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The Public Integrity Unit probably won’t have to worry about a veto next year

They’ll have bigger things to worry about.

Rosemary Lehmberg

With Republican partisans campaigning loudly to strip Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg of her control of the unit, chances of getting the funding restored under her by the GOP-dominated Legislature that convenes in January do not look good.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said Thursday she thinks the unit should be moved elsewhere if it is funded.

“I have never thought this unit should be placed as an attachment to the Travis County District Attorney’s Office,” Nelson said. “I am certain we will have extensive discussions during the next legislative session regarding where they should be placed, but we need to move them somewhere less partisan.”

In the past, lawmakers have filed bills to move the unit to the attorney general’s office or into a separate agency. Both proposals have faltered over questions about separation of powers, as it is a judicial branch agency and not an executive branch function. Even if its investigative powers were moved out of the district attorney’s office, cases still would be referred there for prosecution.

[...]

Throughout its history, the unit has faced repeated threats of funding cutoffs or transfer of its duties to the state attorney general’s office, often when it begins a high-profile investigation or brings an indictment against a prominent official.

Sherri Greenberg, who served in the Texas House from 1991 until 2001, and is now director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs, said the unit’s funding and location have been an issue off and on for years.

“That’s been looked at, but it’s never been moved, probably for a reason,” she said.

State Sen. John Whitmire, a veteran Houston Democrat who supported the PIU’s creation in 1982, has been investigated and cleared by the unit, and who has been one of its champions in recent years, said the unit was housed with local prosecutors to give it some independence from state government, which it may be investigating.

“Why would you want to fool with a unit that can investigate you? … If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t worry about the Public Integrity Unit,” he said. “I don’t know how to handicap (the chances of restored funding), but if I were working over there, I’d probably be looking for a job.”

Republicans have wanted to move the investigative function of the PIU to the Attorney General’s office for at least as long as they’ve held the AG’s office, which is to say since 1998. That’s a part of the backdrop of the Perry indictment saga, and however one feels about that I think Sen. Whitmire is reading the tea leaves accurately. One does wonder what the fallout will be if the next Attorney General gets indicted or otherwise sanctioned by the State Bar, but I rather doubt the Republicans that are pushing for the PIU to be reassigned are thinking about that very much. I also wonder if their ardor for moving the PIU’s investigative function into the AG’s office will get cooled if Sam Houston gets elected AG, but again I doubt they’re thinking about that. So just file it away for now and we’ll see if it matters later.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Some Republicans really want to make Uber a partisan thing

A little adorable, and a little desperate.

Uber

Uber hired political strategist David Plouffe this week to run what amounts to a national political campaign against the taxi industry. Ostensibly, this is a fight between large taxi medallion investors and a multi-billion dollar tech startup, between cab companies and everyday Uber drivers, between entrenched power and technological change.

But it’s hard to ignore the context of the other political battle — the one between Democrats and Republicans — within which Uber is emerging as a potent, if contested symbol.

In recent months, prominent Republicans have championed the company as a model for the kind of “entrepreneurial spirit” that so often gets smothered by government regulation. Marco Rubio is a fan of Uber’s story. So is Reince Priebus. Grover Norquist has gone so far as to suggest that Republicans can leverage Uber, and other popular disruptors like it, to get back into the good graces of young, urban voters.

The RNC is even offering a “petition in support of innovative companies like Uber” right now with this ominous warning:

Across the country, taxi unions and liberal government bureaucrats are setting up roadblocks, issuing strangling regulations and implementing unnecessary red tape to block Uber from doing business in their cities.

We must stand up for our free market principles, entrepreneurial spirit and economic freedom.

But now here comes David Plouffe, the man who twice helped elect Barack Obama to the White House. And with an Obama insider helming Uber’s policy strategy, it will be that much harder to argue that Uber is the best symbol for why Republicans are right about the role of government and Democrats are wrong.

As I’ve written before, the actual politics around Uber have always been ideologically messy. We’ve seen Democratic mayors push for Uber-friendly regulation, and Republican governors stand in its way. And the most likely outcome for the company in any city resembles neither total deregulation (as GOP voices seem to be suggesting), nor stifling bureaucracy (as they hint that Democrats want).

I’ve written about this before as well. It’s hard to shoehorn an R-versus-D narrative into this when there’s no leading Democrat standing athwart Uber shouting “Stop!”, but I guess you play the cards you have. For what it’s worth, here in Houston the vote to allow Uber and Lyft was 10-5 in favor, with three Ds and two Rs voting No, and one of the members that was absent for the final vote (Dave Martin) was an R that would have voted No as well. (I don’t know who the other absentee was or how s/he would have voted.) I think most people recognize that Uber and Lyft are going to happen whether anyone likes it or not, that it’s not the government’s job to protect the business plan of an existing (and highly regulated) industry, and that there’a a place and a need for sensible regulations when a disruptive new business comes on the scene. If you prefer it all to be a battle of good versus evil, then sure, go read Grover Norquist’s bedtime stories. In the real world, people who want to make things work, on both sides of the aisle, will be busy trying to get things done.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Just a reminder that “more gambling” does not necessarily mean “more revenue”

If Atlantic City can go bust…

The winning streak has run cold for Atlantic City, N.J.

Earlier this week, the upscale Revel Casino Hotel announced it will close, bringing the total number of casinos in the city expected to close by the end of the year to four. Thousands of workers are confronting unemployment.

The state has long guaranteed Atlantic City a monopoly on gambling within New Jersey’s borders, but gambling revenues there have been declining due to increased competition from new casinos in neighboring states and the lingering effects of the financial crisis. The monthly report from the state Division of Gaming Enforcement issued Wednesday shows that the trend is continuing, as July’s take declined 7.7 percent year over year.

Pennsylvania, which only legalized casino gambling in the past decade, has replaced New Jersey as the state with the second-largest gambling industry. More casinos have been proposed in New York. Yet revenues have been disappointing across the region. In New Jersey, they have declined by around half from a high of $5.2 billion in 2006.

Most disappointing for investors has been the performance of the casinos’ new online gaming businesses. The prospect of online revenues has kept several casinos open despite declining income.

“A lot of these casinos have been unprofitable for quite some time,” said Alex Bumazhny, an analyst at Fitch Ratings.

Online gamblers haven’t anted up, though, and several casinos have folded. Bumazhny estimates that online gaming revenues for New Jersey businesses will total only around $125 million this year. Revel follows The Atlantic Club, which closed in January, and the Showboat and the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, also expected to close this year.

I like to note this sort of news item because as sure as the sun rises, at some point in the fall as the elections get settled and legislators start pre-filing bills, I’m going to get a press release from a pro-gambling expansion group touting the economic benefits of slot machines at horse racing tracks and/or casinos. Said press release and its accompanying economic study will point out the vast number of Texans that are currently gambling in Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and other non-Texas states, and will lament the money that could have been spent and gambled right here. My point is that the casinos and riverboats and what have you in Louisiana and New Mexico and Oklahoma and wherever else won’t simply give up the business those traveling Texans bring them without a fight, and the competition they will bring to hold onto their existing customers as well as lure new ones may possibly have a downward effect on those numbers in those press releases and economic studies. This isn’t about whether one does support or should support expanded gambling in Texas – as you well know by now, I am deeply ambivalent about it. It’s just a reminder to keep a sense of perspective when the issue heats up as it always does every two years.

Posted in: Jackpot!.

Saturday video break: Crazy

I believe this is the mother of all “Same Name, Different Song” songs in my collection. First up, the immortal Patsy Cline:

If that doesn’t get you right in the feels, then you must not have any. Now here’s Gnarls Barkley:

That was recorded on the David Letterman show. Took me awhile to find a version that sounded like the studio version – he has several slowed-down live versions. They sounded good but they weren’t what I was looking for. One more, from Seal:

I have a fourth version, by Peter Wolf from his “Lights Out” album, but I can’t find a video for it. Four different songs, all with the same name. I’m sure there are others out there, too. What’s your best example of this?

Posted in: Music.

Ogg challenges Anderson’s handling of Ryan Chandler investigation

This gets a little complicated, so stay with me.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

A county prosecutor who was engaged to fired Houston homicide detective Sgt. Ryan Chandler emailed him an office database search of all his cases as he was under investigation for possible criminal prosecution, according to documents released Thursday by district attorney candidate Kim Ogg.

Assistant District Attorney Inger Hampton sent Chandler an email Feb. 18 with a seven-page attachment that listed criminal cases Chandler handled from 2000 to 2014. The search of the DA’s office database was sent after Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson recused her office from the Chandler investigation on Jan. 7, and asked a judge to seal the motion to keep Chandler from knowing he was under investigation.

Chandler was fired in early April after Chief Charles McClelland disciplined him and seven other homicide division investigators and supervisors for not properly investigating nearly two dozen deaths.

Anderson’s office issued a statement late Thursday saying that while the information provided to Chandler by Hampton was public, its release violated policy and the matter is being reviewed. A phone message left with Hampton’s office Thursday was not returned.

“Inger Hampton’s email to Sergeant Chandler … only involved the release of public information; however her actions were contrary to office policy and as a result, Hampton is subject to internal discipline for this violation,” said a statement from Harris County DA spokesman Jeff McShan.

Ogg is asking Anderson to release information on the transfer of the case to Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon, who for years was head of legal services at the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

[...]

At a press conference Thursday, Ogg questioned Anderson’s decision on Jan. 7 to refer Chandler’s criminal case to Montgomery County, and her refusal to unseal the motion she made to the Harris County chief administrative judge when she requested the transfer. Ogg said former prosecutors and defense attorneys in Harris County are frequently appointed as special prosecutors.

Montgomery County prosecutors said they decided the criminal allegations against Chandler of tampering with a governmental recordwere the type usually dealt with administratively by the police department. Chandler was accused of criminal conduct by HPD for falsifying a report claiming he had referred an April 1, 2011, fatal shooting of an armed robber to the DA’s office for presentation to a county grand jury. Another HPD detective presented the case to the grand jury in September 2013, after an internal investigation began into Chandler’s work.

“We thoroughly looked at and evaluated the Ryan Chandler matter, and it didn’t rise to the level of a criminal offense,” said Phil Grant, Montgomery County first assistant district attorney. “I’m the one who made the decision, and Brent’s former association with HPOU never entered into those deliberations.”

As a bit of background, Chandler is in the process of seeking to get his job back; after a second day of testimony the hearing was put on hold till September.

Here’s the press release Ogg put out for her news conference at which she made these charges, and here’s the executive summary of the report put together by Wayne Dolcefino (yes, that Wayne Dolcefino). I was at the news conference, and these are the points Ogg made:

  • Ryan Chandler’s disciplinary letter of firing indicated that he falsified official reports and lied to the IAD investigators. The former is likely to be a crime – tampering with an official document – and it is what needed to be investigated.
  • Chandler’s engagement and subsequent marriage to Assistant DA Inger Hampton creates a conflict of interest. Normally under these circumstances, there’s a process that is followed that involves the Administrative Judge for the region that in this case includes Harris County, and out of that comes a judge assigned to the case who can then appoint an attorney pro tem, which is the fancy term for “special prosecutor”. Such a special prosecutor is usually appointed from the county where the case originated. Ogg stressed that there are hundreds of qualified attorneys in Harris County who can do this kind of work, and said there have been ten or twelve who have done it recently for various cases.
  • In this case, a Harris County district court judge (we don’t know who for sure) was asked by the DA’s office to appoint Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon as the attorney pro tem. Ligon, as the story notes, is the former counsel for the Houston Police Officer’s Union, which is representing Chandler in the appeal of his firing. Ligon is also a client of consultant Allen Blakemore, as is Devon Anderson, and the HPOU donated money to Mike Anderson’s campaign in 2012.
  • The motion made to appoint Ligon as attorney pro tem was sealed. Ogg wants all documents related to that motion unsealed, which among other things will tell us the name of the judge that acted on it.
  • Ogg also raised concerns about the DA’s office not notifying defense attorneys about the Chandler investigation as is required by law, and in fact did not inform other prosecutors about it in a timely manner. Rather than summarize the evidence Ogg put forth for this, I suggest you read page 4 of the executive summary for a timeline.

From the last page of that document, here’s what Ogg is demanding:

On May 12th,Dolcefino Consulting filed a request under the Texas Public Information Act for letters to victims and Brady letters to defendants and their legal counsel on behalf of the Ogg campaign. Documents released by the District Attorney’s office show none of the letters were written until after the demand for public disclosure filed by Dolcefino Consulting.

The Harris County District Attorney’s office has not released e-mail communication between Inger Hampton and Chandler they deem “personal”. That should immediately happen.

In addition, Anderson should unseal any documents detailing her request for a prosecutor pro-tem, and call on Montgomery County District Attorney Ligon to release documents detailing the “investigation by his office”.

Anderson should also be required to detail for the public what steps she has taken to investigate the actions of Hampton and to internally investigate other personal relationships between prosecutors and testifying police witnesses that give rise to conflicts of interest and report the results to the public.

Most importantly, the District Attorney should have to explain her failure to notify victims, her lapse in notifying defendants, and her failure to warn her own prosecutors.

So there you have it. Anderson for her part released this statement via Blakemore that denies Ogg’s allegations and asserts that “Sergeant Chandler’s activities have undergone the scrutiny of HPD Internal Affairs Division, and an investigation by a Special Prosecutor appointed by the Administrative Judge of the Harris County Criminal District Courts”, but it doesn’t get into any specifics. I’ve got paper copies of the rest of the documents that Ogg provided, but I don’t have electronic versions at this time. There’s a lot here, and we’ll see if anything more comes out. KHOU has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment, Election 2014.

SCOTUS halts Virginia same-sex marriages for now

Everyone’s waiting for them to tackle the bigger question.

RedEquality

The Supreme Court on Wednesday stopped Virginia officials from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, putting on hold a lower court ruling that said the unions could start on Thursday.

The court stayed a decision by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which on July 28 agreed with a district judge’s ruling that Virginia’s ban is unconstitutional. The same panel last week declined to delay its ruling.

But the Supreme Court stepped in after both defenders of the law and Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) asked for a stay. Herring believes the law is unconstitutional and joined those challenging it, but said it would be disruptive to allow marriages to begin before the Supreme Court decided the ultimate question of whether state bans violate the U.S. Constitution.

Both challengers of the ban and supporters of the voter-approved measures restricting marriage to a man and a woman have asked the court to use Virginia as a test case to decide the issue. But the justices’ order gave no indication that would happen.

[...]

Wednesday’s stay was not surprising. The justice already had taken similar action in the Utah case, after judges found that state’s ban unconstitutional and refused to issue a stay.

And the Supreme Court later put on hold a judge’s order that the state must recognize the 1,000 or so unions that took place between the decision and the justices’ ruling that the marriages should stop.

The action indicates that the high court wants more lower courts to weigh in instead of giving what might be construed as implied approval of an unbroken string of federal court decisions striking down state bans on same-sex marriages.

The Sixth Circuit is on the clock right now, with others to follow, including (eventually) the Fifth Circuit. SCOTUS should have no shortage of appellate opinions to consider by the end of the year or so.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Ninety years later, we could still use an Equal Rights Amendment

I have three things to say about this.

Drafted by a suffragette in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment has been stirring up controversy ever since. Many opponents considered it dead when a 10-year ratification push failed in 1982, yet its backers on Capitol Hill, in the Illinois statehouse and elsewhere are making clear this summer that the fight is far from over.

In Washington, congresswomen Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., are prime sponsors of two pieces of legislation aimed at getting the amendment ratified. They recently organized a pro-ERA rally, evoking images of the 1970s, outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Recent Supreme Court decisions have sent women’s rights back to the Stone Age,” said Speier, explaining the renewed interest in the ERA. The amendment would stipulate that equal rights cannot be denied or curtailed on the basis of gender.

[...]

Written by Alice Paul — a leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. a century ago — the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced annually in Congress from 1923 to 1970, when congressional hearings began in the heyday of the modern feminist movement. In 1972, the ERA won overwhelming approval in both chambers and was forwarded to the 50 state legislatures in search of the needed 38 votes to ratify.

Congress set a deadline of 1979, at which point 35 states had ratified the ERA. The deadline was extended to 1982, but no more states came on board, and the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that the ERA was dead.

The states that did not ratify were Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.

Aside from Illinois, there have been few signs that any of those states are on the verge of ratifying the ERA. In politically divided Virginia, the Senate voted 25-8 vote this year for ratification, but the measure died in a committee in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.

In Congress, ERA supporters have introduced two measures in pursuit of ratification.

One — known as the “three-state strategy” — is a resolution that would nullify the 1982 deadline so that only three more states would need to ratify the ERA in addition to the 35 that did so in the 1970s.

The other measure would restart the traditional process, requiring passage of the ERA by a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate and House, followed by ratification by legislatures in three-quarters of the 50 states.

1. As a child of the 70s, I remember the debates about the ERA, though I doubt I really understood them at the time. I definitely remember the lies and FUD that were being spread by the likes of Phyllis Schlafly. Given the current events in Houston, it sure is the case that some things never change.

2. Hard to believe, but not only was Texas one of the states that ratified the ERA, the Lege did so almost immediately after passage of the originating bill in Congress. I can’t even begin to imagine that now. I guess some things do change, just not always for the better.

3. The alternate history possibilities for a universe in which the ERA got ratified are endless. Bear in mind, Richard Nixon endorsed the ERA when it was passed by Congress in 1972. Needless to say, the party of Erick Erickson does things a little differently these days. I still don’t quite understand why there was a deadline on state passage back then, but it’s never too late to try again.

Posted in: National news.

Two environmental stories

Some good news, and some bad news. The bad news: We have an oyster shortage.

Add an oyster shortage in Texas Gulf Coast to the problems exacerbated by the state’s years-long drought.

But Texas’ dry spell isn’t the only reason the slimy delicacies are harder to come by lately. What was once an abundant supply of oysters in bays from Port Aransas up past Galveston has taken a succession of hits, including sediment dumps from Hurricane Ike in 2008, continually increasing water temperatures – as well as hyper-salinity due to drought and thirsty inland cities with fast-growing populations.

Heightened saltiness encourages the spread of parasites and disease.

“Drought plus a growing population equals no water entering the bays,” said Bryan Legare, a natural resource specialist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “The reservoirs aren’t releasing as much water as they need to for environmental concerns.”

[...]

Legare, meanwhile, has been working to re-create habitats for oysters by pouring tons of river rock into viable locations such as Sabine Lake and the East Bay. With spat, or juveniles, already settling in, there’re hopes for market-size oysters two years from now.

For now, Legare’s take on the state of the Texas oyster habitat is that it’s “a combination of change – and not good.”

Nor is the situation much better for the Gulf’s other oyster- producing states.

“Overall, the Gulf Coast’s just been hit with a number of negative events that seem to have cumulatively depressed production,” said Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries in Bon Secour, Ala.

The events have included floods, droughts, hurricanes and precautionary harvesting bans in the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill.

In one case, the flood was man-made, caused by the state of Louisiana’s release of Mississippi River water in attempt to push the oil away from sensitive coastal areas. The gush of river water may have saved marshlands, but it flushed out oyster beds. To make matters worse, reefs were further depleted by a naturally occurring flood in 2011.

On the other side of the Gulf in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay, the problem has been continuing drought.

Nelson said there hasn’t been a good harvest since 2007, before Ike barreled in. “The impact of all these different problems, challenges along the Gulf Coast have led to an historical low point in the production of oysters,” he said.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t just limited to the Gulf of Mexico. But don’t worry, climate change is still just a fairy tale invented by Al Gore. I’m sure this will all work itself out.

For the good news, the pine trees of East Texas are doing a lot better now.

From Texas 327, the two-lane highway that cuts a straight east-west line though Hardin County, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.

There are sweetgum and Texas hickory, loblolly pine and bluejack oak in the blur of green. But just beyond the dense thicket is one of the state’s last stands of longleaf pine, a towering tree that dominated these sandy flatlands before the area was heavily logged a century ago.

This remnant of a once common landscape is the centerpiece of the 5,600-acre Sandyland Sanctuary, a Nature Conservancy-managed property some 100 miles northeast of Houston. It’s also part of a new push to preserve and restore a key piece of the Southeast’s environmental heritage.

Across the eight-state region, timber companies, conservation groups and government officials are working to revert millions of acres to longleaf-pine forests and keep them free from development. It’s no small task because most of the land is privately owned, but there seems to be real interest in bringing back the native hardwood throughout its historic range.

That’s because the open piney woods are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems outside of the tropics. The red-cockaded woodpecker, bobwhite quail and eastern wild turkey – as well as nearly 900 plant species found nowhere else – live among the majestic trees.

[...]

Estimates vary, but many experts figure the Southeast has lost up to 97 percent of its longleaf-pine forest. The all-time low of 2.8 million acres came in the 1990s.

Since then, the amount of longleaf-pine forest has increased to an estimated 3.4 million acres, mostly because of a federally funded effort to restore the woodlands. Several states, including Texas, have set a goal of 8 million acres over the next 15 years.

At least half of the new acreage will come from 16 targeted areas, known as significant landscapes. In Texas, the restoration work mostly will be done in and around the Sabine and Angelina National Forests and the Big Thicket National Preserve.

“The good news is that it’s already hit rock bottom and it’s rebounding,” said David Bezanson, who leads the Nature Conservancy’s efforts to protect Texas land through the purchase of easements. Under such deals, timber companies hold onto ownership but agree to some restrictions on how the property is used.

It’ll never be as it was, but it’s better than it used to be and it’s headed in the right direction. That counts as a win.

Posted in: The great state of Texas.

Friday random ten – M’s the word

Another letter with a lot of names that go with it.

1. It’s Hard To Be Humble – Mac Davis
2. Galway Farmer – Maggie Drennon
3. Oxygen – Maia Mitchell
4. Fixer Upper – Maia Wilson (from “Frozen”)
5. For You – Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
6. Blue Moon – The Marcels
7. How You Carry On – Marcia Ball
8. If I Could Build My Whole World Around You – Marvin Gaye
9. Freedom Highway – Mavis Staples
10 Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad – Meat Loaf

I could have finished this list with just names beginning with “Ma” but in the end decided not to. If you don’t know who Maia Mitchell is, you probably don’t have anyone living in your home that watches the Disney Channel. Everyone knows Manfred Mann’s famous cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light”, but they did two other songs from Springsteen’s debut album that have gotten radio airplay as well, “For You” and “Spirits In The Night”. Far as I know, they didn’t cover any of his songs after that.

Posted in: Music.

Perry will pay for his own defense

Wise decision, something our Governor is not known for.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

This corndog came at no cost to the taxpayers

Gov. Rick Perry, who has been using taxpayer dollars to pay his defense lawyers, will tap campaign funds from now on to compensate the attorneys who are fighting his felony indictments, his spokesman said Wednesday night.

Perry spokesman Felix Browne said the governor, who has blasted the indictments as a “farce,” did not want to saddle taxpayers with the cost of a wrongful prosecution.

“This is an assault on the Constitution,” Browne said. “We don’t want it to be an assault on the taxpayers as well.”

Perry will use funds in his state campaign account, he said. As of June 30, the account had more than $4 million in it.

State records show taxpayers have spent about $80,000 so far to represent Perry as he faced criminal investigation. He was indicted last week on two felony counts stemming for allegedly abusing his office with a threat to veto funds destined for the state’s public integrity unit, which oversees public corruption cases.

Yeah, I know, not much of a hiatus from talking about the Perry indictment, but this counts as actual news. I’ve previously said that one can make a case for the state picking up the tab for Perry’s legal bills given the connection of the indictment to his official duties, though I would not have to be the one defending that position to the voters. Turns out, according to that Trib story from which I quoted the late update, Perry billing the state for his attorneys would have been unprecedented. Nice bit of research by the Trib, and it undercuts the argument I had been willing to accept, in addition to making the optics even worse what with Perry having millions in his Rick PAC. If that means he has to cut back a bit on the high-priced legal talent or hustle that much harder to be able to afford it, well, welcome to real life as the vast majority of people know it.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Parker proposes new firefighter pension plan

We’ll see about this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

With the city of Houston facing huge and rising pension costs, Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday unveiled a proposal to put new firefighters in a separate, less generous plan that would do away with expensive automatic cost-of-living adjustments.

The move would not affect current firefighters covered by the Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund, long insulated from reform by the Texas Legislature. It would be an unprecedented change to new firefighters’ pensions and would mark the latest chapter in the contentious relationship between Parker and the city’s firefighters. There are two lawsuits pending between the city and the pension fund; the fund is expected to sue the city over the latest proposal.

Creating a separate plan, Parker said Thursday, is her only recourse for reining in pension costs. Though the city long has had the ability to create the separate pension plan for new firefighters, Parker said, she has waited to do so until now because she wanted to attempt broader pension reforms first.

“But if I can’t solve that one – Legislature won’t help, I don’t have the ability to negotiate – let’s set up a separate pension and create one that is fair and sustainable for both sides,” she said.

[...]

Todd Clark, who chairs the fire pension board, told a City Council committee on Thursday that the proposal would “put a firefighter on welfare,” hurt morale and weaken the department’s ability to retain and recruit staff.

Council members Larry Green, Jerry Davis and Jack Christie pushed back, asking Clark whether there was room for compromise.

“I understand that you think the fire pension doesn’t have a problem, but as someone who has just gone through the budget process for the city of Houston, we have a problem,” Green said. “Our objective is not to become Detroit. What’s the solution?”

Clark responded, “The best thing you can do is just come up with the money. It’s not my job to balance the city’s budget. What the city should be doing is finding ways to meet the promises made, not trying to cut the benefits. No changes need to be made to our system. We’re a very strong and healthy pension system.”

The Mayor’s press release, with more details about her proposal, is here. I think Todd Clark is correct that the current pension is well-funded and in better shape than many others, but I think he’s got a tough sell politically to say that the city just needs to suck it up and pay whatever they’re told to pay, over which the city has no control. I’m not commenting on what’s right or wrong here, just saying that’s a tough sell. On the other hand, CM Costello, the biggest pension hawk on Council, wants this applied to current firefighters as well. That would have been the Mayor’s preference too, but she never got anywhere with the pension fund or the legislature, so it’s also a tough sell. There’s a dispute over whether this proposal can be implemented by Council or if it requires legislative action like any change to the plan for current firefighters would, so if it does get adopted expect there to be a lawsuit.

Posted in: Local politics.

Bringing commuter rail into downtown

From The Highwayman:

290 Commuter Rail options

As has been reported, the Gulf Coast Rail District is studying the best possible routes for commuter rail in the Houston area, and one of the biggest challenges is bringing the trains into downtown. From the looks of the initial analysis of the U.S. 290 corridor, the trip to the central business district might have some unexpected stops along the way.

Relying on potentially available right of way, the analysis conducted by Kimley Horn & Associates found that the two most feasible routes from a hypothetical train station at 43rd Street and Mangum Road would largely rely on land next to existing freight rail lines, heading east, then south, or south, then east. The study involved finding a route where land would be potentially available without obstacles like buildings. Those who did the study also were tasked with avoiding flood-prone areas, environmental impacts and technical challenges. Officials also had to avoid affecting the major freight railroads, said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the rail district.

One scenario would send the line eastward parallel to the BNSF Railway tracks, then south along land near where Harris County plans to extend the Hardy Toll Road inside Loop 610. From there, the trains would briefly use space next to the Union Pacific Railroad’s main line, into the Amtrak station near the downtown U.S. Post Office.

The other option would bring the trains south along Mangum Road and Post Oak Boulevard before heading east along Katy Road and then parallel to the Union Pacific tracks north of Washington Avenue and into downtown.

[...]

Commuter rail — not the light rail system that Metropolitan Transit Authority has built — would bring travelers from much longer distances than light rail would, connecting areas far outside the Sam Houston Tollway. If Houston ever developed a robust regional passenger rail system, Lott said, the potential northwest station could be the hub of up to eight rail lines, coming from as far as 100 miles away.

The addition of passenger trains could also revitalize the downtown Amtrak station, which only serves a handful of passenger trains each week. In other cities where transit and train service has led to increased traffic, train stations are experiencing a renaissance.

See here for the background. This conversation has come up before, most recently as I recall about a decade ago when one of the options was to bring the line through the Heights, along the former rail right of way that is now the White Oak bike trail. Needless to say, that’s not on the table. You can see the presentation with all of the routes that were considered this time at the link above. I don’t know much about the northern path that would go to the Hardy Toll Road right of way, but the Katy Road/MKT option would basically run along one possible path for the Inner Katy light rail line, if it ever gets onto a drawing board. It might make sense to build a station or two along the way for this configuration, given the population and employment locations along Washington Avenue. I just hope that if they do this, they consider doing something about the rail crossings at Durham/Shepherd, Heights, Sawyer, and Houston Avenue. Traffic gets snarled up enough with the infrequent freight train schedule; with commuter rail frequency it would be a nightmare, especially at Durham/Shepherd. I’m sure that will add another hundred million or two to the price tag, but come on. The need and the benefit are obvious.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

RIP, Randy Ertman

If you’ve lived in Houston long enough, this story will bring back a flood of memories and emotions.

Randy Ertman, a house painter who became a blunt-spoken, combative advocate for crime victims’ rights after his daughter and another teen were raped and murdered in a northwest Houston park, died Monday of lung cancer.

In the early 1990s, Ertman became a familiar figure to Houstonians as he appeared in news photos confronting relatives of his daughter’s killers, who had suggested the victims’ families bore some responsibility for the girls’ deaths.

Ertman’s advocacy led to changes in state law, allowing crime victims’ families to direct comments to convicted offenders in the courtroom and permitting relatives of homicide victims to witness executions.

[...]

Ertman was catapulted into his advocacy role by the June 24, 1993, murders of his 14-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and her 16-year-old friend, Elizabeth Pena. The teens were killed in T.C. Jester Park after they blundered into a nighttime gang initiation rite as they made their way home from a nearby party.

Six gang members were convicted in the crime – an episode so horrendous that it deeply shocked a city that routinely shrugged off acts of violence.

Three of the killers – Derrick O’Brien, 31; Jose Medellin, 33; and Peter Cantu, 35 – have been executed. Two others are serving life sentences; a sixth was given a 40-year sentence.

Ertman, 61, died one day after the anniversary of Cantu’s 2010 execution.

The murders of Jennifer Ertman and Jennifer Pena were just horrible. I have no connection to either family, it’s been almost 25 years, and I still can’t read about them without getting worked up. As you know, I have a lot of problems with the death penalty. Racial disparities, bad forensics, unreliable eyewitnesses, coerced confessions, an appellate system that cares far more about “getting a result” than getting that result right, the list of reasons to oppose the death penalty goes on and on. And yet, while I think our system of justice would be just fine without a death penalty, I can’t quite bring myself to call for its abolition. I have always felt, and I continue to feel, that there are some crimes and some criminals for which it is the appropriate response. I would not have been able to tell Randy Ertman, or a member of the Pena family, that the killers of their daughters deserved to have their lives spared. Maybe that’s a failing on my part, but if it is, I accept it. Rest in peace, Randy Ertman. I wish the same peace to your family and the Pena family as well. Doug Miller, who has a nice tribute to Randy Ertman on his Facebook page, has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

And we (finally) circle back to food trucks

We’ve done HERO, we’ve done vehicles for hire, what other high profile issues are there out there? Oh yeah, food trucks. I’d almost forgotten they were still an agenda item, but they’re back and they should be getting a vote soon.

Proposed changes to three major ordinances could provide food trucks with new freedom. While the commissary requirement isn’t changing, the other three regulations will be going away if the Houston City Council approves recommendations developed over the last two years by a task force that includes representatives from various city departments, food trucks and the brick and mortar restaurant community, as represented by its lobbying group, the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.

[...]

Laura Spanjian, the director of the city’s Office of Sustainability, explains that the goal of removing the prohibition that prevents trucks from operating downtown and in the Texas Medical Center “is to create a level playing field for food trucks.” In debates two years ago, some council members expressed concerns about the safety of having trucks, which can carry up to 60-pound tanks of propane, operating in the Central Business District, but Spanjian says the Houston Fire Department is “very confident there is not a safety concern in these two areas. They have a very strong inspection routine.”

Spanjian also notes that the city’s increased density makes separating downtown and the Medical Center from other, similarly populated areas like Greenway Plaza and The Galleria somewhat illogical.

Removing the 60-foot spacing requirement between trucks is another change to the fire code that reflects confidence in the Fire Department’s inspection routine and spot checks of truck operations. Both of these changes are being made as part of larger updates to the fire code, which happens every three years. Spanjian expects them to come to a vote before Council early next year.

The final proposed change is an adjustment to the health code that removes the prohibition against trucks operating within 100 feet of tables and chairs. As this requirement is routinely ignored when trucks park near bars in Montrose, along Washington Ave and the Heights, it brings the regulations in line with standard practices. If all goes according to plan, Council will vote on the issue in mid-September.

Spanjian also notes that the 100 foot rule should never have been in the health code. “There’s no health issue with a food truck being near tables and chairs. It doesn’t belong in the health care requirements at all,” she says.

While the 100 foot regulation may have been an attempt to prevent food trucks from competing directly with brick and mortar restaurants, Spanjian thinks the time has come for the two to be on a more equal footing.

“We’re letting the market decide, which is a very Houstonian thing to do,” she says. “It should be up to the private property owners what they want to do on their private property.”

The last mention I had of this was in November, right after Mayor Parker’s re-election, in which she promised that there would be a vote on a food truck ordinance by the end of this year. Before that, the news is all from 2012. If the Greater Houston Restaurant Association really is on board, or at least not opposed, that should clear the way. This Chron story from yesterday’s Quality of Life committee meeting sheds a bit of light and also suggests what in retrospect is an obvious parallel.

“Deregulating food trucks will create major challenges for small businesses,” said Reginald Martin, president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, which represents more than 4,100 industry members.

Council members Brenda Stardig and Jerry Davis both emerged as critics of loosening the food truck regulations, largely because they were concerned about competition with established restaurants and enforcement of food truck rules.

“They’re awesome,” Stardig said of food trucks. “I’m not taking away from that. What I’m concerned about is the enforcement, and the stinkers that give the mobile community a bad name.”

[...]

Council member Ed Gonzalez said the city should not be in the business of “protecting someone’s monopoly.” He also played down concerns about some food trucks violating city code, something he said was no different from restaurants that break rules.

“I don’t think we should punish all 800 trucks or new entrants simply because there are the bad apples out there,” Gonzalez said.

I’m not the only one who hears an Uber/Lyft echo in all that, am I? Please tell me I’m not the only one. Anyway, if all goes well we should see a Council vote on this in September. I look forward to seeing it get resolved. Link via Swamplot, the Chron editorial board is still in favor, and the Houston Business Journal has more.

Posted in: Food, glorious food.

Financing the high speed rail line

A long story in the Trib about Texas Central High-Speed Railway and its ambitious Dallas to Houston rail line. It’s a good primer if you haven’t been paying close attention to the story and want to cover all the basics. A couple of points:

Central Japan Railway Co., also known as J.R. Central, sees a huge opportunity for exporting its technology to America, where the busiest passenger rail line takes about seven hours to slog the 400 miles between Washington and Boston.

Today, there are only three significant high-speed rail projects in advanced development in the U.S. — in Texas, Florida and California. At some point during the early planning of all three ventures, J.R. Central offered to sell its trains to those states but only found sure footing in Texas. The Texas project, led by a private local company working with J.R. Central, is by far the most ambitious.

Texas Central High-Speed Railway is promising to connect Houston and Dallas with the fastest trains at 205 mph, developed on a relatively snappy timeline with little support from taxpayers. By contrast, the California train will be heavily subsidized and take years longer to develop. Texas Central Railway has set a 2021 target date for beginning operations while the California line isn’t expected to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco until 2029. In Florida, a privately funded project could begin service between Miami and West Palm Beach as early as 2016 but is projected to be the slowest of the three, traveling at less than 100 mph through some areas, and run on a congested century-old right-of-way, including a portion that will run on a converted freight line.

Texas Central officials have said the project will be privately funded and not require any public funding to subsidize its operational costs. If the private financing can be secured, the Houston-Dallas connection would be the fastest high-speed rail line in the nation and among the first successful private passenger rail projects in recent American history. It would essentially be the modern Sun Belt’s first new intercity passenger rail line of any sort in over a decade. If successful, it could mark a turning point in the urbanization of the U.S., and a high-profile rebuff to more progressive coastal cities that have struggled to modernize transit systems with the high-speed technology that has already reshaped Asia and Europe.

The Texas project would also be a huge feather in J.R. Central’s conductor’s cap. The company is about to start construction in Japan on a nearly unsubsidized cutting-edge maglev — short for magnetic levitation — train line, connecting three major metropolitan areas and powered by electromagnetic propulsion rather than a fossil-fuel-powered engine. Yet much more expansion is unlikely in Japan, where low population growth means less demand for new infrastructure. To keep growing, the company must look abroad.

As the Texas proposal has drawn more attention, supporters are framing it as a key opportunity for the state to burnish a reputation as a trendsetter on the national stage.

“As Texans, we take great pride in blazing a path for the rest of the country to follow,” the mayors of Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth wrote in a letter endorsing the project in April. “This project will do just that.”

Over the last year, officials with Texas Central have traveled around the state, touting their plan to profitably ferry passengers from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes or less, with as many as 34 trips a day in each direction. In explaining their confidence that the plan will become reality, Texas Central officials have pointed to the state’s regulatory framework, which Gov. Rick Perry often proclaims as more predictable and less burdensome than those in other states. Texas also has a history of embracing the private sector for infrastructure projects, particularly toll roads.

The best-known of those projects, a privately financed, 41-mile stretch of State Highway 130 in Austin that sports an 85 mph speed limit, the fastest in the country, technically defaulted on its debt in July, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Yeah, maybe not the ideal association for this project.

While Texas Central knows where it won’t get the money for its train lines, it’s less clear where it will get the needed backing. Texas Central Railway says it intends to raise most of the money in the U.S., but so far, its ability to draw the billions of dollars in investment is merely speculative.

The experience of All Aboard Florida could be instructive. The company is in the process of cutting a number of land deals with various levels of government for stations and transit-oriented developments around them, and has won a commitment from the state to build its terminal at Orlando International Airport. The Texas project is expected to follow a similar approach to development, though company officials have already nixed the idea of developing stations at airports.

Just recently, All Aboard Florida took its biggest step yet to realizing its passenger project, one that Texas Central will eventually have to emulate: It sold $405 million in debt to private investors to finance the initial South Florida leg, from Miami to Fort Lauderdale.

All Aboard Florida offered investors a 12 percent annual return on the five-year bonds. The high-yield offering sold quickly, surprising observers who predicted investors would be scared off by the fact that All Aboard will have no cash flow until the railway is operating, which won’t be for at least another two years. But while the success of the sale could bode well for Texas Central, the projects could also be received very differently. In its coverage of the All Aboard bond sale, Reuters reported that private investors were attracted to the project in part because it involves repurposing and expanding an existing freight railway and doesn’t require as much higher-risk, ground-up construction as the Texas project. Another draw for investors, Reuters reported, was the possibility of government financing down the line, again something that the Texas project doesn’t offer.

This is not the first time a private firm has attempted to build a high-speed rail line in Texas. Back in the late 1980s, two European-backed firms were competing to win a state franchise to connect the so-called Texas triangle of Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines waged an aggressive campaign against the awarding of the franchise, arguing that it would force the carrier to severely scale back its operations in Texas. State officials ultimately granted French-backed Texas TGV a franchise, only to see the company give up on the project after failing to come up with enough capital.

This time around, Southwest Airlines has said it is neutral on the Texas Central Railway project. Eckels and airline industry experts have predicted that the airline will maintain its neutrality, as Southwest has diversified its business enough that it would not likely view a high-speed rail project as a threat to its business.

Hard to know what to make of the past history here. This project is different in many ways, and there really isn’t a good analogy for it. I’m a fan of this project and I’m rooting for them to succeed, but I find myself a little queasy at the animosity that exists, mostly on the Republican side, for public financing of rail projects, and increasingly of any non-road-oriented transit project at all. That’s not TCR’s responsibility, it’s just another unfortunate sign of the debasement of Republican politics. Other than a change in attitude from that side, I suppose the best thing that could happen would be for TCR to be a big success and be the starting point for additions, extensions, and connections that will be part of the public investment in infrastructure. We’re going to solve our problems by doing things that work, not by doing what we insist is the only thing that can work.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

An outsider’s view of the Ashby Highrise

From Governing.com. It contains the Z word, so you might want to shield the eyes of innocent children and Joel Kotkin.

Sue me!

Whatever views one may hold about a city without zoning, it’s hard to deny that Houston has done pretty well for itself over the past generation or so. Its population has grown faster than that of almost any other American city. Its unemployment rate is among the lowest. It continues to attract new businesses no matter what slogan it chooses to adopt for itself. And a growing number of scholars, notably the urbanologist Edward Glaeser, have argued that Houston has done well precisely because it imposes so few restrictions on development.

But will a developmental free-for-all bring Houston the same heady results in the coming decades that it brought in the preceding ones? Or is it, at long last, time to impose a little more order on the unwieldy metropolis? Those are questions that Houston’s development community has spent the past couple of years trying to puzzle out, as it has negotiated the twists and turns of a legal event known to just about everybody as the Ashby case.

[...]

At a minimum, a comprehensive zoning code would dramatically revalue properties all over the city, amounting to a substantial redistribution of private wealth. No elected city leader, not even an outspokenly progressive one like [Mayor Annise] Parker, is going to advocate that.

But neither would it be correct to suggest that free-for-all development will proceed in the future as it did in pre-Ashby times. A precedent for awarding nuisance damages has been set, assuming it is not reversed on appeal. The concessions offered by the Ashby developers over the past seven years seem certain to place pressure on others building where there is significant local opposition. The city government, while backing away from zoning, will be asked to impose new regulations on future projects. One such rule, allowing neighborhood groups to apply for minimum lot size restrictions, has already become law.

But the most interesting question emerging from the case may be whether it will lead to more large infill projects in the central areas of the city. On the one hand, the court and the city government have made it clear that Houston’s build-it-anywhere legal structure will remain more or less intact. On the other hand, the sheer amount of time and effort required of the developers on the Ashby project may send a signal that it remains easier and cheaper to build in the exurbs where they do not have to deal with entrenched community feeling.

Or, still another possibility — developers might draw the lesson that there is plenty of useful work to do in creating urban density, but they have to go about it in a more sensitive and appropriate way than they did on Ashby. That might be the best outcome of all.

One must always be careful to distinguish between the city of Houston, which has grown modestly over the past decade or so, and the greater Houston area, which has grown like gangbusters. Much of that growth in places that aren’t Houston proper has been in empty, generally unincorporated areas. Those places don’t have zoning either, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that the widespread availability of undeveloped land in close proximity to a major urban center is at least as big a factor in the Houston area’s growth as the presence or absence of any municipal codes. San Francisco may be a Kotkinesque nightmare, but I’m pretty sure that if a few hundred square miles of empty turf within commuting distance of the Bay Area were to suddenly materialize, developers would trip over each other rushing out there to buy it up for whatever pieces of cul-de-sac heaven they could build. Anyway, I posted this mostly to provide a recap for anyone who needs to be caught up on the topic, and also because I like the author’s vision of an ideal outcome. These things never happen, of course, but it’s nice to think about once in awhile.

Finally, as an aside and because I don’t feel like writing a separate post for this, the plaintiffs in the Ashby lawsuit – you know, the guys who won the judgment against the developers – have now filed an appeal as well; the developers filed their motion to appeal a couple of weeks ago. They weren’t satisfied with just the money, they don’t want it to be built, which the judge refused to forbid. So we’ll get to litigate this all over again soon enough.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Texas blog roundup for the week of August 18

The Texas Progressive Alliance stands with the people of Ferguson in their quest for peace and justice as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Possibly the last thing I’m going to say about the Perry indictment for now

Certainly not the last thing I’ll ever say, since there’s a vast amount of the story left to be told, and I reserve the right to change my mind. But for now, since the indictment came down on Friday there’s been very little actual news. There’s been the over-the-top response from Perry’s legal team, there’s been the predictable tribal responses, there’s been a crap-ton of woefully ignorant pontificating from mostly non-Texas writers, but not much else worth talking about. So, until there is a new development, I’m going to leave with these two thoughts.

This Trib story about Texans for Public Justice, the group that filed the complaint that led to the indictment, contains a little tidbit of information that even I hadn’t realized but which ought to be a required inclusion in everything anybody writes about this saga from here on out.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

TPJ didn’t plan to delve into the complex game of political chicken going on between Perry and Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg near the end of last year’s legislative session. Lehmberg had been immersed in a political scandal since April, when a video of her aggressive behavior during her drunken driving arrest drew national attention. TPJ had stayed out of the drama until June 10, when [TPJ Director Craig] McDonald read in the Austin-American Statesman that Perry was threatening to veto the state’s funding of the Public Integrity Unit, housed in the Travis County DA’s office, unless Lehmberg resigned. Perry has said he only acted within the authority he has under the state Constitution.

“We decided [to get involved] that Tuesday morning,” McDonald said. “I said to Andrew [Wheat, TPJ research director], ‘This has got to be illegal. The governor can’t threaten the district attorney to do something that is out of his power. She doesn’t work for him. Never has.’”

Soon after, TPJ filed its complaint against Perry, hours before Perry vetoed the PIU’s $7.5 million budget.

Perry and his legal team have made his right as governor to veto state funding, and Lehmberg’s behavior during her drunken driving arrest, as central to the indictment. Various national political reporters and pundits have dismissed the indictment as overreaching or politically motivated, often pointing, like Perry, to a governor’s right to use his veto power.

McDonald said those critics are missing a crucial point: TPJ’s original complaint was filed before Perry implemented his veto because the veto is irrelevant.

“The threats are the issue, and I think that’s what the grand jury listened to,” McDonald said. “The only role the veto played and the only reason it’s relevant is that’s the club he held over his head to try to get her to leave her job. The veto is a side player to this. It’s not the subject of the charges.”

Emphasis mine. Did we all catch that? The complaint was filed before the veto was made. Let me repeat that, with formatting and an active voice construction: TPJ filed their complaint before Rick Perry vetoed the Public Integrity Unit funds. It wasn’t about the veto, it was about the threat, the coercion, of a duly elected public official that did not answer to Rick Perry. Anyone who opines about this in any fashion and doesn’t grasp that fact has no frigging idea what they’re talking about and should be ignored.

Another test for ignorance by those who bloviate about this case, in particular those who go on about Rosemary Lehmberg’s DUI arrest and of course it was sensible for Rick Perry to want a drunk DA to step down: Rosemary Lehmberg was the third District Attorney in Texas to be arrested for drunk driving during Rick Perry’s time as Governor. She was the first such DA to come under any pressure from Rick Perry about it. She was also the first such DA to be a Democrat. And yet it’s Rick Perry who’s the victim of a partisan vendetta, by a non-partisan special prosecutor appointed by a Republican judge who was appointed to hear the case by another Republican judge.

Oh, and one more thing, from Lisa Falkenberg:

In Harris County and other Texas jurisdictions where judges use the “pick-a-pal” system to empanel grand jurors, bias and corruption are natural byproducts. The judge picks a pal, called a “commissioner,” to go out and find some more pals to serve on a grand jury and supposedly mete out justice. The process, as I’ve written, has been outlawed in the federal system, and is still only used in Texas and California.

But it wasn’t used in this case.

[judge Bert] Richardson didn’t ask a buddy to empanel the grand jurors. The members were randomly selected from Travis County jurors who answered a summons – a similar process to the one used to select regular trial juries.

See this story as well. Grand juries are the prosecutors’ show, and we all know what they say about them. But still, a jury of ordinary citizens thought there was sufficient evidence of a crime to return two indictments. Mike McCrum didn’t indict Rick Perry, the grand jurors did.

Now it’s certainly possible for an informed observer to examine the indictments and think they’re a stretch. We really have never seen anything like this before, and generally speaking our laws about official misconduct have to do with money and/or influence in fairly direct ways. It’s fair to say that the laws Perry is accused of breaking weren’t really written with this situation in mind, probably because no one ever imagined this sort of situation might happen. That doesn’t mean that these laws don’t apply or that a fair jury couldn’t find Rick Perry guilty. It does mean that the appeals courts are someday going to perform fine surgery on some legal hairs, and one way or another we’ll have a clearer understanding of what these laws do mean, at least based on this experience.

But once we start down that path, we are – to borrow a legal phrase we all know from “Law and Order” – assuming facts not in evidence. We don’t know what Mike McCrum’s case is yet. We’ve heard plenty from Rick Perry and his high-priced legal team – the best lawyers the taxpayers can provide for him – and from his hackish sycophants in the national press. What have we heard from Mike McCrum, other than the indictment itself? Not much.

McCrum, asked in an interview earlier Monday about criticism that the case is weak, calmly defended it.

“The case is going to bear itself out in the long run, both from a legal standpoint and from a factual standpoint,” he said.

I’ll say it again: We just don’t know what cards Mike McCrum is holding. It’s certainly possible that he’s gone off on a wild hunt against Rick Perry for some reason. It’s possible he’s tendentiously misreading the law in an attempt for, I don’t know, fame and glory and a lifetime of being a legal expert on CNN or something. It’s possible he’s shooting from the hip and didn’t really think through how his actions would be scrutinized by criminal defense attorneys. There’s nothing in his history to suggest these things are true, but I don’t know Mike McCrum and I have no idea what’s in his head right now. What I do know is that we don’t know what his case will look like once it’s all been laid out in a courtroom. Maybe we’ll look back someday and say “Holy moly that was a load of crap, what in the world was Mike McCrum thinking?”, maybe we’ll say “That was a strong case but ultimately the jury/the Court of Criminal Appeals/SCOTUS didn’t buy it”, or maybe we’ll say “Where were you when Rick Perry was hauled off to the slammer?”. I for one am not making any predictions. And until there’s something new to talk about, I’m going to let it rest.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

The debate over handling drug cases in the DA race

An update from the Chron.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

Incumbent Devon Anderson and challenger Kim Ogg have somewhat similar thoughts on dealing with misdemeanor marijuana possession, but are on polar opposites when it comes to trace amounts of crack cocaine, a perennial debate in Harris County.

On marijuana, both are proposing a diversion program, which offers the opportunity for offenders to avoid conviction and jail time.

Earlier this month, Anderson, a Republican, released to the Houston Chronicle general contours of a pilot plan for first-time marijuana offenders, which is still being developed with the Houston Police Department, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other county law enforcement offices.

The biggest difference between Anderson’s plan and the one announced last month by Ogg is whether those caught with the drug will be arrested and taken into custody.

Ogg also says her plan will save taxpayers millions.

[...]

The benefit to Ogg’s plan, advocates said, is keeping police officers on the street instead of spending time bringing in low-level offenders.

“It doesn’t make sense for people who are going to be released anyway to be driven across the county,” said Joe Ptak, who heads Texans Smart on Crime, a group working to implement “Cite & Summons” across the state. “Having police on patrol is the most effective way to protect communities, and Cite & Summons gives communities the opportunity to do that.”

Under Anderson’s plan, scheduled to go into effect this fall, every suspect will be taken to a police substation, where they will be booked in to the system and evaluated.

If deemed a low-risk, first-time offender, the person will be eligible for the program, which dismisses the case pending completion of community service and possibly, classroom instruction. If the requirements are successfully completed, no conviction appears on the person’s record.

Repeat offenders and those with prior convictions will be booked into jail and will not be eligible for the program.

“The new program still allows for the police to make an arrest,” Anderson said in an email response to questions. A former felony court judge who presided over a drug court docket.

Under both plans, those who fail to comply with any of the requirements would be charged with the original case and arrested.

Ogg unveiled her plan last month, though she has been talking about it for a lot longer than that. I’m glad to see that DA Devon Anderson is partially on board with the idea, but 1) carting arrestees to police substations isn’t really that much of a savings in time and effort over hauling them downtown, and 2) given that Anderson was originally opposed to making any changes in handling pot cases, you have to give Ogg credit for changing the nature of the debate. She’s been the leader here, Anderson is trying to catch up.

And the election will raise again the different opinions on handling trace amounts of crack cocaine.

If elected, Ogg said, her first order of business will be to stop accepting criminal charges for people caught with cocaine residue in their mouths, on crack pipes and on other drug paraphernalia. The so-called “trace case” policy has see-sawed among the DAs. In 2012, GOP challenger Mike Anderson unseated incumbent Pat Lykos in part by attacking her policy of issuing misdemeanor tickets instead of arresting drug users for felonies in cases where police found tiny amounts of cocaine residue.

The issue was especially important to law enforcement agencies in 2012 and hinges on whether police officers should spend time and resources taking crack addicts to jail to be prosecuted.

He had argued that arresting low-level drug users was an effective tool for police to go after kingpins and high-level drug dealers. He also said it reduces crimes like burglaries, especially car break-ins, a position that was widely embraced by law enforcement unions.

Anderson reversed Lykos’ policy shortly after taking office. His wife, who was appointed to the post after his death last year, adopted his stance.

“How the courts and (assistant district attorneys) handle these cases in court can help address the offender’s problem with addiction,” Anderson said in a written response. She said her administration offers treatment options and deferred adjudication when appropriate.

As you know, I support the trace case policy, first implemented by Pat Lykos. I don’t believe ditching that policy has led to better outcomes, and I don’t believe being hardnosed about it is worth the cost. Ogg is also quite correct to point out the disparate effect that trace case arrests have on people of color. She’s on the leading edge of the trend, and I support the direction she wants to go.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Transforming the GRB Convention Center

I don’t think I’d realized that there was a renovation of the George R. Brown Convention Center in the works, but after reading this story, I’m excited about it.

George R. Brown Convention Center

By late next year, people strolling the George R. Brown Convention Center plaza can take in restaurants, sidewalk cafes, landscaped walk-ways and a water fountain. At night, if all goes according to plan, they’ll be treated to a fog and light display.

By the time the Super Bowl rolls around in 2017, the plaza is expected to host a party for 100,000.

Those plans are much grander than when the project was initially bid a year ago. They evolved into a full-blown re-imagining of the area surrounding eastern downtown’s Discovery Green park.

Marie Hoke, a principal at WHR Architects and the project’s lead architect, says she has never worked on a design job that has expanded as much as this one – fitting, perhaps, given the 48-year-old Houstonian’s self-described penchant for “stretching, reaching and not leaving well enough alone.”

Hoke spent her earliest years in her mother’s hometown of Quito, Ecuador. She said she feels at home in a melting pot city like Houston, a place “where you don’t have to leave your culture of origin behind.”

“There is an opportunity to synthesize who you are into something new. We’re all kind of hybrids in Houston, comfortable with each other’s cultures.”

[...]

The original proposal Houston First sent to the architectural firms was more modest, Hoke said. It called for a mixed-use parking garage with some office space, and it included a vague reference to making the convention center more pedestrian-friendly.

After Hoke’s team won the bid, she and representatives of WHR and Houston First visited convention centers in other U.S. cities and came back with “game-changing” ideas, she said.

In Anaheim, Calif., they realized they could take buses off the front of the convention center and have drop-offs at the building’s sides, she said. In Chicago, they saw beautifully integrated public art.

A plan to add three restaurants in the area has grown to eight or nine.

And after Hoke brought SWA landscape architects on board, the project “caught fire” with ideas for the plaza, she said.

The city’s Public Works Division and Houston First are in talks to change the lane configurations on Avenida De Las Americas to allow more room for people to roam in the plaza, she said.

Once completed, the plaza “will take on the feeling you have in Discovery Green and extend it to the convention center,” Central Houston president Bob Eury said.

David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, a group focused on local quality-of-life issues, said: “This is really beautiful stuff and revolutionary in Houston.”

That’s quite the endorsement. Discovery Green has been transformative, not just in the sense of turning an ugly vacant lot in an unloved part of downtown into a beautiful and heavily used city park, but also in the sense of spawning a lot of good construction around it, some of which is still underway. As someone who works within walking distance – or at least B-cycling distance – from Discovery Green and the GRB, I’m definitely intrigued by that news about the eight or nine restaurants. We’ve been hearing about this for almost three years now, and we’re still a ways off from its completion. I’m really eager to see how it all turns out.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Once again, voter fraud by impersonation just doesn’t exist

From the Washington Post:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Election fraud happens. But ID laws are not aimed at the fraud you’ll actually hear about. Most current ID laws (Wisconsin is a rare exception) aren’t designed to stop fraud with absentee ballots (indeed, laws requiring ID at the polls push more people into the absentee system, where there are plenty of real dangers). Or vote buying. Or coercion. Or fake registration forms. Or voting from the wrong address. Or ballot box stuffing by officials in on the scam. In the 243-page document that Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel filed on Monday with evidence of allegedly illegal votes in the Mississippi Republican primary, there were no allegations of the kind of fraud that ID can stop.

Instead, requirements to show ID at the polls are designed for pretty much one thing: people showing up at the polls pretending to be somebody else in order to each cast one incremental fake ballot. This is a slow, clunky way to steal an election. Which is why it rarely happens.

I’ve been tracking allegations of fraud for years now, including the fraud ID laws are designed to stop. In 2008, when the Supreme Court weighed in on voter ID, I looked at every single allegation put before the Court. And since then, I’ve been following reports wherever they crop up.

To be clear, I’m not just talking about prosecutions. I track any specific, credible allegation that someone may have pretended to be someone else at the polls, in any way that an ID law could fix.

So far, I’ve found about 31 different incidents (some of which involve multiple ballots) since 2000, anywhere in the country. If you want to check my work, you can read a comprehensive list of the incidents below.

To put this in perspective, the 31 incidents below come in the context of general, primary, special, and municipal elections from 2000 through 2014. In general and primary elections alone, more than 1 billion ballots were cast in that period.

Some of these 31 incidents have been thoroughly investigated (including some prosecutions). But many have not. Based on how other claims have turned out, I’d bet that some of the 31 will end up debunked: a problem with matching people from one big computer list to another, or a data entry error, or confusion between two different people with the same name, or someone signing in on the wrong line of a pollbook.

In just four states that have held just a few elections under the harshest ID laws, more than 3,000 votes (in general elections alone) have reportedly been affirmatively rejected for lack of ID. (That doesn’t include voters without ID who didn’t show up, or recordkeeping mistakes by officials.) Some of those 3,000 may have been fraudulent ballots. But how many legitimate voters have already been turned away?

So that’s at most two possibly fraudulent ballots per year nationwide that voter ID laws might have helped prevent. See why people say voter ID is a “solution” in search of a problem? The goal of voter ID legislation is to make it harder to vote, period. If we were really interested in protecting the integrity of the ballot, there are much bigger targets to aim for and much broader reforms that could be made, but these would cost money and not have a disproportionate effect on people who tend to vote Democratic. That’s all there is to it. Kevin Drum has more.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

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.

Posted in: Legal matters.

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.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

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.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

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.

Posted in: Legal matters.

On Mike McCrum and Pa Ferguson

There were two stories from Sunday about special prosecutor Mike McCrum that were worth flagging. First, here’s the Express News with an angle that I think has been underappreciated.

Mike McCrum

People who know McCrum said he is not the type to use a case to play politics. San Antonio defense attorney Patrick Hancock said McCrum is known for spelling out just the facts in court, while Alan Brown said McCrum does not care for politics and tries to steer clear of courthouse politics.

Brian Wice, who’ representing former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, in his appeal of money-laundering and conspiracy charges, looked askance at the indictment. But he simultaneously spoke highly of McCrum, saying he had “the utmost respect” for him.

McCrum, a former assistant U.S. attorney, was considered the frontrunner for a presidential appointment to be the U.S. attorney in the San Antonio-based Western District of Texas, which includes Austin, Waco and El Paso. But he withdrew his name from consideration in October 2010 after more than a year of waiting to be officially nominated by the White House, saying he had to get on with his career.

“I have not been able to take any cases for the past six to nine months, and as a result my practice has dwindled to almost nothing,” he told the San Antonio Express-News then.

At the time, he had the support of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation and both Republican senators, in addition to many local attorneys.

“I heard he was a hands-on kind of guy, kick the tires and get down in the weeds,” former Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn MacTaggart told the Express-News when McCrum was being considered. “He pushed the proper due diligence in order to investigate and determine whether an indictment was justified.”

[...]

One of McCrum’s first jobs as an attorney was at the firm then known at Davis & Cedillo. Ricardo Cedillo described McCrum as “one of the best associates” he had ever hired, echoing others’ comments about McCrum’s thoroughness and analytical skills.

“He had street smarts as well as legal knowledge,” Cedillo said while McCrum was under consideration for the U.S. attorney position. “That’s a very rare combination in young lawyers. That goes to who he is and where he’s from.”

McCrum’s clients as a defense attorney have included former NFL star-turned-drug trafficker Sam Hurd; Dr. Calvin Day, who is awaiting a new trial after McCrum successfully lobbied to have his jury conviction for sexual assault of a patient thrown out; fellow lawyer Mikal Watts, a Democratic Party stalwart who has hosted President Barack Obama at his home; and Mark Gudanowski, the former driver for District Attorney Susan Reed accused — and acquitted — of illegally selling Southwest Airlines vouchers.

We were briefly introduced to Mike McCrum when he was named special prosecutor for this case, but that was much more cursory. What this story reminds us is that McCrum isn’t just a prosecutor. He’s also been a very successful defense attorney. As we saw yesterday, there are a lot of quotable defense attorneys out there poking holes in the indictments. One would think – at least, I would think – that someone like Mike McCrum, who has been on that side of the courtroom, would have analyzed this case and the evidence from that perspective as well, to better prepare himself for the courtroom battles to come. It’s certainly possible McCrum has missed the mark or gotten caught up in the job and focused too much on an end result, but I wouldn’t count on that. If he’s as diligent and as smart as people say he is, he’s got to have considered all this.

The DMN takes a more political angle.

Solomon Wisenberg, a Washington lawyer who has known McCrum since 1989, when they worked together as assistant U.S. attorneys, said his friend is not partisan.

Referring to Perry’s indictment, Wisenberg said: “There are people who are politically motivated who are probably happy about it. There are people on the other side who think it must be politically motivated.

“I know Mike well and I don’t think he would be that way. He is not readily identifiable as a Republican or a Democrat.”

Gerald Reamey, a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, taught McCrum criminal law and procedure.

“In his personal life and his professional life, there is some evidence that he is a fairly conservative person,” Reamey said. “He was prosecuting high-profile drug offenses. At the same time, he fits well into the criminal defense role.

“He’s very fair-minded and balanced, the kind of guy who would prosecute something only if he thinks the evidence is there,” Reamey said. “When I think of overzealous prosecution, he is not someone who comes to my mind.”

[...]

According to campaign finance records, McCrum has made only a handful of contributions to state and federal candidates.

He gave $300 in 2007 to Steve Hilbig, a Republican judge on the state appeals court based in San Antonio.

Also that year, McCrum donated $500 to U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, a San Antonio Democrat.

The next year, he contributed $500 to Republican Robert “Bert” Richardson, a Bexar County district court judge. Richardson assigned McCrum as the special prosecutor after a watchdog group filed its abuse-of-office complaint against Perry.

A little history here. When the complaint was filed by Texans for Public Justice against Perry, Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg recused herself from investigating it. That sent the complaint to the district courts of Travis County, where it was assigned to Judge Julie Kocurekof the 390th District Court. Kocurekof, a Democrat, recused herself as well. That kicked the case to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, where presiding Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield got it. Stubblefield then assigned the case to Senior Judge Bert Richardson, who I presume will be the judge from here on out barring anything weird. Richardson named McCrum as special prosecutor, since the Travis County DA had taken itself out, and the rest you know.

Well, actually, there’s one more thing you might not know. Both Judge Stubblefield of the 3rd Court of Appeals, and Judge Richardson, who is a Senior Judge after losing election in 2008, were originally appointed to their positions. By Rick Perry. Quite the liberal conspiracy working against him there, no?

One more piece of history, from the Trib. Rick Perry isn’t the first Texas Governor to run afoul of the law in this way.

A Travis County grand jury’s allegations on Friday that Gov. Rick Perry improperly threatened to veto funding for the state’s anti-corruption prosecutors marked the first time since 1917 that a Texas governor was indicted. That year, Gov. Jim “Pa” Ferguson was indicted by a Travis County grand jury on allegations that he meddled with the state’s flagship university amid a squabble with its board of regents.

In Ferguson’s case, he vetoed $1.8 million over two years (about $34 million in today’s dollars) for the University of Texas; in Perry’s case, it was $7.5 million for the Public Integrity Unit, which is overseen by Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. After Lehmberg pleaded guilty to drunken driving, Perry threatened to pull state funding from her office unless she resigned.

Ferguson’s indictment led to impeachment by state legislators in September 1917. That’s highly unlikely for Perry, a lame duck with an overwhelmingly conservative Legislature who is facing felony charges for his threat — one he made good on — to veto funding for of the unit charged with investigating public offices in Texas, including that of the governor.

But there are striking similarities. Ferguson, a Bell County native who worked as a rancher and a banker before becoming governor in 1914, got in trouble for trying to remove public officials who had opposed him. Two of the articles of impeachment that removed Ferguson from office accused him of having “invaded the constitutional powers of the [University of Texas] board of regents” and “sought to remove regents contrary to law,” wrote Cortez Ewing in the journal Political Science Quarterly in 1933. Ferguson’s veto of the university’s entire legislative appropriation also prompted outrage, though he was not impeached on that point.

And the regents were goading a legislative investigation into embezzlement of state funds and improper campaign finance by Ferguson, while today, some believe Perry wanted the Public Integrity Unit gone because it was investigating possible corruption of state programs — including the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. Perry has adamantly denied that, saying that he was entirely motivated by Lehmberg’s bad behavior.

I wouldn’t read too much into any of that, but it’s an interesting piece of history. We may as well learn as much as we can about this case, because for sure they’ll be teaching it to our kids and grandkids some day.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Hillary and Julian

The other Texas political story from last week that had tongues wagging and social media buzzing.

Mayor Julian Castro

Why yes, since you asked, the Secretary did have dinner with the Clintons at their house, Julián Castro’s press secretary allowed.

Did they have a very vice, er, nice evening? Did they veep, ah, keep, talking late into the night?

“Secretary Castro and former President Clinton had a discussion about ways the agency can expand on the partnership with the Clinton Climate Initiative to make public housing more energy efficient,” Housing and Urban Development press spokesman Cameron French said – the absolute echo of another HUD spokesman’s quote to the Washington Post about the dinner.

Last week’s repast took place at the Clintons’ 5,000-square-foot, 7-bedroom home just behind Observatory Circle – tantalizingly close to the Vice President’s official residence at the Naval Observatory.

It was just the latest manifestation of a warm, long-term relationship between the Clintons and the Castros – Julián and his brother, Rep. Joaquín Castro. And, of course, it served to bring the chatter about Julián as Hillary’s 2016 running mate to a rolling boil.

Julián worked as an intern in the Clinton White House. San Antonio’s twin political stars were in the Clinton camp in 2008, and remain there. That’s just the way Hillary likes it, as she realizes successfully courting the Latino vote is an absolute essential – both if there are substantive Democratic primaries and in the general election.

In fact, 2016 could be a history-making year in which both parties have Latinos in one of the two top spots on the ticket.

We’ve covered this ground before. I will just say again that the best thing Julian Castro can do to enhance his shot at being on the ticket with Hillary Clinton in 2016 is to do a good job at HUD and not screw anything up. If Democrats do well enough this November to make thoughts of Clinton carrying it in 2016 non-crazy, so much the better. Beyond that, this is the proverbial journey of a thousand miles, and we’re still at the starting line stretching our hamstrings. Chilling out in the meantime is advisable.

Posted in: The making of the President.

Just don’t call it “Medicaid expansion”

It’s the public policy that dare not have its name spoken, at least by Republican legislators.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

State lawmakers renewed efforts Thursday to find a “Texas solution” to expand health-insurance coverage for low-income residents without accepting the Medicaid expansion in President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

Social-services advocates and local officials are among those pushing for a compromise measure that gives the state more flexibility than in the law to spend the money available from the federal government to cover more residents.

On Thursday, the state Senate Health and Human Services Committee met to “start a conversation that will give us an accurate picture of who the uninsured are, what services are available to them and what we can do to help them,” said chairman Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown.

Katrina Daniel of the Texas Department of Insurance said about 6.5 million state residents do not have health insurance, although some of those can afford insurance and have chosen not to purchase it. An estimated 1.3 million uninsured Texans earn less than the federal poverty level, leaving them in the so-called “coverage gap.” The president’s law assumed all states would expand Medicaid, so it left those eligible for Medicaid out of its subsidies to help poor residents buy insurance.

Caring for those and other uninsured residents is costing counties billions of dollars a year, according to a letter sent to Schwertner on Wednesday by the judges in Harris, Bexar, Dallas, Tarrant, Travis and El Paso counties.

“We write not to complain about this fiscal burden or duty, but to urge your committee to use this interim to find a Texas way forward to fund and increase access to healthcare coverage for low-wage working Texans,” the judges wrote.

Two of those county judges are Republicans, of course, and frankly I think they have every right to complain. The cost of health care for those uninsured people comes out of their budgets, not the state’s. A lot of that cost includes treatment for folks with mental illness, who generally get that treatment in county jails. Medicaid expansion solves a whole world of problems, we just have to be smart enough to take it. If that means calling it something else, or coming up with something that’s almost but not quite exactly Medicaid expansion so we can claim it’s a “Texas solution”, then so be it. Either is better than what we’re doing now.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Vape ‘em if you’ve got ‘em

E-cigarettes are not affected by the city of Houston’s smoking ban. For now, anyway.

When city officials announced a sweeping ban on smoking in public parks last month, many in Houston’s growing ranks of electronic cigarette users worried the new rules applied to them.

They do not, but the concern was well founded. Of the country’s five most populous cities, Houston is the only one without a ban on where the devices can be used. There is not enough research on the relatively new, battery-powered plastic or metal tubes that heat liquid nicotine to know their medical effects, leading many cities to preemptively ban them and others to watch how the national debate plays out. For now, Houston is in the latter group.

E-cigarettes emit a water vapor rather than smoke. While most health officials agree using e-cigarettes, known as “vaping,” is less harmful than traditional smoking, many have raised concerns about whether the devices reduce or lead to conventional smoking. Other unknowns include precisely what chemicals the water vapor contains and whether bystanders absorb any nicotine.

Even as Houston has expanded its general smoking restrictions, officials have been hands-off with the controversial devices. The city smoking ordinance does not include e-cigarettes.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker said it is not something the administration is looking to change, largely because e-cigarettes are not considered a tobacco product.

The American Lung Association’s Houston chapter, however, is advocating for the city take the approach of other large urban areas and ban them in the same places as regular cigarettes while the health risks remain unknown.

Some city officials, too, are keen on broaching the issue. Council member Jack Christie, a chiropractor with strong opinions on health policy, said he would like to see restrictions on e-cigarettes in public places, voicing concern about the potential effects of second-hand vapor. Council member Ellen Cohen, chair of the Council’s Quality of Life Committee, also has concerns about second-hand vapor and said she would like to see more federal guidance before considering whether to include them in the city’s smoking ordinance.

“There’s are a lot of things that Houston doesn’t just throw out regulations on,” Christie said. “We let other cities experiment and see what works. And I’m not for over-regulation, but if it helps innocent people, and I think this would, we should do it.”

As you know, I’ve been wondering about this. I’m okay with things as they are now – as the story notes, there’s no litter issue with e-cigarettes, and I don’t think they’re nearly as prevalent as the traditional kind; I know I’ve not encountered any vapers in public spaces as yet. Should there be further regulation at the federal level – which multiple states and local health officials are asking for – or more research showing that they’re harmful, especially to people in their vicinity, then that would be a different story. Until then, I can live with the status quo.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Weekend link dump for August 17

“Late last year, scientists unveiled the complete genome of a female Neanderthal whose 130,000-year-old toe bone had been found in a cave in Siberia. As it turned out, her sequence of some 3 billion DNA letters was not all that much different from mine or yours.”

“So, we go from bogus attempts to stifle criticism via copyright law, to then trying to stifle discussion of that stifling by bogus defamation threats. Someone really doesn’t like being criticized apparently.”

A linguist walks into a bar…

“For the more than 22,000 pedestrians killed nationwide between 2008 and 2012, poorer neighborhoods have disproportionately higher rates of pedestrian deaths.”

How to deploy your pet to find unsecured WiFi connections.

Evolution isn’t about what you believe. It’s a fact whether you “believe” in it or not.

“Secondly, good lord, people, it’s like it’s scientifically impossible to write a song about how great it is to have curves that doesn’t insult people who don’t.”

“Once you’ve learned enough to earn your cynicism, you have to outgrow it and learn to believe in things again.”

A pagan perspective on faith-based activism.

Just a reminder that there was an Ebola outbreak in America 25 years ago.

RIP, Robin Williams. I can still quote bits from his A Night At The Met album. He sure did touch a lot of people’s lives. I can’t do much better than what Scalzi says, but be sure to see Zelda Williams’ tribute to her dad. And have a tissue or two handy when you do.

See also David Simon’s tribute, a remembrance from the set of Homicide: Life on the Streets.

RIP, Menahem Golan, producer of fine 1980s movies.

“Bottled-water drinkers, we have a problem: There’s a good chance that your water comes from California, a state experiencing the third-driest year on record.”

On lawyering while hot. Gotta say, I think the author is perpetuating the same attitudes she decries in her essay.

What can WalMart do to make delivering health care more affordable?

“In the end, we’ve learned a valuable lesson: don’t poison your kids.”

One’s opinion of the constitutionality of the federal subsidies for insurance exchanges depends entirely on the litigation one is engaged in at the time.

RIP, Lauren Bacall. And yes, I do know how to whistle.

“It’s difficult to imagine the events in Ferguson going down the same way with a white shooting victim and white protesters. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine cops exercising restraint in Nevada if the guns pointed at them had been in black hands. Black Americans shouldn’t have to explain why this double standard might make them angry.”

“To even acknowledge this line of debate is to start a larger argument about the worth, the very personhood, of a black man in America. It’s to engage in a cost-benefit analysis, weigh probabilities, and gauge the precise odds that Brown’s life was worth nothing against the threat he posed to the life of the man who killed him. It’s to deny that there are structural reasons why Brown was shot dead while James Eagan Holmes—who on July 20, 2012, walked into a movie theater and fired rounds into an audience, killing 12 and wounding 70 more—was taken alive.”

“At a broader level, there is no research that tracks how police using military tactics and equipment affects civilian safety (or police safety, for that matter).”

How much wellness is too much?

Congratulations to Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University, the first female mathematician to win a Fields Medal in the prize’s 78 years of history.

“Really, as a compromise, it’s more than fair. Feminists are actually sacrificing more in this compromise! After all, all anti-feminists have to do is promise not to tell lies, something they should have been doing already. Feminists, in exchange, will give up an amusing source of gifs.”

“In addition to combat vehicles and assault rifles, police departments have obtained everything from karaoke machines to bouncy castles through the DoD program, free of charge.”

Workers deserve more stability in their schedules. This is another reason why unions matter.

“Over the past generation or so, we’ve militarized our police to protect a public that has broadly become less and less violent.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

HERO repeal petition lawsuit set for January

There will be no HERO repeal referendum on the ballot this year, but depending on how the trial (and likely appeal) goes, there could be one next year.

PetitionsInvalid

Opponents of Houston’s equal rights ordinance dropped their request for a temporary injunction Friday that could have triggered a process to set a repeal referendum this November.

That means their lawsuit will not be heard until January 2015.

State District Judge Robert Schaffer early in the Friday injunction hearing questioned why the plaintiffs were seeking the same outcome via injunction as they are seeking in the lawsuit.

“If I grant the relief you’re asking for, isn’t that granting you everything you’re asking for in your petition?” Schaffer asked.

The announcement that the injunction request would be dropped came after Schaffer consulted with both parties in his chambers.

Also Friday, Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals denied a separate request from opponents to force the city secretary to certify the signatures on their petition and trigger a referendum.

A three-judge panel ruled that the emergency writ of mandamus plaintiffs sought would have the same result as a favorable ruling in their pending lawsuit that went before Schaffer’s court Friday. The plaintiffs, the judges wrote, could appeal after a ruling comes down at the trial court level.

See here, here, and here for the background. What Judge Shaffer was saying was that in the lawsuit the plaintiffs asked that the petitions be declared to be valid as part of their request for immediate injunctive relief, which is to say they were asking to be declared the winner before a trial took place. Now we’ll have that trial, and hopefully settle the issue once and for all. In the meantime, the city has agreed to continue not enforcing the ordinance pending the outcome of the trial. Mark your calendars for January 15. Jerad Najvar, who had previously made the case for the plaintiffs, Hair Balls, Lone Star Q, and LGBTQ Nation have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

More on the Perry indictment

Just some more thoughts and links relating to the big story that turned a relatively quiet Friday into one of the busiest news day of the year so far. Let’s start with a reality check from Harold Cook.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

This corndog has done nothing wrong

First of all, I’m a bit puzzled by the indictment. It seems weak to me. When the criminal complaint was first made following Perry’s veto of Lehmberg’s Public Integrity Unit, it seemed weak to me then, too. But then, Special Prosecutor Michael McCrum remarked publicly that he was especially concerned about Perry’s actions post-veto, which might rise to the level of breaking the law.

Finally, an aspect of this that made sense to me. Except that in reading the actual two-count indictment, it appears to focus on Perry’s veto, and his threatening words before the veto. A layman reading between the lines of the indictment would conclude that, while it’s perfectly legal to line-item veto a DA’s budget, it’s illegal to threaten to veto a DA’s budget, if you then subsequently veto that budget.

Don’t get me to lying – I’m not going to practice law without a license on this situation, but personally that seems like (good)hair-splitting. I’m left wondering whether the case is weak, or whether there are smoking gun-like aspects of a strong case which aren’t spelled out in the indictment. Either thing, or both things, are entirely possible. Only time will tell.

The trial, if there is one, may come down to whether the Governor was within his Constitutional rights, threat or no threat, in vetoing a line item, or whether he was out of his lane by trying to circumvent a legal process by which a district attorney may legally be removed from office (a process in which, incidentally, Lehmberg prevailed).

The second notable item related to the indictment is that I have seldom seen such breathless hyperbole, misdirection, and misinformation launched in any situation than I have in this one. Opinion leaders from the left, the right, and even from some journalists, are guilty of it.

I’m no more a lawyer than Harold is, but I think if it comes to a trial, the prosecution has a pretty straightforward story to tell. If I were in charge of this case – Lord help us if I were, but stay with me here – what I would present to the jury is a simple tale of coercion. One elected official does not have the right or the authority to force another elected official to resign, especially by making threats. The only authority Rick Perry has over Rosemary Lehmberg is what any other registered voter has over her. Let’s pretend for a moment that the DUI never happened and there is no CPRIT investigation to speak of. We all agree that if Rick Perry had just out of the blue told Rosemary Lehmberg in 2013 to resign or he’d veto funding for the Public Integrity Unit, that would be suspicious, right? Perry’s always been free to veto the PIU funding. It’s actually a little surprising that he hasn’t put pressure on the Lege to cut that function out of the Travis County DA office and give it to the Attorney General or something like that. But he hasn’t, maybe because it wasn’t worth the effort and the political fallout, or maybe he just had other fish to fry. Then Lehmberg goes and gets herself busted for drunk driving, and now maybe Perry has a wedge. That doesn’t give him any more right to threaten the duly elected Lehmberg than he’d had the day before she made the poor choice to get behind the wheel after downing too much vodka. One elected official cannot coerce another. I think a jury will have an easy time grasping that.

Harold also muses about how odd it is for Perry to get indicted for doing something he could have easily done on the QT without raising any eyebrows. It’s absolutely true that in the aftermath of Lehmberg’s arrest Perry could have joined the calls for her to resign without explicitly mentioning the PIU funding, and he could have vetoed the PIU funding later saying that it made no sense for someone who lacked integrity to head up a Public Integrity Unit. It was publicly connecting the two that landed him in the soup. Isn’t that often how it is with criminal activity? The perpetrator could have gotten away with it if only someone – usually but not always the perps themselves – had kept their big mouth shut. I find a deep well of irony and humor in this, but I don’t see any contradiction.

Against all that you’ve got the Chron and the Statesman running stories with lots of quotes from defense attorneys and law professors saying that McCrum has a high bar to clear to get a conviction. I can only presume he thinks that he can, because by far the path of least resistance would have been to drop the whole thing. I’m glad this is his job and not mine, that’s for sure.

Harold has a lot more to say at his post and you should go read it all because he makes a lot of sense. On the subject of keeping one’s mouth shut, it’s interesting to see the reactions to this so far from Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott. Here’s Davis:

State Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor, passed on the opportunity Saturday morning to call for Gov. Rick Perry’s resignation following his indictment by a Travis County grand jury.

Speaking with reporters before a block walk in Plfugerville, Davis reiterated her statement Friday that she was troubled by the charges against Perry, which stem from his threat to veto funding for the state Public Integrity Unit unless Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg resigned. Lehmberg’s office controls the unit, which aims to enforce ethics among public officials.

Asked whether Perry should step down, Davis told reporters: “As I said, there will be, I’m sure, more information that comes to light. I trust that the justice system will do its job, and these indictments handed down by the grand jury demonstrate that some very seriously potential crimes have been committed.”

As the story notes, the Texas Democratic Party and at least one elected official, Rep. Joaquin Castro, have called for Perry to step down. It’s very much in Davis’ interest to not get invested in this. For one thing, there is a non-zero chance that the indictment could get tossed. For another, it does her no good for this to be seen as just another partisan dispute. Her story line is one of a “culture of corruption” that Perry embodies and Abbott represents, and it’s much better for her if the evidence for that is as objective and non-partisan as possible. There’s also a principle at play here, which Juanita captures:

I am not one of the folks calling for Rick Perry to step down as Governor and I believe it is a major mistake to do so.

I am a Democrat and therefore I believe in the rule of law. You are innocent until proven guilty. Period. No exceptions. None.

Additionally, we Democrats were all outraged when Rick Perry asked District Attorney Lehmberg to step down. We were right to be angry. We even supported her when she was found guilty and served her jail sentence. Her behavior was unacceptable but we stood behind her. It seems more than a tad duplicitous for us to now call for Perry’s resignation.

Hard to argue with that. As for Abbott, he expressed his doubts about the indictment on a Fox News appearance but declined to say more than that, saying he hadn’t read it yet. My guess is that after he does read it he won’t say much more than that. Like Davis, there are risks for him if he throws his full weight behind defending Perry. Perry is highly unlikely to go to trial before November, but Abbott has to think longer term than that. It would not be good for him as Governor if there’s a trail of full-throated statements of support by him of Perry and he winds up going down in a way that leave no doubt about his guilt. Enough bad information could come out about Perry and the evidence against him between now and November to have a significant effect on public opinion, and he doesn’t want to be too closely associated with that.

A bit of history, since the name Tom DeLay has come up quite a bit and will no doubt continue to do so. DeLay was indicted in October 2005, and eventually resigned in June 2006 after trying to withdraw from the race in CD22 by claiming that he was a citizen of Virginia and thus ineligible to be the nominee. The goal there was to get another nominee on the ballot, as DeLay’s shenanigans meant that CD22 was in danger of being won by Democrat Nick Lampson in a year where Republicans were (rightly) worried about losing their majority in the House. DeLay’s gambit ultimately failed and Lampson prevailed over the epic write-in candidacy of Shelley Sekula Gibbs. My point in bringing this up is that while DeLay did resign, he did so for his own reasons and with other considerations in mind. Democrats were happy to have him on the ticket for as long as possible.

There is one clear-cut line of attack Davis can take that Abbott could be vulnerable to. Here’s Burka to point it out.

The indictment of Rick Perry turns Texas politics upside down. He can’t be a serious presidential candidate when he is facing a potential jury trial. But it also has serious affects for the state party. An obvious issue is that Greg Abbott has previously ruled that the state could pay for Perry’s defense. Does anyone think the Democrats are going to sit idly by and allow Perry to continue to spend large sums of money on his defense when he stands accused of breaking the law? Not a chance.

My archives show that Abbott was asked for an opinion about this, but it appears that request is still pending. Given the other ways in which Abbott has helped Perry it’s easy enough to imagine a similar ruling, and it’s easy enough to imagine the attacks even in the absence of such a ruling. One can certainly make a case that criminal defense of an action taken in the official capacity of the office of Governor should be paid for by the public, but boy is that a tough thing to stick up for when the chips are down. I’d feel sorry for the position Abbott is in if I were a better person.

And finally, the Trib has the official word from the man of the hour his own self.

A steamed Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Saturday decried a Travis County grand jury’s indictment of him on two felony counts, saying allegations that he abused his power by threatening to veto funding for the state’s anti-corruption unit were politically motivated.

“We don’t settle political differences with indictments in this country,” Perry said in a short press conference. “It is outrageous that some would use partisan political theatrics to rip away at the very fabric of our state’s constitution. This indictment amounts to nothing more than abuse of power and I cannot and I will not allow that to happen.”

Perry — who followed through on the threat because Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who had pleaded guilty to drunken driving, refused his request to step down — said his actions were protected by the state Constitution, and that he and his attorneys would aggressively fight the charges. They include abuse of official capacity, which carries a potential penalty of five to 99 years in prison, and coercion of a public servant, which has a penalty of two to 10 years.

“I intend to fight against those who would erode our state’s constitution and laws purely for political purposes and I intend to win,” he said. “I’ll explore every legal avenue to expedite this matter. I am confident that we will ultimately prevail, that this farce of a prosecution will be revealed for what it is. And those responsible will be held accountable.”

Mighty big words there, cowboy. Fasten your seatbelts, y’all. BOR, Main Justice, Trail Blazers, the AusChron, Texas Politics, the Trib, Juanita, and Martin Longman have more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Just a reminder: Medicaid expansion is still a great deal

But only if you do it.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

We learned late last week that the decision by 24 states to reject Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion comes as a startling cost — $423.6 billion in lost federal funds from 2013 to 2022, according to researchers at the Urban Institute.

So how are states justifying their decisions to leave that much federal money on the table? One of their main arguments is that the federal government will eventually renege on its generous funding commitment to the Medicaid expansion. But based on the 49-year history of the Medicaid program, that claim doesn’t hold up, according to Urban Institute researchers in a finding that hasn’t received as much attention.

Here’s how Medicaid funding works: The federal government on average pays 57 percent of the traditional Medicaid program’s costs, while the states finance the rest (though the federal reimbursement rate varies by state). The federal match just for the Medicaid expansion population, however, is significantly more generous. The feds pay 100 percent of those costs through 2016, and the federal match rate is gradually lowered to 90 percent by 2020 and is supposed to stay there.

States opposing the Affordable Care Act have expressed skepticism that the federal government will be able to maintain such a high funding level amid future budget pressures. But the Urban researchers found that of the 100-plus cuts the federal government has actually made to the Medicaid program since 1980, lawmakers just once reduced the federal share of Medicaid financing — and that was in 1981. Other federal cuts have been to services, payments to providers, or in program eligibility.

“More recent budget bills actually raised the federal Medicaid share, even while making other federal Medicaid cuts,” Urban researchers wrote in the study, which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Further, lawmakers won’t find much to cut if they looked to federal funding for the Medicaid expansion. Less than 7.4 percent of federal Medicaid spending over the next decade comes from the bonus federal match for the expansion population, according to Urban researchers’ calculations based on Congressional Budget Office projections.

Via Forbes, you can see that Urban Institute report here. Ed Kilgore adds a bit of extra context.

It should be mentioned that the 1981 match-rate cut (technically, a reduction in federal reimbursement for a limited period of time, not an actual change in the underlying match) was at the insistence not of deceptive liberals but of the sainted Ronald Reagan. Indeed, liberals, led by Henry Waxman, engineered a long series of “super-matches”–increases in the federal match rate for Medicaid coverage of specific services or populations–during the 1980s and 1990s.

The big thing to remember here is that liberals want expanded Medicaid coverage, and are willing to pay for it at the federal level. The whole bait-and-switch meme behind Republican resistance to the expansion at the state level lacks logical as well as historical support.

And that’s exactly why this isn’t a question of economics, where the answer is clear, but of politics, where it’s equally clear in the other direction. Like I said, just a reminder in case you still needed one.

Posted in: National news.

From the files of privatization failures

A story from last week.

State officials have decided to slow the rollout of a controversial overhaul of the foster-care system after the private contractor running a pilot program abruptly pulled out Friday.

Judge John Specia, commissioner of the state Department of Family and Protective Services, said a second pilot of the overhaul will continue but other planned expansions will not move forward until his agency studies what went wrong.

“It would be foolish of us to not look at this situation, look at the contract being terminated, talk to the legislative leadership, talk to the providers and advocates and then fully make a decision about moving forward,” said Specia, hours after receiving notice that Providence Service Corp. intended to opt out of a five-year contract after just 18 months. “That’s necessary at this point.”

Lawmakers said the cancellation of the contract would force them to take a closer look at the overhaul, called “Foster Care Redesign.” There will be no disruption of services for the children, as the state will take over the work after a transition period of at least 30 days.

But the development marked a setback for the “redesign” program, which was approved in 2011 as a way to improve the system without increasing costs.

[...]

“As we move forward, the Legislature should carefully examine whether Foster Care Redesign still represents the best solution to the challenges facing our state’s foster care system,” said state Sen. Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

Providence, based in Tucson, Ariz., had been failing to meet some of its performance metrics and recently unsuccessfully sought more money from the state, officials said.

Mike Fidgeon, the company’s chief operating officer, said it had proved impossible to provide services for roughly 1,100 children in the pilot’s 60 West Texas and North Texas counties without spending more than the state had spent in previous years, as the contract required.

“The contract guiding us doesn’t adequately address the needs of the children and families,” Fidgeon said. “The most responsible way forward is to conclude the current arrangement and work to help the Legislature more adequately fund the state’s foster care system.”

Providence started work last February after winning its $30 million annual contract. ACH Child and Family Services of Fort Worth was tapped for a second pilot, in Tarrant and six nearby counties. More contracts were expected to be put out to bid soon.

But Providence struggled from the start to produce better outcomes or even stay afloat financially.

Emphasis mine. Funny how these things work, isn’t it? The free market can always do it better and more cheaply than the government, and spending must always be cut. It would be funny if there weren’t real people – children, to be specific – on the business end of it. The Legislature created this mess as part of its orgy of budget slashing in 2011, the Legislature can figure out how to fix it. See this Observer story from May for more.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.