fema.gov/esp/sectorprivado/consejos.shtm

English: http://www.fema.gov/privatesector/tips.shtm   

Protect Your Property or Business from Disaster

Spanish: http://www.fema.gov/esp/planifique/prevenga/comohacer.shtm

English: http://www.fema.gov/plan/prevent/howto/index.shtm   

Take Action!

Spanish: http://www.fema.gov/esp/sectorprivado/actua.shtm

English: http://www.fema.gov/privatesector/take_action.shtm   

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Human trafficking conference, organized by Rep. Thompson, sheds light on "modern day slavery"  

By COLLEEN TRAN  

The 1st Annual International Conference on Human Trafficking held recently at the Texas Capitol featured a series of prominent speakers expressing a similar theme: human trafficking is prevalent worldwide, Texas is a key hub through which victims are transported, and a collaborative approach among law enforcement agencies domestically and abroad is the key to breaking up traffickers’ networks.   

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, a key Texas organizer of the effort to raise awareness of the atrocities of human trafficking, welcomed conference participants. During her opening remarks, Thompson expressed a desire to see the legal community, law enforcement and the Texas Legislature work together during the upcoming legislative session to improve Texas’ approach to victims’ assistance and the pursuit and prosecution of traffickers.  

"I am proud to join with Representative Senfronia Thompson in giving voice to victims of the tragic crime of human trafficking,” said Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. “Next session, the Texas House will continue to work in collaboration with law enforcement and human rights groups to find a way to end this inhumane crime."  

“Human trafficking is a form of slavery,” Thompson said. “Traffickers prey upon women, children and the most vulnerable among us, stealing their money and threatening their families to ensure cooperation. Human trafficking inflicts irrevocable harm upon its victims and our communities. We must stamp out human trafficking immediately, aggressively, and completely.   

“We need to raise the profile of this issue among the higher education community, ensuring that our educational system is producing professionals capable of joining the fight, and we need to help law enforcement and prosecutors by giving them better tools to attack traffickers directly,” Thompson continued. “I look forward to continuing this discussion as we consider measures we can implement at the state level during the upcoming legislative session.”  

Citing the process through which victims are lied to, robbed, then delivered into the hands of abusers often located thousands of miles from the victims’ homes, Thompson drew attention to the difficulties of gathering the information necessary to stop traffickers’ vast network of conspirators.  

“During the next legislative session and beyond,” Thompson said, “we must pursue opportunities to sharpen the tools with which investigators and prosecutors pursue traffickers, and we must increase public awareness, ensuring that capable professionals, like victims services providers, are properly equipped to help all victims who need assistance.”  

Among the participants during the conference, which was held n Wednesday, October 6, was Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca of the US Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Representatives of Ukraine and the Philippines also participated.  

Additional information regarding the conference can be found at http://www.peoplesunitedsummit.org.  

••••••  

Law enforcement, advocacy groups work to prevent human trafficking at 2011 Super Bowl 

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Wednesday, November 17, convened the Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force for a meeting in Arlington. Officials representing local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and non-governmental organizations gathered to discuss human trafficking prevention, including the state’s efforts during the 2011 Super Bowl.  

Human trafficking is a crime that involves recruiting, harboring, transporting or obtaining a person and forcing that person to labor against their will. Human trafficking includes involuntary servitude, slavery or forced commercial sexual acts. The U.S. Department of State estimates that 12.3 million adults and children are currently victims of forced labor and prostitution worldwide.  

“The Super Bowl can have a tremendously positive economic impact on North Texas – we just want to ensure human traffickers don’t share in the profits,” Abbott said. “The Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force is working to ensure that law enforcement officials have a coordinated response to both unsuspecting victims and the criminals who traffic them. By working proactively to prepare for the 2011 NFL Super Bowl, task force members will be better positioned to crack down on traffickers and provide desperately needed services to human trafficking victims.”  

In addition to coordinating efforts to prevent trafficking during the Super Bowl, the task force reviewed initiatives that Dallas-area Task Force members have implemented since the task force’s inaugural meeting last January. Abbott also spoke to the group about human trafficking investigations and prosecutions in Texas.  

