As the QueQue reported last October, at least one San Antonian was chilling a bottle of bubbly in anticipation of the Roberts Court’s Citizens United coup.
“Anytime that Susan Reed is unhappy, I’m happy,” an ebullient T.J. Connolly told the QueQue Thursday. District Attorney Reed convinced a grand jury to indict Connolly in January 2008 on felony and misdemeanor charges related to campaign contributions Connolly funneled through his employees when he was representing the ethically challenged Bexar Metropolitan Water District.
Connolly attorney Adam Cortez suggested Reed throw in the towel in a January 21 press release. The Citizens United ruling leaves in place a distinction between direct corporate expenditures, which it equates with speech, and contributions, which Public Citizen’s Scott Nelson says the Court has viewed more like “symbolically associating yourself with somebody else’s speech.” Cortez says that distinction doesn’t matter for two reasons: Because Connolly gave the money to a third party (his employees), it was more like an expenditure (the DA, notably, thinks it was more like a misdemeanor), and the applicable Texas law conflates expenditures and contributions.
“You apply that opinion, that law and that opinion, to our election code, and it should result in a finding that our election code in respect to corporations and labor unions is unconstitutional,” said Cortez, who added that the extraneous editorializing in the Citizens United opinion indicates the Court would welcome the opportunity to overturn the ban on direct corporate campaign contributions, too. Ahem.
Meantime, Cortez says, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was already reviewing the relevant Texas case law in anticipation of the Citizens United ruling, but the DA’s office may not wait on that. They could proceed with Connolly’s prosecution now (Connolly also plans to contest the charge that he acted as a corporation officer; see the QueQue, October 7, 2009) and let him seek redress if and when the state law is overturned. In any event, says White Collar Crime Division Chief Adriana Biggs, “The decision does not in any way impact our misdemeanor `case`, which is the contribution made in the name of another.”
For Connolly, the latter course would only add fuel to his claim that his prosecution has been a very expensive witch hunt. “What is lost on everybody and what nobody reports is that over $350,000 has been spent by the DA’s office ...” Connolly says. “The only constant is that we’re looking at a charge against T.J. Connolly for $1,250.”
Biggs just laughs at Connolly’s tally: “I have no idea how he even comes up with that. I don’t know how he would quantify what that would cost.”
The bill for rights
Last week’s ruling by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case frees corporations to spend money on ads, viral videos, pamphlets, phone banking, and just about any other kind of political campaigning activity. This, more than that Cosmo playboy’s surprise Massachusetts win, may doom much of President Obama’s Democratic agenda.
“Health care comes immediately to mind, doesn’t it?” says Scott Nelson, attorney for watchdog group Public Citizen. Nelson represented congressional sponsors of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law in the Citizens United arguments. “For example, the insurance industry was very much opposed to the government option in the House bill, and I think they’ll be putting money into races potentially where they see an opportunity to shore up their position on that issue. And that’s just one example.”
And the ruling’s potential effect on pending legislation is just one skirmish in a culture war that cuts to America’s founding principles.
“What `the Citizens United ruling` reflects is the idea that `corporations` are kind of interchangeable with individual human beings as parts of our political community,” Nelson says. “It really is a fallacy, I think, but it’s one that the majority of this court has clearly accepted.”
Before you roll out the welcome mat for our new fellow citizens, consider that they’ll be outspending your campaign expenditures by a bazillion-to-one.
“It wouldn’t take a very large percentage of the profits of the Fortune 500 to completely dwarf all political spending that currently goes on in all races at all levels of government,” Nelson says. Corporations, he adds, have a number of advantages over mere human citizens. “Unlike us, they don’t get sick and die; they can just carry on and accumulate money from generation to generation, and they have limits to their liability ... so if you then equate their right to spend money with their right to speech, you’ve kind of given them a right in an area where the playing field is not level.”
Obama called for a decisive response from Congress, and although the Court’s opinion doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room, there are a few key steps that lawmakers could take, such as requiring shareholders to approve corporate political expenditures.
“The interests of shareholders aren’t necessarily in line with the interests of corporate managers and boards,” Nelson notes. “Especially in this era when all of us have all our retirement in 401ks.”
Public Citizen has launched a campaign for a constitutional amendment that, Nelson says, “would try to restore the First Amendment to the primary task of protecting people and protecting the press and not necessarily the ability of big-money interests to throw dollars into our political races.”
On January 4, Ricardo Guzman got a haircut. The 43-year-old San Antonio resident wanted to look good when he turned himself in at court the next day for outstanding drug-possession charges. Guzman had no way of knowing that entrusting himself to Bexar County could play a part in his death three days later.
“He turned himself in on Tuesday, and Thursday is when the police came to my mother-in-law’s house and announced he had passed away,” said Kathy Ruiz, Guzman’s sister-in-law. “They wouldn’t give her any information as far as to what happened. The only thing they said was they found him on the floor and that he had passed. They wouldn’t let her go identify him. They said he had already been identified.”
Guzman died at 5:46 p.m. on January 7 while being held in a detox cell at Bexar County Jail, two days after his conviction on possession of a controlled substance.
