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Crime and Punishment

Lineup shuffling at the DA’s office

This was a surprise.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s top lieutenant is out the door after the latest staffing shake-up at an office already plagued by high turnover and ongoing retention problems.

Tom Berg, a former defense attorney who came on board at the start of Ogg’s administration, confirmed his departure early Tuesday – and though initially he described it to the Chronicle as a firing, officials later said that he resigned when offered a different job title.

“I realize that as the office has evolved its needs have necessarily changed,” Berg wrote in a letter to Ogg dated Tuesday. “I could not anticipate or adjust to each aspect of the transformation and acknowledge your need to have a First Assistant who is philosophically more aligned with your course for the future.”

It’s not clear if a specific incident prompted the move. Two other employees – Human Resources Director Dean Barshis and Outreach Coordinator Shekira Dennis – are shifting roles in similarly unclear circumstances.

[…]

As of April, more than 140 prosecutors had left under her tenure, generating a sharp uptick in turnover.

Ogg has attributed the turnover to fallout from Hurricane Harvey, which has left courtrooms scattered across a number of buildings and prosecutors working in makeshift offices.

Some local attorneys chalked up the departures to leadership issues.

“There’s a lot of different things going around — they’re overworked because of the hurricane or they’re not going to trial — but really it’s that there’s no leadership,” said Josh Phanco, a longtime felony prosecutor who left the office earlier this year. “There’s no one you look at and say, ‘Oh, I want to be that guy.’ They all got fired.”

As the story notes, a lot of assistant DAs and other employees left – some voluntarily, others not – after Ogg was inaugurated, and it has continued since then. The same thing happened following Pat Lykos’ victory in 2008 (and would have happened if C.O. Bradford had won instead), as both of these elections represented a change of direction for the office. It’s been bumpy, and that has had a negative effect on how the office has performed, but that is what happens when a large organization undergoes a significant shift in philosophy and operation. I’ve no doubt that plenty of things could have gone better, and of course plenty of experience has been lost. That’s by definition, and it’s part of the point. Kim Ogg will have to defend her record when she runs for re-election next year, but in the meantime and with all due respect, I’m going to take the criticism of people who worked for the previous DAs with a certain level of skepticism.

I’ve met Tom Berg and I’m friends with him on Facebook. I’m sorry to see him go, I don’t know what might have happened, but I wish him all the best. His successor is now in place.

A day after Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg forced out a top lieutenant in the latest office shake-up, officials confirmed Trial Bureau Chief David Mitcham will step in to assume the role as First Assistant District Attorney.

“David has a long and distinguished career as a criminal trial lawyer and prosecutor; he’s handled thousands of cases and understands the needs of our staff because he has walked in your shoes,” Ogg wrote Wednesday in an office-wide email announcing the change. “While you all have known him over the past two and one half years as the Trial Bureau Chief, I have known David for more than three decades as a colleague, friend and outstanding lawyer.”

Best of luck to David Mitcham.

The Sandra Bland cellphone video

Wow.

Sandra Bland

New cellphone footage from the now infamous traffic stop of Sandra Bland shows her perspective when a Texas state trooper points a Taser and yells, “I will light you up!”

Bland, 28, was found dead three days later in her Waller County jail cell near Houston. Her death was ruled a suicide.

The new video — released as part of a WFAA-TV exclusive in partnership with the Investigative Network — fuels the Bland family’s suspicions that Texas officials withheld evidence in her controversial arrest and, later, her death.

Until now, the trooper’s dashcam footage was believed to be the only full recording of the July 2015 traffic stop, which ended in Bland’s arrest. The trooper claimed he feared for his safety during the stop.

The 39-second cellphone video shot by Bland remained in the hands of investigators until the Investigative Network obtained the video once the criminal investigation closed.

Bland’s family members said they never saw the video before and are calling for Texas officials to reexamine the criminal case against the trooper who arrested Bland, which sparked outrage across the country.

“Open up the case, period,” Bland’s sister Shante Needham said when shown the video.

Read the rest, and read this interview with Sharon Cooper, also a sister of Sandra Bland. It doesn’t look like there will be any reopening of the case, but for sure we need to know why this video hadn’t come to light before now. It’s hard to accept official explanations of tragedies like this when that explanation suddenly changes a couple of years later. We have to know that we have all the available information, and that there are no more surprises lurking in an evidence box somewhere.

County brings charges related to ITC fire

Bring it on.

Kim Ogg

Responding to what it called “criminal levels” of contamination, the Harris County District Attorney’s office said Monday that it has charged Intercontinental Terminals Company with five misdemeanor counts of water pollution arising from a March plant fire that sent toxic chemicals into nearby waterways and a thick plume of smoke over the Houston area for days.

“The discharge from the ITC fire into Tucker Bayou is a clear water pollution case,” said Alex Forrest, the environmental crimes division chief for the DA’s office, in a written statement. “We are looking forward to reviewing the reports of other local and federal agencies, as they complete their investigations, so that we can determine if other charges will follow.”

The charges are the most recent example of District Attorney Kim Ogg’s more aggressive approach toward chemical companies in the aftermath of environmental disasters that have outraged the public and drawn national attention.

“This is the beginning of our review, not the end,” said Dane Schiller, a spokesman for the DA’s office.

According to the DA’s Office, water pollution in Tucker Bayou was at “criminal levels” from March 17 through March 21. Prosecutors filed one count for each of the five days the company allegedly violated the law at its Deer Park plant. Each charge carries a fine of up to $100,000.

“People living in Deer Park and the other neighboring residential areas near ITC’s plant deserve protection,” Ogg said. “When public health is at risk, it’s a public safety concern.”

An attorney for ITC, which stores petrochemicals for companies including Chevron, Philips 66 and Exxon, defended its efforts.

“Although we have not seen the charges, there is no question that there was a large fire and an enormous effort to extinguish it which resulted in a discharge into Tucker Bayou,” said Michael Goldberg, an attorney for ITC, in a written statement.

[…]

Monday’s court action against ITC marks the second time Ogg has pursued criminal charges against Houston-area companies in high-profile pollution cases. After a chemical fire during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Ogg brought a criminal case against the chemical company Arkema and two of its executives for the “reckless” release of an air contaminant.

Investigators found that the company’s emergency plan provided little direction to employees on how to handle major floods, and as a result, it couldn’t keep combustible organic peroxides cool, according to federal documents. Over the next week, nine trailers of organic peroxides erupted in flames, sending pillars of fire and thick plumes of black smoke into the air.

Prosecutors recently charged the company and a third executive with reckless assault, citing injuries sustained by two deputies who responded to the scene based on the company’s assurances. Company officials have defended their actions in both suits and accused Ogg’s office of prosecutorial overreach.

See here for more about the Arkema indictments, which as far as I know have not progressed past that stage yet. These charges came right after Kim Ogg requested more environmental prosecutors. I don’t know if the one has to do with the other, but either way I expect that division to be busy. It’s one thing to file charges, it’s another to get convictions, and still another for those convictions to withstand appeal. We’ll keep an eye on these.

Prosecuting polluters

It really shouldn’t have to come to this, but here we are.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is calling for a tripling of the number of prosecutors dedicated to environmental crimes in the wake of a series of chemical plant fires that has raised public health concerns.

In a letter Thursday to the county judge and commissioners court, Vivian King, the chief of staff of the district attorney’s office, requested $850,000 to fund eight new positions: four prosecutors two investigators and two paralegals. The county currently has two prosecutors and one administrative assistant devoted to environmental crimes. The request is scheduled to come before the commissioners court on Tuesday.

On March 17, an Intercontinental Terminals Co. tank farm in Deer Park caught fire and burned for several days, closing the Houston Ship Channel and drawing national attention. No injuries were reported. A couple of weeks later, one person was killed and two others were critically injured when the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby caught fire. A fire also broke out at Exxon Mobil’s Baytown refinery in mid-March but was contained hours later. The investigations are ongoing.

“With Arkema and ITC and all of the alleged criminal acts intentionally polluting our waters supply with cancer agents, we don’t have the staff to investigate and work on these cases,” King said during an interview.

The DA’s environmental crimes division handles 400 to 500 cases a year, the bulk of which are related to illegal dumping and water pollution perpetrated by smaller companies or individuals — not the big corporations, King said.

[…]

Traditionally the county has not criminally prosecuted the large petrochemical industry, King said.

She stressed that the DA’s office welcomes an industry that’s a major source of employment and an important contributor to the area’s economy.

“However,” she added, “as public servants we get a lot of complaints about the very few companies that commit criminal acts by intentionally not following laws and regulations governing hazardous waste and chemical emissions and putting cancer agents in our water supply and the air we breath.”

And they currently don’t have the staff to handle it all, even less so to take on the big cases. A private attorney is working pro bono on a case involving Arkema.

Let’s be clear, it would be best if most of this work were done by the TCEQ. If they were an agency that took their mandate seriously – and, let’s be clear again, if the mandate they were given by the state were more serious – they would be in position to reduce the risk of catastrophes like these. Better enforcement up front is always the better way to go. In the absence of that, and with constraints on civil action, what other option is there for the most egregious offenders? If and when the state does its job, entities like the Harris County DA will be able to back off. This request was part of the larger ask for more prosecutors that was rejected in February. It was unanimously approved by Commissioners Court yesterday, so that’s good. I suspect there will be no shortage of work for this team.

Ogg hires Bradford

A familiar face for the DA’s office.

C.O. “Brad” Bradford

Former Houston City Councilmember and Police Chief C.O. “Brad” Bradford has joined the Harris County District Attorney’s Office as a senior adviser.

District Attorney Kim Ogg has hired Bradford to serve in a senior-level position as special prosecutor and law enforcement liaison, said spokesman Dane Schiller.

