Friday, June 23, 2006

More on La Joya ISD

Rio Grande Valley media outlets follow up on the La Joya schools superintendent's paid suspension (the best kind for public employees, but not for taxpayers), which board members OK'd on Wednesday:
  • Filomena Leo's lawyer tells The Monitor that the board pulled her for "political motives." However, board secretary J.A. "Fito" Salinas says members question her competency and her qualifications. Trustees plan to hire an independent lawyer to conduct an investigation.
  • The superintendent herself tells Newschannel 5 that she had no idea the suspension was coming. Of course, if you take a look at the agenda for Wednesday's board meeting (which was posted June 15), you can see Filomena Leo's signature at the end of the agenda. That document mentions deliberation and action on "Job Duties, Performance, Responsibilities, Assignment of Superintendent," so if she got blindsided, I do have to wonder whether she should be in charge of a school district.
  • The board votes 6-1 to suspend Leo, Channel 4 reports. Leo again says, "I was not given any formal notice of any kind from the board president or the board of trustees." Except for that whole meeting agenda thing.
Also, please note: when I gave props to the blog Rio Grande Valley Politics for breaking the story of Leo's suspension, I unintentionally slighted The Paper of South Texas.

This publication (which I freelance for) first reported the questions about the school district's insurance contract and the fact that La Joya ISD is a quarter-million bucks behind in its insurance payments. It's for these and other reasons that the board is upset with Leo's performance, and it's The Paper that brought them to light.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

DoJ looks at TYC

The U.S. Department of Justice will investigate "conditions of confinement and treatment of residents" at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, State Rep. Aaron Peña announces on his blog:
This office has been monitoring the situation at Evins since receiving complaints from guards and parents regarding issues of abuse, unsafe working conditions and other concerns about the facility. ...

This office welcomes the investigation by the US Department of Justice and will provide any assistance and cooperation in completing this inquiry.
The Texas Observer recently published an article on the facility, and you can find more stories from Freedom Newspapers on the problems at Evins in my earlier post.

La Joya ISD Boss Suspended

The La Joya ISD school board yanks Superintendent Filomena Leo from her duties, suspending her with pay. Blogger Rico Politico over at Rio Grande Valley Politics beats local media outlets (nice job) with this scoop:
That's right. The La Joya School Board reviewed her job duties and assignments, and after a lengthy executive session, the board voted to supsend her with pay. They did name an interim Superintendent to resume the role and her name is Dr. Alda Benevidez.
The move took place Wednesday night during a specially called board meeting. The agenda for that meeting, under Section H. Personnel, Subsection 1, Employment of Professional Personnel, lists "Action on Job Duties, Performance, Responsibilities, Assignment of Superintendent."

So what's behind this suspension? Here's an educated guess:
  1. The district's supplemental insurance policy falls under scrutiny after the recommendation that reaches the school board names an insurance company different from the one administrators recommended to the superintendent.
  2. A trio of challengers sweep the incumbents from office in the May 13 school board elections.
  3. The new board members ask why teachers aren't getting their disability payments under the policy in question.
In case you'd forgotten, there's also the incestuous relationship between the old La Joya school board and the troubled La Joya Water Suppy Corporation. Not that it has anything to do with Leo's suspension, but it does illustrate the cronyism problems that plague the district.

Thanks again to Rio Grande Valley Politics for delivering this story.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Another Domino Falls

More proof that the agents at the McAllen FBI office are earning their paychecks: Disgraced former Edcouch-Elsa school board president Aaron Gonzalez pleads guilty to extortion in federal court.

He faces up to 20 years as a guest of the feds (no parole in the federal system). His crime? Accepting kickbacks from Daniel Rodriguez, a McAllen architect firm employee who showed an undercover FBI agent how to bribe local officials.

From the U.S. Attorney's Office press release on Tuesday:
Today, Gonzalez pleaded guilty to extortion involving a $1,500 cash payment he accepted from an individual interested in bidding for a contract for furniture to be used in a new building then being built by EE-ISD. In turn, Gonzalez promised to use the official powers of his elected office in assisting this individual in the bid for an EE-ISD contract.
Tip one domino over, and the rest in line soon will fall. Since Gonzalez copped a plea, you have to wonder if he traded information in hope of a lighter sentence. I'm sure his cronies in the Delta area are sweating right now. Remember, his business serves as insurance agent for the city of Elsa.

