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Crime and Punishment

Investigating the Karolyis

I’m fine with this, but I feel like we’re overlooking something.

Nearly a week after prominent USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to prison for the sexual assault of several female gymnasts, Gov. Greg Abbott has asked the Texas Rangers to investigate misconduct allegations at the famed Karolyi Ranch, the U.S. Olympic training facility in southeast Texas, north of Houston, where Nassar treated athletes.

“The public statements made by athletes who previously trained at the Karolyi Ranch are gut-wrenching,” Abbott said in a statement Tuesday. “Those athletes, as well as all Texans, deserve to know that no stone is left unturned to ensure that the allegations are thoroughly vetted and the perpetrators and enablers of any such misconduct are brought to justice. The people of Texas demand, and the victims deserve, nothing less.”

The Walker County Sheriff’s Office confirmed last week that it was looking into the ranch.

Abbott added that the Texas Rangers, the state’s top criminal investigative unit, and the Walker County Sheriff’s Office must collaborate on the case because of the far reach of the allegations, which are spread across jurisdictions and state lines.

There’s more in the Chron, where we find out that Simone Biles is ready to speak to investigators about the assaults she endured. It’s appropriate ti have the Rangers help out with this investigation, as I’m sure they have more resources and experience than the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, and of course we want all of the facts to come out so that everyone responsible can be held to that responsibility.

At the same time, though, I think we need to look past the criminal aspect of this and really ask ourselves how this was happening for nearly 20 years without anything being done about it. Among other things, maybe we need to have a good hard look at how the Karolyis operated for all these years and ask ourselves why we didn’t see the potential for problems all along. The isolation, the dictatorial methods, the extreme pressure on young girls to conform and submit to an absolute authority – is it any wonder a monster was able to flourish under those conditions? Yet as recently as 2016, in the runup to the Summer Olympics, the Karolyis were still the subject of fawning coverage; a lawsuit alleging they had a role in the Nasser scandal – he was forced out of US Gymnastics in 2015, you know – followed a couple of months later. But even before that, former gymnasts led by Dominique Moceanu had been sounding an alarm about their training methods; she was vindicated by an investigator last year. We were warned, well ahead of this recent news. We need to understand why we didn’t heed those warnings.

The next frontier in criminal justice reform

We need to lock up fewer kids for bad reasons.

Hundreds of juveniles are jailed in Harris County often for weeks at a time for infractions as minor as failing drugs tests, violating curfews, running away or failing to attend school classes or rehabilitative programs, according to county records.

The records show a “pattern and practice” of detaining juveniles for technical violations that should instead be handled through the probation system, according to attorneys and juvenile justice advocates.

“You’re not complying with the terms of probation, but you’re not actually a risk to public safety,” said Elizabeth Henneke, an attorney with the Lone Star Justice Alliance, which advocates against incarcerating juvenile offenders.

“You never want to have a technical violation, especially for a kid, result in detention, because we know the negative effects,” she said. “Even a short amount of time can be problematic for kids, but long, protracted, weeks out of school, weeks out of your home environment – that can have really big consequences for them.”

Of the 1,055 juveniles cited for a probation violation in 2016, nearly 73 percent were detained, a proportion Henneke said is alarming, particularly in a county where the 250-capacity juvenile justice center has faced recurrent overcrowding problems for several years.

It is the largest percentage of juveniles ordered detained on probation violations since at least 2003, when 69 percent of 1,502 juveniles were detained, according to data from the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department.

The most recent 2017 data, which goes through Oct. 15, shows that 73 percent of juveniles continued to be jailed for probation violations – an average of 55 kids each day.

The average length of time spent behind bars on the violations ranged from nine days for leaving the county without permission to 30 days for violating special probationary terms, which can include specific judge-ordered requirements such as routine drug assessments or compliance with taking medication.

The Trib then went and wrote an even longer story on the same topic.

“Harris County is bucking the trend,” said Michele Deitch, an attorney and senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in Texas juvenile justice policy. “All around the country, and certainly all around the state, the numbers are down in detention.

“The need for the beds just isn’t there anymore,” Deitch said. “So the idea that this one county is experiencing an increase … that should raise a lot of questions.”

The overcrowding affects kids and families far beyond the Houston area: It is one reason lawmakers decided not to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility in Texas from 17 to 18 last year. Seventeen-year-olds accused of crimes in Texas are usually sent to an adult county jail; the “raise the age” bill would have made them part of the juvenile justice system instead.

Harris County’s juvenile probation chief, Tom Brooks, said the detention center’s overcrowding is mostly due to “a high number of egregious offenders” — kids accused of crimes like armed robbery and assault — who often stay in detention longer.

Brooks added that the county has worked hard to stop unnecessarily locking up kids. Last year, nearly 2,000 fewer kids were booked into detention compared to 2010, according to county data. The ones that are left “actually are here for a legitimate reason, and their due process takes longer,” Brooks said.

But data obtained by The Texas Tribune — along with interviews with experts, parents and advocates — suggest there’s more to the story. Local officials might blame the overcrowding on bad kids, but experts say it’s more about a bad system in Harris County, where local officials plan to build a new juvenile detention center at an estimated cost of $65-70 million.

The data from Harris County’s juvenile probation department shows:

  • The average number of kids held in the detention center charged with minor offenses such as trespass, theft and violating probation — things that some experts say shouldn’t land kids behind bars at all — increased by 64 percent from 2010 to 2017. Meanwhile, the average number held for violent crimes like armed robbery and rape, called “felonies against persons,” increased by about 46 percent.
  • Minor offenders were locked up in the detention center for an average of nearly three weeks in 2017, twice as long as in 2010.
  • From 2010 to 2017, the average number of African-American youth held in the juvenile detention center more than doubled, and the number detained despite being labeled “low risk” has increased by 75 percent.

Experts say this is an unusual trend when it comes to juvenile justice. It’s becoming widely accepted that imprisoning kids — and even adults — for low-level crimes is probably doing more harm than good. Taking someone away from their home and school for a minor offense like shoplifting, and placing them alongside those accused of far more serious crimes, is bad for the child and for society, they say.

“Anytime you disrupt the kids’ routine, you take them out of the home, away from whatever stable influences they have … It’s not a good situation,” Deitch said. She added that the Harris County data suggests “there’s something very punitive going on.”

Michael Schneider, one of the judges who handles juvenile delinquency cases in Harris County, expressed concern after seeing the data. “Why is the increase in detention greater than the increase in violent crime?” he asked.

Paul Holland, an associate law professor at Seattle University who studies national juvenile justice policy, called what’s happening in Harris County “alarming.” He said the trend in detention there can’t just be blamed on an increase in violent crime; local decisions are probably having an impact, too.

“It really does seem like it’s a system thing and not a kid thing,” Holland said.

There’s a whole lot more, go read it. So just to review:

1) These kids were on probation, meaning they had committed lesser offenses to begin with.
2) They were put in jail for breaking a rule, not a law. Kids do break rules sometimes. It’s what kids do.
3) Putting kids in jail leads to all kinds of bad effects, from missed school to exposing them to real criminals to endangering their safety.
4) It costs money to detain and guard these kids, and detaining them does nothing to further the rehabilitative efforts that probation was supposed to foster.
5) Anyone want to bet that the kids who do get detained for probation violations will turn out to be disproportionately black and Latino?

Let’s do less of this, okay? And if you’re looking for a political solution, remember the names of Juvenile Court Judges Glenn Devlin and John Phillips, both Republicans and both on the ballot this year. Different judges will be our best shot at getting different results.

Looking to hire more cops for Houston

We’ll see about this.

The head of the Houston police union announced Wednesday that city leaders had pledged to grow the Houston Police Department ranks by 500 officers over the next five years, far fewer than the city’s police chief said he needs.

“It’s no secret the Houston Police Department has been doing more with less, for far too long,” HPOU President Joseph Gamaldi said Wednesday afternoon at a crowded news conference at union headquarters.

The influx of officers would still be a fraction of the 2,000 new officers Chief Art Acevedo has said he believes the department needs to deal with the city’s growth, but comes as Houston has struggled for years to meaningfully increase the staffing in the department.

