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Grand Jury indicts 3 in Republican fund-raising scheme

Wednesday, September 22, 2004 by

Eight corporations also indicted

Yesterday a Travis County Grand Jury returned indictments against three individuals associated with US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land) and efforts to raise funds for Republicans running for state House seats. DeLay Assistant James Ellis, Washington, DC fundraiser Warren RoBold and John Colyandro—the former director of DeLay’s political action committee Texans for a Republican Majority (TRM-PAC)—all were indicted in connection with fundraising from corporate coffers.

Also indicted were eight corporations: Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, Inc., Bacardi USA, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc., Diversified Collection Services, Inc., Questerra Corporation, Sears Roebuck and Co., Westar Energy, Inc. and The Williams Companies, Inc. Each of the companies is charged with making one or more illegal political contributions to Texans for a Republican Majority.

District Attorney Ronnie Earle indicated that he has not finished investigating possible illegal campaign contributions. “Additional allegations continue to arise from the mass of information gathered by the grand juries that have investigated various aspects of this matter,” Earle told reporters.

Ellis faces a single count of money laundering, a first-degree felony. Colyandro faces a total of 13 charges, including money laundering and unlawful acceptance of corporate political contributions, a third-degree felony. RoBold also is charged with 12 counts of unlawfully accepting corporate political contributions.

The grand jury alleges that Ellis, DeLay’s assistant, delivered a check for $190,000 from TRM-PAC to the Republican National Committee on September 13, 2002. On the same day, the grand jury says, Ellis “provided the Republican National Committee with a list of several candidates to whom he suggested” that the RNC contribute. The list also included the amounts Ellis suggested be given to each candidate, including Austinites Jack Stick and Todd Baxter. Both subsequently beat Democratic opponents and became members of the Texas House. Others on the list were former state Rep. Rick Green and current state Reps. Dwayne Bohac, Glenda Dawson, Dan Flynn and Larry Taylor. All were elected or re-elected in 2003 except for the ethically challenged Green, who narrowly lost his race to Democrat Patrick Rose.

According to a grand jury, the transaction was illegal because it was made by TRM-PAC from political contributions given by corporations. The indictment says those corporations included Sears Roebuck and Co., The Williams Companies, Inc., Bacardi USA, Inc., Questerra Corporation, Diversified Collection Services, Inc. and Cornell Companies, Inc. Neither the Cornell companies nor several others who allegedly contributed to TRM-PAC were indicted, but Colyandro faces charges related to collecting money from each of those corporations, including El Paso Energy Service Co., Reliant Resources, Inc., AT&T Corp., and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

No indication of why those corporations escaped indictment was forthcoming, but there are missing numbers in the indictments, which are otherwise numbered sequentially. That could mean that prosecutors decided not to indict some person or corporation after the indictments had already been written up — or that the grand jury did not vote in favor of all the indictments presented to them. GalleryWatch.com says the indictments could rival the 1970s Sharpstown scandal, which is often cited as the beginning of the end of Democratic domination of state government. That will depend not only on the outcome of the indictments released yesterday, but also the public’s response to politicians like DeLay and Speaker of the House Tom Craddick, who were not named but who could suffer politically as a result of the indictments.

County to offer free health clinic for employees

In an attempt to stem the rising tide of health care costs, the Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday approved the creation of a free health care clinic for county employees. According to the plan, the clinic will be staffed with nurses and physicians assistants who will perform wellness checks and basic exams. The ultimate goal is to cut down on the number of doctor visits, hospitalizations and employee sick days.

“It is designed to marry wellness with health care management,” said Dan Mansour, risk manager for the county’s Human Resources Department. “It will provide a safe and friendly environment in which we can catch illnesses at an earlier stage, when it is easier and less expensive to treat.” Mansour added that the county would also be able to track and measure the results of the wellness efforts.

To pay for the clinic, commissioners will tap the county’s health care reserve fund, which grew unexpectedly during the past year to between $5.1 million and $6 million as claims costs fell short of estimates. Commissioners approved $315,457 for salaries and equipment for the clinic, and $17,560 for building improvements. Staff will be hired at the midpoint of the salary range because of the relative complexity of services nurses and physician’s assistants will perform.

The main clinic will be located in the basement of the UBS building on 11th Street (formerly the tax office), with plans for clinic staff to periodically visit other county offices and facilities at the Del Valle and Airport Boulevard sites.