Holy War

Three years ago this month, a new pastor at Holy Spirit Parish in McAllen fired four church workers who belonged to the United Farm Workers union. This angered church members, who say the firings were ultimately the decision of Bishop Raymundo Peña.

The workers eventually reached a settlement, but critics say the union busting continues.

Churchgoers at Holy Spirit haven't forgotten that incident, as the blog Reflections of the Spirit shows (WARNING: web page plays annoying song). There's a post on the anniversary of the firings, complete with some of Ramon Ramirez's editorial cartoons from that time that skewer Peña. There's an exhortation for parishioners to wear red when the bishop visits.

To this day, parishioners still battle it out with the Diocese of Brownsville over issues like the unionized church workers, a church raffle, and the ousting of the parish's Peace and Justice Committee.

The diocese has done some pretty crappy things over the years -- like stonewall investigators and tell a sexual abuse suspect to flee the country -- so it's nice to see members try to hold diocese officials accountable.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Informing the Community? Priceless

The company that owns the Rio Grande Valley's NBC television affiliate files for bankruptcy. As radio station KURV 710 reports:
Communications Corporation of America has filed under Chapter Eleven in U-S Bankrtupcy Court in the Western District of Louisiana. In a written statement, C-C-A says the filing will not affect day-to-day operations of its television stations, and all employees will remain in place.
The privately held company owns 10 stations in Texas, Louisiana and Indiana, including Brownsville's KVEO NBC 23. Interestingly, CCA's owner has a son whose broadcasting company also is filing for bankruptcy.

The Brownsville Herald reports a statement from the parent company that "the filing will not affect the day-to-day operations of the company’s television stations."

Too bad. Channel 23 doesn't have a local news department, instead bringing South Texas audiences reruns of The Simpsons and Everybody Loves Raymond during those time slots. Maybe a local newscast would help boost ratings.

Sure, it's cheaper when you don't have a news staff to pay, but it obviously hurts a station in the long run. As The Daily Advertiser of Lafayette, Louisiana, points out, most of those stations CCA owns don't bother to produce news reports. However, local TV news builds viewer loyalty, which helps with ad revenue:
Most of the company's stations, including the two in Lafayette, lack a local news department - typically a big attraction for local advertisers. Court filings estimated the company's debts at more than $100 million.
The stations have been on the market since October, but no buyers. Maybe someone will step in and purchase Channel 23, and bring another English-language newscast to the Valley.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Allergic to Criticism

Members of the McAllen school district's Community Capital Advisory Committee, which is supposed to make recommendations on how to spend MISD's $98 million bond issue, instead overreact to criticism and try to boot one of their own off the advisory board when he questions the district's spending habits.

I haven't seen any mention of this story yet, so I thought I'd go ahead and point it out. (DISCLOSURE: It's in The Paper of South Texas, and I do freelance work for that publication.)

Committee member John Phillips, who ran for the school board in the last election, thinks the district is spending too much to build the elementary schools that voters OK'd ($10 million in McAllen versus $7 million to $8 million elsewhere in Texas). That was his campaign platform, so the McAllen fat cats with a finger in the bond money pie began a smear campaign against him.
And then on May 2, two weeks before the school board election, [fellow advisory committee member] Nancy Welch proposed an amendment to the CCAC bylaws which would allow the group to kick out any member who presented “false or misleading information” about the bond,” an amendment that seemed aimed at Phillips’ open criticism of bond budget and administration.
Phillips tells 'em to go ahead and try to kick him off the CCAC for exercising his First Amendment rights, threatening a lawsuit. Welch and committee chairman Mike Blum back down, and Phillips stays on the committee, free to continue his criticism.