Gamaldi’s initiative, which the union is calling the “Drive for 500,” came after union officials visited all of the city’s council members, as well as Mayor Sylvester Turner, and asked them to pledge their support to increase the department that has nearly 5,200 officers on the job.

[…]

Currently, the HPD operates on a yearly budget of $827 million, and it costs the department around $3 million to run each class of recruits through its in-house academy.

The call for more officers comes as the city management last year had to close a $130 million budget shortfall.

The staffing proposal follows a concerted campaign last year to reform the city’s pension system, which officials warned was underfunded and threatened the city’s long-term financial health.

Meanwhile, Chief Acevedo and Gamaldi have stepped up calls for an large infusion of new officers into the department, saying it is dangerously understaffed, particularly compared to other large cities around the country.

Though Houston has fewer police officers per resident than other large cities, I remain unconvinced that we need to go on a hiring spree. At the very least, I’d like to understand what the plan is for a larger force. HPD’s solve rate isn’t so hot, so if the idea is to staff up on investigators with the goal of closing out more cases, then I can be on board with that. If it’s more like hire now and figure it out later, I’ll take a pass.

As the story suggests, hiring more cops would likely be part of the argument to alter or lift the revenue cap. Not my preferred approach, but I admit I’m not representative on this. I am ready for this argument to be fully rolled out, in anticipation of a vote this year.

Chris Oliver gets sentenced

Goodbye.

Chris Oliver

A former Houston Community College trustee was sentenced to nearly six years in prison on Monday after a judge said he accepted more than a quarter million dollars in bribes in exchange for his influence over contract work with the college.

In the sentencing, U.S. District Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore asked Chris Oliver if his conduct was “standard procedure” for HCC trustees and asked if the college was a “cesspool.”

“The line is definitely blurred,” he said. “You don’t come from wealth. You’re in an elected position. Things are thrown at you.”

[…]

Gilmore said he served in his position for “too long” as his integrity eroded.

Oliver agreed and said he should not have sought re-election in 2011. “I probably should have called it a career.”

See here for the background. I’ll note that Oliver ran for City Council in 2015, so at least we dodged that bullet. Things may indeed be thrown at elected officials, but most of them manage to not get convicted of bribery charges. I’m just saying. HCC says it has implemented procedures and checks to prevent actions like Oliver’s in the future. I think it’s safe to say that remains to be seen.

No Paxton trial till prosecutor pay case resolved

It’s not on the court calendar at this time.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s fraud trials have been put on hold as the lawyers pursuing the criminal charges against him fight for years of back pay.

Judge Robert Johnson has taken Paxton’s three criminal cases off his docket for now, the court confirmed to The Dallas Morning News on Friday. While court staff did not have a reason for the removal, the three attorneys prosecuting Paxton have repeatedly asked for the cases to be halted while they fight to have their pay resumed.

The delay will almost certainly push Paxton’s trials into general election season, when he will be seeking another term as the state’s top lawyer. In July, Paxton’s indictments will turn three years old.

[…]

“The (Paxton) case is kind of waiting to go to trial based on [the CCA’s] decision,” said Larry Meyers, a Democrat who lost his seat on the criminal court last year. “About six weeks would probably be a fairly responsible time for them to get an opinion out.”

The Court of Criminal Appeals won’t take up the prosecutors’ case until January 10, so a decision could be issued just before voters go to the polls in the March 6 primary elections. If the court sides with the prosecutors, jury selection in Houston will likely proceed without much further delay. If it doesn’t, the prosecutors have threatened to step down, a move which will temporarily derail the case against Paxton as the county looks for replacement lawyers.

See here for the background. If the CCA rules for the prosecutors, figure on the trial beginning in late spring or early summer. If not, figure on something like the third of never. Let’s hope for the best.

Kim Ogg’s first year as DA

I certainly approve of the job DA Kim Ogg has done so far.

Kim Ogg

The accomplishment Kim Ogg is most proud of after her first year as Harris County District Attorney was not implementing a new drug policy, energizing the division that holds police officers accountable or working to ensure victims’ rights.

It’s that the prosecutor’s office was able to stay open round the clock during Hurricane Harvey and in the weeks of the storm’s aftermath. More than 50 inches of water flooded courthouses and displaced the 24-hour intake division, the critical group which decides whether to accept charges presented by police officers and keeps track of who was arrested and why.

“I’m proudest of my employees because they maintained constant operations, 24/7, throughout the biggest natural disaster in Houston’s history,” she said earlier this monthin a wide ranging interview about her first year as district attorney. “We survived the storm surge.”

Ogg, a 56-year-old native Houstonian, became Harris County’s third female district attorney Jan. 1 after besting incumbent Devon Anderson in the November 2016 general election. The Democrat is Houston’s first openly gay DA although it rarely comes up. Unlike Annise Parker, Houston’s mayor from 2010 to 2016, who was well-known in politics because of her LGBT activism, Ogg was known for her criminal justice work, including running the city’s first gang task force, then helming CrimeStoppers of Houston. Ogg’s sexual orientation came up during last year’s campaign when Anderson labeled her a “liberal, pro-choice, lesbian” in an interview.

It was during that campaign that Ogg promised an administration that would champion drug reform, diversion courts and holding police officers accountable, all of which seem to be moving forward.

And that’s the key – Ogg promised a lot of changes, and she has made measurable progress on the things she has promised. Nowhere in the story is there a question about or exploration of something she hasn’t gotten around to yet. Some things will inevitably go wrong, and there will be issues on which her office faces stronger resistance from groups like the police and the bail bondsmen, and when that happens she and her crew will be tested in new ways. But at this point I can’t think of anything I’d have wanted her to do differently. Go read the rest, and to Kim Ogg and the DA’s office I say keep up the good work.

CCA to review Paxton prosecutors pay case

Good.

Best mugshot ever

The state’s highest criminal court agreed Wednesday to take a closer look at prosecutors’ long-running fight to get paid for their handling of the securities fraud case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The move by the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals could have a major impact on the separate case against Paxton. The prosecutors have suggested they will bail if they cannot get paid, likely imperiling the more than two-year case against the state’s top lawyer.

“We are gratified but not surprised by the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision to formally hear this landmark proceeding, one that impacts trial judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys across Texas,” the prosecutors said in a statement Wednesday.

Prosecutors asked the Court of Criminal Appeals in September to reverse a ruling from a lower court that voided a six-figure invoice for work that goes back to January 2016. The prosecutors said the decision by the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals — spurred by a legal challenge to the invoice by Collin County commissioners — was a “clear abuse of discretion.”

Days after the prosecutors appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals in September, it put the lower-court ruling on hold. But the court waited until Wednesday — nearly two months later — to announce its decision to review the ruling.

See here and here for the background. All of this jousting over paying for the prosecutors has pushed the trial back into 2018, with the next court date awaiting the disposal of this case. You know how I feel about this, so let’s hope for once that the CCA’s infamous pro-prosecutor tendencies will be a force for good for once. The Chron has more.

It’s about the domestic violence

You want to do something to reduce gun violence, here’s the place to start.

Domestic violence cases have risen sharply across the state, with more than 210,000 wives, girlfriends, husbands and others suffering death or injury at the hands of a family member in the past two years. More than 550 wives or girlfriends were killed by a domestic partner between 2012 and 2016, according to state figures.

“We continue to underestimate the reach and devastation of domestic violence,” said Gloria Aguilera Terry, chief executive of the Texas Council on Family Violence. “Domestic violence thrives in the silence and obliviousness we give it. Only when we confront the very conditions which allow domestic violence to exist will our homes, public spaces and places of worship be truly safe.”

[…]

Despite law enforcement’s best efforts to curb the violence, the deaths continue unabated. The Harris County Institute of Forensic Science recorded 229 domestic violence homicides from 2010 to 2016, or an average of 31 homicides a year.

Of those, at least 22 – about 10 percent – were relatives of the main victim.

Amanda Johnson, with the Dallas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Guns Sense in America, said the shooting underscores the need for smarter gun laws.

“People violent enough to be violent enough with their own children and spouses are also violent enough to commit mass murder,” she said. “When they have easy access to these weapons, it’s a really deadly combination.”

