Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Heliodoro Martinez

Endorsement watch: First, reform the office

The Chron has almost as much to say about the office of Constable as it does about the candidates for Constable that they prefer.

Harris County needs to bring these law enforcement fiefdoms in line: Update precincts to equalize populations, reduce the competing bureaucracies, centralize the evidence room and put county law enforcement responsibility in the hands of the Sheriff’s Office. Harris County also needs to encourage unincorporated regions to directly fund their own law enforcement, whether through independent taxing districts or incorporation into formal cities.

It is time to return constables to their core duties. It will save taxpayer dollars, streamline government and knock out some of Harris County’s most problem-prone institutions.

Until that day, the Houston Chronicle editorial board makes the following endorsements in the contested races for Harris County constables.

Alan Rosen

Alan Rosen

Constable, Precinct 1: Alan Rosen

Since his election in 2012, Constable Alan Rosen has set the standard across the county for professionalism. While his precinct covers the western half of the Inner Loop and inside Beltway 8 from US 290 to Interstate 69, Rosen, 48, also has the countywide responsibility of serving juvenile and mental health warrants and of overseeing environmental investigations and animal cruelty cases. The Democratic incumbent has put a strong emphasis on training and community relationships. For example, when Houstonians marched downtown to protest police brutality and in support of racial equality, Rosen spoke to the crowd about the shared pain felt by communities and law enforcement officers.

Constable, Precinct 2: Christopher (Chris) Diaz

Our choice is the incumbent Christopher (Chris) Diaz, a former mayor and councilman in Jacinto City.

Constable, Precinct 3: Dan Webb

Incumbent Preinct 3 Constable Ken Jones is retiring and residents of Harris County would do well to cast their ballots for Republican Dan Webb, who currently holds a Department of Public Safety Commission as a Special Ranger and has 33 active-duty years of law enforcement service. Webb promises to fix the “good ol boy” promotion system at this precinct, which encompasses Channelview, Huffman, Crosby and Highlands and part of the Northshore communities.

Constable, Precinct 4: Jeff McGowen

If Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman, a Republican, worked in the private sector, he would have been fired for the evidence room scandal that occurred on his watch. This race should be viewed as an opportunity to remove a politician who has failed at a job and elect a replacement.

Voters in this massive precinct, which stretches across north Harris County from US 290 to Lake Houston, luckily have a qualified candidate in Jeff McGowen. The Democratic challenger is a 23-year veteran of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and is a strong advocate for community policing. In a meeting with the editorial board, McGowen, 46, offered proposals on improved training and greater coordination between precincts.

Constable, Precinct 6: Richard “Rick” Gonzales

Silvia Treviño isn’t asking anyone to call her madre, but students of Texas history should see reflections of Pa and Ma Ferguson – the unfortunate tag-team husband and wife Texas governors – in this race for Precinct 6 Constable.

Silvia’s husband, former Precinct 6 Constable Victor Treviño, is currently on probation for spending charity dollars at a Louisiana casino and faces newfound scrutiny for running an evidence room that had not been cleaned out or organized during his 26 years. Now Silvia is running to take her husband’s former position and defeated incumbent Precinct 6 Constable Heliodoro Martinez in the Democratic primary.

It is time to make a full break and elect someone new.

Constable, Precinct 8: Phil Sandlin

Incumbent Phil Sandlin is the right man to be constable of this southeast precinct that borders the Houston Ship Channel and includes NASA and many large chemical complexes.

I’m not going to argue with any of the Chron’s endorsement choices. There are a lot of less-than-inspiring candidates on the ballot, though thankfully my own Precinct 1 is in a much better place than it was four years ago. I think the Chron’s litany of complaints about the function and role of the Constable in Harris County deserves attention. We are going to be electing a new County Judge in 2018, and I hope we will also have a spirited race for County Commissioner Precinct 2. Both of these present an opportunity to have a discussion about the role of the Constables, among other things. If we want things to be different we can make it so, but it’s not going to happen without an active effort.

It’s not just Precinct 4

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

Constable Mark Herman

Constable Mark Herman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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