Voters gave McAllen ISD the keys to the vault, but that doesn't mean the district should be immune to criticism. The fact that they're so sensitive about things makes it look like they have something to hide. I said it before last year's bond election, and I will say it again:
Until we get a majority on the school board willing to stand up for taxpayers instead of their compadres, nothing will change. And until then, we shouldn’t give the school district any more of our money. I wouldn’t trust them with 50 cents for the Coke machine, much less a $98 million bond package.
So far, the McAllen school district has done nothing to prove me wrong.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Observing Evins

State Rep. Aaron Peña points to a Texas Observer article on the abuse at Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg.

The story offers a detailed look at the Texas Youth Commission facility's many problems, which Freedom Valley Newspapers reporter Liz Pierson detailed earlier.

Peña, who's been scrutinizing the agency for some time, says the Observer article points out many TYC shortcomings that need to be fixed. One thing that stands out in the story: When staff members reported abuse to Hidalgo County authorities, nothing happened:
TYC investigators found evidence of abuse, unnecessary force, and other policy violations among 14 TYC staff. ... (Current Evins Supervisor Bart Caldwell says that when TYC investigators confirmed abuse, the agency turned the names of the alleged abusers over to Hidalgo County authorities. At the end of May, county records indicated none had been arrested or charged.)
Big surprise there. The article goes on to say that it's easy for TYC staff to cover up incidents of abuse, with reports or security videotapes disappearing.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Slap on the Wrist

A politiquero gets a 30-day jail sentence, a $250 fine and two years deferred adjudication for his role in last summer's vote-buying scandal in McAllen.

Joey Lopez pleads guilty to theft for taking money for votes, then whines to Channel 4 that "he's taking the fall for all politiqueros who engage in illegal practices." He then bitches that he shouldn't get jail time because he has no prior record. He got lucky. Deferred adjudication means if he stays out of trouble for those two years, it won't go on his record.

Lopez goes on to tell the TV station and Rio Grande Valley citizens how screwed up elections really are in the Rio Grande Valley:
"You have to have money to win an election in Hidalgo County. If you don't have the cash you will not get elected. It's not about how honest you are or how your heart feels about serving that position or serving the public. That's a bunch of BS. It's about how much money you've got. And the only way you get money is by selling out to contractors and businesses, and wrecking companies and EMS services to give them the contracts. That's the way you win elections in Hidalgo County."
The recent raid on Alton City Hall in response to election complaints shows Lopez knows what he's talking about: dirty elections infest the county. And until we start seeing some harsh sentences for vote-stealers, the slime won't go away.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Other Side of the Valley

There are plenty of blogs focusing on the Rio Grande Valley, here's the first one I've seen focusing on what's going on in Mexico: El Otro Lado Del Valley.

South Texas blogger Tino Gallegos wants to start keeping an eye on events south of the border, as he says in his first post:
What a time to be alive and living in the Rio Grande Valley! It is an unprecedented historic time of transformation. I feel that this historic moment has to be captured right now. I hope to start posting about news stories from the other side of the valle, our southern neighbors in Mexico.
He's also got an interesting take on the deployment of military forces on the south border -- that's Mexican army forces on Mexico's southern boundary:
Fox has little room to criticize militarization of the U.S. border, because his own Southern border with Guatemala and Belize are in a much more advanced state of militarization since the 2001, "Plan Sur", implemented by his government. It should be noted that Fox himself claimed that the Mexican military would play a limited role in Plan Sur operations, but quickly assumed a much more central role in the border region.
Tino's blog hasn't had many visitors yet, so go check it out.

Small-Town Politics

Deputies descend on Alton City Hall to confiscate the city's election records, as part of an investigation stemming from more than 20 complaints about Mayor Salvador Vela to the Hidalgo County Elections Department. As Channel 4 reports:

According to the impoundment order application filed by the DA's office, a candidate would enter the polling location and request a private meeting with elections workers and not permit the poll watchers to attend.

There are allegations the mail-in ballots were not secure and that the early voting clerk may have tampered with the absentee ballots.
According to The Monitor's report on the raid, Vela won the most recent election by just 42 out of more than 900 votes:

[Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene] Guerra also noted allegations that "a candidate" — which Navarro identified as Vela — promised voters "preferential treatment in receiving city services" for their vote, and that Vela requested private meetings with voting officials before and on Election Day.
This isn't a clean town. Alton, you might recall, saw its city manager receive a 41-month prison sentence after a federal jury convicted him of extortion and bribery. And, as the background info in The Monitor raid story indicates, the mayor's wife "pleaded no contest in 1993 to charges of elections fraud regarding mail-in ballots." In fact, the county elections administrator called for an investigation into the 2003 Alton city voting, but her plea fell upon deaf ears.