She and other advocates hope the Sutherland Springs shooting will spark a national dialogue, particularly with the daily abuse many women face that doesn’t draw the same scrutiny as a mass shooting.

“Up until now, the media would lose interest in a shooting once they found out it was a domestic violence incident and not a ‘real’ crime,” Johnson said. “Sutherland Springs is a game-changer.”

Sherri Kendall, CEO of Aid to Victims of Domestic Violence, said approximately 1 in 4 women experiences domestic violence at one point or another.

“While we are seeing a number of multiple homicides with domestic violence in the timeline, it is happening all the time,” she said. “We have to learn something from it. When this story is over we have to continue to be vigilant in our communities to make sure there are services for survivors and for perpetrators.”

The Sutherland Springs shooting highlighted the need to ensure domestic abusers can’t possess firearms, advocates said.

“This man had a history of abuse, and he should not have had access to a firearm, and we are advocating for stricter gun laws when it comes to being the hands of convicted abusers,” said Chau Nguyen, chief marketing officer at the Houston Area Women’s Center. “If we don’t take action, we’re going to see this as a recurring reality in our lives – and we know the link between domestic violence abusers and mass shooters.”

The link between domestic violence and gun violence is very strong. It’s not just the guys who commit the big headline-grabbing mass murders who depressingly and consistently turn out to have had a history of domestic violence, it’s the everyday (literally, every day) three-to-six people killings that no one outside those affected pay attention to because we’re all mesmerized by the latest double-digit massacre. There are many things we could do to ameliorate this if we wanted to. My advice would be to elect more people who do want to do something about it.

About that lost evidence

Sorry about that.

Mark Herman

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office has sent notices to lawyers in 10,000 closed criminal cases that evidence, which was kept in storage, may have been lost or destroyed between 2007 and 2016.

The bulk of the emails, which were sent Wednesday to lawyers for about 7,750 defendants, caused an uproar among defense attorneys but left Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman scratching his head.

“We’ve already been through this,” Herman said Wednesday. “This all stems from a year and half ago. It’s old news.”

[…]

“Upon learning that evidence may have been lost or destroyed while in the custody of law enforcement, it was our duty to conduct a thorough review, which included manually going through thousands of records to determine which cases may have been affected,” according to a statement released Wednesday from the District Attorney’s Office. “After the recent completion of that process, it was also our duty to notify all defendants and defense lawyers involved.”

Since each of the 10,484 cases has been resolved, defense lawyers are scrambling to figure out what evidence may have been destroyed and when. If the evidence was destroyed before the case was resolved, it could be grounds for an appeal. If the case is being appealed, the destruction of evidence could hamper those proceedings.

See here, here, and here for the background. This may be old news in a sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s been resolved. I don’t see any reason why we would have considered it closed last year, without Kim Ogg getting a chance to review everything after she got elected. If this causes problems, the reason for those problems goes back a lot farther than last year. Better to make sure everything we know about what happened comes out, and then we can be done with it.

Background checks

This should make you angry.

A mistake by U.S. Air Force officials in reporting Devin Patrick Kelley’s past conviction for domestic violence allowed him to buy four guns, including the semi-automatic rifle used in the Sunday shooting at a South Texas church that left 26 dead and 20 others wounded, state and federal officials confirmed Monday.

Pentagon officials that had Kelley’s 2012 conviction in a military court for assaulting his then-wife and stepson been reported correctly to a national database used in clearing people to buy guns, the 26-year-old New Braunfels man would have been denied permission to buy the weapons.

Retired Col. Don Christensen, who was the chief prosecutor for the Air Force at the time of Kelley’s general court-martial, said that while Kelley’s punitive discharge — a bad conduct discharge — would not have prohibited him from owning a gun, his sentence to a year’s confinement in a military prison would have.

Under federal law, anyone convicted of “a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” is prohibited from possessing a firearm, federal officials said.

“He fractured his baby stepson’s skull,” Christensen said of the crime of which Kelley was convicted.

Air Force officials are investigating the mistake, Pentagon officials confirmed to The Associated Press.

Texas Department of Public Safety and other state officials said earlier Monday that Kelley was denied a state handgun license, even though he would not have needed one to possess the Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic assault rifle reportedly used in the shooting.

We have a system in place that should have prevented this man from buying those guns. (The fact that anyone can buy assault rifles like the one he used is another matter, but let’s put that aside for now.) But a background check system relies on accurate data, and our system has a lot of holes in it, including this pretty glaring one. Back in the 90’s, after Georges Hennard killed 25 people at a Luby’s in Killeen, our legislature responded by passing the concealed carry law. Can we respond to the tragedy in Sutherland Springs by working to fix the problems with the national background check system? Can we at least try to do that much? I would like to think so, but we’ve seen this movie before and we know how it ends. Mother Jones and the Current have more.

Sutherland Springs

I don’t even know what to say. I worry more about some random asshole with a gun more than I do about anything else that could harm me or my family. I’ll say it again, because I keep having to say it, nothing will change until we start electing different people. Continuing to do what we’ve always done is to accept these unacceptably common events as normal. I refuse to do that.

More pre-trial diversion

DA Kim Ogg moves forward on more campaign promises.

Kim Ogg

During a press conference Tuesday, Ogg laid out in broad strokes the policy recommendations written by the committees and emphasized that she is seeking participation from experts and Houston’s leaders.

“We listen to the community,” she said, flanked by about 30 volunteers including former HPD Chief C. O. Bradford and Thurgood Marshall School of Law professor Lydia D. Johnson. “We are evidence-based and data driven, but it is important to know how the community wants tax dollars spent to enhance public safety.”

Ogg released the full reports from committees on officer-involved shootings, evidence integrity, equality, immigration, bail-bond reform, mental health and diversity.

Many of the reforms proposed using technology and data more efficiently to streamline the criminal justice system, such as moving to a paperless district attorney’s office or using evidence-based risk assessments to determine bail amounts.

Tarsha Jackson, the Harris County Director with the Texas Organizing Project, was on the bail bond committee and applauded Ogg for involving people with different backgrounds, some with conflicting interests.

“It was a tug of war,” Jackson said of her committee that included a bail bondsman and a representative of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “We had deep debate on what the district attorney can do in regard to bail reform, about what’s possible. And the final results were some good policies that she can implement.”

You can see the committee reports here. The themes all came from the campaign, and however you feel about the conclusions, I’d hope we can all respect a process that involved a broad spectrum of stakeholders who worked together across a range of perspectives. The Press read through the reports so you don’t have to.

Among the most noteworthy is the passing mention that Ogg’s administration “will work with all of the Harris County Law Enforcement agencies” to implement cite and release “for appropriate misdemeanor crimes,” which was not mentioned during the press conference. This has been a topic of debate for years, if not a full decade, after the Texas Legislature authorized police in 2007 to issue citations for various small-time crimes rather than arresting people and hauling them to jail. It’d be like getting a traffic ticket, then going to court for it later. It applies to crimes such as driving with an invalid license, criminal mischief, graffiti and possession of less than four ounces of pot (Ogg already diverts most pot cases).

[…]

Also noteworthy are plans to expand mental health diversion. Staci Biggar, a Houston defense attorney who was on Ogg’s mental health transition team panel, said that the idea was to transition people charged with low-level crimes like trespassing, often related to a person’s mental illness, away from jail and into treatment. Rather than asking for money to fund a program, she said judges can still issue pretrial diversion contracts to mentally ill defendants and individualize the terms based on that person’s needs.

“The idea is placing more people on bond and placing them in facilities, making pretrial conditions be to go see a particular health provider, or maybe they need to stay in a particular living situation,” Biggar said. “They can order somebody to see a doctor and they can order somebody to be treated by one organization. If you take a misdemeanor [defendant] and maybe that’s the first or second time they’re arrested, yes, you’ve been arrested, but we’ll drop the charges if you go and do these various things. It shouldn’t be that we wait until you’re really, really in trouble before there’s a stronger intervention for mental health.”

Other noteworthy nuggets from the eight transition team reports include the end to hiking bail to sometimes tens of thousands of dollars for suspected undocumented immigrants; vetting expert witnesses in capital murder cases more extensively and never “expert shopping”; and releasing to the public body-cam footage of officer-involved shootings as long as it does not impede an ongoing investigation — among various recommendations from the officer-involved shooting panel headed by former Houston police chief C.O. Bradford.

