What justice does Jenna Bush face under her dad's tough-minded Texas laws?

Published May 31, 2001 10:55PM (EDT)

Twin watch

Jenna Bush is in trouble again. According to local police, she and her twin sister, Barbara, tried to order drinks from Chuy's, an Austin, Texas, restaurant on Tuesday night. Jenna allegedly used someone else's official identification to get the booze. If charges are filed and convictions won, Barbara will be a first-time offender. But Jenna, having allegedly crossed the line on Texas' alcohol laws for the second time in as many months, will be in for a tougher road.

Does that mean the president will be visiting her in one of the prisons he so lovingly maintained during his time as governor? Probably not.

If the current police investigation leads to charges being filed against Bush, then she could be in for a serious slap on the wrist, according to David Ball, a captain in the enforcement division of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. A second alcohol-related offense by a minor carries a possible punishment of a 60-day suspension of his or her driver's license, 20 to 40 hours of community service and a fine of up to $500. And if the incident results in a conviction, Bush should just forget about expunging her record after she turns 21; that option is available only to one-time offenders.

Bush's first offense was her citation on April 27 for drinking beer in Cheers, an Austin bar. After pleading no contest to that charge, Bush was let go with a $51.25 fine, eight hours of community service and a six-hour alcohol education course. Bush did not get the 30-day suspension of her driver's license that Texas law suggests is appropriate for such an offense. Really serious consequences kick in after a third conviction on underage-drinking charges, when the offender faces a $2,000 fine, up to six months in jail or both. Though Ball conceded that it is rare for judges to jail minors on alcohol charges, "they do have that option."

A more aggressive prosecutor could go for jail time immediately if Bush is charged with illegal possession of government identification, a Class B misdemeanor that could result in up to a six-month jail term and a $2,000 fine for a first offense. But Ball said that unless there's evidence that the identification has been tampered with, such prosecutions are rare in underage-drinking cases. Instead, most teenagers using a borrowed or fake I.D. are charged with misrepresenting their age to obtain liquor, a Class C offense with lesser punishments.

And that's when the authorities get involved. Bill Lewis, legislative liaison for the state's chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said that enforcement of underage-drinking laws is uneven in Texas but that college towns like Austin, home of the large University of Texas campus where Bush is a student, are more sensitive to underage alcohol consumption. "In other parts of the state," Lewis said, "it's just not a priority to police."

Ball acknowledges that certain enforcement operations are more likely to be aimed at Austin. Operation Fake-out is a two-year-old TABC initiative that sends plainclothes officers to Texas clubs and bars to grab phony I.D.s and arrest underage drinkers. Ball brags that the last Austin Fake-out netted 60 offenders. The operation, however, is usually scheduled for two or three nights at the beginning of the school term and one during the spring semester, and didn't happen this spring at all. "We're going to do it again in September," Ball said.

So Austin is hardly a town under siege by cops hunting for young boozers, which makes it difficult to account for why restaurant employees thought that two teenagers trying to buy drinks was a 911-worthy crisis. Ball maintains that Chuy's didn't step over the line by calling 911 on the Bush daughters, and that it's an acceptable way to deal with a violation in progress. "If it's something going on right now, they need to call the police office," Ball said. Still, there were other options. Though Ball said that merchants rarely use the service, Texas maintains a toll-free hot line for reporting underage drinking. And then there's the option that restaurants usually resort to in handling such cases, according to Lewis. "They would just say, 'Sorry, kid. You can't drink here.'"

That lack of zeal is one reason why Lewis believes that he has yet to hear of any underage drinker doing time for alcohol-related crimes. The other is a matter of time. "A minor has only a short period to commit these offenses," Lewis said. "If a kid starts drinking at 15 or 16, it's only five years before that becomes legal. For most, that's not enough time to get three arrests." Lewis has a theory about the kind of minor who could rack up three or more busts for underage drinking within that five-year window. "A kid would have to really want to get caught," he said.