I'm glad the DA's doing something about the complaints this time, but from what he tells The Monitor, he's not too excited about it:
Regardless, Guerra downplayed the raid’s significance, calling securing documents in response to election complaints "nothing out of the ordinary."

"It doesn’t mean there was criminal wrongdoing," he said, adding that election fraud is notoriously difficult to prove.
Guerra has a history of finding excuses not to prosecute voter fraud; let's hope he instead follows through on this case.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Hell Yes

McAllen adopts an ethics ordinance that requires public officials to disclose conflicts of interest and abstain from voting on those matters. The McAllen City Commission also says officials have to disclose travel, lodging and meals from anyone doing business with the city.

This will go a long way toward eliminating conflicts of interest like we see in the McAllen school board, but one commissioner tells The Monitor the ordinance doesn't go far enough:
"On a scale of one to 10, I’d probably rate it a five, as a minimum ordinance, but it’s going to take time to get it better," Commissioner Marcus Barrera said. "I think it needs to go farther, but the problem is that every time in the past when we’ve brought it up, it’s always been debated to the point where we just never pass anything."
However, Mayor Richard Cortez tells the daily newspaper that the new rules might discourage some people from serving on municipal boards:
"A lot of people are very private people," he said. "If I’m asked to serve the city, and then as a requirement of serving the city would have to make certain financial disclosures, then some people may elect to say, 'You know what? It’s just not worth it for me to do that. I want to continue to be a private citizen'."
But as another politician once said: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Sure, some people just want to serve their community and give back to the city. But far too many are only in it for what they can get out of it.

This new policy is a good start at cutting down on the cronyism.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Prize Winner

Congratulations, Pharr taxpayers! Your $100,000 pays off, as Pharr earns the All-America City designation from the National Civic League.

That's right, the city spends more some $100,000 to send 81 Pharr bigwigs to Anaheim, Calif. -- a move the mayor said was unnecessary last week in The Monitor.
“I didn’t see why the city should spend money on five nights in hotel, plus flights and meals for me and my wife. I think all of us should be more concerned with how we spend our money. For $100,000, I could hire a couple extra police officers.”
Mayor Polo Palacios stays home (and he deserves a pat on the back for that), but everyone else takes off for California. And they win. Pharr is one of 10 cities picked from a list of 34 finalists. So congrats, Pharr.

And just what does that All-America designation bring to the city of Pharr? Well, there's no cash prize. No big-screen TV or any other merchandise. The National Civic League website says "NCL will provide publicity placements for finalists" -- but that's ultimately up to the media, not the NCL. So what do you get?

All-America City logos.
All-America Cities are authorized to use the AAC logo in promoting their communities. This highly visible "stamp of approval" is widely recognized as evidence of a community of caring and dedicated individuals.
That's right -- that 100 grand gives you the privilege of putting up a sign that says Pharr is an All-America City.

Who needs cops when you have that?

La Joya ISD Insurance

La Joya educators aren't getting the disability payments their insurance is supposed to provide. The Paper of South Texas (DISCLOSURE: I do freelance work for this publication) details the problems faced by school district employees like Cynthia Torres, whose disability insurance was supposed to pay her bills while she was unable to work:
But after the initial $1,000 check that she received in January, her disability insurance company, American United Life, farmed out its claims administration to a third party. The third-party administrator quickly cut Torres off from receiving a disability reimbursement for her disorder.

Now, after five months without a paycheck, Torres, who remains an assistant principal for La Joya Independent School District, has nowhere to turn.

She and thousands of other La Joya employees bought disability insurance just in case something terrible happened to prevent them from working. But Torres and a growing number of other LJISD employees complain that their disability insurance system simply isn’t functioning.
There's some funny business with how that company got the insurance contract. Administrators recommended a different firm to Superintendent Filomena Leo, but when the issue went before the school board, it had American United Life on it instead. And the guy who owns that company rented office space from the superintendent's husband, La Joya Mayor Billy Leo.