As Ogg says, you can judge her by her results in 2020. I think she’s off to a great start.

DA’s office ends trace case prosecutions

Good.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has stopped prosecuting thousands of so-called trace drug cases, which typically stem from glass pipes seized from users containing little more than residue of crack cocaine, officials said Thursday.

The recent change means it is not prosecuted at all, unless there are extenuating circumstances said Tom Berg, First Assistant District Attorney. Houston police officials have given the new policy their approval, but with an important caveat.

“We want to go after people who are a real danger to the community, violent against people, violent against property,” Berg said. “It’s a smarter practice that everybody agreed to go forward on without a great deal of controversy.”

Berg said several factors combined to push the policy change, including limited resources, a raft of exonerations in recent years because of erroneous field tests and the rise of lethal drugs. He singled out fentanyl, a chemical which is 100 times more powerful than heroin and is used to cheaply spike more expensive drugs.

“Fentanyl and carfentanil – horrible substances – potentially fatal substances on contact,” he said. “Inadvertent contact, in the context of trying to scrape up some crud out of carpet in a car, could have catastrophic effects on the officers. They could be inhaling it without knowing it.”

[…]

The change is being eyed with cautious optimism by police representatives who had previously argued against the change.

“We’re not opposed to it as long as the DA is going to hammer hard these (burglary of motor vehicle) suspects who are crackheads anyway,” said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. “These are the ‘trace case’ people, that’s who they are. They’re the people who are breaking into cars to steal change.”

The police union has argued that arresting people for drug possession because of residue on paraphernalia keeps them from burglarizing cars, homes and businesses.

In the past, much less than a gram of the illegal drug – often just scrapings – could be prosecuted as a felony adding 2,000 to 4,000 people a year to Houston’s crowded dockets.

Hunt said the district attorney’s office promised to vigorously prosecute car burglars in exchange for police support of the policy.

“If we start getting cases where we have BMV (burglary of a motor vehicle) suspects and it’s a crackhead with a pipe on them and that person gets one or two days in jail, then it’s a serious problem and they’re not living up to the deal,” Hunt said.

This was indeed a campaign promise of Ogg’s, and it had been the policy under Pat Lykos, before Devon Anderson put a stop to it. Getting buy in from the police union, however tentatively, is a big deal since they were a big part of the reason why it was so contentious under Lykos. Refocusing on property crimes is also a good move, as those offenses are seldom punished now and affect a lot of people in a tangible way. All in all, a big win. Let’s hope the follow-through is as successful. The Press has more.

The Observer talks to Kim Ogg

A good read:

Kim Ogg

You decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Jeff Sessions has signaled that he seeks to ramp up the war on drugs. What power does the federal government hold over your policy decisions?

I enjoy total discretion under Texas law as to who I charge and with what crime. The federal government has never been able or even really wanted to influence local prosecutors in terms of individual charging decisions. I don’t fear Sessions’ interference, although I think that states — certainly states where marijuana is legal — may face states’ rights battles with the federal government.

What pushback have you faced in Texas?

The lieutenant governor accused me of creating a sanctuary city. I think he’s looking to pick a fight with Houston. It seemed like a partisan attack more than a substantive one. He said Houston would become a drug-user sanctuary, and then I heard the same language being used by [DA] Brett Ligon of Montgomery County. They have the same political consultant, Allen Blakemore.

I think it was posturing simply because I did something that was popular and pragmatic. The program will save about $27 million a year — either save it or redirect it. I think this presents a clear and present threat to the Republican power structure, the fact that local Democratic government in Harris County is moving forward on this reform agenda that has bipartisan support. They’ve got an eye toward the 2018 election cycle.

Will this attack have any impact on Harris County? Or is this all just noise and politics?

Anything is possible, but the evidence will speak for itself. In the first six weeks of the program we’ve diverted 576 people [from jail], and the savings is over $1.5 million. The program will rise and fall based on whether we’re continuing to save lives and money. Of those 576 people that have been diverted so far, I know that none of them have lost their job because of an arrest for a misdemeanor amount of marijuana. I know that none of them have been turned away from a housing opportunity because of the marijuana conviction. So far, so good on both the human and the fiscal front.

There’s more, so go read the rest. One thing to observe, eight months into Ogg’s first term of office, is how tranquil things have been. Kim Ogg has cleaned house, made major changes to how low-level drug cases are handled, has sided with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over the county’s bail practices, and inherited a controversial murder case (David Temple) that requires a retry–or-dismiss decision. Yet so far there has been little controversy, and basically no news stories of the “what is going on with the DA’s office” variety. She’s had a lot to do, she’s had a lot that she wanted to do and promised to do, and so far she’s done it with a minimum of fuss. That’s quite an accomplishment.

That said, once the Legislature is out and election season kicks in, the politics of this will get interesting. Ogg is in opposition to Republican judges and County Commissioners on the bail issue, and she opposes the “sanctuary cities” law, which will put her even more in Dan Patrick’s crosshairs. And not to put too fine a point on it, but with Annise Parker in the private sector (modulo a decision on her part to run for County Judge next year), Kim Ogg is now the most high profile gay person holding political office in Texas. That in and of itself would make her a target. Don’t be surprised when – not if – she is prominently featured in some ugly attack ads next year.

New county risk assessment system coming

We’ve been waiting.

Harris County officials on Tuesday touted their revamped strategy for deciding whether tens-of-thousands of individuals should be jailed before their criminal trials, a process that critics and a federal judge say disproportionately affects the poor who are unable to come up with the money to make bail.

On July 29, the county plans to implement the “public safety assessment,” to grade individuals arrested in Harris County each year on their risk of re-offending, committing a violent crime or failing to show up for court.

The tool is intended to recommend to judges and hearing officers that low-risk individuals – both felony and misdemeanor – be let out of jail on personal bonds. Higher-risk individuals would be required to post bail according to an established bail schedule, as well as face additional supervision such as round-the-clock monitoring or regular check-ins with probation officers.

“This is the biggest change in criminal justice reform that Harris County has ever seen,” said Kelvin Banks, the county’s director of pretrial services.

[…]

[Federal judge Lee] Rosenthal weighed in on the county’s new risk assessment tool earlier this month, writing that the new rules “do not change much.”

The system imposes a fee schedule ranging from $500 to $5,000 for misdemeanors and recommends up-front payment from most people.

“Like the old schedule … secured money bail is the standard recommendation for most categories of misdemeanor arrestees,” the judge wrote. “The approved changes are hardly different.”

Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, said the risk assessment does not eliminate the use of a bail schedule, and despite its goal, will continue to ensure that those without means will be routinely jailed.

“It doesn’t solve the constitutional problem,” Rossi said.

See here and here for some background. I hope this helps, but it doesn’t sound like it moves us closer to a resolution. Maybe it will at least keep a few people out of jail who don’t need to be there. In the meantime, we wait for the appeals process to play out.

Still a few bugs in the system

A continuing story.

While Harris County officials are complaining that a federal judge’s bail order threatens public safety, the county has failed to provide more than 100 low-level defendants with pretrial services aimed at ensuring they make their court dates.

The latest revelations come amid criticism from District Attorney Kim Ogg, who accused county officials of trying to deliberately undermine the success of defendants released on personal bonds to bolster the county’s argument.

“Clearly the hope is that the reformed bail process fails,” Ogg said in a June 30 email obtained by the Chronicle. “This is necessarily a violation of their ethical duty and certainly not in the best interest of ordinary Harris County citizens.”

Ogg’s email did not identify which officials she believed might be responsible, and her office referred a request for additional comment to a court filing in which she supported changes to the county’s cash-bail system for misdemeanor offenses.

[…]

By missing court, the defendants also miss out on the assistance provided by the county’s Pre-Trial Services Division, such as text reminders about upcoming court dates that other defendants get seven days in advance and again on the day of the hearing.

Kelvin Banks, director of pretrial services, said a vendor, Voice4Net, manages the text messages for the county. He said his office is working with the vendor to set up reminders for those who are released by the sheriff, and is moving forward with plans for an additional staff member and training at the jail.

