Saturday, February 28, 2009

Modern Protest, Houston-Style

So black and Hispanic leader types want their respective peoples to boycott the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo on the night that Caucasian country singer Clint Black is scheduled to perform.

That should be wildly successful, but isn't it a little like calling in sick on your day off?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

But Seriously: Who's the Daddy?

We noticed that our mayor gingerly sidestepped responsibility for that obviously knuckleheaded proposal to subsidize the credit-worthiness of would-be Houston homebuyers with funds originally set aside for Ike-necessitated repairs. According to Wednesday's follow-up by the Chronicle's Carolyn Feibel
While the mayor is responsible for what appears on the council's weekly agenda, White placed the genesis of the idea with the city's Department of Housing & Community Development. He said the staff member's intentions were good.

"As the mortgage markets are collapsing, banks are no longer buying mortgages, then people who can afford a house are not able to buy a house and that's what the staff was trying to address," White said.
Setting aside the question of whether this is a matter a municipal government should "address"---it's not, but let's move on---and ignoring the faulty characterization of the would-be beneficiaries of the now-junked (?) program as "people who can afford a house," we must wonder aloud why White seems to be escaping blame for this hastily aborted (?) fiasco. The Chronicle editorial page, in a recently unprecedented display of timeliness, administered a quick tsk-tsking to the "World Class Folly" but in doing so turned uncharacteristically "playful":
Maybe, it was just some smarty-pants staffer's idea of an April Fool's joke played a month early.
No, please, let's give blame where blame is due: White's the mayor, making housing in the inner-city "affordable" has been one of his high-profile initiatives, and the way we've always understood it the mayor has an agenda director whose job is to do what that title suggests (direct the council agenda). The agenda director works for the mayor. We can only assume that Councilwoman Pam Holm, in blaming the proposal's emergence on "poor leadership," was referring to the mayor, although that would be an unusually direct form of finger-pointing that would deserve the striking of a commemorative plaque. Maybe she was just talking about some anonymous, well-intentioned smarty-pants staffer.

In any case, Feibel's reporting---and by the way, these are the sort of stories you'll miss when the daily newspaper goes the way of the mastodon, miss as in "I miss my mommy" and miss as in you'll never hear about it---has turned a fertile bed for further inquiry. The reporter quotes Housing Director Richard Celli---he works for White, too, right?---saying that only one of 872 home-buying families for whom the city has provided down payments and closing costs during White's tenure has been foreclosed upon. Hmm. That seems to be an almost unbelievably salutary figure, one we assume is documented somewhere on paper. Beyond the technicality of foreclosure, though, we wonder how many of these families are actually iving in the houses they contracted to buy, and what their presence has done for the blocks where they've settled (admittedly a difficult question to qualify, but maybe it's just all good and if so props to the mayor, etc.).

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Stanford! Stanford! (Rah Rah Rah)

We have a confession, and we feel a little dirty making it: For the past week or so we have been in the thrall of a wickedly demonic force, a power that has rendered us all but helpless. You know what we’re talking about: that insatiable urge to learn every goddamn thing we can about Sir R. Allen Stanford and his financial legerdemain (which, according to Friday's Wall Street Journal, the Justice Department now believes was the result of a Ponzi scheme---shocking, no?)

The addiction is understandable: a “scandal” whose geographical coordinates include Mexia, Texas, Washington D.C., Galleria, Texas and the Caribbean island of Antigua and which has ensnared such diverse personages as Sir John Cornyn and Sir Johnny Damon has unmistakably high entertainment value (unless you were a, um, Stanford client) and is certainly deserving of attention. But we realized on Friday night that we might have a serious problem when we momentarily thought they were projecting Sir Al’s smiling visage on the Toyota Center’s Jumbo screen during a time out in the Rockets-Mavs game (on closer inspection it turned out to be only some contest winner or season ticket holder with a faint resemblance to the mustachioed financial genius).

We’re sure this will pass, shortly, and we can return to our normal late-night pursuits (sleeping the sleep of the just), but in the meantime we can’t get enough of that Stanford stuff, wherever it comes from and however “true” it may be. And we have many willing enablers.

