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Investigative Report

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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.

Community Newspapers Alive and Well

Posted Wednesday August 4, 2010 10:51pm
Community Newspapers Locked in Fierce
Competition for Readers and Advertisers

Independents Survive Against Cox-Owned Papers,
Upstart 'Community Impact' Carving a New Niche
Investigative Report by Rob Patterson
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

At first glance, Austin seems the typical modern American two-newspaper town: a mid-sized city with a daily newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, and an alternative newsweekly, The Austin Chronicle. Focus more closely and a different newspaper landscape emerges.

The greater Austin area also boasts 15 community papers published from one to three times a week, and a five-year-old rapidly expanding chain of monthly papers, Community Impact Newspaper, that target seven local areas. Also in the mix are two weeklies for the African-American community, three Spanish-language weeklies, a South Asian community monthly, and a center city weekly, The Austin Times, that seems to largely fly under the radar.

Community Newspapers MapIn dire times of flagging circulation and sagging advertising dollars for print dailies, community newspapers remain one bright spot for print journalism. With 22 general audience community non-daily newspapers, and one small daily in Taylor, the Greater Austin area appears, by the numbers at least, to be rather well served by such publications.

Nine of those papers are owned by the same Cox Media Group as the American-Statesman, a subsidiary of the Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises Inc. Operating these 10 Austin-area newspapers under the same corporate roof raises obvious questions the editorial independence and local commitment of the nine community papers. These concerns first surfaced in 2000 when Cox purchased six of them—the Bastrop Advertiser, Lake Travis View, North Lake Travis Log, Pflugerville Pflag, Smithville Times, and Westlake Picayune—from Westward Communications. Concerns were elevated when Cox’s Austin Community Newspapers Group later bought the Round Rock Leader and started the Leander Ledger and Cedar Park Citizen.

Any fears that the Cox community papers might eschew or significantly compromise their local news mission under the same corporate umbrella as the Statesman have proven largely unfounded, though some observers do say the news coverage provided may not be all it could be.

The acquisitions and launching of papers by Cox has not created a juggernaut to destroy the area’s community media. Independently owned papers include the Oak Hill Gazette and West Austin News, both weeklies, and the twice-weekly Williamson County Sun. Also on the list of community papers are the twice-weekly Hill Country News, which covers Cedar Park and Leander, its Four Points News edition for the Lake Travis area, the Hutto News, and Taylor Daily Press. All four of these are part of the Taylor-based Granite Publications chain of 22 Texas community papers.

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Georgetown City Attorney Violates Charter

Posted Sunday July 11, 2010 2:54pm
Updated Monday July 12, 2010 12:12pm
City Attorney Sokolow Ignores City Charter,
Waives Requirement for Assistant
City Attorney to Have Municipal Experience


Is Hiring Council Member Pat
Berryman’s Friend That Important?

Investigative Report by Ken Martin

When it comes to hiring attorneys, the City of Georgetown just can’t seem to get it right.

First it violated the Texas Open Meetings Act in hiring City Attorney Mark Sokolow and failed to legally execute his contract.

Mark SokolowSokolow himself violated the Georgetown City Charter by hiring Assistant City Attorney Bridget Chapman without the City Council’s approval.

Section 5.06 of the Georgetown City Charter states that both the city attorney and assistant city attorney serve at the will of the council. The charter authorizes the city attorney to appoint his assistant but requires the City Council’s approval.

Chapman was hired effective April 19, 2010, at an annual salary of $76,907, according to the Personnel Action Form obtained by The Austin Bulldog through an open records request filed under the Texas Public Information Act.

City Attorney Sokolow did not respond to two messages left with his office on Friday, requesting an interview about this matter.

Mark Sokolow’s Competence in Question

Posted Monday June 14, 2010 7:01pm
Georgetown City Attorney's
Competence Called Into Question

His Contract Never Legally Executed,
His Support Nearly Nonexistent
Investigative Report by Ken Martin

Mark SokolowThe municipal legal career of Mark Sokolow has seen its ups and downs:

Up: In 1991, Sokolow was hired by the City of League City, Texas.

Down: In February 1996 he was fired as city attorney of League City; he returned the favor by suing the city.

Up: Despite getting canned by League City, he was hired the very next month as city attorney for the City of Port Arthur; a council member in Port Arthur when Sokolow was hired said the council wasn’t aware of what had happened in League City.

Down: Sokolow's lawsuit against League City was so flimsy it was dismissed without getting a trial.

Up: When Sokolow resigned last October to take the job of Georgetown’s city attorney, the Port Arthur city council handed him a hefty bonus.

Up: Sokolow was hired by the City of Georgetown and started work last October 19 for $125,000 a year.

Down: He is working for the City of Georgetown under a contract that was never legally executed.

Down: The Austin Bulldog reported on May 4 how Sokolow facilitated the illegal payment of $13,600 for Georgetown Council Member Pat Berryman last December.

Down: He screwed up a deal to buy property for city facilities, hacked off the school district and embarrassed the city he represents.

Up: After six months on the job the city council evaluated his performance and gave him a $5,000 raise.

Down: He has alienated numerous colleagues. Examples abound, as detailed below.

Down: City staff is rooting for his ouster, though they fear being fired if they speak up.

The defense rests: Sokolow declined to be interviewed for this story.


Hardball tactics blow up in his face
The city wanted to acquire land where it could build a new fire station, police station and storage yard. The most critical element was the new fire station, which was needed to meet response times on fire alarms on the west side of I-35.

The negotiation process for the targeted site had been underway for almost a year when Sokolow got involved. It had taken that long because of the necessity to coordinate the location of the city’s new fire station with an Emergency Services District, which provides fire protection outside the city limits. Settling the terms of a purchase agreement for the city’s tract was to be the final step in closing the deal.