Mon May 25, 2015 8:09 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

As we pause today to pay respect to those who gave the “last full measure of their devotion” to their country, it is worth noting that the Texas House last night voted against cutting college benefits to military veterans.

Lawmakers are trying to maintain the so-called Hazlewood Act, which provides free college to military veterans. In 2009, it was expanded to include the children of veterans, who now dominate the program. According to an Associated Press report in the Austin American-Statesman the cost rose from $24.7 million in 2010 to $169 million last year. A bill passed by the Senate would have drastically reduced eligibility for the program.

 “How hypocritical that on the eve of Memorial Day, the day after our memorial day service, that this Legislature is trying to break its promise to veterans and their families,” said El Paso Democratic Rep. Cesar Blanco. He was referring to the House and Senate gathering in a special session Saturday to honor Texans killed in military service.


A watered-down version of the bill passed, allowing the children of veterans to obtain college benefits only if they have lived in the state for eight years. 

The Right Wing Stumbles On Abortion

After several legislative sessions of getting legislation passed restricting abortion, advocates found themselves stumbling over roadblocks on Sunday.


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Sun May 24, 2015 10:41 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Roscoe Dean Jr.A Georgia state senator named Roscoe Emory Dean Jr. and a small town city manager named Thomas Bigley taught me the real dangers to democracy of dark money and of leaving prosecutions of corrupt officials up to their local district attorneys. Roscoe and Tom tried to raise $10 million from Colombian drug lords to finance Dean’s campaign for governor.

My experiences from covering Dean’s corruption has made me disappointed in the various “ethics reforms” bouncing around the Texas Legislature this year. The reforms often are petty and political, while others are designed to turn legislators and state officials into a special class of people not subject to the same laws as everyone else in the state. And as much as I dislike so-called dark money, don’t expect an ethics bill that includes its disclosure to get past Governor Greg Abbott. As a Texas Supreme Court justice in 1998, Abbott wrote the opinion protecting donors to political groups from being subject to disclosure.


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Thu May 21, 2015 12:19 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

A new report in the Houston Chronicle discloses that higher-education critic Jeff Sandefer gave $200,000 to the American Phoenix Foundation, but he wants his money back because he does not like the group’s hidden camera investigation of legislators and says the money was not used for educational puposes as he expected. 

Reached for comment Thursday, Sandefer said he was not aware of the group’s plan to secretly film lawmakers and was unhappy with his investment after he received no feedback on how the group was using his money.

“I was unaware that they were planning to film politicians. Our intent was that they were going to train journalists,” Sandefer said. “We were unhappy with a lack of progress in training journalists and asked for the money back. And we did not receive any money back.”

Wed May 20, 2015 9:43 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

The lobby has spent the following totals this session on state legislators, their staff and other state officials, as well as family members.

$1.8 million on food and meals

$147,000 on entertainment

$184,000 on gifts.

Some of this spending is on receptions or lobbyists delivering food to legislative offices, but reporting requirements are so weak that it really is impossible to know who is receiving this largess. The links go to PDF documents on a download from the Texas Ethics Commission. To explore further on your own, click here. 

Ethics reform was a major item for Governor Greg Abbott, but it appears to be stuck and about to die.

If any lobbyists or groups that are listed in the above reports want to comment to explain their spending, please, feel free. 

Tue May 19, 2015 2:15 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

Hannah and Joe

At age 19, Hannah Giles became a rock star of the conservative movement after she and provocateur videographer and conservative activist James O’Keefe posed as a prostitute and her pimp to run a 2009 hidden-camera sting on the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN. Republicans often accused the left-leaning organization of committing voter fraud, and the Giles/O’Keefe videos seemed to show ACORN workers were encouraging them to set up a child prostitution ring. Official investigations in three states found no criminal wrongdoing by ACORN workers and reported that the videos were heavily edited to put ACORN workers in the worst light. But the damage was done, ACORN lost both its government and private funding and went out of business. Giles’s husband later was arrested for attempting to enter U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu’s office disguised as a telephone repairman. They have been conservative activists in the past.

Giles and Basel afterward moved to Texas and set up the American Phoenix Foundation to promote investigative journalism by young conservative activists. Giles in speeches tells audiences that there is a need to bypass the mainstream media with investigations that “disrupt the narrative.” As part of that, they say they have hired 16 workers to use hidden cameras to investigate Texas legislators, an investigation that has angered both lawmakers and lobbyists.

Giles and her husband, Joseph Basel, sat down with me in the Texas Monthly offices for an hour this week to discuss their project and philosophy. My approach to the interview was to be a neutral solicitor of information so the readers can decide for themselves the motives behind Giles and Basel: Whether this is a pure investigation; is intended to oust House Speaker Joe Straus’s conservative allies; is a real scandal of lobbyists and legislators; or, whether the Texas Capitol’s legislators, lobbyists and journalists have all just been punked. We’ll know if the first video is released in June.

To make reading easier, I have broken the interview into topical parts. I have tried to be as light-handed as possible in the editing for brevity and to increase the clarity of my questions.

Continue reading this item for the first part: Disrupting the Narrative. The other parts are:

The Failings Of The Flesh 

Hannah Giles Links to Dan Patrick, Bettencourt 

The American Phoenix Foundation Watchers 

The Balance of Power

Disillusioned With Conservatives 

Faith And Freedom

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