The Houston Chronicle, which didn’t exactly hop right onto the story (its initial offering, buried inside the paper’s rapidly disappearing business section, was a reprint of the Feb. 13 New York Times story reporting the feds’ scrutiny of Stanford---at least they ran it on the same day), has recovered somewhat and is now assiduously squeezing every possible dollop of juice from the Stanford lemon by instituting its own Stanford Watch blog for the collection and distribution of Google-alerted news items regarding Mexia’s prodigal son. The newspaper, which just a couple of months ago wouldn’t spring to send a reporter to Denver for the crash of that Houston-bound Continental flight, even loosened the pursestrings to dispatch a lucky scribe to Antigua on a Stanford-spelunking mission. (The local paper produced an interesting and very readable profile of Sir Smilin’ Al in its Sunday editions, a story that answered one of the crucial questions regarding Stanford: whether he affects a British accent. [Answer: Yes, apparently he does!])

But the Stanford Watch blog is not the last word on all things Stanford---that distinction belongs to TPMuckraker, which as the true cognoscenti know has been nailing developments in the Stanford saga with a pleasing frequency, including digging up those pictures of Pete Sessions with Stanford in Antigua after the Dallas congressman’s office denied that he knew Sir Al.

Yes, this is a delicious turn of events, nicely illustrating the cozy corruption not only of Washington D.C. (the Times reported on Saturday that “Texas Republicans” single-handedly killed White House-backed and Stanford-opposed legislation to force banks to crack down on money-laundering) but also of the “financial advisory” racket. It appears that the Stanford M.O. was to spread around just enough gold-plated manure---“five-star” meals, trips to the Caribbean, sponsorship of sporting events, charitable donations, etc.---to impress the too-easily impressed and have them give him things (preferential treatment, their life savings ...).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Pynchon on Barthelme and Houston

Reviews of the new biography of Donald Barthelme (Michael Berryhill had one in Sunday's Chronicle, but we can't find it online so here's one from the Washington Post and a nice appreciation of the writer himself in Time) sent us back to the introduction Thomas Pynchon wrote for a posthumous collection of Barthelme stories that was published about 10 years ago (if we remember correctly). Pynchon’s essay was helpful in calling our attention to the general pissed-offedness that pervaded Barthelme’s works---a sense of grievance tempered by his “hopeful and unbitter heart,” as Pynchon wrote. (We are certainly no expert on Barthelme, having left unfinished many if not most of his pieces that we waded into, although some thrummed a deep chord---we’re thinking especially of that exquisite sentence Barthelme titled Sentence, which is in some collection or another of his stories.) But the essay is most notable for the way Pynchon bullseyes the Houston of the 1950s and early ’60s and the mark if left on Barthelme, who was unable to shake free of his hometown until he was past 30 and was to return here later, and die here (Pynchon's off on a "fact" or two but nails the essence):
On the principle that you can take the boy out of the country but not vice versa, Houston, Texas, his hometown before New York, must have caused Barthelme some lively internal discomfort over the course of a love-hate affair with the place that went on, it seems, for most of his life. From what I remember of Houston at about that same time, it could have provoked the one emotion just as easily as the other, and in Texas-size quantities, too. The Astrodome was brand new in those days. Air conditioning in the city was ubiquitous. There were schemes afoot to put a dome over part of downtown and air-condition it, creating what today we would call a mall. Entire boulevards were dedicated to churches, side by side, one after another, allowing you to drop the family car in low and actually cruise places of worship. The nearest venue for dope, sex, and rock 'n' roll, then as now, was Austin. The new NASA space center out by Buffalo Bayou was hiring heavily, while from the marshlands around it, mosquitoes were busy spreading an encephalitis epidemic. Sir John Barbirolli had fashioned of the Houston symphony an exquisitely first-rate instrument, while teenage musical heresy focused on California surf culture -- though the Gulf only had surf during hurricanes, all kinds of kids could still be observed driving around with some stick in some woody, flaunting boards that never caught a wave, as if trying to make it all be California. Anyplace but what it was.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Things We Never Knew … About Sir Allen Stanford and His Sticky Wicket

We’re sorry to admit that the name “R. Allen Stanford” wouldn’t have rung even a faint bell with us before we read this morning’s New York Times, wherein it was reported that a veritable panoply of federal agencies have been eyeballing a Houston-based money management firm and offshore bank operated by the “the flamboyant Texas billionaire.” We’re even sorrier that we hadn’t liquidated our piddling little E-Trade account and turned our life savings over to Mr. Stanford, whose talent for generating Madoff-sized returns for clients apparently aroused the feds’ interest.