Three newly elected school board members promise to get to the bottom of the issue. It's nice to see some elected officials who want to uncover the truth instead of burying it.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

TAKS Questions

Texas education officials double-check 609 schools across the state for irregularities in students' answers on the overhyped and undereffective Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, better known as the TAKS test.

The San Antonio Express-News says the Texas Education Agency hired a Utah-based company to examine schools. The business found red flags at 9 percent of the state's public educational facilities:
The firm, which was paid $533,334, flagged schools where individual students had big gains in test scores from year to year by using a formula to predict how a student is likely to do based on past test performance.

It also looked for similar test responses in the same classroom, a high number of erased answers and unusual response patterns, such as students missing very easy questions while answering more difficult ones correctly.
Nineteen school districts in the Rio Grande Valley have campuses that make the list of flagged schools:
Remember, all this study did was spot irregularities that might come from cheating or might just be statistical anamolies.
"Just because a school shows up on the list doesn't necessarily mean there's a problem," TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said. "They could be there because of great teaching."
Of course, this misses the bigger picture: That all TAKS does is make educators teach to the test and churn out kids whose main skill is working the system while taking a standardized exam.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Because There's No Other Crime ...

... cops can rid the Harlingen streets of that scourge of South Texas, pirated DVDs.

That's right: There must not be any burglaries, robberies, rapes or murders goin' down in that town. So police are free to mount an undercover sting operation, confiscating thousands of videos and making the city so much safer.

The bust was such a success that officers make an encore appearance the next day, even though the folks who got arrested aren't too happy about it.

Yes, selling pirated DVDs is against the law. And it is stealing someone's intellectual property, although you should take merchants' claims that it hurts their business with a grain of salt. But it's so easy to copy a DVD that these raids won't halt the practice, and people will keep buying the bootlegs.

Still, I'd rather see police focusing on crimes that directly harm people -- offenses like burglary, robbery, etc. But that's a lot harder than patrolling la pulga, I guess.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Who Will Take Over the Star?

It's confirmed: Valley Morning Star editor George Cox is leaving the newspaper for South Padre Island (see my earlier post).

Once he crosses the causeway, Cox will take over as general manager for two publications that Freedom Communications, the VMS's parent company, owns:

Freedom plans to combine operations of the two papers, with George at the helm.

Meanwhile, there's still speculation as to who will replace him at the Harlingen daily. Although some people favor former Brownsville Herald metro editor Melissa Zamora, there's also speculation (that sounds so much better than rumor) that ex-Herald boss Teclo Garcia might be in the running.

Teclo used to work at The Monitor and was spokesman for the city of McAllen before landing the Brownsville gig. Last I heard, he was editing ¡Extra!, a special section in the Arizona Republic geared toward English-speaking Hispanic readers.

My thanks to my former coworkers who helped get me up to speed on this issue.

Drug War Update

Will internal squabbling among the Mexican drug cartels result in a decrease in violence along the border? U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials tell the San Antonio Express-News there are some indications the killings might stop.
The rift is centered over control of the border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros but apparently also pits [Gulf] cartel leaders willing to cooperate with the rival Sinaloa Cartel against hardliners who will tolerate no such truce.

If the hardliners lose, and new leaders reach a deal with the Sinaloans, one result could be an end to the killings that have plagued Nuevo Laredo for 21/2 years.
Reporter Mariano Castillo also puts into perspective NewsChannel 5's interview with narco-mercenaries. Last week, two members claiming to be members of Los Zetas, a group of army deserters working for the Gulf Cartel, broke their silence in an interview with TV reporter Tony Castelan. The Express-News says
It was the first known news interview with Zetas — members of a group that has a history of silencing and censoring journalists through intimidation — on either side of the border.

"That in itself is suspect, that the Zetas would even allow someone to speak to the press," said Jorge Cisneros, an FBI special agent based in McAllen. ...

But U.S. officials agreed much of the information in the KRGV interview was "on the mark," as one of them put it.
The Zetas talk in the TV interview about taking land from property owners:
The Zetas explained how private property is simply seized by the gang, especially if it helps them smuggle the drugs of their employer - the powerful Gulf Cartel of Osiel Cardenas.