In 2008, the OAG conducted a legislatively mandated study of human trafficking study, which resulted in a 57-page report, The Texas Response to Human Trafficking. The report included 21 recommendations that were intended to reduce human trafficking and improve services to victims. Among the report’s recommendations were statutory changes and outreach efforts that would help educate law enforcement about human trafficking and its victims. The OAG is currently working on the 2010 The Texas Response to Human Trafficking report, which is due to the Legislature on December 1.  

••••••  

PSJA ISD receives award from Texas Comptroller’s Office for financial transparency  

By ARIANNA VÁSQUEZ-HERNÁNDEZ   

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD is the recipient of a Gold Leadership Circle Award from the Texas Comptroller’s Office. This award was given for successfully implementing financial transparency. The Comptroller Leadership Circle encourages and applauds local governments across Texas that have focused on giving taxpayers a transparent look at local expenditures.  

The Comptroller of Public Accounts launched the Texas Comptroller Leadership Circle program in December 2009 to recognize local governments across Texas that are striving to meet a high standard for financial transparency online. They spotlight local governments that: open their books to the public; provide clear, consistent pictures of spending; and share information in a user-friendly format that lets taxpayers easily drill down for more information.  

The Leadership Circle designees receive a certificate reflecting their Circle Award level: Gold, Silver or Bronze. PSJA ISD received the “Gold” standard, which is the highest standard, and highlights those entities that are setting the bar with their transparency efforts.  

As per the Texas Comptrollers Office, financial transparency is an ongoing goal for any government entity and they applaud governments across the state that are stepping up efforts to give taxpayers a transparent look at where their money goes.  

With this designation, PSJA ISD will receive an official certificate and can now use the gold insignia indicating the award. The district will also be listed in the Texas Transparency website.  

••••••   

UT System regents vote to end partnership agreement with Texas Southmost College  

By ANTHONY P. DE BRUYN   

The University of Texas System Board of Regents issued the following statement on Tuesday, November 10, concerning its decision to terminate the partnership agreement with the Board of Trustees of the Texas Southmost College District. The 20-year-old agreement governs the management and operation of the partnership between The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) and Texas Southmost College (TSC).   

Statement:  

The University of Texas System Board of Regents voted today (Tuesday, November 10) to terminate the current Educational Partnership Agreement between the Board of Regents and the Board of Trustees of the Texas Southmost College (TSC) District.   

While we were hoping to forge a new relationship that would propel the UT System and TSC into the future as partners, we have come to the conclusion that the current working situation is untenable, and therefore, the UT System will concentrate on advancing higher education in South Texas and at The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) without a partnership with TSC. The students, faculty, and staff of UTB and its exceptional president, Juliet García, have our full support as we reiterate our unwavering commitment to the mission of our four-year university. We are prepared to bring the best to UTB alone.  

Since inception of the partnership, both UTB and TSC have experienced significant increases in student enrollment, course offerings, degrees offered, real property, and budget including sponsored research grants. The partnership has evolved and over the past two decades has increased in complexity exceeding the scope of the 1991 partnership agreement. It is now outdated.  

For the last 18 months, officials from the UT System have worked productively and collegially with representatives of the TSC Board to create a new relationship, building upon the strengths of the UTB/TSC partnership and addressing the complexities of a rapidly growing university. The trustees of the TSC Board acknowledge through their resolutions that the current agreement is outdated, but they have not offered any counterproposal.   

We will not put our standards of excellence in higher education on hold. UT Brownsville’s leadership team needs the opportunity now to redirect its time and energies to the future aspirations of the university. We cannot live under the status quo of an outdated agreement at the expense of putting UTB’s principles of accountability and transparency at risk.  

This action by the UT System Board of Regents should give UTB students and faculty great confidence in the future of the university. Their educational experiences will not change. Classes and university operations will continue.  

Over the next four years as we engage in a phased-in approach to sunsetting the current agreement, we will work with the TSC board to address the separation aspects of the agreement. We will also look forward to communicating with the Brownsville community and other important stakeholders regarding our plans to enhance UTB’s important educational goals and support its unique mission.   

The University of Texas at Brownsville will continue on an upward trajectory toward excellence. We will look at the past with pride and accomplishment, and we will look to the future as the TSC Board of Trustees and the UT System Board of Regents work to advance our respective institutional missions. We will always be grateful to the citizens of Brownsville for all they have done to support the UTB/TSC partnership over the years.  

