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Stockman’s first day in court

Oh, this is going to be so much fun.

Steve Stockman

Appearing carefree and relaxed with his wife by his side, former U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman told reporters outside a court hearing downtown Friday that he expected “to be vindicated” on allegations that he conspired with staffers to take $775,000 in donations intended for charitable purposes or voter education.

Stockman appeared briefly, in a charcoal suit and tie, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith and put a trio of lawyers from Smyser Kaplan & Veselka, LLP, on record to represent him. The judge set a preliminary hearing on the matter for April 11 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy Johnson.

On the sidewalk outside the federal courthouse, Stockman said he didn’t intend to plead guilty or enter into a plea agreement, adding, “I think ultimately we will be vindicated.”

Stockman’s attorney, Shaun G. Clarke, said he could not comment on the details of the case but he lauded Stockman’s reputation and integrity, while Stockman stood smiling beside him.

“We’ve just met Steve. But a couple of things have become clear — number one, that he’s a man of faith; number two, that he’s a fighter; number three, most of all, that he has tremendous faith in the Constitution of the United States of America,” Clarke said. “Steve has said he is going to fight to clear his name, and we’re going to be there next to him fighting to do it also.”

“We’re here to vindicate an innocent man – Steve Stockman – and that’s what we’re going to do,” he said.”

See here and here for the background. Do yourself a favor and be sure to click on the Chron story link, to see the awesome graphic in that that has Stockman at the center of this bizarre web of PO boxes, shell corporations, and foreign addresses. The only way it could be better is if it were on some paranoid dude’s wall, with push pins and string connecting it all. I’m already visualizing the future documentary on A&E about the Stockman saga, with Bill Kurtis narrating. Don’t let me down, y’all. The Trib has more.

More on the Stockman arrest

I’m just going to leave this here.

Steve Stockman

Former U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, a Republican whose district stretched from Houston to Beaumont, allegedly conspired with two staffers to bilk conservative foundations out of at least $775,000 in donations meant for charitable purposes or voter education, according to federal court records.

Details of the alleged scam are described in a plea deal signed in Houston by Thomas Dodd, Stockman’s former campaign worker and 2013 congressional special assistant. Dodd pleaded guilty Monday to two counts of conspiracy and has agreed to help authorities build a case against Stockman in return for consideration on his sentencing. The maximum penalty for each charge is 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000.

Stockman was arrested March 16 by a Houston-based FBI agent as he prepared to board a plane to the Middle East, but was released on $25,000 bond after surrendering his passport.

He has been charged with two counts of conspiracy for allegedly colluding with Dodd and another staffer to hide illegal campaign contributions and to divert $350,000 from the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, based in Lake Forest, Ill. Uihlein had donated funds to renovate a townhouse to be used as a place for congressional interns to gather in Washington D.C. The meeting spot was never created. Dodd’s plea agreement says that he and Stockman also diverted $425,000 from the Rothschild Charitable Foundation and the Rothschild Art Foundation Inc., based in Baltimore.

The Rothschild Foundations donated for charitable purposes and voter education.

Most of the $775,000 in foundation donations was spent on Stockman’s campaign and on credit card bills, according to allegations in Dodd’s plea deal.

Prosecutors claim those illegal acts were part of a larger and more complex scam, court records show. The plea deal outlines a conspiracy among Stockman, Dodd and another staff member that allegedly included two shell companies, bogus campaign contributions, lies to executives at the foundations and a trail of wire and mail fraud.

See here for the background. An earlier story has a copy of the aforementioned plea agreement, which you can see here. This Chron story summarizes the questions that remain about Stockman and his questionable finances, many of which first came up back in 2014. I just want to point out that had Stockman not gotten into his twisted little head to run against John Cornyn in 2014, he’d very likely still be a sitting member of Congress. Funny how these things work.

Steve Stockman gets busted

Well, lookie here.

Steve Stockman

Former U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, has been charged with violating federal election law.

Stockman conspired with former congressional employees to funnel money intended for a charity to his campaign, according to a sworn statement from an FBI agent unsealed Thursday. He is also accused of making false statements to the Federal Election Commission.

The allegations center on a $350,000 donation Stockman solicited from an unnamed businessman shortly after taking office in 2013, according to the statement. The money was supposed to go to a Las Vegas-based nonprofit called Life Without Limits, but Stockman instead “secretly diverted the funds to pay for a variety of personal expenses and to fund illegal contributions to Stockman’s campaigns for public office,” the statement said.

See here for my extensive Stockman archives. Here’s a longer story from the Chron:

Stockman said after the hearing that he had been targeted for speaking out against the Internal Revenue Service, and cited the right-wing conspiracy theory that contends bureaucrats are secretly running the U.S. government.

“This is part of a deep state that’s continuing to progress,” he said.

[…]

In court documents filed with the criminal complaint, the FBI agent said that shortly after Stockman took office for the second time in January 2013, he solicited a $350,000 donation from an unidentified “wealthy businessman” from Chicago on behalf of a Las Vegas-based nonprofit, Life Without Limits, which had been set up to help people through traumatic events.

The donation ostensibly was for renovation of a so-called Freedom House to serve as a meeting and training facility in Washington, D.C. The businessman’s charitable organization issued a check the same day.

Instead of going to the house project, however, the check was deposited six few days later in a Webster bank account set up by Stockman doing business as Life Without Limits – an account that had a balance of only $33.48 at the time, according to the agent.

“Beginning shortly after the $350,000 charitable donation was deposited into his Life Without Limits account, rather than spending the money on the ‘Freedom House,’ Stockman secretly diverted the funds to pay for a variety of personal expenses and to fund illegal contributions to Stockman’s campaigns for public office,” the agent stated.

Records show he made no “significant” contributions toward the renovations and that the Freedom House never opened.

According to the agent, some of the funds were funneled directly into the campaign through “conduit contributors,” who received cash from the Life Without Limits account and then made contributions to Stockman’s campaign.

Outside of court on Friday, Stockman said the amount in dispute is $15,000 – not the $350,000 described in court. He did not explain the higher dollar amount.

He said he has been investigated by at least three grand juries over the past three years after he tried to have Lois Lerner of the IRS arrested for contempt of congress in July 2014.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal from a nonprofit group that wanted to sue Lerner and other individual IRS officials for allegedly harassing tea party groups that applied for tax-exempt status with burdensome scrutiny in 2014.

As trouble follows Steve Stockman like flies follow a garbage truck, Stockman was investigated for ethical issues in 2014, during his one-term return to Congress after winning a multi-candidate primary for the new CD36. By the end of his term, he and three of his staffers had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury, which is what I presume led to this. There were also investigations by the House Ethics Committee, the Office of Congressional Ethics, and the Federal Elections Commission, which is an impressive amount of activity for one otherwise inconsequential single-term Congressperson. I’ll say again, he remains one of the most brilliant and underrated political performance artists of our time. We may never see his like again, though we may see his ass in jail by the time this is all said and done. Click2Houston, ThinkProgress, the Press, and Juanita have more.

FBI and IRS raid Sen. Carlos Uresti’s office

That’s never a good thing.

Sen. Carlos Uresti

FBI and IRS agents raided the San Antonio law offices of state Sen. Carlos Uresti on Thursday morning — confiscating documents and other items.

A law enforcement source told the the San Antonio Express-News, which first reported the raid Thursday, that it was connected to Uresti’s involvement with a now-bankrupt fracking sand company that he held a financial stake in.

“Law enforcement agents with IRS and FBI are lawfully present conducting a law enforcement operation,” FBI spokeswoman Michelle Lee told the Texas Tribune. “No further details have been released at this time.”

Lee confirmed that no arrests had been made.

Uresti, a San Antonio Democrat and personal injury attorney, has been entwined in a complicated saga involving FourWinds Logistics, which sold sand used in hydraulic fracturing, a process that extracts oil and gas from shale rock.

