It's obviously well past time to change the window dressing at CPS Energy. In replacing “resignation effective immediately” GM Steve Bartley and “two weeks to collect my things” Nuclear Veep and Board Secretary Bob Temple, the remaining Board of Trustees at San Antonio’s City-owned utility turned to a fresh face.
Jelynne LeBlanc Burley’s (left) utility experience is limited.
She only joined the utility last April as Senior Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer “overseeing CPS Energy’s organizational excellence and shared services functions,” according to her company bio. Prior to her rapid ascendance this week to Bartley's former post at the top of CPS she was an assistant city manager with the City of San Antonio. But in the halls of CPS these days limited exposure is the sort of exposure most prized.
One of the sweetest laurels in her CV is perhaps the fact she is not the utility’s marginalized CEO Milton Lee. [See “Lee’s Electric Company,” July 22, 2009]
Lee was the one who hatched the expansion plans for the South Texas Project nuclear complex in Matagorda County before turning over the sales job to a coached Bartley. Lee continued to enjoy a seat at the table, but not one he was expected to animate. When it suited him, as it did when the TV torches flipped on over Toshibagate, the chair he enjoyed most was at the back of the room.
But the powerplay of the week doesn’t have Lee’s name on it. He’s being allowed to linger in the shake-up inspired by the failure of some in leadership to disclose to the Board and City Council that Toshiba’s running cost estimate for the nuclear expansion was $4 billion more than the figure Bartley had been selling the city all summer.
“The investigation showed from his perspective, from all their data, that Milton was unaware,” incoming CPS Board Chair Derrick Howard told the Current. Highly dubious given his joined-at-the-hip mentoring connection to Bartley.
But rather than gun for Lee, Mayor Julián Castro wants the heads of Board Chair Aurora Geis and cohort Board member Steve Hennigan.
Geis complained to the daily that Castro was attempting to try her in public with his call for her resignation, but Castro said this morning he has asked Geis to step aside three times already.
"It was my desire to handle this quietly and respectfully so that the community and the utility could move forward into a new era of transparency," Castro said this morning.
"It is regrettable that, to this day, neither Aurora Geis nor Steve Hennigan have expressed any public indignation about material information being withheld from the board and, most importantly, the public. It is that lack of a proper response to this crisis which has contributed to the current level of public distrust of CPS Energy.”
Of Lee, who some insiders have called “the elephant in the room,” Howard said: “In my opinion, and I think in utility language, he has a very short life … I think there is some value that he can offer for this short remaining period. We will extract that as a board, as the council sees necessary. We’ll be working diligently to open a new chapter.”
Jeez. It seems like only yesterday that local business community, spurred on by vocal (former) Council member Sheila McNeil, were clamoring to keep the retiring Milton at the utility in order to better steer the city through this most complex nuclear decision.
Geis failed to return a call for comment Monday. However, in creating a new board, the emphasis must be on importing those with a grasp of the decentralized energy system that Geis, despite a irrepressible hunger for a second helping of nuke first, continually promoted.
Beyond the fight for Board resignations, however, the subplot in this power drama is what will we the public know and when will we know it. That is, will the internal investigation that resulted in Bartley and Temple’s exit be made public?
“We are pushing hard to get a version released that is as inclusive as possible,” Howard said. “We’re obviously getting information from legal counsel that there are certain things that are by certain contracts are required to be held back … [but] the public needs to know.”
City Attorney Michael Bernard failed to return a call for clarification on this point.
When Howard tells me “there are a lot of attorneys looking at this information,” he’s laughing, as if I could have no idea how many “a lot” of attorneys really is, before adding: “We need to ask: is it overly protective or not.”
Thank you, Mr. Howard.
Posted by Enrique Lopetegui
Just minutes ago, Amy Patti, Public Relations Manager of the Hyatt in Chicago, replied to our Hyatt Risk of Injury report with the following statement:
"The health and safety of associates in all positions at Hyatt are our highest priorities. While we take seriously all valid research regarding workplace safety, we have not had the opportunity to thoroughly review the data and design of the Unite Here study recently released to the media. However, it is clear to us that the union’s conclusions are not consistent with the workplace environment in our hotels. [Emphasis original] In fact, we have been achieving significant year-over-year reductions in both the frequency and severity of workplace injuries across U.S. Hyatt hotel properties. Hyatt associates, including all housekeeping staff, participate in extensive training to help assure a safe work environment. Through daily communications with our associates and the guidance of our health and workplace safety professionals, we work hard to continuously monitor and improve our record of safety. This is a company-wide commitment we take very seriously."
The Queblog then asked her whether the Hyatt could send us some information about those internal studies.
"No, I'm sorry," she said on the phone. "There is nothing we can ... send. I can certainly look into it further for you, but there's nothing that I can just send you immediately."
She also couldn't tell us whether it is true that the Grand Hyatt in San Antonio has a daily 30-room quota for its housekeepers, as reported in Hyatt Risk of Injury.
"That's something else I will have to look into more specifically," she said.
By Enrique Lopetegui
The harder San Antonio’s Tea Party (SATP) tries to be transparent, the more opaque things get.
It seems that, in April, the San Antonio Tea Party received more than $150,000 in donations, as posted (for “transparency”) on a month-by-month link on sanantonioteaparty.info. From May to October, the group received an average of $14,704.30 in monthly donations, but in April the group hit the jackpot: $155,643.17. That grand sum supposedly came from “business donations, fundraising lunch, cash donations, donations from individuals, website donations, T-shirts, and books,” but the online data only includes deposits and expenses; no names of corporate or individual donors.
Not that the Tea Party is bound by law to reveal the names of donors, but in The Great Crusade for Transparency, revealing where the money exactly came from wouldn’t hurt, would it?
“The only thing I should keep out of the public eye are the names and amounts of our donors …,” wrote SATP treasurer Gail Kaciuba in the report.
If San Antonio’s MoveOn council co-coordinator Angie Drake wasn’t envious about the SATP donations, she should have been.
“Our groups are so small we don't even run a bank account,” she told the Queblog in an email. “If we need photocopies, individuals take care of it. Nonetheless, we’re constantly accused by Tea Party members of AstroTurfing.”
The Tea Party has its own accusations to deal with. In an internal email sent June 26, SATP President Matt Perdue wondered where the money was really going.
“I have a big problem with being asked to bust my chops to cover an expense that is a single line item of $50,921 –lights, sound, stage– with absolutely no detail,” he wrote. Then, in a blast email sent November 11, he turned on Kaciuba.
“If there is nothing wrong going on, why has there not been one single piece of paper produced to back up why people got checks, some for $3,000, $7,400+, $4,000, $10,400+??? Where is the documentation? Why isn't the cash deposited like it should be? Why did it take more than two weeks to deposit cash from the meetings? What comprises this almost $51,000?” Kaciuba didn’t return a phone call from the Queblog.
Now, this is where it gets tricky. Try to follow.
Perdue left the SATP and formed his own group, the San Antonio Tea Party Support (SATPS) but, depending on whom you ask, it happened out of his frustration with the SATP (say, in early November) or after he was asked to resign from the SATP. Whatever the case, something happened in between.
“The sanantonioteaparty.org website went away sort of mysteriously about three weeks ago,” Jon Kaplan, SATP Health Care Tiger committee chair Jon Kaplan told the Queblog on November 23. Visitors are now automatically directed to theythinkyouarestupid.org, which is the site that was used by founding chairman Robin Juhl when the SATP was formed in March. “I believe Robin is allowing people to get [SATP] information until we get our own back,” Kaplan said.
So, who erased the SATP website? “I’m only speculating,” Kaplan says, but he can’t help but consider a few suspects.
“When you go to teapartysupport.org, it names [Perdue] as CEO, John Watson [formerly with SATP] as CFO, his daughter [and also a former SATP operative], Susan Brown, as senior research analyst, and Michael Knowles [former webmaster of SATP] as the webmaster of the SATPS support website now,” Kaplan said. “[Perdue] and [Knowles], being technology people, were in control of the SATP website, and they may have chosen to redirect people to their own website. That’s been a source of controversy, if it is true.”
The Queblog visited teapartysupport.org, but could only confirm that Michael Knowles is the store manager/webmaster, and Susan Watson Brown its assistant store manager. Perdue was reached by the Queblog, but so far he still hasn’t agreed to an interview.
Wait… Did Kaplan say Michael Knowles? Where did we hear that name before?
“There is another tea party member who ‘belongs’ to our local MoveOn group (as a mole), named Michael Knowles,” MoveOn’s Drake told the Queblog in an email. “He signed up with our council but has never attended any events. He gets our emails. At first, I didn't know which person was forwarding information (I had 160 members, not all active). But I have been calling each member and updating information. I found him listed on a San Antonio MeetUp site for the SA Tea Party. I haven't deleted him from our membership roles yet. If he chooses to run for office with the Tea Party Support, he will be in violation of their rules ... He can't belong to an organization that disagrees with the Tea Party.”
