Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bank backs off from credit card policy: Chase Will No Longer Increase Rates Based on Credit-Bureau Information

By Chase-JP Morgan - Nov. 2007
WILMINGTON, DE (November 19, 2007) - Today, Chase Card Services announced the expansion of Chase Clear & Simple, an ongoing program designed to help Chase customers better understand and manage their accounts, with the adoption of new, clearer pricing practices.

Chase is eliminating a practice, commonly used in the industry, of increasing interest rates for individual cardholders when their credit-bureau scores decline. This change is effective on March 1, 2008.

"Chase's clear and simple approach has been developed to make us easier to do business with, helping us to build lasting, loyal relationships between ourselves and our customers," said Gordon Smith, CEO of Chase Card Services.

"As the founder of a leading consumer advocacy organization that has specifically focused on the card industry for about 10 years, I would like to commend Chase on taking such a strong stance on such an important and controversial industry practice," said Curtis Arnold, founder of U.S. Citizens for Fair Credit Card Terms and "This is a major step forward for consumers. Chase's Clear & Simple program is a bright spot in the card industry and illustrates just how serious Chase is about being a consumer-friendly card issuer."

2 Voter Rights Cases, One Gripping a College Town, Stir Texas

By RALPH BLUMENTHAL - The New York Times - Published: May 28, 2008
PRAIRIE VIEW, Tex. — “Vote or Die,” exhorts the faded slogan on a roadway at Prairie View A&M University, where black students once marched for the right to vote here in the town where they attend school, on a former cotton plantation about 50 miles northwest of Houston

The students won that battle in 2004, long after the United States Supreme Court supposedly decided the issue in 1979. But disputes over minority voting rights — along with accusations of election fraud — continue to rouse Prairie View, home to one of the nation’s leading historically black colleges, and other Texas locales.

“The cold war’s not over — they just moved the fence from Berlin to the Texas border,” said DeWayne Charleston, Waller County justice of the peace, who maintains that local officials failed to record hundreds of students whom he registered to vote in 2006. The federal Department of Justice and the Texas attorney general’s office say investigations are under way here, but will not give details.

Meanwhile, the attorney general, Greg Abbott, is a defendant in a separate voting rights case that goes to federal trial on Wednesday in the East Texas city of Marshall, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last month upholding Indiana’s tough voter identification law.

Arguing that antifraud provisions enacted in 2003 were being selectively enforced to intimidate minority voters who are largely Democrats, the Texas Democratic Party filed suit against Mr. Abbott and Phil Wilson, the secretary of state, both Republicans.

The suit, initially filed in 2006, contends that get-out-the-vote activists who help voters with mail ballots have been “interrogated, harassed and intimidated” by state investigators.

J. Gerald Hebert, the lawyer for the Democrats, said his first witnesses would be several elderly black women prosecuted on fraud charges for what Mr. Hebert described as help given other elderly voters in the mailing of early ballots in Texarkana, Fort Worth and Dallas.

Mr. Abbott and Mr. Wilson say they have a duty to prevent voter fraud. To complaints that any infractions at issue have been insignificant, they say that in pursuit of that duty, they must pursue violations of provisions like one that requires anyone mailing in a ballot to sign the envelope.

They say that “there is no evidence of any voters who have been unable to vote due to enactment or enforcement” of the provisions, which, they also note, were sponsored in the Texas House by a Democrat. Further, they say, there is no evidence that enforcement has intimidated anyone into stopping voter assistance efforts.

The Dallas Morning News reported on May 18 that all 26 cases of voter fraud prosecuted by Mr. Abbott had been brought against Democrats, almost all of them black or Hispanic.

But in their legal brief, Mr. Abbott and Mr. Wilson said that the state had brought voter fraud cases against Republicans as well and that “mere questioning” of people about activities that might have broken the law did not deprive them of a constitutional right.

The brief said the two officials’ position was strengthened by the Supreme Court’s Indiana ruling, on April 28, which allowed states, as a way of preventing fraud, to require voters to show photo identification.

The suit against Mr. Abbott and Mr. Wilson involves enforcement of provisions that make it a crime in certain cases to carry someone else’s filled-in early-voting ballot to the mailbox, to possess another person’s blank ballot or to provide early-voting ballot assistance to anyone who has not asked for it.

The case, to be tried without a jury before Judge T. John Ward, has put Mr. Abbott at odds with Judge Charleston and some campus activists at Prairie View, who say they once looked to the attorney general as a champion of their voting rights.

In 2004, Oliver Kitzman, then the Waller County district attorney, challenged the students’ right to cast ballots here rather than in their home communities, although the Supreme Court had long ago decided they could. Students, claiming that the county’s white residents feared the voting power of the predominantly black 9,000-member student body, marched in protest, and Mr. Abbott wrote an opinion supporting them. Mr. Kitzman soon retired, and students continued to cast ballots here.

But other voting rights disputes have since erupted. Before the 2006 election, Judge Charleston said in an interview, he personally registered about 1,000 students. But on Election Day, he said, hundreds of them were turned away as not registered to vote. The registration cards were later found in county offices, he said.

Ellen C. Shelburne, the county tax assessor and registrar, who took office in January 2007, said she had recently been questioned by investigators from Mr. Abbott’s office and had told them that she knew nothing about the matter. Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for Mr. Abbott, said, “We cannot comment on ongoing investigations.”

Jamie Hais, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said, “We do have an ongoing investigation into the matter,” but declined to comment further.

Judge Charleston said he had also complained to federal and state officials that Waller County had denied Prairie View students convenient polling locations. Further, he told them that for the May 10 school board election, not only did district trustees use public money to issue a voter guide, the guide also gave short shift to two black candidates, Jemiah Richards and Charli Cooksey, both Prairie View students, who subsequently lost to incumbents.