He said Monday he was reviewing resumes.

“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to give defendants the best opportunity to be succesful on pretrial release,” Banks said.

Another vendor, called Uptrust, met with county officials on June 28, two days before Ogg sent her email, proposing a two-way messaging system that allows defendants to respond and provides information on childcare options and transportation.

It’s a little hard to say what is going on here, based on this story. There’s a lot of he-said/she-said in there. My basic premise all along is that the county has very little credibility on this issue, so I generally discount the complaints from Commissioners and judges about how hard this all is and how they’re Doing Their Very Best and Just Need A Little More Time and so on and so forth. Every action by the county – specifically, by those who continue to fight to support the status quo – is one of foot-dragging and reluctance to make changes, even small ones. I’ve yet to see a show of good faith. If we ever get to that point, then maybe I’ll take their complaints seriously. Until then, I say quit whining and do what the judge ordered you to do.

Dukes pleads not guilty

To all counts.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, entered not guilty pleas to abuse-of-office charges Friday in Travis County district court.

The 12-term lawmaker pleaded not guilty to tampering with a governmental record and abuse of official capacity by a public servant. Judge Brad Urrutia on Friday set a trial date of Oct. 16.

Dukes told reporters outside the court room: “Why accept a plea when I didn’t do what they are alleging?”

“No one has heard all of the evidence and heard my side,” Dukes said. “There’s been a barrage of print media that has attempted to try me in the court of public opinion, yet the court and the proceedings have not begun and when they do, my attorney will tell the full story, the whole story and show that unequivocally I am not guilty of these charges.”

[…]

Dukes has faced criticism for missing votes and being absent from the House floor. She was not in attendance when the House voted on the final budget.

When asked if she was going to run for re-election, Dukes said: “That is a very strong possibility.”

See here and here for the background. Dukes is entitled to her day in court, and she’s innocent until proven guilty, but she’s been a replacement level legislator for a long time. One way or another, this needs to be her last term.

Former Stockman aide returns to US

The gang’s all here.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Federal agents quietly arrested Jason Posey, a former congressional aide who’d been wanted for two months on charges that he helped ex-U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman carry out a criminal conspiracy to bilk millionaire donors, violate elections laws, and illegally divert hundreds of thousands in campaign cash.

Posey and Stockman were both indicted March 28 on 28 federal charges including mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, making false statements to the Federal Elections Commission, excessive campaign contributions and money laundering.

Stockman was arrested at the airport on his way out of the country by federal agents. But it appears government agents spent weeks negotiating with Posey – who’d been living abroad in the Middle East for more than two years.

Posey voluntarily returned to Houston to turn himself in on May 23, according to Philip Hilder, a Houston lawyer appointed to represent Posey.

“He voluntarily came back to the United States to face the allegations levied against him,” said Hilder, who is known for his work representing whistle-blowers and other witnesses and defendants in high-profile white-collar crime cases, including Enron.

In his recent federal court appearance, Posey pleaded not guilty to all 28 charges, according to federal court records. Stockman also pleaded not guilty.

[…]

Another former Stockman aide, Thomas Dodd, pleaded guilty in March to two related conspiracy charges and has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

But in indictments, prosecutors describe Posey as Stockman’s primary accomplice . State and county business filings show that Posey set up some of the companies that federal prosecutors say were used to divert campaign contributions through suburban Houston post office boxes and an array of bank accounts.

See here for the background. As noted in that earlier post, Posey has been a close associate of Stockman’s for a long time. I can’t wait for this trial to get underway.

There is always some risk

I get the concern, but the alternative was unacceptable and now is illegal. Get used to it.

More than 600 people charged with misdemeanors have been released since June 7 when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an emergency motion by the county to block [federal judge Lee Rosenthal’s] order, according to estimates provided to the county attorney’s office from criminal court officials.

[…]

“That’s my sort of common sense problem with this whole ruling,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. “I’ve stated publicly that someone shouldn’t be in jail because they can’t afford bail…there’s got to be a risk assessment here. I don’t think anyone wants somebody to to keep driving drunk time after time after time until they kill some family somewhere.”

Other court members expressed similar concerns about people being released on personal recognizance.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle and Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said Rosenthal’s ruling makes it easy for criminals to game the system by swearing they do not have enough money to pay bail – even if they do – just to get out of jail.

“This is a slap at every single Harris County Criminal court judge,” Radack said. “It’s a slap at their integrity, their intelligence, and it’s, basically, it really doesn’t matter how bad you are, as long as you’re charged with a misdemeanor. If you say you can’t afford bail, you’re getting out.”

A 193-page opinion accompanying Rosenthal’s order outlined research that showed personal bonds in other jursidictions were no less effective at getting people to show up for their trials, nor did they significantly lead to additional offenses by those released. In fact, Rosenthal wrote, research shows pretrial detention increases the likelihood that people will commit future crimes.

Her order states that judges still have other tools – such as breathalyzers or GPS monitoring – to address the risk of releasees committing new offenses.

It also notes that the county has “not compiled the data it has to compare failure-to-appear or new-criminal-activity rates by bond type among misdemeanor defendants during pretrial release.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis has been the lone member of Commissioners Court who has agreed that the county’s bail system is unconstitutional. He repeatedly has advocated settling the case. He said Tuesday that under the current bail system, people who can afford to make bail can pay, get out, and re-offend, meaning that using high bail to detain individuals disproportionately affects the poor.

Commissioner Ellis has it exactly right. Maybe if the county would get its act together and compile some data then some other members of Commissioners would feel less need to fearmonger. The point is that all along, we let anyone go who could pay whatever bond was set, without worrying about whether or not they might re-offend. A system that takes into account risk rather than ability to pay will do more to reduce this kind of crime than anything else. Fortunately, that’s what the county will have to do now. That’s all there is to it.

Ogg joins with other DAs in criticizing new Justice Department sentencing guidelines

As well she should.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg on Friday joined 30 other sitting and former district attorneys in a letter protesting U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent push for harsher sentences in America’s federal courts.

“This is a return to a failed policy of a generation ago,” Ogg, a Democrat, said of the directive. “It did not make the public safer then and it will not make the public safer now.”

A week ago, Sessions ordered that federal prosecutors should bring the toughest charges possible against most suspects, a move seen as a reversal of Obama-era policies that will send more people to prison and for much longer terms.

Prosecutors across the country, including Ogg, criticized a return to failed drug-war policies that would likely unfairly affect minorities and fill prisons with nonviolent offenders.

The open letter was orchestrated by Fair and Just Prosecution, a group that works with prosecutors around the nation.

Miriam Krinsky, executive director for the group, said in a news release that the letter reflects a trend among a “new wave of prosecutors nationwide who are rejecting excessively punitive policies in favor of data-driven and sensible approaches to improve public safety.”

You can see a copy of the letter here. I can’t find a website or Facebook page for “Fair and Just Prosecution”, so this is about all I know. Though the Sessions directive doesn’t affect local prosecutors, the Justice Department does set a tone, and it’s a bad one in this case. Pushing back is the right thing to do, and I’m glad once again to have voted for a DA who is willing to do that.

Special prosecutors named in Temple case

We’ll see how they proceed.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office has been tapped to prosecute the murder case against former Alief Coach David Temple in the 1999 death of his pregnant wife.

State District Judge Kelli Johnson appointed Lisa Tanner and Bill Turner, two lawyers with the AG’s office, as special prosecutors almost two weeks after Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg withdrew from the case because of potential conflicts of interest with her office.

Both Temple’s attorney and a spokesman for the victim’s family praised the choice.

“We’re thrilled beyond thrilled to have these prosecutors appointed,” said victims’ advocate Andy Kahan. “We couldn’t have asked for a better choice.”

He said he hopes they put Temple back in prison for the slaying of Belinda Lucas Temple, who was 8 months pregnant with the couple’s second child when she was killed in their home.

“We’re confident that at the end of the day, they’ll see things the way we’ve seen things since 1999,” he said.

Temple’s defense attorney, Stanley Schneider, likewise praised the choice.