A lengthy investigation published by the Express-News in August first detailed Uresti’s involvement in the company and fraud allegations it faces.

[…]

FourWinds’ purported intent was to buy sand and sell it at a markup to oil and gas companies, but some investors have accused the company’s leadership of misrepresenting its financial health and spending their money on frivolous, personal expenses. It now faces millions of dollars in claims from investors and other companies.

Denise Cantu, whom Uresti represented in a wrongful-death case, said she lost most of the $900,000 she invested in the now-bankrupt company in 2014 at the suggestion of Uresti, according to the Express-News. She has said she was not initially aware that Uresti would get a piece of her investment, though Uresti has suggested otherwise.

With allegations of serious financial mismanagement detailed in bankruptcy court, the FBI last year opened an investigation into FourWinds, the Express-News reported. In August, Uresti told the paper that he was a “witness” in that investigation but not its target.

On Nov. 4, four days before Election Day, Eric Nelson, the former marketing director for FourWinds, was indicted for his role in an alleged scheme to defraud investors. He later pleaded guilty to one felony charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Federal attorneys accused Nelson of altering company bank statements to “grossly” inflate its account balance. At least two more former FourWinds employees have been indicted since the election: Shannon Smith, who held a 48 percent stake in the company, and Laura Jacobs, who worked as its comptroller. They face similar charges to Nelson’s.

FourWinds had paid Uresti to attract investors before it filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in August 2015 — beset by allegations of fraud and misused funds.

It could be that this action by the FBI and IRS was to collect evidence for the case against FourWinds and its executives. If that’s all it is, and Uresti himself is not implicated in anything criminal, then this will be as bad as it gets for him, and the news will fade in time. If not, well, he’ll probably wind up having something in common with Ken Paxton. I hope for his sake it doesn’t come to that, but we’ll see. A statement from Sen. Uresti can be found here, and the Current has more.

More about the hack of the Astros

Fascinating stuff.

A federal judge has unsealed details about former St. Louis Cardinals executive Chris Correa’s hacking of the Astros’ email and player evaluation databases, clearing the way for Major League Baseball to impose sanctions against the Cardinals as soon as this week.

Three documents entered into court records but made public by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes on Thursday reveal new information regarding Correa’s intrusions, for which the former Cardinals scouting director is serving a 46-month sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty in January 2016 to five counts of unauthorized access to a protected computer.

[…]

According to the documents, portions of which remained redacted, Correa intruded into the Astros’ “Ground Control” database 48 times and accessed the accounts of five Astros employees. For 21/2 years, beginning in January 2012, Correa had unfettered access to the e-mail account of Sig Mejdal, the Astros’ director of decision sciences and a former Cardinals employee. Correa worked in St. Louis as an analyst under Mejdal, who came to Houston after the 2011 season with Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, also a former Cardinals executive.

“(Correa) knew what projects the Astros’ analytics department was researching, what concepts were promising and what ideas to avoid,” said one of the documents, signed by Michael Chu, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case against Correa. “He had access to everything that Sig Mejdal … read and wrote.”

Correa also attempted to gain access to the accounts of Bo Porter, the Astros’ manager in 2013-14, and pitching coach Brent Strom, and he used passwords belonging to Luhnow, Astros analyst Colin Wyers, and three Astros minor league players to gain access to the Astros system, the documents show.

A third document includes a subpoena from Correa’s attorney to obtain documents from the Astros, based on Correa’s statement that he was combing the files looking for information taken from the Cardinals. Hughes denied the request, which sought access to emails from Mejdal, Luhnow and former Astros assistant GM David Stearns and analyst Mike Fast regarding a variety of topics, including Cardinals minor league pitching coach Tim Leveque, Cardinals assistant general manager Mike Girsch and the Cardinals’ player information database, known as RedBirdDog.

See here and here for some background. The sanctions have since been imposed – the Cardinals will give their top two draft choices and two million bucks to the Astros as redress – but it’s the details of what Correa did that are so riveting. Deadspin, which was a key player in this as well, elaborates:

The sentencing document also points to a motive beyond the obviously useful scouting data: Correa was furious and envious of Mejdal’s acclaim in a June 25, 2014 Sports Illustrated cover story about the Astros’ embrace of analytics, with the cover predicting them as the winners of the 2017 World Series.

The account the feds lay out reads like a downright sinister revenge plot by Correa: On June 27, two days after the SI cover story, Correa attempted, unsuccessfully, to log into Mejdal’s, Luhnow’s, and Wyers’s Ground Control accounts. He then tried to log in via the accounts of Astros pitching coach Brent Strom and Astros manager Bo Porter. Thwarted but not deterred, he tried another tactic.

[…]

The same day, June 28, Deadspin was emailed a tip from a burner email service that linked “to a document on AnonBin, a now-dead service for anonymously uploading and hosting text files.” On June 30, Deadspin published the contents of the document, which detailed the Astros’ trade discussions between June 2013 and March 2014.

A year later, Deadspin deputy editor Barry Petchesky laid out the information we received, and why he believed we were the intended recipients. We had and have no additional information that indicates who the leaker was, and would not reveal the leaker’s identity if we knew it—as Petchesky later explained to an FBI investigator.

Regardless, the feds speculate that Correa himself emailed us the information.

Damn. I will watch the hell out of the eventual 30 for 30 documentary on this. The Press, Craig Calcaterra, and Jeff Sullivan, who thinks the Cardinals got off too lightly, have more.

Super Bowl security

There will be a lot. You may or may not get to hear about it.

When an expected 1  million people descend on Houston for 10 days of Super Bowl concerts, contests and championship football, they will be protected – and watched – by a security operation built on secrecy, technology and the combined efforts of dozens of agencies.

Unlike in recent Super Bowls, however, the public here won’t likely see lines of officers with fatigues, military-style rifles and armored vehicles.

The message for visitors? Relax and enjoy the fun.

“We don’t think we need to display a heavy militaristic presence to provide a safe environment,” said Executive Assistant Houston Police Chief George Buenik, who heads the event’s public safety committee. “We are keeping it a lower visible presence, meaning we are not going to be displaying all of our resources and assets, just like we are not getting into numbers or specifics. A lot of our security plan is what we consider confidential.”

[…]

The hype, media attention, massive crowds and more than 100 million expected television viewers make for an over-the-top party but also offer a unique challenge for law enforcement.

Keeping such events safe has grown even more complex in recent years, with the proliferation of terrorist attacks and new technology and social media that can connect or inspire like-minded persons.

The Houston events will be spread out across the city, from the football game at NRG Stadium to live concerts, fan festivals and other events at Discovery Green and the George R. Brown Convention Center 13 miles away.

Lakewood Church – which sits between the two sites in a former indoor sports arena near Greenway Plaza – will host an NFL Gospel Celebration.

Law enforcement agencies have been preparing for the events since not long after Houston was selected in May 2013 to host the big game.

Delegations have been sent to the last three Super Bowls to learn and figure out what might be done differently in the Bayou City. Houston has experience with big crowds, having previously hosted the Super Bowl in 1974 and 2004 and other big events.

The city is expected to spend about $5.5 million, mostly for security, but that is expected to be reimbursed by the game’s host committee.

The federal government also is covering some security costs, with the FBI; Homeland Security; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other agencies participating, though those details are – not surprisingly – not available.

Local preparations have included combing through NRG Stadium and other Super Bowl-related venues and installing additional surveillance cameras in key areas, but authorities decline to reveal exactly what they are doing.

NRG Stadium will be surrounded by a special zone, where police will control foot traffic and commercial vendors. And the nearby Astrodome – which originally had been considered for special events – will remain shuttered.

Flight restrictions will be in place for certain aircraft, and a “No Drone Zone” is expected to be declared, as it has for previous Super Bowls.

And local law enforcement officers are racking their brains to think of new threats they might have missed. Representatives of various local, state and federal entities gathered in recent days in a conference room at NRG Stadium to think up new scenarios and how they would respond.