In order to confirm we are talking about the same person, the Queblog contacted the Michael Knowles who “volunteers” for MoveOn, but the phone rang and rang, with no answer.
It gets better: Not only did Perdue form his own Tea Party, but technically speaking, he’s still SATP president until the SATP gets its new board.
“Yes, that’s right,” says Kaplan. “Hopefully in about three weeks we’ll get a new board. One of the things the new board will do, I hope, is to consider having an audit done so that we can disclose to the public and to our supporters that we had an independent impartial review of our finances that proves that we haven’t done what Mr. Perdue alleges. I don’t believe these allegations are true. The other thing is that I want to see the bylaws change, so that we have open meetings and better transparency of our procedures.”
So we all agree the SATP has been less than transparent, right?
“That’s correct,” Kaplan says. “It’s not because anybody intends to be secretive, but because we set [SATP] up probably on the run and didn’t think about the issues that could become questionable in the public arena. Now that we have [encounter them], we’re having problems. I believe these are mostly good people trying to do the right thing, but I think we’ve responded so fast on an emergency basis to what we saw as problems out of Washington, that we didn’t really think through adequately the way [to handle] our organization.”
The local splinter group is a reflection of a growing trend within the “grassroots” Tea Party movement. The Tea Party Patriots vs. Tea Party Express; Patriotic Voices of America/Carolina Patriots vs. Myrtle Beach Tea Party; in Texas, a bunch of independent groups are pissed at the national Tea Party Patriots for ousting and suing founding board member Amy Kremer after she got too close to the louder, more radical Tea Party Express. The list of new internal TP squabbles (and the subsequent formation of new rebel groups) grows with the same intensity by which the TP movement grew (AstroTurfing or not) in the movement’s heyday.
But now, with Obama’s health-care agenda slowly, clumsily, but steadily moving ahead in the U.S. Senate, the TP’s internal problems within could not have come at a worst time.
“It’s a terrible time to be fragmented,” Kaplan told the Queblog. “People have the right of free speech, nothing wrong with that, but not to the extent that it causes the group to splinter. It makes us less effective in our mission, and that is disappointing.”
By Greg Harman
As President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visit over the next couple days, elephants likely won’t be on their list of talking points. But they should be.
The land that holds cattle sacred would perhaps also like to hold conference with the planet’s most voracious beef eaters — especially now that the habitat destruction and feedlot belches of the livestock industry are suspect in more than half of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions.
But particular to pachyderms, India has just decreed the gentle giants shall be freed across the country.
Stating that the “housekeeping of elephants in zoos leaves a lot to be desired,” India's Central Zoo Authority — with enthusiastic endorsement of a scrolling list of animal-rights groups — has proclaimed that elephants are now banned from all zoos in that country with a requirement they be released to wildlife sanctuaries and “rehabilitation camps.”
A policy we’re sure the “Give Lucky A Break” crowd would love to import to San Antonio.
By Enrique Lopetegui
“There is no case, there is no investigation,” former Wild Animal Orphanage attorney Eric Turton (and other Carol Asvestas supporters) repeatedly told the Current and anyone asking about the status of the WAO cases with the USDA.
Well, it seems that, after all, yes, there is (or was until very recently) an investigation going on, according to USDA spokesperson Dave Sacks.
But this phone conversation from October 2009 is not only about that, but about the animal laws (or lack of) in this country. Next time you hear, "There is no case against WAO," send him/her this link.
Did WAO ever show the USDA records of animal deaths?
I can give you some information, but my hands are tight, because this case is still open. So, as such, no government public affairs office is…
Oh… The case is still open? Since when?
I believe January of 2007. An investigation is our formal way of officially documenting the facts surrounding allegations of Animal Welfare Act violation. A complaint, on the other hand, these are submitted by any individual at all, a regular citizen, animal rights worker, or what have you. They have a concern about an alleged violation and they contact us and, then, we take them all seriously across the board and we look at them that way. But an investigation is a formal way of documenting the facts surrounding allegations. A complaint is just the very first step where someone says, “Hey, there is something here… This looks like some alleged improper animal condition,” and that sort of thing. This investigation… It was a result of our inspection findings rather than any complaint that came in, so we actually…
So there is an investigation?
Well… We did look into it formally. It was a result of our official fact checking and the process came after our inspection findings. So, when we conduct inspections and we see things that are not to our liking according to the Animal Welfare Act, then we can… It’s kind of a step-up to possible enforcement actions. You know… It can come from a complaint or our own inspections. In this case it was from our own findings.
Is that a yes? Is there is an investigation going on?
An early agreement between the USDA and WAO included a monkey care violation. Why was that violation erased from the final agreement?
Again I don’t have that information because I’m limited on what I can say and what information I can dig in my end of things. Again, I don’t have that because the case is still open. I couldn’t… Even if I had that information I wouldn’t be able to comment on that until [the case] is completely closed. At which point a reporter, like yourself, or a member of the general public, can file a Freedom of Information Act request for all of the completed paper work and the all the documents related to the case.
Well, I did… But I was surprised to find that I and get all kinds of personal information except, precisely, anything related with official WAO animal deaths. Why don’t they make records of animal deaths public?
Just to give you some information regarding that: The Animal Welfare Act does not require license holders to notify us of every animal death. I mean… You have to realize all the license holders that we inspect across the country, and all the animals that are involved, and all the zoos, and all the exhibitors, and all the circuses… That’s a lot of animals. So when we go in we are basically checking on the health and the well-being of the animals that are there on-site the days that we make our inspections. Now… A lot of the license holders self-report deaths to us…
So, if you kill them, it’s OK?
I’m not saying it’s OK. We… There are different ways we can find out about animal deaths. Sometimes, like I said, the license holder will self-report it to us and then we go in there and our inspectors will look to see, to their best of their knowledge, if the animal died of natural cause or that sort of thing. We can sometime find out through the press, that’s happened before. We sometimes have been tipped-off by people within the facility itself. So you know, there are different ways we find out. The zoo keepers and the license holders keep their logs of animals that come in and leave their facilities. So, they keep records of things. But the Animal Welfare Act, which is what we enforce, that specific legislation does not required them to file with us of every single death. Now, if there is some alleged animal abuse or something like that, then you can bet we’re going to go on there and take a look at things.
Do you know when the case will be completed?
The closest I can come to getting information about that for you is possibly in two weeks.
[After two weeks, he wrote me back saying that I should submit another FOIA request]
What good are the inspections if you don’t have access to animal records?
Like I said, the AWA doesn’t require license holders to submit to us animal deaths; some of them do, but they are not required. So, when our inspectors go into these facilities, you know… We’re looking at the animals that are there, we’re looking to see if they are being properly taking care of, if they’re getting the nutrition they need, if they are protected from the elements of extreme weather, if they are separated from potential…
What’s the point of the Act then?
It’s a numbers game. If you are an inspector and you’re going into the San Antonio Zoo, say… And again, that’s a lot of animals in there… That’s a lot of… And the fact of the matter is… You know… I mean… The fact remains: Animals die. And you know, it’s not something where…
But when you don’t have crystal-clear and public animal record, then you rely on independent studies, and one claims that 1,000 animals died in 10 years at WAO. That’s 100 animals per year!
Again, they are not obliged to [reveal animal deaths] … But many of them do self-report. If you have a bat exhibit and you have 150 bats in there, well… Some of those bats are going to die just from natural causes and from competition and all that regular stuff, you know… It will take an enormous amount of time for an inspector to go in there and match those records. Now, what we do is we work with these license holders, we educate them. We don’t come in there, it’s not Us vs Them, so to speak. We work with them to try to pull them to full compliance with the AWA. We’re not turning a blind eye to animal deaths; we’re not turning a blind eye to animal mistreat, but it’s just… You know… That Act covers a wide range of things, it’s does not specify [anything] about the animal deaths.
If 50 animals died a preventable death, what’s the value of the inspection then?
If we go in there and we see that there is a lot less animals than there were [before], that’s going to raise some flags to our inspectors and they are going to look into the matter. They’ll talk to the veterinarians in that facility, they’ll talk with the license holders themselves.
Did you do that at WAO?
Like I said, that case is open so, you know… You can’t ask me about that, I can’t comment about that.
Bottom line is: A bunch of monkeys allegedly freeze to death, and nobody knows what happens and WAO gets slapped in the wrist…
You keep saying “nobody knows.” It’s going through the legal process right now. I think you’ll see a much more clear picture once this case runs its course. We don’t want to tamper on with an ongoing investigation, so we don’t release any of that information until that case is officially closed.
By Enrique Lopetegui
As reported by the Current in Animal Wrongs, on October 15 Carol Asvestas, founder and former CEO of the Wild Animal Orphanage, sued the new WAO board, claiming that it acted without proper authority when it suspended and then fired her and former husband Ron Asvestas. The original lawsuit asked for monetary and property restitution.