“Lisa Tanner has been trying cases around the state for probably 30 years,” said attorney Stanley Schneider. “She always shows up prepared.”

Tanner and Turner will first have to decide if they are going to retry Temple, who maintains his innocence.

See here for the background. The decision about whether to proceed at all or not is the first big choice Tanner and Turner will have to make. At some point one side or the other isn’t going to be happy with them anymore, but at least for now no one is complaining about not getting a fair shake.

Paxton tries again – and fails – to get a new judge

Never give up, never surrender, I guess.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s criminal defense lawyers filed a motion Wednesday arguing the judge assigned to oversee his securities fraud trial is ineligible to oversee the case because his appointment was temporary.

Legal experts say the argument appears dubious as Paxton’s legal team looks for ways to secure a new judge in a high-profile legal battle that could decide the political fate of the state’s most embattled Republican.

“Big firms fight for every inch,” said Edward Mallett, a Houston criminal defense lawyer. “I admire the lawyers for being scrappy.”

The motion argues that any rulings District Judge George Gallagher has made in the attorney general’s case since in 2017 should be “vacated and declared void,” including his decision to move the trial out of Paxton’s back yard of Collin County and into Harris County. The case should be reassigned to a new Collin County jurist who assumed office in January, according to the motion.

[…]

Paxton’s legal team filed the motion with Judge Mary Murphy, the presiding judge of the First Administrative Judicial Region, arguing she had assigned Gallagher to her region until Dec. 31, 2016, which should render rulings he’s made since then null and void.

She assigned Gallagher to hear cases in the region on July 29, 2015 to last “until the plenary power has expired or the undersigned Presiding Judge has terminated this assignment in writing, whichever occurs first.”

“Plenary power” refers to a court’s power to dispose of a matter before it, according to Black’s Law Dictionary. That means Gallagher likely has the power to stay with the case until the end, regardless when his time in the judicial region expires, said Mallett, past president of the national, state and county association of criminal defense lawyers. He said the filing’s lack of reference to case law likely reveals that Paxton’s legal team is looking for creative ways to remove the judge without past precedent to back up their arguments.

“This is Texas: issues not clearly controlled by precedent are influenced by politics. The law is art and science combined,” said Mallett.

See here, here, and here for the background. The Trib adds some details.

In their Wednesday filing, Paxton’s lawyers said Gallagher had “no authority” to make rulings in 2017 because his assignment to the case expired at midnight on Dec. 31, 2016. They base that claim on an assignment order that has not previously come to light in the case.

In addition to the order to change the venue, Gallagher’s rulings this year included denials of motions to dismiss and to delay until prosecutors can get paid. The judge declined to comment through a spokeswoman on the Wednesday filing.

Gallagher, who is from Tarrant County, has presided over the case since its early days in 2015, when Collin County’s Chris Oldner stepped aside due to his ties to Paxton. Oldner did not seek re-election in 2016, instead running for a seat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, a race he lost. Oldner was succeeded by Andrea Thompson.

The case should now return to Thompson, Paxton’s team said in its Wednesday filing, which was addressed to Mary Murphy, the presiding judge of the First Administrative Judicial Region of Texas.

I Am Not A Lawyer, so I can’t tell you how good an argument this was, but I can tell you that it didn’t work.

On Thursday morning, Paxton’s attorneys were told their latest request that Judge George Gallagher be forced to step down could not be honored. Why? The court they asked does not have the authority to make this decision.

“The undersigned does not have that power,” Judge Mary Murphy, presiding judge in the First Administrative Judicial Region, wrote in an email. The decision, she said, lies with “the trial court and the appellate courts.”

My take on this is that the administrative judge Murphy says Paxton should be taking this up with judges Gallagher (who has already expressed his opinion) and Thompson in the 416th Court in Collin County, where this whole thing originated. Assuming Judge Thompson has no interest in taking this case back to her court, then the next step for Paxton would be to ask the appellate court, which could be the Fourth Court (which has jurisdiction over Collin County) or one of the First and 14th Courts, which rule for Harris County. I’ll bet a dollar we’ll see that happen in short order.

Special prosecutor to be appointed in David Temple case

Seems like the right call.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is asking for a special prosecutor to handle the murder case against former Alief Coach David Temple, adding new scrutiny to a decades-old case that continues to stir controversy.

Ogg filed court papers Friday to withdraw from the case because of potential conflicts of interest with her office and sought appointment of a special prosecutor.

The news left the family of Belinda Lucas Temple in grateful tears, holding out hope that Temple will once again stand trial for the 1999 killing.

“We recognize that we’re right back where we were in 1999,” victim’s advocate Andy Kahan said, standing next to Belinda’s brother, Brian Lucas, after a court hearing Friday. “But that’s the hand we’ve been dealt and, considering the circumstances and alternatives, we’re ready to move forward.”

[…]

“We’re withdrawing from the case and urge the court to appoint someone with no dog in the fight,” said David Mitcham, head of the DA’s trial division. “The tentacles of this case are just so extensive that we don’t want to create even the appearance of any impropriety.”

Ogg, who took office Jan. 1, said in court filings that two members of her office have possible conflicts. Former judge David Mendoza, who previously overruled Temple’s motion for a new trial, is now chief of Ogg’s Professional Integrity Bureau. And Steve Clappart, Ogg’s chief investigator, chased down leads on alternative suspects while working as an investigator for a previous district attorney. Clappart then stood with Temple’s lawyers as a private investigator in 2015 when they declared Temple was innocent.

Ogg reviewed the file for four months before deciding to seek a special prosecutor.

“Our duty is simply to do justice, not just to win,” Ogg said in a statement after the court hearing.

Temple’s defense attorney disagreed with the move, saying neither Mendoza nor Clappart were witnesses in the case.

“David is innocent and we look forward to our day in court,” attorney Stanley Schneider said.

State District Judge Kelli Johnson will appoint a special prosecutor, who will then decide whether to re-try Temple or dismiss the case.

See here and here for some background. This case is messy enough that having a fresh set of eyes on it, belonging to someone who has no connection to it or political ambitions that could be affected by it, is a good idea. I just hope that our Commissioners Court is less jerky about paying for the ad litem prosecutor than those jokers in Collin County have been. The Press has more.

Stockman trial delayed

Alas.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Former U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman’s trial on federal corruption charges has been pushed back to next year.

The trial, originally scheduled to begin June 5, will now kick off on Jan. 29, 2018, according to an order issued Wednesday by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal.

Stockman’s lawyer had requested the delay last week, asking the judge to put off the trial until “at least January 2018.” The motion to push back the trial had been unopposed.

The lawyer, Richard Kuniansky, said he needed more time to review 142,378 pages of evidence, apparently gathered by the government over the past three and a half years. Kuniansky said he may need the help of a forensic accountant and paralegal.

See here for the background. The request is fair enough, as lawyer Kuniansky is new to the case. I think Stockman is guilty, guilty, guilty, but that’s my opinion and the man deserves a fair trial just like anyone else. Let his attorney get up to speed, we can wait till January.

Paxton still pushing for a new judge

Still, he persisted, I guess.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawyers are not giving up in their bid to get a new judge in his securities fraud case.

Earlier this month, Judge George Gallagher ordered Paxton’s trial be moved to Harris County from Collin County, where Paxton lives, after prosecutors argued Paxton and his allies had tainted the jury pool there. Paxton’s team wrote Friday to Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel requesting that he assign the case to a new judge. Paxton “has not and will not give” his permission for the current judge to follow the case to Harris County, Paxton’s lawyers wrote to Daniel.

The letter, which was filed in court Monday, is the latest development in a standoff between Paxton’s team and Gallagher, whose spokeswoman said last week he will remain on the case. The spokeswoman, Melody McDonald Lanier, also said Gallagher does not need to rule on a motion Paxton’s lawyers made earlier this month that amounted to their initial request for a new judge.

In the letter to Daniel, Paxton’s lawyers continued to cite a part of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure that says a judge ordering a change of venue may only continue to preside over the case with the consent of both sides. Gallagher, who is from Tarrant County, has been presiding over the case since its early days in 2015.