“We welcome his expertise and experience as a respected member of the community, a lawyer for 25 years, and a former chief of the Houston Police Department,” Schiller said, declining to offer details about the motives for the high-profile hire.

Bradford said he would be using his expertise in both law enforcement and jurisprudence to analyze the processes of the DA’s office, the criminal cases police bring for prosecution and how the DA’s office handles those cases.

“Thousands and thousands of cases are being filed by police, and there’s a need to look at those cases and see if something can be done other than the police filing formal charges on those people,” Bradford said. “Some of them, you lock them up in jail still; they need that. Others may need prevention programs. They need mental health treatment. They may need diversion.”

The new hire comes on the heels of repeated requests for more prosecutors, the most substantial of which — $21 million for over 100 new positions — the Harris County Commissioners Court shot down earlier this year. The initial wave of new positions would have targeted felony courts, where lawyers are most needed given the post-Harvey backlog, Ogg has said.

The rest of the story is a recap of Bradford’s career – for the record, he served three terms on City Council, not two – quotes from various people of varying quality, and mention of the continued turnover at the DA’s office. I care more about what Bradford will do with the DA. He’s a sharp guy with a good grasp of policy, and I think he could be a good bridge between Ogg and the police, who as noted by some of those comments I didn’t include in this post haven’t always liked Ogg’s policy changes. I had some issue with him as Council member, as he was often a foil to Mayor Parker, but he was a strong advocate for his positions. While I’m sure some of his role will involve talk and diplomacy, I figure you don’t hire a guy like C.O. Bradford to be behind the scenes. I’ll be very interested to see what he gets up to.

We need more than just bail reform

Bail reform is based on the radical idea that locking up non-violent, low-risk people who have been arrested on minor charges is a very bad and very expensive thing to do. But let’s take a step back from that and note that lots of people get arrested for things they shouldn’t get arrested for.

As the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee today prepares to hear HB 2754 (White), the committee substitute to which would limit most Class C misdemeanor arrests (with certain public safety exceptions), Just Liberty put out a new analysis of data titled, “Thousands of Sandra Blands: Analyzing Class-C-misdemeanor arrests and use-of-force at Texas traffic stops.”

The analysis relies on the new racial profiling reports which came out March 1st, analyzing information for Texas police departments in cities with more than 50,000 people, and sheriffs in counties with more than 100,000. Here’s the table from Appendix One of the report with the underlying data.

Readers will recall that new detail about Class-C arrests, use of force, and outcomes of searches were added to the report as part of the Sandra Bland Actpassed in 2017. But the provision to restrict Class C arrests was removed before the law was passed. So HB 2754 amounts to unfinished business for those concerned about what happened to Sandra Bland.

Our findings: The practice of arresting drivers for Class C misdemeanors – not warrants, and not more serious offenses – is more widespread than portrayed by law enforcement. The 96 police and sheriffs in our sample arrested people nearly 23,000 times for Class-C misdemeanors last year, with the Texas Department of Public Safety accounting for nearly 5,000 more.

[…]

These data represent fewer than 100 law enforcement agencies, but more than 2,000 agencies must submit racial profiling reports because they perform traffic stops in come capacity. Agencies in our dataset represent the largest jurisdictions, but not all by a longshot. If we assume that these departments plus DPS represent 60 percent of traffic stops in the state, and that the average arrest rate for the other 40 percent is the same as in this sample, then Texas law enforcement agencies arrested more than 45,000 people at traffic stops statewide last year, the report estimated.

These higher-than-previously-understood estimates are corroborated by Texas Appleseed’s recent analysis of jail bookings. Examining data from eleven (11) counties, they found more than 30,000 jail bookings where Class C misdemeanors (not warrants) were the highest charge. The difference between analyzing jail bookings and racial-profiling data is that jail bookings include Class C arrests which happened anywhere. The racial profiling reports Just Liberty analyzed only consider arrests made during traffic stops.

Taken together, these analyses demonstrate that the overall number of Class C arrests is much higher than anyone ever imagined when this topic has been discussed in the past.

The full report is here. It’s short, so go read it. How many people over the years do you think have spent time in the Harris County Jail because of a traffic stop? How many millions of your taxes do you think went to keeping them there?

Marijuana diversions

Good progress so far. What can we do to build on it?

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office estimated on Friday that it’s saved $35 million and arrested 14,000 fewer people since the start of a program to divert low-level marijuana offenses.

The announcement marked the two-year anniversary of the initiative, which allows misdemeanor anyone caught with less than 4 ounces of marijuana to avoid an arrest, ticket or court appearances if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class.

“We know we have reduced the arrest rate,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said at a news conference Friday morning. “That gives law enforcement more time to answer serious calls.”

The initiative launched in early 2017 was one of Ogg’s first steps to reform, earning her accolades among criminal justice reformers and marijuana activists. Since then, the program has expanded to include parolees and defendants on probation – but still some experts have questioned whether the initiative, and Ogg’s office, could go further.

“Compared to past district attorneys in Harris County, Kim Ogg’s record looks promising,” said criminal justice expert Scott Henson, with the nonprofit Just Liberty. “Compared to so-called ‘progressive’ district attorneys at the national level like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, she looks very moderate.”

Before the program started, Harris County law enforcement agencies typically filed around 10,000 misdemeanor weed cases per year, officials said Friday. Since the program began, that number has dropped to about 3,000 people per year.

[…]

[HPD Misdemeanor Division Chief Nathan] Beedle suggested that Ogg’s office isn’t getting enough credit for the progressive shift in marijuana prosecutions, but reformers like Henson have advocated for dropping marijuana prosecutions across the board – whether or not the would-be arrestee successfully completes an education class.

“In a time when 10 states have already legalized fully, I think that marijuana diversion is probably looked at as less aggressively reformist than it would have been 10 or 15 years ago,” Henson said. “I mean, Greg Abbott thinks it should be charged as a Class C misdemeanor. So she’s not that far out of line with centrist opinion.”

I’m not as inclined to give Abbott credit for his belief. Nothing has passed the Lege yet, and Dan Patrick remains a significant obstacle to any reforms. It’s good that Abbott himself isn’t an obstacle, but let’s hold off on the plaudits till something gets done.

That said, I take Henson’s point that while diversion has been a big change here in Harris County, it’s not on the leading edge of reformist thought anymore. So, while we can be glad for the progress that we’ve made so far, it’s fair to ask what comes next. What can we do to push these arrest numbers down further? What do we need to do to drag the more recalcitrant law enforcement agencies within the county along? What’s the next opportunity once marijuana arrests are mostly a thing of the past? These are the questions we need to be asking and answering.

Schlitterbahn indictments dismissed

Some good news for the company, following the worst thing that ever happened at a Schlitterbahn water park.

A Wyandotte County judge on Friday said that the Kansas Attorney General ‘irreparably tainted’ a grand jury with prejudicial evidence to obtain indictments against several Schlitterbahn employees and associates involved in the design, construction and operation of a water slide that killed a 10-year-old boy in 2016.

Judge Robert Burns dismissed indictments against three individuals and two corporate affiliates of Schlitterbahn, the company that built the 17-story Verruckt water slide in Kansas City, Kan., in 2014. It drew large crowds until Caleb Schwab, son of Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, was killed by decapitation on the ride. The water slide, once billed as the world’s tallest, was torn down last year.

Burns sided with defense attorneys who argued that lawyers in Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office showed a Wyandotte County grand jury evidence that would not have been admissible in trial — clips of reality television, misleading expert testimony and references to an unrelated death from years ago — that improperly influenced the grand jury in handing down criminal charges.

Taken all together, Burns found the grand jury had been abused to obtain indictments, which contained charges as serious as second-degree murder for two of the defendants.

“The court has grave doubts as to whether the irregularities and improprieties improperly influenced the grand jury and ultimately bolstered its decision to indict these defendants,” Burns said. “Quite simply, these defendants were not afforded the due process protections and fundamental fairness Kansas law requires.”

For now, Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry, Verruckt designer John Schooley and former Schlitterbahn operations manager Tyler Miles face no criminal charges in Caleb’s death. The Kansas Attorney General can seek criminal charges again, either through another grand jury, through a preliminary hearing or seek an appeal of Burns’ decision. Or they could just walk away from the case.

See here for the background, and here for a deeper dive. I still have very mixed feelings about all this, and if you keep reading the story you’ll see that the reasons for the dismissal were more technical and procedural than substantive. I don’t feel like the Schlitterbahn folks were exonerated in any way, just that maybe the Kansas AG didn’t do a good job. (To be fair, the story notes that a lot of people thought the indictments were problematic in the first place.) The Schlitterbahn settled a civil case related to Caleb Schwab’s death for $20 million, so it’s not like there were no consequences. I’m just still not ready to forgive and move on. Texas Monthly has more.

Ogg’s second ask

We’ll see how this goes.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is planning to head back to county leaders with another request for more prosecutors in light of the massive case review sparked by fallout from last month’s botched Houston police drug raid.

The renewed push for additional positions comes just after a failed bid to get funding for 102 new prosecutors, a hefty $21 million budget request slapped down by the Harris County Commissioners Court earlier this month. At the time, Ogg argued that her office’s overwhelming caseloads were likely among the highest in the country, and that the understaffing at all levels could prevent prosecutors from evaluating cases eligible for diversion.

But now, her new push to expand hinges on the need to review the more than 1,400 cases handled by Officer Gerald Goines, the case agent suspected of giving false information to justify the no-knock raid that left two civilians dead, officials said. In some of the cases, the 34-year officer was a witness, while in others he signed the affidavits underlying warrants, Ogg said Thursday. Of those up for review, 27 are active and at least five involve defendants currently in jail.

“These are individual cases; justice has to be meted out in every one. It takes time, we need some more investigators,” Ogg said. “We can get there with the understaffing that we have, it’s just going to take longer.”