I don’t remember what the number of visitors for Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 was. I do remember that the number far exceeded the total number of seats available in Reliant Stadium, enough to make me wonder what these people were traveling for, if they couldn’t see the actual game. What I’m getting at is that I don’t know if that “one million people descending on Houston” estimate is realistic or not, but based on past history it is a lot higher than you might think. Regardless, I’m sure we’re all relieved to know that the city will be reimbursed for its police and other Super Bowl security-related expenditures. My general advice to avoid the area at all costs unless you really have to or really want to remains in effect.

“Unholstered”

Some really good work by the Trib here.

The Texas Tribune spent almost a year attempting to collect information on police shootings from departments in the state’s 36 largest cities, which have a population of 100,000 or more, and was able to confirm 656 fatal and nonfatal shooting incidents involving 738 individuals that occurred between 2010 and 2015. Those 36 cities make up almost half of the state’s population.

It remains impossible to determine exactly how many more times police officers in Texas pulled the trigger, and the data vacuum isn’t just about total shooting incidents. At a time when much public attention — and political debate — is focused on police shootings of minorities, it is also virtually impossible to know how many shootings in Texas involve Hispanics, the state’s largest minority group, because some departments don’t distinguish between race and ethnicity in their records.

Frustration over the lack of readily available, standardized and reliable data on police shootings is widespread among lawmakers, criminologists and the general public, particularly after several deadly shootings — like those in Ferguson, Missouri, Minnesota and Baton Rouge — that have garnered national attention.

With such an information void in Texas, it’s difficult to find a starting point in assessing police interactions with communities — and any possible reforms or solutions, said Durrel Douglas, co-founder of the Houston Justice Coalition. “If we can’t get there, it’s absolutely frustrating,” Douglas said. “We have absolutely nothing to even start with.”

The FBI tries to collect nationwide data, but its statistics are incomplete and riddled with mistakes. Texas lawmakers passed legislation in 2015 requiring statewide reporting, but those efforts won’t capture all police shootings in the state.

Access to comprehensive information rests almost completely in the hands of local police departments. Departments in big cities, such as Houston and Dallas, post information on every police shooting on their websites. But a list from most departments can only be obtained through an open records request — and often after a fight over what information should be made public.

[…]

National record-keeping efforts are also inconsistent. The FBI’s database of police shootings — based on voluntary reporting by departments, which fluctuates from year to year — only includes fatal shootings, and even those are often undercounted.

From 2010 to 2014, the latest year for which FBI data is available, the Tribune confirmed at least 198 fatal shootings by the 36 departments examined. But it appears at least 89 fatal shootings were either not reported to the agency or reported incorrectly.

Additionally, the FBI’s incomplete database only counts fatal shootings, which the Tribune’s analysis shows made up just 36 percent of all shootings in Texas during that time.

Calling the current system a “travesty,” the FBI has said it plans to revamp its system for tracking police shootings in 2017, including expanding reporting to note other injuries caused by police. That would still miss instances in which police shoot but miss. From 2010 to 2015, 142 of those incidents made up more than one-fifth of all shootings in Texas’ biggest cities.

Read the whole thing, and be sure to click on the other stories in the series as well. We can’t understand the situation, let alone make sensible reforms as needed, if we don’t have the basic facts of it. Shootings are also only one piece of the puzzle, as people die in police custody for other reasons as well. That information is supposed to be collected but often isn’t, and the information we do have is not readily available. Grits for Breakfast contributing writer Amanda Woog, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the UT-Austin Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, has been working on this, with the data she has gathered at the Texas Justice Initiative website; here’s a podcast conversation with her about it. We need to know what is actually happening, we need all relevant entities to report their data in a timely and cooperative fashion, and we need to ensure there are consequences for not complying. Then we can move forward.

DNA mixtures

Grits reports on the latest developments in forensics at a hearing of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, and what it means to the legal system in Texas and elsewhere.

First, a bit of background. DNA testing looks at two metrics on X and Y axes: Whether alleles are present at various loci, and the quantity of DNA available for testing at that spot. (The latter is complicated by allele drop-in, drop-out, and stacking, terms I’m only beginning to understand.) When examining the peak height of DNA quantity on the test results, DPS’ old method did not impose a “stochastic” threshold, which as near as I can tell is akin to the mathematical sin of interpreting a poll without ensuring a random sample. (The word “stochastic” was tossed around blithely as though everyone knew what it meant.) Basically, DPS did not discard data which did not appear in sufficient quantity; their new threshold is more than triple the old one.

That new methodology could change probability ratios for quite a few other cases, the panel predicted. One expert showed slides demonstrating how four different calculation methods could generate wildly different results, to my mind calling into question how accurate any of them are if they’re all considered valid. Applying the stochastic threshold in one real-world case which he included as an example reduced the probability of a match from one in 1.40 x 109 to one in 38.6. You can see where a jury might view those numbers differently.

Not every calculation will change that much and some will change in the other direction. The application of an improper statistical method generates all types of error, not just those which benefit defendants. There may be folks who were excluded that become undetermined, or undetermined samples may become suspects when they’re recalculated. The panel seemed to doubt there were examples where a positive association would flip all the way to excluded, but acknowledged it was mathematically possible.

DPS has identified nearly 25,000 cases where they’ve analyzed DNA mixtures. Since they typically represent about half the state’s caseload, it was estimated, the total statewide may be double that when it’s all said and done. Not all of those are problematic and in some cases the evidence wasn’t used in court. But somebody has to check. Ch. 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure grants a right to counsel for purposes of seeking a DNA test, including when, “although previously subjected to DNA testing, [the evidence] can be subjected to testing with newer testing techniques that provide a reasonable likelihood of results that are more accurate and probative than the results of the previous test.” So there’s a certain inevitability about the need to recalculate those numbers.

See here for the Texas Tribune story that Grits references – WFAA also covered the hearing – and be sure to read the whole post. There’s a lot of scientific info out there if you google “DNA Mixtures”, but I’m not informed enough to point you to something useful. As noted, DNA is still very exact when comparing known samples, or in isolating a suspect from a rape kit. It’s when there are multiple unknown DNA donors that things get complicated, and there isn’t a single standard for that now. What we do know is that the method that had been used to provide match/elimination probabilities were not accurate, and some number of convictions in Texas and elsewhere will need to be reviewed in light of reinterpreted DNA evidence. Ultimately, questions about what the standards are and how the evidence should be analyzed will be settled by the courts, from the CCA to SCOTUS. This will be a long and occasionally messy process, and we’re at the very beginning of it. On the plus side, this should provide all kinds of fodder for mystery writers and TV showrunners. So at least there’s that.

What happened to Sandra Bland?

This is horrible.

Sandra Bland

There are big questions about the final hours of Sandra Bland’s life. The official story is that the 28-year old committed suicide by hanging herself in a Waller County jail cell. Her family doesn’t buy it.

Bland, a black woman who graduated from Texas Prairie View A&M and had recently accepted a new job at the university, didn’t seem to her friends and family to be a suicide risk. And as ABC 7 in Chicago reported (Bland was originally from nearby Naperville), many have disputed the official story. “The Waller County Jail is trying to rule her death a suicide and Sandy would not have taken her own life,” longtime friend LaNitra Dean told the station. “Sandy was strong. Strong mentally and spiritually.”

We don’t know what happened in Bland’s cell, but we know that her initial encounter with police was contentious. Bland was pulled over Friday after she failed to signal a lane change. According to the Chicago Tribune, officials said Bland was about to drive off with a warning before she kicked the officer.

A bystander who observed the incident on University Drive in Prairie View filmed the arrest. It’s not easy to watch.

In the video, we see Bland in the prone position while a deputy pins her to the ground. She screams to the witness and asks the policemen why they’re hurting her. (According to police brutality activist Shaun King on Twitter, the witness says that Bland was pulled out of the car through her window.)

It’s unclear what danger the officers arresting an unarmed woman felt that they were in. Usually, failing to signal a lane change isn’t an offense that ends in handcuffs. (She was ultimately arrested for “assault on a public servant,” though the details of her alleged assault are similarly unclear.) It does, of course, come on the heels of other incidents in which police have deployed surprising amounts of force against Texans — particularly Texans of color — in recent months. In fact, police killed a man during a routine traffic stop similar to Bland’s.

[…]

The Texas Rangers are investigating Bland’s death now, and it may not end there. A Change.org petition launched Thursday morning urging the U.S. Justice Department to take over the investigation already has 5,000 signatures, and the DoJ has demonstrated a willingness to investigate situations like this in other high-profile deaths involving black citizens and the police.

In the meantime, #SandraBland has become a trending topic on Twitter, and that seems to have changed the way her death is being discussed in Waller. Yesterday, Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis told ABC 7, “I do not have any information that would make me think it was anything other than just a suicide.” Today, speaking to KPRC in Houston, he was more thoughtful:

“I will admit it is strange someone who had everything going for her would have taken her own life,” he told NBC station KPRC in Houston. “That’s why it’s very important a thorough investigation is done and that we get a good picture of what Ms. Bland was going through the last four or five days of her life.”

“If there was something nefarious, or if there was some foul play involved, we’ll get to the bottom of that,” Mathis added.

There are a lot of eyes on Waller County right now, and someone will hopefully find the truth.

The Trib adds some details.

An autopsy classified the death as suicide by hanging, Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences spokeswoman Tricia Bentley told The Post, and the sheriff’s office statement said it appeared to be from “self-inflicted asphyxiation.”

“The family of Sandra Bland is confident that she was killed and did not commit suicide,” Bland’s family said in a statement sent to the Tribune by the law firm they hired. “The family has retained counsel to investigate Sandy’s death.”

At the press conference, another of Bland’s sisters said that the two had a telephone conversation after Bland was taken into custody. Shante Needham said Bland was “very aggravated,” and thought she had broken her arm, according to the AP.

The Texas Rangers, an investigative arm of the state’s Department of Public Safety, are investigating the death. Additionally, the Department of Public Safety said it has asked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s assistance.

“At this time, the joint investigation by the Texas Rangers and the FBI is ongoing,” the release stated.

Shauna Dunlap, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s office in Houston, told the Houston Chronicle in an email that the agency would be “monitoring the local investigation until it is complete.”

“Once the local process takes its course, the FBI reviews all of the evidence and if warranted could pursue a federal investigation,” she wrote.

[…]

In his Facebook statement, Mathis, the district attorney, said his office “is actively consulting with and monitoring the investigation being conducted by the Texas Rangers into Ms. Bland’s death. Once the investigation is complete the matter will be turned over to a Waller County grand jury for any further proceedings deemed appropriate by them.”

He added: “Please allow us to do our jobs, and rest assured that Ms. Bland’s death is receiving the scrutiny it deserves.”

I certainly hope so. Everyone is watching, that’s for sure. You can click on that top link to see the video. There’s plenty of questions about what happened once Ms. Bland was in jail, but the questions begin with what happened at that traffic stop. How does someone get arrested – never mind carted off to jail – for failing to use a turn signal? Half of Houston would be incarcerated right now if the police here enforced that. And then there’s this:

Hempstead Police Chief R. Glenn Smith, who was fired last month by elected city officials, is now the Republican Party’s nominee for Waller County sheriff.

Smith easily won in a runoff Tuesday, defeating Joseph “Joey” Williams 801 to 544, and will face Democrat Jeron Barnett in the November election.

Smith, 49, blamed his dismissal on small-town politics.

“In my opinion some of them possibly had an agenda for somebody else who is running for sheriff,” Smith said Thursday.

However, some in the community say the dismissal stems from incidents involving police misconduct toward African-Americans.

[…]

Activist Herschel Smith said many Hempstead residents expressed concerns about police conduct. He said two incidents that sparked worries involved a mistaken drug raid and a strip search conducted on area youths by Hempstead police.

Link via Daily Kos and Mic. Glenn Smith is now the Sheriff of Waller County. Maybe the one doesn’t have anything to do with the other, but with all that’s been happening, now and forever, there’s no benefit of the doubt to accrue. Sandra Bland and everyone else deserves a real answer. See #WhatHappenedToSandraBland on Facebook for more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

UPDATE: The Press has more.

How many crimes does your police department solve?

Fewer than you think, unfortunately.

go_to_jail

Violent crime in America has been falling for two decades. That’s the good news. The bad news is, when crimes occur, they mostly go unpunished.

In fact, for most major crimes, police don’t even make an arrest or identify a suspect. That’s what police call “clearing” a crime; the “clearance rate” is the percentage of offenses cleared.

In 2013, the national clearance rate for homicide was 64 percent, and it’s far lower for other violent offenses and property crimes.

University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford says police have shifted priorities over the decades.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, no one thought that the police should be held responsible for how much crime there was,” Wellford says. Back then, he adds, police focused on calls for service and solving crimes.

In more recent years, he says, police have been pushed to focus more on prevention, which has taken precedence over solving crimes — especially non-violent offenses.

In short, the falling crime rate we’ve enjoyed may come at a cost: police indifference when you report your stereo was stolen.

I admit, that wouldn’t have occurred to me. I would have thought that with less crime, police departments would be more able to solve the crimes that were committed, since there would be less of a workload. I’m not a criminologist and I haven’t read any research on this, but my initial reaction here is to be a little skeptical. In what ways are police departments focused on crime prevention, and what evidence is there that those methods are working? My gut says that police departments these days – really, for the past thirty or so years – have concentrated on drug-related crimes. While I would agree that there’s some ancillary prevention benefit in that, we all know that this comes with a variety of costs. Maybe the national effort to decriminalize some drug offenses will have the benefit of allowing police departments to once again focus on solving the crimes that really do victimize the public.

The article comes with a utility to look up the crime clearance rates in your own community. Here’s what it showed for some of Texas’ biggest cities:

All violent crime Homicide Property crime City 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 ====================================================================== Houston 46% 39% 37% 90% 70% 76% 13% 12% 11% Abilene 47% 49% 64% 80% 100% 100% 25% 22% 20% Amarillo 40% 45% 48% 60% 100% 44% 18% 19% 22% Austin 49% 49% 57% 93% 87% 100% 12% 12% 13% Beaumont 70% 70% 69% 100% 100% 75% 23% 28% 27% Corpus Christi 54% 53% 45% 67% 63% 100% 20% 23% 19% Dallas 38% 40% 37% 65% 58% 60% 13% 11% 11% El Paso 48% 47% 49% 88% 96% 80% 18% 20% 22% Fort Worth 36% 38% 39% 61% 80% 86% 14% 16% 17% Laredo 80% 80% 79% 64% 88% 100% 20% 24% 28% Lubbock 30% 32% 34% 50% 73% 100% 15% 15% 19% McAllen 56% 66% 38% 50% 100% 0% 20% 22% 16% Midland 66% 68% 59% 100% 75% 40% 22% 25% 27% Plano 54% 51% 47% 80% 100% 100% 22% 22% 19% San Antonio 48% 36% 37% 80% 70% 75% 12% 11% 12% Waco 56% 56% 55% 91% 67% 50% 23% 23% 26%

Note that these are all for the above-named cities’ municipal police departments. I limited myself to cities that I could think of that had a population of at least 100,000. (Galveston, in case you were wondering, has about 48,000 people.) “Violent crime” includes “Murder and non-negligent manslaughter”, which I characterize above as “Homicide”, “Robbery”, and “Aggravated assault”. “Property Crime” includes “Burglary”, “Larceny-theft”, “Motor vehicle theft”, and “Arson”.

Don’t be too mesmerized by the Homicide solve rates for smaller cities. The total annual number for these crimes in cities of, say, 100,000 to 200,000, is often in the single digits. McAllen, for example, had 4 homicides in 2011, one in 2012, and two in 2013. In a few cases, such as Beaumont for 2011 and 2012, the number of murders solved was greater than the number of murders. My guess is that the solved crimes included cold cases, but there was no explanation on the site. I just listed those as 100% to avoid weirdness.

What stands out to me in all this is that generally speaking the smaller cities had much better solve rates for property crimes than the big cities. In Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, the solve rates for property crimes never topped 13%, but in the smaller cities it ranged from 18% to 28%. Fort Worth and Lubbock were the outliers there, on the low end. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it sure is interesting.

What application does this have to the 2015 Mayor’s race? (You knew I was going to get around to that, I’m sure.) Well, in addition to my wish that the candidates will eventually start to talk about public safety in a more comprehensive way, I’d think that a candidate who promised to have his police force concentrate on solving property crimes might be able to sway a voter or two. Lord knows, the Nextdoor discussion list for the greater Heights area spends a lot of time on break-ins and thefts and the like. Given how many of these crimes do go unsolved today, it seems to me there’s some traction to be gained on this issue. Just a thought.

The Lykos era officially ends

That’s all she wrote.

Pat Lykos

A grand jury scrutinizing former District Attorney Pat Lykos and her administration declined Thursday to indict Lykos regarding allegations of misuse of public resources.

The Harris County grand jury’s decision to end its term without action ends a yearlong probe. It was initiated when the Texas Rangers asked for a special prosecutor to look into allegations that members of the Lykos administration had investigated members of another grand jury who spent six months looking into evidence collected by the Houston Police Department’s troubled breath alcohol testing vehicles.

Attorney Eric Nichols was appointed as a special prosecutor weeks after the Rangers’ February 2012 request.

Because grand jury proceedings are secret, Nichols said little Thursday except that its term had ended and no indictments were handed down.

See here, here, and here for the background. To say the least, this was a bizarre story, involving no small amount of inside-baseball Republican politics. I never really thought there was anything to this, but it’s hard to believe that the story didn’t damage Lykos’ prospects in last year’s primary. Be that as it may, and barring anything strange, this is the end of the line.

CD34 candidate Villalobos busted by the feds

This is not the sort of news one wants to make as a candidate.

Armando Villalobos

Cameron County District Attorney Armando R. Villalobos vowed Monday to fight a federal indictment filed against him and his former law partner Eduardo “Eddie” Lucio.

Villalobos, 44, who is also seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination to represent the newly created Congressional District 34, said that in his seven years as district attorney he has always acted in the best interest of the people of Cameron County and “I have never attempted to use this office for my own financial gain.”

A federal grand jury handed up a 12-count indictment against Villalobos and Lucio, 43, charging them with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and one count of conspiracy to violate the RICO Act.

Lucio is not related to the state legislators of the same name.

Villalobos was also charged with seven counts of extortion and three counts of honest services fraud. Lucio is charged with three counts of extortion and two counts of honest services fraud.

Their case is tied to that of former 404th state District Judge Abel C. Limas, who last year pleaded guilty to racketeering. His sentencing is scheduled for later this year.

[…]

Attorney Joel Androphy of Houston and Norton A. Colvin Jr. of Brownsville represent Villalobos.

“This is (only) a piece of paper,” Androphy said of the indictment against Villalobos, adding that the defense has not been given the opportunity to respond to it, to rebut allegations or to speak to the grand jury.

“It is one side of the story. He will be vindicated,” Androphy added.

Colvin said that Villalobos, “like any citizen, is presumed innocent. We really believe that as this develops, he will be shown to be innocent.”

Attorney John T. Blaylock of Harlingen, who represents Lucio, said, “My client is innocent. The indictment was obtained by using people the government coerced into saying things. It’s a very weak indictment.”

Blaylock said he looks forward to trying the case. “It’s going to be kind of fun. It’s going to fall apart. They haven’t done their homework,” Blaylock said.

Blaylock maintained that, “we’re here because the government has its dancing chickens” — who are trying to protect family members from indictment — adding that as was done in carnivals, as the heat on a hot plate was turned up, the chickens dance.

“They’ve had a lot of heat, and now they are performing,” Blaylock said of Limas and other defendants who are cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Well, we’ll see about that. Not surprisingly, some people are calling on him to resign.

County Judge Carlos Cascos, a Republican serving his second term, said the issue is not partisan politics, rather a question of whether the accused district attorney can operate an “effective and efficient” office while facing a 34-page federal indictment alleging years of corruption.

“I don’t believe he can,” Cascos said Tuesday. “It’s tough. That particular office that deals with all kinds of crimes at different levels whether criminal or domestic – you got to focus.”

Cascos added that the indictment could cast a pall on the department.

“It could bring into suspect some of the cases that may be brought up, maybe some of the prior cases,” he said. “I mean, I think defense lawyers are looking at some of these cases and seeing if anything may have looked kind of … quirky.”

Hard to argue with the reasoning, though if his lawyers really can back up their big talk then I can understand why he wouldn’t resign. For what it’s worth, Jerry Eversole didn’t resign as County Commissioner until nine months after he’d been indicted by the feds, not long before he pleaded out. Of course, any time you have to cite Jerry Eversole as a reason for doing something, the odds are pretty good you’re doing it wrong.

What a mess. The FBI’s press release is here, and a copy of the indictment is here. That first story I linked has a lot of the details. I interviewed two other candidates for CD34, Ramiro Garza and Anthony Troiani; I did try to reach Villalobos’ campaign early on, but no one ever replied to the email I sent. One other opponent has joined the call for him to resign, and I won’t be surprised if others follow. Like I said, what a mess. BOR and Grits have more.

Check your DNS

Your computer may be infected with a virus that will cause it to lose connectivity to the Internet in July.

For computer users, a few mouse clicks could mean the difference between staying online and losing Internet connections this summer.

Unknown to most of them, their problem began when international hackers ran an online advertising scam to take control of infected computers around the world. In a highly unusual response, the FBI set up a safety net months ago using government computers to prevent Internet disruptions for those infected users. But that system is to be shut down.

The FBI is encouraging users to visit a website run by its security partner, http://www.dcwg.org, that will inform them whether they’re infected and explain how to fix the problem. After July 9, infected users won’t be able to connect to the Internet.

Most victims don’t even know their computers have been infected, although the malicious software probably has slowed their web surfing and disabled their antivirus software, making their machines more vulnerable to other problems.

Last November, the FBI and other authorities were preparing to take down a hacker ring that had been running an Internet ad scam on a massive network of infected computers.

“We started to realize that we might have a little bit of a problem on our hands because … if we just pulled the plug on their criminal infrastructure and threw everybody in jail, the victims of this were going to be without Internet service,” said Tom Grasso, an FBI supervisory special agent. “The average user would open up Internet Explorer and get ‘page not found’ and think the Internet is broken.”

So what they did was install a couple of servers to provide correct DNS lookups to the affected computers, but in July those servers will be shut off and anyone relying on them will not be able to surf. You can go to http://www.dcwg.org to check and see if you’re one of the infected ones and get cleaned up if you are.

FBI officials said they organized an unusual system to avoid any appearance of government intrusion into the Internet or private computers. And while this is the first time the FBI used it, it won’t be the last.

“This is the future of what we will be doing,” said Eric Strom, a unit chief in the FBI’s Cyber Division. “Until there is a change in legal system, both inside and outside the United States, to get up to speed with the cyber problem, we will have to go down these paths, trail-blazing if you will, on these types of investigations.”

Now, he said, every time the agency gets near the end of a cyber case, “we get to the point where we say, how are we going to do this, how are we going to clean the system” without creating a bigger mess than before.

Keep an eye on this, because something like it is sure to happen again soon.

FBI looking into DA’s office over grand jury “investigation”

Oh, boy.

DA Pat Lykos

Eyewitness News learned from people interviewed that the FBI and Texas Rangers are asking questions inside the DA’s office. The questions aren’t about BAT vans, but about the DA and her team and how they reacted once the grand jury decided to investigate her.

Remember, at first Lykos said she didn’t authorize any investigation of grand jurors.

“I know nothing of that, I certainly didn’t authorize the investigation — and, you know, give me a name,” said Lykos.

But once we got that name, Lykos admitted she ordered her chief investigator Don McWilliams to conduct internet searches on grand jurors, special prosecutors and two judges.

At least some of those searches were conducted with county paid for databases.

“Does that constitute a misuse or abuse of official information?” KTRK Legal Analyst Joel Androphy said.

After reviewing Texas law, Androphy suggested the DA searches may have crossed the line. Grand jurors’ names were sealed by court order months before the DA told her chief investigator to dig up their political past.

“They had access to the names and they were searching out the names that no one else had the ability to search out,” Androphy said.

“And that may cause legal problems for them?” we asked Androphy.

“Absolutely. And at least it will cause someone to review this,” he replied.

See here for the backstory. None of this means that there will be any charges brought, or that any wrongdoing will be alleged. But one way or another we ought to get an answer to the question about whether or not there had been an “investigation” of some of the people involved in that grand jury hearing.

Abercia arrested

Well, this explains a lot.

Longtime Harris County Precinct One Constable Jack Abercia and two of his staffers were arrested Thursday morning on suspicion of violating several federal laws, including conspiring to accept bribes and using the county office for private gain.

Federal agents arrested Abercia, 78, Chief Lieutenant Weldon Kenneth Wiener, 72, and Office Chief Michael Butler, 56. The trio is scheduled to appear in Houston federal court within about an hour.

A 13-count federal indictment returned on Tuesday and unsealed after the arrests accuses Abercia and Wiener of soliciting and accepting money from companies interested in running background checks on prospective employees through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, which is restricted to law enforcement use.

The indictment charges 11 specific acts of misuse of NCIC in November, but it also alleges the practice had been going on in the constable’s office for a longer period of time.

Abercia and Butler are also charged with bribery in connection with the hiring of an otherwise unqualified deputy constable in return for a $5,000 bribe in July 2010.

We first heard about the FBI looking into Abercia and his office in mid-December. Just before the end of the year, Abercia announced he would not run for re-election, though he had previously filed to do so, citing his health and denying that the investigation had anything to do with it. This week he submitted his resignation, which was to take effect on January 31. I daresay today’s events have cast all of these prior ones in a different light. You can see a copy of the indictment here. It’s not as sexy as some of the other crimes committed by elected officials around here lately, but if true they’re every bit as tawdry and disgraceful. For shame, shame on all three of them. Hair Balls has more.

Murder by numbers

There were a lot fewer murders committed in Houston last year than in recent years.

HPD recorded 195 murders for the year as of Friday, a 27.5 percent decrease from the previous year’s total of 269. The preliminary figure doesn’t yet include the death of a 27-year-old woman who police believe was killed in her west Houston apartment on New Year’s Eve.

As long as the 2011 total remains below 200, it would be the lowest since 1965, when 139 people were killed, said HPD homicide division Capt. David Gott.

Harris County’s unincorporated areas also reported fewer murders. The 2011 preliminary total stands at 60 – down more than 7 percent from the 65 in 2010. Murder totals have continued to drop in unincorporated Harris County since 2009, when 87 were reported.

Hair Balls has a slightly different number for the city. The story primarily focuses on the comparison to last year, but if you look at the accompanying chart, what stands out to me is that the number of murders in Houston has dropped nearly fifty percent from the peak of 376 in 2006. Since the story doesn’t look that far back, it doesn’t mention this, which means it also doesn’t dredge up the association of that year with Hurricane Katrina evacuees and their supposed effect on the city’s crime rate. For the city of Houston, there’s a spike from 2005-07, and a trough this year, otherwise the annual number of murders is between 250 and 300. For unincorporated Harris County, outside of a one-time spike in 2009, the body count is basically the same, right at about 60, every year from 2004 through 2011. I point this out for two reasons. One is that it’s plausible to me that there isn’t much more we can do to affect the murder rate in a given year. It is what it is, and outside of larger societal trends that affect the crime rate in general, year to year variations are likely to be statistical noise. What that means is that if the number creeps back up to 250 or so for Houston in 2012, it doesn’t represent a failure of public policy, just a return to historic norms after an unusually slow year. That’s not going to stop the city from taking credit for the decline, nor should it. They do have some policies to point to as causes, and as such we may see a downward trend. But don’t be surprised if it goes up this year, and don’t spend too much time looking for a reason. These things do happen.

And two, in 2010 after the uptick in unincorporated Harris County murders was noted, County Commissioner Steve Radack was critical of Sheriff Adrian Garcia for not having enough patrols to suit him. I can only presume that after two years of normal numbers, including a dip in 2011 to the lowest level seen since 2004, that Radack will now be fulsome in his praise of the Sheriff for his restoration of law and order. Otherwise, his criticism from two years ago will have been shown to be little more than crass political haymaking, and surely that wasn’t the case. Right?

Investigations all around

There’s a second grand jury looking into Harris County DA Pat Lykos.

Sources close to the investigation said a special prosecutor was appointed last week to look into claims by Shirley Cornelius, a 27-year-veteran of the office, that she was asked to change her time cards to delete accrued compensatory time.

Cornelius would not comment Wednesday on the new development.

In her August 2010 resignation letter, she alleged that a supervisor, acting on orders from the administration, asked her to change a time sheet. Harris County employees do not get overtime. Rather, any overtime they work is added to a pool of time they can take off later.

Cornelius, who became a licensed attorney in 1983, wrote in her resignation letter that she refused to change the official record because it would have been a criminal offense.

Instead, she said, supervisors in the office should be prosecuted for coercion.

Murray Newman wrote about that at the time. Meanwhile, the first grand jury ran into some resistance from other members of Lykos’ office.

Rachel Palmer, a high-ranking assistant Harris County district attorney who oversees the prosecution of hundreds of cases, stunned Houston’s criminal courthouse Thursday by pleading the Fifth Amendment instead of answering questions about evidence gathered by HPD’s beleaguered breath alcohol testing vehicles.

For months, a grand jury has been investigating issues surrounding the Houston Police Department’s BAT vans and possibly the DA’s office’s involvement.

On Thursday, Palmer was told she is not the target of that investigation when she was subpoenaed by the grand jury, according to court records.

She refused to answer questions, citing her constitutional rights, according to court records. It is unusual for a witness who is not being targeted to say that her answers could incriminate her.

Palmer’s actions prompted the grand jury’s special prosecutors to haul her before state District Judge Susan Brown and file a motion to compel her to testify.

Brown said she would hear arguments from both sides in a full hearing Monday. She could compel Palmer to answer specific questions the special prosecutors gave the judge.

Feels like a plot from a David Kelly show, doesn’t it? As far as we know, Lykos has not professed a desire to kiss one of her employees behind the right ear, so she has that going for her. Mark Bennett has more.

Elsewhere in county government, as I noted yesterday, the FBI is taking a look at some personnel files belonging to Constable Jack Abercia. Not clear what that’s about, but any time the words “FBI investigatin” are used in proximity to your name, it’s never a good thing. The Harris County Attorney’s office is also looking at some things Constables do.

First Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke said his office is examining all the nonprofit charitable organizations being run by constables to ensure their activities meet the law. The county attorney is also reviewing a widely used program that allows neighborhood groups and homeowners associations to hire constables for security services. Officials want to check if the time the deputies spend on patrol are consistent with the terms of their security contract.

“This is the backbone of security in much of the city, and in a lot of the unincorporated area,” O’Rourke said. “This is serious stuff, and we are looking into it.”

The third area of the county’s inquiry is the lawful practice of constables pocketing fees for serving notices to vacate, the first step in a eviction ordered by a Justice of the Peace, O’Rourke said.

According to state law, eviction notices may only be delivered when not in conflict with the constable’s official duties, and the deputies cannot be wearing a uniform or driving a county vehicle or county equipment while delivering them.

O’Rourke said each of the eight constables handles serving eviction notices differently. He added that one allegation his office is examining is whether the notices are being served by county employees while on duty.

He said his office will complete a comprehensive report on constable operations by late January.

On top of all that, Constables May Walker and Victor Trevino are being investigated separately over allegations that they had county employees perform political fundraising on county time. Walker’s predecessor had his own troubles as well. Grits has often written that the office of Constable is a political anachronism that ought to be eliminated. Without commenting on the merits of any of these investigations, as I know precious little about them, it’s not hard to see where he’s coming from.

FBI investigation of HCC

Any time the FBI comes to town to investigate possible corruption in your business, it’s not a good thing.

The FBI is investigating possible corruption at Houston Community College, an inquiry that appears to involve its former chief financial officer and a construction company founded by a friend.

The college has cited an ongoing law enforcement investigation as a reason it cannot release numerous records related to its former vice chancellor of finance, Gloria Walker, and the Houston construction firm RHJ-JOC, which did business with HCC.

The company was picked for a multimillion-dollar campus renovation project that later drew questions because the college did not solicit competitive bids specifically for the deal.

Walker and Eva Jackson, founder and chairwoman of RHJ-JOC, have denied wrongdoing and say they are not aware of a criminal investigation. The Houston Chronicle confirmed the FBI’s involvement with a source who has knowledge of the probe, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Texas Southern University, where Walker worked after leaving HCC in early 2008, also said it cannot release documents about Walker and RHJ, in part because of a law enforcement investigation.

FBI special agent and spokeswoman Shauna Dunlap said that under agency policy she could not confirm or deny an investigation.

Generally speaking, she said, “We take all allegations of public corruption very seriously. So if anyone has any knowledge or information regarding allegations of public corruption, we ask they come to us. Public corruption is our No. 1 criminal priority.”

I haven’t been following a lot of this stuff closely. Texas Watchdog has been all over it; see their report on interconnected ethics issues for a start. When this all breaks – it’s nearly impossible to imagine there won’t be a bunch of indictments to follow – it’s going to get ugly.

FBI smacks down Riddle and Gohmert

The whole “terrorist babies” delusion is so mind-bendingly stupid that it doesn’t even belong on late night public access TV, but such is the nature of our discourse that it was featured on Anderson Cooper 360 Tuesday. Thankfully, Cooper took the time to try to clean up the mess that was left in his studio as a result.

So on Wednesday night, Cooper hosted Tom Fuentes, who served as the FBI’s assistant director in the office of international operations from 2004 to 2008.

“The FBI has 75 offices overseas, including offices in Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan,” explained Fuentes. “There was never a credible report — or any report, for that matter — coming across through all the various mechanisms of communication to indicate that there was such a plan for these terror babies to be born.

“Also, I’d like to add, there seems to be a lot of former FBI agents lurking in the halls of Congress and in the legislature in the state of Texas, so I’m kind of curious about that issue as well.”

“I think — in this case, I think the FBI has knocked this story down completely, officially or unofficially,” Fuentes also added. “I think at first they didn’t want to comment on it just because they didn’t want to lend any credence to the people spreading it, but realized that there has to be some comment or else the no comment, you know, means there might be some secret classified information out there, but — but there is no credible information about this particular aspect.

“And something else I caught in your interview of Debbie Riddle where she says a former FBI agent informed her office. What does that mean? They talked to a receptionist? They talked to the janitor? You don’t talk to an office. If an FBI agent was going to brief someone that’s a public official about a sensitive matter of potential terrorism, they’re not going to talk to anybody but the elected official himself or herself.”

This all vaguely reminds me of the ritual abuse panic of the 80s, which at least had something sort of resembling “evidence” to back it up. Except that in this case, the kids are part of the imagined evil plot, too. I’m going to go have a stiff drink now. The Trib has more.

SWAT team

I’m not sure about this.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office is starting an elite “high-risk” squad with the aim of developing it into a full-fledged SWAT team.

Maj. Bob Doguim began soliciting applications for the eight-member team two weeks ago, just about the time his boss, Sheriff Adrian Garcia, was preparing a budget plan that would slash department spending by $47 million in the year that begins March 1.

The high-risk unit’s first hires will come from the existing ranks as the deputies’ union is sending out a newsletter criticizing the sheriff for what it calls “reduced boots on the ground.”

Doguim said that because the start-up costs for equipment, training and vehicles are covered by a $1 million federal grant and the unit’s members will be drawn from existing deputies, it will not necessitate additional spending, at first. But he acknowledged that replacement equipment, future training and, perhaps, even backfilled positions vacated by the deputies who join the team could cost general fund money in the future.

The Sheriff’s Office typically summons the Houston Police Department’s Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, unit for high-risk situations. The FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety also have SWAT units that can deploy in Harris County.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that such a unit will cost general fund money in the future. I can’t imagine a realistic scenario where it wouldn’t. Putting aside questions about the national trend of militarizing the police, given that Harris County has gone this long without its own SWAT team one wonders why we need one now. Sure, it’s possible there could be “multiple incidents around the city”, as Maj. Dogium suggests, but that seems like a fairly low-probability event, for which we’ll need to pay for and maintain a full-time unit and its equipment. I’m not sold on the value proposition here. I’m willing to hear more, but my starting position is that we’re fine as things are now.

Play politics first, ask questions later

The number of homicides increased in unincorporated Harris County last year while declining in Houston.

With only a few hours left in the year, 86 murders had occurred in the county’s unincorporated areas in 2009, up from 69 in 2008. The county saw 62 murders in 2007.

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Thomas Gilliland said the department doesn’t know why murders have jumped, and at a time when violence is decreasing across the nation.

“We don’t know the reason or have empirical evidence as to why,” he said Thursday. “Common sense might say it’s the economy with people under a lot of stress, but we don’t know what causes people to commit homicide. ”

For the record, the corresponding numbers for Houston were 281 in 2009, 295 in 2008, and 353 in 2007.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said authorities will be analyzing the cases and looking at such factors as patrol and demographics.

“The sheriff and the district attorney and everybody in law enforcement obviously need to take a look at this and find out what’s going on,” Emmett said. “We need to know: ‘Where are the murders occurring? Is there a pattern?’”

Emmett figured a driver is a burgeoning population out in the county, fueled in part by more city dwellers moving outward.

I suspect Judge Emmett is correct, but we don’t have enough information to say. What exactly is the population of “unincorporated Harris County”, and by how much has it grown over the last couple of years? We’re talking about a fairly small number of homicides here, and with such a small number it may be that the per capita rate hasn’t changed much at all. It also may be the case that this is little more than statistical noise, and that the number of murders in unincorporated Harris County may decline this year even if the Sheriff and the DA do nothing different. Again, at least based on this article, we just don’t know enough to draw any conclusions. Not that that will stop people from doing so if they have an agenda to push.

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack blamed at least part of the increase on a reduction in patrol, reducing police visibility in the unincorporated areas.

“The backbone of any police agency is patrol,” he said. “Dozens have been moved out of patrol and moved into internal affairs.”

Just so we’re clear here, Radack is apparently still mad about a decision Sheriff Garcia made in April to assign more investigators to the Office of Inspector General, to help clean up one of the many messes left behind by his predecessor, in this case a large backlog of unresolved complaints against jailers and deputies. Radack of course has no idea why the number of murders rose, or even if the rise in absolute numbers necessarily implies anything more than a teeny tick up in the murder rate, but that won’t stop him from trying to pin the blame for it on the Sheriff.

The thing is, Radack’s complaint is shaky at best on its face. Look at this FBI data table from 2008, which shows murder circumstances by relationship. Of the 7,918 murders in 2008 for which the identity of the murderer was known, 6,176 of them were committed by someone the victim knew – family member, friend, neighbor, or acquaintance. Only 1,742 homicides – 22% of the total – were committed by strangers. How much effect do you think increased police patrols would have had on those 6,000+ killings where the killer and victim knew each other? My guess would be not very much.

Now, this is a facile analysis as well, since “acquaintance” accounts for nearly half of the “someone the victim knew” total, and a fair number of those crimes might have occurred in situations where having more police around could have prevented them. A junkie and his dealer would be acquaintances, for example. There were also 6,268 homicides for which the killer was officially unknown, and surely a higher percentage of those would have been stranger killings. The Chron story talks about how a large fraction of murders in Houston are concentrated in a few areas (this is not unusual), and as far as that goes, beefing up police presence in those areas has a positive effect. But again, at least based on this article, we have no idea if similar hot spots exist in unincorporated Harris, and if so what the numbers look like if you separate out those areas from the rest. The point I’m making is simply that Radack’s comment isn’t particularly constructive, and that’s because it wasn’t meant to be.

UPDATE: Check the comments for some great numbers and maps from Jay Crossley of Houston Tomorrow. Thanks, Jay!

Eversole running for re-election

Surprise!

Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole announced on Friday that he will run for re-election, potentially pitting him against a term-limited Houston city councilwoman and, perhaps, his own tarnished reputation.

Eversole, 66, who was hit with a $75,000 fine in the summer by the Texas Ethics Commission over campaign spending violations, said he decided to seek a fifth term to complete a number of highway projects and a major park complex in his precinct.

“Well, I enjoy the job, I enjoy getting up in the morning and doing what the job involves,” he said on Friday. “At the end of the day, I’ve got projects that were started that I want to see moved along or completed.”

That sound you hear is Toni Lawrence spitting nails. On the plus side, this has the potential to be an even more entertaining Republican primary than Perry/Hutchison. There will be plenty of material for the oppo researchers. I mean, a little more than a year ago, Eversole was convinced that the FBI was out to get him. Surely we’ll be hearing plenty more about that, and who knows what else besides.

Ethics reform is hard

It’s been a long and winding road for ethics reform in Harris County, and it isn’t getting any easier.

Harris County Commissioner’s Court next week will consider a series of ethics reforms aimed at increasing accountability for and disclosure of the flow of money through government.

The proposals, which County Judge Ed Emmett placed on next week’s agenda, are weaker than a series of changes recommended last year and include the voluntary registration of lobbyists and the formation of an ethics advisory board. They follow months of delay on ethics reform, which had been a centerpiece of Emmett’s election campaign last year.

It remained unclear Wednesday whether the measures will receive enough support from Commissioner’s Court.

Commissioner Jerry Eversole questioned whether the measures cover any territory the Texas Ethics Commission does not already address. Eversole has been criticized for questionable campaign spending and a history of vague disclosures.

“I have had my problems, but my problems are getting worked out,” he said. “This is putting something into the air that doesn’t need to be put there because the majority of Harris County government has been good.”

Just so we’re all clear, this is the guy who said last year that he expects to be busted by the FBI. I wonder how that’s progressing, by the way. Anybody hearing anything on that?

One recommendation, which would limit the ability of elected officials and department heads from profiting from county connections after joining the private sector, was the subject of a bill sought by Commissioner Sylvia Garcia.

The so-called “revolving door” restriction, which would require former county employees to wait two years before lobbying the county or benefiting from contracts they worked on as employees, was approved by the Legislature. Barring a veto by Gov. Rick Perry, the bill will become law in September.

Garcia said she would have liked to have seen other measures taken to Austin.

“I fully expected the ethics package to be pursued in Austin, but the judge made his decision,” Garcia said. “But I also really think some of these things we can phase in.”

Emmett said the other measures were not pushed in the last legislative session because the county chose to focus on other targets.

“I tend to deal in the art of the possible,” he said. “I have a limited number of things that can be pursued at one time.”

Given the reception Judge Emmett is getting from Commissioners Eversole and Radack, perhaps this was the best that could be done. Assuming that it does, in fact, get done. If it doesn’t, what will Emmett campaign on next year? Somehow I don’t see him promising to work to replace Commissioners who aren’t on board with this.

UPDATE: Texas Watchdog has more.

Terri Hodge draws a challenger

State Rep. Terri Hodge, a fixture in HD100 since 1996, has drawn a challenger for next year.

Dallas lawyer Eric Johnson announced [Friday] that he is running for the District 100 seat in the Texas House.

That’s the seat currently being held by embattled Democrat Terri Hodge.

Hodge is currently under federal indictment on bribery charges and is expected to go to trial this summer.

She has not had a major opponent since being elected to the House in 1996.

Several candidates have expressed interest in running for the District 100 seat, but most of their plans were contingent on Hodge being convicted of a felony that would have disqualified her from office.

In his release that I’ve attached below, Johnson appears to be running no matter what happens to Hodge at trial.

Expect other candidates to join the fray if things don’t go Hodge’s way.

I got that release late last week as well, and a subsequent one that I’ve put beneath the fold as well. Here’s a couple of updates on that bribery case. Most of those charged are going to trial on June 22, though Rep. Hodge will be tried separately. It ought to be a high-profile case.

The Observer wrote a profile of Rep. Hodge last year after no one filed to run against her despite the charges that had been filed. She’s been a staunch advocate for her district, where the article notes the charges are seen (or at least were at the time) with skepticism, and a tough competitor. At the end of this legislative session, she asserted her innocence to the DMN. I’ve no idea how this will go for her, but it’ll be very interesting to watch.

(more…)

Tweet it! The cops!

New frontiers in social networking and law enforcement.

Milwaukee’s department is one of a growing number of police and fire agencies turning to social networking Web sites such as Twitter, which lets users send text-message “tweets” to a mass audience in 140 characters or less. The tweets can be read on the Web or on mobile phones within seconds.

Some departments use Twitter to alert people to traffic disruptions, to explain why police are in a certain neighborhood or to offer crime prevention tips. Others encourage leads on more pressing matters: bomb scares, wildfires, school lockdowns and evacuations.

[…]

One risk of Twitter is that anyone can go on the site and claim to be the cops. In March, the Texas attorney general’s office shut down a phony Twitter account called “Austin PD,” which had about 450 followers and used the official city seal.

The culprit has not been arrested, so his or her intent is not yet known. Mainly the tweets were in a joking vein, such as “Warming up my radar gun for SXSW,” a reference to Austin’s South By Southwest music conference.

But the potential for more dangerous misinformation worries Craig Mitnick, founder of Nixle LLC, which offers what it calls a secure “municipal wire” that public agencies can use instead of Twitter to broadcast updates.

Web sites like Twitter or Facebook are “meant for social purposes and not for trusted information,” Mitnick said. “It’s a bombshell waiting to explode.”

[Milwaukee police spokeswoman Anne E.] Schwartz pointed out that anyone concerned about the validity of the Milwaukee police posts on Twitter can call the department, and she said most of its posts direct readers back to the police Web site as well.

I could be wrong, but I think the fake “Austin PD” example will turn out to be an exception. Twitter is sufficiently easy to use that I think most law enforcement agencies will adopt it sooner rather than later. Plus, how hard is it really to verify that a given account is legit? If nothing else, I’d expect that any new law enforcement-related Twitter sighting will get checked out via traditional media, many of whom have enthusiastically jumped on the Twitter bandwagon or by crowdsourcing pretty quickly. I seriously doubt that any copycat attempts will be nearly as successful as “Austin PD” was. There may be value in a product like Nixle – I’m not familiar with it, so I can’t offer a judgment of it – but I think calling Twitter and Facebook a potential bombshell for law enforcement is a serious overbid.