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Tony Buzbee

Trying to make “pay for play” an issue

Good luck.

With more than nine months to go until Houston’s municipal elections, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s first two opponents turned their attention this week to limiting political donors’ influence at City Hall.

Both challengers, millionaire lawyer and Texas A&M University System Regent Tony Buzbee and Bill King, the businessman and former Kemah mayor who lost to Turner in a close December 2015 runoff, announced they would spearhead separate petition drives to amend the city charter by temporarily blocking political donors from doing business with the city.

The issue of “pay to play” appears likely to become a focal point in the race for Houston mayor, and could feature prominently in city Council campaigns too, all of which will take place as national Democrats vie for their party’s presidential nomination amid growing calls for politicians to reject money that allegedly comes with strings attached.

Buzbee, in a full-page ad in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle, said he intends to lead a petition drive to bar anyone who donates to a city official from doing business with the city for a year.

King on Monday morning announced a similar idea at a press conference, proposing a two-year moratorium for people who give more than $250 to a city official. His idea would extend the ban to prospective lobbyists and appointees to boards or commissions, and cover candidates for mayor, controller and city council. Buzbee has not yet specified if his proposal would cover non-incumbent candidates.

[…]

“The city has long-established rules that govern potential conflicts of interest regarding campaign contributions, including a black-out period and prohibitions on the members of certain boards and commissions,” Turner said. “As with all city policies, we continually evaluate these rules to ensure they are meeting the city’s needs. The city will always entertain ideas and proposals from anyone, especially if they’re not trying to score political points.“

Houston’s charter bars officials from taking or asking for contributions once the city publicly seeks proposals or bids for a contract. They cannot start accepting bids again until 30 days after City Council awards the contract, or decides not to award it at all.

The same section of the charter also prohibits officials from accepting or soliciting vendors’ contributions at any point they know the vendor has interest in a contract. A separate provision also restricts when candidates who are not in office can accept contributions from vendors.

King’s proposal would prevent people who contribute more than $250 to an official from entering into a contract with the city, registering as a city lobbyist or receiving appointments to city boards of commissions.

I mean, I support the idea, it’s just my experience that this particular issue is not one that gets a whole lot of traction among voters. County Judge Lina Hidalgo is being rightly held up as the model, but you may note that this wasn’t what she campaigned on. She campaigned primarily on bread-and-butter issues like flooding, criminal justice reform, quality of life, and making county government more accessible to more people. I’m not saying this can’t be an effective campaign issue. It’s definitely a meritorious issue. I am saying it’s not the sexiest thing to lead with.

One other thing. At the risk of lapsing into whataboutism, as someone whose mailbox is regularly inflicted with King’s grumpy-old-man emails, his interest in this particular aspect of good government is a tad bit limited. I mean, we just re-elected the heavyweight champion of pay for play politics in this state, but good luck finding any mention of Greg Abbott and his penchant for appointing moneybag donors to statewide positions in King’s missives. Yes, I know, King is running for Mayor and not Governor, but he also regularly complains about the national debt, and last I checked he wasn’t running for Congress or (God help us) President. I know, he’s got his own thing to worry about now, but he was emitting those emails back in 2017 when he wasn’t running for Mayor and Abbott was actively blocking a bipartisan anti-pay for play bill in the Lege. The track record is thin, is what I’m saying.

The 2019 elections

We haven’t forgotten that there are some big elections on tap for us this year, have we? Let’s go a quick rundown.

May elections

Election campaigns are already in progress in the cities that have May elections, which includes big cities like San Antonio and Dallas, and smaller cities in our area like Pasadena, Sugar Land, and Pearland. Pasadena will be a hot zone again, with first-term Mayor Jeff Wagner up for re-election and local Democrats hoping to win the District A seat they came so close to in 2017, which would give them a 5-3 advantage on City Council. I don’t have much to say about these races yet, but I will note that my friend Nabila Mansoor is running for City Council in Sugar Land, so I wish her all the best with that.

Houston – Overview

This is the first city election since 2015, thanks to the change in the term limits law. It’s also the first city election since the election of Donald Trump, and the two high-turnout, Democratic-sweep elections in Harris County. How will that affect the course of this election? Normally, even if we have a hotly contested Mayor’s race, we’d be looking at 200 to 250K turnout max – less if the Mayor’s race was not contested – but with all the newly activated people from the past two years, will things change? The betting money always says No until events prove otherwise. The one other thing that may affect turnout this year is the Metro referendum, which itself will be conducted for the first time with no John Culberson in office. So many factors in play, so all I will say for now is don’t believe any firm, confident pronouncements. There’s a lot of room for variance and for doubt at this time.

