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August 19th, 2014:

Greg Enos turns his spotlight to Gary Polland

This ought to be good.

Gary Polland

There can be no doubt: Gary Polland is a smart, successful lawyer who knows how to make a lot of money from the practice of law. Polland is politically powerful and able to influence and profit from every Republican primary election. Polland should be your hero and role model if high income and political influence are your goals in life.

I asked a bunch of attorneys with experience in CPS cases how much they guessed Gary Polland had been paid in four and a half years for court appointments. Their guesses ranged from $300,000 – $700,000. They were totally floored to hear that Polland had been paid $1.9 million by Harris County since January 1, 2010 for court appointments. Just to be very clear, that is taxpayer dollars being paid to this one man for government court appointments only. It does not count the many cases where Polland was appointed by judges but paid by private parties.

My investigation into this incredible situation has just begun, but here is what I know:

Polland has enormous political influence in Harris County Republican primaries, especially with judges, because he is one of the “Big Three” endorsers. It is virtually impossible to win a Harris County GOP judicial primary, even for an incumbent, without at least two of three endorsements from Hotze, Lowry or Polland. Unlike Hotze or Lowry, Polland is an attorney. Click here to see who Polland endorsed in the 2014 GOP primaries.

[…]

Attorneys appointed on CPS cases are paid a lower hourly rate than lawyers in private cases are paid. For example, I charge my clients $350 per hour for my work in divorce and child custody cases. Harris County pays CPS attorneys hourly rates which range from $75 to $125 per hour, depending on the specific service provided. Pay for trials is $300 to $500 per day. Young attorneys, who need experience and who want any paying case they can get, often seek CPS appointments. These young attorneys work hard to impress the judges and, because they are new, do not take CPS clients for granted. Massive amounts of appointments for just a few older, politically connected attorneys, take away from younger attorneys this opportunity to gain experience, help children and make a little money.

Most importantly, representation of abused children in CPS cases is not supposed to be an “assembly line” business to enrich the politically connected. CPS work takes time, dedication and focus on a few children at a time.

The $1.9 million paid to Polland by Harris County does not include what Polland has been paid in private cases by the parties where he was appointed a mediator or amicus attorney by a judge. In non-CPS child custody cases, the attorney appointed to represent a child is usually called an “amicus attorney.”

[…]

The $1.9 million Polland has been paid by Harris County since January 1, 2010 works out to $8,119.66 per week. Divided by $125 per hour (the minimum and usual non-trial hourly rate for CPS cases), that is 65 hours of billed legal work per week, every week, 52 weeks per year with no vacations or holidays. That would leave Mr. Polland very little time for his private appointments, mediations and civil cases where a client actually hires him. In contrast, for my clients, I work 7 – 10 hours per day but I usually bill a total of 4 – 6 hours per day. I clearly could learn a lot from Mr. Polland on how to efficiently bill for my time.

Every two years, Polland makes a lot of money from his business, Conservative Media Properties, LLC, doing business as the Texas Conservative Review, which endorses candidates in Republican primaries. Candidates give Polland money to pay for his mailers and local judicial candidates almost have to pay Polland because voters simply cannot know which of the dozens of judicial candidates are qualified. In election season, judges come to the attorneys asking for contributions, except for Polland. Unlike the rest of us, Polland is able to go to the judges and ask them for money. He is in a truly unique and powerful position.

My next issue will attempt to analyze which judges are appointing Polland and which paid his for-profit business for “advertisements” in his endorsement newspaper. For the next few months, a special feature in this newsletter will list each new appointment in family courts Polland gets and which judge appointed him. The judges who are appointing Polland are going to feel the spotlight even if they are unwilling to publicly explain why they choose him out of the hundreds of lawyers who seek appointments.

I can’t wait. Polland gets appointed to civil and criminal cases as well as to family court cases, and of course he is heavily involved in Republican primary politics, especially via his influential endorsement of judges. This year’s election is therefore particularly consequential for him, since a strong Democratic year would necessarily mean tossing out a bunch of judges that have been appointing him in favor of judges that would not have any electoral connection to him.

Enos’ calculation of Polland’s total bill to Harris County is about $300K higher than the figure he cites on his sidebar, where he lists the top 22 recipients of appointment earnings from Harris County since 2010. It’s still a lot of money either way. Keep that in mind the next time you hear Gary Polland rail against the Harris County Public Defender’s office. Its existence cuts into his bottom line.

Enos has invited Polland to reply to his reporting. I kind of doubt Polland will take him up on it, but I hope he does. It would be enlightening, if nothing else.

Look behind the scenes

There’s another angle to consider the Perry indictment saga, which is that the indictment isn’t so much about what Rick Perry said publicly regarding Rosemary Lehmberg and the Public Integrity Unit but what he was saying behind the scenes. Erica Greider explores this, with a minor detour first.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

To review those facts, in 2013 the Travis County district-attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, was arrested for drunk driving and sentenced to 45 days in jail. It was a penalty that no one could find fault with after viewing video footage of the field sobriety test and her subsequent behavior at the station that evening (she served about half the sentence and entered a treatment program after leaving prison). A number of Texans felt that she should resign, among them Perry, who publicly warned that he would use his line-item veto to remove state funding to the Public Integrity Unit—an anti-corruption outfit located in the Travis County DA’s office—unless she stepped down.

At the time, Democrats grumbled that Mr Perry’s threat was politically motivated. The Public Integrity Unit investigates corruption among statewide officials, which means, in the context, that it’s a check on Republicans like Perry and his pals. If Lehmberg stepped down, Perry would, in theory, have had a chance to replace a Democrat with a Republican appointee more friendly to his agenda. And after Lehmberg refused to resign and Perry vetoed the funding, the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice filed a complaint, charging that the veto had been politically motivated. That led to yesterday’s indictments; the charges are coercion and abuse of power.

Perry, unsurprisingly, responded Saturday by doubling down, dismissing the indictment as “outrageous.” More surprising, perhaps, is how quickly public opinion has moved in his favor, or at least in favor of proceeding with caution. Republicans were quick to rally round, but even independents and Democrats, after the initial fizzle faded, seemed skeptical of the indictment.

“Skeptical” is an overbid, some national pundits notwithstanding. (Some of those national pundits would do well to read Forrest Wilder. Or Progress Texas. Or me.) If Democrats here have tempered their response to this news, it’s not because we think Rick Perry is being railroaded, it’s because we’ve seen this movie before and we’ve learned the hard way how long a distance it is from “indictment” to “conviction”, especially a conviction that sticks. KBH walked. Tom DeLay may be let off the hook by the most pro-prosecution court in the country. We know better than to count our chickens before they hatch.

Back to the main thesis:

It’s worth emphasizing that the indictments don’t lay out all (or even much) of the special prosecutor’s evidence, and I suspect the focus on the veto, which is mentioned in the second count, will prove to be a red herring.

[…]

More intriguing, to me, is the chatter that around the time of the veto, Perry’s camp had some behind-the-scenes discussions with Travis County officials about a potential deal wherein, if Lehmberg resigned, he would appoint a Democrat to replace her. These rumors have been reported before, and several Democratic sources have suggested to me there’s something to it. This has always struck me as plausible. Perry’s critics argue that he was targeting Lehmberg opportunistically, as a way to stifle the PIU, either by removing its funding or by appointing a Republican to oversee it. But if Perry wanted to stifle the PIU, he could have simply vetoed its funding years ago (or, for that matter, left it in the care of the beleaguered Lehmberg). It would have been more shrewd, actually, to proceed quietly.

Worth considering is an alternative account of Perry’s political motivation. In June 2013, when he vetoed the PIU funding, he was signing the overall budget for the 2014-2015 biennium—a budget that restored billions of dollars of funding to public schools and expanded funding to worthy priorities such as higher education and mental health care. It was a budget that had been passed by the legislature with widespread bipartisan support and that was opposed only by a handful of tea partiers, who accused the Legislature and the governor of taking the state on a California-style spending spree. They were wrong, but they were clamorous, and Perry’s defense of the budget risked costing him some standing with the Republican base. My impression, at the time, was that the governor was aware of those risks. On a Monday, he said that his critics needed remedial math lessons; he then turned around and added abortion to the call for the special session that was already in progress. And on the day he signed the budget, to widespread applause, he made a point of using his line-item veto to remove state funding from a unit overseen by a Democratic district-attorney who had just spent several weeks in prison.

If my thinking is correct—if his goal was to cover his right flank rather than to gut the PIU—it’s not hard to believe that months later, Perry (or his people) would let Democrats know that he was open to replacing Lehmberg with a Democrat, that he would help find another job for Lehmberg, and even that he would restore funding to the PIU if they proceeded with such a deal. In such negotiations, though, the governor may have extended his constitutional authority, and so if Perry did have such discussions, I suspect turn out that the prosecutor’s evidence will have more to do with those backroom agreements than with a public warning about his intention to exercise his constitutional powers. If so, the legal case against Perry might be more serious. The ethical case against him would potentially less so, though.

Peggy Fikac followed the grand jury investigation as it was going on, and she fills in some details from her perspective outside the jury room.

The grand jury meets behind closed doors, but we sat in the hallway with our laptops, getting an idea of where the case was going by the people who came and went during a half-dozen meetings before the big one last Friday.

There were current and former Perry staffers, Travis County employees and state lawmakers.

Each had a part – directly or through their expertise – in the drama surrounding Perry’s threat to veto funding for the public corruption unit overseen by Democratic Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg unless she resigned after an ugly drunken-driving arrest.

The Republican governor had the clear right to veto the money, but the road to his indictment started with his use of that power to try to force out a locally elected official.

Each person’s presence was a piece of the story, even though it wasn’t clear how many of them actually testified to grand jurors.

There was Perry spokesman Rich Parsons. He was quoted in last year’s initial story on the threat, conveying Perry’s concerns to the Austin American-Statesman about “the integrity of the Public Integrity Unit” and saying his position had been relayed to Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Watson was tapped to convey the veto threat to Lehmberg. At some point after the funding was killed, Travis County intergovernmental relations coordinator Deece Eckstein set up a meeting among Perry’s legislative director and former Democratic state Sen. Ken Armbrister from Victoria, Perry deputy chief of staff Mike Morrissey and Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, a Republican. Daugherty earlier told my colleague, Nolan Hicks, that he reached out to Perry’s office to see if there was a way to restore the two-year, $7.5 million in funds.

Sources told Hicks that if Lehmberg had been willing to resign, Perry aides offered to restore funding, allow Lehmberg to continue working at the DA’s office in some capacity and pick her top lieutenant as her successor.

All went into the grand jury room this summer; Armbrister did so several times.

Besides them were a former Perry chief of staff; his former and current general counsel, and an assistant general counsel; an adviser; and his former communications director.

Perry’s technology manager was among them; so was a Travis County Attorney’s office employee who works closely with the commissioners court; and Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who last year pressed for Lehmberg’s resignation and said he couldn’t support using state dollars for her “utter disrespect of the law.”

Perry – who didn’t testify – told reporters in June that he didn’t initiate any sort of deal, and that he didn’t personally make phone calls with regard to asking Lehmberg to step down.

Asked about the post-veto machinations on Saturday, Perry said his decision making was clear. He said he had promised to “veto those dollars as long as they had someone in that office who I lost confidence in, and I did exactly what I said I would do.”

The takeaway from all this is that there’s almost certainly more to this than what we can see right now. If Mike McCrum is as smart and capable as people say he is, he’s surely got a few cards up his sleeve, which he’ll reveal when he’s ready. That doesn’t mean this can’t come crashing down around him once it hits a courtroom, but it does mean we don’t know enough to judge how this case will go just yet. Perry’s over the top response may be more of his usual bluster, or it may be because he knows what shoes are out there waiting to drop on him. We’ll know soon enough. Campos, Ed Kilgore, Alec MacGillis, the Trib, and Jim Moore have more.

San Antonio will take its time on Uber and Lyft

As was the case in Houston, San Antonio City Council is in no rush to take action on updating their vehicles for hire ordinances to deal with Uber and Lyft.

Lyft

After an emotional and colorful Citizens to be Heard session, the City Council Public Safety Committee unanimously agreed to hold-off on sending a staff-recommended ordinance revision to City Council that would allow rideshare companies to operate in San Antonio. The committee unanimously passed a motion calling for a task force comprised of local stakeholders to continue research and discussion on developing rideshare regulation.

The committee will take up the issue again in three months during November’s meeting. Traditional taxi and limo companies applauded the decision.

“It was beautiful, I almost wanted to jump and kiss all the council people that were here,” said local cab driver Cruz Chavira after the meeting Wednesday afternoon. “I’m glad that they’re taking their time with this. We felt they were being rushed and we couldn’t figure out why … just sit down and do the homework.”

This decision delays resolution to the hotly-debated presence of Lyft and Uber, who began operating in San Antonio in March.

“Do we have all the answers today? I don’t think so,” said San Antonio Police Department Assistant Director Steven Baum, who presented the staff recommendation and urged the Committee to allow the revision to go to City Council. “If we move forward and adopt (this) revision, we will be back and have to adjust again … if we keep pushing it down the road we will never find all the answers.”

See here, here, and here for the background. San Antonio finished up a major overhaul of their vehicles for hire code in 2013, just in time for the likes of Uber and Lyft to show up on the scene, so I can understand to a point the reluctance to dive back in and do it all over again, but I will suggest that it doesn’t get any easier if you wait longer. One Council member is quoted in the story saying “San Antonio is not like Houston”, but I’d suggest the basic concerns are the same and there’s really not that much difference between the two cities. The main issues – insurance, background checks, access for the disabled, etc – are generally the same and have been studied by other cities as well as by Houston. Nobody really knows yet what the effect of these new companies will be. Whether you follow the example of another city that has already addressed this or you strike out on your own, you’ll want to revisit how it’s going at some point.

Still, I understand the hesitation. Perhaps some of that emotion and color from the session had an effect as well. The Current provides a few highlights.

Uber

A recurring crazy argument that some ride-share opponents honed in on was that poor people do not have smartphones and elderly people do not know how to use smartphones. That argument tapered out after a 68-year-old woman who no longer drives and can’t even use one of her arms, told the committee that she regularly uses her smartphone to catch a Lyft ride. In fact, that’s how she got to the public safety committee meeting. As for poor people not having access to smartphones, have you tried finding any phone recently that’s not a smartphone?

Here’s another fun one. One ride-share opponent has blown the conspiracy out into the open. Lyft and Uber are actually puppets of the global-masterminds over at Google. To be clear, according to this commenter, ride sharing is not about ride sharing; it’s about stealing personal data from consumers.

While we could continue to explore a few more not-so-crazy-but-still-kind-of-crazy comments from ride-share opponents, we’ll end with the craziest comment of them all because the rest are sort of repetitive.

One invigorated man whose voice crescendoed into thunder as he spoke, ended his anti-ride-sharing rant with an outrageous comparison: According to this speaker, allowing Lyft and Uber to operate by changing city code would actually be like slavery and San Antonio would be the Confederacy. His speech was met with thunderous applause from the taxicab lobby. So there’s that.

Are you asking yourselves why we didn’t include any crazy ride-share supporter arguments in this story? The simple answer is, there weren’t any wacky arguments coming from that side. And we don’t want to marginalize legitimate concerns posed by opponents either. Those were there. But crazy is like a car crash and you can’t look away.

I will just note that my mother, whose age I am not at liberty to disclose, is the queen of her iPhone. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, but I think it’s fair to say that there are plenty of people from generations before mine that can handle modern technology. The logical extension of that argument is that there’s no need to innovate at all, which is arguably how we got to this point in the first place. Good luck sorting it all out, San Antonio. I’ll check back on you in November.

Judge affirms Wilson residency verdict

No surprise.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

The Harris County Attorney’s office, which has been challenging [Dave] Wilson’s residency for months, asked state District Judge Mike Engelhart to throw out last month’s jury ruling, arguing that Wilson was breaking the law by claiming two residences.

Engelhart said Monday that he “unfortunately” had to deny the motion, but he admonished Wilson in his ruling.

“In presiding over this trial and listening to you testify, observing evidence and photographs, I found you not to be credible at all,” Engelhart said. “I will always believe you were an opportunist looking to take advantage of a situation and somehow create a legacy for yourself.”

Engelhart said he was “especially dismayed” by evidence in last month’s trial showing Wilson registered to vote in South Houston with the intention of running for an open state senate seat, but never actually moved there, or made “any effort to even look for an apartment or other residence.” Wilson then switched his registration back to the warehouse in which he has an apartment in HCC District II.

“That speaks loudly about your integrity,” Engelhart said.

See here and here for the background. Judge Engelhart is exactly right: Dave Wilson is a sleazebag and a grifter who found a seam in the law and is taking full advantage of it. Perhaps an appeals court will see it differently, but I would not count on it. Unless the Lege takes action, we’re stuck with him till 2019. It sucks, but it is what it is.