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Crime and Punishment

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.

In which we try again to eliminate a rape kit backlog

How exactly did we get here?

The city’s independent crime lab on Tuesday announced an ambitious plan to clear a backlog of hundreds of rape kits and other DNA evidence, the latest effort to rein in a recurring problem that has bedeviled criminal prosecutions for more than a decade.

Over a 10-month period, the Houston Forensic Science Center plans to spend $2 million to outsource testing of nearly 1,000 cases and cross-train staff in data analysis with the hope of preventing similar backlogs in the future.

“HFSC, like many labs across the country, has long struggled with backlogs in its DNA section,” said Dr. Peter Stout, HFSC’s CEO and president. “Our plan is to simultaneously eliminate a longstanding backlog while building a sustainable, efficient process that allows for an average 30-day turnaround time on DNA work.”

Officials said cross-training staff would help alleviate future delays, particularly during the data analysis of the testing, a time-intensive process that fewer than 10 analysts are authorized to perform.

[…]

Evidence backlogs have plagued Houston law enforcement for decades. A 2002 scandal at the Houston Police Department’s crime lab led the department to temporarily shutter its lab and led to calls for a regional testing lab.

The department reopened its lab, but then weathered additional scandals in 2009, after its rape kit backlog swelled to more than 4,000 cases and its fingerprint backlog surpassed 6,000 cases.

That same year, the National Academy of Sciences found serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system, and called for forensic labs to be operated independently of law enforcement departments.

Four years later, after spending millions of dollars, the department announced that it had cleared its rape kit backlog.

Questions, I have questions.

1. As the story notes, the previous backlog, which predates the creation of the HFSC, was cleared in 2013. Like I said up front, how did we get here five years later?

2. To be more specific, is this a matter of priorities, or of resources? If it’s priorities, what tasks for the lab are being prioritized over “rape kits and other DNA evidence”?

3. If it’s resources – the story does note that “fewer than 10 analysts are authorized to perform” the backlogged tasks – then what will it cost to avoid this in the future? Where does that funding come from?

4. Not a question, but since someone (such as a former candidate for Mayor whose name I no longer feel obligated to mention) will surely call for the HFSC to be merged with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, I will simply note that the HCIFS has had its own backlog issues in recent years.

I can understand why these questions might not have been addressed in the initial reporting. I do hope they will come up in subsequent stories.

Carlos Uresti resigns

About fscking time.

Carlos Uresti

Finally heeding calls from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, state Sen. Carlos Uresti announced his resignation Monday, four months after he was found guilty of 11 felonies.

The news comes just over a week before the San Antonio Democrat is set to be sentenced by a federal judge in San Antonio; experts predict his penalty will be 8 to 12 years of prison time. He’s also scheduled for a trial in October on separate fraud and bribery charges.

“As you know, I am in the process of ensuring that justice is served,” Uresti wrote in a statement Monday. “I need to attend to my personal matters and properly care for my family. So, keeping in mind the best interests of my constituents and my family, I believe it to be most prudent that I step down from my elected office to focus on these important issues.”

[…]

His resignation will become effective Thursday.

In his announcement Monday, Uresti asked Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special election for the seat on the next uniform election date, which is the general election date in November. Doing so, he said, would save the district’s 17 counties thousands of dollars. The governor’s office did not immediately return a request for comment on timing for the election.

Several Democrats have already lined up to replace Uresti. State Rep. Roland Gutierrez announced his bid for the seat less than a month after the conviction; in early April, former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego joined the fray as well.

See here and here for the background. Assuming we do get a November special election, which would join the other November special election(s) that we should get, we can have a replacement for Uresti sworn in and ready to go no worse than January, which is so much better than waiting till after November for a special election to be set. I’m sure there will be others besides Gutierrez and Gallego in the race, and as before I don’t have a preference at this time. Uresti set a low bar to clear, so an upgrade is likely. I for one am very ready for that.

No set-aside for Stockman

Sorry, Stevie.