It’s not clear how many new positions Ogg would ask for, but she stressed that the case reviews will happen regardless.

“This review is not contingent on funding, we’re going to do it,” she said. “It’ll just take a lot longer with the few people that we’ve got assigned to our Conviction Integrity Division.”

Because the jobs would go to “trusted, trained” prosecutors, Ogg said, the idea would be to promote from within and hire new positions at a lower level. The review of the 27 active cases can be handled by current staff.

See here for some background. I’ve not gotten any press releases in my inbox from groups that had opposed the previous request, as I had at that time, but that may just be a function of timing. It’s not fully clear to me from this story if what Ogg is requesting is more prosecutors or more investigators, the latter of which may perhaps be less controversial. The reason prompting this request is unimpeachable, but there may be more to it than what is apparent now. If she’s going to make this request at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, we should know pretty quickly what kind of a reaction this will get.

As for the larger issue, I have not blogged about the HPD no-knock raid mess, as there’s only so much I can keep up with. I fully support the effort to review and revise the department’s policy on no-knock raids, and will note that there has been advocacy in favor of this, here and nationally, for a long time. As is so often the case, it takes a tragedy to focus a sufficient amount of attention on the issue to make anything happen. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is making similar changes, though that will have a much smaller effect than what HPD does since the Sheriff’s office rarely conducts such raids. There are also bills in the Legislature, with Rep. Harold Dutton being one of the main authors, to impose restrictions and more stringent processes on all law enforcement agencies. As with bail reform, this is something that has been needed for a long time, and maybe, just maybe, the time is right for it to happen.

“How Baylor Happened”

From Deadspin:

There’s not much to recommend spending four years in Waco. Driving into town up Interstate 35 from the south, the endless stretch of Texas nothing fills out slowly. It’s flat in the way you think Texas is flat. Empty fields give way to John Deere dealerships, then fast-food chains.

On your left, you’ll see the strip mall that housed the Twin Peaks biker gang shootout of 2015. Pass through the city’s squat downtown, and you can catch a glimpse of the grain silos that Chip and Joanna Gaines, stars of the HGTV smash Fixer-Upper, converted into the retail base of their reality TV empire.

But then, rising from the banks of the Brazos River, appears Baylor’s towering McLane Stadium. The building serves to announce the home of the Baylor Bears, Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy, and a football legacy stretching back to, well, RG3 and the Heisman Trophy. But that’s the point. Baylor is here. Baylor matters, finally. The other campus buildings are tucked away in the short hills along the highway, but the stadium declares itself forcefully.

For most of its history, football barely registered at Baylor. Instead, the school cultivated its own culture, deeply rooted in the Baptist church. It banned dancing on campus until 1996. Until May 2015, its student conduct code listed “homosexual acts” and “fornication” as expressly forbidden behavior, alongside “sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault,”and other activities. Sex outside of marriage is still forbidden. The university’s mission statement says it was “founded on the belief that God’s nature is made known through both revealed and discovered truth.” Even a teenager who’s been homeschooled her entire life can walk around Baylor, see the statues of Jesus and the sidewalks emblazoned with Bible passages, and feel safe that the university that speaks her language and shares her values.

Jane’s* parents celebrated when she was offered a soccer scholarship to Baylor. She’d be among other Christians, less than two hours away from their Dallas home. Alicia* was drawn to Baylor because she wanted something to bring her back to her faith. She wanted to attend chapel with her classmates, to feel the closeness of a religious institution. “I want to feel God on campus and in class,” she knew. “I want to come here to be with God in every sense of the matter.”

Melissa* had attended a small private Baptist high school in California. She was scared to attend a party school and was looking for a more conservative university. She liked how nice everyone at Baylor was, and that dorm visiting hours ended at midnight, even on weekends. Suzanne* was the daughter of missionaries. She grew up mostly overseas and spent a lot of time in Christian boarding schools in Papua New Guinea. College wasn’t something her parents expected of her—everyone in her family did church work—but she wanted to be a missionary doctor.

They all chose Baylor because it felt safe.

What they didn’t know when they enrolled was that the combination of Baylor’s culture and a set of newly-established ambitions had created a university that was unusually safe—but not for them. It was a safe place for football coaches who could do no wrong, for players whose transfers from other teams after being accused of violence were billed as the first half of a redemption story, for young men whose potential was prioritized over that of their female classmates, and for university leaders who prized their reputation over the safety of the women who studied there.

As Jane was beginning her senior year of high school, already committed to play soccer at Baylor in 2013, the university was breaking ground on McLane Stadium. Baylor had a vision for itself—to become the Baptist answer to Notre Dame—but accomplishing that would require money, a lot more money, and fast football success was also a fast way to excite major donors. Greed is not a Christian value, but as the world would soon find out, the school’s commitment to the religion of football would serve to undermine everything else that the university was supposed to stand for.

What follows is a long and detailed look into how Baylor, a small Baptist university where football was played, became Baylor, a blossoming national football powerhouse where female students were repeatedly assaulted by football players and no one cared until it finally became a scandal. I’m oversimplifying here, but that’s close enough for these purposes. Authors Jessica Luther and Dan Solomon have been the go-to reporters for documenting how and why it all happened, and you should read what they have to say.

Commissioners Court rejects Ogg’s request for more prosecutors

I fully expected that Commissioners Court going from 4-1 Republican to 3-2 Democratic after the last election would signal big changes in how business was done in Harris County, but I didn’t expect this to be the first milestone on the new path.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected Kim Ogg’s request for 102 new prosecutors, a stinging public defeat for the first-term Democratic district attorney by members of her own party.

The rejection came less than 24 hours after a former assistant district attorney filed paperwork to challenge Ogg in next year’s primary, a sign criminal justice reformers may have lost patience with the self-described progressive after helping elect her in 2016.

The three Democratic members of Commissioners Court — commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo —supported increasing the district attorney’s budget by 7 percent, in line with increases for other county departments. Ogg had asked for a 31 percent increase, which would grow her prosecutor corps by a third and include 42 additional support staff.

“This is not the only way, and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Ogg, who did not attend the court meeting, issued a statement after the vote.

“We will continue to fight every day to ensure that justice is done in every case for every crime victim, every defendant and the community,” she said. “Harris County must have a district attorney’s office with sufficient resources to ensure that all cases are resolved fairly and in a timely manner.”

See here for the background and here for an earlier Chron story that previewed the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting. Ogg had addressed the criticism of her proposal, and also answered the question about maybe hiring prosecutors on a shorter-term basis, but it wasn’t enough to get any of her fellow Dems in line. I would say her best bet right now is to take what the ACLU of Texas said in a press release following the Commissioners’ vote to heart:

“Adding more prosecutors in Harris County is not the ultimate solution for reducing mass incarceration and fighting racism in the criminal system. While the Harris County Commissioners Court has taken a more measured approach than the initial proposal, the addition of new prosecutors must come with clearly defined standards for reducing incarceration — such as expanding pretrial diversion, reducing case disposition time, and reducing existing caseloads — instead of prosecuting more cases. The commissioners were right to call for studies into how best to improve the district attorney’s office, and District Attorney Ogg should commit to specific plans for how any newly hired prosecutors will be used. That’s accountability.”

“There is no question that Harris County prosecutors have high caseloads, but the solution is not to add more prosecutors in a cycle that endlessly ratchets up the size of the criminal system. The smartest way to reduce caseloads is to dismiss more cases, identify more cases for diversion, and invest significantly in substance use disorder and mental health treatment that help people who need it and prevent them from ending up awaiting prosecution in the first place.”

Seems to me this conversation will need to include HPD, the Sheriff’s office, and all of the other law enforcement organizations in Harris County as well. If the DA needs to prioritize what cases get prosecuted, they will need to prioritize what arrests they make. Commissioners Court needs to do its part, too, by working to expand mental health offerings. The Lege could also pitch in here, though for obvious reasons I’ll keep my expectations low. Everyone has a part to play – Kim Ogg’s part is bigger than the rest, but it’s not just her. Maybe by the time next year’s budget is being discussed, we’ll have less to argue about.

And speaking of next year:

Audia Jones, the former prosecutor who on Monday filed paperwork to challenge Ogg, spoke against the proposal. Jones said she left the district attorney’s office in December in part because she said Ogg’s administration has been too reluctant to offer jail diversion to defendants of color, in contrast with their white counterparts.

She said temporary court closures caused by Hurricane Harvey are not a driver of increasing caseloads, as Ogg contends, but rather are a result of her administration’s policies.

Murray Newman, who had some earlier thoughts about the Ogg proposal, notes that Audia Jones is married to Criminal Court Judge DaSean Jones. I’m not sure how that conflict gets sorted out if she wins (one obvious remedy would be for Judge Jones to step down), but that’s a concern for another day. I would have picked County Attorney Vince Ryan as the first member of the class of 2020 to get a potential primary opponent – designating a treasurer is a necessary step to running for office, but it doesn’t commit one to running – but here we are.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s sexual abuse problems

Some excellent longform reporting from the Chron, with more to come.

Thirty-five years later, Debbie Vasquez’s voice trembled as she described her trauma to a group of Southern Baptist leaders.

She was 14, she said, when she was first molested by her pastor in Sanger, a tiny prairie town an hour north of Dallas. It was the first of many assaults that Vasquez said destroyed her teenage years and, at 18, left her pregnant by the Southern Baptist pastor, a married man more than a dozen years older.

In June 2008, she paid her way to Indianapolis, where she and others asked leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and its 47,000 churches to track sexual predators and take action against congregations that harbored or concealed abusers. Vasquez, by then in her 40s, implored them to consider prevention policies like those adopted by faiths that include the Catholic Church.

“Listen to what God has to say,” she said, according to audio of the meeting, which she recorded. “… All that evil needs is for good to do nothing. … Please help me and others that will be hurt.”

