Investigative Report

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Judge, Commissioners Face Token Opposition

Posted Saturday October 23, 2010 12:13pm
Travis County Judge, Commissioners
Face Token, Underfunded Opposition

Research Provides Detailed Background
Information on All Eight Candidates

Investigative Research by Jacob Cottingham
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

Editor’s Introduction:  As we did with our investigative research for Hays County candidates published October 19, The Austin Bulldog is again stepping off the beaten path of how to cover an election. We point you to some of the stories written by other publications, but we also provide detailed information that journalists seldom take the time to dig up and assemble.

Rather than selectively quote from our background research, our approach is to use an extensive, organized plan to find, copy, and publish source documents that you can explore to form your own conclusions about people seeking elective office.

We’ve dug into the public records and published what was found, to include voter registration and voter history; personal financial statements, campaign finance reports, business records, property records, service on boards, key staff, spouses, web pages, and links to news stories. For some candidates we also found track records for previous bids for public office, State Bar profiles for attorneys, and real estate broker and mortgage broker licenses.

Incumbents face weak opposition
What becomes glaringly obvious in reviewing all the documents assembled by The Austin Bulldog is that the three incumbent Democrats on the Travis County Commissioners Court will apparently have little to fear when the polls close on November 2.

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, who has held this position since 1999, is being challenged by Republican Mike McNamara, who has raised a single $100 contribution and spent a total of $1,308 on his campaign. Most of that, $1,250, was to pay his filing fee. Libertarian Mark Tippetts, also running for county judge, has raised nothing and spent nothing.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, who won her post in 2006, is opposed by Libertarian Matthew Finkel, who has neither raised nor spent any money on his campaign. Also running against Eckhardt is Republican David A. Buttross II, who vowed to raise no more than $500.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez has held this office since 1995. She staved off a strong challenge from former Austin City Council Member Raul Alvarez to win this year’s Democratic Primary. Since then, she has missed months of meetings due to open heart surgery and hasn’t attended a full meeting since April, according to a report in the Austin American-Statesman. In the general election, she faces only Libertarian David Dreesen, who hasn’t raised or spent any money.

Buttross a political anomaly

Most rich folks who vie for public office spend sizeable chunks of their own money doing so. Farouk Shami, a Palestine-born Houston businessman, pledged to spend $10 million of his own money in the 2010 Democratic Primary. Tony Sanchez, the West Texas businessman, paid out-of-pocket a reported $60 million for his doomed 2002 Democratic gubernatorial bid, in which he got 40 percent of the vote in losing to Rick Perry.

Buttross is wealthy, too. How wealthy is questionable, but one of his websites claims he owns a $50 million real estate portfolio, with $20 million in real estate notes and $30 million in real estate consisting of office buildings, apartment complexes, residential properties, grocery stories, warehouses, hospitals, hotels, and churches.

Our research connected him and his family to 19 separate businesses and 33 properties, most in Travis County, but also in Bastrop, Bexar and Williamson counties, with a total market valuation of $17.4 million, according to appraisal district records.

His home in West Austin, according to the Travis Central Appraisal District, is valued at nearly $1.9 million.

Yet Buttross does not risk his personal funds to further his political ambitions, or even bother to raise much.

Patient Privacy Sacrificed as State Agency Sells Data

Posted Sunday September 26, 2010 4:49pm
Updated Thursday September 30, 2010 11:06am
Hospital Patient Privacy Sacrificed as
State Agency Sells or Gives Away Data

Technology Used by For-Profit Companies
Strips Away Inadequate Layers of Security

Investigative Report by Suzanne Batchelor
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

Maybe you, like so many others, couldn't get away on vacation this summer. Never mind. If you were a patient in a Texas hospital in the past ten years, the intimate details of your hospital stay made the trip for you. This could be your souvenir: “My hospital story went to Colorado, Arizona, California, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Texas, and maybe my employer, and all I got was—heck, not even a T-shirt.”