Best newspaper graphic ever

A Texas federal judge has declined to set aside a jury’s conviction of former U.S. Rep. Stephen Stockman, R-Texas, who was found guilty in April of funneling what were solicited as charitable contributions into accounts that funded political campaigns and personal expenses, holding there was plenty of evidence to support the outcome.

Stockman’s defense team asked Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal for an acquittal in May, after a jury convicted Stockman, 60, who was indicted in March 2017, on 23 of 24 counts and acquitted him on one count of wire fraud. Jurors deliberated for a little more than 15 hours over three days before returning their unanimous verdict in the trial that began with jury selection on March 19.

The former congressman’s attorneys argued in their motion that he’s entitled to an acquittal because a “reasonable-minded jury” couldn’t have seen the evidence presented at trial and concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty. What the evidence did show, they argued, is that the wealthy conservative mega-donors Stockman was accused of defrauding — the now-deceased Stanford Z. Rothschild Jr. and Richard Uihlein — knew what Stockman was intending to use the funds for.

Stockman argued that while the evidence may have shown he was complicit in an illegal scheme involving campaign donations, it doesn’t show that he defrauded the rich donors who he alleges were “knowing participants.”

In her order issued Wednesday, Judge Rosenthal rejected that argument, noting that the government put Uihlein on the stand during the trial, and he testified he was misled about how the funds would be used.

“The evidence was sufficient for a jury to reasonably conclude that Stockman intended to defraud Uihlein,” the judge wrote. “The clear weight of the evidence supported the convictions. The jury credited Uihlein’s explanation and description of what Stockman told him and what he knew, believed, and expected as a result. The jury clearly did not believe the evidence that Stockman’s counsel cites to make the argument about Uihlein’s ‘real’ motive.”

See here for the background. Stockman remains in custody until he receives his sentence on August 17. I’m never going to get tired of these updates.

Who watches the anonymous tipsters?

Am I the only one who sees the potential for problems with this?

Want a safe way to anonymously report suspicious activity at your neighborhood school to prevent a potential school shooting? There’s an app for that.

In light of last month’s school shooting at Santa Fe High School, the Texas Department of Public Safety on Friday announced the launch of its “iWatch Texas” app giving students, teachers and parents a new tool to anonymously report incidents, suspicious activity or odd behavior to a network of federal, state, regional and local law enforcement authorities.

The app’s launch is part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s 40-part plan to ensure schools are safer in light of a school shooting at Santa Fe High School where a 17-year-old student opened fire on students there, killing 10 people and injuring 13. His other recommendations include beefing up security and hiring more school counselor.

The iWatch initiative is part of the DPS Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division, which operates as an information clearinghouse in Texas. The iWatch system feeds information to the Texas Fusion Center’s watch center 24 hours a day to coordinate with local law enforcement. Other states have created similar apps.

I should note that the IWatchTX.org website has been in existence since at least 2013. What’s new is the app, which you can find in the usual places. You can put in your contact information, but you don’t have to, and that’s my concern about this. What’s to stop people from anonymously filing false reports? It’s well known that when law enforcement advertises a tip line for help with particular cases, they are inundated with useless information, from delusions and nonsense to people reporting loved ones and rivals out of spite or revenge. The odds that people with bad motives will use this app for nefarious, even sinister purposes are very high.

Now, it says on the IWatchTX website that each report “will be reviewed by an analyst to determine if similar reporting exists and to ensure the appropriate referrals are made”, so clear-cut BS will likely be filtered out. That’s still going to mean DPS resources are being used on filtering it out, and innocent people may still get caught up in it. I get what DPS is trying to do, and I agree there may be value in it, but I say DPS will need to be transparent about the reports they get via this app. What percentage of them turn out to be viable, and what percentage is straight-up baloney? What percentage of the people targeted by false reports are minorities? The public needs to know these things to feel secure that law enforcement efforts are being used wisely. If there’s not already a provision in the law to make that happen, someone needs to push a bill in the next Legislature to make one.