See here and here for the background. I know that the District Clerk assigns district court judges in new cases, but this is a continuation of a previous case, and it’s one where the judge was assigned from another county after the original judge recused himself. Is there anything in existing law to suggest that the District Clerk has the authority to assign a new judge after the venue was changed to the Clerk’s county? I have no idea, and based on the prior reports, this is something no one has asked for before. I’m kind of wondering why Team Paxton hasn’t gone to the 1st or 14th Courts of Appeals with this request; maybe he wants to show that he exhausted all other avenues first. Whatever the case, I have to assume the question will eventually wind up there. And I have to wonder, is this all worth it? Do they really think they’ve been screwed by Judge Gallagher so far, and that the risk of making things really awkward in his court is worth the possibility of getting a different judge, one who may not have any more tolerance for his lawyers’ tactics? Again, I have no idea. But it sure is fun to watch. The Chron has more.

No new judge for Paxton

Denied!

Best mugshot ever

State District Judge George Gallagher will remain on the securities fraud case against Attorney General Ken Paxton, according to a spokeswoman for the judge.

It was originally believed Gallagher would have to rule on a request Paxton’s lawyers made this month for a new judge. But the spokeswoman, Melody McDonald Lanier, said Monday that he does not and will continue presiding over the case.

The request came shortly after Gallagher moved Paxton’s trial to Harris County. Prosecutors had successfully sought a venue change, arguing Paxton and his allies had tainted the jury pool in Collin County, where he lives.

Paxton’s lawyers believe Gallagher had been misled into changing the venue.

See here for the background. The reporting I have seen suggests this is something Paxton can appeal, but as this is basically unprecedented we’re all kind of muddling along and waiting to see what happens. So who knows? The DMN has more.

Paxton wants a new judge

He may not get his wish.

Best mugshot ever

The judge presiding over Attorney General Ken Paxton’s criminal trial plans to remain on the case, regardless of Paxton’s request for a new judge, his spokesman said.

“He anticipates remaining the judge,” District Judge George Gallagher’s spokeswoman Melody McDonald Lanier told the Houston Chronicle Thursday.

Paxton’s criminal defense team requested a new judge after Gallagher moved Paxton’s criminal trial to Harris County from Paxton’s home of Collin County, a move the attorney general’s lawyers opposed. Special prosecutors argued the attorney general’s allies had worked to poison the jury pool there.

Lawyers representing the embattled Republican attorney general said in a motion Tuesday they would refuse to sign off on a procedural move to to keep Gallagher with the case at it moves to Harris County.

Asked for comment about Paxton’s motion to remove him as the case’s judge, Gallagher’s spokeswoman said “He can’t comment because he is the judge and he anticipates remaining the judge.”

[…]

“As far as I know, there is nothing in the Code of Criminal Procedure that addresses what is to happen if the defendant or defense counsel withholds the consent to which article 31.09 refers,” said George Dix, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, referring to the code Paxton cited in his motion. “No case, as far as I know, has addressed the meaning of this provision.”

See here and here for the background. As the DMN notes, what Paxton is asking for is basically unprecedented.

It’s quite possible no one else has ever asked for what Ken Paxton wants now.

This week, after Judge George Gallagher moved the attorney general’s upcoming criminal trials from Collin to Harris County, Paxton asked for a new judge. He cited a state law that’s meant to be procedural, a way for Gallagher to maintain the original case number and continue to use his own court reporter and clerk when the proceedings move to Houston.

But Paxton’s attorneys have interpreted the law to also require their client’s “written consent” for Gallagher to continue presiding over the case.

Paxton didn’t give his consent. He’s the first to refuse to do so and ask for a new judge in the process, experts said.

[…]

If Paxton’s motion is granted and upheld on appeal, it could set a precedent that will allow any criminal defendant or prosecutor to use the same tactic and get a new judge if a case is moved. But it’s unclear how likely that is to occur.

If Judge Gallagher denies the motion, the Chron story suggests any appeals would be heard by either the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas or the 1st or 14th Court of Appeals in Houston. I don’t think this is likely to affect the proposed trial calendar, but as noted we are in unprecedented territory here. Already the entertainment value of this proceeding is off the charts, and we’re still five months away from jury selection.

Paxton’s trial date set for September 12

Mark your calendars.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s newly relocated criminal trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 12.

The judge in the case set the trial date Wednesday, a day after moving the proceedings to Harris County. The trial had originally been scheduled to start May 1 in Collin County.

The judge, George Gallagher, said in his scheduling order that the trial “will conclude no later than” Sept. 22. The order also said jury selection will begin Sept 11.

[…]

Paxton is now seeking a new judge in the case. Hours after Gallagher sent the trial to Harris County on Tuesday, Paxton’s lawyers told the judge they would not give their permission for him to follow the case to the new venue.

See here for the background, and here for more on Paxton’s attempt to get a new judge. I presume someone still needs to rule on that motion, and my guess is that first Judge Gallagher will have the opportunity to step down on his own, and if he chooses not to do so the administrative judge will rule on the motion. (You lawyers please feel free to correct me on this.) I don’t think that will take enough time to disrupt the proposed schedule, but if a new judge is installed I suppose it could. Finally, note that Paxton will only be tried on the lesser charge that he failed to register with the state securities board. If he is convicted, then prosecutors will proceed on the much more serious charges of securities fraud; if they fail, I presume they will cut their losses and go home. Between this and the Stockman trial, we’ve got quite the full calendar ahead of us. The Chron has more.

Settle the damn bail lawsuit already

Enough.

Harris County commissioners Tuesday voted to add high-profile, conservative litigator Charles Cooper to a growing team of attorneys defending the county and several public officials against a civil rights lawsuit alleging the county’s bail system unconstitutionally jails the poor.

Cooper, a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist and friend of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, would represent 15 out of 16 county criminal court of law judges in a potential appeal.

No decision has been made yet in the case nor has it gone to trial. Parties are awaiting a ruling from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to determine if the current bail system should be suspended before trial. When Rosenthal makes that ruling, either the plaintiffs or the county could appeal.

“It’s simply being ready to deal with eventualities,” First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said of Cooper’s retention. “Whether the county decides to appeal, the plaintiffs decide to appeal, it’s sometimes good to have these things lined up in advance.”

[…]

The county already has paid approximately $2 million to two outside law firms in the case, money that reform advocates such as Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said could have been spent on actually implementing reforms being sought in the suit.

Ellis, who has advocated to settle the lawsuit and has criticized the county’s bail system, cast the lone vote Tuesday against retaining Cooper. He questioned Cooper’s role in defending California’s ban against gay marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“He seems like the leading candidate that people go to if you want to fight civil rights,” Ellis said.

See here and here for some background. I realize that we’re still waiting for a decision on whether to put an injunction on the county’s bail policies (which I think will be granted) in advance of the trial itself, but this has already taken a long time and cost a ton of money. Meanwhile, the county’s justification is that they’ve made reforms so there’s nothing for them to be sued about. If that’s truly the case, then it shouldn’t be that difficult to work out whatever differences do remain, and save a lot of time and trouble. Digging our heels in further makes no sense to me, and I question the judgment of everyone involved who insists on it. The Press has more.

Paxton trial moved to Harris County

The circus is coming to town, with none of those morally questionable animal acts to get all angsty about.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton will face a jury in Harris County on felony criminal charges he committed securities fraud and failed to register with the state as an investment advisor, a district judge ruled Tuesday.

District Judge George Gallagher opted to relocate Paxton’s criminal trial across county lines last month after citing concern that political influences are strong in the attorney general’s home of Collin County where he originally was set to be tried.

“Harris County was selected because the lead counsel for the state and the defense are located there. Harris County also has the facilities to accommodate the trial,” Gallagher said in a statement.

Paxton’s lawyers have opposed the change of venue and say a recent poll shows possible jurists in Collin County are largely undecided about the case. However, attorneys on both sides agreed to allow the court to relocate the trial to a county not adjacent to Paxton’s home county, according to the ruling.

See here for the background. If you live in Harris County and receive a jury summons in the next few weeks, that may end up being a more exciting experience than you’d normally expect.

And with the change in venue, it appears there will be a change of judge as well.

Paxton’s attorneys filed a motion hours later asking that a new judge from Harris County be assigned to the case.