Mayor

It’s Sylvester Turner versus Bill King, Round 2, with the extra zest (maybe) of Tony Buzbee. And maybe others, too – will anyone be surprised if Ben Hall manages to get a story published about how he’s “thinking about” taking another shot at it? The last Mayor to fail to be re-elected was Kathy Whitmire in 1991. Past performance does not guarantee future outcomes, but I figure there’s a reason for that. It’s Turner’s election to lose, and King doesn’t have his signature talking point from 2015 now that pension reform has been achieved, by Turner. He’s clearly going to attack Turner, but as to what he might campaign on beyond that, I have no idea.

City Controller

Honestly, I’ll be surprised if Chris Brown draws anything more than token opposition. Controller isn’t that sexy a job, and Brown hasn’t done anything to draw the bad kind of attention to himself.

City Council

Districts A, B, C, J, and At Large #5 are term limited. I’ve already received two invitations to like Facebook pages for District C candidates (Nick Hellyar and Bob Nowak), and I’m aware of at least two more such candidates (Shelley Kennedy and Abbie Kamin). Durrel Douglas listed some potential District B candidates a few weeks ago, and there are rumblings in the other slots as well. Raj Salhotra has announced a challenge to Mike Knox in At Large #1, while Laurie Robinson appears to be gearing up for another run in At Large #5. I’ll be reviewing the finance reports for January when they start to come out, which may yield a few more names. For now, let’s just say I expect a lot of activity, and not just in the open seats. Four years is a long time to go between city elections, and lots of people are in a mind to run for something.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Sallie Alcorn, who had been Steve Costello’s chief of staff, has announced her candidacy for AL5.

HISD

Assuming we have HISD Trustee elections this November – we should know that for sure by August – the following Trustees are up in 2019: Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Sergio Lira, Jolanda Jones, and Diana Davila. Far as I know, all are planning to run for re-election. Lira was elected to fill out Manuel Rodriguez’s unfinished term in 2017, Skillern-Jones was forced into a runoff in 2015 and has had a rocky tenure as Board President, Davila upset Juliet Stipeche (now Mayor Turner’s education czar) in 2015, and Jolanda is Jolanda. I’m not currently aware of any opponents on the horizon, but I’m sure most if not all of them will draw someone. Assuming, again, we have HISD Trustee elections this November.

HCC

It will have been six long years, but we will finally have the chance to rid ourselves of the stain that is Dave Wilson, in HCC Trustee District 2, this November. Also up for election are Zeph Capo and Neeta Sane.

Metro

All of Harris County will have the Metro referendum, which is as yet unfinished, on their ballot in November. Again, I don’t have much to say about this yet, but this is one of my top interests for 2019. It will certainly be a component of the Mayor’s race as well. I figure if Metro could pass the 2003 referendum they have to be a favorite to pass this one, but you never know with these things.

That’s all I have for now. Next up will be the finance reports when they become available. If you know of any candidate announcements or other related news, leave a comment and tell us all.

From the “Needlessly overstated answers to simple questions” department

I have three things to say about this:

Tony Buzbee, a Houston lawyer who recently announced his plan to run for mayor next year, has offered to “mediate” a long-running pay dispute between the city and firefighters, one week after a judge blocked implementation of a voter-approved charter amendment that would grant firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding status.

In a joint statement Friday with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, Buzbee said he believes it is time “we equally value our police and fire first responders in Houston,” seeming to indicate that he supports the push for “pay parity.”

A spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner declined comment, referring to the mayor’s previous comments that a judge should first decide whether a collective bargaining agreement can supersede a voter-approved charter amendment.

1. No.

2. Whether or not the city has any ability to negotiate the terms of the pay parity referendum is an open question right now. (So is the pay parity referendum itself, but let’s set that aside right now.) Asking the city to come to the table and negotiate the terms of the pay parity referendum is basically equivalent to telling the city to agree that the firefighters are right about the big picture and to abandon its current course. Which the city may eventually wind up doing, depending on what the lawyers and the courts say, but now is not the time for that.

3. Even if we were to accept the premise of point #2, maybe find a mediator who’s more, you know, impartial? Like, maybe someone who hasn’t announced their candidacy against Mayor Turner? It’s a big city. We have lots of certified mediators. I’m sure someone else might have time in their schedule for this.

4. Again, no.

Oh, right, I said three things, not four. Better call in Tony Buzbee to mediate the difference between what I said and what I did.

Buzbee for Mayor?

Oh, good grief.

Tony Buzbee, a high-wattage trial lawyer, big-time political donor and Texas A&M University System regent, says he is running to be the mayor of Houston in 2019.