The University of Texas System is one of the nation’s largest higher education systems, with nine academic campuses and six health institutions. The UT System has an annual operating budget of $12.8 billion (FY 2011) including $2.3 billion in sponsored programs funded by federal, state, local and private sources. Preliminary student enrollment exceeded 202,000 in the 2009 academic year. The UT System confers more than one-third of the state’s undergraduate degrees and educates nearly three-fourths of the state’s health care professionals annually. With more than 84,000 employees, the UT System is one of the largest employers in the state.  

••••••   

Attorney General Abbott, Sen. Watson announce sexting prevention legislation 

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, have announced an initiative to help prevent sexting.  

Sexting – a harmful and dangerous practice – typically occurs when teenage students use cell phones to send each other sexually explicit messages or images electronically, primarily between cell phones. Improvements in cellular technology over recent years have dramatically expanded young Texans’ access to mobile telephones that can transmit sexual photographs and videos – which is why the problem is increasingly prevalent.  

A 2008 report from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy indicates that 22 percent of teen girls said they have electronically sent or posted online nude or semi-nude images of themselves.  

Sexting message senders have no control of their message’s ultimate distribution. Embarrassing or sexually explicit messages can be forwarded to other students and later spread quickly through a school or across the country. In some cases, sexting images can even get posted on public websites or fall into law enforcement authorities’ jurisdiction.  

Under current Texas law, anyone who transmits an explicit image of a teen can face felony charges of possessing or trafficking child pornography. As a result, children who send images of themselves and their friends face serious criminal repercussions. Abbott and Watson are proposing legal provisions for these youthful offenses – so minors are punished for improper behavior but do not face life-altering charges. Under their proposal, teen sexting would become a misdemeanor offense punishable by probation and restricted cell phone usage. Judges would also be authorized to sentence minors to participate in an education program about sexting’s long-term harmful consequences.  

“Studies show that teenage students are increasingly taking, sending and receiving explicit pictures of themselves on their mobile telephones,” Abbott said. “This practice is not just harmful to young Texans – it’s potentially illegal. We are joining with Sen. Kirk Watson to address this problem in the State of Texas and offer common-sense solutions that will help protect young Texans.”  

Watson added: “The legislation that we are working on recognizes that sexting is wrong and illegal. This proposed new law would provide education for our children regarding the harm sexting causes, and it will give prosecutors an appropriate tool to stop this problem.”  

In a study released this year, the Cyberbullying Research Center surveyed approximately 4,400 11-18 year-old individuals from a large school district in the southern United States. The results indicated that five percent of boys and three percent of girls acknowledged uploading or sharing a humiliating or harassing picture of their romantic partner online or through their cell phone. Six percent of boys and girls said their romantic partner posted something publicly online to make fun of, threaten or embarrass them.  

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Winter Texan study finds 144,000 visitors spent more than $802 million last year in the Valley  

By GAIL FAGAN  

Attracted by the Rio Grande Valley’s warm climate, friendly people and low cost-of-living, retirees from the north —dubbed "Winter Texans"— have been travelling to the Rio Grande Valley to spend their winters for more than 40 years.   

Since 1987, The Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center in the College of Business Administration at The University of Texas-Pan American has been studying their activities, interests and impact on the region. The center’s most recent biennial study published this fall —the Winter Texan 2009-2010 Study — indicates an estimated 144,000 Winter Texans or 75,000 households were in the Valley during the 2009-2010 season and their spending resulted in a $802.5 million direct impact on the Valley economy.  

Dr. Penny Simpson, UTPA professor of marketing, associate dean of the College of Business Administration and the center’s director, said this year’s study included 1,138 Winter Texans and 84 RV and mobile home park respondents to a questionnaire distributed early this year in the Winter Texan Times, a local print publication targeted to the winter visitors.  

"Their spending on the U.S. side on routine, monthly purchases and on major, one-time purchases represented an average expenditure in the Valley of $10,700 per household," Simpson said.  

The study of Winter Texans 65 years of age and older also showed on average that they are more educated and have a higher household income level than their counterparts in the overall U.S. population.  

The research results are summarized in four sections. In addition to economic impact on both the U.S. and border towns of Mexico, the study includes demographic and stay characteristics. Results from the 2006 and 2008 studies for each of the variables are also incorporated into the report to better understand changes in the Winter Texan market over the past five-year period. This year’s study also included the results to questions regarding Winter Texans’ health and use of health care services.  