The problem with more cops in schools

I haven’t had anything to say so far about Greg Abbott’s proposed responses to the Santa Fe school shooting. There isn’t much to say about it – these are a bunch of small changes around the margins, all while scrupulously avoiding any mention of ways to understand the causes of gun violence or strategies to actually try to reduce it. It basically takes it as a given that hey, people are gonna get shot, so we may want to try to make it a little harder on the shooters. RG Ratcliffe has a critique that’s worth reading, but Mimi Swartz really gets at an issue that has not gotten the attention it deserves.

But overall, the governor’s plan to address school safety is profoundly regressive in ways that go far beyond the gun control debate. His call for more police and more military style security raises crucial questions about what kind of places schools should be. Specifically, his plans for more armed guards, armed teachers, and armed staffers will erase a decade or so of progress in making schools more welcoming—and Texas’ kids better educated.

Maybe few Texans recall the Zero Tolerance era, which started with the Pre-Columbine U.S. Congress’ Gun Free Schools Act in 1994 that required a one year automatic expulsion for any kid who brought a gun to school. The Clinton Administration encouraged schools receiving federal funding to adopt the tenets of gun free schools, which became the basis of zero tolerance policies in other areas. There were many unexpected consequences, especially punishments for minor infractions that could be looped in with the War on Drugs—along with entering a classroom without permission, or roughhousing on a school bus, kids could be expelled for bringing asthma inhalers and Sudafed to school. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that the Zero Tolerance Era coincided with the Tough on Crime Era of the Bush and Clinton administrations which led to exponential increases in prison sentences for minor offenses, particularly for men of color. The so-called school to prison pipeline was born.

Over the ensuing years, groups like Texas Appleseed worked overtime to issue reports and lobby the legislature to reduce school suspensions (some of which started in kindergarten) and dire punishments for, say, talking back to teachers. Their reports also showed that so-called Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs were basically low cost jails for kids and profit centers for private companies that did nothing but put good kids in with bad and offered no educational value to either. Studies also showed that putting more police in schools had a detrimental effect on learning, especially among poor and minority kids who were now the target of police abuse both on the street and in schools. It wasn’t surprising that dropout rates increased.

Over time, it became clear that Zero Tolerance just didn’t work. Newer programs like Restorative Justice, which allow kids to have their say and teach them to take responsibility for their actions, have won the support of liberal and conservative groups largely because they do. Even though they can be more labor intensive, they have been shown in numerous studies to keep kids in school and violence down. “What we have shown in our research and what we know experts have documented across the U.S. is that an increase in law enforcement doesn’t lead to a safer school and often results in real harm, particularly for students of color and students with disabilities,” explained Deborah Fowler, Executive Director of Texas Appleseed.

Abbott’s report, then, has the musty whiff of a darker time, despite protestations that more protections—offering gun training to nearly everyone who isn’t a student—are needed to keep kids safe. This despite an FBI report, among others, that shows no statistical evidence that putting more armed people in schools reduces school violence.

There’s more, so read the rest. It’s hard to know how much support there will be for these proposals, even with both chambers getting a head start on studying them. I just hope there are some voices expressing these concerns while that is happening.

Stockman remains in custody

So sorry.

Best newspaper graphic ever

A federal judge ruled for the second time that former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman is a flight risk and ordered him to remain in federal custody while he awaits sentencing in an elaborate $1.25 million fraud scheme.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered the former GOP lawmaker detained in April after his conviction, following a four-week jury trial, on 23 criminal counts, including mail and wire fraud, violating federal election law, making excessive campaign contributions and lying on a federal tax return.

Stockman’s attorneys asked last week that their 61-year-old client, who is diabetic, be permitted to be free on restricted bond so that that he can seek “necessary medical attention and treatment prior to sentencing.” His lawyers said in court documents he had not been receiving sufficient medical attention at the Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe and he hoped to get evaluations and treatment in advance of his sentencing scheduled for August 17.

[…]

In denying the request, the judge said she would instruct the U.S. Marshals Service to work with the staff at the detention facility to ensure that Stockman receives the treatment and medication he needs.

Rosenthal explained in her terse four-page order that Stockman, who used Bitcoin and burner phones and helped an aide avoid FBI detection for years in Egypt, did not meet his burden to convince her he is not a flight risk.