According to the Times, which was following a Bloomberg report from earlier this week, the focus of investigations by the SEC, FBI and IRS appears to be how Stanford’s Antigua-based bank "could issue CDs that pay interest rates that are more than twice the national average." These felicitous yields apparently contributed to the good fortune enjoyed by the “well-heeled clients” of the Galleria-headquartered Stanford Financial Services (whose number, Forbes reported last year, include or included golfer Vijay Singh).*

We’ll await the verdict of higher authorities on whether Mr. Stanford has been in violation of banking or securities law or is simply the Unacknowledged Super Genius of the Western Hemisphere, but in the meantime we will state without equivocation that he certainly is an intriguing character, the kind that Our Town has been notoriously lax in producing of late.

As the Times noted, Mr. Stanford presents himself to the world as Sir Allen Stanford, a title bestowed on him by a former Antiguan prime minister. The anglophilia must run deep, as he’s also besotted by cricket, a sport of sorts that we do not believe was seen on the playing fields of Mexia, from whence Stanford hails, or at Baylor, where he was educated, or in the Houston of the 1980s, where he is said to have made his first serious money buying and selling distressed properties in the Oil Bust market. According to his biography on his firm’s Web site, Stanford no longer calls Houston home but resides in St. Croix on the U.S. Virgin Islands and “holds dual citizenship, having become a citizen of Antigua and Barbuda ten years ago.”

This 2003 Wall Street Journal story portrayed Stanford as a large presence on the small island, where magic can happen:
An Antiguan citizen since 1999, Mr. Stanford is underwriting the construction by a Chinese company of a majestic state hospital now mired in a corruption scandal and new executive offices for the government. He is spending undisclosed millions on a cricket stadium, hotel, cinema and restaurant---the Sticky Wicket---on the grounds of the airport.

"I love this place and its people", says Mr. Stanford. That relationship deepened four years ago, he says, when he met a local Catholic priest with wounds in his hands and feet that he believed to be the stigmata of Jesus Christ. As a memento of that life-changing experience, Mr. Stanford carries with him a vial with the congealed fluids drained from the priest's foot.

Where most balk at lending to a bloated and revenue-strapped government with a record of mismanagement and corruption---it hasn't presented audited national accounts to its Parliament in a decade---Mr. Stanford has ponied up about $65 million. In short, says a recent editorial in Mr. Stanford's Antigua Sun, he is that unusual benefactor who has eschewed personal profit to boldly answer John F. Kennedy's famous call: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Mr. Stanford's detractors say the government of Prime Minister Lester Bird has become so indebted to Mr. Stanford over the past 12 years that it is only a matter of time before the two-island nation of 70,000 sees another, less altruistic side of the voluble Texan. "This man has a lien on our whole country," says government opposition party leader Baldwin Spencer.
Although he no longer spends much time in the U.S, Stanford and his firm remain vitally interested in the operations of the U.S. government, according to this 2006 Bloomberg article, and gave generously to two disgraced super heroes known as The Torch and The Hammer:
In the past six years, Stanford Financial and its employees have made more than $2 million in donations to U.S. political candidates and parties, according to the Federal Election Commission and congressional and Internal Revenue Service records. Stanford gives to both Democrats and Republicans. Among its top beneficiaries have been former Senator Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat who left office in 2003 amid ethics allegations, and ... Tom DeLay of Texas, who is resigning from Congress next month after having been indicted in an election-fundraising case, and Bob Ney of Ohio, who's under investigation in the scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Stanford Financial or its employees have contributed to the legal defense funds of the three lawmakers.

DeLay's committees paid for flights on Stanford's jets at least 16 times since 2003, including on Oct. 20, the day the former House majority leader was booked in a Houston courthouse on money-laundering charges ...

Members of the House Caribbean Caucus take annual trips to the region on Stanford's jets. Lawmakers are required to reimburse companies at a first-class commercial rate, which is often a fraction of the actual cost.
Then there’s the old school tie (NYT):
… Stanford has claimed ties to Leland Stanford, the former governor of California who started Stanford University in the 1800s. The university, however, has said there is no genealogical relationship between the two. (See Stanford Daily story)
Finally, we’d be remiss in not pointing out that despite his generosity toward noted global warming skeptic DeLay, Stanford is an environmentalist who, unlike you, has been getting his substantial shit together in advance of Doomsday (Forbes):
Stanford is a bit of a global-warming fanatic, trading information frequently with fellow warming-obsessive Ted Turner. His St. Croix house is built on a hill, the better, he jokes, to protect against rising waters from melting ice caps. Stanford has pledged $100 million for various environmental programs, including a marine sciences research institute in Antigua.

