New controversy as Democrats plan return

May 15, 2003 at 8:38 PM
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AUSTIN, Texas, May 15 (UPI) -- Defiant Democrats prepared to return to the Texas House on Friday as a new controversy erupted over the alleged misuse of a federal Homeland Security agency to track down the plane of the one of the rebel lawmakers who walked out to kill a redistricting bill.

The 51 Democrats were packing up and preparing to leave the Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla., as questions were raised about how the Air and Marine Interdiction and Coordination Center was called into search for the plane of state Rep. Pete Laney, a former house speaker who joined his fellow Democrats in the walkout.

In Washington, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, led 16 other Texas Democrats in an effort to get answers from Attorney General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and FBI Director Robert Mueller. They fired off a letter to the officials Wednesday and Doggett renewed the call in a floor speech Thursday.

"Americans had thought this department was to look for terrorists," he said. "Perhaps those who attacked these courageous citizen-legislators would treat them as terrorists. This is how tyranny begins.

"That's why 16 members of this house request an official administration explanation. America is waiting. Who is hiding now?"

The AMICC, which tracks terrorists and drug dealers, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that it was asked by a Texas law enforcement official to find the Laney's plane. Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, had ordered state troopers to round up the 51 Democrats when they reported absent Monday morning.

The AMICC was unable to locate the plane but Craddick admitted that it was Laney's plane that eventually led to the discovery of the Democrats in Oklahoma, where they were out of the reach of state troopers, the Star-Telegram reported. How Laney's plane was finally located at the Ardmore airport was unclear.

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

The absentee Democrats who shut down the Texas House in a dispute with Republican leaders over congressional redistricting were expected to return by bus to Austin early Friday. Their absence prevented the leadership from doing business because they were short of a quorum, 100 of the 150 members.

The controversial bill will die under House rules at midnight Thursday, which was the goal of the rebel Democrats.

Craddick told the Houston Chronicle that he was prepared for the Democrats to declare victory but that is not his view of what happened. "I'm not sure that there's a victory. There's a loss," he said. "The loss is to the people of Texas because it kills not one bill but a whole stream of bills."

Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, told the Chronicle that he had no feeling of "triumph" over the redistricting bill and Craddick was to blame for any bills that died.

"When we left, it became his choice -- are you willing to put redistricting aside for all this other legislation?"

Democrats say they staged the walkout Monday because the GOP leadership was going to bring up congressional redistricting when more important school finance and budget issues needed attention. With less than three weeks remaining in the session they said there was no time for redistricting. They said a three-judge panel had drawn new districts two years ago after the most recent census.

Democrats contend U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay orchestrated the redistricting plan in order to elect at least four more Republicans from Texas. There are currently 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans representing Texas in the House and the GOP contends that doesn't represent the political sentiment in Texas.

Republicans have taken over all the major state offices in Austin and last year won control of the Texas Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

While the House has been held hostage, the Republicans have introduced the redistricting bill in the Senate but Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the presiding officer, said it has little chance of passage there in the last few weeks of the session and with so many major issues still pending before adjournment June 2.

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