See here for some background. I hate to make light of someone’s misfortune, but I daresay this is an example of someone’s reputation preceding them. Given the potential sentence he was facing, I’d consider him a flight risk, too.

Stockman asks for his verdict to be set aside

Never know till you ask, right?

Best newspaper graphic ever

Attorneys representing former U.S. Rep. Stephen Stockman, R-Texas, who was found guilty in April of funneling what were solicited as charitable contributions into accounts that instead funded political campaigns and personal expenses, have asked the court to set aside the jury’s conviction in the case citing a lack of evidence.

Stockman’s defense team filed the motion asking Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal for an acquittal on Monday. A jury convicted Stockman, 60, who was indicted in March 2017, on 23 of 24 counts, acquitting him on one count of wire fraud. Jurors deliberated for a little more than 15 hours over three days before returning their unanimous verdict in the trial that began with jury selection on March 19.

[…]

The former congressman’s attorneys argued in the motion that he’s entitled to an acquittal because the evidence presented at trial “could not be accepted by a reasonable-minded jury as adequate and sufficient to support a guilty verdict beyond a reasonable doubt.” Instead, the evidence showed that the wealthy conservative mega-donors Stockman was accused of defrauding — the now-deceased Stanford Z. Rothschild Jr. and Richard Uihlein — knew what Stockman was intending to use the funds for, according to the motion.

“With respect to fraudulent intent, the evidence must show Mr. Stockman had a conscious, knowing intent to defraud and that he contemplated or intended some harm to the property rights of the victim,” the motion argued. “The government has not established this.”

Sean Buckley, who represents Stockman, had told reporters immediately after the verdict there would be an appeal in the case. He reiterated arguments presented for the jury that the funds came from donors who knew the congressman would be using the money “to finance Mr. Stockman’s political work and his projects.”

See here for the background. The motion was made to the trial judge, Judge Lee Rosenthal, who I presume will rule on it before sentencing, which is scheduled for August 17. I can’t imagine this sort of motion works very often, but I suppose it’s a prelude to the eventual appeal. I’ll keep my eyes open for further developments.

CCA refuses to hear Ron Reynolds’ appeal

It’s getting awfully close to midnight.

Rep. Ron Reynolds

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has refused to review state Rep. Ron Reynolds’ criminal conviction and one-year jail sentence, according to online court records.

The Missouri City Democrat had asked the court to overturn a 2015 misdemeanor conviction in Montgomery County for illegally soliciting clients for his personal injury practice. Reynolds still has 15 days to file a motion for a rehearing, according to a staffer at the court, but it is likely that Reynolds will soon serve his year-long jail sentence.

Joel Daniels, the main prosecutor in Reynolds’ trial and chief of the white collar division in the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office, said the court’s next step would be to issue a mandate to the trial court to carry out the sentence.

“That will mean that Mr. Reynolds’ case will be put back on the docket, and he’ll be brought into court” and taken to jail, Daniels said.

Before then, Reynolds can request a rehearing, as the court staffer said, and, in theory, he could request time to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Daniels said. But that would be “extremely unusual and very rare.”

See here and here for the background. I don’t know if Rep. Reynolds has any tricks remaining in his bad to stay out of jail at this point. If not, then this will come to exactly the point I’ve been saying it will, which is that he’ll be in jail while a legislative session is happening, leaving his constituents without representation during that time, all because he was too self-centered to recognize the need to put their needs first and step down. To be fair, he can still do that: If he resigns effective November 6, we can at least get a special election in January and a new rep in place by March. Not ideal, but better than a Rep in the pokey. Reynolds sent me a whiny message via Facebook back in 2015 when I first called on him to leave office and get his personal life in order so I have no illusion that he’ll listen to me this time, but there it is. You did some good things in the Legislature, Ron Reynolds. Now do one more good thing and let someone else take your place. There’s nothing more to say about this.

Will the AG get involved in the Karolyi case?

The gymnasts who were victimized by Larry Nasser at the Karolyi Ranch would like to see a higher level of action.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office should take the steps of the Michigan attorney general in aggressively pursuing charges against the men and women who enabled Larry Nassar — the former doctor for the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team — to sexually assault more than 200 young female athletes, a group of survivors and their lawyers said at a press conference Thursday morning.