Days later, Southern Baptist leaders rejected nearly every proposed reform.

The abusers haven’t stopped. They’ve hurt hundreds more.

In the decade since Vasquez’s appeal for help, more than 250 people who worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reveals.

It’s not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.

Nearly 100 are still held in prisons stretching from Sacramento County, Calif., to Hillsborough County, Fla., state and federal records show. Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today.

Journalists in the two newsrooms spent more than six months reviewing thousands of pages of court, prison and police records and conducting hundreds of interviews. They built a database of former leaders in Southern Baptist churches who have been convicted of sex crimes.

The investigation reveals that:

• At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades. In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct.

• Several past presidents and prominent leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention are among those criticized by victims for concealing or mishandling abuse complaints within their own churches or seminaries.

• Some registered sex offenders returned to the pulpit. Others remain there, including a Houston preacher who sexually assaulted a teenager and now is the principal officer of a Houston nonprofit that works with student organizations, federal records show. Its name: Touching the Future Today Inc.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. Along the way, it references the Paul Pressler scandal, which continues on. Here’s the index page for this series – there are two more stories coming – where you can also search their database of offenders. If there’s one lesson we can learn from the Catholic Church’s long-running scandal, it’s that no matter how much we think we know now, there will be more to come. And it can’t be emphasized enough that both the SBC and the Catholic Church have been among the biggest power players behind all of the main “morality” crusades in recent decades, most prominently restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom and LGBT equality (Paul Pressler was a big donor to the anti-HERO campaign). Never, ever forget any of that.

How many prosecutors do we need?

Opinions differ, but it’s a big question in Harris County right now.

Kim Ogg

Hanover is one of many prosecutors Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said are overburdened — the reason she has asked Commissioners Court for a budget that would fund 102 additional assistant district attorneys and more than 40 support staff. Ogg said the surge is needed to clear a backlog in cases exacerbated by Harvey, a driver of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail.

Her proposal to expand the prosecutor corps by a third, however, has evolved into a proxy battle over the future of criminal justice reform in Harris County. Ogg finds herself so far unable to persuade Democrats on Commissioners Court as well as reform groups, who have questioned her self-identification as a progressive and said her proposal would lead to more residents in jail.

“Simply adding prosecutors is the strategy that got us here in the first place, with this mentality that the only thing we can spend money on is police and prosecutors,” said Jay Jenkins, project attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Ogg, a first-term district attorney who unseated a Republican in 2016 with the support of many progressive groups, said these critics fail to grasp the on-the-ground realities of her prosecutors, whose heavy workloads mean they sometimes are the reason cases are delayed and defendants languish in jail.

Ogg pledged to send the first 25 new hires to the felony trial bureau, where she said they can help achieve the reforms progressives seek, such as identifying low-risk defendants who can be sent out of the criminal justice system without a conviction.

“Who else is going to divert offenders who should re-enter society, and prosecute the people who should be incarcerated to protect the public?” she said. “This is a question of how fast do our funders really want to reform our justice system?”

Ogg laid out her argument in an interview Wednesday at the district attorney’s temporary quarters at 500 Jefferson, where a regular shuttle takes prosecutors to the criminal justice complex more than a mile away.

Ogg said since taking office, she is proud to have diverted 38,000 defendants for a variety of low-level offenses, including marijuana possession, misdemeanor theft, first time DUI and mental health-related charges such as trespassing. With an active caseload that jumped from about 15,000 when Harvey hit to 26,523 this week, she said prosecutors are not always able to give victims and defendants the attention they deserve.

Her staff noted Harris County’s 329 prosecutors are less than half the number in Illinois’ Cook County, which is only slightly more populous.

“With adequate staff, we’ll be able to offer pleas that are reasonable earlier,” Ogg said. “We’ll be able to focus on public safety to make sure we don’t let someone go who is really a risk and threat to either his family or his community.”

She sought to mollify the concerns of progressives who fear it could lead to more people in jail, saying, “There’s no data showing that more prosecutors equals more prosecutions.”

Here are the original statements put out by TOP and the TCJC. This subsequent Chron story gives some more detail.

“We would like to stop the clock and take time to consider other options, primarily looking at funding for mental health issues,” organizer Terrance Koontz said.

Koontz said TOP is looking at housing options for nonviolent offenders who may need to reset their lives.

“We’re talking about individuals who are being arrested for minor drug charges or being homeless on the street or having a mental problem, and they definitely shouldn’t be sitting in jail,” Koontz said. “We are not here to attack D.A. Ogg, we just want more time to consider our options.”

[…]

Doug Murphy, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, agrees with Ogg’s proposal.

“Having witnessed the daily reality of their lack of manpower what we’re seeing is Harris County was the fastest moving docket in the country, we called it the rocket docket, and it slowed it down to a snail’s pace,” said Murphy. “What we got is bloated dockets because they don’t have the manpower to work these cases up and marshal the evidence.”

Murphy believes more prosecutors would help pick up the pace of getting cases to trial, resolved and even dismissed. “If I weren’t witnessing daily the backlog and the frustration, I would be in total agreement with the other organization,” Murphy said.

Koontz still worries that more prosecutors would ultimately mean more arrests and more people wrongly incarcerated.

“We just want to consider other viable options outside of just hiring the prosecutors,” Koontz said. “Because although it does not seem like putting more people in jail, at the end of the day we feel like more people will end up in jail than not and at the end of the day its black and brown people who are overwhelmingly being incarcerated.”

Honestly, I think everyone is raising valid concerns. The chaos of Harvey has caused a big backlog for the DA’s office, and it doesn’t serve anyone’s interests for cases to drag out because there just isn’t the time or the bandwidth among overworked assistant DAs to get to them. On the other hand, Kim Ogg made promises about how she was going to reform the system, and a big part of that was not prosecuting a lot of low-level crimes or crimes involving people who need mental health treatment. They also worry that while Ogg might not backtrack on her stated priorities, the next DA who inherits her bigger office may not share those priorities. It’s not at all unreasonable to worry that an increase in prosecutors will be counter to Ogg’s stated goals.

So how to resolve this? Grits suggests increasing the Public Defender’s office by an equivalent amount – Commissioner Rodney Ellis has suggested something like this as well, and the PDO is seeking more funding, so that’s on the table. I like that idea, but I also think it may be possible to assuage the concerns about what happens after the backlog is cleared by putting a time limit on the hiring expansion. Is it possible to hire people on one or two year non-renewable contracts, to get the office through the backlog but then have it return to a smaller size afterward? I’m just spitballing here, but if we agree that clearing the backlog is a worthy goal, then we ought to be able to find a way to ensure that doing so doesn’t lead to mission creep. I’m open to other ideas, but I feel like this is something that needs to lead to a compromise, not one side winning and the other side losing. I hope we can get there.

“Credible” abuse claims against clergy

I’m just going to leave this here.

Every Roman Catholic Diocese in Texas released a list Thursday of “credible abuse” claims against clergy going back decades, a move that comes as dioceses across the nation have released or prepared to release similar lists in response to a call from Pope Francis for greater transparency and accountability.

The ongoing sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the church reached a new crescendo in August after a Pennsylvania investigation found more than 1,000 victims and more than 300 perpetrators throughout the state. Two months later, the 15 dioceses across Texas announced that they would be publishing their own lists by Jan. 31.

Gustavo García-Siller, the Archbishop of San Antonio, said at the time that Texas bishops “are working to further healing and restore trust, to take new actions to protect the vulnerable and offer support to survivors of clergy sexual abuse of minors.”

On Thursday, the names of accused clergy appeared on each diocese’s website: 42 in Galveston-Houston, four priests and a deacon in Lubbock, 22 in Austin, 53 in San Antonio. Many of the lists were accompanied by letters from bishops or videos like the one posted by Austin Bishop Joe S. Vásquez, who said, “I apologize and express my deepest sorrow to the victims and their families for the abuse that occurred and for any failures of the Diocese of Austin. I pray daily for these and all victims of sexual abuse.”

Jordan McMorrough, director of communications for the Archdiocese of San Antonio, said each list includes every credible allegation of sexual abuse going back as far as the 1940s and ’50s. The San Antonio archdiocese list, released on its website, stretches back to 1940.

The lists also included the church’s definition of a “credible allegation.” The Catholic Diocese of Dallas website said a credible allegation was “one that, after review of reasonably available, relevant information in consultation with the Diocesan Review Board or other professionals, there is reason to believe is true.”

“Although I have also provided this list of names to law enforcement, inclusion on this list does not indicate that a priest is guilty of, been convicted of, or has admitted to the alleged abuse,” Dallas Bishop Edward J. Burns said in a letter that accompanied his diocese’s list of 31 people — 17 of them deceased.

The Archdiocese of San Antonio also plans to release a document with an audit of all of its cases and how they were handled, written by an independent Lay Commission on Clergy Sexual Abuse of Minors.

Emphasis mine. I’m glad this is all coming to light, but boy has it taken a lot longer than it should have. Now we need an equally comprehensive report on who covered up for all these crimes. There’s still a lot more the Church needs to do before it can meet its own standards for absolution. The Chron has more.

Joint processing center opens

This was a long time coming, but it should be worth the wait.

More than a decade after city voters approved a bond measure to fund it, Houston and Harris County opened a joint inmate processing center Thursday that officials say will eliminate the redundant practice of booking inmates at the city jail before transferring them to the county lockup.

The downtown center, replete with a digital processing system, open booking areas and dormitory-style units, was designed to be more efficient and to square with the city and county’s evolving attitude on criminal justice, officials said.

“This streamlined, expedited booking process is a true game-changer for Harris County law enforcement families,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told a roomful of elected officials and law enforcement officers at the new facility Thursday. “Every minute an officer spends escorting a prisoner through the intake process is another minute that they’re off the street keeping our neighborhood safe.”

