Thursday, January 10, 2008

TxDOT Critics Named to Sunset Review Commission-

By Martha Estes - Jan. 9, 2007
FYI: about the Commission
The Commission includes twelve members. The lieutenant governor and the speaker each appoint one public member and five members from their respective chambers. They also appoint alternating chairs and vice chairs for two-year terms. Legislative members serve four-year terms and public members serve two-year terms.

The Sunset process works by setting a date on which an agency will be abolished unless legislation is passed to continue its functions. This creates an opportunity for the Sunset Commission and the Legislature to study each agency closely and make fundamental changes to its mission or operations if necessary. This includes holding public hearings and issuing a final report of findings with recommendations as to whether the reviewed state agency's mandate will be renewed or expired.

Agencies are typically reviewed every twelve years and up to 30 agencies can go through the Sunset process each legislative session. Some of the agencies up for review this term are the Texas Department of Agriculture, the Texas Department of Insurance, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Office of State-Federal Relations, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Youth Commission.

Also FYI: about the Members
On October 9, 2007 Speaker Tom Craddick (Midland) announced the appointments of #1 Rep. Linda Harper-Brown (Irving) and #2 Rep. Carl Isett (Lubbock) and the reappointment of #3 Ike Sugg of San Angelo, a public member of the Commission. Isett will serve as chair of the Commission.
#4 Rep. Lois Kolkhorst (Brenham), #5 Rep. Ruth McClendon Jones (San Antonio), and #6 Rep. Dan Flynn (Van) are members serving the last two years of their four-year terms (2009). Before Rep. Kolkhorst's prominent role in the opposition to the TTC footprint in the 2007 Legislative Session she was the expected Chair for the Sunset Commission.

Note: We need to keep in mind that Sen. Hegar carried the battle in the Senate for the Eminent Domain/Private Property Rights bill # 2006 to protect property owners in Condemnation. It had great support in both chambers and was vetoed by Perry.

Read more at Working for Accountable Government

TxDOT critics appointed to key state commission
By Will Lutz - The Dallas Blog - Tue, Jan 8, 2008

Rep. Linda Harper-Brown (Irving) and Rep. Carl Isett (Lubbock)Rep. Linda Harper-Brown (Irving) and Rep. Carl Isett (Lubbock by Will Lutz
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst today announced his appointments to the Sunset Advisory Commission, and his appointments could spell trouble for the current brass at the Texas Department of Transportation.

Dewhurst appointed the following people: #1 Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy), #2 Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa (D-McAllen), and #3 Michael Stevens as a public appointee. Dewhurst designated Hegar as the vice chairman of the commission -- the lead Senator on the Sunset Advisory Commission. The appointments are important because the Sunset Advisory Commission is scheduled to review the often controversial Texas Department of Transportation in 2009.

Hegar made stopping the corridor one of the key themes of his successful Senate race in 2006.

Stevens is known for his work on the Governor's Business Council and for chairing the council's Transportation Task Force. The Task Force released a report critical of Department of Transportation's estimated costs of building roads in metropolitan areas.

The Sunset Advisory Commission was originally created to determine if state agencies needed abolition or consolidation. But its mandate has since been expanded to examine how to improve the structure of state agencies. The commission's recommendations become drafted in bill form and then those bills are considered by the Legislature in the next legislative session.

Hegar, Stevens, and Hinojosa join #4 Sens. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville), #5 Kim Brimer (R-Arlington), and #6 Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) who are serving the last two years of their four-year terms. Hegar and Hinojosa were appointed to four-year terms, and Stevens was appointed to a two-year term. They join six appointees of the House speaker on the commission."I truly appreciate the willingness of all three of these individuals to serve on this important commission," Dewhurst said. "I know each of them will provide knowledgeable and thought-provoking contributions as the Sunset Advisory Commission undertakes the review of some of our most important state agencies."
Read more in the Dallas Blog

Ashcroft Deal Brings Scrutiny in Justice Dept.

By PHILIP SHENON - The New York Times - January 10, 2008
WASHINGTON — When the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey needed to find an outside lawyer to monitor a large corporation willing to settle criminal charges out of court last fall, he turned to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, his onetime boss. With no public notice and no bidding, the company awarded Mr. Ashcroft an 18-month contract worth $28 million to $52 million.

That contract, which Justice Department officials in Washington learned about only several weeks ago, has prompted an internal inquiry into the department’s procedures for selecting outside monitors to police settlements with large companies.

The contract between Mr. Ashcroft’s consulting firm, the Ashcroft Group, and Zimmer Holdings, a medical supply company in Indiana, has also drawn the attention of Congressional investigators.

The New Jersey prosecutor, United States Attorney Christopher J. Christie, directed similar monitoring contracts last year to two other former Justice Department colleagues from the Bush administration, as well as to a former Republican state attorney general in New Jersey.

Officials said that while there had been no accusations of wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Christie or Mr. Ashcroft, aides to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey were concerned about the appearance of favoritism.

Mr. Mukasey, a former federal judge who was sworn in as attorney general in November, has vowed to remove political considerations from decision-making at the department in the wake of a series of scandals under his predecessor, Alberto R. Gonzales.