Standing in the sunshine and wind outside the office of Texas’ top attorney, five women who say they suffered abuse at the hands of Nassar asked Attorney General Ken Paxton to take action against the couple they say allowed that abuse to continue — action Paxton’s office has said it does not have the power to take.

The women and their lawyers claim that Martha and Bela Karolyi, owners of the famed Texas Karolyi Ranch north of Houston, knew about the abuse at the longtime official training site of the team but took no steps to prevent it from continuing. They point to a May 2017 deposition in which Martha Karolyi answers “yes” after being asked whether she was aware of molestation accusations against Nassar.

The Karolyis have said through their lawyer that “Martha misunderstood the question and misspoke.”

[…]

The Texas Rangers, in consort with the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, have been investigating Karolyi Ranch since January at the request of Gov. Greg Abbott. That investigation is ongoing, the Texas Department of Public Safety said Thursday.

Lawyers for the women called that investigation insufficient, saying there have been no search warrants or charges yet issued. And there’s no indication that that probe is “seriously looking into the Karolyis,” said California attorney John Manly, who’s representing more than 100 survivors in the Nassar case.

Michelle Tuegel, a Waco attorney representing many of the Texas survivors, said a case of this scope requires action from the state’s top attorney — and, perhaps more importantly, the resources his office brings with it.

But in a statement shortly after the press conference, a spokesman for the Texas Attorney General’s Office said the investigation is “outside of our jurisdiction” but that the office would “gladly and immediately assist with this investigation and prosecution” if asked by local law enforcement.

See here and here for some background. The Texas Rangers have been working on this and I’d say it’s probably a little early to say that it’s taken too long for anything to happen. That said, Martha Karolyi’s “misstatement” deserves closer scrutiny, as does the entire history of the Karolyi Ranch, to be honest. It’s certainly fair to say that if either Karolyi didn’t know what was going on with Larry Nasser, they should have, and any professed ignorance on their part doesn’t excuse their culpability. Whether that translates into legal liability or not I don’t know, but the moral case is clear. The Chron has more.

Reducing solitary confinement

This is good.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Almost five years after images surfaced of a mentally ill inmate wallowing in a cell full of human waste and bugs, the Harris County jail has cut in half its use of solitary confinement.

The decrease is due in part to a decision to stop putting rule-breakers in solitary, officials say, and in part to the creation of two rehabilitative mental health units that provide a path out of isolation.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Anthony Graves, a death row exoneree who has spoken out against the use of solitary confinement since his release. “It says that people are now getting serious about criminal justice reform.”

In the fall of 2014, the jail had 240 inmates isolated in so-called administrative separation. By March of this year, that number had plummeted to 122, or just over 1 percent of the jail’s population, according to data from the office of Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.

[…]

“There’s a nationwide trend where correctional facilities are moving away from the use of administrative separation and in keeping with best practices and current practices, and also trying to do what’s best for the inmates themselves,” [Sheriff’s Office Major John] Martin said. “There are a lot of studies out there that suggest keeping them confined by themselves might not be best so gradually we started changing a lot of our practices. I think a difficult part is changing mindsets – just getting people to think differently.”

The following year, in an effort to shift mentally ill inmates out of isolation, the jail launched the first of two pilot programs. The 2015 initiative, now known as the Social Learning Program and housed in the 2L unit at the 1200 Baker complex, holds just under two dozen inmates who get 16 hours of out-of-cell time per day.

“They were in the hole — but now they’re not because of the program,” said Major Mike Lee, who oversees the jail’s mental health and diversion programs.

In the 2L unit, arrestees get programming and cognitive behavioral therapy-based groups twice a day. Groups focus on communication skills, medication management and anger management.

“It’s so they won’t resort to the same behaviors when they get out,” said Sean McElroy, the jail’s mental health program administrator through The Harris Center.

But part of the goal is also that, after some time spent in the program, the inmates can be transferred back to general population.

“It’s something we feel is in everybody’s best interest,” Martin said.