“The mayor’s race in Houston traditionally has been as boring as watching paint dry,” Buzbee said on Fox26 Houston Tuesday night, when he announced his bid. “I think that we have a city that is above average with below average leadership, and I’m considering very seriously, because there’s a lot of people asking me to do this, running for the mayor of this town.”

When pressed, Buzbee confirmed he is running and would donate his mayoral salary, if elected, to “a random voter that I choose every year.”

[…]

Buzbee, a former Marine, has a roster of high-profile clients to his name, including former Republican Gov. Rick Perry, whom he successfully defended in an abuse-of-power case.

Buzbee was appointed to the A&M System Board of Regents in 2013, by Perry, and has been known to host raucous and politician-studded parties at his River Oaks mansion, including a 2016 fundraiser for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Last year, he was rebuked by a local homeowner’s association after he parked an operational World War II-era tank outside his house.

So basically, one part Ben Hall, one part Bill King, and one part MAGA bro. If that’s not a winning combination, I don’t know what is. The Chron has more.

Back to Buzbee

Looks like we’re not done with this yet.

Kim Ogg

Prominent Houston lawyer Tony Buzbee on Monday accused Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg of “playing politics,” saying prosecutors are trying to revive a DWI case against him that has already been expunged.

Buzbee said Ogg’s office has filed a sealed motion seeking to reopen the criminal case by overturning a decision last month by a civil court judge that expunged the case files.

The district attorney’s office declined to comment on the details of the motion.

“We have filed a document that was sealed by the clerk,” said First Assistant District Attorney Tom Berg by e-mail. “As a result, we are not at liberty to discuss that document.”

Buzbee said Ogg singled him out because outgoing District Attorney Devon Anderson personally dismissed his case in the days before she left office at the end of the year.

“Ms. Ogg’s new position is that she didn’t personally sign the agreed motion, and the assistant DA who did so lacked her express permission,” he said Monday by email. “Of course, he says he did have that authority. So, I guess those two can fight about that.”

He called information that has been released about his case “bunk” and said his driving while intoxicated case last year was dismissed not as a political favor by the outgoing Republican but “due to multiple irregularities.”

[…]

Buzbee was arrested a year ago on suspicion of DWI and vowed to go to trial. Instead, Anderson personally dismissed the case, saying the attorney had fulfilled the obligations of a pre-trial intervention program.

However, his conditions were less onerous than the obligations for others who went through Anderson’s DWI intervention program, called DIVERT, which typically lasted a year. And he was allowed to expunge his case immediately, though others have been required to wait two years.

The diversion contract, which typically is placed in the public court file, was not filed publicly. The Houston Chronicle filed a request under the Texas open records law to obtain a copy of the contract, but Buzbee was able to block the request by claiming a third-party interest.

The DA’s office under Anderson then sent it to the Texas Attorney General’s Office for a ruling on whether it was public information; the ruling is pending.

Last month, the public file was sealed by an expunction approved by civil court Judge Robert Schaffer. The criminal file reappeared online Monday, however, on the Harris County District Clerk’s website.

Buzbee said Monday that a motion has been filed under seal in the civil case to reverse the expunction.

“In that motion to set aside, the DA takes a position that her assistant DA had no authority to agree to the expunction – which is an outright misstatement of the law, and which is factually untrue because he claims he did in fact have her express permission,” Buzbee said.

See here and here for the background. The way this case was handled sure looked weird, and the timing of it all, which was after Devon Anderson lost her bid for re-election but before Kim Ogg was sworn in, was awfully convenient. It may well be that there was nothing untoward and that the case against Buzbee was a loser that was never going anywhere, but I’m not inclined to just take his word for it. That said, Kim Ogg has a lot of big fish to fry, and she started out with a big target on her back as the first Democrat to be DA in a million years who has big reform plans and who fired a bunch of her predecessor’s people. Oh, and she’s also a lesbian, which drives some people absolutely crazy. My point is, she already has plenty of enemies, and plenty of obstacles to achieving her goals as DA. Tony Buzbee is an obnoxious blowhard, and the circumstances of his case are extremely fishy. But unless some actual malfeasance is uncovered, I don’t know how much time and energy it’s worth to pursue.

More on the Buzbee DUI saga

This just keeps getting weirder.

Devon Anderson

“It appears to have been an under-the-table deal with Devon Anderson,” said Tyler Flood, the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyer’s Association. “I already have clients calling me saying they want the ‘Tony Buzbee deal.'”

Flood and other defense lawyers have questioned the treatment Buzbee received from Anderson and the judge presiding over the case.

[…]

A request to the district attorney’s office for a copy of the pretrial diversion contract, which outlines conditions and consequences of failing to meet those conditions, was sent to the office’s general counsel, who said lawyers for Buzbee have objected to its release. Such contracts generally are publicly available. The office of general counsel said Buzbee’s lawyers have informed it that they will seek an order from the Texas Attorney General’s Office forcing the district attorney to withhold the contract.