According to jail officials, a unit officer was distributing dinner trays when he found Guzman, who was detoxing from heroin, unresponsive on the cell floor. Sheriff’s deputies would still not let Guzman’s mother, Lupe Guzman, see her son when she signed for his body at the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office the next day.
“She thought maybe there was a possibility it was a mistake. They said no, he’d already been identified by fingerprints and photos,” Ruiz said. Guzman was buried on Monday, January 11, with the family still not understanding why or how he died. “He went in fine one day and then he was dead the next. Obviously something happened and we just need answers, you know? What happened to him?”
David Fathi, U.S. program director for Human Rights Watch, said jails across the country have been found liable in similar deaths. “It’s a critical 24 or 48 hours immediately after a person is taken into a jail, and jails have to be aware of that and prepared to deal with this kind of urgent medical need. If the jail has reason to know if a certain arrestee is at risk of drug detox then they have an even stronger duty to take stronger action.”
A spokesperson for the Bexar County Jail said that while a cause of death has not been established, Guzman’s death is not being investigated as a possible suicide. A toxicology report is pending at the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office. As the Current reported in our January 20 issue, last year’s suicide deaths at Bexar County were triple the national average, and the highest they’ve been at the jail in at least a decade `see "Hang time,” online at sacurrent.com.`
Detainees at the jail receive comprehensive medical screenings to help determine drug dependence, mental impairment, and suicide risk. However, it is the actions that follow those screenings that matter, said Fathi. “You can have the world’s best screening program on paper, but it’s only as good as the people who implement it. Obviously, if it’s not being reliably done, or the screening’s being done but then nothing happens as a consequence, then you’re going to get bad outcomes.”
Houston hair-product magnate and gubernatorial candidate Farouk Shami was in town for a couple of days at the beginning of this week, and his message was this: Solar farms for every Texas city, and full employment by the end of his second year in office or he’ll give the state $10 million.
Fixing our highways alone (please don’t forget the rough streets of SA!) and beautifying them à la China would provide full employment, Shami told a roomful of Eastside business and community leaders at the newly opened Landmark Coffee Shop and Café on Montana and Hackberry. But he would also launch a green-energy economy, and, with everyone working and paying taxes, tax rates could be lowered.
Such was the candidate’s enthusiasm and up-from-my-bootstraps charisma, no one asked him how that equation would work in Texas, where we don’t have a state income tax.
Shami also expressed support for the critical role community colleges play in economic development, and suggested that attendance should be free. His platform, he said, is “Environment. Education. Ethics.”
Shami’s whirlwind tour of the East Side included a visit to the Friedrich Building on Commerce Street, one of the area’s most visible monuments to thwarted progress, and to St. Philip’s College, in hopes of encouraging Shami to build a production plant here as he has done in one of Houston’s poorest wards. Among the folks who turned out to meet him were Landmark owner Charles E. Williams Sr., Dan Martinez, chairman of the San Antonio Crime Coalition, and Chuck Slaughter, executive director of the National Poverty Reform Coalition. Missing: District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor and Mayor Julián Castro, who recently initiated a series of roundtable meetings to encourage development in District 2. Former District 2 council contender Ron Wright was stunned by their absence. (Castro spokesman Jaime Castillo said their office did not receive any notice of the event.)
“Whether or not Farouk wins — and it’s probably more on the not side — he’s a businessman,” Wright said. “He’s a billionaire on the East Side. We can’t even get Red McCombs over here.” (McCombs, by the way, is supporting former District 2 Councilwoman Sheila McNeil in her bid to unseat Precinct 4 County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson. This was a decidedly Adkisson crowd. Williams is hosting a fundraiser for Adkisson on February 4, and Wright said Adkisson “can do no wrong. He’s the East Side’s Bill Clinton, without the cheating.”)
Dressed in a white shirt with a small purple windowpane check, a dark-gray suit, cowboy boots, and a red Texas-themed power tie, the candidate sampled the Landmark’s over-easy eggs, biscuits, and grits as he fielded questions from the audience. The conversation heated up, in a friendly way, when Shami suggested that the East Side had to take responsibility for its problems. “Once you get rich you go to the white communities,” Shami said, to a chorus of “amen.” “The best-dressed people in the community are black people,” he added, echoing our host’s suggestion that you could find “some of the best rolling stock” parked in front of the churches on Sunday. Put that money into business development instead, Shami suggested.
One guest pointed out that there is, for instance, a documented history of discriminatory lending practices in minority communities, but Shami insisted “We all need to get out of the poor mind,” prompting Williams to recall a favorite bit of scripture: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”
“He’s an interesting person, and it’s unfortunate that people like that have a hard time getting elected,” Williams told the QueQue the next day. “Most people who become wealthy like that become Republican,” but Shami, he said, is still sincerely concerned about issues such as health care and jobs. Williams said he was also pleased to hear that Shami is serious about acquiring the Friedrich building.
Jim McNamara, president of the newly formed District 2 Community Congress, says that he’s not an official Shami supporter yet, but he believes Shami is “a man of the people, for the people.”
“My goal is to make him come back,” McNamara said. “Maybe we can build a relationship with a man who has demonstrated he can do something.” •