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July 13th, 2017:

Redistricting update: It’s all about the emails

Two days into the trial, and there’s more drama.

Plaintiffs challenging Texas’ 2013 redistricting maps Tuesday accused the state of improperly delaying the release of thousands of pages of documents from them, including 113 documents that state lawyers refuse to hand over because they say they are privileged.

The spat may further delay a conclusion to the weeklong trial, which already was frustrating judges because of repetitive questions.

Many of the documents in question pertain to communications of the chairman of the 2013 redistricting committee, Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, with other people involved in the redistricting, according to a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

The documents, under rules imposed by the three-judge panel, should have been disclosed years ago in the six-year old lawsuit, along with what’s known as a “privilege log,” but the apparent failure was recently discovered by Mark Gaber, one of the lawyers representing what’s known as the Quesada group of plaintiffs, according to court papers filed by Gaber.

After Gaber pressed for the documents last week, state lawyers over the weekend released more than 7,000 pages but stopped short of turning over everything. Gaber filed an emergency motion to compel the state to turn over the 113 pages it says are protected by attorney-client privilege.

“They’ve sort of strung it out throughout the weekend,” said José Garza, a lawyer representing another group of plaintiffs, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “We just got another drop this morning. It was documents that had been requested two years ago.”

That was a Tuesday report, now here’s one from Wednesday.

Minorities in Texas are facing uphill battles in getting proper representation in the state as the Legislature continues passing laws that are biased toward them, according to witnesses for civil rights groups challenging the state’s 2013 political boundaries.

Allan Lichtman, a social scientist and history professor at American University, analyzed patterns in the state, including events leading to the 2013 special session that resulted in the latest congressional and state House maps.

Though Republicans have admitted that prior “redistricting decisions were designed to increase the Republican Party’s electoral prospects at the expense of the Democrats,” Lichtman testified that his analysis shows that isn’t true.

“What was done here was to knowingly and intentionally impede the opportunity for African-Americans and Latinos to elect candidates of their choice,” Lichtman testified. “What we see here is intentional discrimination.”

[…]

Lichtman also testified that although Latinos and blacks contributed nearly 90 percent of the state’s explosive growth in recent years, they remain under-represented by nearly four congressional districts. Anglos, whose population decreased, are overrepresented by 5 ½ districts, Licthman said.

The testimony magnified statistics in a graphic Luis Vera , legal counsel for the League of United Latin American Citizens, showed the court: Despite contributing to most of Texas’ explosive growth that resulted in the state gaining four new congressional districts, Latinos today control only 16.7 percent of congressional districts in Texas – the same percentage they held in 1970.

See here for the opening report on the hearings. There may or may not be anything to these emails, but it sure does serve the state’s purposes to run time off the clock. In the Wednesday story, we learn that the judges ordered the state to turn over half of the remaining 113 emails they had refused to hand over before. The plaintiffs are still presenting their case as of yesterday, with the state’s defense to follow. Michael Li continues to live-tweet the proceedings, and the DMN, the Trib, and ThinkProgress have more.

Houston Public Works director caught up in HCC bribery case

Unclear yet how big a deal this is, but it is a big deal.

Chris Oliver

Houston Public Works Director Karun Sreerama made $77,143 in unlawful payments to a Houston Community College trustee who faces up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to bribery, according to federal court records.

The payments – made when Sreerama ran a private engineering firm – are related to an extortion and bribery case against 21-year HCC trustee Christopher Oliver, who was accused of taking payments and promising to use his position to help secure contracts with the community college system. The acting U.S. attorney has agreed to dismiss the extortion charge against Oliver in exchange for his guilty plea on the bribery indictment, court records show.

The extortion count lists an individual with the initials “K.S.” as a “victim” of “extortion under color of official right” carried out by Oliver between December 2010 and August 2013, meaning Oliver allegedly used his position as a public official to obtain an unlawful payment.

Sreerama’s attorney and two sources with knowledge of the case confirmed that Sreerama, who at the time owned the engineering firm and frequent public contractor ESPA Corp., is the person identified as “K.S.”

[…]

Houston attorney Chip Lewis, who is representing Sreerama, on Tuesday said his client was one of several targets of a “shakedown” by Oliver, and suggested broader fallout from the federal probe is to come.

Lewis said the payments in question were related to projects stemming from the college’s 2012 bond referendum.

“In doing the very diligent work the agents and prosecutors did in this case, they discovered Oliver soliciting and extorting Karun,” Lewis said. “When he was approached, he voluntarily met with the authorities and told them everything. Obviously, everything he told them checked out and was corroborated. That’s why he was a victim of Mr. Oliver’s scheme and not implicated in any criminal wrongdoing.”

Sreerama’s consent to the payments, as the Oliver indictment states, is not inconsistent with his status as a victim, Lewis said.

“Oliver made it very clear if Karun refused to make the payments that are reflected in the indictment he wouldn’t get the contracts,” the attorney said.

ESPA conducted facility studies for the college system in the years preceding and at the time of the payments, including a master plan that projected the system’s building needs through 2035.

See here for the background. Ted Oberg at KTRK adds a few more details.

According to Sreerama’s attorney, Chip Lewis, Trustee Oliver approached Sreerama three times asking for money. At the first meeting, Oliver allegedly told Sreerama he was going through a divorce and could not pay expenses for two households. Sreerama allegedly loaned Oliver thousands of dollars after that meeting. It was never paid back.

At a second meeting, Lewis told ABC13 Investigates, Oliver explained he was adopting a child and needed to have a particular balance in his bank accounts. Lewis says Sreerama again gave Oliver thousands of dollars.

The third time, Sreerama agreed to hire Oliver’s construction site clean-up company to sweep a strip mall for Sreerama.

According to the court documents, the payments totaled $77,143.34. Lewis did not dispute the amount and said Sreerama cooperated and his bank provided canceled checks to the FBI. Sreerama is not under investigation, Lewis said.

On Wednesday in the late morning, after this story was published, Mayor Turner put out a statement that says he is “placing city Public Works and Engineering Director Karun Sreerama on administrative leave with pay” while he reviews the matter. The Mayor also said he “was not aware of the federal case until this week”, which puts him in the same boat as the rest of us but makes one wonder what Sreerama had to say about this during his hiring process. I can believe that Sreerama didn’t know about the case against Oliver, but one would hope that he knew that these payments were questionable at best. Did the subject ever come up, or was his future boss completely blindsided? I can’t speak for Mayor Turner but it would make a difference to me.

As for Oliver, the HCC Board has called a meeting for today to discuss what happens next. Trustee Robert Glaser has been posting about this on Facebook, and he notes that the Board does not have the legal authority to boot Oliver off. Only a state district court judge can do that, though what the process for that is was not specified. The Texas elections code states that “To be eligible to be a candidate for, or elected or appointed to, a public elective office in this state, a person must […] have not been finally convicted of a felony from which the person has not been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities”. Oliver does not get sentenced till August 28, and I don’t know if he is “finally convicted” until he is sentenced. He can, of course, choose to resign, as the Chron urges him to do. If for whatever the reason Oliver does not do that, then the HCC Board needs to figure out how to get a judge to force him out. This should not be up for debate. Campos and the Press have more.

Culberson does his Culberson thing to Metro again

It is what it is. But maybe, just maybe, there’s now a sell-by date on it.

Houston may have stopped building light rail lines, but the fight over them rages on — right to Washington where Rep. John Culberson again has inserted language keeping tracks off Richmond and Post Oak.

For the fifth consecutive year, Culberson, R-Houston, added language to the draft of the House appropriations bill for Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, specific to the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County. Section 163 of the THUD bill, as it’s called, bars federal officials from spending money that “advance in any way a new light or heavy rail project … if the proposed capital project is constructed on or planned to be constructed on Richmond Avenue west of South Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond Avenue.”

The area in question is within Culberson’s district, and he vigorously has opposed any light rail projects along Richmond, citing resident opposition and his belief that Metro deceived voters when it narrowly won approval for a “Westpark” rail line in 2003.

[…]

In the draft bill released Monday, the language provides for Metro to regain federal funding if it wins voter approval that specifically identifies a route along Richmond and Post Oak as part of a region-wide comprehensive plan for transit.

“The ballot language shall include reasonable cost estimates, sources of revenue to be used and the total amount of bonded indebtedness to be incurred as well as a description of each route and the beginning and end point of each proposed transit project.

Metro, meanwhile is working on a regional transit plan, holding the first of 24 community meetings on Monday night in Cypress. That leaves Metro a long way from any work along Richmond, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

“I think, quite frankly, we’re at a point in time right now where we need to see what we should be doing,” Lambert said.

We are familiar with the drill by now. Metro is working on that regional transportation plan, and I feel reasonably confident that a Universities Line 2.0 will be part of it. It just makes sense. We may get to vote on a new referendum next year, at a time when Culberson will be facing his most competitive race in a decade. I have to assume there will be some public discussion about this between now and then. Let’s just say that I welcome the debate.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 10

The Texas Progressive Alliance would like to bottle and sell Angela Merkel’s eyerolls as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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