[…]

Another reason this case and its resolution is unusual is that the judge presiding over it is the only jurist in Harris County who does not allow pretrial diversions for DWI cases. County Court-at-Law Judge Bill Harmon is opposed to any DWI pretrial diversion program and often cites Harris County’s record number of drunken-driving fatalities as the reason.

When a DWI case eligible for the pretrial diversion program lands in his court, it is often transferred to a different court. That did not happen in Buzbee’s case.

Earlier this week, Harmon acknowledged that he signed the dismissal forms and said he had not approved any diversion for DWI suspects. He said he would continue to refuse to participate in the program.

It’s those inconsistencies that bother Flood and other members of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

“Our target is not Tony Buzbee. That’s not what HCCLA is about. He hired good lawyers and got a good result,” Flood said. “Our problem is the appearance of impropriety between the district attorney and the judge.”

The deal Buzbee was able to obtain from Anderson was extraordinary, Flood said.

“He’s the only person in the whole county who is not excluded from filing for an expunction immediately after his case is dismissed on a DWI on a pretrial intervention.”

See here for the background. It’s weird enough that any of this happened, but it’s possible to imagine that there’s nothing untoward about any of it, it was just maybe handled in a clumsy fashion. But for Buzbee’s attorney to then file to keep the normally-public pretrial diversion contract under wraps, I mean that’s like putting up a giant blinking neon sign saying “THERE IS SOMETHING SUSPICIOUS HERE THAT WE DON’T WANT YOU TO SEE”. Under no circumstances should that file be withheld from public scrutiny. Let’s make the facts known, and then we can see if there’s something that requires a response.

Do the words “appearance of impropriety” mean anything to you?

Seriously?

Devon Anderson

Outgoing Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson personally has dismissed the drunken-driving case against prominent Houston lawyer Tony Buzbee.

Buzbee, who was arrested on March 31, had his case dismissed Dec. 9, after completing “pretrial intervention” a type of informal probation that, if successfully completed, means a case will be tossed. It is common among first offenders, especially shoplifters or other nonviolent crimes.

On Monday, Anderson stood by her decision and issued a brief statement: “Based on the circumstances of the case, this was the right thing to do. He qualified for pretrial intervention and completed all of the requirements typically mandated for a first offender DWI defendant,” she said. “He did not contribute to my campaign in 2016 cycle.”

The dismissal raised eyebrows around the courthouse for several reasons.

First, the elected district attorney signed off on the case personally, which is exceedingly rare, especially misdemeanors.

Second, the DWI pretrial intervention program, which lets people walk away from their first offense without a conviction, generally lasts a year. Buzbee went from arrest to completion in just over 8 months.

Also, the judge presiding over the case is the only jurist in Harris County who does not allow pretrial diversions for DWI cases. The DWI pretrial diversion program, formerly known as DIVERT, has firmly drawn guidelines – the terms of which generally are spelled out in a contract that a judge signs off before it begins. There is no such contract in Buzbee’s file.

Generally, when a DWI case that is eligible for the pretrial diversion program falls in County Court at Law Judge Bill Harmon’s court, it is transferred to a different court. That did not happen in Buzbee’s case.

[…]

Buzbee said it was “silly” to link political connections to a dismissal by the elected district attorney 21 days before she leaves office.

“I give money to most of the politicians in Houston and the state of Texas. To try to connect one thing to the other is silly.”

Courthouse observers said Buzbee’s statement makes the dismissal look like a gift from Anderson as she prepares to leave the office.

“Based on what (Buzbee) said, this is definitely not a diversion. If it’s not, then it is nothing but a political favor,” said JoAnne Musick, past-president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyer’s Association. “Unless (Anderson) just completely lied on a court document, because it appears, on the dismissal, that he completed a diversion – that he participated in some sort of program in lieu of prosecution.”

Buzbee claimed that the case was dismissed for lack of evidence, but that’s not what the form indicates. Maybe there’s nothing to any of this – I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know how these things work – but if so, it would be nice to hear that from someone who isn’t Devon Anderson or Tony Buzbee. Maybe there are more people who got a similar “early dismissal” of their nominally year-long diversion program. Maybe Devon Anderson had a specific reason for intervening on this one case. Maybe the dismissal form was filled out incorrectly and it really was a lack of evidence. Maybe there’s something else we don’t know about. Because if not, on the surface this sure looks like special treatment for a big shot. The Press has more.

(There’s now a bigger controversy breaking out at the DA’s office. I didn’t have a chance to get to it yesterday, but I’ll have something to say about it tomorrow.)