Patrick W. Mizell, a lawyer for the firm of Vinson & Elkins, which was hired to represent the school board, said that this was the first time the trustees had put out a guide but that he saw nothing wrong with it.

Anyway, Mr. Mizell said, “I don’t think a large number of Prairie View students have kids in the local school district.”

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Legislators may lose ghost employees: Full Time Work For Part Time Pay May Soon End At State House

Austin American Statesman TOPIX - Thursday May 8 “The House has allowed them to do that. Specifically (House rules) say that the House member has complete power over that aspect of their office funds.

"Those rules give the legislators so much leeway.”

The Legislature's long-standing practice of hiring full-time employees at part-time hours and pay may be nearing an end just as the issue becomes a political football for state lawmakers.

The Austin American-Statesman has reported that at least 12 House employees are paid less than $300 a month and work other jobs, but have been enjoying the insurance and pension benefits of full-time employment.

As lawmakers were asked to remove the so-called ghost employees from their payrolls, investigators began an inquiry into what rules or laws may have been broken after the newspaper report last week put the practice in the public spotlight for the first time. Read more

Also see coverage on KBTX
Texas House May No Longer Get To Hire Part Time, Pay Full Time
By KBTX - May 6, 2008
AUSTIN (AP) - The Texas Legislature's long-standing practice of hiring full-time employees at part-time hours and pay -- may be nearing an end.
The Austin American-Statesman has reported that at least 12 House employees are paid less than $300 a month and work other jobs. But those employees have been enjoying the insurance and pension benefits of full-time employment.
Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick has ordered a review by the House Investigations and Ethics Committee.
House Administration chairman Tony Goolsby asked lawmakers to review their records, noting that such arrangements would violateHouse rules and state law.
The newspaper reported that Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle also is investigating the practice for possiblecriminal violations. Earle's office would not confirm such aninvestigation.
Texas House rules allow each lawmaker to hire and supervise his employees, but the rules also define full-time status as 40 hours
per week.
-- At least two of the ghost employees employed by House Democrats were former lawmakers, whose pension is tied to years of service. That means the longer they remain a full-time employee,the more they get paid in retirement.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Texas officials criticized for cozy relationships

By BRETT SHIPP - WFAA-TV - Friday, May 9, 2008Are Texas Railroad Commissioners too cozy with the oil and gas industry operators they are supposed to be regulating?

It's a question being raised in the wake of a News 8 investigation into deadly natural gas fittings, fittings that some say Commissioners should have forced gas companies to remove years ago.

For most it's tragedy long forgotten. Three elderly people killed in a house explosion in Garland in January, 2000. Investigators ruled that a small gas pipeline had cracked and leaked, causing the explosion that killed Albert and Lillian Holbert and her sister Callie Hickerson. But the Holberts' daughter, Sydna Gordon, will never forget.

Still etched in her mind, the moment she found out that the faulty pipe that killed her parents had a legacy of failure and death in Texas dating back to 1983.

Only after her parents died, did State Railroad Commissioners order the faulty pipe removed from the ground. “The Railroad Commission is the governmental agency in this state that has the responsibility to make sure we are all safe and they don't do it," said Gordon.

West Texas rancher Jay Marcom is a frequent critic of State Railroad Commissioners. His ranch land is crisscrossed by a corroded, 80 year old natural gas pipeline which spring six leaks last year, polluting his soil and his wells.

When he tries to get Railroad Commissioners to protect him and his land he says they almost always side with the gas company... and he thinks he knows why. “As long as the Railroad Commission of Texas is funded and influenced by the oil and gas industry of the state of Texas there will never be a change," said Marcom.

According to the government watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, all three commissioners campaigns are heavily funded by the people they regulate.

Of the $1.6 million dollars raised by Victor Carrillo in 2004, 46-percent came from individuals connected to the oil and gas industry.

Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones raised just over $2-million dollars in 2006. Of that, 35-percent was oil and gas money.

And a News Eight analysis of Commission Chairman Michael Williams January campaign report shows of the $400,000 he raised, 42-percent came from individuals with ties to the oil and gas industry.

Critics say those percentages are hard to ignore. "With the Railroad Commission we don't know who these people are, nobody knows what they do for a living, except the oil and gas industry that they are supposed to regulate,” said Andrew Wheat, director of Texans for Public Justice. “But, at the same time that's the very industry that is paying for their political careers."

Chairman Williams says contributions do not buy influence. "I reject that notion,” said Williams. “I am very confident that I make decisions based on facts and based on good sound policy and based on what I think is the best interest of my fellow Texans."

Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones told News 8, "I've always called balls and strikes the way I see them, and I don't ever intend to stop doing that."

Commissioner Victor Carrillo rejects critics claims as well. "My personal integrity dictates that the decisions I make are based on sound legal, policy, and scientific reasoning and not based on who has contributed to my campaign," said Carrillo.

All three commissioners reacted quickly to our investigation into faulty gas couplings that led to two deaths in Wylie in 2006, and two more in Cleburne last year.

Just days after our reports aired Commissioners ordered the couplings removed from the ground.

But in the cases of the faulty couplings and the cracked pipe which killed the Holberts, past and present Railroad Commissioners had access to years of evidence that potentially deadly problems existed.

And for years no action was taken to force the removal of the potentially deadly products, a removal that would have cost industry officials millions of dollars.

To this day Gordon believes had Railroad Commissioners done their jobs her parents would still be alive. “The Railroad Commission is only interested in protecting the gas companies not the rest of us asleep in our beds," said Gordon.

Late last year a state audit criticized Railroad Commission inspectors for being too cozy with and accepting small gifts from the oil and gas operators they are supposed regulate.

Railroad Commissioners have pledged to discontinue that practice.
See more of News 8 Investigative Report