Michele Deitch, a criminal-justice expert and senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Austin, concurred, adding that mentally ill inmates are often at a higher risk for landing in solitary.

“It’s well-established that solitary confinement is detrimental to the health of people, especially people with mental illness,” she said. “People with mental illness are far more vulnerable than other populations in the jail. They are more likely to be exploited by other inmates, they’re less likely to be able to follow directions, they are more likely to deteriorate under the conditions of confinement in the jail and, because of their frequent inability to conform their behavior to the rules, they are disproportionately likely to end up in solitary.”

This is what I want to see. This change in policy is more humane, will lead to better outcomes, and will ultimately cost the county less money. And it’s just heartening to see the Sheriff’s office staying on top of staying on top of the research and following the best practices. We deserve and should expect nothing less.

Stockman convicted

Turn out the lights, the party’s over.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman — a political maverick once viewed as a champion of right-wing causes — was taken into federal custody Thursday after a jury convicted him of masterminding a wide-ranging fraud scheme that diverted $1.25 million in charitable donations from wealthy conservative philanthropists to cover personal expenses and campaign debts.

After deliberating more than 15 hours over three days, the jury found Stockman guilty on 23 counts of mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, making false statements to the Federal Elections Commission and money laundering. The jury found him not guilty on one count of wire fraud.

Stockman, 61, of Clear Lake, who served two non-consecutive terms as a Republican congressman in separate southeast Texas districts, showed no reaction to the jury’s verdict. His wife, Patti, watched from the courtroom gallery, as did U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ruled that Stockman was a flight risk and she ordered him taken into custody by U.S. marshals. Stockman faces a maximum of 20 years in prison on each of the fraud charges alone. Sentencing is set for Aug. 17.

I feel like my whole life has been leading up to this moment. I may have some coherent thoughts about this in a day or so, but until then let me go a little medieval Latin on you:

O Fortuna
velut luna
statu variabilis,
semper crescis
aut decrescis;
vita detestabilis
nunc obdurat
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
egestatem,
potestatem
dissolvit ut glaciem.

That’s all I’ve got for now. The Trib and RG Ratcliffe, who recalls some of Stockman’s greatest hits, have more.

Orlando Sanchez is not happy with the dominatrix investigation

This case is going to challenge headline and blog post title writers for the foreseeable future.

Orlando Sanchez

Two elected Harris County officials squared off Tuesday over a bizarre case in which a top treasury official was charged in a $35,000 check kiting fraud to meet the financial demands of a dominatrix.

Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez was critical of how District Attorney Kim Ogg handled the criminal case against a top administrator in the county’s treasurer’s office, after he was arrested last week for an alleged check fraud scheme and claimed he was being blackmailed by a financial dominatrix.

“What’s disturbing to me is that the district attorney knew about the investigation six months ago,” Sanchez said Tuesday. “Neither the sheriff or the district attorney gave me a phone call—as a heads up without going into the specifics of the investigation—that there was somebody in my office being looked at.”

[…]

On Tuesday, Ogg defended the way her office handled the six-month investigation and when they alerted Sanchez.

“Because it was an ongoing investigation, we did a lot of work before any witnesses were talked to,” said said. “And that kind of investigation is never made public otherwise it is impossible to know who might be involved.”

The county’s top prosecutor said she phoned Sanchez minutes after confirming that her office was filing charges against Lueb.

See here for the background. I just want to say that “Financial Dominatrix” is going to be the name of my Liz Phair tribute band. Also, remember how I said that the last thing Sanchez would want would be for this to be a multi-day story? You’re doing it wrong, dude. Not that I don’t appreciate it, mind you.

On the matter of Sanchez’s complaint, the first thing I’d say is what if any policies are there regarding how criminal investigations into county employees like Gregory Lueb are handled? In other words, did Ogg’s office do more or less what previous DAs have done in this sort of circumstance, or was there a substantial difference?

Putting that aside for a moment, I can think of at least three reasons why Ogg might have kept this under her hat until her team was ready to file a case:

1. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they needed to be sure that Sanchez himself was not in any way involved.