Let’s say your spouse suffered a heart attack three years ago, was successfully treated at a Texas hospital, and today gratefully eats a Mediterranean diet. You might be surprised to learn that the intimate details of that hospital stay—not just the diagnosis, surgeries, and who paid the bill, but your spouse’s date of birth, gender, and address—were sold by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The detailed story of that hospital stay now sits in computers across the country.

The data about hospital inpatients that DSHS collects and distributes is invaluable in public-health and medical research, such as a study of children with asthma in the Rio Grande Valley. But just as often it is non-physicians who use, sell, and re-sell hospital-patient data again and again, generating profit and imperiling personal privacy.

The same patient-data files are sold or given to trade groups, lobbyists, businesses, and even anonymous downloaders. All without your consent.

City Attorney’s Performance Evaluations

Posted Wednesday September 1, 2010 1:56pm
Updated Sunday September 5, 2010 1:15pm
City Attorney’s Performance
Evaluations Finally Made Public

But Questions Arise Concerning
Information Deleted from Evaluations

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

Georgetown City Attorney Mark Sokolow was tenacious about trying to keep his performance evaluations from being released. The Austin Bulldog filed an open records request for copies of these evaluations on May 16, 2010.

Mark SokolowSokolow stated his case for withholding his evaluations in his May 28 letter to the Attorney General and, when he got a decision he didn’t like, he filed a lawsuit to contest the decision—without asking the City Council for permission.

He could have lost his job over this and, as reported by The Austin Bulldog on August 24, there was evidence that powerful Republican officials and ordinary citizens alike were fed up with the negative publicity being generated by Sokolow's actions and were calling for his dismissal.

Instead, the Georgetown City Council on August 24 voted 7-0 to direct him to drop the lawsuit and release his performance evaluations, minus information the Texas Attorney General ruled may be withheld for attorney-client privilege.

George GarverAfter the council meeting that night, Mayor George Garver told The Austin Bulldog that in the closed-door executive session, the council decided to devise a standard way of evaluating the performance of not only the city attorney but that of the city manager and city secretary, all of whom report directly to the council.

Tommy GonzalesOn August 25, Council Member Tommy Gonzales told The Austin Bulldog that the city lacks a good method of formally evaluating the work of these key city officials. “No expectations have been set, and no goals or objectives either,” he said. “We're trying to find the best way to protect Georgetown and be fair to all parties concerned.”

Deletions raise questions

The Austin Bulldog received Sokolow’s performance evaluations August 25, seven pages in all. Some of the information on every page has been redacted (blacked out).

Community Newspapers in Fierce Competition

Independents Survive Against Cox-Owned Papers, Upstart 'Community Impact' Carving a New Niche At first glance, Austin seems the typical modern American two-newspaper town: a mid-sized...

Hidden in Plain Sight

Posted Sunday August 15, 2010 1:41pm
Human Trafficking and Slavery in Central Texas

Investigative Report by Shelley Seale
©The Austin Bulldog 2010

The boy was 16 years old. His sister was 14. They had run away from an abusive home in Oregon and somehow ended up in Texas. The siblings first came to the attention of authorities when “David,” the brother, was arrested for prostitution and drug possession. Severe health problems required him to be transferred from jail to the university hospital in San Antonio.

There, David’s attending physician was appalled by the extent of injuries she discovered. In addition to being malnourished and exhibiting multiple old injuries that could only have resulted from years of chronic abuse, he suffered from significant fresh, internal injuries that required surgery to resection his bowels. Once he was treated and stabilized, David was scheduled to be reincarcerated, but the doctor couldn’t, in good conscience, send him back to prison. She knew David’s injuries were not self-inflicted or accidental—all the signs showed he had been brutally victimized.

Leticia Van de PutteThat day in 2006, the telephone rang on the desk of State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio). The senator, who is currently serving her fifth term, was aware of human trafficking related to border smuggling and she was already working on legislation to address it when she took the call that would forever change her perception of the issue.

“I don’t know who else to call,” David’s doctor told the senator, who revealed details about the boy’s life leading up to his arrest. He and his sister had both been targeted by exploiters who coerced them into prostitution through psychological manipulation, physical violence, and forced drug use. The trump card was his sister; the abusers threatened to hurt her if David resisted or tried to flee.