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Texans for Public Justice

Paxton could be in real trouble


Ken Paxton

The criminal investigation against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has taken a more serious turn, with special prosecutors now planning to present a first-degree felony securities fraud case against him to a Collin County grand jury, News 8 has learned.

Special prosecutor Kent Schaffer told News 8 Wednesday afternoon that the Texas Rangers uncovered new evidence during the investigation that led to the securities fraud allegations against the sitting attorney general.

“The Rangers went out to investigate one thing, and they came back with information on something else,” Schaffer told News 8. “It’s turned into something different than when they started.”

Schaffer, a Houston criminal defense attorney, said the securities fraud allegations involve amounts well in excess of $100,000. He declined to comment specifics of the fraud allegations.

A first-degree felony conviction is punishable by up to life in prison.

Ponder that for a moment – “punishable by up to life in prison”. Not that I expect any such outcome, but how often do you hear that sort of thing said about an incumbent elected official? Again, this may very well turn out to be nothing, or at least something a lot less than that. But still.

Schaffer said he and the other special prosecutor will begin presenting their case to a Collin County grand jury within the next few weeks. He said he anticipates eight to nine witnesses will appear before the grand jury.

“We believe that there’s sufficient evidence to present to a grand jury,” Schaffer said.

Schaffer said he also anticipates presenting a case involving failing to register, which is a third-degree felony.

The investigation had started with allegations that Paxton violated the law when he failed to register as an investment advisor with the state.

News 8 also learned Wednesday that Paxton had hired a former federal district judge.

“I met with General Paxton and he had retained me to look into the matter,” said Joe Kendall, who practices in Dallas. “I am honored that he did. He’s a good man.”

Kendall told News 8 that he met with Paxton “very recently” in Dallas and confirmed that he was hired within the past two days.

“I’m going to be helping look into the matter,” Kendall said, declining to comment further.

See here, here, and here for the background. The Chron story dredges up a quote from Paxton’s longtime flak Anthony Holm in which he says that “at least three other entities have thoroughly reviewed these matters and each chose not to proceed”. One of them was the Travis County DA’s office, which concluded it didn’t have jurisdiction. One was the Dallas County DA’s office, which didn’t say why it declined to move forward. I’m not sure who the third was, but this sure is beginning to sound like whistling past the graveyard.

Perhaps that’s why Paxton was so aggressive in his response.

“This appears to be a politically motivated effort to ruin the career of a longtime public servant,” Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm said in a statement that also accused the two attorneys of building their case in the press. “These attacks on Ken Paxton appear to have become a political hit-job in the media, perhaps having the effect of inappropriately influencing the grand jury.”


Holm said Thursday that neither Schaffer nor Wice have “significant prosecutorial experience,” adding that it appears only one case has been prosecuted between the two of them. Neither Schaffer nor Wice has worked as a prosecutor, but both have extensive backgrounds in criminal defense. Wice was on the team that defended former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, against corruption and money laundering charges.

“Not only do they appear inexperienced as prosecutors, they are from Houston,” Holm said. “Meanwhile thousands of experienced prosecutors and former prosecutors are in the Dallas area.”

Wow. One wonders who it is that authored this “hit job” on Paxton, given that (as a commenter on this Trib story noted) he’s been “indicted in one of the most Republican counties – Collin County – by a special prosecutor appointed by a Republican judge who is a friend of Paxton, in an investigation that was led by the Texas Rangers, which is part of the state government, which is led by all Republicans”. I know he’s just playing to the cheap seats, but you’d think he could at least let us know who he thinks is persecuting him. As for the dig on the special prosecutors, I’m pretty sure that Schaffer and Wice know their way around a criminal courtroom, regardless of what table they’re sitting at. When was the last time Paxton himself was in a courtroom? If this were the runup to a sporting event, we’d say that he just provided some bulletin board material for his opponents. I don’t know if this would be motivational to Schaffer and Wice, but they’re human beings, too. I know I’d focus a little harder after being insulted like that.

Anyway. In case anyone is wondering, if at some point Paxton resigns, the Governor appoints a replacement, who must be confirmed by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. That could get interesting, but we’re way ahead of ourselves. I can’t wait till the grand jury proceedings begin. A statement from Texans for Public Justice is beneath the fold, and Burka, PDiddie, Campos, Juanite, the Current, and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: Well, this sure answers my questions about Schaffer and Wice.

Reached for comment late Thursday, Schaffer said Holm “never denies the criminal conduct.”

“I noticed that in Mr. Holm’s obligatory statement there was not one time that he said that Mr. Paxton did not do the things that we are looking at,” said Schaffer. “I found (that) very concerning.”

Wice and Schaffer issued a lengthy statement criticizing Holm’s remarks as “the usual sound bites, culled from the play book of any public official whose conduct places them in the cross-hairs of a grand jury investigation.

“Tellingly, Mr. Paxton feels that a Dallas address or a career spent as a prosecutor somehow trumps our over seven decades of trial and appellate experience as two of Texas’s most respected criminal lawyers,” the statement reads. “We were brought in from Houston to ensure that an investigation that could have easily been driven by partisan politics and political agendas would not.”

It adds, “The facts, which Mr. Paxton would rather ignore than acknowledge, are, as Churchill said, stubborn things. And that’s exactly what we will provide the grand jury with: the facts. Our investigation will continue to be informed by what our oaths as special prosecutors commands: to do justice. And sound bites and personal attacks won’t change that.”

It. Is. On. Get that popcorn popping.


TPJ refiles complaint against Paxton

We’ll see if they have any better luck this time.

Ken Paxton

Texans for Public Justice on Monday re-filed its criminal complaint against Attorney General Ken Paxton with local prosecutors in Dallas and Collin Counties, arguing the latter should recuse himself because of conflict of interest concerns.