Mr. Ashcroft was awarded the contract last fall at the direction of Mr. Christie as part of his office’s settlement of criminal accusations against Zimmer Holdings and four smaller firms accused of paying kickbacks to doctors.

A spokesman for Mr. Ashcroft said that the Ashcroft Group had not lobbied for the contract but was pleased by the referral.

The disclosure of the monitoring agreement, in which Mr. Ashcroft’s fees are paid directly by Zimmer, prompted Democratic lawmakers from New Jersey to question if the contract was new evidence of political favoritism in the Bush administration’s long-embattled Justice Department.

Justice Department officials said the internal inquiry by the Criminal Division began several weeks ago with no public announcement.

Department officials said the review was expected to result this year in formal guidelines to prevent the appearance of conflicts in the choice of monitors to oversee out-of-court settlements reached between federal prosecutors and companies accused of wrongdoing.

In the Bush administration, federal prosecutors have increasingly relied on out-of-court settlements with large corporations in criminal investigations that in the past might have resulted in indictments and trials. The settlements often call for outside lawyers to be retained by the companies to monitor the agreements. The contracts call for the lawyers to monitor the company’s compliance with the settlements through financial audits and other types of internal investigations.

A new study by two Texas lawyers, Lawrence D. Finder and Ryan D. McConnell, found that the number of so-called deferred-prosecution or nonprosecution agreements between the department and large companies grew to 35 last year from 5 in 2003.

Often, the names of corporate monitors are not made public.
The internal inquiry started after Zimmer Holdings revealed in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission in late October that it had hired Mr. Ashcroft’s consulting firm, based in Washington, to monitor its settlement of criminal charges based on accusations of kickbacks to doctors involving the company’s knee and hip implants.

The firm said Mr. Christie had directed it to hire Mr. Ashcroft. Mr. Christie has acknowledged that he chose Mr. Ashcroft for the assignment. The disclosures in Zimmer’s filings about Mr. Ashcroft were first reported several weeks ago by The Star-Ledger of Newark and other New Jersey news organizations.

Mr. Christie directed similar contracts in settlements with other medical-supply companies to two other former Justice Department colleagues — David N. Kelley, the former United States attorney in Manhattan, and Debra Wong Yang, his counterpart in Los Angeles — and to David Samson, the former Republican attorney general in New Jersey.

In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Mr. Christie said he chose Mr. Ashcroft and the others for the monitoring assignments because they had impeccable legal credentials and he knew and trusted them.

“It’s really important that the working relationship between this office and the monitors is very, very close,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much work we do with these monitors.” He said he had selected Mr. Ashcroft to work with Zimmer, the largest of five companies in the criminal investigation, because “I knew he was somebody who understands these issues and would be taken seriously by the company as an authority figure.”

Mr. Christie has disputed accusations raised by Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey that it was a conflict of interest for him to direct large, no-bid contracts to former colleagues and friends, but he has referred those questions to the Justice Department in Washington.

Department officials said they had no formal comment but noted that the monitoring agreements were not given only to Republicans and that Mr. Christie’s recommendations of outside monitors in other large corporate investigations had been praised.

Although he was a prosecutor in the Bush administration, Mr. Kelley has registered as a Democrat in the past. Mr. Kelley, who has done legal work for The New York Times, did not respond to e-mail messages on Wednesday. Mr. Samson and Ms. Yang did not return phone calls.

The dollar value of the contracts obtained by Mr. Kelley, Ms. Yang and Mr. Samson is unclear, since the medical-supply companies they are monitoring have not revealed those details, suggesting that they are smaller than Mr. Ashcroft’s.

Under the settlements with the Justice Department, the companies negotiate the fees with the monitors themselves, a situation legal scholars say has the potential for abuse because companies might be overly generous to encourage leniency.

Department officials said that there were few internal guidelines for hiring independent monitors and that Mr. Christie was not required to seek approval from the Justice Department to name Mr. Ashcroft and the others and had not done so.
A spokesman for Mr. Ashcroft’s firm, Mark Corallo, said that Mr. Ashcroft was an obvious choice as a monitor.

“I know John Ashcroft, I know his capabilities,” Mr. Corallo said. “No matter what people think of his politics, he ran an unbelievably efficient operation at Justice as a manager. He understands the law. He understands how to manage an enormous organization.”

He said that Mr. Ashcroft knew nothing about the assignment until the possibility was raised by Mr. Christie, who was confirmed as United States attorney in 2002, shortly before Mr. Ashcroft was sworn in as attorney general. Mr. Christie had been a lawyer in private practice and a Republican fund-raiser in New Jersey.

Mr. Corallo said that Mr. Ashcroft’s firm had hired more than 30 employees and outside advisers, including accountants and lawyers, to oversee the monitoring contract and that Mr. Ashcroft had traveled to Indiana several times for the assignment.

“It’s taken a large personal commitment from him,” Mr. Corallo said, adding, “In coming months, people will realize that Chris Christie did exactly the right thing in choosing these folks to be monitors.”

In its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Zimmer said it had agreed to pay the Ashcroft firm a monthly fee of $750,000, and to reimburse it for expenses that were expected to total $150,000 to $250,000 a month.

Read more in The New York Times

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