Newsmonger: DiGiovanni ethics breakdown, War on Planned Parenthood hurt family planning in Texas, Radioactive waste en route from Vermont to Texas 

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DiGiovanni ethics breakdown

Did Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni grease the wheels at City Hall for a developer who just helped him land a new job? According to City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Mayor Julián Castro, and a department staffer who spoke before Council to ease their worries last month: no. But the circumstances leading up to the long-anticipated $305 million contract to expand the Convention Center, the city's largest ever construction project, briefly clouded discussions at City Hall when Council moved to approve Hunt-Zachry, a partnership between national builders Hunt Construction and local Zachry Corp, as contractor for the multimillion-dollar project.

As Deputy City Manger, DiGiovanni spearheaded the city's search committee that eventually picked Zachry for the project. During that process this summer, DiGiovanni was also approached by Centro Partnership, a public-private partnership dedicated to boosting downtown development, to be the nonprofit's new CEO, the Express-News first reported. As vice chairman of Centro, construction firm owner David Zachry played a central role in negotiating and approving DiGiovanni's new job with the nonprofit. The week after DiGiovanni sealed the deal with Centro, his committee named Hunt-Zachry the chosen firm for the Convention Center deal.

Not only does it not pass the smell test, it would seem DiGiovanni broke the city's ethics rules when, instead of stepping aside, he stayed on the Convention Center search committee. The city's ethics rules dictate when a city employee should step aside from the decision-making table in order to avoid the "appearance and risk of impropriety" — including whenever a city employee has sought or been offered a job from someone or some business with a financial stake in that employee's actions at City Hall. DiGiovanni obviously failed to do that. Since being outed, DiGiovanni has toed the line between regretful and defensive, saying publicly he's sorry for the mistake. But he argues in an eight-page letter he sent to the city's Ethics Review Board last week that he did nothing wrong. "The line between me, Centro, Mr. Zachry, Zachry Corp., and the Hunt/Zachry team is too attenuated to support an expectation of misconduct, except in persons inclined to find one," DiGiovanni wrote. "Likewise, the line is too faint to support an inference that I knew my participation on the evaluation committee was reasonably certain to result in some unspecified influence on my job with Centro." (Emphasis his.)

"With government it's always important to maintain the appearance of propriety," said St. Mary's law professor Gerald Reamey, who studies government ethics policies. "The fact that there's the appearance of impropriety and that people wonder what really happened is strong indication the process failed this time. … It could make bidders for government contract work feel there's no point in trying to obtain contracts because there's unfair competition. That's bad for all of us."

Mayor Castro and Sculley both chalked it up to a "learning experience," though Castro is now working to expand the city's ethics language to eliminate the shades of gray DiGiovanni is now styling.

War on Planned Parenthood hurt family planning in Texas

Texas lawmakers hoped to stick it to Planned Parenthood when they axed two thirds of the state's family planning budget last year. Those cuts are already cutting away the safety net for low-income women across the Texas, resulting in over 50 closed clinics and reduced access to women's health care, according to a report last week from the New England Journal of Medicine. The report is based on research of the Texas Policy Evaluation Project at University of Texas' Population Research Center. According to the authors' research, the funding cuts have already worked to restrict access to the most effective forms of birth control, and women who have care are now purchasing fewer contraceptives per visit, which can result in lower contraceptive "continuation rates" and increased unplanned pregnancies.

San Antonio is already feeling the impact. University Health System announced last week it's closed four of its eight clinics that provide family planning after its annual state funding was cut from $2 million to $600,000. The closures mean even more local low-income women will likely go without preventative services like cervical cancer screens. The cost of well-woman checks have increased since the cuts and closures, the authors also note, meaning preventative health screenings "remain out of reach for some of the poorest women."

Radioactive waste en route from Vermont to Texas

Radioactive waste from Vermont's lone nuclear reactor began the long trip to West Texas recently, the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission announced last week from Vermont. Eventually, more than 2 million cubic feet of toxic and radioactive trash will be shipped across the country and across Texas to a western corner of Andrews County a few miles from the New Mexico state line to be buried by Waste Control Specialists, a for-profit company owned by Dallas billionaire and prominent Perry supporter Harold Simmons. Though originally designated for compact members Texas and Vermont (and Maine, which dropped out after years of trouble getting the facility licensed), last year the TLLRWDCC voted to allow 36 other states access to the dump on a case-by-case basis. Disposal operations began earlier this year, but the company has been allowed to store hazardous and radioactive materials for years. San Antonio's Emergency Management Coordinator said that such trucks are limited to 410 and 1604 and cannot cross the city on US 281 or I-35, but other than that they are essentially free to run on any road in the state as long as the contractor shipping the waste determines it to be the "shortest and safest" route possible, said Texas Department of State Health Services spokesperson Chris Van Deusen. "They may bypass cities, go around on the beltway or whatever … they don't want to get bogged down in traffic like everyone else."

Or, if we know our 1604, that could mean getting bogged down in traffic like everybody else.

So far, WCS reports they have had no incidents. But the odds will narrow some should WCS's "one-stop-shop" for industry's "hazardous, toxic and radioactive waste needs," as company CEO Bill Lindquist describes the outfit, expands as they are reportedly wont to do. "Lindquist said that they might be going to the Legislature to ask for increased limits," said Karen Hadden of the advocacy outfit SEED Coalition, who participated in a recent phone conference hosted by the TLLRWDCC. "They seem to think that they need more imported reactor waste." Certainly one of the "environmental extremists" referred to a WCS video, Hadden added: "It's incredibly agonizing to see a company that would dump radioactive waste on our state call anyone who wants a public hearing an extremist. It demonstrates the kind of company we're dealing with here."

Hadden and others are working to develop dedicated radioactive waste routes established in Texas.

Oil & gas boom has Railroad Commission scrambling

More than 9,000 new oil and gas wells have been drilled across Texas so far this year. The breakneck pace of the state's burgeoning energy sector is keeping regulators at the Railroad Commission of Texas busy. Too busy, in fact, to inspect most of those wells to ensure they were drilled safely and securely, according to a new report from the environmental advocacy group Earthworks. "Several state oil and gas agencies suggest that wells be inspected at least once during the drilling stage, and that active wells be inspected at least once per year," according to the report "Breaking All the Rules: The Crisis in Oil and Gas Regulatory Enforcement."

"Texas is nowhere near that bar."

Released last week, the study of oversight in the oil and gas sector examines policies in Texas and five other states over 10 years. The report found that the number of Texas Railroad Commission inspectors is not keeping pace with the number of oil and gas wells being developed amid a hydraulic fracturing boom across South and North Texas.

Between 1993 and 2011, the number of wells producing oil and gas across Texas increased by 24,000. There were 20 fewer inspectors on the job last year than in 1993. The current 97 full-time inspectors are overwhelmed by their task of monitoring more than 270,000 active wells, according to the report. Each inspector is responsible for more than 2,700 wells — up from 2,000 in 1993. Even when the Railroad Commission does report a violation, it is rarely acted upon, according to the study. So far this year, only 2 percent of violations were referred to the Railroad Commission's enforcement staff. "Penalties are so weak that it is cheaper for violators to pay the penalty than comply with the law," the report says. The average penalty this year was about $1,000.

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