“Mr. Paxton’s conduct demands a thorough and independent investigation,” Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, wrote to Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis.

“We further believe that as a friend and business associate of Mr. Paxton that you should recuse yourself from this matter. To ensure independent and impartial judgment, you should forward our complaint to the proper judicial authority to appoint an independent special prosecutor to investigate Mr. Paxton’s conduct.”


McDonald has accused Collin County of “stonewalling” his group’s efforts because of Willis’ long-time friendship and business relationship with the new attorney general. The two men have known each other for more than 30 years and have invested in at least four different ventures together.

The conflict of interest problems McDonald cites in his letter also have concerned lawmakers considering a proposal to move the Public Integrity Unit outside of Travis County. Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, on Friday also called for Willis to recuse himself, and said the concerns the Paxton case raises illustrate the pitfalls of handing public corruption cases to hometown prosecutors who inevitably have deep ties with local politicians.

See here for the background. A copy of the letter sent to Collin County DA Greg Willis is here, a copy of the letter sent to Dallas County DA Susan Hawk is here, and a copy of the complaint sent to Collin County is here. I can’t wait to see what if any response they get. What recourse TPJ may have if no action is taken is not clear to me.

Bill to neuter Public Integrity Unit advances

Still a bad idea.

Sen. Joan Huffman

A measure that would take the state’s public corruption-fighting unit out of the hands of the Travis County district attorney’s office and place it in the Texas attorney general’s office was approved Monday by the Senate State Affairs Committee.

The 7-2 vote in favor of Senate Bill 10, authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, now moves to the full Texas Senate for a vote.

“We can’t create a perfect system here, you know,” Huffman said. “I’ve tried to create a scheme where a lot of people have input.”

Under Huffman’s bill, public corruption accusations, which are currently handled by a public integrity unit within the Travis County DA’s office, would first be investigated by the attorney general’s office with assistance from a Texas Department of Public Safety ranger assigned to that office.

If the attorney general review found that the complaint had merit, the case would be transferred to the home county of the public official, and the local district attorney in that county would pursue the case, taking it to a grand jury there.

Huffman said her bill makes the process fairer and removes the politicized nature of the office.

See here for the background. I agree with Texans for Public Justice:

Statement by Craig McDonald, director, Texans for Public Justice.

“SB 10 is a politicians dream, a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card for public officials. SB 10 creates a special legal system reserved for politicians only — a system designed to end corruption prosecutions, not pursue them.

The bill is another attack on local control by big government Republicans. It strips all county district attorneys of their traditional power to prosecute corruption within their own jurisdictions. It transfers that power directly to the Attorney General.

Senator Huffman claims her bill will “restore public confidence” in corruption investigations and then hands those cases to a partisan attorney general, himself under a cloud of corruption allegations. In fact, punishing a corrupt politician under SB 10 requires the unanimous approval of the attorney general, the Texas Rangers, a state judge AND a district or county attorney

SB 10 will likely breed more corruption by advertising the fact that there is no functioning deterrent.”

Here’s their analysis of how this change might affect investigations of officeholders going forward. I’ll just say again, if Sam Houston were the Attorney General, this bill would not have been filed. Trail Blazers has more.

Perry’s legal team to try to get indictments tossed

It’s what any defense attorney would try to do.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

This corndog has done nothing wrong

A lawyer for Gov. Rick Perry said Friday he will challenge felony charges that the governor overstepped his authority when he said he would veto state funding for Travis County prosecutors if District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg would not resign her post.

David Botsford, an attorney for Perry, informed Visiting Judge Bert Richardson he plans to file a writ of habeas corpus challenging the constitutionality of the laws underlying the two-count indictment against Perry.

“It will speak for itself,” Botsford told reporters. He said his challenge would be based on the governor’s power to veto and his First Amendment rights.


Both Botsford and Michael McCrum, the San Antonio defense attorney who was appointed the special prosecutor in the case, met with Judge Richardson Friday. After a 35-minute meeting in the judge’s chambers, the two attorneys came out and Richardson informed the court Botsford would turn in his challenges to the indictment by Aug. 29.

Once those objections have been filed, McCrum will file his responses and the first full hearing in the Perry criminal case will be scheduled.

Outside the courtroom, McCrum declined to talk about his strategy or address criticism about the indictment returned against the governor.

“I think it’s appropriate to approach this case in a court of law,” said McCrum, who anticipated that a trial in the matter would not take place until next year.

Novel idea, that. Just as a reminder, the complaint was filed before Rick Perry vetoed the Public Integrity Unit funds, so we’ll see how far that gets with the judge. Costs them nothing to try, and hey, you never know.

An earlier story about the defense strategy contained some interesting legal analyses.

“If I was on the Perry defense team, I would be asking for the quickest trial date I could get,” said Paul Coggins, a defense attorney with the Locke Lord law firm and a former U.S. attorney in Dallas. “Let’s load it up in 30 days. Let’s go.”

Coggins, a Democrat, said the next thing to watch for is Perry’s team challenging the Texas statute behind the two felony counts.

“They’ll take a swipe at the statute,” he said. “The statute is too vague. You’re going to do that at least. I think the judge is going to have some real issues with the statute.”

The two-page indictment gave few clues as to how grand jurors were convinced Perry may have done something illegal. And Coggins said that unless McCrum can prove to jurors that Perry’s veto threat was illegal, it will go nowhere.

“Based upon what we know so far, if there isn’t some incredibly powerful, smoking gun that we’ve heard nothing about, then I don’t think this case should have gone to the grand jury,” Coggins said.

Not so fast, says Bill Mateja, a defense attorney in the Dallas office of Fish & Richardson. Mateja is a former federal prosecutor who knows McCrum, the San Antonio defense attorney tapped by Richardson, well.

