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District Attorney

Lineup shuffling at the DA’s office

This was a surprise.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s top lieutenant is out the door after the latest staffing shake-up at an office already plagued by high turnover and ongoing retention problems.

Tom Berg, a former defense attorney who came on board at the start of Ogg’s administration, confirmed his departure early Tuesday – and though initially he described it to the Chronicle as a firing, officials later said that he resigned when offered a different job title.

“I realize that as the office has evolved its needs have necessarily changed,” Berg wrote in a letter to Ogg dated Tuesday. “I could not anticipate or adjust to each aspect of the transformation and acknowledge your need to have a First Assistant who is philosophically more aligned with your course for the future.”

It’s not clear if a specific incident prompted the move. Two other employees – Human Resources Director Dean Barshis and Outreach Coordinator Shekira Dennis – are shifting roles in similarly unclear circumstances.

[…]

As of April, more than 140 prosecutors had left under her tenure, generating a sharp uptick in turnover.

Ogg has attributed the turnover to fallout from Hurricane Harvey, which has left courtrooms scattered across a number of buildings and prosecutors working in makeshift offices.

Some local attorneys chalked up the departures to leadership issues.

“There’s a lot of different things going around — they’re overworked because of the hurricane or they’re not going to trial — but really it’s that there’s no leadership,” said Josh Phanco, a longtime felony prosecutor who left the office earlier this year. “There’s no one you look at and say, ‘Oh, I want to be that guy.’ They all got fired.”

As the story notes, a lot of assistant DAs and other employees left – some voluntarily, others not – after Ogg was inaugurated, and it has continued since then. The same thing happened following Pat Lykos’ victory in 2008 (and would have happened if C.O. Bradford had won instead), as both of these elections represented a change of direction for the office. It’s been bumpy, and that has had a negative effect on how the office has performed, but that is what happens when a large organization undergoes a significant shift in philosophy and operation. I’ve no doubt that plenty of things could have gone better, and of course plenty of experience has been lost. That’s by definition, and it’s part of the point. Kim Ogg will have to defend her record when she runs for re-election next year, but in the meantime and with all due respect, I’m going to take the criticism of people who worked for the previous DAs with a certain level of skepticism.

I’ve met Tom Berg and I’m friends with him on Facebook. I’m sorry to see him go, I don’t know what might have happened, but I wish him all the best. His successor is now in place.

A day after Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg forced out a top lieutenant in the latest office shake-up, officials confirmed Trial Bureau Chief David Mitcham will step in to assume the role as First Assistant District Attorney.

“David has a long and distinguished career as a criminal trial lawyer and prosecutor; he’s handled thousands of cases and understands the needs of our staff because he has walked in your shoes,” Ogg wrote Wednesday in an office-wide email announcing the change. “While you all have known him over the past two and one half years as the Trial Bureau Chief, I have known David for more than three decades as a colleague, friend and outstanding lawyer.”

Best of luck to David Mitcham.

County brings charges related to ITC fire

Bring it on.

Kim Ogg

Responding to what it called “criminal levels” of contamination, the Harris County District Attorney’s office said Monday that it has charged Intercontinental Terminals Company with five misdemeanor counts of water pollution arising from a March plant fire that sent toxic chemicals into nearby waterways and a thick plume of smoke over the Houston area for days.

“The discharge from the ITC fire into Tucker Bayou is a clear water pollution case,” said Alex Forrest, the environmental crimes division chief for the DA’s office, in a written statement. “We are looking forward to reviewing the reports of other local and federal agencies, as they complete their investigations, so that we can determine if other charges will follow.”

The charges are the most recent example of District Attorney Kim Ogg’s more aggressive approach toward chemical companies in the aftermath of environmental disasters that have outraged the public and drawn national attention.

“This is the beginning of our review, not the end,” said Dane Schiller, a spokesman for the DA’s office.

According to the DA’s Office, water pollution in Tucker Bayou was at “criminal levels” from March 17 through March 21. Prosecutors filed one count for each of the five days the company allegedly violated the law at its Deer Park plant. Each charge carries a fine of up to $100,000.

“People living in Deer Park and the other neighboring residential areas near ITC’s plant deserve protection,” Ogg said. “When public health is at risk, it’s a public safety concern.”

An attorney for ITC, which stores petrochemicals for companies including Chevron, Philips 66 and Exxon, defended its efforts.

“Although we have not seen the charges, there is no question that there was a large fire and an enormous effort to extinguish it which resulted in a discharge into Tucker Bayou,” said Michael Goldberg, an attorney for ITC, in a written statement.

[…]

Monday’s court action against ITC marks the second time Ogg has pursued criminal charges against Houston-area companies in high-profile pollution cases. After a chemical fire during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Ogg brought a criminal case against the chemical company Arkema and two of its executives for the “reckless” release of an air contaminant.

Investigators found that the company’s emergency plan provided little direction to employees on how to handle major floods, and as a result, it couldn’t keep combustible organic peroxides cool, according to federal documents. Over the next week, nine trailers of organic peroxides erupted in flames, sending pillars of fire and thick plumes of black smoke into the air.

Prosecutors recently charged the company and a third executive with reckless assault, citing injuries sustained by two deputies who responded to the scene based on the company’s assurances. Company officials have defended their actions in both suits and accused Ogg’s office of prosecutorial overreach.

See here for more about the Arkema indictments, which as far as I know have not progressed past that stage yet. These charges came right after Kim Ogg requested more environmental prosecutors. I don’t know if the one has to do with the other, but either way I expect that division to be busy. It’s one thing to file charges, it’s another to get convictions, and still another for those convictions to withstand appeal. We’ll keep an eye on these.

Prosecuting polluters

It really shouldn’t have to come to this, but here we are.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is calling for a tripling of the number of prosecutors dedicated to environmental crimes in the wake of a series of chemical plant fires that has raised public health concerns.

In a letter Thursday to the county judge and commissioners court, Vivian King, the chief of staff of the district attorney’s office, requested $850,000 to fund eight new positions: four prosecutors two investigators and two paralegals. The county currently has two prosecutors and one administrative assistant devoted to environmental crimes. The request is scheduled to come before the commissioners court on Tuesday.

On March 17, an Intercontinental Terminals Co. tank farm in Deer Park caught fire and burned for several days, closing the Houston Ship Channel and drawing national attention. No injuries were reported. A couple of weeks later, one person was killed and two others were critically injured when the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby caught fire. A fire also broke out at Exxon Mobil’s Baytown refinery in mid-March but was contained hours later. The investigations are ongoing.

“With Arkema and ITC and all of the alleged criminal acts intentionally polluting our waters supply with cancer agents, we don’t have the staff to investigate and work on these cases,” King said during an interview.

The DA’s environmental crimes division handles 400 to 500 cases a year, the bulk of which are related to illegal dumping and water pollution perpetrated by smaller companies or individuals — not the big corporations, King said.

[…]

Traditionally the county has not criminally prosecuted the large petrochemical industry, King said.

She stressed that the DA’s office welcomes an industry that’s a major source of employment and an important contributor to the area’s economy.

“However,” she added, “as public servants we get a lot of complaints about the very few companies that commit criminal acts by intentionally not following laws and regulations governing hazardous waste and chemical emissions and putting cancer agents in our water supply and the air we breath.”

And they currently don’t have the staff to handle it all, even less so to take on the big cases. A private attorney is working pro bono on a case involving Arkema.

Let’s be clear, it would be best if most of this work were done by the TCEQ. If they were an agency that took their mandate seriously – and, let’s be clear again, if the mandate they were given by the state were more serious – they would be in position to reduce the risk of catastrophes like these. Better enforcement up front is always the better way to go. In the absence of that, and with constraints on civil action, what other option is there for the most egregious offenders? If and when the state does its job, entities like the Harris County DA will be able to back off. This request was part of the larger ask for more prosecutors that was rejected in February. It was unanimously approved by Commissioners Court yesterday, so that’s good. I suspect there will be no shortage of work for this team.

Ogg hires Bradford

A familiar face for the DA’s office.

C.O. “Brad” Bradford

Former Houston City Councilmember and Police Chief C.O. “Brad” Bradford has joined the Harris County District Attorney’s Office as a senior adviser.

District Attorney Kim Ogg has hired Bradford to serve in a senior-level position as special prosecutor and law enforcement liaison, said spokesman Dane Schiller.

“We welcome his expertise and experience as a respected member of the community, a lawyer for 25 years, and a former chief of the Houston Police Department,” Schiller said, declining to offer details about the motives for the high-profile hire.

Bradford said he would be using his expertise in both law enforcement and jurisprudence to analyze the processes of the DA’s office, the criminal cases police bring for prosecution and how the DA’s office handles those cases.

“Thousands and thousands of cases are being filed by police, and there’s a need to look at those cases and see if something can be done other than the police filing formal charges on those people,” Bradford said. “Some of them, you lock them up in jail still; they need that. Others may need prevention programs. They need mental health treatment. They may need diversion.”

The new hire comes on the heels of repeated requests for more prosecutors, the most substantial of which — $21 million for over 100 new positions — the Harris County Commissioners Court shot down earlier this year. The initial wave of new positions would have targeted felony courts, where lawyers are most needed given the post-Harvey backlog, Ogg has said.

The rest of the story is a recap of Bradford’s career – for the record, he served three terms on City Council, not two – quotes from various people of varying quality, and mention of the continued turnover at the DA’s office. I care more about what Bradford will do with the DA. He’s a sharp guy with a good grasp of policy, and I think he could be a good bridge between Ogg and the police, who as noted by some of those comments I didn’t include in this post haven’t always liked Ogg’s policy changes. I had some issue with him as Council member, as he was often a foil to Mayor Parker, but he was a strong advocate for his positions. While I’m sure some of his role will involve talk and diplomacy, I figure you don’t hire a guy like C.O. Bradford to be behind the scenes. I’ll be very interested to see what he gets up to.

Marijuana diversions

Good progress so far. What can we do to build on it?

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office estimated on Friday that it’s saved $35 million and arrested 14,000 fewer people since the start of a program to divert low-level marijuana offenses.

The announcement marked the two-year anniversary of the initiative, which allows misdemeanor anyone caught with less than 4 ounces of marijuana to avoid an arrest, ticket or court appearances if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class.

“We know we have reduced the arrest rate,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said at a news conference Friday morning. “That gives law enforcement more time to answer serious calls.”

The initiative launched in early 2017 was one of Ogg’s first steps to reform, earning her accolades among criminal justice reformers and marijuana activists. Since then, the program has expanded to include parolees and defendants on probation – but still some experts have questioned whether the initiative, and Ogg’s office, could go further.

“Compared to past district attorneys in Harris County, Kim Ogg’s record looks promising,” said criminal justice expert Scott Henson, with the nonprofit Just Liberty. “Compared to so-called ‘progressive’ district attorneys at the national level like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, she looks very moderate.”

Before the program started, Harris County law enforcement agencies typically filed around 10,000 misdemeanor weed cases per year, officials said Friday. Since the program began, that number has dropped to about 3,000 people per year.

[…]

[HPD Misdemeanor Division Chief Nathan] Beedle suggested that Ogg’s office isn’t getting enough credit for the progressive shift in marijuana prosecutions, but reformers like Henson have advocated for dropping marijuana prosecutions across the board – whether or not the would-be arrestee successfully completes an education class.

“In a time when 10 states have already legalized fully, I think that marijuana diversion is probably looked at as less aggressively reformist than it would have been 10 or 15 years ago,” Henson said. “I mean, Greg Abbott thinks it should be charged as a Class C misdemeanor. So she’s not that far out of line with centrist opinion.”

I’m not as inclined to give Abbott credit for his belief. Nothing has passed the Lege yet, and Dan Patrick remains a significant obstacle to any reforms. It’s good that Abbott himself isn’t an obstacle, but let’s hold off on the plaudits till something gets done.

That said, I take Henson’s point that while diversion has been a big change here in Harris County, it’s not on the leading edge of reformist thought anymore. So, while we can be glad for the progress that we’ve made so far, it’s fair to ask what comes next. What can we do to push these arrest numbers down further? What do we need to do to drag the more recalcitrant law enforcement agencies within the county along? What’s the next opportunity once marijuana arrests are mostly a thing of the past? These are the questions we need to be asking and answering.

January 2019 campaign finance reports: Harris County

One last set of finance reports I want to look at, from Harris County officials. I’m dividing them into a few groups:

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Diane Trautman, County Clerk
Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Vince Ryan, County Attorney
Ann Harris Bennett

Rodney Ellis, Precinct 1
Adrian Garcia, Precinct 2
Steve Radack, Precinct 3
Jack Cagle PAC, Precinct 4

George Moore, HCDE Position 1, Precinct 2
Eric Dick, HCDE Position 2, Precinct 4
Richard Cantu, HCDE Position 3, At Large
Josh Flynn, HCDE Position 4, Precinct 3
Michael Wolfe, HCDE Position 5, At Large
Danny Norris, HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1
Don Sumners, HCDE Position 7, At Large


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Hidalgo      239,834   161,503    1,400      51,836
Trautman       4,613       501        0      17,044
Osborne        1,225     2,242        0         122
Burgess        6,647     5,816        0       6,683

Ogg              600    13,936   68,489     212,875
Gonzalez      88,755    26,205        0     114,976
Ryan           6,500    14,656        0      58,464
Bennett        5,250     5,799        0      29,411

Ellis        223,000   310,395        0   2,916,307
Garcia       739,508   310,945        0     531,887
Radack       801,500   331,900        0   1,742,357
Cagle         68,045   113,143        0     171,242

Moore              0         0        0         243
Dick
Cantu          1,070       786        0       1,325
Flynn              0        10        0       1,600
Wolfe              0         0        0           0
Norris
Sumners

Remember that for those who were on the November 2018 ballot, this filing period runs from the 8 day report, which was October 27, through the end of the year. Basically, the last two months, including the last week of the campaign. For everyone else, it’s the usual six month period. HCDE candidates generally raise and spend negligible amounts, so it’s not that odd for some of them to have no activity to report.

$99K of the amount Lina Hidalgo raised was in kind, $95K of which came from the Texas Organizing Project for field work. It’s common for newly-elected candidates to get a surge in financial support right after their election – these are called “late train” donations – but in Hidalgo’s case a fair amount of the contributions reported here were before Election Day. Given her pledge to refrain from taking money from those who do business with the county, it will be interesting to see what her future reports will look like. The Commissioners have not taken a similar pledge, and they tend to be the bigger fundraisers anyway. Keep an eye on Steve Radack going forward – he’s either going to gear up for a tough election, or he’s going to decide to step down and let someone else engage in that battle. If Ed Emmett had been re-elected, it wouldn’t have shocked me if Radack ran again and then resigned after winning, in the grand tradition of Republican county officials, to let Emmett pick his successor. I feel confident saying that Steve Radack will not give Lina Hidalgo the opportunity to replace him.

With the strong Democratic trend in Harris County and the greater level of Democratic engagement – not to mention the possibility of the DNC being here and Texas being contested at the Presidential level – I don’t expect the countywide officeholders to work too hard to raise money for next November. They won’t slack, exactly, but they know they’ve got a lot of support behind them. That said, with Kim Ogg already getting a potential primary opponent, and given my belief that Vince Ryan will also draw one, they may step it up to make next March easier for them. The incentives, and the strategy, are different now in a blue county.

I am going to do one more report, on the Congressional candidates from 2018, two of whom are now incumbents and several others who will be back this cycle. As always, I hope this has been useful for you.

Ogg’s second ask

We’ll see how this goes.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is planning to head back to county leaders with another request for more prosecutors in light of the massive case review sparked by fallout from last month’s botched Houston police drug raid.

The renewed push for additional positions comes just after a failed bid to get funding for 102 new prosecutors, a hefty $21 million budget request slapped down by the Harris County Commissioners Court earlier this month. At the time, Ogg argued that her office’s overwhelming caseloads were likely among the highest in the country, and that the understaffing at all levels could prevent prosecutors from evaluating cases eligible for diversion.

But now, her new push to expand hinges on the need to review the more than 1,400 cases handled by Officer Gerald Goines, the case agent suspected of giving false information to justify the no-knock raid that left two civilians dead, officials said. In some of the cases, the 34-year officer was a witness, while in others he signed the affidavits underlying warrants, Ogg said Thursday. Of those up for review, 27 are active and at least five involve defendants currently in jail.

“These are individual cases; justice has to be meted out in every one. It takes time, we need some more investigators,” Ogg said. “We can get there with the understaffing that we have, it’s just going to take longer.”

It’s not clear how many new positions Ogg would ask for, but she stressed that the case reviews will happen regardless.

“This review is not contingent on funding, we’re going to do it,” she said. “It’ll just take a lot longer with the few people that we’ve got assigned to our Conviction Integrity Division.”

Because the jobs would go to “trusted, trained” prosecutors, Ogg said, the idea would be to promote from within and hire new positions at a lower level. The review of the 27 active cases can be handled by current staff.

See here for some background. I’ve not gotten any press releases in my inbox from groups that had opposed the previous request, as I had at that time, but that may just be a function of timing. It’s not fully clear to me from this story if what Ogg is requesting is more prosecutors or more investigators, the latter of which may perhaps be less controversial. The reason prompting this request is unimpeachable, but there may be more to it than what is apparent now. If she’s going to make this request at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, we should know pretty quickly what kind of a reaction this will get.

As for the larger issue, I have not blogged about the HPD no-knock raid mess, as there’s only so much I can keep up with. I fully support the effort to review and revise the department’s policy on no-knock raids, and will note that there has been advocacy in favor of this, here and nationally, for a long time. As is so often the case, it takes a tragedy to focus a sufficient amount of attention on the issue to make anything happen. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is making similar changes, though that will have a much smaller effect than what HPD does since the Sheriff’s office rarely conducts such raids. There are also bills in the Legislature, with Rep. Harold Dutton being one of the main authors, to impose restrictions and more stringent processes on all law enforcement agencies. As with bail reform, this is something that has been needed for a long time, and maybe, just maybe, the time is right for it to happen.

Commissioners Court rejects Ogg’s request for more prosecutors

I fully expected that Commissioners Court going from 4-1 Republican to 3-2 Democratic after the last election would signal big changes in how business was done in Harris County, but I didn’t expect this to be the first milestone on the new path.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected Kim Ogg’s request for 102 new prosecutors, a stinging public defeat for the first-term Democratic district attorney by members of her own party.

The rejection came less than 24 hours after a former assistant district attorney filed paperwork to challenge Ogg in next year’s primary, a sign criminal justice reformers may have lost patience with the self-described progressive after helping elect her in 2016.

The three Democratic members of Commissioners Court — commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo —supported increasing the district attorney’s budget by 7 percent, in line with increases for other county departments. Ogg had asked for a 31 percent increase, which would grow her prosecutor corps by a third and include 42 additional support staff.

“This is not the only way, and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Ogg, who did not attend the court meeting, issued a statement after the vote.

“We will continue to fight every day to ensure that justice is done in every case for every crime victim, every defendant and the community,” she said. “Harris County must have a district attorney’s office with sufficient resources to ensure that all cases are resolved fairly and in a timely manner.”

See here for the background and here for an earlier Chron story that previewed the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting. Ogg had addressed the criticism of her proposal, and also answered the question about maybe hiring prosecutors on a shorter-term basis, but it wasn’t enough to get any of her fellow Dems in line. I would say her best bet right now is to take what the ACLU of Texas said in a press release following the Commissioners’ vote to heart:

“Adding more prosecutors in Harris County is not the ultimate solution for reducing mass incarceration and fighting racism in the criminal system. While the Harris County Commissioners Court has taken a more measured approach than the initial proposal, the addition of new prosecutors must come with clearly defined standards for reducing incarceration — such as expanding pretrial diversion, reducing case disposition time, and reducing existing caseloads — instead of prosecuting more cases. The commissioners were right to call for studies into how best to improve the district attorney’s office, and District Attorney Ogg should commit to specific plans for how any newly hired prosecutors will be used. That’s accountability.”

“There is no question that Harris County prosecutors have high caseloads, but the solution is not to add more prosecutors in a cycle that endlessly ratchets up the size of the criminal system. The smartest way to reduce caseloads is to dismiss more cases, identify more cases for diversion, and invest significantly in substance use disorder and mental health treatment that help people who need it and prevent them from ending up awaiting prosecution in the first place.”

Seems to me this conversation will need to include HPD, the Sheriff’s office, and all of the other law enforcement organizations in Harris County as well. If the DA needs to prioritize what cases get prosecuted, they will need to prioritize what arrests they make. Commissioners Court needs to do its part, too, by working to expand mental health offerings. The Lege could also pitch in here, though for obvious reasons I’ll keep my expectations low. Everyone has a part to play – Kim Ogg’s part is bigger than the rest, but it’s not just her. Maybe by the time next year’s budget is being discussed, we’ll have less to argue about.

And speaking of next year:

Audia Jones, the former prosecutor who on Monday filed paperwork to challenge Ogg, spoke against the proposal. Jones said she left the district attorney’s office in December in part because she said Ogg’s administration has been too reluctant to offer jail diversion to defendants of color, in contrast with their white counterparts.

She said temporary court closures caused by Hurricane Harvey are not a driver of increasing caseloads, as Ogg contends, but rather are a result of her administration’s policies.

Murray Newman, who had some earlier thoughts about the Ogg proposal, notes that Audia Jones is married to Criminal Court Judge DaSean Jones. I’m not sure how that conflict gets sorted out if she wins (one obvious remedy would be for Judge Jones to step down), but that’s a concern for another day. I would have picked County Attorney Vince Ryan as the first member of the class of 2020 to get a potential primary opponent – designating a treasurer is a necessary step to running for office, but it doesn’t commit one to running – but here we are.

How many prosecutors do we need?

Opinions differ, but it’s a big question in Harris County right now.

Kim Ogg

Hanover is one of many prosecutors Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said are overburdened — the reason she has asked Commissioners Court for a budget that would fund 102 additional assistant district attorneys and more than 40 support staff. Ogg said the surge is needed to clear a backlog in cases exacerbated by Harvey, a driver of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail.

Her proposal to expand the prosecutor corps by a third, however, has evolved into a proxy battle over the future of criminal justice reform in Harris County. Ogg finds herself so far unable to persuade Democrats on Commissioners Court as well as reform groups, who have questioned her self-identification as a progressive and said her proposal would lead to more residents in jail.

“Simply adding prosecutors is the strategy that got us here in the first place, with this mentality that the only thing we can spend money on is police and prosecutors,” said Jay Jenkins, project attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Ogg, a first-term district attorney who unseated a Republican in 2016 with the support of many progressive groups, said these critics fail to grasp the on-the-ground realities of her prosecutors, whose heavy workloads mean they sometimes are the reason cases are delayed and defendants languish in jail.

Ogg pledged to send the first 25 new hires to the felony trial bureau, where she said they can help achieve the reforms progressives seek, such as identifying low-risk defendants who can be sent out of the criminal justice system without a conviction.

“Who else is going to divert offenders who should re-enter society, and prosecute the people who should be incarcerated to protect the public?” she said. “This is a question of how fast do our funders really want to reform our justice system?”

Ogg laid out her argument in an interview Wednesday at the district attorney’s temporary quarters at 500 Jefferson, where a regular shuttle takes prosecutors to the criminal justice complex more than a mile away.

Ogg said since taking office, she is proud to have diverted 38,000 defendants for a variety of low-level offenses, including marijuana possession, misdemeanor theft, first time DUI and mental health-related charges such as trespassing. With an active caseload that jumped from about 15,000 when Harvey hit to 26,523 this week, she said prosecutors are not always able to give victims and defendants the attention they deserve.

Her staff noted Harris County’s 329 prosecutors are less than half the number in Illinois’ Cook County, which is only slightly more populous.

“With adequate staff, we’ll be able to offer pleas that are reasonable earlier,” Ogg said. “We’ll be able to focus on public safety to make sure we don’t let someone go who is really a risk and threat to either his family or his community.”

She sought to mollify the concerns of progressives who fear it could lead to more people in jail, saying, “There’s no data showing that more prosecutors equals more prosecutions.”

Here are the original statements put out by TOP and the TCJC. This subsequent Chron story gives some more detail.

“We would like to stop the clock and take time to consider other options, primarily looking at funding for mental health issues,” organizer Terrance Koontz said.

Koontz said TOP is looking at housing options for nonviolent offenders who may need to reset their lives.

“We’re talking about individuals who are being arrested for minor drug charges or being homeless on the street or having a mental problem, and they definitely shouldn’t be sitting in jail,” Koontz said. “We are not here to attack D.A. Ogg, we just want more time to consider our options.”

[…]

Doug Murphy, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, agrees with Ogg’s proposal.

“Having witnessed the daily reality of their lack of manpower what we’re seeing is Harris County was the fastest moving docket in the country, we called it the rocket docket, and it slowed it down to a snail’s pace,” said Murphy. “What we got is bloated dockets because they don’t have the manpower to work these cases up and marshal the evidence.”

Murphy believes more prosecutors would help pick up the pace of getting cases to trial, resolved and even dismissed. “If I weren’t witnessing daily the backlog and the frustration, I would be in total agreement with the other organization,” Murphy said.

Koontz still worries that more prosecutors would ultimately mean more arrests and more people wrongly incarcerated.

“We just want to consider other viable options outside of just hiring the prosecutors,” Koontz said. “Because although it does not seem like putting more people in jail, at the end of the day we feel like more people will end up in jail than not and at the end of the day its black and brown people who are overwhelmingly being incarcerated.”

Honestly, I think everyone is raising valid concerns. The chaos of Harvey has caused a big backlog for the DA’s office, and it doesn’t serve anyone’s interests for cases to drag out because there just isn’t the time or the bandwidth among overworked assistant DAs to get to them. On the other hand, Kim Ogg made promises about how she was going to reform the system, and a big part of that was not prosecuting a lot of low-level crimes or crimes involving people who need mental health treatment. They also worry that while Ogg might not backtrack on her stated priorities, the next DA who inherits her bigger office may not share those priorities. It’s not at all unreasonable to worry that an increase in prosecutors will be counter to Ogg’s stated goals.

So how to resolve this? Grits suggests increasing the Public Defender’s office by an equivalent amount – Commissioner Rodney Ellis has suggested something like this as well, and the PDO is seeking more funding, so that’s on the table. I like that idea, but I also think it may be possible to assuage the concerns about what happens after the backlog is cleared by putting a time limit on the hiring expansion. Is it possible to hire people on one or two year non-renewable contracts, to get the office through the backlog but then have it return to a smaller size afterward? I’m just spitballing here, but if we agree that clearing the backlog is a worthy goal, then we ought to be able to find a way to ensure that doing so doesn’t lead to mission creep. I’m open to other ideas, but I feel like this is something that needs to lead to a compromise, not one side winning and the other side losing. I hope we can get there.

Bail lawsuit 2.0

This one will be tougher to tackle, but the principle remains the same.

A hard-fought battle to reform Harris County’s bail system has prompted a second civil rights action.

The legal team that successfully challenged the county’s bail practices for low level offenses on the grounds they unfairly detained indigents, filed a new federal class action suit this week tackling money bail for felonies, which results in thousands of poor defendants being locked up before trial or entering guilty pleas to avoid lengthy incarceration.

This new lawsuit, which hit the docket during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, claims the county is holding people unjustly, simply because they cannot afford to pay a cash bail. Currently, people arrested who can post a cash bond or hire a commercial bonding company can simply resume their lives as their cases proceed through the criminal docket.

The lawyers argue that pretrial release should not be contingent on how much money a person has. Its one of a number of lawsuits around the country, including one before a district judge in Galveston, attempting to topple bail systems that treat people differently based on their income.

“This mass detention caused by arrestees’ inability to access money has devastating consequences for arrested individuals, for their families, and for the community,” the lawsuit argues. “Pretrial detention of presumptively innocent individuals causes them to lose their jobs and shelter, interrupts vital medication cycles, worsens mental health conditions, makes people working to remain sober more likely to relapse, and separates parents and children.”

[…]

The lawsuit noted there are human costs to keeping people in jail. Since 2009, the complaint stated, 125 people have died while awaiting trial in the county lockup, including a woman who committed suicide this month after she could not pay her original bail of $3,000.

“Now is the time for a new vision and a new era of collaboration and innovation,” the lawyers said in a joint statement to the Houston Chronicle. “We are confident that with the leadership of the county judge, the sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender, and the felony judges, all of whom have expressed their commitment to bail reform, we will be able to resolve this case without wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money as happened in the prior case.”

Most of the key stakeholders struck a similar note in responding to the new lawsuit.

Tom Berg, first assistant to District Attorney Kim Ogg,said the office is glad to work with the parties toward “a fair, just and speedy resolution” and at the same time “responsibly conserve the county’s resources so that they go for the staffing needed for bail reform implementation and not litigation costs.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county aims to support public safety, fairness and a cost-effective, fiscally responsible system. She acknowledged that there’s a long way to go.

“We’ve got a system that in a way fails on all three fronts,” she said Tuesday. Hidalgo said the crop of newly elected officials seem dedicated to enacting these types of change.

The sheriff also mentioned safety concerns, saying felony bail improvements require careful examination. However, he lauded the idea of reforming what he has referred to as a “broken system.”

“I support all efforts to improve our criminal justice system that strike a smart balance between our duty to ensure public safety and upholding our American ideal that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty in court,” Gonzalez said. “I support equipping judges with the data they need to accurately measure each defendant’s unique risk of failing to appear in court and committing additional crimes before they stand trial.”

Of the three plaintiffs in this lawsuit, two were busted for drug possession and the other for DUI. There’s still a lot of non-violent inmates in the jail awaiting disposition of their case because they couldn’t scrape up a bond payment. As with misdemeanants, the ability to write a check to a bail bond agency has no correlation with whether you will show up for your court date or if you are likely to commit further crimes while out. Again, Robert Durst was out on bail. It makes sense to separate the genuine risks from the harmless shlubs. Will such a system be perfect? No, of course not. Some people who get out on a personal recognizance bond are going to turn out to have been bad risks. But again – I can’t say this often enough – people do that right now, under the current system. We just accept it as the way things are. Well, the way things are is capricious, unjust, and almost certainly unconstitutional, as the system for misdemeanors was as well. We’ll never have a better chance to design a better system. Let’s get to it.

Precinct analysis: Fort Bend

Did you know that Fort Bend County went blue in 2018 as well? Of course you did. Let’s take a closer look at how that happened.


Dist     Cruz   Beto Dikeman    Cruz%   Beto%    Dike%
======================================================
HD26   32,451  33,532    406   48.88%   50.51%   0.61%
HD27   17,563  47,484    348   26.86%   72.61%   0.53%
HD28   42,974  40,330    581   51.23%   48.08%   0.69%
HD85   18,435  21,053    281   46.36%   52.94%   0.71%

CC1    27,497  28,827    359   48.51%   50.86%   0.63%
CC2    11,238  40,905    263   21.44%   78.05%   0.50%
CC3    42,882  33,373    544   55.84%   43.45%   0.71%
CC4    29,806  39,294    450   42.86%   56.50%   0.65%

As a reminder, HD85 is only partially in Fort Bend. It also covers Wharton and Jackson counties, which are both red and which are the reason this district is not as competitive as it might look. The other three State Rep districts are fully within Fort Bend. The bottom four entries are for the four County Commissioner precincts.

For comparison, here are the 2016 data for the County Commissioner precincts and for the State Rep districts. Beto, as is the case pretty much everywhere we look, outperformed the 2016 baseline everywhere. In 2016, HD26 was won by Donald Trump by five points and by downballot Republicans by 15 points. In 2016, County Commissioner Precinct 1 was won by Trump by three points and downballot Republicans by ten or so, while Precinct 4 was won by Hillary Clinton by six points but by downballot Republicans also by six points. Trump won CC3 by 19 points and HD28 by ten points. All this happened while Clinton carried Fort Bend. Anyone still surprised that Dems swept FBC this year?


Dist   Abbott  Valdez Tippts  Abbott%  Valdez%   Tipp%
======================================================
HD26   36,516  28,762    898   55.18%   43.46%   1.36%
HD27   21,429  42,795    975   32.87%   65.64%   1.50%
HD28   47,549  35,016  1,213   56.76%   41.80%   1.45%
HD85   20,373  18,801    527   51.32%   47.36%   1.33%

CC1    30,249  25,584    779   53.43%   45.19%   1.38%
CC2    14,099  37,443    728   26.97%   71.63%   1.39%
CC3    47,081  28,501  1,129   61.37%   37.15%   1.47%
CC4    34,438  33,846    977   49.72%   48.87%   1.41%


Dist  Patrick Collier  McKen Patrick% Collier%  McKen%
======================================================
HD26   33,307  31,571  1,091   50.49%   47.86%   1.65%
HD27   18,455  45,617  1,018   28.35%   70.08%   1.56%
HD28   43,848  38,174  1,496   52.50%   45.71%   1.79%
HD85   18,824  20,025    685   47.61%   50.65%   1.73%

CC1    27,935  27,510    968   49.52%   48.77%   1.72%
CC2    11,979  39,438    796   22.94%   75.53%   1.52%
CC3    43,517  31,523  1,419   56.92%   41.23%   1.86%
CC4    31,003  36,916  1,107   44.91%   53.48%   1.60%


Dist   Paxton  Nelson Harris  Paxton%  Nelson% Harris%
======================================================
HD26   32,377  32,192  1,246   49.19%   48.91%   1.89%
HD27   17,454  46,307  1,249   26.85%   71.23%   1.92%
HD28   42,892  38,800  1,700   51.43%   46.53%   2.04%
HD85   18,234  20,455    775   46.20%   51.83%   1.96%
						
CC1    27,165  28,003  1,142   48.24%   49.73%   2.03%
CC2    11,271  39,983    915   21.60%   76.64%   1.75%
CC3    42,689  32,005  1,620   55.94%   41.94%   2.12%
CC4    29,832  37,763  1,293   43.31%   54.82%   1.88%


Dist    Hegar    Chev   Sand   Hegar%    Chev%   Sand%
======================================================
HD26   34,744  29,182  1,566   53.05%   44.56%   2.39%
HD27   18,579  44,486  1,690   28.69%   68.70%   2.61%
HD28   45,403  35,587  2,176   54.59%   42.79%   2.62%
HD85   19,151  19,106  1,107   48.65%   48.54%   2.81%

CC1    28,590  26,036  1,501   50.94%   46.39%   2.67%
CC2    11,842  38,830  1,361   22.76%   74.63%   2.62%
CC3    45,266  28,887  1,942   59.49%   37.96%   2.55%
CC4    32,179  34,608  1,735   46.96%   50.51%   2.53%


Dist     Bush   Suazo   Pina    Bush%   Suazo%   Pina%
======================================================
HD26   34,619  29,520  1,518   52.73%   44.96%   2.31%
HD27   19,148  44,329  1,352   29.54%   68.38%   2.09%
HD28   45,308  35,889  2,099   54.39%   43.09%   2.52%
HD85   19,175  19,251  1,001   48.63%   48.83%   2.54%

CC1    28,572  26,224  1,430   50.82%   46.64%   2.54%
CC2    12,382  38,693    995   23.78%   74.31%   1.91%
CC3    44,897  29,245  2,060   58.92%   38.38%   2.70%
CC4    32,399  34,827  1,485   47.15%   50.69%   2.16%


Dist   Miller   Olson   Carp  Miller%   Olson%   Carp%
======================================================
HD26   32,617  31,836  1,092   49.76%   48.57%   1.67%
HD27   17,346  46,414    982   26.79%   71.69%   1.52%
HD28   43,153  38,535  1,436   51.91%   46.36%   1.73%
HD85   18,190  20,465    699   46.22%   52.00%   1.78%

CC1    27,153  27,991    984   48.38%   49.87%   1.75%
CC2    11,087  40,180    739   21.32%   77.26%   1.42%
CC3    43,016  31,680  1,367   56.55%   41.65%   1.80%
CC4    30,050  37,399  1,119   43.83%   54.54%   1.63%


Dist Craddick McAllen Wright   Cradd% McAllen% Wright%
======================================================
HD26   34,651  29,418  1,446   52.89%   44.90%   2.21%
HD27   18,632  44,694  1,400   28.79%   69.05%   2.16%
HD28   45,440  35,871  1,842   54.65%   43.14%   2.22%
HD85   19,057  19,321    950   48.46%   49.13%   2.42%
						
CC1    28,489  26,271  1,321   50.80%   46.84%   2.36%
CC2    11,864  39,056  1,092   22.81%   75.09%   2.10%
CC3    45,237  29,103  1,746   59.46%   38.25%   2.29%
CC4    32,190  34,874  1,479   46.96%   50.88%   2.16%

Everyone met or exceeded the downballot baseline in the State Rep districts, while the top three Dems (Collier, Nelson, Olson) exceeded the Hillary mark in each. Dems should find a strong candidate to try to win back the County Commissioner seat in Precinct 1 in 2020, it sure looks like they’d have a decent shot at it.

Here are the countywide candidates for Fort Bend:


Dist    Vacek    Midd   Vacek%   Midd%
======================================
HD26   33,939   30,925  52.32%  47.68%
HD27   17,978   46,218  28.00%  72.00%
HD28   44,422   37,771  54.05%  45.95%
HD85   19,031   20,001  48.76%  51.24%
				
CC1    28,339   27,352  50.89%  49.11%
CC2    11,489   40,138  22.25%  77.75%
CC3    44,369   30,842  58.99%  41.01%
CC4    31,173   36,583  46.01%  53.99%


Dist   Hebert   George Hebert% George%
======================================
HD26   35,058   30,030  53.86%  46.14%
HD27   18,504   45,803  28.77%  71.23%
HD28   45,183   37,094  54.92%  45.08%
HD85   19,256   19,856  49.23%  50.77%
				
CC1    29,061   26,671  52.14%  47.86%
CC2    11,779   39,896  22.79%  77.21%
CC3    45,061   30,192  59.88%  40.12%
CC4    32,100   36,024  47.12%  52.88%

Brian Middleton met or exceeded the Hillary standard everywhere, while KP George was a point or so behind him. Both were still enough to win. Note that for whatever the reason, there were no Democratic candidates running for County Clerk or County Treasurer. One presumes that will not be the case in 2022, and one presumes there will be a full slate for the county offices next year, with Sheriff being the big prize.

We should have 2018 election data on the elected officials’ profiles and the Legislative Council’s FTP site in a couple of weeks. When that happens, I’ll be back to focus on other districts of interest. In the meantime, I hope you found this useful.

Another straight-ticket truther

Hello, outgoing Fort Bend DA John Healey!

John Healey

When John Healey began his career as a young prosecutor in Fort Bend County in the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan was president, MTV had just gone on the air and the then-rural county had fewer than 175,000 residents.

As Healey prepares to leave the office where he’s spent his entire career, including 26 years as the county’s top prosecutor, the sprawling suburb has roughly 764,000 residents with a growing number of diverse communities.

A Republican, Healey announced his retirement more than a year before the blue wave that swept many Democrats into county offices, including his own. Democrat Brian Middleton, a Houston defense attorney who once worked for Healey, will succeed him at the start of 2019.

[…]

The county is also tilting more toward the Democrats, from Hillary Clinton winning the county in 2016 to ousting longtime County Judge Bob Hebert, a Republican, this past fall. Hebert will be succeeded by Democrat KP George.

“I think you have a well-organized Democratic Party that mobilized a lot of people on fear across the board in the ballot of Donald Trump,” said Healey. “Those that voted straight-ticket voted good Republicans out of office, didn’t care that they were doing it, and maybe didn’t even know that they were doing it.”

I do so love the implication that people who voted straight ticket were too stupid to know who and what they were voting for. There’s nothing more appealing in a public official than insulting voters. The possibility that people may have been deliberately and consciously voting for a change of direction, to rebuke a corrupt and incompetent president, for the candidates who better reflected their values and experiences, or some combination of all three, just doesn’t occur to him. Which strongly suggests to me that he picked the right time to get off the stage.

And just for the record:


Straight R    81,228
Straight D    89,491
Margin         8,263

240th District Court

Bridges      117,587
Fraley       132,199
Margin        14,612

268th District Court

Hawkins      116,476
Williams     133,419
Margin        16,943

458th District Court

Cannata      117,370
Rolnick      132,206
Margin        14,836

District Attorney

Vacek        115,370
Middleton    134,915
Margin        19,545

County Judge

Hebert       118,001
George       132,783
Margin        14,782

District Clerk

Elliott      117,534
Walker       132,630
Margin        15,096

I skipped a few county court races, all of which were in the same range. Point being, even if you accept the ridiculous and ridicule-worthy claim that straight ticket votes are somehow less than other votes, every countywide Democrat in Fort Bend still won their race. Nowhere was that margin greater than in the race for DA, to succeed John Healey. You can believe what you want to believe, John. The voters knew what they wanted.

The Fort Bend blue wave

Let’s not forget that what happened in Harris County happened in Fort Bend, too.

KP George

Across the state, the “blue wave” that had long been a dream of the Democratic Party faithful failed to materialize in Tuesday’s midterm elections, with Republicans sweeping every statewide office for the 20th consecutive year, albeit by closer-than-expected margins.

But in Fort Bend County — the rapidly growing suburb southwest of Houston often heralded as a beacon of diversity — Democrats had their best election day since the political power base in Texas shifted from Democrat to Republican decades ago.

Political analysts attributed the near sweep in part to the county’s growing diversity, which also was reflected in the backgrounds of some of the winners: Middleton, who defeated Republican Cliff Vacek, is African-American, and Democrat KP George, who unseated longtime County Judge Robert Hebert, was born in India.

[…]

In Fort Bend County elections Tuesday, Democrats ousted Republican incumbents for county judge, Precinct 4 commissioner and district clerk. Middleton won the open district attorney race, and all 22 Democrats who ran for judicial positions — state district courts, appeals courts and county courts-at-law — prevailed; the lone Republican victor was opposed only by a Libertarian candidate.

Fort Bend County voters favored Democrats over Republicans for every statewide office on the ballot except governor. And even in that race, Gov. Greg Abbott, who won 56 percent of the statewide vote over challenger Lupe Valdez, managed only a slim plurality in Fort Bend County, besting Valdez by a mere 720 votes out of more than 250,000 cast.

Only in legislative campaigns did the Democrats fall short. Sri Kulkarni, who failed in his bid to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Olson in the multi-county 22nd Congressional District, lost in his district’s portion of Fort Bend County by 5 percentage points, roughly the same as the district-wide margin. Republican state Reps. Rick Miller and John Zerwas defeated Democratic challengers.

I agree that Fort Bend’s diversity played a big role in the result, but Fort Bend has been very diverse for years now. Democrats have come close before – Barack Obama got 48.50% in Fort Bend in 2008 – but they were never quite able to break through. This was the year it all came together, and I’d say it was a combination of demography, voter registration, Betomania, and the same disgust with Donald Trump from college-educated voters as we saw in Harris County and pretty much everywhere else. None of this really a surprise – we saw what was happening in Commissioners Court Precinct 4 in 2016 – but it still feels a bit unreal that it actually happened. The suburbs have long been the locus of Republican strength in Texas. That’s not true any more, and I think it’s going to take us all a little time to fully absorb that. In the meantime, I know some very happy people in Fort Bend right now. KUHF has more.

More on the Woodfill raid

Yeah.

Former Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill is being investigated on theft and money laundering allegations, accused of misappropriating funds of at least two of his law firm’s clients, according to an affidavit by the Harris County District Attorney’s office.

Authorities on Monday seized 127 boxes of files, six computers and disk drives from the Houston high-rise office of the Woodfill Law Firm at Three Riverway, according to the returned search warrant filed in Harris County district court on Tuesday.

In his affidavit for the search warrant, which also targeted computer logins, passwords, memory devices, and telephones owned by Woodfill or the law firm, fraud examiner Bryan Vaclavik indicated authorities were seeking evidence used to commit felony offenses of misapplication of fiduciary property, theft and money laundering.

No charges have been filed against anyone in connection with the ongoing investigation. The Harris County District Attorney’s office declined comment on the investigation.

Investigators seized financial records, legal files, documents and correspondence on Monday related to two divorce cases handled by the firm, the search warrant documents show.

The ongoing investigation has nothing to do with Woodfill’s party activities, his attorney Jimmy Ardoin told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday.

Woodfill was chairman of the county Republican Party for 12 years, before losing the post in 2014.

Ardoin said his client had no advance notice of the search and had no details about the allegations beyond the content of the search warrant.

Ardoin said he had been in contact with the district attorney’s office about its review of finances in a divorce case for three to four months and was dismayed that Woodfill was not allowed to provide information voluntarily.

“We believe there’s an accusation of misappropriation of client funds,” Ardoin said. “We have yet to get confirmation of what it is.”

See here for the background. I’m going to try to not get ahead of the facts, and to wait patiently for things to happen in this case – remember, as the story says, no charges have been filed as yet against anyone. But as I think about who Jared Woodfill is, boy will it be tough to do that.

Police raid Jared Woodfill’s office

Oh, my.

Authorities on Monday raided the law office of former Harris County Republican Party chairman Jared Woodfill.

Investigators with the Harris County District Attorney’s office wheeled carts of documents from Woodfill’s office at 3 Riverway at least an hour after they arrived.

[…]

Woodfill is the subject of two separate formal complaints — one to the State Bar of Texas and the other to the Houston Police Department. In both complaints, Woodfill is accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients’ trust accounts.

In the criminal complaint, filed in March 2017, Richard Rodriguez accused Woodfill’s firm of stealing more than $300,000 from a divorce trust account. Rodriguez said Monday he believed the search was related to his complaint.

Oh, my, my.

Documents show Woodfill was reprimanded by the state bar two months ago for failure to take reasonable action in another divorce case.

The state bar, which oversees lawyers, ordered him to take classes in billing, trust accounts or law practice management.

All of that on top of two other civil cases in which opponents recently demanded Woodfill pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees.

It’s too early to say what all this is about. We don’t even know for certain that Woodfill himself is the subject of any investigation. But, um, none of this looks great.

Omnibus election report

It’s after midnight, I’ve mostly posted stuff on my long-dormant Twitter account (@kuff), and I will have many, many thoughts in the coming days. For now, a brief recap.

– As you know, neither Beto nor any other Dem won statewide, thus continuing the shutout that began in 1996. However, as of this writing and 6,998 of 7,939 precincts counted, O’Rourke had 3,824,780 votes, good for 47.86% of the total. In 2016, Hillary Clinton collected 3,877,868 votes. It seems very likely that by the time all is said and done, Beto O’Rourke will be the biggest vote-getter in history for a Texas Democrat. He will have built on Hillary Clinton’s total from 2016. That’s pretty goddamn amazing, and if you’re not truly impressed by it you’re not seeing the whole picture. We’re in a different state now.

– Beto may not have won, but boy howdy did he have coattails. Colin Allred won in CD32, and Lizzie Fletcher won in CD07. Will Hurd is hanging on to a shrinking lead in CD23, up by less than 1,200 votes with about 14% of the precincts yet to report. He was leading by 6,000 votes in early voting, and it may still be possible for Gina Ortiz Jones to catch him. Todd Litton (45.30% in CD02), Lorie Burch (44.21% in CD03), Jana Lynne Sanchez (45.25% in CD06), Mike Siegel (46.71% in CD10), Joseph Kopser (47.26% in CD21), Sri Kulkarni (46.38% in CD22), Jan McDowell (46.91% in CD24), Julie Oliver (44.43% in CD25), and MJ Hegar (47.54% in CD31) all came within ten points.

– Those coattails extended further down the ballot. Dems picked up two State Senate seats, as Beverly Powell defeated Konni Burton in SD10 (Wendy Davis’ old seat) and Nathan Johnson trounced Don Huffines in SD16. Rita Lucido was at 46.69% in SD17, but she wasn’t the next-closest competitor – Mark Phariss came within three points of defeating Angela Paxton in SD08, a race that wasn’t really on the radar. Oh, and in an even less-visible race Gwenn Burud scored 45.45% in SD09, while Meg Walsh got to 41.60% against Sen. Charles Schwertner in SD05 (he was just over 55% in that race). We could make things very, very interesting in 2022.

– And down in the State House, Dems have picked up 11 seats:

HD45, Erin Zwiener
HD47, Vikki Goodwin
HD52, James Talarico
HD65, Michelle Beckley
HD102, Ana-Marie Ramos
HD105, Terry Meza
HD113, Rhetta Bowers
HD114, John Turner
HD115, Julie Johnson
HD135, Jon Rosenthal
HD136, John Bucy

Note that of those seven wins, a total of four came from Denton, Hays, and Williamson Counties. The Dems have officially gained a foothold in the suburbs. They also lost some heartbreakingly close races in the House – I’ll save that for tomorrow – and now hold 12 of 14 seats in Dallas County after starting the decade with only six seats. This is the risk of doing too precise a gerrymander – the Republicans there had no room for error in a strong Democratic year.

– Here in Harris County, it was another sweep, as Dems won all the judicial races and in the end all the countywide races. Ed Emmett lost by a point after leading most of the evening, while the other Republicans lost by wide margins. Also late in the evening, Adrian Garcia squeaked ahead of Commissioner Jack Morman in Precinct 2, leading by a 112,356 to 111,226 score. Seems fitting that Morman would lose a close race in a wave year, as that was how he won in the first place. That means Dems now have a 3-2 majority on Commissioners Court. Did I say we now live in a different state? We now live in a very different county.

– With 999 of 1,013 precincts in, Harris County turnout was 1,194,379, with about 346K votes happening on Election Day. That puts turnout above what we had in 2008 (in terms of total votes, not percentage of registered voters) but a hair behind 2012. It also means that about 71% of the vote was cast early, a bit less than in 2016.

– Oh, and the Dems swept Fort Bend, too, winning District Attorney, County Judge, District Clerk, all contests judicial races, and County Commissioner in Precinct 4. Maybe someone can explain to me now why they didn’t run candidates for County Clerk and County Treasurer, but whatever.

– Possibly the biggest bloodbath of the night was in the Courts of Appeals, where the Dems won every single contested race in the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 13th, and 14th Courts. I count 16 incumbent Republican judges losing, with several more open Republican-held seats flipping. That is utterly amazing, and will have an impact far greater than we can imagine right now.

– Last but not least, both Houston propositions passed. Expect there to be a lawsuit over Prop B.

Endorsement watch: Fort Bend DA

One last recommendation.

Brian Middleton

The race for Fort Bend District Attorney presents voters with a choice that’s starting to feel familiar in Texas politics: An experienced Republican who represents the past and an upstart Democrat who wants to welcome the future.

In this race voters should go with the Democrat, Brian M. Middleton, because of his openness to new ideas in the realm of criminal justice.

Republican Cliff Vacek has decades of experience as an attorney, including overseeing a large law firm and serving as a district judge for 10 years with concurrent civil and criminal jurisdiction. He is board certified in personal injury law and received his law degree from the University of Houston Law Center. No doubt he has the resume to serve, but Vacek is skeptical of changes happening in our criminal courthouses. Practices that are routine in Harris County, under both Republicans and Democrats, are uncommon in Fort Bend and he likes it that way. For example, he told us that pretrial diversion — which helps people avoid convictions — should rarely be used.

For Vacek, the biggest problem in the Fort Bend courts are that it takes too long to get cases to trial.

[…]

What really convinced us was watching the two candidates sit side-by-side during the candidate screening and discuss drug policy.

Middleton said he though that low-level possession of marijuana should result in an automatic personal recognisance bond, an in-court assessment and, if appropriate, pre-trial diversion.

Vacek, on the other hand, spoke like a drug warrior and referred to marijuana as “a gateway drug.”

Times are changing, Fort Bend is changing, and the District Attorney’s Office needs a leader who is willing to change, too.

See here for some background. As we know, there have been a lot of reform-minded DAs getting elected around the country in the last couple of years, including here is Harris County. Most of them have been in heavily Democratic counties, with the wins coming in primaries. Winning in Fort Bend would be a new frontier for the criminal justice reform movement.

The Fort Bend DA race

There’s been a lot of focus on how Harris County will vote this year after Hillary Clinton’s wide margin of victory in 2016 – I’ve certainly contributed to that – but it’s important to remember that Clinton carried Fort Bend County as well, and there are some big elections happening there, too.

Brian Middleton

Cliff Vacek knows Fort Bend County like the back of his hand. The former state district judge, now 71, has lived his whole life in the fast-growing, diverse suburb southwest of Houston, where he’s also served as a teacher and had his own law practice.

“The criminal justice system ought to be fair,” said Vacek, a Republican. “I hope people feel like I do, that they want the prosecution to be swift, they want it to be vigorous, but they want it to be fair. That’s what I offer.”

Brian Middleton once worked as a prosecutor for longtime District Attorney John Healey, but the Houston native now wears many hats — running his own law firm in southwest Houston in addition to working as a municipal prosecutor for the cities of Meadows Place, Jersey Village and Wallis and as a judge for the city of Jacinto.

If elected, Middleton would become the first African-American district attorney for the county of more than 765,000 residents, which is 35 percent white, 21 percent black, 24 percent Hispanic, and 21 percent Asian and other.

“I think it would send a signal to the rest of the world that we in Fort Bend County have very strong values and value diversity,” said Middleton, 46, a Democrat. “People of color can succeed.”

Whoever wins, it will represent a major change in Fort Bend County, where Healey, a Republican, has presided over the district attorney’s office since 1992, the year Bill Clinton was elected president. The race is being closely watched as the county backed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 but has continued to elect Republicans to top county offices.

Other key races include county judge, where Republican incumbent Robert Hebert is trying to stave off a challenge from Fort Bend ISD board member KP George. At the federal level, meanwhile, Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni is trying to unseat U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, a Republican who has represented the 22nd Congressional District since 2009.

I think psychologically, the state GOP is prepared for the possibility that they’ll lose Harris County. They don’t want to, of course, and they’ll do what they can to win as many races as they can, but they saw the numbers, and not just the ones from 2016. Losing Fort Bend, even one countywide race, would be a much bigger blow. The Republican takeover of the state began in earnest in the suburbs, which grew rapidly in population and voting strength, and spread from there. Democrats have mostly taken over the big urban counties, but an incursion into this kind of turf is as whole ‘nother thing. It changes the narrative of where Republicans and Democrats are, if nothing else, and it would definitely be a major consideration in 2021 when maps need to be redrawn. I don’t know how Middleton or George are going to do – in some ways, winning these county offices is harder than winning legislative races – but they have the potential to really shake things up if they win. Keep an eye on this.

“Viva Texas! Viva Beto!”

It’s been too long since the last time I posted a video.

It all came from a love of the law and a shared dislike of Ted Cruz.

It was a few bigwig local prosecutors, a capital defense attorney, a seasoned member of the Harris County Attorney’s Office and others who got together over the summer, hoping to unseat the junior senator from Texas – with their music. It was, they promised, not as outlandish as it seemed.

“Before John F. Kennedy the only person to ever defeat Lyndon Johnson for public office was Pappy Lee O’Daniel,” said Special Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke.

“Pappy Lee beat Johnson by having a band and they went around to all these courthouses in Texas playing this song – ‘Pass the Biscuits Pappy’ – and Lyndon Johnson lost that election.”

Seeking to replicate that success, the legally-minded balladeers recorded three songs in support of Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke, including ditties like “Viva Texas! Viva Beto!” – released on YouTube Saturday.

“We are part of the resistance, we’re it’s tonal dimension,” said David Mitcham, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office trial bureau chief and lead singer of what’s become the de facto in-house band for the DA’s office, Death by Injection.

But the new political rock gathering calls itself The Yellow Dog Howlers.

Here’s the video, in all its glory:

Well, it’s not The Altuve Polka or It’s A Ming Thing, but I give them an A for enthusiasm. And look, it’s not like anyone is gonna write a song about Ted Cruz.

And since they mentioned it, here’s Pass The Biscuits Pappy:

For sure, they don’t write ’em like that any more.

Arkema indictments

This will cause a stir.

A Harris County grand jury on Friday indicted the French chemical company Arkema and two executives for the “reckless” release of toxic chemicals during Hurricane Harvey last August, a move that alarmed industry leaders and surprised environmental advocates.

The company, CEO Richard Rowe and plant manager Leslie Comardelle put residents and first responders at risk when the Crosby plant caught fire as Harvey dumped record rainfall on the Houston area, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s office.

“As the hurricane approached, Arkema was more concerned about production and profit than people,” said Alexander Forrest, chief of the District Attorney’s environmental crimes division.

The last time a chemical company faced criminal charges for a major incident in Texas was 2005, when an explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery killed 15 workers and injured almost 200. BP paid $50 million in fines for the incident but no one from the company served prison time.

Arkema called the criminal charges filed against it “astonishing” and pledged to fight them vigorously.

“There has never been an indictment like this in Texas or any other state,” Arkema attorney Rusty Hardin said. “It would set an ominous precedent if a company could be held criminally liable for impact suffered as a result of the historic flooding of Hurricane Harvey that no one, including Harris County itself, was prepared for.”

But federal documents showed Arkema wasn’t even prepared for a much smaller flood, despite being partially located in a floodplain.

[…]

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said she’d go after companies who pollute. Environmental advocates applauded her actions.

“I hope these kinds of criminal charges will really get the attention of not just Arkema but the industry more broadly,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of the advocacy group Environment Texas. “They can’t play fast and loose with safety standards and the protection of the public.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Arkema is also being sued by Harris County, which is usually how these things go when any action is taken. Going for indictments is a bold move, one that hasn’t been done before, but one that is at least worth considering, given the circumstances. Whether the indictments will survive the motions to quash them, and the appeals in those motions are denied, is the key question. I will keep an eye on this.

Darian Ward indicted on charge of violating public information laws

Wow.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s former press secretary, Darian Ward, was indicted by a grand jury this week for failing to turn over public records in response to a reporter’s request late last year.

The indictment, handed up Tuesday but released by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office Thursday, says Ward, in “misrepresenting” the number of emails responsive to a reporter’s request for correspondence about her personal business activities, “unlawfully, with criminal negligence … failed and refused to give access to … public information.”

Ward resigned in January, weeks after news broke that she had been suspended for withholding the records, and because the records showed she had routinely conducted personal business on city time.

[…]

“Mayor Turner expects every city of Houston employee to comply with the Texas Public Information Act,” mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said, noting the mayor was on a trade mission to South America. “Questions about today’s grand jury decision should be directed to the Harris County District Attorney’s office.”

She is charged with failure or refusal by an officer for public information to provide access to public information, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, six months in jail or both.

The indictment first was reported by KPRC Channel 2.

[…]

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said it is common for officials to stall the release of records or impose unreasonable charges for the documents’ release without technically violating the law, and many more — typically unprovable — cases in which requesters suspect the act is being violated.

“It is very important that officials are taking the Texas Public Information Act seriously,” Shannon said. “Whatever comes out of this indictment, it shows that attention is being focused on the Public Information Act and the importance of adhering to the act.”

See here and here for some background on Darian Ward’s end of tenure with the city. I’m irresponsibly speculating well in advance of any evidence, but I would not be surprised if this winds up with a plea deal and a minimal fine. Whether that sets an example for adhering to the Public Information Act or not is up for debate, but I will agree that this law is routinely ignored and should be enforced more often. Those of you with long memories may recall the Rick Perry email saga, which included a complaint filed with the Travis County DA that did not result in any charges. We live in different times now, I guess.

Orlando Sanchez is not happy with the dominatrix investigation

This case is going to challenge headline and blog post title writers for the foreseeable future.

Orlando Sanchez

Two elected Harris County officials squared off Tuesday over a bizarre case in which a top treasury official was charged in a $35,000 check kiting fraud to meet the financial demands of a dominatrix.

Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez was critical of how District Attorney Kim Ogg handled the criminal case against a top administrator in the county’s treasurer’s office, after he was arrested last week for an alleged check fraud scheme and claimed he was being blackmailed by a financial dominatrix.

“What’s disturbing to me is that the district attorney knew about the investigation six months ago,” Sanchez said Tuesday. “Neither the sheriff or the district attorney gave me a phone call—as a heads up without going into the specifics of the investigation—that there was somebody in my office being looked at.”

[…]

On Tuesday, Ogg defended the way her office handled the six-month investigation and when they alerted Sanchez.

“Because it was an ongoing investigation, we did a lot of work before any witnesses were talked to,” said said. “And that kind of investigation is never made public otherwise it is impossible to know who might be involved.”

The county’s top prosecutor said she phoned Sanchez minutes after confirming that her office was filing charges against Lueb.

See here for the background. I just want to say that “Financial Dominatrix” is going to be the name of my Liz Phair tribute band. Also, remember how I said that the last thing Sanchez would want would be for this to be a multi-day story? You’re doing it wrong, dude. Not that I don’t appreciate it, mind you.

On the matter of Sanchez’s complaint, the first thing I’d say is what if any policies are there regarding how criminal investigations into county employees like Gregory Lueb are handled? In other words, did Ogg’s office do more or less what previous DAs have done in this sort of circumstance, or was there a substantial difference?

Putting that aside for a moment, I can think of at least three reasons why Ogg might have kept this under her hat until her team was ready to file a case:

1. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they needed to be sure that Sanchez himself was not in any way involved.

2. Once they have cleared Sanchez, if he knows that one of his employees is being investigated, that may cause him to act differently around them and thus possibly tip off the target of the investigation. There’s a reason this sort of information is generally kept quiet.

3. Even if you can completely trust Sanchez’s poker face, knowing that one or more of his employees is being investigated may change his perception of them, and this may persist even if the investigation winds up being dropped. He – and this is true of anyone, not just Orlando Sanchez – may have a lingering suspicion or sense of doubt, regardless of whether there was a reason for it.

So, unless Ogg violated previously accepted protocols, I see no cause for Sanchez to be upset. He was told when he needed to know, and that seems like the way to go. KUHF has more.

Misdemeanor diversion

Sounds good to me.

Kim Ogg

Houston’s non-violent misdemeanor offenders will soon be cleaning up trash and invasive plant species plants along Buffalo Bayou in an initiative to help offenders clear up their criminal record, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced Wednesday.

The program, dubbed “Clean and Green,” has existed in several incarnations since the 1970’s and was one of Ogg’s campaign promises when she ran for DA in 2014, and again when she won in 2016.

“It’s a big reason why I ran,” the top prosecutor said Wednesday as she announced the program at the historic Allen’s Landing, a downtown recreational area on the bayou. “I wanted to ‘green’ criminal justice. I felt like our system could give back in a measurable, meaningful way. Counting the cubic tons of garbage or how many tons of plastic we pull out, it all has a public safety value.”

Misdemeanor offenders, 17 and older, will be allowed to clean up litter and invasive plants, skim waterways and perform other conservation services in public spaces across the county, especially along bayous and tributaries, according to Ogg.

Eligibility for the program, which starts this month, will be determined by prosecutors on a case-by-case basis and excludes defendants facing domestic violence, assault or weapons charges.

[…]

The initiative is expected to offer 160 offenders a month the opportunity to avoid a criminal record while reducing tax dollars currently spent on traditional prosecution and punishment of those offenders.

If selected, participants will be required to work one or two six-hours shifts. They will have to pay $240 to participate, unless they are indigent. Completion of the program fulfills the community-service requirement of pre-trial diversion contracts.

If they successfully complete the program, their criminal case will be dismissed and the arrest can be expunged, Ogg said.

I approve of all of this. This is what we should want to do with non-violent misdemeanor offenders. And yes, it’s what we voted for. Keep up the good work.

Kim Ogg’s first year as DA

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

Kim Ogg

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little concern trolling from the WSJ

This is a story that tries to stir up concerns about all those Democratic Congressional candidates spending money and energy running against each other in the primaries. I flagged it mostly because of the CD07 content at the end.

Rep. John Culberson

In Houston, the Seventh Congressional District is ethnically diverse, well-educated, suburban and includes some of the city’s wealthiest voting precincts. Mrs. Clinton beat Mr. Trump here by 1.4 percentage points, but Mr. Culberson won by 12 points.

The DCCC sent a full-time organizer to Houston in February. She has been working to recruit volunteers and train organizers to defeat Mr. Culberson, without favoring a specific Democratic challenger.

The top fundraiser is Alex Triantaphyllis, founder of a nonprofit group that mentors refugees. He says the party’s “best approach is to be as connected and engaged in this community as possible.”

Primary opponent Laura Moser said at a recent candidate forum that many people in the party “are trying too hard to win over the crossover vote while abandoning our base.” She became a national activist last year by starting an anti-Trump text-message service for “resisting extremism in America.”

In August, Ms. Moser criticized Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D., N.M.), the current DCCC chairman, in Vogue magazine for saying last spring that the party shouldn’t rule out supporting antiabortion candidates.

Elizabeth Pannill Fletcher, a lawyer also running in the Democratic primary, says she welcomes the lively primary race because it helps to have “a lot of people out there getting people motivated” about next year’s midterm election.

She also acknowledges a downside: “We are raising money to spend against each other rather than against John Culberson.” Another candidate has already run unsuccessfully for the seat three times.

Some Democratic candidates worry they will face pressure to tack to the left because people who attend political events early in the campaign tend to be the party’s most liberal activists. A questioner at a forum in July sponsored by the anti-Trump activist group Indivisible demanded a yes or no answer on whether candidates support the legalization of marijuana.

“There is definitely a danger if you have a circular firing squad over who is the most leftist in the room,” Democratic candidate Jason Westin, an oncologist, said in an interview. “This is not a blue district.”

This was the first mention I had seen of the DCCC organizer in CD07. Since that story appeared, I’ve seen a couple of Facebook invitations to events featuring her, which focus on basic organizing stuff. As we now know, there’s a Republican PAC person here in CD07. It’s getting real, to say the least.

I have no idea why the story singles out marijuana legalization as an issue that might force one of the CD07 candidates to “tack to the left”. Support for marijuana legalization is pretty mainstream these days, and that includes Republicans. The second-highest votegetter in Harris County in 2016 was DA Kim Ogg, who ran and won on a platform of reforming how drug cases are handled, which includes prosecuting far fewer of them. Presumptive Democratic nominee for US Senate Beto O’Rourke supports marijuana legalization. If any candidate in CD07 feels pressured to support marijuana legalization, it’s because they’re out of step with prevailing opinion, not because they’re being dragged in front of an issue.

Finally, on the broader question of all these contested primaries, Lizzie Fletcher mostly sums up how I feel. I believe all these primaries will be a big driver of turnout, which will help set the narrative of higher Democratic engagement. If there’s anything a candidate should feel pressed to do, it’s to pledge to support whoever wins in their primary so we can present a united front for November. I’m sure there will be some bumps in the road and some nastiness in these campaigns as the days wear on, but overall this story sounds like the Journal trying to throw a rope to its surely despondent Republican readers. We Dems were telling ourselves the same kind of story in 2010 when the Tea Party was first making things uncomfortable for Republicans. I’d rather have this energy than not, even if some of it will ultimately be wasted.

About that lost evidence

Sorry about that.

Mark Herman

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Charges against Dukes dropped

She beat the rap.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

Travis County prosecutors have dropped their criminal charges against state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, saying Monday that a felony case against the state lawmaker should never have been brought.

The announcement ends a months-long legal saga in which Dukes was accused of abusing public office after a grand jury indicted her on 13 felony charges and two misdemeanor charges earlier this year. But prosecutors have, over recent weeks, been forced to admit that their case against the Austin Democrat was based on flawed evidence.

“Representative Dukes was innocent from day one,” said Dane Ball, an attorney for Dukes, in a statement. “We’re glad Representative Dukes can get back to serving her constituents without the distraction of these baseless charges.”

The felony case against Dukes claimed she had unlawfully tampered with a government record by falsifying entries on travel vouchers to obtain money for expenses she was not entitled to. But Travis County prosecutors were forced to put their felony case on hold last month after claiming a key witness in the case — who managed the official paperwork for the Texas House of Representatives — had changed his story.

Then, earlier this month, prosecutors were forced to drop one of the felony charges after acknowledging they had misread a date on Dukes’ cellphone, which formed a key piece of evidence they had gathered against her.

See here for more on that previous update. To say the least, the Travis County DA’s office did not cover itself in glory in this case. Margaret Moore needs to take a hard look at how this happened, and hold some people accountable for it. I’m not a fan of Dawnna Dukes, but she did not deserve to go through this.

Which is not to say that Dukes has been exemplary throughout. She’s a mediocre legislator who misses a lot of votes and as the story notes settled some misdemeanor issues related to misuse of funds by agreeing to pay everything back. She will have a full slate of opponents next year, most of whom once intended to run in a special election after she was supposed to resign her seat in January. I won’t be sorry to see her lose, if she does. Still, I have to figure that the ending of this saga will help in her re-election bid. She was wronged and she prevailed, and that’s an appealing story to tell the voters. RG Ratcliffe has more.

More pre-trial diversion

DA Kim Ogg moves forward on more campaign promises.

Kim Ogg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

DA’s office ends trace case prosecutions

Good.

Kim Ogg

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dukes gets deferral on felony charges

Possibly good news for one embattled legislative incumbent.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

The Travis County district attorney will not pursue, at least for now, the most serious charges against state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, saying prosecutors have renewed their investigation into the travel vouchers at the heart of the 13 felony counts the Austin Democrat is facing.

District Attorney Margaret Moore confirmed to the American-Statesman on Thursday that prosecutors have obtained new information relating to the vouchers, which Dukes is accused of falsifying for financial gain. But Moore declined to elaborate on what the new information is.

“The district attorney’s office recently received new, unexpected information pertinent to that case and the new information has created a need for further investigation by this office and the Texas Rangers,” Moore said.

The case had been set for trial in October. On Wednesday, Moore’s office informed Dukes’ defense lawyers and state District Judge Brad Urrutia of her decision.

Moore said prosecutors will move forward with the October trial date on two misdemeanor charges against Dukes relating to allegations of her using legislative staffers for personal gain.

[…]

The 13 felony counts stem from monthly travel voucher forms Dukes signed in late 2013 and 2014. The forms stated that, on the dates in question, Dukes “traveled by personal car to the Capitol to attend to legislative duties.” She was paid $61.50 for each day she claimed on the forms.

The House Manual of Policies & Procedures states that lawmakers can collect the travel pay between legislative sessions for trips to Austin “to attend to legislative duties in their office.”

KiYa Moghaddam, a former Dukes staffer who prepared the voucher forms for Dukes during that time, told the Statesman last year that she questioned Dukes about misusing the forms.

“I told her that she had to actually be at the Capitol,” Moghaddam said last year. “I was thinking about the fact that I’m a taxpayer, and I don’t necessarily want my tax payments going to someone who’s not working for the interest of the constituency she represents.”

The indictment says that Dukes did “knowingly make a false entry in a government record, and present and use said government record with knowledge of its falsity, by instructing her staff to add a false entry to her State of Texas Travel Voucher Form.”

Dukes was paid $799.50 for the 13 days included in the indictment. She was a frequent user of the voucher forms, collecting $4,674 from 76 days she claimed in the first nine months of 2014. She abruptly stopped collecting the travel pay at that time, which was when Moghaddam questioned her use of the vouchers.

See here for the most recent update. We don’t know what new evidence the DA’s office has, so we can’t say whether this may lead to charges being dismissed or reduced, or possibly added. Or maybe it puts the DA in a stronger position to negotiate a plea deal. It seems more likely than not to be good news for Dukes, but let’s wait and see what the next story is before drawing any conclusions. In the meantime, she still faces trial on the misdemeanor charges, and multiple primary opponents who have been calling for her to honor her previous pledge to step down.

Local government buildings took it on the chin from Harvey

Houses, businesses, schools, churches, government offices – the destruction caused by Harvey and the bill to fix it all keeps adding up.

Local governments grappled Tuesday with the staggering costs of responding to and cleaning up after Hurricane Harvey, a trifecta of wrecked infrastructure and damaged buildings, around-the-clock overtime for rescue and recovery and a massive, escalating cleanup effort to bring the Houston area a semblance of normalcy after days of chaos.

City and county officials could not provide complete estimates of the impact to their coffers from Harvey’s wrath – crews still were inspecting buildings Tuesday and workers logging 120-hour weeks walking door-to-door across Harris County’s nearly 1,800 square miles to survey the widespread devastation.

Amid the uncertainty, officials agreed that even for a government apparatus well-versed in weathering and recovering from severe storms, Harvey’s damage was unlike anything ever seen here before.

“I’ve been here 30 years,” said Harris County Engineer John Blount. “I was through Allison. I was through Ike, and this was the worst I have ever seen.”

On Tuesday, public officials across the Houston region said they were only beginning to understand the scope of Harvey’s damage and its impact on public services.

Mayor Sylvester Turner sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott this week, requesting state and federal funding and detailing “a catastrophic strain on our infrastructure, with damages estimated at more than $5 billion.”

[…]

The county Tuesday was actively relocating the hundreds of employees that work in the criminal justice center, including the district attorney’s 330-lawyer operation.

Hundreds of prosecutors and staffers with the district attorneys office, many dressed in T-shirts and shorts, spent Tuesday pulling their personal possessions out of the 20-story downtown criminal courthouse next to the still-swollen Buffalo Bayou.

The move is expected to slow the local criminal justice system as everyone involved will have to work from unfamiliar offices and commute to courtrooms spread across the downtown courthouse complex.

Neither the city of Houston nor Harris County had a detailed accounting of the damage yet, which will include vehicles as well as buildings, plus lots of overtime costs. I suspect that $5 billion number cited above includes private losses, but it’s not clear to me. The point is that in the short term, a lot of the federal and state relief money needs to go towards paying the workers who did their jobs so heroically during the storm and its aftermath, and towards getting these damaged institutions back up and running. The alternative is a huge amount of debt, and we’ll all pay a lot more for that.

OutSmart talks to Kim Ogg

Another good read about our new DA, one that goes into her personal background in some depth.

Kim Ogg

John Wright: Your father, Jack Ogg, was a longtime Texas state legislator, and your late mother was well-known for her charity work. What it was like coming out to your parents?

Kim Ogg: It was traumatic. My parents were of the generation—they felt like my being gay was their responsibility, and that they were morally accountable. I had grown up in politics, and I understood that being gay was a political liability to my father and family, and so it was excruciating. Our family broke apart for some time, but we’re so close that what that did was give me time to go grow up, which I did. I had been on my father’s “payroll” from birth to college, but the day I got out of college I was on my own, and I’ve been on my own ever since. My family and I didn’t see each other on anything but holidays after that for some time—almost four years.

Our family broke up, [but then] we came around. I quit being. . . I was a little militant. An example would be that I wore camouflage for almost a whole year. I was at war with the world. And then it turned out that to get and keep a good job, you needed to have a broader wardrobe.

[…]

In 1996, you ran for district judge as a Republican, and longtime antigay activist Steve Hotze endorsed your opponent in the primary. Were you gay-baited in that race?

They didn’t gay-bait me; they gay-crucified me. But they didn’t do it in print. They did it through a telephone and whisper campaign, and they injected a third candidate into the race. I did not interview with Hotze, and I never answered any questions for him, so I never lied about my homosexuality. [But] the whole courthouse knew. It was funny, they didn’t do an antigay mailer, but they did a whisper campaign. It was enough to force me into a primary runoff where extremists usually win, and so the more conservative candidate won.

Twenty years later, in 2016, you were gay-baited again by your Republican opponent, former district attorney Devon Anderson, and it became a major news story.

It was my lifelong fear, being called a lesbian in front of my entire hometown—4.5 million people, on television. It’s like showing up with no clothes on or something—that bad dream that you have. When it finally happened, I knew it was exploitable and could benefit me, but I had to magnify that thing that I was so afraid of. And so we just sent it out to everybody—it was so freeing. It was sort of like coming out to my family. At that point, you don’t have anything left to lose. You have everything to gain. I realized at that moment how much that fear—it wasn’t a false fear—but it felt so good to let it go and just send it out to the world: “Devon Anderson called me a lesbian.” Discrimination, no matter how you dress it up, is wrong. For Devon to have regressed to name-calling was indicative of her losing the election.

When you ran as a Republican in 1996, Republicans attacked you for having voted in Democratic primaries. When you ran as a Democrat in 2014 and 2016, you were criticized for having voted in Republican primaries. Talk about your partisan evolution.

I think the criticism has been that I have been disloyal to both parties, and what I would tell you is that I grew up in the Democratic Party. I was pretty frustrated with [Democrats] in the mid-’90s, and Republicans were promising this big tent, and I thought it sounded reasonable. It didn’t turn out to be true. In the second presidential campaign under George W. Bush, they really utilized gay marriage—it was used as a wedge issue nationally in 2004, and I would say that radicalized me to the Democratic perspective. I was never going to be for a party that stood for hate and that used discrimination as a platform, as a literal political platform. So, for 13 years, I’ve been a Democrat and stayed a Democrat, and I don’t intend to ever change.

There’s more, so go read it. It’s fascinating to me because I didn’t know a lot of this stuff. Partly this is because I wasn’t paying close attention to local politics in the 90s, and partly because Ogg herself didn’t talk about any of it during either of her campaigns. Hearing her talk now about how she was affected by the gay-baiting in the 2016 campaign, mild as it was in comparison to some other examples we’ve seen, is an eye-opener. Check it out.

Fort Bend DA to retire

The end of an era, and an opportunity for change.

Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey announced Friday that he will not seek re-election, marking an end to what will be 26 years in office, according to a news release.

Healey said he will retire at the end of his term in 2018 to spend time with his wife. He will be a few weeks shy of 64, he said in an interview.

“I’ve often said retirement is too often wasted on the elderly,” he said. “There’s a whole other phase of life that I want to be able to enjoy with my family.”

Healey first took office by judicial appointment Nov. 18, 1992, when Fort Bend County was a far cry from the bustling county it has become. He presided over the growth of the office from what was then 16 prosecutors to what is now 64, according to the release.

[…]

Healey won in 2014 with 58 percent of the vote. His term will end Dec. 31, 2018.

First, let me say that I wish DA Healy well in his retirement. From a quality of life perspective, I think he has the right idea. Politically speaking, this is a big opportunity for Democrats in Fort Bend, as it is surely easier to win an open seat rather than knock off an incumbent with no obvious demerits. Finding a candidate would be the first order of business; former two-term County Commissioner Richard Morrison comes to my mind, but I’m just speculating idly. Fort Bend Democrats have other races of interest next year – HD26, Commissioners Court Precinct 4, the other countywide offices; big parts of SD17 and CD22 are also in Fort Bend – but this is a definite prize. I’m sure it will draw serious interest.

No deal for Dukes

The die is cast.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

The Travis County District Attorney’s office on Tuesday said its offer to drop all corruption charges against state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, in exchange for her agreeing to resign immediately had expired.

In a statement sent to The Texas Tribune after 5 p.m. Tuesday, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said she’d had no contact from the attorneys for Dukes.

“The offer to resolve this matter has expired and is no longer available,” Moore said in a statement. “We will be ready for trial.”

[…]

“It is truly not dignifying this new low that such character assassination has hit in this web woven to influence a court of public opinion,” Dukes wrote in a Facebook post Monday night. “As such, it would be indecorous of me to respond to impertinent allegations.”

When the Tribune asked Dukes about the DA office’s deal Tuesday morning, Dukes said, “I’m not talking about that right now.”

Dukes declining the deal means the district attorney’s office will move forward with the trial, which was set by Judge Brad Urrutia for Oct. 16.

“It’s time to move on. Some form of this deal has been discussed [with Dukes] since September,” Moore told the Tribune on Monday. “We’ve got to go to work, and we’re going to be preparing for trial.”

See here for the background. On the Off the Kuff Facebook page, the point was raised that using the threat of prosecution to push an elected official to resign may not be something we should want. It’s a valid concern, and I see where it comes from. I guess I see this as part of a plea agreement, one which Dukes has chosen not to take. All other issues aside, we’ll know in October whether she made a wise decision.