"The health care questions focus on the health status of Winter Texans, the health insurance they have, their sources of health care information, perceptions of the quality of health care service in Mexico and their perceived cost savings of using these services in Mexico," Simpson said.  

Over the years the Winter Texan information collected by the center has been an invaluable source of information to a wide variety of individuals and organizations including local investors, realtors, RV and mobile home park owners, tourism professionals, local chambers of commerce and economic development organizations, and state and local governments.  

UTPA’s Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center is part of the university’s outreach efforts designed to provide research and professional service to the region and state. Its research is particularly targeted to examining, understanding and disseminating information about indigenous and transient markets in the Rio Grande Valley to facilitate regional community planning and development. In addition, the center provides educational opportunities for the University’s students by actively involving them in their research activities. Research findings from the center’s studies have been quoted in numerous national and statewide newspapers and magazines.   

Simpson, who leads the center’s activities, came to UTPA in 2003 with 12 years experience in higher education as a faculty member. Results of her research have appeared in numerous marketing publications including the Journal of Marketing, the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science and the Journal of Business Research. She is also an author of the marketing textbook Marketing Principles& Best Practices. Assisting Simpson in preparing the report were Dr. Suad Ghaddar, associate director, South Texas Border Health Disparities Center, and Dr. Xiaojing Sheng, UTPA assistant professor of marketing.  

Copies of the complete Winter Texan 2009-2010 Study are available for $100. If you would like to purchase a report or want to obtain additional information, contact Simpson at (956) 665-3311 or e-mail pmsimpson@utpa.edu.  

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Mitchell Kent Sweezy, 59, former CEO of Sweezy Construction, sentenced to prison 

By ANGELA DODGE  

The former CEO of Sweezy Construction Inc. (SCI) has been sentenced to seven years in federal prison and ordered to pay $40 million in restitution for conspiring to commit bank fraud and bankruptcy fraud, United States Attorney José Angel Moreno announced on Tuesday, November 16.  

Mitchell Kent Sweezy, 59, formerly of Harlingen, was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen late Monday, November 15, along with defendants and business entities KPS Texas Dev. Inc. and Santorini RE Investments Ltd.     

As noted in his pleas of guilty and other documents filed with the court, Sweezy and former Chief Financial Officer Claude McMillon, who previously pleaded guilty to a bank fraud conspiracy in this case and will be sentenced later, 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 financial statements of SCI during the years 1999 – 2001.   

Sweezy admitted that 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 that 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., which was controlled by Sweezy through his control of the managing partner of Santorini, KPS Tex. Dev. Inc., which Sweezy owned along with his former spouse.  

In 2004, Sweezy and his former spouse filed for bankruptcy and failed to disclose key financial information and assets to the Bankruptcy Court, such as Sweezy’s ownership of mineral interests in land located in La Salle County, Texas.  Following his pleas of guilty earlier this year, those interests became very valuable. As requested by the United States Attorney’s Office, Sweezy transferred these interests to the Bankruptcy Trustee during the sentencing process and further agreed to remit $54,000 in mineral lease proceeds to one of the victims of the fraud.   

Previously, Sweezy and other defendants agreed to the transfer of a large ranch and other valuable real estate in Cameron County to the Bankruptcy Court. Those assets have since been sold for $1,580,000 and will be credited toward restitution.   

Santorini and KPS were sentenced to terms of probation. Santorini, a Texas limited partnership, was used to hide ownership of a 1020 acre ranch in Cameron County, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash proceeds of the fraud. KPS controlled the Santorini partnership and Sweezy controlled KPS as its president.  

In a key ruling, Hanen held that a valuable real estate asset held in the name of Island Daze, another limited partnership controlled by KPS and Sweezy, cannot be sold without the approval of the Probation Office. Island Daze has guaranteed a Sweezy-related bank loan in the amount of approximately $934,000 and the United States is seeking to insure that the lending institution is not left “with another bag of Sweezy debt,” as explained by Assistant United States Attorney Charles Lewis, who is prosecuting the case. As part of the Sweezy sentence, Hanen listed the numerous banks, insurance companies, suppliers and individuals to whom restitution is owed.   

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 civil judgments in excess of $30 million. When Sweezy filed for bankruptcy in June 2004, he claimed negligible assets and debts of more than $32 million. In his bankruptcy petition, Sweezy additionally failed to disclose extensive asset transfers into the trust structure and to his son.  