“I’ve worked with Mike McCrum,” Mateja said. “I cannot believe that Mike McCrum decided to indict Rick Perry based solely on Rick Perry playing politics. I can believe that Mike McCrum indicted Rick Perry because there is something more than we’ve seen.”

Mateja, who described himself as a conservative Republican and a Perry supporter, said that if McCrum’s case doesn’t show more than what is already known, then it’s a “bad indictment.”

I think we all agree on that. As for McCrum, he had a few things to say as well.

McCrum said he would respond in court to Perry’s filing.

“At this time, I feel confident of the charges. I feel confident of the facts as applied to the law, and I will move forward,” he said.

McCrum said he expects the case to go to trial because “I anticipate that Mr. Perry will never plead guilty.” He said he thinks a trial would not be until next year.


McCrum was asked by reporters about the drumbeat from Perry and his team that the case against him is politically motivated.

The San Antonio lawyer said he didn’t plan to discuss strategy or evidence in the case, pointing out that Perry’s lawyers are “talking about the theories of law and whether or not the facts support those theories.”

“On this situation, I think it’s important that I approach it with dignity and respect for our system of justice,” McCrum said.

He also declined to supply his own political affiliation.

“I don’t feel that anything about politics is relevant to this case insofar as my politics are concerned,” McCrum said in response to a reporter’s question. “And so with all due respect, sir, I can’t dignify the question because by answering it, I give it relevance, and I don’t think it has relevance.”

It shouldn’t have any relevance, but you know how that goes. Going back to the earlier story, Mateja also predicted the defense would try to get the indictments tossed. If that happens, that would be a huge victory for Perry and an equally huge egg to Mike McCrum’s face. Again, I’m not a lawyer and I have no expertise in this matter, but again there’s nothing in Mike McCrum’s history to suggest that he’s gone off half-cocked. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that McCrum has more up his sleeve than he’s shown so far. Maybe that won’t be enough. We’ll get some idea of that this week.

On a side note, the two-man team at Texans for Public Justice wrote a piece for Politico that called out various liberal pundits for their embarrassing ignorance in the Perry matter. They didn’t break any new ground, but at least the word is getting out there that the indictment isn’t about what a lot of people leaped to conclude it was about.

Perry indicted


Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

A grand jury indicted Gov. Rick Perry on Friday on charges of abuse of power and coercion as part of an ethics inquiry into his veto of funding for the state’s public integrity unit.

The inquiry began last summer after an ethics complaint was filed alleging that Perry had improperly used a veto to deny funding for the unit, which is housed in the Travis County district attorney’s office and focuses on government corruption and tax fraud.

The indictment throws a major wrench in Perry’s possible presidential ambitions; he was in Iowa last week and was expected in both New Hampshire and South Carolina in coming weeks. Perry is the first Texas governor to be indicted in almost a century.

Perry had been riding high and making national headlines in recent weeks, railing against the Obama administration for a perceived lack of response to the humanitarian crisis on the Texas-Mexico border, then reallocating funds to send National Guard troops there himself.

Now, he’ll be playing defense.

The first count, abuse of official capacity, is a first-degree felony with a potential penalty of five to 99 years in prison. The second count, coercion of a public servant, is a third-degree felony with a penalty of two to 10 years.

Michael McCrum, the special investigator in the case, said he interviewed more than 40 people and reviewed hundreds of documents in the case.

He said that a time would be set up for Perry to come to court, be arraigned and given official notice of his charges.

I’ve done a ton of blogging on this, so click away for the backstory, or read the NYT story and this Observer explainer to get caught up. You can also see the original complaint and press release from TPJ. The key thing to keep in mind is that while a lot of headlines (like this one) will say that Perry was indicted because of the veto of the Public Integrity Unit funds, that’s really not quite accurate. It was the threat of the veto combined with the demand that Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg – elected by the people and not answerable to Rick Perry – accede to Perry’s order or else. That’s where he overstepped his bounds, and it’s what the veto is all about. What happens from here – other than the you-know-what hitting the fan – is anyone’s guess. Remember how Tom DeLay was indicted in 2006 and his legal fate is still unresolved? We could be here for awhile, is what I’m saying. Texas Politics, Trail Blazers, the HuffPo, the Statesman, the Observer, Hair Balls, Burka, the Current, Juanita, the AusChron, PDiddie, Ross Ramsey, and Progress Texas have more.

Great moments in false equivalence

The headline reads Money from disputed tax bills flowing to candidates for top tax chief, and then the story tells us that more than 99% of that money is going to one of those candidates.


Business entities and taxpayers are pumping thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of candidates who, if elected state comptroller, would receive their tax-bill complaints.

The Texas Comptroller’s Office is charged with collecting state tax revenue and implementing state tax law. And even though the state auditor sought a ban on business contributions to comptroller candidates nine years ago, the Texas Legislature did not act and the practice prevails.

In this election cycle, businesses and lawyers with clients before the comptroller’s office have thrown more than $200,000 into the campaigns of two candidates seeking to replace Susan Combs: Republican state Sen. Glenn Hegar of Katy and Houston-area accountant Mike Collier, a Democrat.

Public watchdog groups see a potential conflict of interest.

“As long as we’re going to have comptrollers running on partisan political tickets, it’s almost impossible to filter out which contributions might not have an interest in the comptroller’s office,” said Craig McDonald, head of Texans for Public Justice.

Collier hasn’t received a lot of cash from entities with a stake in tax cases. Of the $200,000 he’s raised, only $1,500 comes from employees of ExxonMobil and BP, two energy firms with disputes before the Comptroller’s Office. He said he’d be open to legislative action barring contributions from donors with active cases with the office, but wouldn’t cut those donations out of his coffers.