For years, Houston police have booked suspects at one of two city jails, before transferring them to the Harris County Jail and booking them again. Eliminating the excess work is anticipated to free up about 100 police officers assigned to jail duty.

The city is set to cover 30 percent of the facility’s annual operating costs, amounting to about $14.5 million, said Andy Icken, Houston’s chief development officer.

[…]

The facility’s new digital booking system means officers will be freed from much of the paperwork that typically bogs them down. Officers also no longer will have to escort suspects across public streets, Gonzalez said, because they will be able to park in a sallyport attached to the building. He estimated officers would be in and out of the center within 20 minutes.

The facility, located across from the Baker Street Jail on San Jacinto Street, covers 246,000 square feet and will begin processing detainees Saturday.

See here for the previous update, which was in 2015 when ground was broken following the successful 2013 bond referendum. A 2007 county referendum that would have built more jail space had been voted down, and boy howdy does that look like a good decision in retrospect. This will get people processed through faster, and will cost less to operate. I just hope it won’t be prone to flooding. Kudos all around for finally getting this done.

HPD and Ring

We don’t have a Ring doorbell so this doesn’t affect me, but I do find it quite interesting.

The Houston Police Department announced Monday that it is joining Ring’s mobile app, Neighbors, in a move officials hope will reduce crime and improve safety in neighborhoods across the city, even as department officials complain of low staffing levels.

The HPD partnership with Ring, a rapidly growing home surveillance company that sells video doorbells and similar products, would help the police department communicate more effectively in real time with residents as crimes occur, Houston Police Burglary and Theft Division Commander Glenn Yorek said.

“HPD will be able to send alerts to neighbors of crime and safety incidents in real time, request information about local crime and safety from neighbors who opt in to sharing for a particular request, and work with the local community to build trust and to make the community safer,” Yorek said, announcing the partnership at the department’s downtown headquarters Monday morning.

The joint venture is the latest for Ring, a seven-year-old tech startup purchased by Amazon for more than $1 billion in February that has grown exponentially in recent years even as it has weathered criticism over its privacy practices and disputes over claims that its products reduce crime.

[…]

An article in MIT Technology Review reviewed Ring’s findings in the Los Angeles neighborhood and found that burglaries in subsequent years rose to levels higher than in any of the previous seven years.

And In West Valley City, Utah, officials performed a test in two neighborhoods of similar size and levels of crime. Both neighborhoods saw a drop in crime, according to the MIT Technology Review story, but the results were surprising: the neighborhood without the devices saw a more significant drop.

Maria Cuellar, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said there is not sufficient evidence to say whether Ring devices really reduce crime.

Ring’s study in Los Angeles was problematic because it relied on small sample sizes, Cuellar said, adding that a properly designed study, or more data and analysis, is needed to tell if Ring cameras are really effective at reducing crime.

I think the question about whether smart doorbell/home security systems like Ring have an effect on crime or not will never be settled. The sample sizes are small, there are likely to be regional variations, and so many factors affect crime that isolating one of them is nearly impossible. There still isn’t a consensus answer to the question of why violent crime has declined so precipitously since the mid-90’s; the lead hypothesis has a lot of evidence behind it, but plenty of people remain skeptical, and even its proponents don’t claim it’s the sole reason. As for the privacy concerns, that’s going to be up to everyone’s individual appetite for that kind of risk. I think if I were the type of person to install a Ring, I’d also want to have my local police department be a part of its Neighbors app. I’m not that kind of person, at least not at this time, so my response to this is mostly to shrug. Your mileage may vary.

We really are about to do away with the old cash bail system

I have four things to say about this.

The new slate of Democratic judges has approved a drastic revision to Harris County’s bail system that could serve as a model for a settlement in the historic lawsuit in which a federal judge found the county’s judicial rulings unjustly relegated poor people arrested on minor offenses to jail because they couldn’t afford costly bonds.

The 15 new court-at-law judges and new presiding Democrat who was not up for election voted Wednesday on the new bail protocol that will affect thousands. They have spent weeks hammering out a plan with the sheriff, the district attorney and county leadership and will ask the federal court this week to implement it as a foundation for a settlement.

County Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, the presiding judge, estimates that 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors will now qualify to be released after arrest on no-cash bonds, with a few exceptions for people who must await a hearing – for up to 48 hours – for bond violations, repeat drunken driving offenses and domestic violence charges. At that point, they may also qualify for personal recognizance bonds.

“What it means is that no one will be in jail because they cannot afford to get out,” Jordan said. “The only people who will be detained and have to speak to a judge are a very small subset who will be processed through the Harris County Jail and those carve outs are aligned with best practices from around the country.”

The change was widely celebrated.

“It’s a big day for Harris County,” said attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represents the judges in the federal lawsuit. “It will make Harris County safer and more equal and provide more efficient processing of people accused of misdemeanors.”

1. Elections have consequences. I almost can’t believe this is actually about to happen.

2. Just a reminder, many of the people now in the jail are there awaiting trial. They have not been convicted of anything. Many others like them in the past never were convicted of anything, and many more pled guilty to something so they could get out. This will ensure there are far, far fewer people like them in the future.

3. The question of who was in jail awaiting trial and who was not was always largely about financial wherewithal, not about risk and danger to society. Remember, Robert Durst was granted bail.

4. One hopes that having far fewer inmates, many of whom don’t need to be there, will allow us to do a better job of ensuring the safety of those inmates, and enabling the jail to meet state standards. No more inmate suicides, please. We really need to do better than that.

How legal pot affects Texas

It has many effects.

In just two weeks in October, the legal landscape for marijuana use in North America changed dramatically.

First, Canada opened sales of legalized pot for recreational use, and then Mexico’s high court delivered a definitive ruling that citizens have the right to possess the weed for their personal use. That leaves Texas virtually surrounded by states that allow marijuana for medical use — but not for recreational purposes — as well as being sandwiched between two neighboring countries that have liberalized their stance on personal usage of the drug.

And while the Lone Star State is a long way from following the example of Canada and Mexico, there seems to be growing support for at least reducing stiff criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of the weed. Currently, possession of less than two ounces of marijuana is a class B misdemeanor, punishable by a six-month jail term and a $2,000 fine.

“Even in Texas, public opinion seems to have shifted from criminalization to at least decriminalization, with strengthening support for legalization,” said Nora Demleitner, a professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia and the lead author of the textbook “Sentencing: Law and Policy.”

[…]

Despite the criminal penalties, Texas has two of the Top 10 consumer cities in the country. Houston occupies the fourth spot with an estimated 21 metric tons of weed consumed last year, after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, according to the 2018 Cannabis Price Index from the German company Seedo, which tracks the market around the world. Dallas is number seven with 15 metric tons.

That high demand in Houston and elsewhere in Texas, some experts say, is not being met by traditional drug smuggling networks alone.

“Today in Texas, consumers easily find a wider variety of cannabis products than a few years ago coming from all over the place,” said Dean Becker, a Baker Institute contributing expert in drug policy.

Becker explained that states like Colorado, California and Oregon are growing more than their markets can absorb, and smugglers are flourishing moving the merchandise to other marketplaces. Mexico, he said, isn’t the main Texas supplier anymore as their producers are struggling to compete with the higher quality of U.S. grown products.

[…]

“The cannabis industry is a job creator, which Mexico and Canada realize, and it also cuts into the portfolio of criminals by making its use and sale a legitimate business that (creates) jobs and revenue,” said Grissom, the former federal prosecutor.

Grissom says Colorado is a good example, which reported total cannabis sales of $1.5 billion in 2017, and a staggering $5.7 billion since sales began in January 2014, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

“These funds did not go to criminals but to entrepreneurs who created over 20,000 new full-time jobs that paid a living wage as well as a new source of (tax) revenue for the state,” he said.

Overall, “the nascent U.S. cannabis market is already double the size of Canada’s, at $8.5 billion dollars,” said Brad Alexander, a senior adviser at McGuireWoods Consulting, a public policy advisory firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. He predicts that by 2022, this market could top $20 billion.

As the story notes, multiple DAs, mostly in big counties, are now de-emphasizing pot prosecutions, and Texas legalized – in a very limited way – a form of medical marijuana. Greg Abbott has made some comments recently about supporting a reduction in penalties for possession, but I’ll believe that when I see an anointed bill that is supposed to accomplish that. As for the prospects for legalization, I’ll just note that the arguments for it – economic benefit, especially as we are currently losing business from Texans who want to engage in it to neighboring states – sound an awful lot to me like the perennial arguments for expanded gambling. I don’t need to tell you how successful that pursuit has been. I think some small reforms by the Lege, with broader reforms pushed at the county level, will happen. Beyond that, keep your hopes in check.

Watch your packages

They’re disappearing off porches at an increasing rate.

Package thefts have become a growing problem across the country, Texas and Houston as more people shop online. Nearly 26 million Americans have had a holiday package stolen, according to a study by InsuranceQuotes, an Austin-based online insurance marketplace.

In Houston, police say, package thefts have increased by 80 percent since 2015, when the Houston Police started tracking the crime. SafeWise, a home security company research firm, estimates that nearly 20 out of every 1,000 Houston residents have had packages stolen and ranks the city No. 7 in the nation for package theft.

Houston was the largest city on SafeWise’s national list, which was dominated by Texas cities including No. 1 Austin and No. 8 Dallas.

The problem, of course, is exacerbated during the holidays, the busiest shopping season of the year. Americans spent a record $110.6 billion online between Nov. 1 and Dec. 19, an increase of 17.8 percent from last year, according to Adobe Analytics, a research firm tracking online shopping

“When the number of packages goes up, thefts go up,” Houston Police spokesman John Cannon said.