The case was investigated by the FBI and prosecuted by AUSA Lewis.    

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Former McAllen CPA sentenced to prison for wire fraud conspiracy against paraplegic client

By ANGELA DODGE 

Rodrigo García, 49, of McAllen, convicted of wire fraud, has been sentenced to prison for abusing his position of trust by taking the money of a paraplegic client via wire transfers from the victim’s bank account for his own use and benefit, United States Attorney José Ángel Moreno announced on Wednesday, December 1. 

U.S. District Judge Randy Crane sentenced García to 51 months in federal prison to be followed by a three-year-term of supervised release at a sentencing hearing held on December 1 in federal court in McAllen. García pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud on July 30, 2010. Crane further ordered García to pay restitution in the amount of $1,218,960.11 which represents the total amount of the victim’s funds that the court found García had used for his own benefit to include $37,000 in wire transfers charged in the indictment. 

According to the record of the case, García was a certified public accountant (CPA) in McAllen in 2002, whose business was to provide financial services to his clients. In April 2002, the paraplegic victim hired García to manage his financial affairs after receiving a $3.6 million settlement. In July 2002, the paraplegic victim signed a statutory power of attorney giving García authority to access and conduct financial transactions including withdrawals from his bank account at the victim’s request. 

On four occasions in April and July 2005, García approved four wire transfers totaling $37,000 from the victim’s bank account. Two of the wire transfers totaling $22,000 were delivered to the bank account of an auto dealership to purchase a car while $15,000 was wired to the account of an auto restoration business to restore a vehicle for García. These wire transfers were for García’s benefit and made without the knowledge or consent of the victim. 

García’s CPA license had been revoked in 2003. 

A week earlier, in late November, during a hearing, the victim of García’s criminal conduct told the court that García knew he, the victim, did not have legal status in the United States and about the impact García’s conduct has and will have on his ability to support his family and his daily expenses. Today, the court considered the victim’s vulnerability, the substantial impact of García’s criminal conduct on the victim, his family and his life in finding García had abused a position of trust which the court considered in deciding upon the final sentence handed down.     

Following that late November hearing, after the court learned that García had failed to pay any amount of restitution to the victim while out on bond, the court revoked the bond and remanded him to federal custody without bond pending the December 1 sentencing hearing. García will remain in custody to serve his sentence pending transfer to a Bureau of Prison’s facility to be designated in the near future. 

The investigation leading to the charges was conducted by the FBI and prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Robert Wells Jr. 

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Convicted sex offender who moved to Mission sentenced for failure to register with DPS 

By ANGELA DODGE  

A previously convicted sex offender who failed to register as required by the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) upon moving to Texas has been sentenced to prison, United States Attorney José Ángel Moreno announced on Wednesday, November 17.  

SORNA was enacted on July 27, 2006, as part of The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. United States District Judge Randy Crane sentenced Kenneth Kline Jr.,  51, of Mission to eight months imprisonment without parole at a hearing that Wednesday afternoon.  

In October 2007, Kline was convicted of indecent behavior with a juvenile “by committing a lewd and lascivious act upon a juvenile under the age of 17,” in the 21st Judicial District Court, Livingston Parish, Louisiana. At that time, he was sentenced to a five-year-term of probation with several conditions including that he register as a sex offender. In June 2008, Louisiana state records show Kline registered as a sex offender while residing in Denham Springs, Louisiana, and was then further instructed he would have to register as a sex offender in any other jurisdiction he should move to in the future.  

On November 7, 2008, the State of Louisiana issued a warrant for Kline for leaving the state without permission of his probation officer, another condition of his probationary sentence.  

In June 2009, as a result of the investigation conducted by the United States Marshals Service, Kline was found living in Mission and arrested. The investigation showed Kline had moved from his Louisiana residence in October 2008 and had been residing in Mission since February 2009. Kline had not registered with the Texas Department of Public Safety Sex Offender Registry as required.  

Arrested in June and convicted in August 2010, Kline has been in federal custody without bond since his arrest and will remain in custody to serve his sentence. Crane has ordered Kline to a three-year-term of supervised release upon completion of his prison sentence.  

Assistant United States Attorney Juan F. Alanis prosecuted the case. 

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