“Because I’m the underdog and I’m trying to throw out the trench politicians, I’ll take money from anybody who’ll give it to me,” Collier said.

Hegar has snagged more than 10 percent of the more than $2 million he’s raised from businesses or firms with clients with active tax cases.

So in other words, of the “more than $200,000” that has been raised by the Comptroller candidates from people and firms that have business before the Comptroller’s office, at least $200,000 of it went to Glenn Hegar, while all of $1,500 went to Mike Collier. This is like saying that the Aaron brothers, Hank and Tommie, combined to hit 768 home runs in their career. One of the two contributed a lot more to the bottom line than the other. Oh, and well done on the “more than 10 percent of the more than $2 million” bit, which not only obscures the actual total (how much more than ten percent? how much more than $2 million?) it also surely confuses the more math-phobic readers about how much Hegar collected to the point where they have no idea that it’s way, way more than Collier. An impressive performance all around.

By the way, companies like BP and ExxonMobil have lots and lots of employees. Very few of those employees would have any role in or influence over the dispute process with the Comptroller’s office. Unless the BP and ExxonMobil employees cited above that donated to Mike Collier are among that small group, then the whole premise that “both candidates” are benefiting from contributions of entities and their representatives that have business before the Comptroller’s office is shot. Details, details.

The point of the story is that in 2005, a report by the Texas State Auditor showed that 750 taxpayers received $461 million in tax credits and refunds from the comptroller’s office less than a year after they or their representatives had made a contribution to then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. This was a key attack point by Rick Perry against Strayhorn in the 2006 campaign. That auditor’s report recommended that legislation be passed to the Comptroller or candidates for Comptroller from receiving campaign contributions from anyone that had a dispute pending with the office. Needless to say, nothing happened then, and nothing will happen in 2015. But at least now we’ve been reminded of the issue, and the Chronicle figured out a way to make numbers that are two orders of magnitude apart sound similar. So there’s that.

Perry special prosecutor seeks to hire investigator

Moving right along.

Rosemary Lehmberg

The special prosecutor in an ongoing investigation into whether Gov. Rick Perry violated state law by vetoing funding for the Travis County ethics-enforcement unit is seeking to hire an investigator and researcher, the first public hint the probe is moving forward past its initial stage.

In a request filed Tuesday in Travis County district court, Michael McCrum of San Antonio sought court approval to fill the temporary staff positions at a maximum cost of $2,500.


“I want to look into some matters, some issues that need to be examined and answered as a part of this case,” McCrum told the American-Statesman. “It will be cheaper for an investigator and a researcher to do it, and will keep me from being a witness in the case if I do the research myself.”

McCrum, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is now a criminal defense attorney, said the staff positions will begin work as soon as Senior District Judge Bert Richardson of San Antonio approves the hiring.

The ethics enforcement unit at the Travis County district attorney’s office normally would investigate such a complaint, but the case was referred outside the county because the Public Integrity Unit is involved in the political drama over its funding precipitated by District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s drunken driving conviction in April.


As the special prosecutor, McCrum could have looked at the complaint and dismissed it as unfounded — or he could move to further investigate it, which he has done. If the complaint is eventually validated through an investigation, officials said charges could be filed or presented to a grand jury.

Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, applauded the move by McCrum. “We’re happy to see that the special prosecutor is moving ahead to look into these serious allegations, as we think he should,” he said.

See here and here for some background. I don’t know about you, but I like having the opportunity to put “special prosecutor” and “Rick Perry” in the same sentence. Rosemary Lehmberg was no-billed by her grand jury, so she has one less thing to worry about. Perry, not so much, at least at this time. Texas Politics and Progress Texas have more.

It’s good to be a payday lender


Earlier this legislative session, a chief of staff for a senator noted that the $4 billion Texas payday and auto-title loan industry would soon grow powerful and lucrative enough that the Texas Legislature would be unable to take it on. That time may have already come.

At a legislative hearing this morning, state Sen. John Carona, the Dallas Republican who’s leading the payday “reform” effort in the Senate, basically said the industry had bought off lawmakers. Carona was defending the latest version of his payday loan legislation, which most advocates derided as unacceptably weak. Senate Bill 1247 would scuttle the efforts of most of Texas’ big cities—Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and El Paso—to rein in payday loan excesses and codify the industry’s loan products in statute.

“You have to get the most you can get with the political support that you have,” Carona said. “This industry is in business and this industry has amassed enormous political support at the Capitol.”

He urged opponents to consider that the votes were lacking in both the House and the Senate to pass anything more.

Yesterday, campaign finance watchdog Texans for Public Justice released a report that “loan sharks” had poured almost $4 million into Texas politicians during the past two election cycles.

Carona blamed the industry’s stroke for the hobbled proposal he laid out in committee this morning. In almost every respect it’s weaker than the filed bill.


“None of this will meaningfully change the market,” said Ann Baddour of Texas Appleseed.

The latest version would also allow a one-year, multi-payment auto-title loan that would cost a borrower $5,000 to pay back a $1,000 product. The previous version had capped the length of such a loan at 270 days.

“They’ve basically created new uncapped loan products,” Baddour said.

Bishop Joseph Vazquez said the legislation “offers a few positive measures while it ultimately endorses predatory lending practices.”

“Current industry practice, which would be given state sanction, only rewards borrower failure with lender profit.”

Perhaps most galling to reform advocates is that the legislation would wipe out existing city ordinances, which almost uniformly provide stricter lending regulations. While Carona lamented that legislators had been persuaded by lucre to abandon whatever conscience they might have, a city councilman from San Antonio made a salient observation.

“While they’ve amassed a significant amount of political capital here, outside of Austin there is not anywhere a component of constituents that are on their side.”