"If you have a ranch close to the river or near a place where they have an operation or safe house, they take it so you don't bother them. They take the ranch to pass their drugs."
These guys are scary, using military training, equipment and tactics in the service of the drug lords. Cops think they were involved in the 2003 hit on Guillermo González Calderoni, a corrupt Mexican anti-drug cop who fled that country to live in McAllen. That murder took place in broad daylight, outside his lawyer's office on busy North 10th Street.

Some members of the Zetas' original military unit received training from the U.S. Army at the School of the Americas, a facility infamous for training torturers for Latin American dictators.

Why do criminals fight so hard over control of the drug trade? Because there's so much money to be made on something the government tries to ban but people want anyway. You don't see them shooting it out over cigarettes and booze. Even some cops realize the drug war is a failure.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

New Editor at the Star?

The daily newspaper in Harlingen is looking for a new editor, according to the South Texas blog The Paz Files. Current Valley Morning Star editor George Cox is either leaving the paper or getting promoted out of the newsroom, the blog speculates. (DISCLOSURE: During my time at The Monitor, I worked with George Cox on a company task force.)

The Paz Files cites a notice on the media website advertising "an immediate opening for a proven newsroom leader" at the Star, which Paz calls "a paste-up pasatiempo for the Winter Texans and a small insular gang of influential local Republicans."

The blog nominates former Brownsville Herald metro editor (and current South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau spokeswoman) Melissa Zamora for the job. For a while Zamora published ¿Que Onda RGV?, a weekly bilingual entertainment guide that's no longer printing.

I'm curious why Cox is leaving the Star (if, in fact, he is). I'm out of the loop these days, so anybody at one of the Valley Freedom Newspapers who has some chisme on this, please email me.

Friday, June 02, 2006

More FBI Raids

FBI agents raid two roofing contractors and a home in Cameron County, in a case resulting from a sealed federal indictment. According to Fernando Del Valle (cool name for an RGV reporter, by the way) of the Valley Morning Star:

Agents searched the offices of American Contracting USA Inc. in Combes and American Roofing in Rio Hondo, companies owned by Guadalupe Escobedo, according to Cameron County Appraisal District records.

In Combes, agents confiscated documents in the raid of a home off Rio Rancho Road that the appraisal district lists as owned by Leticia Escobedo.

A quick Google search shows American Contracting USA won a contract to fix the roof of the Cameron County courthouse five years ago (see the minutes from the June 26, 2001, county commissioners meeting; the link to the contract itself is broken). A company by that name has done roofing work for school districts elsewhere in the state as well.

Another cursory scan finds that American Roofing received a $300,000 contract from Brownsville for the Haggar building back in 1996 and a $68,000 contract for the county airport hangar in 1994.

The feds won't say what they're looking for in Combes and Rio Hondo, but the photo on the Star website shows an agent carrying a container labeled "bank statements." Given the trouble that another local contractor got into last year, I think we can make a pretty good guess as to the FBI's investigation.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Court Costs

From eight to ten grand disappears from the municipal court in La Joya, and the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office steps in to investigate:
[La Joya City] Commissioner [Roberto] Jackson says if a city employee is responsible, appropriate action will be taken. He says the results of the sheriff's department investigation will reveal their next move.
One La Joya resident (who probably thinks Santa Clause puts Easter Eggs under her pillow at night) tells KGBT 4 TV the missing money is the result of "a math mistake or just plain politics. ... It's like the (La Joya) Water Supply... it's just a bunch of bull."

The La Joya Water Supply Corporation, you might remember, incurred the wrath of the Texas Attorney General for its sloppy performance. The AG's office said the water company board's blantant cronyism with the La Joya school board created an "incestuous relationship" that prevented problems from being fixed.

A court-appointed receiver had to take over to start turning things around, and an investigation led to an indictment of the former general manager, who also happened to be La Joya ISD board president.

So that clueless La Joya resident might be more right than she realizes when she says the municipal court flap is like the water company scandal. We'll know if indictments start rolling in.