On November 9, the Wild Animal Orphanage (led by new CEO Nicole García, who is Carol and Ron’s daughter) counterattacked. WAO’s answer states that the “Orphanage denies each and every, all and singular, the allegations … and respectfully requests Plaintiffs be required to prove such allegations by a preponderance of the evidence as required by the laws of the State of Texas.” WAO asked the court that the Asvestases reply within 30 days (by December 9) and that the lawsuit be dismissed.
That isn’t the only lawsuit Carol Asvestas is involved in. In August, while she was still in charge of WAO, she filed a libel suit against the San Antonio Lightning’s R.G. Griffing, who covered the WAO saga for more than two years and who labeled her “The Lyin’ Queen.”
On Friday morning, Eric Turton, Asvestas’s attorney, and Griffing (who represents himself), met at the court of Judge John D. Gabriel during Turton’s “motion to comply,” which basically means that he wants Griffing to reveal where he got the documentation for the allegations he has made against Carol Asvestas.
Turton told the judge he sent Griffing a written Discovery Request on September 19 and on September 25, and received no reply. He said he sent Griffing an email on October 28, with no answer, and that nine weeks later Griffing finally replied with a “rambling, non-responsive answer.” A final email from Turton was greeted with “a flippant response.”
“I’m getting nowhere with this, so we’re filing a Motion to Comply,” said Turton, who told the judge “There’s nothing unusual with this request.”
“In other words: Show me your sources,” he said.
Turton also asked the judge to make Griffing pay for attorney’s fees. After stating that he made $250 per hour, Turton described to the judge the time he spent on the case and requested a judgment for $1,150.
The judge subtly rolled his eyes, while Turton asked that Griffing answer (both sources and money) by December 1.
“It gives him another week [to prepare],” Turton said.
Griffing began telling the judge that the lawsuit stemmed from a series of stories he published on the Lightning and that those stories were “backed up” by another story in the Current. Turton objected, saying, “the San Antonio Current story was irrelevant” to the case, but the judge wanted to hear more.
“I can’t reveal the sources of my reporting,” Griffing said. “ It’s either source materials or public records. Based on the new Texas Shield Law, I have to protect my sources.”
“Is that your defense?” asked the judge, who admitted he was not very familiar with the law.
The Texas Free Flow of Information Act, or Texas Shield Law (HB 670), was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry in May, and it states that no “judicial, legislative, administrative, or other compulsory process" can compel a journalist to reveal "any confidential or nonconfidential information, document, or item obtained or prepared while acting as a journalist" or "the source of any information, document, or item ..."
But the law, written by San Antonio State representative Trey Martínez Fischer, also states that the court can compel the journalist to reveal that information if three factors come into play:
1. All reasonable efforts have been exhausted to obtain the information from alternative sources.
2. The information is relevant and material to the proper administration of justice, and
3. The information sought is essential to the maintenance of the claim or defense of the person asking for it.
The key allegations against Carol Asvestas are easily found through Freedom of Information or public information requests.
The judge told Griffing that, no matter what his answer is (and he does plan to invoke the shield law), he must formally reply and gave him 30 days (three more weeks than what Turton would have preferred) to stop by Turton’s office and deliver his response.
“Just make sure you get these answers,” said the judge.
“Well, that was a good first step,” said Turton after the hearing. “Yes, it was a good first step,” replied Griffing.
After Turton left, Griffing turned to me.
“He thought he was going to get his money now, didn’t he?”
By Enrique Lopetegui
An unprecedented study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine indicates that female Hispanic hotel housekeepers are 1.5 times more likely to be injured than men, and almost twice as likely to be injured than their white female counterparts. Hispanic and Asian males were about 1.5 times more likely to be injured on the job than white males.
“This is the first study in the hotel industry to ever look at the difference between injury rates by race and gender,” Pamela Vossenas, health and safety expert for the labor union Unite Here, which co-authored the report, told the Queblog by phone. “That hasn’t been done before. We were able to make distinctions by gender, race, and job title.”
“Unite Here union obtained the data and then sent it to the university,” said lead-author Dr. Susan Buchanan, from the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health, during a November 19 press teleconference. “Unite Here personnel were co-authors of the study and played and integral role in every step, mainly in the data collection, but there were discussions all along regarding how the data analysis was going, what we wanted to focus on and which things we wanted to present on the tables, etc.”
During the same press teleconference, Vossenas added that Unite Here’s participation in the report was vital because the labor union had information no one else had access to.
“Since we represent hotel workers, we have the rights to the demographic information and the rights to the injury information,” Vossenas said. “So we were able to bring those two pieces together. That’s how we had access to the [Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s] logs with the employer’s records of workplace injury and illness.”
Although the report, presented two weeks ago at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in Philadelphia, doesn’t mention the companies involved in the study, Unite Here claims that the Hyatt chain had the highest injury rate, at 10.4 percent, while the Hilton chain had the lowest at 5.47 percent.
The report was based on a three-year study of 2,865 injuries at 50 unionized hotels, and came weeks after the QueQue reported on the San Antonio Grand Hyatt’s successful hiring of a union buster to discourage service workers attempts to form a union with the help of Unite Here (see The Grand Héctor).
“The excess risk among women probably reflects the fact that so many of them work in the very demanding job of room cleaner,” said report co-author Dr. Laura Punnett, from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, in a Unite Here press release. “The excess risk among Hispanic housekeepers compared to other housekeepers is more difficult to explain and requires further study.”
The study also concluded that housekeeping had the highest rate of injuries at 7.9 percent, 50 percent higher than all other hotel positions.
For María del Carmen Domínguez, a housekeeper at the Grand Hyatt, the report came in handy, but it was no surprise.
“[The Grand Hyatt] gives us 30 rooms to clean in seven and a half hours,” said Domínguez, who started feeling pain in her shoulder on August 31. “We had to finish by 4:30 p.m., because we were told we would not get paid any extra hours.” According to Vossenas, anything more than about 15 rooms is an excessive daily quota for housekeepers.
In early September, Domínguez felt pain in her shoulder, back, arm, and neck. The Hyatt sent her to the company doctor and assigned her to “light duty.”
“They told me I couldn’t lift five pounds or push 10 pounds, but asked me to go to the 20th floor to help a co-worker make the beds and clean the bathrooms.,” Domínguez recalled.
Despite her protests, Domínguez said the hotel insisted that they were following the doctor’s advice.
“To me, that was no ‘light duty,’ because I only had one working hand. But somebody in Human Resources told me ‘if you can’t use one hand, use the other.’”
So she decided to go to a different doctor.
“He immediately took me off work because he found a broken nerve and swelling in the shoulder and back, and a dislocated disk in the neck,” said Domínguez, who promised to show the QueQue copies of both the Hyatt’s and her own doctor’s medical records. “That’s where the pain comes from.” She hasn’t been paid in more than a month.
“[A person called Peggy Herrera] told me I don’t qualify for benefits,” said Domínguez. “She said the company’s doctor concluded that I’m ready to go back to work. But my own doctor says otherwise and I know I can’t hold my grandson or even comb my hair anymore. I continue my therapy, and the Hyatt sent its own doctor to observe what kind of therapy I’m receiving from my doctor. I don’t know what’s going to happen. All I want is my salary and an agreement. Thirty rooms is too much, and it’s not fair that we’re fired after three warnings if we don’t finish the rooms on time.”
In a press teleconference held on Thursday, the president of Unite Here speculated on the reasons why the Hyatt had the highest rate of injuries.
“Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they seem to make workers work faster and do more rooms,” John Wilhelm said in the press teleconference on November 19. “We hope very much that the hotel industry will work with us in a cooperative way to address this. We can’t except to build a service sector economy in the 21st century in the United States and Canada if one of the things that happens to people who show up to do what society expects from them wind up with these types of life-changing injuries. We’ve negotiated changes like smaller room quotas [with some hotels], but there’s a lot more that should be done. This should not be a subject of adversarial fighting. There’s enormous potential to make improvements really quickly if we work in a cooperative way.”
The Grand Hyatt and Peggy Herrera weren't available for comment.
(Or: 'Bless Me, Panchito')
For CPS Energy CEO-lite, Sr. Steve Bartley, four pounds may be a small price to pay for redemption. That’s how much he told the utility’s Board of Trustees on Monday that he lost during a four-day trip to Japan last week on a nuclear rescue operation.
Bartley and fellow utilitarians, CEO Milton Lee and Nukemeister Bob Temple, were hoping to drive back down Toshiba’s cost estimate for the planned expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear complex outside Bay City.
After a summer spent pimping a “tantalizing” $13 billion construction job, news broke the day before the City Council was to vote on a $400 million infusion that Toshiba’s figure had mysteriously bloomed to $17 billion. Worse, Bartley and others had known about the estimate explosion and apparently weren’t going to tell Council pre-vote.
While the foray into Toshiba Territory didn’t collapse the company’s figures immediately, the manufacturer of fax machines and reactor vessels pledged to have a new, lower number back to CPS by December 31.
The message that San Antonio has a definite “affordability threshold” was not lost on our Asian partners, Bartley said. “They understood the urgency of our need,” he said.
In preparation for the utility’s scheduled January rate-hike hit-up of Council, CPS will have charted out two courses forward: one nuclear, (and thanks to strong encouragement from Mayor Julián Castro) also one not-so nuclear, hewing to natural gas, energy efficiency, and renewable power.
While board member Steve Hennigan wanted to know what Toshiba’s number actually was — exactly — CPS attorneys wouldn’t allow the number to be spoken in open meeting. In fact, when a new number is rolled out in late December or early January it will reflect (again) CPS’ estimate, not Toshiba’s confidential figure, Bartley said.
Aside from solid numbers, Hennigan also fretted that CPS does not have its own designated negotiating team (apart from the on-call Bartley Bombers), but share a team with our nuke partner NRG Energy and the NRG-Toshiba construction tag-team NINA (Nuclear Innovation North America LLC). “Their self interests may not align with our interests,” he said. “Their interests may be different than ours.”
Bartley said that was understood.
Not to be outdone in dropping tantalizing tidbits, Mayor Castro said that the actual date that San Antonio would need a new source of power online had slipped from 2020 (the date ballyhooed by Bartley y Co. all summer) to 2023.
Castro promised recently that if CPS couldn’t get the estimate back down to a more manageable size, the project was dead. That must have been rattling in many heads, as utilty reps and board members spoke of the value of the project “whether or not” San Antonio chose to build it out. In the back of every head was the possibility of a sell-off.
While the airplane food and “exotic” fare of Japan didn’t sit well with Bartley (“With my Texas tastes, I had a bit of an issue,” he said), his homecoming binge at Panchito’s may wind up sitting just as precariously. The meeting room was full of detractors awaiting sour news with baited breath. And the financial outlook for the utility is not good.
Raises are being deferred; contractors are being laid off and work deferred; and employees are being asked to reduce travel, said Paula Gold-Williams, the utility’s chief financial officer. Depending on January's nuke vote are promised scrubbers for the coal plants and roll-out of a smart grid.
Yet, one way or another, rate increases are coming early next year, said Gold-Williams. Without the fiscal bump, she said, “we will not be able to maintain our infrastructure.”
Without the nuclear, that bump will be kept to 7.5 percent, she said, as opposed to the previously promised 9.5 percent.
If Bartley doesn’t have heartburn now, chances are he’ll be tasting his Panchito’s again come January.
Coincidence or cause? Lou Dobbs made his last appearance as a CNN anchor last night, announcing that he was leaving the network he helped put on the media map for other opportunities. His sudden departure follows both a reported meeting with Fox News Channel President Roger Ailes, and a nationwide campaign to oust him for his anti-immigrant rhetoric, which was often bolstered by outright fallacies. San Antonio's Esperanza Peace & Justic Center was a member of the Basta Dobbs coalition, which collected more than 100,000 signatures for a petition asking CNN to dump Dobbs.
“[Dobbs's rhetoric] riles up those who are suffering,” Esperanza Director Graciela Sanchez told the Current in October. “The economy is down and people look for enemies. You base it on a stereotype, you make that stereotype inhuman.”
The Basta Dobbs campaign also focused on the message that American Latinos wouldn't overlook Dobbs's anti-immigrant tirades just because the network was hiring Latino talent and producing targeted fare such as the Latino in America series hosted by Soledad O'Brien.
Watch Dobbs's announcement here, and see if you can parse it.
By Enrique Lopetegui
“Ladran, Sancho. Señal que cabalgamos (“When the dogs bark, it is because we are working),” said Don Quixote, according to my dubious English-translated copy of the Cervantes classic (I would've preferred "advancing" to "working," but you get the idea).
After a press conference Friday at the San Antonio Zoo where activists demanded that Lucky the Asian elephant be retired and transferred to a sanctuary, the first person to bark at the Zoo was director Steve McCusker. He defiantly told the Express-News that those who demand to see animal records (especially those concerning Lucky) “will never get them.”
“They would utilize those documents for all the wrong reasons and don't have people capable of interpreting them.”
Just like Lucky, McCusker (and the Zoo’s marketing and public-relations supervisor Debbie Ríos-Vanskike, who refused to speak to the Current) are showing signs of stereotypical behavior. Lucky does the infamous head-bobbing seen in animals under stressful conditions; McCusker and “Current, no” Ríos exhibit the paranoid behavior often seen in sloppy Zoo, shelter, and animal-sanctuary people who claim transparency and legitimate animal love, but who refuse to release records that would give us an idea of how many animals have died and how or what shape the live animals are in.
“I think [critics are] out to close all zoos,” McCusker told the E-N. “They don't know anything about medical science, they don't know anything about biology, they don't know anything about captive management, they don't know anything about what we do for field research and for rare and endangered species. I would suggest that arguing with them is fruitless.”
Never mind that the among the people who called the press conference (In Defense of Animals, the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, and VOICE for Animals) were IDA’s wildlife biologist and veterinarian Anand Ramanathan and veterinarian Mel Richardson, who was the SA Zoo’s veterinarian for five years.
While Ríos kept silent, McCusker kept on barking, rebutting what the E-N called “a rumor.”
“We're committed to keeping Asian elephants,” McCusker said, even though in November 2008, when the Current reported on the Zoo’s plans for a new African elephant exhibit, McCusker said that, “The plan is to get one or more Asian elephants, which is not as easy as it sounds … Then, when the time is right, move those animals out so we can get in there and do some total Phase 3 construction When that is completed, we’ll bring elephants back, but they’ll be Africans.”
Needless to say, the back-and-forth transfer of captive elephants is one of several obvious violations to the Animal Welfare Act, but the US soccer team will win the World Cup before the USDA (or anybody) enforces the already weak animal protection laws.
On the phone Monday, Ríos was nicer than in person on Friday.
“I don’t want to say anything bad about the Current, but I don’t want to get into the reasons we don’t want to speak to them,” she said. She even laughed when I told her I’m the new guy here and that, compared to Greg Harman (who wrote the 2008 report and always goes for the jugular), I’m an infant who throws softballs. But she wouldn’t buy it.
“No, I won’t ask [McCusker] to speak to you.”
So all we have is what IDA, the ZCTF, and Voice for Animals tell us and show us.
“It’s time to give Lucky a break,” said Catherine Doyle, IDA captive-elephant specialist. “She’s done her time.”
Lucky, an Asian elephant, has been at the SA Zoo for 47 of her 49 years, and since 2007 she has been living alone at the Zoo, after the death of Alport, her companion. According to a complaint filed by IDA with the USDA on November 2, her half- acre enclosure is too small and barren, and doesn’t have enough shade. Elephants are social animals and Lucky is alone, and we don’t know for sure what the state of her health is because the zoo refuses to release its records.
“The Zoo has resisted calls to send Lucky to a sanctuary,” reads the complaint, “and has kept her in a cramped and outdated zoo exhibit which is inadequate to meet the needs of elephants.”
The allegations are backed by a graphic 23-page report sent to IDA in late October by the ZCTF.
After the press conference, I asked Mel Richardson his opinion on state and federal animal protection laws.
“I think they suck,” said Richardson, who was the SA Zoo vet for five years. “The laws don’t have any teeth behind them. Even USDA people on top are very frustrated because they can’t change it. It’s a large, bureaucratic mess that is basically run by the agro business industry in this country.”
Is it time to change the laws? Are politicians part of the mess? Do they have any interest in keeping things the way they are?
“Either they have an interest or they don’t care,” he said. “There are so many pressing problems like crime, or the economy, that the way politicians think, I believe, is, ‘Oh, it’s just an animal.’ ”
Ultimately, it all comes down to money.
“Elephants need money,” said Richardson. “It’s a business. Most zoos don’t want to get rid of elephants, I believe, because they’re afraid less people are going to come through the gate. And in order to make the improvements they need to make, it’ll be much more expensive.
“[The Zoo is] very nervous about people knowing how many animals have died. The USDA doesn’t even know how many animals died. This was the last zoo I’ve worked in, and after this, I said ‘no more.’ ”
Not content with stripping the Wild Animal Orphanage bare on a Bexar County stage and exposing the unraveling mortal coil that is entertainment by marine mammal, the Current decided to hit upon what is perhaps the world’s most significant international gathering dedicated to the protection of the world’s wildlife and wild spaces.
Bienvenidos a Mérida, where a partnership between The WILD Foundation and Unidos para la Conservación has melded a week-long examination of the most pressing conservation issues of our day. Bienvenidos a Wild9.
Generally held every four years at various points around the globe, The World Wilderness Congress this round is attacking the dangers of climate change and stressing the role that habitat conservation plays in maintaining a stable planet.
Having arrived two days late, I have already missed one truly remarkable event: the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the nations of Canada, U.S., and Mexico for wilderness protection — the first of its kind.
Mexican President Calderon announced the signing at the opening ceremony of the 9th World Wilderness Congress to an audience of about 1,200 delegates.
A press release reads:
Two days before he boards a plane for some sure-to-be heated negotiating in Japan, CPS Energy’s VP of Nuclear Development, Bob Temple, spent a few minutes with the Current laying out the city’s options.
In the course of just a few months, the city’s appetite for power from a planned expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear complex in Matagorda County has nearly collapsed.
San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro pushed the utility to agree to selling down the city’s share in the project from 50 percent to 40 percent. Soon, after that, fiscal concerns had the City-owned utility’s board of directors whittling that share down again: to 20 or 25 percent. Now, after what can only be described as a wicked breach of trust, members of the City Council is seriously considering walking away from it completely.
Whether or not Temple (along with CPS co-CEOs Milton Lee and Steve Bartley) are able to talk Toshiba back down to the previous $13 billion figure, the Council and City’s appetite may have irrevocably turned on the deal. If that proves to be the case, what are our options from here?
Temple sees three paths forward: dump it, try to sell it, or put the project in the cryogenic freezer.
The summer’s hard sale for nuclear spearheaded by Bartley was about keeping the project moving in order to benefit from our front-runner status before the U.S. NRC and DOE. With the first application in 29 years we were at the head of the pack for new nukes before the NRC. Meanwhile, the DOE has the project short-listed for federal loan guarantees since we're running with a pre-certified reactor design and a location prefabricated to fit two new reactors.
But there is no reason San Antonio can’t hit the brakes and idle on the deal, Temple said.
“We could also agree with our partner to suspend the project while we sort things out,” he said. “If you don’t care when your project gets done then [the NRC will] put people on other projects where folks are trying to get it done quickly.”
But the deep freeze stops forward movement and limits our ability to roll-out other alternative projects.
That leaves us with the choice of dumping the deal and walking away or working to flush out a buyer.
The sales path is full of uncertainty; Temple likens it to selling real estate. “I’ve got some property over in Santa Fe and I’ve had that on the market since 2008 and that’s not that unique of an asset,” he said. Many across the country are in similar shape, thanks to the economic slowdown and housing crisis. Similarly, it may be a difficult time to pawn off a $6.5 billion investment.
“It’s very hard to tell, but I think there would be interest in a project like this, but it’s very unique, so we’d really have to get out in the marketplace and see.”
Thanks to previous decisions to sell down our share in the expansion, CPS has already started shopping for buyers and recently retained investment bankers and advisers to assist in that search.
The risk here is that the city would still have to keep up with our current 50-percent share of the development to keep the project moving forward and of value to potential buyers. The city would have to be prepared to pass not just one but possibly two $400-million bond issues along the way with no guarantees of a final sale.
Says Temple: “If our partner wants to continue developing the project, in order for us not to default and have our partner walk away, we’d have to continue to fund development.”
As unlikely as that scenario seems, Temple says CPS would obviously have to meet with mayor and council and “get some direction on what their level of tolerance is.”
“I don’t think it’s good for the citizens of San Antonio for us to hold a fire sale, if they want us to sell the interest. So, I’d like a little bit of time so we can get true buyers rather than walk away from it.”
Option 3 is the stop, drop, and roll. Those who have been urging the city to steer clear of the project from the beginning for the financial risk it represents tend to advocate this response.
What would walking away mean?
“We have to pay our proportion of interest up to the time we withdraw and we have to give some notice of that,” Temple said. But, beyond that, our contract with NRG Energy holds no specific penalties for walking out. It comes at the price of lost investment, however. Not only would be saying farewell to about $300 million spent on the project to date, but the value of the STP 3 & 4 site itself is worth even more, Temple says. Somewhere between $500 million and $1.5 billion.
He echoed Bartley on Toshiba’s addition of $4 billion to their estimated costs. “That’s negotiating, posturing. There is no $4 billion … They’re just throwing a number out there.”
Still, it’s a big thrown number. And CPS’ failure to share it with the Council, even as the city leaders sidled up to a $400-million bond vote, shows the level of communication and trust needed to manage a multi billion-dollar project is sorely lacking.
Not to say it can’t be salvaged. To that end, Temple flies to Japan tomorrow, followed by Bartley and Lee on Tuesday. Negotiations are scheduled for Thursday and Friday, before the triad returns to Alamo City.
If they come back with the right numbers for San Antonio (and the right contractual provisions that allow Toshiba to account for inflation), nukes could roll again come January — especially if Council fails to use this time to forge a reasonable alternative strategy to weight it against, both in terms of cost and risk.
By Enrique Lopetegui
Local union reps are leaning on criminal district and county judges to put Bexar County Probation Chief Bill “On the Fritz” Fitzgerald on administrative leave rather than allow the target of several federal lawsuits to serve out his time before a planned January retirement.
Fitzgerald, the target of multiple state and federal lawsuits, resigned under pressure this summer. But his effective retirement date is not until January 1, 2010.
“The judges job is either to hire him or fire him,” said Linda Chavez-Thompson, a consultant for the Adult Probation Local 9528, which is affiliated with the United Steelworkers, AFL-CIO. “But there’s nothing in the rules that say they can’t have some sort of investigation regarding this, and they have not done that.”
Allegations against Fitzgerald run the gamut, from improper termination of employees to sexual harassment to the intimidation of union employees.
The Local 9528 filed their letter with the judges this week in response to the firing of a union member on Tuesday.
“This is what we warned them was going to happen,” said Chavez-Thompson. “We said, ‘Hey, once [Fitzgerald] is forced out, he’s going to try to take a few people with him.”
The letter urges judges to:
By Enrique Lopetegui
“Why are you calling me?” Sumner Matthes asked when I called him in early October, days after Carol and Ron Asvestas had been terminated and their daughter Nicole put in charge of WAO.
After examining hundreds of pages of public records related to WAO, I came to the conclusion that Matthes, WAO’s vice president, was often the most lucid voice in a disintegrating operation. I was curious to know why, after years of siding with WAO’s bosses, he eventually decided to join in the uprising.
In early October, Matthes spoke with us on the phone from Florida (where he resides) and later sent us additional answers via email.
Why am I calling you? You’re a member of the board, aren’t you?
Yes, I am.
Going through public records, it seemed to me that you’ve been the voice of reason all along, and I thought you were a good person to call to help me make sense of the latest developments at WAO.
And who are you with?
San Antonio Current…
Well… I’ll talk to you a little bit… I might have to turn you back to our attorney, but I’ll give it a shot. What do you need?
The Asvestas claim that they were wrongfully terminated, because there were only three people at the board meeting where it was decided to terminate them, not five, as dictated by WAO’s by-laws.
Yeah… I can tell you one thing: There were five members when we terminated them. Not “terminated,” but when we put them on administrative leave and then, subsequently, took action when they tried to remove equipment from the office. And that resolved into termination.
Why did the board decided to raise Ron and Carol’s salaries to $100,000, in the middle of an investigation by the USDA?
It was voted upon… The reason it was done was… We reviewed other organizations, similar organizations throughout the country to determine how much the executive directors were being paid, and that felt that was the right amount.
But the raise took place in the middle of so many allegations. It sounds like a lot of money to me…
Depending on how you look at it, sir… It depends on what’s being done by the individuals who were given the pay raise at that time. You will probably find it not excessive at all.
Was the vote to suspend and terminate unanimous?
Yes, it was.
Couldn’t you have acted earlier? Why now? Didn’t you think the allegations were true before?
The allegations probably have a lot of true in them, I can’t say they were all true simply because I haven’t seen all of them. There is supposedly a 600-page list of allegations that the Attorney General gave to Carol Asvestas. I have attempted since that time, and that was months ago, to get a copy of them and nobody [gave them to me]. As far as doing what we did, I think we went over backwards trying to resolve this problem. I think a lot of the problems were due to the fact that they have a lot of personal problems that affected their running of the orphanage.
So far do you see any change with Nicole running WAO?
Absolutely. I think things are definitely changing for the better. In fact, I just got off the phone with people out of Talley Rd., just a couple of hours ago, asking them if the food situation now there has improved for the animals and they guaranteed and assured me: Yes it had. I have to credit that to Nicole’s diligence in getting that straightened out. I have heard nothing but positive things on Nicole since she’s taking over the operation as CEO. I have been in touch with her on a daily basis to determine if there are any real problems. There are a number of problems that she’s having personally with her family but, as far as the operation of the Wild Animal Orphanage, I think it has improved tremendously since she has taken over the job. As far as the lawsuit, I wasn’t aware of it.
Among other things, the Asvestases claim WAO owes them money.
Anything like that I’m sure it’s going to be a very long-term thing. There are many questions about how much money is owed to them. It’s not something I want to talk about because, if we’re going to be sued, we’ll have to bring it up in the courts. I’m very disappointed in the actions of the Asvestas to sue the board of directors, who did everything they possibly could to work with them and to make things better down there, and it didn’t happen.
I have been working with Carol Asvestas and Ron Asvestas, more Carol than Ron, for 13 years. I’ve been involved with the sanctuary down there for 13 years, and I kept finding things in the last couple years. Again, I think because of their personal problems, things were not getting accomplished. We were asking for the things that were not provided to us. We were asking for financial data, it did not get to us. As I said, that 600-page document that the Attorney General presented to them concerning the allegations that were being made by Ms. Brunner and others, as I understand it we were never able to determine who had it. In fact, at the last voting we asked about it and nobody seemed to know where it was. So there’s been a series of things over a considerable period of time that I think the board has tried their best to work with Carol and Ron Asvestas, but it hasn’t been satisfactory. And in the last few months we’ve gotten complaints from the employees we got in the operations down there. And it was time, probably the best time, to take some positive actions to try to get this situation straighten down and I think we’ve been successful in doing that.
As opposed to Kristina Brunner’s lonely crusade in the past, this time it was a massive uprising and you decided to take action?
That was part of it… But, again, part of it also was the fact that I wasn’t obtaining information concerning the operation of the orphanage that I felt I was due as a board member.
That “information” includes, for example, the animal’s death certificates?
That was part of the problem, yes. I don’t know… Again, this is an ongoing thing because of the number of animals involved and the allegations that have been made. I don’t think they’ve been reconciled totally. I believe the veterinarian was working on that, but again, nothing has been accomplished or finalized on the records of the animals.
Do you want to add anything else?
I don’t know what are your plans based on my discussion with you, but I would like to say that everybody, employees and the board of directors at the orphanage, seem to be in an upbeat mood. I would hate to see some lawsuit destroy what we have accomplished in the last two weeks.
After Tammy Click, attorney for the Asvestases, sent responses on behalf of her client, I sent more questions to Matthes. The following are his written replies (my comments in brackets; third-person references were prepared, I assume, by Buck Benson, the new WAO lawyer, who was cc’d on the email I received from Matthes):
Was anybody present in person at the board meeting that ended with the suspension/firing of Ron and Carol, or was it a telephone meeting?
There were two (2) individual board members initially present at the initial meeting in which Carol and Ron were placed on Administrative Leave. Three (3) board members attended via a telephone conference call line. Our attorney at that time, Mr. [Eric] Turton [who no longer represents WAO but who represents Carol Asvestas in her libel suit against R.G. Griffing], was also physically present at the board meeting. It should be clearly understood that this meeting resulted in the unanimous vote to place Carol and Ron on Administrative Leave for 90 days without pay. At that point both Carol and Ron walked out of the meeting. It should be noted that one of the board members, Andrew Behaine, took the tapes that recorded the meeting and we have not been able to get them back, although our then-attorney [Eric Turton] indicated that he would see that they were returned. As a result, no minutes of this meeting are yet available. The board members were subsequently advised that Carol and Ron had left the meeting and had gone to the WAO office and were removing files, computers and other items from the WAO office. Law enforcement was called and responded. I believe a police report was made but I do not have a copy.
As a result of the unlawful actions of Ron and Carol by removing company records, it was determined that there could well be obvious possible guilt reasons for their actions.
Based on their actions, three (3) board members (a quorum) met in a conference call and voted to terminate, for cause, the employment of Carol and Ron. At that point Andrew Behaine and Chris Morton both tendered their resignation from the [board of directors].
Is it true that they didn't have a chance to ask the board the reason of their firing nor to defend themselves?
Ron and Carol were not given specific reasons for the action that ended in their being placed on Administrative Leave. Sumner Matthes advised them that the board had more than sufficient documentation from employees and the [Attorney General] to take our action. Mr. Matthes has been attempting to obtain a copy of the AG Listing that contains 607 pages of copies of complaints filed against the ASUS/WAO. This file was requested by Carol and was sent to her on January 10, 2008. I have been trying to get the WAO to provide me with a copy since that date. When asked about this file during the Administrative Leave meeting nobody seemed to know where the file was. Also it is well known that Carol and Ron have had serious domestic problems in the immediate past which the board felt did not have to be made public at that time, but were taken into consideration by the BOD in reaching the decision to place them on Administrative Leave.
Is it true that, prior to the board meeting, there was a “secret” conference call between the three members who voted in favor of the suspension and in favor of putting Nicole in charge?
To the best of my knowledge, there were no “secret” phone calls between board members prior to the initial meeting. Because of the severity of the subsequent actions of Ron and Carol, the (3) remaining board members certainly did discuss what action should be taken. A board meeting by telephone was then convened and the termination action was voted on unanimously.
Haven’t there been tours at Leslie Rd. before Nicole was in charge? Was there any insurance at Leslie Rd. in case a visitor gets injured? I was surprised to read Click’s email accusing Nicole’s WAO of touring without a license or insurance.
There have been tours at Leslie Road for many, many years. I do not know what the insurance status is for the Leslie Road property. This will be looked into by the board of directors and, if insurance coverage is not adequate, appropriate action will be taken to obtain proper insurance.
By Enrique Lopetegui
In 1977, Lynn Cuny founded Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation, a model sanctuary in Kendalia. Shortly after WAO’s shake-up, Cuny met with Nicole García, chosen by WAO’s board to replace her own mother as the head of WAO.
I spoke to Cuny by phone on October 9.
Did you meet with Nicole García?
That’s correct. We met yesterday.
How did that happen?
She contacted me. We agreed we would meet and I invited her here to give her an idea of what a bona fide sanctuary looks like, and how it is possible to give animals who have to remain in captivity a great deal of space. My goal was to answer any questions she had and to hopefully encourage her to turn that facility into a true sanctuary.
There are no tours at WRR, right?
That’s absolutely correct. We’re not open to the public.
That’s one of the main differences between a zoo and a sanctuary, right?
Right. You cannot have a true sanctuary and just be open to the public at the public’s whim. That’s impossible, because the whole point of a sanctuary, the true meaning of that word, is that you give animals that already been through, at the very least, unpleasant situations and, at the very most, abusive situations, you give them a new and respectful life that mimics the wild. That is the goal of a legitimate sanctuary: To try to get back for these animals some resemblance of what life would be if humans had not… screwed them up, for lack of a more eloquent term.
Is it normal for a sanctuary to have 100 dead animals every year?
Not if you’re talking about animals that are in captivity. If you take injured animals, like we do all the time, raccoons that were hit by a car, deer that have been shot, opossum that has been poisoned, in that kind of structure you’ll see more fatalities, because they came to you in very bad shape. But no, there should not be 100 animals dying a year in a sanctuary where animals come and you just give them a place to live.
I can’t understand why the Freedom of Information Act gives me access to all kinds of delicate information, but so far I haven’t been able to obtain records of dead animals. Why shouldn’t donors have the right to access that info?
You should be able to. I don’t have the answer to that, unless the organization itself doesn’t make that known. It could have something to do with the fact that, maybe, there’s no government agency that makes that required.
Another general question: Do monkeys fall and break their necks?
That’s not a common occurrence by any means. We’ve never had that happen.
There’s a lot that can be said about bad sanctuaries, but also about the weak animal laws in the country. What’s your opinion about those laws?
It varies; it’s state by state. Texas is clearly one of those states that don’t do a whole lot to protect the animals that live here.
I was also surprised at how widespread meat eating is in the animal sanctuary world. Is it important to be a vegetarian? Can you just love animals without changing your diet?
I don’t think you can. I think it’s accurate to say a lot of animal ‘protection’ organizations… The sad thing is that you will often see, for instance, a dog and cat shelter having a fundraiser event, and the fundraiser is a barbecue. You’ll see the same with sanctuary groups. I think it’s absurd. If you’re going to be an animal protection organization, if your mission and your message is that you care about animals, then that message has to be consistent. If you’re going to be eating one animal in order to raise money to feed another one, then I don’t think you’re doing your job and I don’t think you’re holding that really true high standard of what an animal protection organization is and what they stand for. Now, people will say, ‘Oh, well, animals eat animals, so why shouldn’t we?’ Those in the animal protection should be held in a higher standard. It’s one thing to see a mountain lion eat meat, because certain animals have to have flesh in order to survive. The human being is not one of those. We should not be saying ‘Oh, well, I want to eat them so I’m going to eat it.’ To do a barbecue as a fundraiser for animals is not much different than opening the doors and saying “We need money to run this organization, so we’re going to put the animals on exhibit to raise that money.” My response to that is that it’s not the animal’s job to raise money. That’s the job of the people who run the organization, without making the animal work or suffer exploitation.
When I ask them whether they’re vegetarian, they very casually tell me, “Oh, no, I eat meat,” like it’s the most normal thing. They see no connection.
And that’s the problem. They don’t see the connection between the two. And they don’t see the connection between the animals, and that’s a huge part of the problem with human beings: How many people absolutely love and are devoted to their companion animals? And yet never give a second thought to eating a cow or a chicken or going out and killing a deer or whatever. It’s almost like “I’m going to love this animal because he shares my house with me,” or this one because “it’s been with me for many years, but I’m not going to see these other ones in the same light.” And the fact of the matter is that the animal, whether she is a cat or a cow or an elephant, they all have a need to be respected and protected and cherished and given the life nature intended them to have. They don’t need us to be using them or abusing them, but the opposite. And we don’t want to see that and don’t want to talk about that.
And there’s the old argument that, unless you do certain things that involve animal killing or tours, you won’t be able to raise enough funds, which is nonsense.
It is nonsense! Oh, yeah, it’s absolute nonsense. You can raise money for a non-profit organization without exploiting animals. It is possible and it is done every day.
How do you even get licensed to be a sanctuary, and who has oversight of what? Are the USDA, TCEQ and the Attorney General’s office all involved in overseeing a sanctuary?
The activity that is carried out at a sanctuary is what decides which agency will issue the permit(s). If a facility is open to the public then the USDA issues the permit. If the facility rescues migratory birds and endangered species, then a permit must be held by the USFWS. If native wildlife are cared for, then it is Texas Parks and Wildlife, WRR is licensed by the latter two.
What was your impression of Nicole?
I think she means well. Whether she will have a chance to do it or not, and the backing, and the knowledge and the experience, I don’t have the answer to that.
I think it is important for people who frequent roadside attractions, if they're going to visit places that keep animals captive, pay attention. Think in terms of, What kind of a life that animal really has? People say, “Oh, well, animals just need some shelter and some food and some water.” That’s not what we give ourselves, we don’t just give ourselves what we need, but what we want. Nobody takes that into consideration. Maybe a monkey can live in a 10 x 10 cement floored cage, and have food and water and shelter, but it’s a horrible life.
On a November 1 email, Cuny replied to my request for info on animal deaths at WRR, so that I could compare them to those of WAO:
"As I mentioned earlier, we are having some trouble accessing our stats, but best I can tell we have lost about 20 to 25 animals in ’09 and about the same in ’08. This is about 8% of the wild animals we have in sanctuary.
Enrique, it is important, in order to be fair in this, to note that what should be included in the picture when evaluating the loss of animal lives is the condition they were in when they arrived.
I will just give some examples here: If a sanctuary conducts a rescue of 10 lions from a roadside zoo where the animals were kept in close confinement but were well-fed and the animals are all young-to-middle-aged, then there is no apparent reason for the deaths of those animals in the coming five to even ten years.
If a sanctuary is involved in a rescue of 10 bears who were poorly fed and poorly treated, under constant stress and held in filthy confinement, and those bears are all over the age of 15, then you could reasonably expect to have one, two or even perhaps five deaths from this group in the coming five to 10 years. Occasionally, an animal that is rescued from substandard conditions will die within several months of being rescued.
Both the responsibility and moral obligation of legitimate sanctuaries is to first reverse the damage done to the newly rescued animals, then to quite literally add years to their lives by affording them large, spacious, interesting and totally natural enclosures where they are never crowded, on exhibit or stressed in any way, as captivity itself is stress enough. In addition to this, a proper diet is paramount to high standards of care for all animals, but it is even more critically important for animals who have lived lives of terrible deprivation. Experience in this field has shown that both a species-appropriate and highly nutritional diet can profoundly alter the future of animals who have suffered extensive abuse.
For more information on WRR, visit www.wildlife-rescue.org.
By Enrique Lopetegui
The following are some of the statements offered by Carol Asvestas and then-WAO attorney Eric Turton during and after an August 20 press conference at WAO’s Leslie Rd. facility.
At the press conference
On the number of animal deaths (to Channel 12 producer Shari St. Clair): “Since 2005, nothing but misinformation, including your figures, have been circulated by somebody. That’s incorrect information. I have excellent staff. There should be absolutely no question about the care given to our animals. We get sick animals and we give them excellent facilities to live out their lives and they die here. Whatever information you get about 15 here or 20 [animal deaths] there is completely wrong. We give the USDA our inventory every single time [WAO’s veterinary is] asked. I have inventory on file. Because of this misinformation, the animals suffer the most. I’ve been here for 28 years and I’m not going anywhere, this facility is not going anywhere, and [the animals are] not going anywhere. We have nothing to hide here.”
On pictures of stool-filled cages: “We got a little paranoid when somebody started taking photos of the cages when we were cleaning up, and making it look like that’s what they were living in.”
St. Clair: Did the USDA ever cite you for anything?
Turton: “We have a complete settlement with USDA and there is no investigation going on.”
Alone with the Current
How has this affected you on a personal level?
Carol: “The stress of being almost (sic) accused of not doing your job properly is very disheartening. I think I’ve lost 80 pounds in the past… God knows how long, because I can’t do what I need to do on time to keep this place operating properly. I have to work overtime, fundraising, paperwork…”
You mentioned something about losing some donors…
“We went down in 2008 in donations, 2009 is not done. We had some will money donated which saved us.”
What about the dead animals? Dr. Ehrlund said she didn’t remember the exact figure. How come you don’t keep track?
We do. We have a whole file cabinet full of death certificates.
You knew we were coming…
I didn’t think you would ask for anything besides Vi Vi.
Turton: “We were prepared to speak about Vi Vi.
Carol: “I want to show you something. Is it OK with you, Eric?”
Turton: “We’re trying to be transparent.”
Carol shows me the death files and agrees to show them to me, “as long as it’s OK [with Turton].”
Turton agrees but says that I have to make an appointment and he needs to be present. I made the mistake of agreeing, instead of demanding to see the files right away. Turton cancelled on me twice and then stopped returning my calls.
I found him at the County Courthouse on October 15, and asked him why he hadn’t returned my calls after he promised to show me the files.
“I’ve been busy,” he said.
On Sunday, October 18, I was supposed to meet with Ron and Carol Asvestas and their lawyer, Tammy Click (who is representing them in the lawsuit against daughter Nicole, WAO’s board, and WAO itself), but my own daughter interrupted proceedings at 2:08 am: She wanted to come out of my wife’s womb (she did; thanks). Carol Asvestas and Click were very gracious and understanding, so we agreed for them to send answers via email.
These are their replies:
What happened at the September board meeting where you and Ron were suspended, and subsequently terminated? What is your version of the meeting and events that followed?
The September meeting was called to order, and Sumner Matthes immediately made a motion to suspend Carol and Ron without pay. Carol and Ron were given no reason or opportunity to even question why this action was being taken. Then the directors placed Nicole García as the temporary CEO. These votes were three to one. The only person who voted no was board member Andrew Behaine. The board meeting was done solely by phone. No one was present in person. It was later discovered that the three board members who voted “yes” to the suspension and to place Nicole in the position had a secret conference call on Saturday to make these decisions. Therefore there was no opportunity for the other board members or Carol or Ron to ask any questions. On Tuesday, Andrew Behaine and Chris [Morton] resigned from the board in protest. Then, the remaining three board members, the ones to participate in the secret phone call, voted on Thursday to terminate Ron and Carol's employment and remove Carol from the WAO Board of Directors.
How many sanctuary animals total, at both the Talley Road and Leslie Road locations, did WAO have in September, prior to your departure from the organization?
The WAO would have the records, but there were approximately 500 animals on both the Talley Road and Leslie Road locations, including the feral cats, feral pigs, and all the primates, birds and exotic animals.
What is the annual budget, how has it changed through the years, and what percentage goes directly to animal care and maintenance (including facilities specifically for the animals)?
The budget changes every year. The WAO took all the records, but the budget is made annually and shared with all the directors. The CPA makes a budget based on the actual figures from the year before. In 2009, on average, the cost to operate the WAO is approximately $100,000 per month but, obviously, this average is dependent on many facts, including the commodity prices, electric costs, etc., many of which are dependent on weather and other circumstances outside of anyone’s control. The costs for salaries are included in the budget, so this information should be available from the WAO.
We do have the information as to the salaries we have received from the WAO since Carol started the it in 1981. From 1981, for approximately 10 years Carol took no salary and Ron supported the WAO from his plumbing business. We obtained the property, made mortgage payments, water and electricity, built the pens, enclosures of all kinds, worked consistently. There was no salary taken from 1981 until the first salary for Carol in 1996 and that was $11,770. The salaries, in round numbers, are as follows:
YEAR CAROL RON
1981- 1995 0 0
1996 11,770.00 1,200.00
1997 1,000.00 0
1998 33,000.00 24,000.00
1999 36,000.00 24,000.00
2000 0 0
2001 41,000.00 36,000.00
2002 47,000.00 44,000.00
2003 47,000.00 48,000.00
2004 47,000.00 50,000.00
2005 17,000.00 14,269.00
2006 53,000.00 54,000.00
2007 78,000.00 79,000.00
2008 74,000.00 74,000.00
The WAO was built by us, not for money, but because it was our passion and then after twenty years of work, our passion was able to become our livelihood. The WAO has documentation as to our job responsibilities and duties, and documentation that it would take three people to replace each one of us. I ask you to obtain these documents from them. Clearly this was not done by us for the money, and we are the only people we know who never get the salary they were told would be paid. Carol raised consistently over one million dollars every year for the past 4-5 years even in this economy. Fundraisers generally charge 25% and this is only one of the duties Carol was responsible for fulfilling.
According to records the Current has obtained, on 1/18/2007, at least four monkeys died. What was the cause of death?
The WAO can provide this information from the records. There would be a determination as to the cause of death made by the animal's doctor, so if you have records on the death you should have the records as to the cause of death.
You have consistently refused to open your animal records to the TCEQ, the Current, and others. Why the lack of transparency when you’ve been repeatedly challenged about the quality of animal care at WAO?
This is not a true statement. The TCEQ and Attorney General's office and others charged with any oversight have repeatedly stated that, during our term with the WAO, they received cooperation from us on all occasions. Why would you state otherwise? The complaints and investigations performed are available to the public pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request. I encourage you to obtain proper information before making false accusations regarding our actions.
What happened to the pigs given to WAO with the expectation that an enclosure would be built for the animals? Can you prove that the pigs were relocated to new homes or sanctuaries, and not slaughtered?
Are you talking about the pot-bellied pigs given over ten (10) years ago ... in approximately 1999? Is this the most relevant question you have? Have you not been made aware of any of the facts? There has been information given to the Attorney's General office years ago regarding this unfounded accusation. The short story is that we were told there were approximately 35 pigs, and when we arrived to pick them up there were approximately 90 pigs. There were not enough pens, especially as many of the females were pregnant and giving birth to other litters. The Attorney General's office was given the information and investigated this accusation and found no wrongdoing. Again, you are encouraged to get their investigation.
Is your plan to recover WAO and continue leading it, or do you want to claim the property and money and move on?
The WAO is an organization that has rules and procedures that govern its activities. If the governing rules and procedures are followed and it is determined by the directors that it is in the best interest of the WAO that we be dismissed, then we want the money and property owed to us and we wish them the best. If the WAO cannot meet its obligations, then we would consider retuning to make sure our life's work is not put in jeopardy.
According to TCEQ documents, WAO workers improperly disposed of deceased animals and animal waste on WAO property. How do you respond to those charges?
We understood that deceased animals and waste could be buried on the acres of property under the condition that it be buried deep enough that it could not easily be dug up. They were buried after digging a hole with the backhoe. Subsequently we learned that the dead animals were to be disposed of in the landfill, so we changed this practice. Frankly, we still believe that burying the animals ourselves would be preferable to dumping them in the trash. However, we abide by the instructions given by the TCEQ.
Why did you go into the wildlife-animal sanctuary field? What was your professional and academic background? Did you have any relevant experience working with animals prior to WAO?
The WAO was and is Carol's passion. She built it out of her own convictions. Carol and Ron built the WAO over a period of approximately 30 years from a dream into refuge for approximately 500 animals; from Carol's own donations into a refuge that requires a budget in excess of one million dollars.
A woman from Lansing, Michigan, claims that her October 2009 WAO newsletter, which was compiled and mailed before your departure, is exactly the same as the July 2009 newsletter. Is this the case, and if so, why?
This is a petty, ridiculous, trivial question that has no bearing on anything. Out of the tens of thousands of newsletters that go out every month some woman in Michigan gets the same one twice. So what? It is possible that she was on another mailing lists that would have been purchased and she would have received the same newsletter twice. But, again so what?
A [former] board member filed a complaint alleging that WAO’s claim in 2005 to be caring for more than 300 animals orphaned by Hurricane Katrina was grossly exaggerated. Can you document that WAO in fact cared for these domestic animals?
See the WAO documents.
Can you prove that the tigers relocated from TOPS were adequately transported, with proper veterinarian care?
Can you "prove" they were not? For your information, there was a veterinarian and a team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare traveled to get the tigers and returned with the tigers.
Did the Asvestas ever make $100,000/year each, or were those salaries ever discussed by the board?
Yes, a $100,000.00 yearly salary for Carol and Ron was discussed and approved by the Board of Directors, including the three who terminated their employment. The WAO has the information as to the job descriptions and duties of Carol and Ron and the information on a projection to replace them and the associated cost which was approximately triple that amount. The WAO should be able to provide you with that information. However, Carol and Ron never received the promised salary and, frankly, any promised salary would not compensate for all the years when they worked for nothing and only put money and effort into the WAO. Unfortunately, it is my estimation that their work will only be recognized when it is too late. Even now, there is no one after 5 p.m. who checks on the animals. Carol and Ron would generally make a round in the evening and more than one if there was inclement weather as their house was on the adjoining two acres. It was a 24/7 occupation for them. But, they never missed making a payroll even if it meant no payment for them. This is just sad. Then to have their daughter on television taking credit for the change in the animal feed that Carol had spent so much time researching and working on. Do people honestly believe that a change in diet for such animals can happen in a period of a couple of weeks? And the tour groups that are being touted. Has insurance coverage been obtained to cover the WAO if someone gets hurt and sues? Carol couldn't find insurance coverage that the WAO could afford that would provide such coverage. Is it appropriate to have tour groups (invitees) and take the chance of a lawsuit without insurance coverage? Carol did not think so, perhaps the Board and new CEO does. Obviously, Carol and Ron are not perfect. No one is. And, like everyone else, they learned as they worked along, but they did the work. They built the WAO with assistance from many, many people, but none worked longer or harder than they did. But, it is the old story: No one will appreciate what they did until they are gone.
MANY OF THESE QUESTIONS HAVE GONE WAY BEYOND ANYTHING THAT IS RELEVANT OR APPROPRIATE.
After the upper case incident, I never heard back from Click or the Asvestas. The following are three unanswered questions emailed to Click on October 26:
1 – Just before being terminated by the board, did the Asvestas take files and equipment from the WAO offices? Please tell us your version of the story.
2 – I’ve seen pictures of a swimming pool being built at Ron Asvestas’ house. Where did the money come from to buy the materials and pay for the workers?
3 – Why sue R.G. Griffing for libel and not others like rexano.org, Kristina Brunner, etc.? Where did Griffing cross the line? What did he say/write that Brunner didn't? Is the headline 'The Lyin' Queen' what did it? Is that all? When did he lie?
I couldn’t help but mock the headline in my Twitter feed yesterday. A beluga whale had died during a “visit” to Sea World San Antonio. It made the residency sound voluntary, first of all. Worse, I couldn’t get the image of whale-sized turnstile tragedy out of my head.
A better visitation scenario: 3,000 pounds of lovely flubba plop over the gates, sack upon sack of dry popcorn are sucked down, followed by some good-natured pranks pulled on the resident sea lions. But Nico had none of that. And the cartoonish meanderings left me with a gutful of sorrow stewing, as I suppose they should.
Nico’s story, including his death this weekend in San Antonio, is a real tragedy. Captured by Russian crews out of the White Sea decades ago, he wound up languishing in a Mexico City amusement park until 2005, where he was spotted by Georgia Aquarium’s Chief Veterinary Officer Greg Bossart.
“It really was a rescue operation,” Bossart said of relocating Nico to Georgia. “He was in a substandard facility and very unhealthy.”
Nico was recently transferred to SeaWorld San Antonio (that's Orlando, circa1989, above) with two other belugas to wait out renovations ongoing at the Georgia Aquarium. While we don’t yet know why he died on Saturday at the age of 25, we know he is not alone.
In all, 11 beluga whales have died in the shadow of La Cantera since SeaWorld SA opened in 1988. There are no names listed on the official Marine Mammal Inventory Report listing them all. The spreadsheet contains only an Animal ID number, a date of death, and a cause.
It was “cardiac arrest” for the wild-caught female who died in the summer of 1995; “acute renal failure” took another wild-caught female the next year; “acute bacterial pneumonia” was blamed for taking the life of a captive-born female at SeaWorld last summer.
The iconic “Shamu” hasn’t fared much better. Among the number of performing orca whales that have cycled through, there have been seven ‘false’ and ‘true’ killer whales that have died at the local marine theme park, according to data provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Causes of death include severe hemorrhaging for a six-year-old female in 1999; intestinal tract obstruction was blamed for the death of a female orca in 2002; “acute necrotizing encephalitis” took 2-year-old “Halyn” in 2008.
Naomi Rose, a marine biologist with the Humane Society, blames captivity.
In an interview a few weeks back, Rose said that while dolphins live equally as long in the wild as they do in captivity the same is not true for species like orca whales. “Female orcas often live to be 60, 70, 80 years old,” Rose said. “There’s a lot of females that should be 50 by now, but they’re dead … It’s very clear they live much shorter in captivity.”
Rose could not be reached for a follow-up call specific to belugas. However, among the wild-caught belugas with an estimated birth date, the average age at death was about 20 years old. Among the captive-born belugas that have died at SeaWorld, they tended toward 2 and 3 years of age.
Beluga whales on average live between 20 to 30 years in the wild, Bossart said.
And, yes, it's 5:01 pm and we’re still waiting on an interview with SeaWorld staff regarding these numbers.
However, Bossart said in Nico's case: “He was always at risk, because he had suffered so much health issues in Mexico City … Those things eventually catch up to you.”
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