The San Antonio City Council member in question is Diego Bernal, who pushed the San Antonio effort to curb payday lending excesses and who made his feelings about the industry quite clear. Any legislation that rolls back the local efforts to regulate payday lending is not only unacceptable, it’s unconscionable. Any legislator that votes in favor of such a bill should be ashamed of themselves. Thankfully, this weakened bill may get killed in the House.

But the compromise reached with industry groups may have cost Carona his House sponsor. Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, said he does not believe “the version presented in the Senate committee today provides adequate protection for consumers.”

He left open the possibility that further negotiations would produce a stronger version. “I know Chairman Carona would like to strengthen the bill,” Villarreal said. “I’m hopeful we can pass a balanced bill. But I’d rather pass no bill than legitimize usury.”

Amen to that.

On voter confidence

There was one more interesting aspect to that poll of Harris County from last week, and it had to do with how confident voters were that the vote they cast would be counted. This KUHF story goes into that result.

A new KUHF/KHOU poll shows that black voters aren’t as confident as other voters that their vote will be counted accurately.


Rice University Political Science Professor Bob Stein, who conducted the poll, says confusion and possible anger over voter ID could be fueling the lower level of assurance.

“African-Americans here are actually considerably less confident that their vote will be counted accurately than other African-Americans throughout the country, with the exception of states who’ve had this controversy over photo IDs.”

Stein says the difference between the KUHF/KHOU poll and national polls is the level of confidence African-American voters expressed. While nationally 40-45 percent of black voters are very confident that their vote will be counted accurately. Stein says the numbers are different for those voters polled in Harris County.

“Among African-Americans only about 36% are very confident, compared to 50% white and 44% Hispanic.”

Here are the relevant tables from the topline data:

Dr. Stein asked me for my feedback on this, and I replied as follows:

Interesting stuff. From a Dem perspective, I would add two things that likely add to the perception of one’s vote not being counted:

1. In my experience, Dems have a much higher level of distrust of electronic voting machines. Some of that is lingering paranoia and conspiracy-mongering from Ohio 2004, and some of it is the very legitimate concern that these machines aren’t terribly secure and could well be compromised without anyone knowing it. The fact that every cycle there seems to be a story about some well-connected Republican having an ownership stake in a company that produces these machines, as is the case this year with Tagg Romney, adds to this level of distrust.

2. Every time something happens that causes a problem with voting, or that results in misinformation about voting, it seems to affect people of color in a vastly disproportionate amount. See the recent debacle with the “dead voter” purge here, and the recent story in Arizona about the wrong date for Election Day being provided in Spanish-language materials. Add in the various official and unofficial efforts to suppress minority voting – voter ID, the King Street Patriots’ “poll watchers”, efforts to curb early voting in Ohio, etc etc etc – and it’s easy to see why some folks feel like their vote is discounted.

Almost as if on cue, we had this story in Friday’s Chron:

State election officials repeatedly and mistakenly matched active longtime Texas voters to deceased strangers across the country – some of whom perished more than a decade ago – in an error-ridden effort to purge dead voters just weeks before the presidential election, according to a Houston Chronicle review of records.

Voters in legislative districts across Texas with heavy concentrations of Hispanics or African-Americans were more often targeted in that flawed purge effort, according the Chronicle’s analysis of more than 68,000 voters identified as possibly dead.

It’s unclear why so many more matches were generated in some minority legislative districts. One factor may be the popularity of certain surnames in Hispanic and historically black neighborhoods.

That’s as may be, and as noted before there were Anglo voters and known Republicans affected by this as well. But still, there are only so many times that this sort of thing can happen before people stop believing it to be a coincidence or an innocent mistake. Texans for Public Justice argued last week that this was anything but an innocent mistake, as they accused Andrade of deliberately trying to suppress the vote. You can read the report and come to your own conclusions, but again I’m not surprised by the poll numbers. I’m sure there are other reasons I didn’t come up with. Maybe this is an anomaly, maybe it’s a small sample size problem, but it’s worth keeping an eye on, because people who don’t think their vote counts are less likely to vote. What do you think about this?

Disclose, please

This is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough by itself.

The U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for corporations to pour money into influencing Texas elections, but the state ethics commission today is taking up a rule to make sure voters know who is spending the money.

Under the rule up for a commission vote, corporations will be able to spend money to advocate for the election or defeat of candidates, but they will have to file campaign reports disclosing where the money came from. Direct donations of corporate money to candidates will continue to be banned.

However, Craig McDonald, of Texans for Public Justice, said the rule may not require trade associations and political “front” groups to actually disclose the names of their donors. McDonald said new state and federal laws probably will be needed for that.

The Texas Association of Business is one of the most controversial Austin groups that have used corporate money in the past to influence state elections. TAB President Bill Hammond said if the group advertises in future races, it will disclose its role, but not the names of the individual corporate donors.

Requiring the campaign reports is a no-brainer. If a corporation is going to act like a PAC, it needs to do the things that a PAC has to do as well. The loophole for trade associations and front groups is big enough to drive a tank through, however, and will render this requirement meaningless if it isn’t closed. The comment from Bill Hammond should make that clear. There is already talk of federal legislation to require disclosure of donors to such organizations, but that shouldn’t stop Texas from passing its own law as well. And please, make there be some real penalties for not following the law. Leaving it all up to the TEC will do nothing to deter violations.

