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Texas Politics, The Death Penalty, Endangered Species And Water Wars

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Texas Matters: A look at major issues from all over the state this week -- Tom DeLay is acquitted of money laundering, the American Bar Association reviews the states system of capital punishment, alleged scandal with the dunes sagebrush lizard and a water tug-of-war between the Highland Lakes and Matagorda Bay.

If this isn't money laundering, then what is?

Tom DeLay was known as "the Hammer" when he was the Republican congressman from Sugarland and the house majority leader. He played a tough brand of partisan politics and talked openly about his plan for a permanent Republican majority.

But in 2005 he was indicted on felony money laundering charges -- which he was eventually convicted of -- and on Thursday that conviction was overturned on appeal, acquitting him of all charges.

Craig Holman is the government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen in Washington D.C.

"The facts of the case are not in dispute, what is in dispute is how one interprets 'money laundering.' The original jury determined that money laundering had, in fact, happened because Tom DeLay had raised $190,000 in corporate money. Texas may not have a very strong campaign finance law but it does take seriously the prohibition against corporate contributions to candidates. So DeLay laundered the corporate money out to the Republican National Party which then sent back the same amount of funds raised from individuals to be given to seven different candidates in Texas. The original jury ruled that this is just flat-out money laundering and I strongly agree. this is just taking illegal money and cleansing it for the purpose of making campaign contributions"

The Texas Public Integrity Office is appealing the acquittal.

Checks and balances in the Texas death penalty

Texas continues to carry out capital punishment more than any other state. The state has executed 12 men so far this year and six more people are scheduled for 2013. The most recent execution was Thursday as Robert Gene Garza was put to death for his part in a gang ambush where four women were gunned down in the Rio Grande Valley.

Garza maintained his innocence until the end and said his confession to police was made under duress and improperly obtained.

The way Texas conducts capital murder trials is taking some harsh criticism from the American Bar Association. They say Texas has made a lot of improvements over the years but there is still a long way to go to meet the standards of many other states who also have the death penalty.

Jennifer Laurin is a professor in the School of Law at the University of Texas at Austin and helped write the ABA report.

"Aside from isolated deficiencies in practices, Texas' system of administering the death penalty is one that really lacks checks and balances from beginning to end such that individual errors, or individual bad practices, are insulated from discovery -- and in some cases are exacerbated by other practices at other stages in the process."

Is habitat destruction being covered up in West Texas?

Credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The dunes sagebrush lizard lives in areas of West Texas.

The dunes sagebrush lizard is the most controversial reptile in Texas. The lizard was even called out by name in the 2012 Republican Party of Texas platform:

"We strongly oppose the listing of the dunes sagebrush lizard either as a threatened or an endangered species."

The West Texas lizard was on the verge of getting federal protection but then there was a landmark agreement to protect the lizard between the state comptroller’s office and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service.

Now a watchdog group says that agreement is being violated by the state and there is an active cover-up to keep information from the public about what’s really going on with the dunes sagebrush lizard.
Timothy Male is the Vice President of Conservation Policy at Defenders of Wildlife.

"...between June of 2012 and June of this year, we have looked at satellite images that show in the habitat where the lizard is found, where in theory in the documents that clearly state that there should be no disturbance, there is disturbance. There are new gas wells or oil wells, new roads, new transmission lines, new well pads all going on. And in the reports that are submitted on a monthly basis, which we requested from the comptroller's office to the Fish and Wildlife Service that describe how much habitat disturbance is going on in these areas, the reports for the period we looked at were 0 acres, 0 acres and 0 acres."

Water war: Highland Lakes vs. Matagorda Bay

This week the Lower Colorado River Authority voted to seek an emergency stop to releasing water from the Highland Lakes downstream to Matagorda Bay on the Texas Coast. The LCRA officials say the reservoir lake levels are dropping too low due to the drought and environmentalists say the fresh water release is needed for the health of the bay.

Myron Hess is the manager of Texas water programs for the National Wildlife Federation.

"Certainly we do understand that you reach a point where you are really talking about very essential uses of water for humans that it's appropriate to make that decision, but we feel it is premature at this point because we are still using a lot of that water to keep lawns green. The National Wildlife Federation doesn't believe it's appropriate to completely cutoff the flow to the bay basically so we can keep lawns green."

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi