The Insider

Go Figure
The federal government works in mysterious ways. Take the ongoing dance step between banking regulators and Houston financier Charles "Chip Chop" Hurwitz, scourge of the redwoods and operator of the lagging Sam Houston Race Park. A few weeks ago the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation filed a long-delayed lawsuit against Hurwitz, the former chairman and chief executive officer of United Financial Group, which owned United Savings Association of Texas. The feds blame Hurwitz for the 1988 collapse of the thrift, which saddled taxpayers with a loss of more than $1.5 billion.

But you've got to wonder what the Resolution Trust Corporation -- a sister agency of the FDIC -- was thinking back in 1991, when it let Hurwitz take part in the "Great American Sale," a kind of Turkish bazaar of assets from failed thrifts. Maxxam Group, Hurwitz's real-estate, lumber and aluminum conglomerate, walked away from that shopping spree with almost $300 million in loans and commercial property, which it acquired for roughly 43 cents on the dollar. The deal made Hurwitz, whom the feds say orchestrated United Savings' risky investment strategy that included extensive junk bond purchases through future baldheaded ex-con Michael Milken, among the country's top buyers of assets from failed S&Ls. It's hard to say how much of that paper and property Maxxam still owns -- "flipping" the assets for a quick profit was a favored tactic until the RTC made some rules changes. But if the FDIC gets the $250 million it's now demanding from Hurwitz, it could represent, at best, token vindication for taxpayers.

Don't Do the Crime If You Want the Biscuits
A recent proposal by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to reduce the portions of chow served to inmates upset more than a few incarcerated tummies. A memo circulated to TDCJ personnel earlier this summer advised of a 21-point plan to alter prison cuisine due to budget cuts by the last Legislature. The recommended changes included increasing the pieces -- thereby reducing the size -- of corn bread per pan from 54 to 70. The memo also called for making pancakes thinner and smaller, and inmates were to be limited to one desert per day while making do with tea and water instead of punch during July and August. Then there was the removal of peanut butter, a perennial inmate favorite, from the breakfast line.

TDCJ spokesman Larry Fitzgerald says that since the corrections system serves its 120,000 inmates three meals a day, food was one area where prison officials looked to tighten their belts. But many of the recommended changes were scrapped after additional funds were located. Pancakes, Fitzgerald is happy to report, will not be shrunk, and two biscuits will still be served during each meal. Peanut butter, however, is still an off-the-menu item.

Even inmate advocates admit it's hard to muster much sympathy for prisoners when it comes to calorie cutbacks. "A lot of people are not going to feel sorry for them if they don't get two rolls and two biscuits," concedes Pauline Sullivan of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants. "We're in hard-nosed times and they'll just say, 'Don't commit crimes and you can have all the biscuits you want.'"

Tim Fleck is taking a well-deserved vacation this week. In his absence this column was compiled by some other gentlemen.


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