TPJ files complaint with Ethics Commission against Craddick

Texans for Public Justice has filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission against former Speaker Tom Craddick, alleging that he obfuscated campaign donations made to several Democratic supporters of his prior to the 2008 primaries. From their press release (PDF):

Jobs PAC reported that it received $250,000 from Tom Craddick’s campaign committee on January 10, 2008. According to news reports, around that time Craddick campaign employee Christi Craddick also provided Texas Jobs with written instructions to distribute the funds to Democratic Reps. Kevin Bailey, Dawnna Dukes, Kino Flores and Aaron Pena.1 All four incumbents previously supported Republican Speaker Craddick and faced challengers in the 2008 Democratic primary.2 According to its own reports, Jobs PAC wrote three checks of $50,000 apiece to the campaigns of Reps. Bailey, Flores and Pena on January 11, 2008. By its own accounting, at the time Texas Jobs wrote these checks its sole source of funding was the $250,000 that it received the day before from the Craddick campaign. Rep. Dukes, the fourth lawmaker, told the Austin American-Statesman that she rejected an offer to receive $50,000 from Texas Jobs because her opponent already was making her Craddick ties a campaign issue.3

“Tom Craddick wanted to move tens of thousands of dollars to his favorite Democrats without letting voters know,” said Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDonald. “Hiding the true source of campaign funds is illegal. Craddick could have contributed the money directly and openly. Instead, he used Texas Jobs to launder his money and keep Texans in dark.”

The TPJ filed a criminal complaint with the Travis County Attorney’s office last year when this information first came out. I am not aware of any updates to this case, but I suspect that it went nowhere, else there’d be little reason to take things up with the TEC. We’ll see what happens. More on this can be found here and here.

Post the meeting notices already

Apparently, it’s not so easy finding out when Metro has a committee meeting.

Metro does post the time of its regular monthly board meeting on its Web site, but not for the committee meetings. Reporting on government agencies has taught me that many decisions tend to get made in committee. Attending committee meetings is a good way to learn how an agency functions and to meet some of the key players.

Metro’s media contact, Raequel Roberts, said the only way to find out when the committees meet every month is to go to Metro headquarters downtown and check the lobby bulletin board. A meeting notice also is posted at the downtown Harris County courthouse, she said.

I asked her if there was someone I could call to find out the meeting schedule without using so much time, gasoline or Metro fare. Roberts told me no.

I am paid to keep tabs on public agencies. So if Metro wants me to jump through that hoop, then fine. But what about the thousands of Metro customers spread out over the 1,285-square-mile service area? What if they want to attend a committee meeting? Should they have to come downtown just to find out the meeting time, and then come downtown again to attend the meeting itself?

“They’re throwing up a veil of secrecy over the agency that shouldn’t be tolerated in the computer age,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, an advocacy organization that promotes open government. “Government agencies often forget for whom they work.”

Bill Ogden, a First Amendment and media lawyer in Houston, said the Internet is one of the easiest ways for the government to keep the public notified. The Internet is “cheap and the most readily accessible, so there’s no excuse not to do it.”


Two Metro board members said they didn’t see any problem with posting the committee meetings on the Web.

“I think it’s fine to do that,” said George DeMontrond, III, who chairs the Government/Public Relations Committee. “I don’t know why they don’t do it.”

“I don’t know why they shouldn’t be on the Web site, unless there was some reason they were trying to keep it quiet,” said Terence Fontaine, who was just sworn in as Metro’s newest board member.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly the appearance it gives. Bill Ogden is correct, there’s no reason or excuse for not doing this. Perhaps the board members who agree with that can take it upon themselves the make it happen.

Dewhurst settles financial disclosure complaint

Well, now we have an idea of where Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst gets his wealth.

The Republican sent the Texas Ethics Commission two corrected financial statements covering 2007 and 2008 filings. The new disclosures show Dewhurst holds a stake in several funds, including assets managed by Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and the TCP Investment Fund II LP.

A watchdog group filed a formal complaint with Travis County prosecutors in September after The Associated Press raised questions about the lack of detail in his personal financial statements. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, a Democrat who investigates allegations of misdemeanor offenses by public officials, said his inquiry was finished.

“By them agreeing to move forward and file the amended reports, we believe there is no question that they’re in compliance,” Escamilla said.


Earlier disclosure documents did not reveal that the former CIA agent, through a privately held trust, was a major shareholder in a Houston energy and investment company. There also was no mention of Dewhurst’s far-flung cattle ranches, private bank investments or luxury condo. Nor was there any word of the hedge funds, stocks and bonds or publicly traded fuel distribution company that he acknowledges are or have been part of a trust fund estimated to be worth up to $200 million.

The earlier documents just said the David Dewhurst Trust is valued at “$25,000 or more.”

The lack of detail prompted a complaint by Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group based in Austin. Director Craig McDonald applauded Escamilla’s review but said the ethics commission should levy civil penalties for the lieutenant governor’s “noncompliance with the disclosure laws over the past years.”

“(Lt.) Gov. Dewhurst’s financial disclosures fall under the category of better late than never — and better something rather than nothing,” McDonald said.

Previous blogging on this here and here. Escamilla said his review showed no intent to deceive, and I have no problem accepting that, but I hope we can all agree that a system under which he could have gotten away with saying his trust was worth “$25,000 or more” is woefully inadequate. And I do think some kind of civil penalty for being that vague is reasonable, though it may not be allowable. In any event, good on Dewhurst for rectifying this.

Donations and appointments

A lot of the people Rick Perry has appointed to various government offices have contributed to his campaign. Who knew?

Gov. Rick Perry has accepted nearly $5 million in political campaign donations from people he appointed to state boards and commissions, including some in plum jobs that set policy for state universities, parks and roads, records show.

Nearly half the appointee donations came from people serving as higher education regents, including more than $840,000 from those at the University of Texas System, according to a Houston Chronicle review of campaign-finance records.

Political patronage is nothing new for Texas governors in both political parties. The contributions are a legal and common practice, though it has been fodder for critics over the years.

“The reason people should care is that it would be nice to think that government functioned as a meritocracy,” said Andrew Wheat of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, which has tracked appointee donations in the past.

Perry’s office didn’t dispute the Chronicle’s analysis, but rejected any notion that the governor considers donations in choosing his appointments. His spokesman, Mark Miner, noted that many people serving the state for the governor aren’t donors.

Indeed, only about one in 10 of the 2,400 people currently serving Perry have written campaign checks, according to the review, which matched names and other records in computerized data to flag donors.

The appointees have given about $4.9 million since Perry became governor in late 2000, with the average donation topping $7,000. The total is only a fraction of the more than $60 million the governor has raised since he took office.

You know, I dislike Rick Perry as much as anyone, but I don’t see what the story is here. There’s no indication that the level of giving is significantly different than it was in the past; the story acknowledges this is nothing new, but has no numbers to compare him to, most likely because the historic data isn’t accessible, at least not easily. All other indicators – the ratio of contributors to non-contributors, the total share of their donations, the lack of any allegation that there’s a pay-to-play aspect to this – take whatever edge there might have been off of this.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand Andrew Wheat’s point, and Lord knows there’s plenty of examples of quid pro quo in our campaign system. I’ve said many times that the reason many big donors give the huge sums they do to various campaigns is precisely because they expect a return on their investment. Had this article shown some kind of connection between the donors, their legislative and/or regulatory interests, and the appointments they received, that would have been a different matter. But the fact that the class of political appointees contains a number of political donors as well shouldn’t be seen as something onerous in and of itself. If it were, then logically anyone who might be a meritocratic selection to fill some chair or board or whatnot would be barred from contributing to the campaign of a candidate they believe in, lest they render themselves un-appointable later on. Surely that’s not a desirable outcome.

Burnam makes his case in the papers

State Rep. Lon Burnam writes an op-ed about his resolution to impeach Judge Sharon Keller.

Last week, a group of 24 national experts on judicial ethics issued a statement that Judge Keller has consistently demonstrated a lack of impartiality in cases involving criminal defendants like [Michael] Richard that violates their constitutional right to due process of law.

Article XV of the Texas Constitution clearly establishes that the Legislature has the power and responsibility to impeach. Section 4 of that article states that an impeached official is also subject to “indictment, trial and punishment according to law.” The impeachment of Judge Keller would neither pre-empt nor interfere with the commission’s investigation, and the commission’s investigation neither pre-empts nor interferes with impeachment.

Impeachment is a serious process reserved for only the most extreme derelictions of the duties of public office. The Texas Legislature has investigated only four state judges since the state’s Constitution was adopted in 1875; Judge Keller is the fifth. The taking of human life without due process is an extreme dereliction of duty. For the most trivial of reasons — a narrowly missed deadline — Judge Keller callously dismissed a clearly relevant appeal to spare a man’s life. That’s unacceptable.

Because death penalty cases exemplify the state at the zenith of its power, those who adjudicate these decisions must be held to the highest ethical standards. That’s what the impeachment of Judge Sharon Keller is about — ensuring that those who wield power over life and death have the integrity and sound judgment necessary to make such decisions.

We cannot allow a judge with a self-declared bias against capital defendants to continue deciding execution appeals. The best way to promptly get Judge Keller off the bench is through impeachment. That would avoid an additional 18-month deliberation by the commission during which Judge Keller would continue to make life-or-death decisions.

You know how I feel about this. Maybe, just maybe, if we send a message to Judge Keller that we won’t tolerate such indifference and contempt for constitutional rights, we won’t get any more judges like her. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it?

In the meantime, Judge Keller has filed an amended financial disclosure statement, which should put to rest once and for all the idea that she can’t afford to pay for her own damn attorney.

In a sworn statement filed in Austin earlier this week, Sharon Keller said she omitted more than two dozen properties, bank accounts, income sources and business directorships because her elderly father in Dallas had not told her about them.

“My father, Jack Keller, over a number of years has acquired and managed, without input from me, all of these properties,” Keller wrote in a filing with the Texas Ethics Commission meant to correct the annual report she made in April 2008.

The “Daddy didn’t tell me” defense. Well, at least she didn’t claim her dog had eaten her portfolio or something.

Her attorney expanded on her explanation Friday, saying that Keller, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since 2001, misinterpreted what she had to disclose and lost track of holdings she had disclosed in earlier financial reports.

“We’re not saying she is excused. She is at fault,” Ed Shack said. “But she wasn’t trying to deceive anybody.”

Fine. I believe her. Just a mistake, no intent to deceive, could happen to anyone with a rich yet conveniently forgetful daddy. These things happen. But let’s get real about what the issue really is.

Andrew Wheat, research director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin watchdog group that filed the complaints over Keller’s nondisclosures, suggested that the judge would not be swayed by others’ pleas of sloppiness.

“If a defense attorney in a death penalty case before Judge Keller’s court filed briefs as carelessly as Keller filed her financials, the client in question already would have been executed,” he said.

Damn straight. As far as karma is concerned, she deserves the same “justice” she’d routinely impose on any appellant that tried to pass this off. Because she has the good fortune to not be appearing before herself, she’ll do better than that. And that’s how it should be. For everyone, which is why she needs to be an ex-judge as soon as possible. It won’t solve everything – indeed, as Grits reminds us, the rot at the CCA goes far deeper than Sharon Keller – but nothing can get better as long as she’s wearing the robe.

TPJ files complaints against Keller

To no one’s surprise, in the wake of the Morning News story about Judge Sharon Keller’s lack of financial disclosure as required by law, Texans for Public Justice has filed complaints against her. From their press release (PDF):

TPJ’s complaints follow up on revelations recently reported by the Dallas Morning News. Officials who fail to comply with Texas’ personal-financial disclosure laws are subject to a Texas Ethics Commission fine of up to $10,000. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla also can prosecute such Class B criminal misdemeanors, which carry a maximum penalty of $2,000 and six months imprisonment.

Apart from Texas’ top criminal judge standing accused of committing a crime, these allegations are significant because Judge Keller has asked the state to pay her legal bills in an unrelated case before the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Responding to charges in that case last week, Keller attorney Chip Babcock asserted that forcing Judge Keller to foot her own legal bills would be “financially ruinous.” This arguably was a false claim if Judge Keller has been hiding millions of dollars in assets that she was legally required to disclose to the public.


“It looks like Judge Keller has been hiding her assets from the public for at least six year,” said Texans For Public Justice Director Craig McDonald. “Unlike many of the defendants who have appeared before her, Keller can afford to hire a top-notch attorney.”

Yeah, this one’s pretty much kept the irony-meters pegged from the get-go. Here’s the Ethics Commission complaint and the complaint letter to County Attorney Escamilla (both PDFs). As with all such matters, if any action gets taken on them, it won’t be any time soon.

UPDATE: Keller will file an amended financial disclosure.

“We’re going to make a corrected report,” Keller attorney Ed Shack said. “There’s some items that need to be put on her report. The judge met today with her father and her father’s lawyer and they are determining what property is in her name.”

Must be nice to have so much property that you can lose track of some of it.

UPDATE: Oh, this is just awesome. Here’s Sharon Keller’s excuse for not filing a full and accurate disclosure:

[Keller’s lawyer Ed Shack] says two of Keller’s real estate holdings inadvertently were omitted from previous filings because of a simple error. When Keller had a previous year’s report recopied, two pages listing those holdings fell out of the stack; since that happened in 2002, those pages have not been replaced, Shack says. Keller is now checking with her father and her father’s lawyer, Shack says, to make sure no other additional holdings mistakenly have not been reported.

Yeah, that’s the ticket. I’m sure Judge Keller would believe that explanation from any appellant who appeared before her. Via Vince.

Always government handouts

Texans for Public Justice have put together a really good report on government subsidies for WalMart here in Texas that I highly recommend. Stories like this constitute another reason why I tend not to get too bent out of shape over things like the driving deputies. That story is about a couple thousand dollars, and it generates a front page story in the newspaper and a ton of outrage and snark. This one is about millions of dollars being funneled from counties and cities to one of the largest and most profitable businesses in the world, and it will largely be ignored. I confess, I don’t quite understand why that is. Be that as it may, read it and if you live in an area where your tax dollars are going to benefit WalMart’s bottom line, you might consider giving some feedback about that to the elected officials who made it happen.

If you’re going to reform it, reform it right

I agree with State Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson that the way we elect judges in Texas needs reform. I just don’t think he’s proposing a real fix for the problem he’s identified.

Texas remains one of only seven states with partisan judicial elections. It requires judicial candidates to raise vast amounts of money, which leaves a skeptical public assuming that money influences the outcome, Jefferson said.

“The status quo is broken,” he warned.

He has issued the same warning to previous Legislatures. Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, has tried several times to convert the state’s partisan judicial elections to merit-based judicial appointments followed by retention elections. But that plan has never passed.

“Sadly, we have now become accustomed to judicial races in which the primary determinants of victory are not the flaws of the incumbent or qualities of the challenger, but political affiliation and money,” Jefferson said. “In 1994, 2006 and again in 2008, district judges lost elections due to partisan sweeps in the urban counties.”

Jefferson acknowledged that his own re-election in November might just as well have been tied to Republican John McCain’s success in Texas as to any stellar credentials that his candidacy offered.

“And this is the point. Justice must be blind – it must be as blind to party affiliation as to the litigant’s social or financial status,” he said. “The rule of law resonates across party lines.”

Jefferson endorses a merit system as “the best remedy.” A merit system would allow the governor to appoint judges, who later would face voters in a keep-or-remove election.

“The state of our judiciary will be made stronger if we appoint our judges based on merit and hold them accountable in retention elections,” he said.

The Observer also reported on this; the Chron has more here and here. First and foremost, I’m sorry, but I can’t help but be suspicious at the motives of a Republican to propose such a scheme right after the Democrats began winning judicial elections in the two biggest counties. Yeah, he mentioned the sweep of 1994, too, but I don’t remember anyone calling for this reform then, or any other time in the 90s when the Republicans were taking over the state judiciary. Forgive my cynicism, but this sounds far too much like the newfound alarm over the evils of straight-ticket voting, which somehow managed to not corrupt the body politic when it favored the other team.

The main objection to what Justice Jefferson proposes is that it doesn’t seem to fit the problem. If we’re concerned about the effects, real and perceived, of big donors to judges and judicial candidates, how exactly does removing party labels help? Are you telling me that Texans for Lawsuit Reform would sit on the sidelines in those nice little non-partisan retention elections? Cause if you are, I’m not buying it. If the problem is too much money coming from too few donors, most of whom have business before the court, why not impose stricter limits on who can give to judicial candidates, and how much they can give? You can balance that out by creating a public campaign funding system for these races, available to candidates matching funds with some multiplier effect for small-dollar donations. That actually addresses the issue, in a way that Justice Jefferson’s proposal does not.

Finally, I guess I just don’t see the allure of gubernatorial appointments instead of elections. I mean, does anyone think Rick Perry is going to make these decisions based on merit, and not politics? Not me. I say if finances are the problem, then reforming the finances has to be the solution. Anything else strikes me as missing the point. Let’s start with Sen. Kirk Watson’s bill, which would require that “in an order granting, refusing, dismissing, or denying a petition for review, the supreme court shall state how each member voted on the petition or application”, and go from there.

UPDATE: What Burka said. I couldn’t agree with him more.