Package theft is difficult to solve — even with the proliferation of security cameras and video doorbells — because it’s a crime of opportunity, said Sgt. Eugenio Gonzalez with Houston Police’s burglary and theft division While there are some groups of so-called porch pirates roaming around snatching packages, many are first-time criminals.

“It’s easy pickings,” said Gonzalez.

[…]

Some consumers are taking matters into their own hands by setting out decoy packages. Recently, a former NASA engineer rigged a package that sprayed glitter and a fart-smell cologne on porch pirates when they opened it — and filmed their reactions. The resulting video went viral on YouTube, with more than 42 million views.

Houston police don’t recommend people set out bait packages to try to catch package thieves. Instead, they encourage residents to call and report thefts and have officers investigate.

Residents should schedule deliveries when someone is home, or have it delivered to people’s workplace or a neighbor’s house, police said. The department also encourages installing video cameras, buying shipping insurance and using package lockers.

“I never tell anyone to take the law into their own hands,” Gonzalez said. “I myself will be getting a Ring video doorbell for my family.”

I wouldn’t recommend the decoy package thing either, but I thank the guy who did do it for the lolz. There are various ways to mitigate against the problem, from secure pickup locations to letting delivery people enter your home to the old-fashioned “drop it off with a neighbor” and “be at home when they deliver” strategies. Or, you know, maybe buy more stuff in stores. I’m just saying.

One Stockman aide sentenced

He cooperated.

Best newspaper graphic ever

A federal judge Wednesday sentenced an ex-GOP congressional aide to prison for 18 months for helping former U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman illegally pilfer $1.25 million in campaign funds from wealthy Republican political donors.

Thomas Dodd, a 40-year-old Houstonian, told the judge he was sorry for his actions and pledged to repay the donors after he is released from prison.

“I fully accept responsibility for the actions that brought me before you,’’ said Dodd, his voice breaking as he admitted helping Stockman solicit donations from conservative and then concealed how they were misused.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered Dodd to repay his share of $800,000 restitution to the donors, but denied his request to serve a year and day in prison. Prosecutors had asked that Dodd receive a two-year prison term.

“I have no doubt that you knew what you were doing was corrosive and destructive to the institutions that we hold dear,” said Rosenthal, who also ordered Dodd to serve three years of supervision after his release from prison.

Beats ten years in the clink, that’s for sure. Jason Posey, another Stockman aide who cooperated and pleaded guilty to three charges last year, gets sentenced in January. With any luck, we will never have to think about Steve Stockman after that again.

Paxton prosecutors want another shot

Good luck.

Best mugshot ever

The attorneys appointed to prosecute Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton indicated in a court filing this week that they aren’t giving up a long-running fight to take the state’s top lawyer to court — at least not yet.

The filing follows a Nov. 21 ruling from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that six-figure payments to the special prosecutors were outside legal limits. The prosecutors, who have not been paid since 2016, had in the past suggested that if they did not get paid, they might leave the case, which has dragged on for more than three years.

Brian Wice, one of those prosecutors, on Monday filed a document with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seeking more time to ask the court to rehear the case. If the court grants his request, prosecutors would have until Dec. 21 to try and convince the high court to reconsider their case. Wice declined to comment on Tuesday.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the fractured court handed down a total of six opinions, including three dissents. The all-Republican court will welcome one new member, Michelle Slaughter, in the new year.

See here for the background. I know asking for a re-hearing is a normal thing, though I have no idea how often it works. Maybe with a new judge coming on board there’s a chance of a different outcome, I don’t know. Maybe because the opinions were all over the place the justices themselves might be open to reconsidering. It can’t hurt. I just don’t expect much to change. The DMN has more.

CCA may have killed the Paxton prosecution

Ugh. Just, ugh.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday potentially imperiled the long-delayed criminal prosecution of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, ruling that payments to special prosecutors were outside legal limits.

If they cannot get paid, the prosecutors have suggested they could withdraw from the case against Paxton, a three-year-long legal saga that has dragged on in fits and starts amid side fights like the dispute over legal fees.

In its opinion Wednesday, the state’s highest criminal court said a lower trial court was wrong last year to approve a six-figure payment to the three special prosecutors handling the Paxton case. The prosecutors’ invoice was rejected by commissioners in Collin County — Paxton’s home county — touching off the legal fight that made its way to the Court of Criminal Appeals.

“Here, the trial court exceeded its authority by issuing an order for payment of frees that is not in accordance with an approved fee schedule containing reasonable fixed rates or minimum and maximum rates,” the opinion said.

The Court of Criminal Appeals invalidated the payment and ordered the lower court to re-issue it in accordance with the fee schedule.

“While we are disappointed with the majority’s ruling and are exploring all legal options available to us, it does not alter the fact that Ken Paxton remains charged with three serious felony offenses,” the prosecutors said in a statement responding to the ruling.

See here, here, and here for the background. I have no idea what happens next. A copy of the opinion is here, and the Observer has some thoughts. Maybe the prosecutors stick it out – maybe now Collin County will agree to pay them something reasonable, now that they can dictate the terms more. Maybe they step down and some other prosecutors step in. Maybe it all goes up in flames. The fact that we’re having this conversation at all is a scandal that needs to be addressed by the Lege. The possibility that Paxton may end up skating because the system as designed was not capable of finding a prosecutor for the charges against him is too gruesome to contemplate, so I’m not going to think about it any more today. Have some turkey or turkey-alternative, watch some football, and quit griping about how it’s Christmas season already. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

The Innocence Project and the prosecutor

Fascinating case.

Attorneys with the group that helped exonerate Texan Michael Morton two decades after he was wrongly convicted of killing his wife were back at the Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday. But this time, instead of uncovering prosecutorial misconduct, they were sticking up for a former prosecuting attorney who they say should be a model for how to do the job.

Eric Hillman was an assistant district attorney in Nueces County who was fired in 2014 after refusing to follow a supervisor’s order to hide evidence that was favorable to a defendant in a felony intoxication assault case.

The New York-based Innocence Project took on Hillman’s case in March after lower courts dismissed his wrongful termination lawsuit, citing Texas sovereign immunity laws that protect government agencies from lawsuits in the interest of saving taxpayers money.

Hillman’s attorneys, Chris Gale and Philip Durst, a lawyer with the Innocence Project, argued that his firing goes against a state law designed to prevent wrongful convictions. They also asked the court to amend a 1985 ruling to give prosecutors and district attorneys additional protection if they are fired for refusing to break the law.

“The state has had more exonerations than any other, and has taken remarkable steps to prevent wrongful convictions by passing a series of laws to correct the system’s flaws,” said Nina Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project, in a statement. “But these new laws can only work if the prosecutors who enforce them are also protected.”

The Innocence Project helped argue the case before the Supreme Court, the first time in the organization’s 27-year history that its lawyers appeared in court on behalf of a prosecutor. The nonprofit legal group is best known for helping exonerate 350 wrongfully convicted individuals.

So consider this another reminder that taking the time and making the effort to achieve justice rather than rack up results means fewer innocent people in jail, more guilty people being arrested, and far less resources being used on the back end trying to fix the godawful mess that sloppy, indifferent, and often racist prosecutions create. Sure seems to me like the better way to go.

More on the Woodfill raid

Yeah.

Former Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill is being investigated on theft and money laundering allegations, accused of misappropriating funds of at least two of his law firm’s clients, according to an affidavit by the Harris County District Attorney’s office.

Authorities on Monday seized 127 boxes of files, six computers and disk drives from the Houston high-rise office of the Woodfill Law Firm at Three Riverway, according to the returned search warrant filed in Harris County district court on Tuesday.

In his affidavit for the search warrant, which also targeted computer logins, passwords, memory devices, and telephones owned by Woodfill or the law firm, fraud examiner Bryan Vaclavik indicated authorities were seeking evidence used to commit felony offenses of misapplication of fiduciary property, theft and money laundering.

No charges have been filed against anyone in connection with the ongoing investigation. The Harris County District Attorney’s office declined comment on the investigation.

Investigators seized financial records, legal files, documents and correspondence on Monday related to two divorce cases handled by the firm, the search warrant documents show.

The ongoing investigation has nothing to do with Woodfill’s party activities, his attorney Jimmy Ardoin told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday.

Woodfill was chairman of the county Republican Party for 12 years, before losing the post in 2014.

Ardoin said his client had no advance notice of the search and had no details about the allegations beyond the content of the search warrant.

Ardoin said he had been in contact with the district attorney’s office about its review of finances in a divorce case for three to four months and was dismayed that Woodfill was not allowed to provide information voluntarily.

“We believe there’s an accusation of misappropriation of client funds,” Ardoin said. “We have yet to get confirmation of what it is.”

See here for the background. I’m going to try to not get ahead of the facts, and to wait patiently for things to happen in this case – remember, as the story says, no charges have been filed as yet against anyone. But as I think about who Jared Woodfill is, boy will it be tough to do that.

Police raid Jared Woodfill’s office

Oh, my.

Authorities on Monday raided the law office of former Harris County Republican Party chairman Jared Woodfill.

Investigators with the Harris County District Attorney’s office wheeled carts of documents from Woodfill’s office at 3 Riverway at least an hour after they arrived.

[…]

Woodfill is the subject of two separate formal complaints — one to the State Bar of Texas and the other to the Houston Police Department. In both complaints, Woodfill is accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients’ trust accounts.

In the criminal complaint, filed in March 2017, Richard Rodriguez accused Woodfill’s firm of stealing more than $300,000 from a divorce trust account. Rodriguez said Monday he believed the search was related to his complaint.

Oh, my, my.

Documents show Woodfill was reprimanded by the state bar two months ago for failure to take reasonable action in another divorce case.

The state bar, which oversees lawyers, ordered him to take classes in billing, trust accounts or law practice management.