2. Once they have cleared Sanchez, if he knows that one of his employees is being investigated, that may cause him to act differently around them and thus possibly tip off the target of the investigation. There’s a reason this sort of information is generally kept quiet.

3. Even if you can completely trust Sanchez’s poker face, knowing that one or more of his employees is being investigated may change his perception of them, and this may persist even if the investigation winds up being dropped. He – and this is true of anyone, not just Orlando Sanchez – may have a lingering suspicion or sense of doubt, regardless of whether there was a reason for it.

So, unless Ogg violated previously accepted protocols, I see no cause for Sanchez to be upset. He was told when he needed to know, and that seems like the way to go. KUHF has more.

Stockman trial: Off to the jury

Please return a verdict.

Best newspaper graphic ever

The defense team for former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman told jurors Monday the ex- GOP lawmaker did not plot a massive fraud scheme, but said the government should have targeted two wealthy conservative donors for making illegal campaign contributions disguised as charitable gifts.

“The true motives of his donors … was to fund Stockman, his political activities and his projects without being restricted,” said attorney Charles Flood, referring to $1.25 million in tax deductible donations Stockman is accused of diverting to pay off personal and campaign costs.

Flood said investigators “believed early on this was a fraud case and they retrofitted it. They formed a conclusion and tried to back into it.”

Flood and two other defense lawyers — who are being compensated by an anonymous Stockman friend — argued that while the two-time Republican lawmaker spent some of the seed money he solicited on an array of unrelated expenses, he did not deliberately trick the donors into giving him money nor attempt to cover his tracks after the money was gone.

See here for the last update. So Stockman isn’t guilty of money laundering, just of participating in a scheme to evade campaign finance law. Unwittingly, I guess – we all know how naive he is. I got nothing. Let’s just keep going.

In closing, prosecution stressed there was no evidence to prove the defense claims that these donors meant to break the law when they made donations to what they believed were genuine charities.

In all, prosecutors questioned dozens of witnesses over three weeks of testimony — including an IRS investigator, a forensic accountant for the FBI and Stockman’s own accountant — to back their theory that between 2010 and 2014 Stockman systematically planned to use the donations money however he wanted and then lied to cover it up.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Ellersick walked the jury through a series of transactions, pointing out that Stockman, a trained accountant whom a former assistant described as a “micromanger,” stated in his own words in emails, texts and letters that he knew exactly what he was doing.

Ellersick quoted Stockman’s letter to a doubtful government minister in South Sudan, who was questioning a humanitarian donation that included a percentage fee for the former congressman. Stockman stated in the letter, “My experience is vast … I know what I am doing,” and assured the official that while some people might be untrustworthy, his reputation was impeccable. “Leopards don’t change their spots,” Stockman wrote.

As someone who has followed Steve Stockman’s career for nearly a quarter-century, I do agree with that. I’m on ping and needles till a verdict comes in. The Trib has more.

Misdemeanor diversion

Sounds good to me.

Kim Ogg

Houston’s non-violent misdemeanor offenders will soon be cleaning up trash and invasive plant species plants along Buffalo Bayou in an initiative to help offenders clear up their criminal record, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced Wednesday.

The program, dubbed “Clean and Green,” has existed in several incarnations since the 1970’s and was one of Ogg’s campaign promises when she ran for DA in 2014, and again when she won in 2016.

“It’s a big reason why I ran,” the top prosecutor said Wednesday as she announced the program at the historic Allen’s Landing, a downtown recreational area on the bayou. “I wanted to ‘green’ criminal justice. I felt like our system could give back in a measurable, meaningful way. Counting the cubic tons of garbage or how many tons of plastic we pull out, it all has a public safety value.”

Misdemeanor offenders, 17 and older, will be allowed to clean up litter and invasive plants, skim waterways and perform other conservation services in public spaces across the county, especially along bayous and tributaries, according to Ogg.

Eligibility for the program, which starts this month, will be determined by prosecutors on a case-by-case basis and excludes defendants facing domestic violence, assault or weapons charges.

[…]

The initiative is expected to offer 160 offenders a month the opportunity to avoid a criminal record while reducing tax dollars currently spent on traditional prosecution and punishment of those offenders.