*(Bloomberg reported that Stanford International Bank Ltd., with $8.5 billion in assets and 30,000 clients, claimed returns on investment of between 10.3 and 15.1 percent every year from 1995 through 2008. And: "Stanford’s one-year, $100,000 CD paid 4.5 percent annual yield as of Nov. 28 ... A one-year, $10,000 CD purchased at JP Morgan Chase & Co. would earn 1.5 percent …" Apparently Stanford is not the kind of “bank” that lends money but instead “invests in a mix of equities, metals, currencies and derivatives,” although it claims its CDs are the same kind of instruments in which mopes like us park our money.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Short Note Re: Eleanor Tinsley

With her high-pitched, fluttery voice and a painstakingly deliberate delivery that radiated sincerity, it was easy to underestimate Eleanor Tinsley. Yet Tinsley was a deceptively tough politician, and, as Alan Bernstein's front-page obituary in today's Chronicle makes clear, she was in it for the long haul (that is, committed to a particular place over a long period of time). She was also unfailingly gracious, even to news reporters, a trait that could be disconcerting to those accustomed to more brusque treatment by elected officials. Yes, the do-gooderism could be a tad grating, but it grew naturally from her upbringing and never seemed to be driven by personal ambition or self-glorification or the urge to boss others around. She helped Houston grow up a bit, but for our taxpayer's money her greatest accomplishment was those SPARK parks for kids, a simple, cost-effective way to address the city's lack of park space. An expression of synergistic vibrancy, if you will, although we're pretty sure Tinsley would've been too embarrassed to use such a term.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

More Proof That Many of the Newspaper Industry's Wounds are Self-Inflicted

A month or so back we indulged in a lengthy reminiscence of our salad days at a daily newspaper in a small and comically corrupt town in southwest Louisiana (you remember it, right?), noting in passing that the paper was “swallowed into the Gannett maw” long after our departure.* Since that writing we have learned that the Gannett Corp. has now fully digested the property and shat forth the sparse leavings.

According to this blog item from The Independent, a locally owned alternative weekly in the Hub City (an actual alternative, not a delivery system for sex and restaurant ads), Gannett recently sold the building that had housed the newspaper for decades (the paper is the Opelousas Daily World; for some reason that is now obscure to us we thinly disguised it as the Atakapoulsa Tribune in our earlier posting). The Independent reported that the Daily World’s ad reps are now working out of the Gannett-owned Daily Advertiser down the road in the larger and somewhat more cosmopolitan Hub City, and its remaining employees---one reporter and a photographer---presumably will be stationed at another, less spacious location in Opelousas (that’s ah-pa-LOU-sas for you non-native English speakers).**

One reporter and a photographer! When we worked there three decades ago the paper had four news reporters, two photographers, one features writer, an editor and managing editor and a features-society editor/copy editor (the “society” goings-on there being of the scale to permit part-time copy-editing). It wasn’t the greatest operation going, but it was good place for young journalists to hone their craft and it had a bit of a rep. Founded just before World War II by two locals, it was the first paper in the United States printed on an offset press. During our brief time there it regularly beat out larger papers for awards, and it seemed to do a reasonably adept job of telling citizens what was going on in town (within the usual limits, of course).***

Gannett, which owns five papers in Louisiana, is also squeezing the life out of the aptly named Daily Advertiser, which has been one of the worst newspapers in the English-speaking world for as long as we can remember. Last month Independent reporter Leslie Turk authored a lengthy report detailing how Gannett has “ransacked” the still insanely profitable property to burnish its supposedly lagging bottom line and prop up less profitable papers elsewhere in the chain. Her story opens with a hilarious anecdote: Because the clerk who handled the public notices for the paper had been laid off and no one else in the cut-in-half classifieds department bothered to publish the agenda for the upcoming meeting of the city-parish council, the meeting had to be postponed. That’s damn funny!

Funny-sad, we mean.

Unlike all but a handful of monopoly dailies, however, the Daily Advertiser has actual competition for news and advertisers' dollars: the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, a solid, independently owned paper 50 miles to the west that has three reporters, a photographer and assorted stringers in the Hub City and regularly beats the hometown paper with the local news.