All of that on top of two other civil cases in which opponents recently demanded Woodfill pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees.

It’s too early to say what all this is about. We don’t even know for certain that Woodfill himself is the subject of any investigation. But, um, none of this looks great.

Stockman gets ten years

Fitting.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Former Congressman Steve Stockman, a Tea Party stalwart who represented East Texas during two non-consecutive terms, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison on Wednesday for his role in a wide-ranging scheme that included a spy operation aimed a fellow Republican challenger and $1.25 million in campaign funds pilfered from conservative megadonors.

Stockman, 61, of Clear Lake, said nothing in court after Chief U.S. Judge Lee H. Rosenthal sentenced the former beltway firebrand who in April was convicted by a jury on 23 felony counts stemming from unlawful use of charitable donations.

Stockman, who was wearing an orange jail uniform and beige rubber clogs and was chained at the ankles, faced the potential of more than 20 years on each of seven mail and wire fraud charges, as well as 10 years on each of 11 money laundering counts, five years apiece on two counts of making false statements, plus five years for making coordinated campaign contributions and up to three years for filing a false tax return.

His new defense lawyer, Marlo Cadeddu, asked for a 13-month sentence, which she said was average for a corruption case.

But Rosenthal said the short sentence “doesn’t come close to capturing this unique violation of public trust.”

“You stole money and used it for personal gain and you used it to violate the public trust,” Rosenthal told Stockman before he was sentenced. “You cheated the American taxpayer.”

She said her sentencing took into account that he sneaked around and had people go through trash of his perceived opponent, that he cheated taxpayers and tried to cover up his acts and continued to seek the political spotlight.

[…]

In addition to the 10-year federal jail term, Stockman faces three years of supervised release. He was also ordered t pay $1.014 million in restitution.

See here for some background, or just search the archives for “Stockman”. Sorry, but I’m fresh out of sympathy for grifters. He got what was coming to him. Jason Posey and Thomas Dodd, who pled out and testified against their former boss, will be sentenced on December 12. The Trib has more.

You know, there is a cheaper way to do this

Why are we still outsourcing inmates?

County commissioners next week will consider a proposal to outsource inmates to the Fort Bend County Jail, which would allow Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to slow — but not stop — the flow of inmates to a private prison in Louisiana.

The deal would bring as many as several hundred inmates closer to their families and attorneys, but would cost Harris County more than twice as much as shipping prisoners to Jackson Parish, La. It would also fail to address the root causes of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail, one of the nation’s largest, and prolong an elaborate game of musical chairs as the sheriff searches for jails to take his inmates.

Harris County’s 10,162 inmates are already spread across five facilities in Texas and Louisiana. It currently outsources 724 inmates, more than twice as many as any other Texas county.

[…]

“If there’s a desire to bring inmates closer to Harris County, this is the best deal we’ve been able to find so far,” said Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Spencer. “It doesn’t fully address the outsourcing issue, but it chips away at it.”

Harris County pays $29.33 per inmate, per day at Jackson Parish Correctional Center, with transport included. Fort Bend’s per diem is $55.00, and Harris County would also have to pay for transport. Spencer said the additional costs would push the county’s total monthly inmate outsourcing bill to around $1 million.

The jail had stopped farming out inmates in 2017 but a backlog in the courts following Harvey led to a surplus of people in the jail, and so here we are today. The monthly cost of doing so now is more than $500K, which will go up to about $1 million with the more expensive Fort Bend option. That may not be a choice as defense attorneys in Harris County have asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to bar sending inmates out of state. I know you know but I’m going to say anyway that if we had fewer inmates in the jail – and remember, the lion’s share of these inmates have not been convicted of any crime – we wouldn’t need to spend this money. It’s a choice we’re making, one we’ve been making for way too many years. At least we get to make another choice this November.

How many police forces do we need?

It’s an age-old question.

Harris County could save millions of dollars a year by consolidating overlapping law enforcement agencies, from sharing technological resources to reallocating duties from constables to the sheriff’s department, according to a report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

The report, which was released Thursday, revives several decades-old ideas to combine resources between law enforcement agencies in Harris County, despite likely opposition from the agencies and county government, which would have the ultimate authority in enacting many of the proposed changes.

[…]

Kinder studied the 60 law enforcement agencies that form a patchwork of separate but sometimes overlapping patrols within Harris County, including the sheriff’s office, the Houston Police Department, constables’ offices, school district police departments and smaller municipal police departments. Those agencies spend a combined $1.6 billion per year on law enforcement, according to the report.

“We do have a system that, for all intents and purposes, is working fairly well,” Kinder researcher Kyle Shelton said. “But there are clearly places where there are overlaps and places where we could see what efficiencies would work.”

Among ideas included in the report are a merger of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s police department with the Houston Police Department, and the consolidation of smaller municipal police departments into a larger network.

One of the report’s most aggressive ideas to consolidate would be to move patrol duties from the eight Harris County constables’ offices to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Political opposition to that idea would be too difficult to overcome because agencies would have to cede governing power, [County Commissioner Steve] Radack said.

“People can study it and study it and study it, but I can assure you … the people that are really familiar with this are all going to say, no” said Radack, who was formerly the Precinct 5 constable.

You can see the report here. Two points I would add: One, this is not limited to Harris County. Two, the list above leaves out police departments associated with universities, community colleges, and medical schools. There’s a lot of law enforcement agencies out there.

I find it interesting that the main argument against any sort of consolidation is that there would be political opposition to it, as Commissioner Radack notes. I don’t doubt that he’s right, but it’s not a reason, it’s a justification. Some reforms would require legislative assistance – Constables are constitutional offices, after all – while others shouldn’t need anything more than various entities working together. I’m pretty sure that there’s a dollar figure that could be attached to each recommendation in that report. Maybe if we start talking about it, we can decide what if any of these ideas are really worth pursuing, even in the face of political opposition.

Arkema indictments

This will cause a stir.

A Harris County grand jury on Friday indicted the French chemical company Arkema and two executives for the “reckless” release of toxic chemicals during Hurricane Harvey last August, a move that alarmed industry leaders and surprised environmental advocates.

The company, CEO Richard Rowe and plant manager Leslie Comardelle put residents and first responders at risk when the Crosby plant caught fire as Harvey dumped record rainfall on the Houston area, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s office.

“As the hurricane approached, Arkema was more concerned about production and profit than people,” said Alexander Forrest, chief of the District Attorney’s environmental crimes division.

The last time a chemical company faced criminal charges for a major incident in Texas was 2005, when an explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery killed 15 workers and injured almost 200. BP paid $50 million in fines for the incident but no one from the company served prison time.

Arkema called the criminal charges filed against it “astonishing” and pledged to fight them vigorously.

“There has never been an indictment like this in Texas or any other state,” Arkema attorney Rusty Hardin said. “It would set an ominous precedent if a company could be held criminally liable for impact suffered as a result of the historic flooding of Hurricane Harvey that no one, including Harris County itself, was prepared for.”

But federal documents showed Arkema wasn’t even prepared for a much smaller flood, despite being partially located in a floodplain.

[…]

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said she’d go after companies who pollute. Environmental advocates applauded her actions.

“I hope these kinds of criminal charges will really get the attention of not just Arkema but the industry more broadly,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of the advocacy group Environment Texas. “They can’t play fast and loose with safety standards and the protection of the public.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Arkema is also being sued by Harris County, which is usually how these things go when any action is taken. Going for indictments is a bold move, one that hasn’t been done before, but one that is at least worth considering, given the circumstances. Whether the indictments will survive the motions to quash them, and the appeals in those motions are denied, is the key question. I will keep an eye on this.

The Schlitterbahn story

Texas Monthly does its thing on Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry and the criminal charges that stemmed from the death of an 11-year-old boy on the biggest ride at the park in Kansas City.

Investigators and detectives from the Kansas City Police Department, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and the Kansas attorney general’s office also arrived at Schlitterbahn. A detective interviewed 29-year-old Tyler Miles, who had been working at the park since 2013 and had advanced from construction worker to lifeguard to director of operations, responsible for all aspects of the park’s day-to-day ride operations. “Have you been aware of any complaints regarding Verrückt the ride in the last season?” the detective asked.

Miles answered, “I have not, sir,” according to the detective. His lawyers would later say he was so confident in the ride’s safety that on the very day that Caleb was killed, he had brought his wife to the park to ride Verrückt.

Investigators later learned, however, that Schlitterbahn employees were required to submit regular “ops reports” about the rides they monitored and, according to reports that the investigators read, Verrückt had problems that were never revealed to the public. For instance, eleven Schlitterbahn customers said they had been injured on Verrückt between August 31, 2014, and August 5, 2016 (two days before Caleb’s death). In five of the incidents, riders claimed they were injured while their rafts were still in the chute. (One rider reported that her head had slammed into the headrest and she sustained a concussion when her raft entered the runout pool at a high speed.) In five other incidents, riders claimed their rafts went airborne over the crest of the second hill and that they suffered head, neck, and back injuries when their rafts slammed back down onto the chute. And a man named Norris “J. J.’’ Groves reported that when his raft went airborne, his face and forehead struck the netting and a metal hoop, causing his right eye to swell shut for the rest of the day.

An investigator spoke to a seventeen-year-old lifeguard who said that Miles had ordered him to write a report that downplayed the severity of the Groves incident. Meanwhile, sifting through Verrückt’s maintenance reports, other investigators concluded that Miles had avoided or delayed making repairs that would have taken the ride out of commission. According to investigators, Miles hadn’t even ordered repairs when a Schlitterbahn manager informed him, on July 15, 2016 (three weeks before Caleb’s death), that maintenance work on Verrückt’s brake system was a priority.

