Newsmonger: CNN's solar hit job, 'Gloves are off' in judge race

CNN's solar hit job

There was more confusion than worry when CNN producers began sniffing around San Antonio's historic 400 kilowatt power-purchase agreement between CPS Energy and South Korea-based OCI Solar Power three weeks ago. First heralded in January, CPS and OCI signed the deal this July, sealing the country's largest-ever solar project by a city-owned utility. Why the sudden interest, CNN?

Under the 25-year deal OCI will open a plant to manufacture solar panels and components, creating an estimated 800 permanent jobs with salaries of about $47,000 — a $100 million local investment scoring an annual payroll of about $40 million, CPS claims. By moving OCI's North American headquarters here from Atlanta, the city also hopes OCI can boost production beyond San Antonio's needs, selling solar to the North and South American markets.

But CNN wasn't interested in those details. In fact, it flat-out ignored them when it aired its 7-minute hit-job Friday night, headlined, "Rising Democratic star Mayor Julián Castro backs a deal that sends millions abroad." The crux of the story: Castro helped outsource San Antonio's solar dreams to South Korea, sending hundreds of millions of dollars overseas. CNN reporter Ted Rowlands went on to speculate CPS could have partnered with U.S. firms with more experience, and even hinted that Castro's October 2011 trips to South Korea and to a White House state dinner hosting the South Korean president were suspect.

"[CNN] seemed less interested in the terms of the agreement than in how the Mayor had been involved," said CPS spokeswoman Lisa Lewis, who was interviewed for the segment. "It's not the first time I've dealt with a reporter that had already made up their mind and just needed a quote to fill a hole."

CNN's Chicago bureau, where Rowlands is stationed, would not comment on the story by the Current's press deadline, but the story cites "multiple sources familiar with the bids" claiming OCI offered to sell solar to CPS for 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, while another consortium of U.S. companies offered a rate of 9.8-cents per kilowatt-hour. Yet, price per kilowatt-hour isn't everything, Lewis said, adding that other external costs impact the attractiveness of a bid, like the price of land for solar farms or the location of the manufacturing site. Lewis also said it's extremely unlikely anyone had access to pricing info for multiple companies that submitted bids — bids that were blind during the staff evaluation process. The details of each company's proposal are protected under confidentiality agreements, Lewis said. "This is the best company for San Antonio," she said. "The deal is right for the community. We're very pleased with the result."

CNN producers first contacted Castro spokesman Jaime Castillo three weeks ago. At first, Castillo got the impression CNN was interested in the nuts and bolts of the solar project. Then emails from CNN got more urgent and aggressive, he said. Castro couldn't be reached for comment.

CNN, Castillo said, was most fixated with Castro's travel months before the OCI deal announcement. On October 11, 2011 Castro traveled to South Korea for the Urban Environmental Accords summit on green cities, a trip that had been scheduled in advance that April, Castillo said. Castro cut the trip short to attend a White House dinner honoring the South Korean president on October 13, 2011. Castro had turned down a state dinner invitation from the White House the year prior, Castillo said. "That's why he left South Korea early. … You don't turn down a state dinner twice."

Castillo met with CNN's Rowlands at a Houston Street Starbucks recently to discuss the issue and to show CNN details of Castro's travel itinerary from 2011, Castillo said. "That's when it hit me. [CNN] had the impression [Castro] was invited to these secret meetings or something" with OCI, Castillo said, insisting Castro never met with OCI officials until after the firm had already been recommended by CPS following its selection process.

Nonetheless, CNN's Rowland's insinuated, without any sources, that the trips and OCI deal were linked. CNN also flashed a mugshot of the wrong Castro (using Joaquin instead of Julián) across the screen. "[CNN] said the Mayor was too busy to meet with them. That pissed me off somewhat," Castillo said. "He wasn't too busy. I freakin' kept him away from them."

Solar San Antonio executive director Lanny Sinkin says he was interviewed at length by Rowlands in the weeks before CNN aired its piece, though the network included none of it in the final segment. "During the interview I talked about the 800 jobs, the $100 million investment, bringing manufacturing to San Antonio, all those things. [CNN] wanted none of it," Sinkin said. "I kept hearing two things from [Rowlands]. One, 'How come Korea companies won and not U.S. companies?' And two, 'What about the mayor's trip to Korea and the trip to the White House?'"

Sinkin now calls the CNN piece "deliberately irresponsible. "[Rowlands] was even willing to imply that there was some kind of under-the-table deal between the Mayor, OCI, the president of Korea, and Obama, with absolutely no evidence," Sinkin said. "This was a political hit piece."

'Gloves are off' in judge race

With Election Day in less than two weeks, we're getting some frank talk out of Kevin O'Connell, who's fighting to de-bench longtime District Judge Mary Roman.

O'Connell, a Republican and the first real challenge Roman has faced in her 20 years presiding over Bexar County's 175th State District Court, says he and the judge gave short pitches before a North Side homeowners association last Tuesday. Roman was brutal. "She went off, cherry picking cases I've worked, calling me a 'yes man' for the defense bar," said O'Connell, a veteran prosecutor with the Bexar County District Attorney's Office. "She said I'm bought and paid for by the defense bar. … [DA Susan Reed] would have fired me a long time ago if that was true."

O'Connell, seriously outmatched by the Roman campaign's bank account and the campaign signs she's posted across the city, has so far failed to focus the race on two very public scandals that have put Roman (who failed to return calls for comment from the Current) on the defense perhaps now more than ever.

In 2007, the state's Fourth Court of Appeals delivered a scathing opinion saying Roman botched the sensational Asel Abdygapparova case, ordering a new trial for the convicted killer, now set for this December. Roman didn't face a challenger in 2008's general election. Abdygapparova, a Kazakhstan native and UTSA foreign-exchange student convicted for her role in the abduction and murder of Rosa Rosado, didn't get a fair trial, the justices ruled. They wrote: "This is clearly a case in which the absence of an impartial trial judge on the bench infected the entire trial process, robbing Abydgapparova of her basic protections and undermining the ability of the criminal trial to reliably serve its function as a vehicle for the determination of guilt or innocence."

"The Fourth Court was explicit in their opinion that one does not get a fair trial in Judge Roman's court," O'Connell said. His new campaign line? "I understand the difference between being a prosecutor and a judge. It's not clear Judge Roman does." Ouch.

Meanwhile, Roman's had to fight an ethics complaint from the local probation officer's union, filed last year with the state's Judicial Conduct Commission, claiming she used her office to score special treatment for her daughter. "You just can't do that, not when you're wearing a robe," O'Connell said.

O'Connell charges Roman runs her court like a "fiefdom," and has a reputation for being vindictive. "I've had numerous lawyers approach me and say, straight-up, they can't donate to my campaign for that very reason," he claimed. Hence the hard-time fundraising, he says. After winning the May primary, O'Connell had just over $2,500, while Roman sat on over $30,000. O'Connell raised $10,950 since the summer, Roman raised $16,625, according to campaign finance forms filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.

While O'Connell insists "signs don't win elections," and points to his backing from the local police and fire unions, he says he plans to hammer Roman's apparent transgressions. "Before last night, I didn't want to focus on how bad she is, but on what I can bring to the table," he bristled when reached by phone. "Frankly, as of last night, the gloves are off as far as I'm concerned."

It's about time.

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