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County Auditor

Fee collecting time

Worthwhile effort, but keep expectations modest.

Marilyn Burgess

Harris County has an $80 million backlog of uncollected civil court fees dating back to the 1980s, new District Clerk Marilyn Burgess said, prompting her office to launch an aggressive collection effort.

Burgess said she was shocked when an employee told her shortly after her election in November that the county had stopped attempting to collect the fees in 2011 — a revelation that surprised the county’s auditor. She has since launched a new collection effort, but only expects to successfully recoup about $20 million, from the past three years of billing.

“It’s important to the county, because if we collect that, that’s $20 million less that Commissioners Court has to assess in property taxes from the taxpayer,” Burgess said.

An influx of millions would provide a boost to the county court system, which is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Harvey and is looking for ways to pay for a long-delayed new family courthouse.

[…]

According to Burgess, an account manager informed her in November that he had told his supervisors that the district clerk’s office was failing to collect certain categories of civil court fees. The department’s accounting system shows the district clerk mailed invoices for these fees eight times from 2001 to 2011, but not again until January, when Burgess took office, she said. About one-third of fees owed to the district clerk remain unpaid from 2017, for example.

Starting with the most recent bills, Burgess said her staff will work to collect fees as far back in time as possible. At a certain point, she said, labor and postage become more expensive than what the county could hope to collect.

“Right now, we’re doing pretty good with what we’re collecting, but we’re in 2018,” Burgess said. “When the payments stop coming, we won’t go any further back.”

Some of this is process, which can always be improved, and some of this is effort, which will run into diminishing returns. The city did something like this for debt collections back in 2011, at a time when finances were very tight. It made sense, and it did make a dent, but you’re never going to come close to the topline amount. We’ll see how well District Clerk Burgess does with her initiative.

Lina Hidalgo gets the national press treatment

You need to get past the first couple of paragraphs, but overall a decent piece.

Lina Hidalgo

Even in defeat, Beto O’Rourke did a big favor to fellow Democrats all over Texas. A couple hundred thousand young people who might otherwise have skipped the election turned out to vote for the charismatic young liberal, and when they did, they also voted for his party down the ballot. The Republicans still won the statewide races, but the margins were the narrowest they’ve been in decades, and in local races, there were a number of upsets by Democrats.

Perhaps the biggest surprise — or accident, as far as local conservatives are concerned — was in the race for the top administrator of Texas’s largest county, the one that surrounds Houston. The winner, Lina Hidalgo, was the most millennial candidate ever, a 27-year-old perma-student who relied on her parents’ financial support to launch her campaign. Her only jobs so far have been the short-term gigs she’s worked amid her schooling.

It’s safe to say she wasn’t chosen for her qualifications. Eighty-seven percent of her votes came from straight-ticket ballots. Now she’ll be overseeing a county of 5 million people — the third-largest in the U.S., larger than 26 states — along with a $5 billion budget and a payroll of nearly 17,000 people. (Only a few local hospitals and grocery stores employ more people, including Walmart, which has 34,000 Houston-area workers.) On top of that, Harris County has a vulnerable population of more than half a million undocumented immigrants, and surrounds a city that’s made entirely of concrete, as though it’s designed to encourage the maximum possible damage from floods — of which there have been two apocalyptic ones in the last decade.

Sometimes during the campaign, it didn’t look like she was even trying all that hard to win. A common refrain in news coverage was that she’d never attended a meeting of Harris County’s commissioners court, the governmental body she’d be overseeing, which is sort of like a city council. In one debate she couldn’t name the city auditor.

But the truth is that Hidalgo is more formidable than her short résumé suggests. To anyone paying closer attention, it was clear that she and the incumbent had fundamentally different ideas about what the administrative position should be. She thought, and still thinks, that there’s a way of transforming it from a mostly managerial role — someone who fills potholes, balances the budget, and cleans up after floods — to one that mobilizes the county’s resources to improve public health, expand public transportation, reform the jails, and reduce global warming.

“Any issue you choose, it’s easy to say, ‘We can’t do anything — that’s not the county’s deal,’ she said in a phone interview last week. “But fundamentally, it’s about priorities. Budgets are about priorities and they’re about values.” When she gets into the details, she’s persuasive — maybe because the transition has given her a chance to study the system up close. On criminal justice, she points out, the county has spent somewhere north of $6 million in the past year fighting a judge’s order to reform its bail system. On health, she cited an independent 2015 report that suggested the county could improve its services by coordinating better among its hospitals, clinics, schools, and public-health department. And on transit, she argued, the county can manage development in a way that discourages sprawl, and can divert some of its money for trains.

Just out of curiosity, can you name the county auditor? (County, not city – that’s an error in the article.) I’ve got the answer at the end of this post.

I feel like people haven’t really wrapped their minds around the ways in which things are likely to change, not just due to Hidalgo’s election but due to the new Democratic majority on Commissioners Court. The Court has always operated in a very clubby you-do-your-thing-and-I’ll-do-mine way, with Republicans having either a 3-2 or 4-1 majority most of the time. The late El Franco Lee, who was one of those Democrats for a thirty year period, did a lot of things for Precinct 1 in his time but was nobody’s idea of an agitator for change at the county level. It’s not just Lina, it’s Lina plus Rodney plus Adrian that will have a chance to shake things up and question things we have been doing for years, if not forever. Some of that is going to generate a ton of friction. As someone once said, elections have consequences.

By the way, later in the article Hidalgo responds to the complaint about her not having attended a Court meeting. She notes she watched them online, then makes the very good but often overlooked point that Court meetings are held during the work day for most people, and in general are not very welcoming to public input. That’s one of those things that I figure will be changed, and it will be welcome. Business is not going to be as ususal.

By the way, the county auditor is someone named Michael Post. Go ahead and do a Google News search for “harris county auditor” or “michael post harris county”, or a Chron archive search for either, I’ll wait. Maybe the reason Lina Hidalgo didn’t know the name Michael Post off the top of her head is because the man and his office have basically been invisible? Just a thought.

It’s not just Precinct 4

There are problems with evidence rooms in other Constable precincts as well.

Constable Mark Herman

Constable Mark Herman

With Harris County’s Precinct 4 Constable’s Office mired in scandal over the improper destruction of 21,000 pieces of evidence, serious evidence cataloging and control problems also have been uncovered in the constables’ offices in Precincts 3,6 and 7, according to interviews and audits obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

While there is no proof yet that evidence has been unlawfully destroyed in those other three offices, 2,000 items were initially reported missing in Precinct 3; guns, jewelry, electronics and cash were misplaced in Precinct 6; and Precinct 7’s evidence room has been described as “a shambles.”

In Precinct 4, where the evidence destruction scandal is still unfolding, prosecutors so far have dismissed 100 criminal cases and are still determining how many convictions could be affected by years of careless work blamed on a corporal fired for illegally disposing of drugs, guns and evidence. The episode remains the subject of a criminal probe.

Only time will tell whether chaotic evidence handling practices reported in Precincts 3,6 and 7 will result in case dismissals, appeals or further investigations.

Harris County auditors in May 2015 uncovered evidence problems – never made public – in a review of the overstuffed property room inside the Precinct  6 Constable’s Office in the East End. There, auditors reported finding 28 percent of the evidence missing along with $54,000 in cash in a review of a sample of 799 items, the audit shows. Their visit to the office came only months after the previous constable, Victor Treviño, resigned after pleading guilty to misappropriating money from a charity he ran out of his office.

Constable Heliodoro Martinez, who replaced Treviño, said in an interview Friday that he immediately contacted the Harris County district attorney after receiving those results. It took five months for a team of two Harris County sheriff’s deputies and two of his own officers to locate the missing cash and other items. Martinez said he is still trying to impose order in an evidence room that hadn’t been cleaned out or organized in 26 years.

Unlike the Precinct 4 scandal, neither defense attorneys nor front-line prosecutors have been notified to review cases. So far, county lawyers have not deemed that any notifications or criminal investigations are necessary.

“To this point, we haven’t been made aware of any pending cases that have been affected in any way, shape or form,” Martinez said.

JoAnne Musick, a defense attorney who is past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said she is skeptical that no cases have been adversely affected.

“Every property custodian comes in and testifies how great their system is – but in these audits that’s not what they’re finding,” she said. “They’re having to dig stuff up. … How do you know it’s not been tampered with, it’s not altered, it’s not decayed?”

See here, here, and here for the background. None of the other precincts have had anywhere near the problems that Precinct 4 have had, but it’s too early to say that no cases have been affected. There are also some questions about the way the audits were conducted and the results communicated. The current auditor for the county is retiring, so perhaps there should be a high priority on re-reviewing all eight Constable precincts and ensuring we know what issues there are. And then maybe, as suggested by some people in the story and by commenter Steven Houston in an earlier post, it’s time to take these evidence rooms away from the constables and put sole authority for them in the Sheriff’s office.

Greg Enos drops another bombshell

Greg Enos, the chief catalyst in getting Judge Denise Pratt ousted from the 311th Family Court, now documents bad behavior by Pratt’s successor on that bench, Alicia Franklin.

Alicia Franklin

I truly like Alicia Franklin personally and I do not want to embarrass her or cause her problems. I have even come to actually like her fiance, Doug York (outside of the courtroom). But, the facts are the facts. I would be a stinking hypocrite to go after “poor,” defenseless, little Gary Polland regarding his pay for CPS court appointments and then stay silent when I became aware of what Judge Franklin has apparently done. Luckily for Polland, I got my hands on Franklin’s pay vouchers first.

I could easily just keep quiet and let the Democrats and the Houston Chronicle work Franklin over and see what happened. In fact, I had it made in the 311th finally, since the new Judge Franklin held her position because I had been a prime mover in driving her crazy predecessor out of office. Toni and I almost never socialize without the kids and we had gone to dinner with York and Franklin and really enjoyed ourselves. Franklin is young, bright and enthusiastic and seemed so committed to doing a good job as a judge. I was truly fired up about her until the stinking facts got dumped in my lap.

I am writing this newsletter despite the fact that I know Franklin will be a judge through December and she may well win in November and then preside over the 311th for four more years (unless something bad happens that cuts her judicial career short as occurred with Judge Pratt). However, let me note that a recent survey from July shows Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott tied in Harris County and the Democrats have a ground game this year that the Republicans cannot possibly match. Do not assume that you know for sure who will win here locally in November.

I am writing this even though I contributed financially to Franklin’s campaign and I did a lot of work behind the scenes to get Franklin to switch from running for the 247th to the 311th District Court.

[…]

I have investigated and confirmed the facts set forth in this newsletter about Judge Franklin. With sadness and regret, I have concluded that these facts suggest possible criminal acts which should be investigated by a prosecutor. I am calling for an independent prosecutor and not the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit to investigate the bills submitted by Alicia Franklin and other attorneys for work they claim to have done on CPS cases.

I am not flatly accusing Judge Franklin of committing a crime. I am sadly and reluctantly pointing out 100% provable facts that create a reasonable suspicion that something very wrong has been done. I really wish Judge Franklin would provide her side of the story to convince us otherwise.

The facts described in this newsletter also show extremely poor ethical judgment by Judge Franklin and violations of the Canons of Judicial Ethics, which apply to judicial candidates as well as judges.

I am today writing the District Attorney, the State Bar of Texas and the worthless Commission on Judicial Conduct about these matters and asking for an investigation by people with resources and power far beyond me.

I am truly saddened to the core of my being to be writing this particular newsletter and I really wish you were not reading these words.

Click over and read the whole thing. Enos documents multiple infractions, the two main ones being Franklin overbilling Harris County – he has an example of her submitting claims for 23.5 hours of work on one particular day – and submitting claims for CPS work done after she had been sworn in as a judge, which is a violation of the Texas Canons of Judicial Ethics. There are other items, five in total, so again I say go read the whole thing and see what you think.

(By the way, since I’m sure you’re wondering, I have no information about the “survey from July [that] shows Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott tied in Harris County”. It’s the first I’d heard of it. I personally am pretty optimistic about Democratic prospects in Harris County this fall, but as with everything it comes down to turnout. Take nothing for granted, that’s for sure.)

One other item, which seems to me ought to be something the county addresses ASAP:

Lawyers are stealing tax payer dollars and the system in place at Harris County allows it. Here are the problems:

1. A paper based system from the 1950’s is still in use. Lawyers fill out the pay vouchers by hand, the judges sign the vouchers and then they go to the County Auditor, who pays the amounts approved by the judges, no questions asked.

2. A judge, who may approve dozens of pay vouchers a week, cannot see what an attorney is billing in other cases in that same court or in other courts.

3. No one until me ever took a mass of vouchers from one single attorney and extracted the fees charged on all cases for a particular day to see what the attorney is billing the county for on that day. This is how Alicia Franklin got busted billing 23.5 hours in one day. If I can “audit” vouchers, why can’t the County Auditor?

4. The real problem is that no one has any incentive to closely monitor the CPS pay system. The judges are picking their pals for the appointments and therefore obviously want them to make money. The attorneys do not want their vouchers audited either. They have figured out that they can make a lot of money by submitting almost any hours they can make up and no one is ever going to care or catch them.

The simple solution is to go to an all electronic reporting system, like the State makes candidates use for reporting campaign contributions. Candidates must enter their information into a database program that automatically uploads the data to the State database that we can all search. Click here to see just how searchable the Texas Ethics Commission campaign finance database is.

The county should make ALL billing and pay information for appointed attorneys viewable on line by everyone, including judges and reporters. Our family and juvenile judges should demand that all court appointments and all fees for appointed attorneys be reported. Simple transparency will eliminate a lot of the abuses.

It would also help if our County Auditor actually audited some attorney vouchers on a random basis to keep everyone honest. However, the County Auditor is hired, fired and managed by the district judges of Harris County. How gung ho will the auditor be to audit the CPS invoices her bosses have already approved?

Lastly, we need to replace every single judge involved in this dirty CPS court appointment business, which is about three judges in the family courts and at least two of the three juvenile courts.

The children and tax payers of Harris County deserve better!

An electronic filing and reporting system for vouchers submitted for legal work done on the county’s dime via judicial appointments seems like a no-brainer to me, for all the reasons Enos specifies. Honestly, I’m kind of amazed we don’t have even a rudimentary system for e-filing these vouchers in the year 2014. I know there were some attorneys that quailed at the idea of e-filing court documents, but come on. What are the best practices here? Surely there are other counties doing this. I don’t know who needs to drive this – Commissioners Court, the District Clerk, the County Auditor, someone else – but I hope we can all agree that it’s the right thing to do.