If selected, participants will be required to work one or two six-hours shifts. They will have to pay $240 to participate, unless they are indigent. Completion of the program fulfills the community-service requirement of pre-trial diversion contracts.

If they successfully complete the program, their criminal case will be dismissed and the arrest can be expunged, Ogg said.

I approve of all of this. This is what we should want to do with non-violent misdemeanor offenders. And yes, it’s what we voted for. Keep up the good work.

The most interesting story related to the County Treasurer’s office you may ever read

Oh, yeah.

A top administrator at the Harris County Treasurer’s Office charged with stealing money from a county credit union told investigators he was using the funds to pay off a dominatrix he met online who was trying to blackmail him, county officials said Friday.

Gregory Wayne Lueb, the second in command at the Harris County Treasurer’s Office, is accused of stealing $35,000 in a check-kiting scheme that left the Harris County Credit Union holding the bag for the cash.

Lueb told investigators he met a dominatrix —a woman who punishes men in sexual situations — named “Mistress Cindy” on a sadomasochism website in 2016.

He said the woman blackmailed him into sending her money from his personal account at the credit union by telling him he’d tell his wife of his indiscretions if he didn’t.

In announcing the felony theft charges Friday, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said “Cindy” may or may not be real, but that Lueb had been arrested for a check fraud scheme that ran between August and December 2016.

“We don’t know if the dominatrix exists or not,” Ogg said. “The more salacious points are obvious in Mr. Lueb’s admissions, but whether they are true or not is really beside the point. We know that he was stealing from Harris County employees because it’s our money in the credit union.”

[…]

Ogg said Lueb was the target of two investigations: one initiated by the DA’s office and one begun by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. The two probes were combined when investigators realized both agencies were looking into allegations of fraud that linked back to Lueb.

Ogg called for an audit of the treasurer’s office, headed by County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez.

Sanchez said Lueb did not have sole access to county funds. He said well-established safeguards and forms require multiple signatures from different department heads, so he is not worried that Lueb could have embezzled from the treasurer’s office.

“No one person in this county has the ability to move a dime,” he said. “No one person in Harris County has the authority to move money … The important thing is there’s no public funds (involved, no county money.”

Lueb has since been fired. I’ll be interested to see if there are further calls for an audit of the Treasurer’s office. I doubt there would be anything terrible to find, but having to deal with that in an election year probably does not make Orlando Sanchez happy. The last thing he wants is for this to be anything more than a one-day story.

Stockman trial update: Defense rests

And we’re done.

Best newspaper graphic ever

The defense rested its case Thursday in ex-GOP congressman Steve Stockman’s federal campaign fraud trial, after calling only two witnesses who together testified for less than an hour.

The former Republican lawmaker from Clear Lake told the judge presiding over his trial that he did not intend to testify in his own defense.

[…]

After court adjourned, Stockman’s defense team explained to reporters they would have called many more than two witnesses if the rules of evidence didn’t preclude Stockman to put on broader testimony about his reputation, work ethic and charitable work.

On Thursday, the final witness in the trial was Stevie Bidjoua Sianard-Roc, who had flown in from Africa to testify and took the stand for 38 minutes. She testified about several trips Stockman made to the Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo to meet with government ministers, discuss social issues and in one case deliver three boxes of medicine to a local hospital in which she served as his translator. In one instance, she said, Stockman donated an iPad to her husband.

“In Africa, Steve is like family to us,” Sianard-Roc told the jury.

Under cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Ellersick, the Sianard-Roc said she was not aware that Stockman was also working on a deal in the region with an oil company and hoped to meet with an oil minister there.

See here for the previous update. This whole trial has been amazing, but the thing that really stands out to me is how unimpressive the defense seems to be. Maybe it just hasn’t come through in the reporting, but I haven’t seen much to rebut any of the prosecution’s evidence. The defense seems to boil down to twenty-plus-year-politician Stockman is a naive dupe, and people in Africa like him. It feels more like what you’d put on during the sentencing hearing. Like I said, maybe there was more to it than the stories conveyed. Closing arguments are Monday, and then we’ll see. What do you think?