But you get the feeling that no one at the Gannett paper cares much about that side of its paper. While visiting our mother over the holidays we noticed that on two successive days the Advertiser ran banner stories that each had appeared as the main story in the previous day’s Advocate (as if no one would notice). The chain product is now so thin and devoid of news that our mother says she’d drop her subscription but for her pressing need to check the local obituaries.

*When we worked there it was owned by Worrell, a downscale small-paper chain out of Virginia; it then fell for a while into the more refined corporate hands of the New York Times, an arrangement that did not result in a hoped-for improvement in editorial quality.

**Home to slave trader and knife aficionado Jim Bowie before his move west, as well as the timeless Opelousas Sostan and the annual "Yambilee."

***We must share one more story from our tenure: Early one morning Tony Chachere, namesake of the now world-famous line of packaged Cajun spices (and whatnot) and then probably the town's most prominent citizen, was taken into custody for driving his automobile extremely fast the wrong way up a one-way thoroughfare. News of his arrest was displayed prominently on the paper's front page. As we made our rounds of the district attorney's office the next day the head man himself called us over and asked, "What y'all got against Uncle Tony?"

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Bullshit-Sniffing Media Hounds Finally Bark (Make That Hound, Singular)

The Chronicle’s Lisa Gray had a good---dare we say hard-hitting---follow-up Sunday on the arrest of the 59-year-old art teacher at Roberts Elementary last month after a drug-sniffing dog deployed by the Houston school district purportedly got a whiff of contraband in the woman’s car (a column that presumably led to this news story in Wednesday’s newspaper). A subsequent tossing of the teacher’s vehicle allegedly turned up two entire tablets of Xanax, and she could not produce a prescription for their use. (These pills---what us knowledgeable on-the-street types refer to as “bars”---are about as long as a thumbnail and maybe a fifth as wide.) This major victory in the War on Drugs was attended by a clutch of police patrol cars and at least one helicopter from a local TV news outfit---y’know, the whole Rice University-area neighborhood around Roberts was hoppin’, like the SWAT team had cornered an armed murder suspect in a backyard.

As Gray reported, the woman is a dedicated educator loved by students and parents, and the Roberts community has rallied behind her. From what we understand the teacher in no way appeared impaired in the classroom when the dope hound allegedly sniffed out the non-prescribed pharmaceuticals in her vehicle (while its human handlers up and down the line, from the superintendent and trustees to the cop who held the leash, figuratively relieved themselves all over the 4th Amendment*) and initially was so unperturbed she was willing just to hand over her keys because she was reluctant to leave the class she was conducting.

Her arrest came as the school district continued its superintendent-ordered “sweep” of unattended vehicles in its campus parking lots, an overwrought reaction to the hysteria over a supposed widespread drug problem among school district employees that was vigorously fanned by the local media (we noticed that Channel 11, our default television news provider, had posted on its Web site an action-packed “raw feed” of the teacher’s departure from the courtroom after her first appearance before a judge last month.) The numbers say otherwise: according to the Chronicle’s count, 15 district employees had been arrested this school year prior to the sweep, and we believe that maybe three have been snagged since. Almost 30,000 people work for the district, more than 12,000 of them teachers. We’re way too high to do the arithmetic, and we never passed a TAKS exam, but we’d wager that the minuscule percentage of employees arrested (never mind actually convicted) is much lower than what would result if, say, one of the local TV stations turned a dope-sniffing dog loose in its employee parking lot.

It’s not like the drug-sniffing dog racket is an infallible science, either. We’d be interested in knowing how many “false positives” the district has notched---that is, when the pooch zeroes in on a vehicle and the owner consents to a search that turns up nothing. We were told of one school where the dog lit on four vehicles. A small amount of marijuana was turned up in one belonging to a staff employee, but nothing was found in the other three. Yet the owners of those vehicles were summoned out of their classes and subjected to unnecessary humiliation, not to mention a few moments of bowel-loosening dread.

Something worse than temporary humiliation hangs over the Roberts teacher, but in most respects she’s luckier than the average district employee who’s been pinched. She’s white (no doubt much to the relief of district higher-ups---no racial profiling by the drug-sniffing dog!) and has a top-notch defense lawyer and the support of an affluent and influential group of parents. In other words, she has the wherewithal to get her story out in the media, and that can't hurt. We’re pretty sure most of these advantages are not available to the kitchen worker at school district headquarters arrested on the first day of the sweep.

*Happens everyday, so who cares, right?