Mansour said other governments in Texas have used the clinic approach to cutting health care costs. In Jefferson County (Beaumont), county officials were able to reduce costs and eliminate co-pays. Last year the City of Garland saw its increase in health care costs limited to five percent.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty endorsed the idea. “I think it’s worth giving it a try,” he said. “We need to find ways to diminish the out-of-control freight train that is health care expenditures.”

The court approved the clinic program on a 3-1 vote, with Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez voting no without comment. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner had left the meeting to attend a memorial service. Commissioners will evaluate the clinic’s effectiveness in September 2007 and decide whether to continue the program.

In other business, the commissioners heard a request from the Advanced Technology Development Facility (ATDF), a for-profit spin-off of Sematech, for a performance-based economic development agreement. Pike Powers, attorney for Sematech, and Bob Falstaff with ATDF proposed a 10-year tax abatement agreement with the county similar to agreements already in the works with the City of Austin and the Del Valle Independent School District. ATDF provides test wafers for Sematech and other manufacturers, and is expected to attract several related nanotechnology businesses to the Austin area. Powers told commissioners that the company is projected to have a $525 million impact on the Austin economy, creating 125 jobs at an average salary of $70,000. Despite its for-profit status, all excess revenues from the spin-off will be reinvested in Sematech, Falstaff said. The commissioners plan to post an item on next week’s agenda to act on the request.

ZAP reconsiders South Lamar zoning plan

After reconsideration by the Zoning and Platting Commission, several lots at the intersection of Lamar and Evergreen will go to the City Council with a recommendation for CS-MU-CO zoning. But the ZAP attached a lengthy list of conditions to its recommendation at the request o f Chair Betty Baker, who felt that CS zoning would be too intense for the area.

The Commission had previously recommended GR-MU-CO zoning for the area, but agreed to reconsider the case after representatives of some property owners said they would have objected to that classification, since some of the lots currently have CS zoning. One property owner has also initiated a site plan for development that would require the CS zoning category.

The entire case had started back in April, when agent Jim Bennett represented an elderly woman seeking to have her lot re-zoned as CS. While the original applicant has since passed away, her relatives were still requesting the higher zoning for the lot, realtor Tony Choban told commissioners.

“The reason we initially wanted to do it was, as you all acknowledged, it was a zoning mess,” Choban said. “It was more of a ‘zebra’ zoning than anything…a stripe of this and a stripe of that. Her heirs and the estate want to move forward with the process so that they would have the ability to market the property fairly…with a fully-established zoning imprint on top of the entire property, and not have the mess that was there originally.”

Baker sought a way to unify the zoning in the area without giving a blanket CS recommendation. “I have a real problem with this,” she said of the CS request. ”Lamar is so tremendously over-zoned. There’s not a CS use in this island right now, although a CS use might be coming along in a site plan.”

Her suggestion was carefully crafted to allow existing uses and provide an opportunity for the site plan case to move forward for city review. She called for zoning the region CS-MU-CO, with the conditional overlay allowing only GR uses. Uses normally allowed under CS would require a conditional use permit instead, and some uses permitted under CS would be disallowed entirely. Baker declined to make the motion she had suggested, but after some discussion Commissioner John Philip Donisi eventually made a motion according to Baker’s specifications that passed unanimously.

Family Eldercare grand opening . . . Lyons Gardens Senior Housing Community, a Smart Housing, 54-unit independent living community for senior citizens, will open to the public tomorrow. Mayor Will Wynn and other dignitaries will take part in the ribbon-cutting at 10:30am, 2720 Lyons Road (Webberville at Pleasant Valley Road) . . . Final week of quiet at City Hall. . . It’s hard to believe, but no meetings are posted on the city web site for today. The City Council is taking the week off, and the halls are quiet. Next week, all those items put on hold while the Council was concentrating on the budget will make for a very full agenda. The only items to note for tomorrow are the Board of Adjustment meeting and the Council Telecommunications Infrastructure Committee. Telecom committee members must make a recommendation to the rest of the Council about how to handle Channel 15—and they have to do it quickly. The contract runs out on September 30, the day of the next Council meeting. It seems likely they will agree to continue to work with ACTV, at least for a few months.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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