-- Alicia Montgomery

Daily line

"My administration will adopt a new spirit of respect and cooperation because, in the end, that is the better way to protect the environment we all share -- a new environmentalism for the 21st century."
-- President Bush, promoting his $5 billion park improvement plan at Sequoia National Park

Bush buzz

Bush tried to buff up his environmental credentials in Sequoia National Park on the last day of his first presidential trip to California. There he touted his $5 billion initiative to improve other national parks, which he implied had been neglected by the Clinton administration. But Bush is hardly an environmental darling, having angered green groups by ditching the Kyoto treaty on global warming, backed off from a campaign promise to lower carbon dioxide emissions from industrial complexes and supported oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Even the National Parks Conservation Association saw Bush's Sequoia visit as the perfect occasion for releasing its "interim report card" on his parks policy. His grade? A "D."

Bush may have again failed to convince environmentalists that he's on their side, but his parks initiative was a valiant attempt to make lemonade out of a sometimes sour visit. The main event of Bush's journey was a meeting with Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, which both men described as cordial, but which didn't budge either's opinion on price caps as a method of relieving the soaring cost of energy in the state. (Davis is for them; Bush is against them.)

On Thursday, Davis upped the ante with a New York Times opinion piece that admonished Bush for the "perilous" position he has put California and other Western states in by refusing to back price caps. Davis also defended himself against charges repeatedly leveled by the White House and some Republicans leaders that he hasn't done enough to stimulate energy production.

GOP leaders in California charge that Davis is blaming Bush for his own shortcomings in the energy crisis, but Democratic leaders in Washington see power shortages -- and Bush's hands-off approach -- as an opportunity to score political points. Given Bush's and Vice President Cheney's history as oil company executives, some Democrats believe that their emphasis on giving additional incentives to energy producers, instead of imposing price caps or some other federal protection for consumers, reinforces the view of the GOP as the party of the rich and powerful.

That's similar to the strategy originally adopted to fight Bush's tax plan, which nonetheless passed Congress last week with $1.35 trillion in tax cuts, quite close to Bush's original request of $1.6 trillion. Democrats managed to get Republicans to commit to sending American taxpayers close to $100 billion in tax rebate checks this year, and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill says he'll do everything he can to get those checks out by September.

But the rebates are proving to be politically problematic as well. A study has found that almost 35 million of the poorest American taxpayers, many of whom are expecting rebate checks of $300 to $600, will actually end up with nothing. And Bush could suffer more negative fallout from the tax cut in an already vulnerable place. California will be disproportionately affected when the repeal of the estate tax goes into effect, losing more revenue than any other state.

Conservatives have a lot to lose when Democrats take over in the Senate next week, thanks to Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' jumping off the GOP bandwagon to become an independent. But they are trying to stay optimistic, dismissing Republican moderates who grouse that the party has moved too far to the right. As for Jeffords' switch, GOP leaders still insist that the move was political foul play, with outgoing Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott calling it "a coup of one" during an interview on a conservative radio station. Some conservatives are less temperate in their remarks about Jeffords, who has received death threats since announcing his party switch last week.

While some Republican loyalists remain bitter, the spirit of bipartisanship is still alive among many lawmakers in Washington. For example, both Democrats and Republicans are complaining about what they see as Bush's stingy plan to increase military spending by $5.6 billion. Much of that money will go to morale-boosting initiatives like salary increases, improved housing and better medical care. But defense hawks were expecting more from Bush, considering how he blasted Clinton's stewardship of the armed forces during the campaign. Meanwhile, fiscal hawks argue that the president's numbers don't add up, and that the military will be scrambling for dollars by year's end.

And don't miss a Bush nominee finding out that loose lips can stall confirmation. Thomas Dorr, nominated as undersecretary of agriculture for rural development, credited lack of racial and ethnic diversity as a factor in certain Iowa farm communities' success during a farm policy conference in 1999. Of the largely German Catholic and Dutch Protestant areas Dorr discussed, he said, "And you'll notice when you get to looking at them that they're not particularly diverse. At least not, uh, ethnically diverse." Dorr continued, "They're very diverse in their economic growth, but have been very nondiverse in their ethnic background and their religious background, and there's something there that has enabled them to succeed and to succeed very well." The White House is standing by Dorr, claiming that his remarks were taken out of context.

Thursday schedule: The president meets with Israeli President Moshe Katsav and hosts a dinner in his honor.

-- A.M.

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Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert, Karen Croft, Gary Kamiya, Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Scott Rosenberg, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York

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By Salon Staff

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