“By this motion, Paxton respectfully advises the Court that he will not be giving the statutorily-required written consent… to allow the Honorable George Gallagher or his court staff to continue to preside over the matter in Harris County,” the motion reads.

Needless to say, there’s no trial date set yet. The questions of who will preside over the case and in which courtroom will have to be settled first, and the new judge will have to get up to speed. I may have to reconsider my original expectation that there will be a verdict before next November. Anyway, time to stock up on popcorn and get ready for the show. You can see copies of the judge’s order and the Paxton motion here, and the Trib and the Dallas Observer have more.

Stockman trial date set

Mark your calendar.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Former U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman is set to go to trial June 5 on federal corruption charges.

Stockman, a Houston-area Republican, has pleaded not guilty to charges of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitable donations to himself and his congressional campaign. He was arraigned Monday.

The trial is expected to last one month, according to a scheduling order filed Tuesday. Pretrial motions are due May 12 and responses two weeks later.

[…]

Stockman has cycled through a number of lawyers since his arrest last month. On Thursday, he was given a court-appointed attorney, Richard Kuniansky.

See here for the previous update. How long this actually takes will depend in large part on what happens with the pretrial motions. The Tom DeLay and Ken Paxton sagas were and are as drawn out as they were because the indictments were challenged in the pretrial hearing, and the trial judges’ rulings upholding them were then appealed. I don’t think that will be the case here – there’s nothing so far to suggest that the charges themselves are in any way a stretch – but you never know. If nothing interesting comes out of that, then expect the trial itself to be on the schedule suggested by the story.

Stockman pleads not guilty

And we’re off.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Standing tall, with his hands hanging loosely at his sides, former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman told a federal magistrate in Houston Monday he understood the criminal charges against him and pleaded not guilty to theft of about $800,000 in charitable donations intended for conservative organizations and associated charges.

Upon Stockman’s request, U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy Johnson had appointed him a lawyer last week to be paid for by the government until he can land a job. Stockman said he needed to dismiss his hand-picked lawyers because he can’t work while under indictment: His job requires him to travel overseas, which is not permitted under his bond.

Stockman was indicted on 28 federal corruption charges. He said publicly that he expects to be fully vindicated. He is free on bond.

Robert J. Heberle, an attorney from the public integrity division of the Justice Department, told the magistrate Monday he anticipated the trial would last one month and as many as 40 to 50 witnesses could be called for the prosecution. Johnson encouraged the government to whittle down the list. Stockman’s trial is set for June 5 before Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal for the Southern District of Texas.

Stockman’s new attorney, Richard B. Kuniansky, who defended former accountant Mark Kuhrt in the massive Stanford prosecution several years ago, said after Stockman’s plea that he felt news reports had been unfair in their portrayal of the former lawmaker.

“It’s my understanding that pretty much been a pattern of attack on the character of Mr. Stockman,” Kuniansky said. “We’re looking forward to the truth coming out.”

See here for the background, and here for the pre-hearing version of the story. All I have to add at this point is that I too look forward to the truth coming out.

Steve Stockman claims he’s broke

Pobrecito.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Former Congressman Steve Stockman told a federal magistrate Wednesday he can’t afford to pay for a lawyer to represent him against allegations he helped steal about $800,000 in charitable donations intended for conservative organizations.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy Johnson agreed to appoint a lawyer for him and postponed a hearing on his case until Friday.

Stockman told the judge he needed to dismiss his hand-picked lawyers from the elite firm of Smyser Kaplan & Veselka and ideally he wanted the court to re-appoint them to the case at the government’s expense. She said she’d consider the request.

He confirmed for the judge details on a disclosure form he’d filled out in front of a roomful of defendants in shackles and jail uniforms, indicating he owned a home, a rental property and two vans.

“But you have no assets?” Johnson asked.

“This is a four-year case,” the former lawmaker said, indicating he’d been paying for legal support on these matters for a long time.

See here and here for some background. I would have asked him “what, you can’t use some of that money you stole to pay your lawyers?”, which is no doubt why I’m not a US Magistrate. Well, that and the lack of a law degree. But seriously, this guy. I don’t know why anyone believes a word he says.

In the meantime, feast on this.

The fact that the former congressman is facing multiple felony counts made national news. But one of the most interesting details in the 46-page Stockman indictment escaped notice: The suggestion that Richard Uihlein, one of the country’s biggest conservative political donors, personally wrote a check for $450,571.65 to mail a fake newspaper called The Conservative News to voters across Texas. The paper, which prosecutors say was part of a Stockman-run, secretly funded operation intended to take down Cornyn, included the dubious claims that Cornyn wanted to ban veterans from having guns, had voted to fund abortion, and was secretly working with Democrats to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.

Mailing a fake newspaper is not a crime, nor is secretly funding a candidate to do so. Thanks to a series of court decisions now known collectively as Citizens United, billionaires are allowed to fund anonymous attacks as long as they abide by an arcane set of tax and campaign finance rules. And Uihlein, who has given more than $43 million to conservative candidates and super PACs since 2011, is a particularly big fish. He is the chief executive of a family-owned shipping and packing materials company that’s confusingly named “Uline,” which Forbes estimated was worth at least $700 million in 2014. And through his private foundation, Uihlein has given millions more to nonprofits that push a conservative policy agenda and train a new generation of political operatives to sell it.

It’s not clear what, if anything, Uihlein knew about Stockman’s fake-news scheme. He is described as a victim in the Stockman case: Prosecutors say Stockman and his staffers fraudulently diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars Uihlein had donated. Uihlein’s funding of the fake-news operation would likely never have become public had Stockman not gotten tangled up with an FBI investigation — meaning this episode exposes a side of the U.S. campaign finance system we don’t often get to see.

[…]

Larry Barry, director of legal affairs at Uline, refused to answer questions about the case, but said in an emailed statement that “we are deeply troubled by the allegations … that certain contributions made in good faith may have been used for unintended personal and political purposes.” Barry referred to Uihlein as “a victim of this alleged misconduct” and said that “we have and will continue to fully cooperate with the Department of Justice in this investigation.”

[…]

One of the biggest unanswered questions in the Stockman case is how he apparently fooled Uihlein twice.

Prosecutors say Posey told Uihlein’s accountant in a May 13, 2014, email ― sent two months after Stockman lost the election ― that some of the money that was supposed to be used for Freedom House had gone to delivering medical supplies to “third world” countries. The email, which also included an attached tax exemption letter for Life Without Limits, allegedly constituted wire fraud ― though prosecutors don’t spell out exactly why.

What the documents don’t clear up is why Uihlein would fund Stockman’s direct mail campaign a year after his donation for Freedom House ― especially since it seemed like so little progress had been made on that first project. “You raise a good question, but it’s not one I can talk about today,” said Dane C. Ball, a Houston lawyer defending Stockman.

An answer may be in the offing if the case goes to trial. If that happens, it’s likely Uihlein would be called to testify, said D.C. campaign finance lawyer Brett Kappel.

“Get your popcorn,” he quipped.

There’s not enough popcorn in the world. Also, I am unreasonably amused by the fact that Uline’s director of legal affairs is named “Larry Barry”. I cannot wait for this trial to begin.

Dukes fails to get charges tossed

Too bad for her.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

A Travis County state district judge denied a motion by state Rep. Dawnna Dukes to dismiss four felony counts against her for tampering with public records.

Dukes’ attorneys on March 8 asked Judge Brad Urrutia to dismiss four of her 13 indicted felony charges, arguing that an agreement she signed in September 2016 to waive statute of limitations on those counts was invalid for technical reasons.

Urrutia made a brief written ruling: “Having considered the evidence presented, the argument of counsel, and the applicable law, defendant’s motion is denied.”

His decision was not unexpected after Urrutia expressed skepticism at the hearing, telling Dukes’ attorneys “Your client certainly derived a benefit, a great benefit, from signing a waiver. You’re asking me to create new law.”

Dukes, an Austin Democrat, cannot appeal the ruling.

See here and here for the background. I don’t have anything to add here, I’m just keeping track of the story and waiting till the filing period to see who’ll challenge Dukes next March, assuming she hasn’t reconsidered her decision to un-resign by then. The Trib has more.