What’s more, according to court documents, the investigators learned that on July 3, 2014, one week before the ride’s grand opening, an engineering firm hired by Jeff and Schooley to perform accelerometer tests on Verrückt’s rafts had issued a report suggesting that if the combined weight of the three passengers in a raft was between 400 and 550 pounds—the weight Jeff and Schooley had agreed was appropriate—there was a chance the raft would go airborne on the second hill. The ride opened anyway, with the weight range unchanged.

By 2017, attorneys for Schlitterbahn were meeting with the Schwab family’s attorneys. They eventually agreed that the water park and various companies associated with the design and construction of Verrückt would pay Caleb’s family a $20 million settlement, an astonishing sum. The two sisters who had ridden behind Caleb, both of whom suffered facial injuries, also received a settlement, of an undisclosed amount.

Still, neither Jeff nor his siblings offered any public explanation for what had happened. Had there been a problem with the distribution of the three passengers’ weight that caused the raft to lift off into the air? Had something gone wrong with the cannon nozzle that shot the raft up the second hill? Was the wind a factor? No one seemed to know, not even Jeff.

He said he wanted to return to Verrückt, which closed immediately after Caleb’s death but still loomed over the Kansas City landscape like some grisly monument, so he could find out what had gone wrong. His hope, he said, was to reconstruct the fatal ride exactly as it took place, assisted by a team of independent experts. But prosecutors for the Kansas attorney general’s office persuaded a judge to lock down the ride. They believed it was a valuable piece of evidence that should not be touched. Schlitterbahn was perhaps not the scene of a freak horrific accident, the prosecutors were saying, but the scene of a crime.

See here for the background and be sure to read the whole thing, as any story by Skip Hollandsworth is worth reading. Verrückt has since been torn down, and if there is a criminal trial it will happen next year. I’m still struggling with how I feel about this, and I hope that enough facts come out during the trial to help me sort it out. Read the story and see what you think.

Darian Ward indicted on charge of violating public information laws

Wow.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s former press secretary, Darian Ward, was indicted by a grand jury this week for failing to turn over public records in response to a reporter’s request late last year.

The indictment, handed up Tuesday but released by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office Thursday, says Ward, in “misrepresenting” the number of emails responsive to a reporter’s request for correspondence about her personal business activities, “unlawfully, with criminal negligence … failed and refused to give access to … public information.”

Ward resigned in January, weeks after news broke that she had been suspended for withholding the records, and because the records showed she had routinely conducted personal business on city time.

[…]

“Mayor Turner expects every city of Houston employee to comply with the Texas Public Information Act,” mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said, noting the mayor was on a trade mission to South America. “Questions about today’s grand jury decision should be directed to the Harris County District Attorney’s office.”

She is charged with failure or refusal by an officer for public information to provide access to public information, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, six months in jail or both.

The indictment first was reported by KPRC Channel 2.

[…]

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said it is common for officials to stall the release of records or impose unreasonable charges for the documents’ release without technically violating the law, and many more — typically unprovable — cases in which requesters suspect the act is being violated.

“It is very important that officials are taking the Texas Public Information Act seriously,” Shannon said. “Whatever comes out of this indictment, it shows that attention is being focused on the Public Information Act and the importance of adhering to the act.”

See here and here for some background on Darian Ward’s end of tenure with the city. I’m irresponsibly speculating well in advance of any evidence, but I would not be surprised if this winds up with a plea deal and a minimal fine. Whether that sets an example for adhering to the Public Information Act or not is up for debate, but I will agree that this law is routinely ignored and should be enforced more often. Those of you with long memories may recall the Rick Perry email saga, which included a complaint filed with the Travis County DA that did not result in any charges. We live in different times now, I guess.

Larry Nasser indicted in Walker County

It’s something, but it’s not enough.

A Walker County grand jury Friday indicted two former USA Gymnastics officials, disgraced physician Larry Nassar and athletic trainer Debra Van Horn, in conjunction with Nassar’s sexual abuse of gymnasts at the Karolyi Ranch in the Sam Houston National Forest.

Investigators, however, said they had no evidence on which to base charges against famed coaches Bela and Martha Karoyli, whose secluded ranch served for two decades as the women’s national team training center and where Nassar is accused of abusing world class gymnasts, including Olympic gold medalists, for two decades under the guise of medical care.

Nassar, who is serving the equivalent of a life sentence after pleading guilty in Michigan to state charges of sexual abuse and federal charges of possessing child pornography, was indicted on six charges of sexual abuse of a child, a second-degree felony punishable by two to 20 prison years, a maximum $10,000 fine or both.

Van Horn, who worked for USA Gymnastics for almost 30 years through last January, most recently as director of sports medicine services, was indicted on one charge of sexual abuse of a child. She is not in custody, but her attorney, Philip Hilder of Houston, who also is representing USA Gymnastics in two Walker County lawsuits, has been informed of the indictment, officials said.

[…]

The decision to indict Nassar and Van Horn but to spare the Karolyis was greeted with greeted with thanks by the Karolyis’ attorney, David Berg, and with disdain by John Manly, who represents several dozen of Nassar’s victims and has filed lawsuits against USA Gymnastics and the Karolyis for failure to protect athletes from Nassar’s abuse.

“The Karolyis are grateful to the Texas Rangers and the Walker County DA’s office for reaching the only conclusion they could have reached, that this exonerates them and removes a terrible cloud,” Berg said.

“They will continue to cooperate, but this investigation could go on until the end of time and there will never be charges against Bela and Martha Karolyi because they have done nothing wrong.”

Manly, in contrast, said the decision to indict Nassar, in light of the lengthy prison sentences already handed down, made as much sense as “digging up Lee Harvey Oswald and indicting him for the murder of President Kennedy.”

“Walker County made it clear to the survivors that they the Karolyis were never going to be a target of the investigation. This is a classic example of insiders protecting insiders,” he said.

“Their universal response of the survivors and their families is they feel nauseous about the way this was handled. I am convinced if this were a high school football team in Walker County, they would have gotten better treatment than these women did. … I’ve seen police departments take speeding violations more seriously.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I mean, maybe there wasn’t sufficient evidence to charge the Karolyis with a crime, despite all of the criminal activity happening at their ranch that they apparently failed to notice or take action on, but it sure seems like there ought to have been. It’s hardly out of the question that the Walker County DA might have given them more courtesy than they deserved. Perhaps we’ll find out more as the various lawsuits work their way through the courts. But for now, this is what we have. Deadspin and ThinkProgress have more.

Don’t expect a Ken Paxton trial to happen this year

Delays, delays, nothing but delays.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was indicted for fraud nearly three years ago but is unlikely to go on trial before Election Day.

Paxton’s trials are on hold while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decides whether the prosecutors on the case are being overpaid. The court went on summer recess Wednesday, and won’t hear any cases or issue any major opinions before the fall.

This means they won’t announce a decision in the pay case until September, at the earliest, which experts said will delay Paxton’s trial dates until after the Nov. 6 election — and probably into next year.

“I just don’t see there’s any way it gets tried before the election,” said Rusty Hardin, a Houston attorney who has represented everyone from Enron employees to athletes and TV stars. “I would have doubted that the trial would have happened before the election even if the Court of Criminal Appeals would have decided today.”

There’s more, so read the rest. Just for a sense of the timeline here, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas halted the special prosecutors’ pay last February, then ruled they had to give a bunch of it back to Collin County in August. The CCA then stayed that ruling pending any action it would take in September, and after giving everyone 30 days to respond to the prosecutors’ appeal of the 5th Court’s ruling, they agreed in December to formally review that ruling. At that time, it delayed the actual Paxton trial, which was originally set to start on December 11, to this year. More than six months later, the CCA has not scheduled oral arguments for that appeal, and so here we are. There are other factors at play here – the damage done to the Harris County courthouse by Harvey greatly complicates things, for example – but either until this lawsuit gets resolved, nothing else will happen. And just any ruling won’t get us back on track, because if the CCA lets the 5th Court’s ruling stand, the special prosecutors will resign, and we’ll have to start more or less from scratch. Ken Paxton could well be collecting his state pension by the time this sucker gets to a courthouse.

You’ve heard the expression that “justice delayed is justice denied”. Usually, that applies to the defendant, who is entitled by the Constitution to a fair and prompt trial. In this case, as Democratic nominee for AG Justin Nelson says in a statement, Ken Paxton is benefiting from the unending delays, with the assistance of his legislative cronies. You’d think a guy who loudly proclaims his innocence would want to get this over with, but not Ken Paxton. It would seem he’s just fine with putting this off, at least until after the election. Feel free to speculate as to why that might be.

Uresti gets 12 years

Harsh, but hardly unfair.

Carlos Uresti

Standing before a federal judge in a San Antonio courtroom on Tuesday afternoon, former state Sen. Carlos Uresti was contrite.

“I truly feel remorseful, ashamed, disappointed, disgraced, angry at myself and sad,” Uresti told the court, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

But shortly after, speaking to reporters outside the courthouse about his plans to appeal a 12-year federal prison sentence he said he does not “believe is fair and just,” the two-decade veteran of the Texas Legislature seemed anything but remorseful.

The sentence he received Tuesday — and the $6.3 million in restitution he’s been ordered to pay to victims of a Ponzi scheme he was convicted of helping carry out — is “just another obstacle,” Uresti said.

“When you’re right, you never give up,” he said. “And we’re right, so we’re not going to give up.”

See here for the background. He still has a second federal trial to undergo in October, so this is not as bad as it may get. I wonder if there was a dawning realization that a multi-year sentence was likely, and that this was what finally got him to resign, four months after his conviction. Whatever the case, and acknowledging that he did do some good things as a Senator, I’m glad he finally stepped down. As to what happens from here, I can’t say I have any feelings about it. The whole affair was sad, but Carlos Uresti is a grown man who made his own choices. He can live with the consequences of those choices.