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Travis County

Charges against Dukes dropped

She beat the rap.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dukes gets deferral on felony charges

Possibly good news for one embattled legislative incumbent.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paxton’s preemptive “sanctuary cities” lawsuit dismissed

Good.

Best mugshot ever

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks on Wednesday dismissed the state of Texas’ lawsuit against Travis County and other defendants over the state’s new immigration enforcement law.

Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a pre-emptive lawsuit shortly after the bill was signed in May seeking a ruling that the controversial measure is constitutional. Among the defendants named in Paxton’s suit were the city of Austin; Travis County and its sheriff, Sally Hernandez; and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

[…]

But opponents of the measure, including the cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Cenizo, as well as Maverick and El Paso counties, have argued the law violates several provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Those entities filed a separate lawsuit against Abbott and Paxton in San Antonio, trying to prevent the law from taking effect. Oral arguments in that case were heard in June.

Sparks’ ruling means the case will stay in San Antonio.

In a statement, the attorney general said he was disappointed in Sparks’ ruling but that Wednesday’s decision has no effect on the San Antonio case.

“We were first to file a lawsuit concerning SB 4, filed this case in the only proper court, and moved quickly to consolidate other lawsuits against SB 4 in Austin,” he said. “The health, safety, and welfare of Texans is not negotiable. We’re disappointed with the court’s ruling and look forward to pressing our winning arguments in the San Antonio cases and beyond (if necessary) on this undoubtedly constitutional law.”

Though Sparks’ ruling Wednesday is a small victory for SB4’s opponents, they must now wait and see what U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia decides following a seven-hour hearing in Bexar County on June 26.

So that means that Judge Garcia will get to decide whether the law goes into effect on September 1 or if it is put on hold pending final judgment in the lawsuit. I don’t think this ruling changes the basic contours of the case, but as I recall if Paxton had prevailed in his lawsuit, that would have put the defendants he filed against on the hook for court costs. That’s no longer the case now. Now we await what Judge Garcia has to say.

No deal for Dukes

The die is cast.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Dukes offered deal to resign

Take it, I say.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

Beleaguered state Rep. Dawnna Dukes has until the end of the day Tuesday to resign from office — and submit to a drug and alcohol assessment — as part of a plea offer in her criminal corruption case.

The plea offer is similar to one Dukes rejected last year prior to the Texas Rangers launching an investigation that led to a Travis County grand jury indicting Dukes on 13 felony charges and two misdemeanors.

Dukes did not respond to messages left by the American-Statesman on Monday morning. She told reporters in June after pleading not guilty that she would not take any plea deals and instead will proceed to trial on Oct. 16.

The deal expires at the close of the business day on Tuesday and will not be re-offered, according to Justin Wood of the district attorney’s office.

[…]

In exchange for accepting the offer, the DA’s office has agreed to drop all charges, but only after Dukes has complied with all conditions.

See here, here, and here for some background. As she has not yet been convicted of anything, Dukes is not mandated to resign by my lights. It’s her long term record of lousiness as a representative that makes me wish to see the back of her. Do us all a favor and take the deal, Dawnna. It would be the best thing you’ve done for your constituents in recent memory. The Trib has more.

Dukes pleads not guilty

To all counts.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, entered not guilty pleas to abuse-of-office charges Friday in Travis County district court.

The 12-term lawmaker pleaded not guilty to tampering with a governmental record and abuse of official capacity by a public servant. Judge Brad Urrutia on Friday set a trial date of Oct. 16.

Dukes told reporters outside the court room: “Why accept a plea when I didn’t do what they are alleging?”

“No one has heard all of the evidence and heard my side,” Dukes said. “There’s been a barrage of print media that has attempted to try me in the court of public opinion, yet the court and the proceedings have not begun and when they do, my attorney will tell the full story, the whole story and show that unequivocally I am not guilty of these charges.”

[…]

Dukes has faced criticism for missing votes and being absent from the House floor. She was not in attendance when the House voted on the final budget.

When asked if she was going to run for re-election, Dukes said: “That is a very strong possibility.”

See here and here for the background. Dukes is entitled to her day in court, and she’s innocent until proven guilty, but she’s been a replacement level legislator for a long time. One way or another, this needs to be her last term.

Hearing for that other SB4 lawsuit

The SB4 lawsuit that Ken Paxton filed, to get the law pre-emptively declared to be constitutional, had its hearing in Austin on Thursday.

A federal judge on Thursday criticized the politics surrounding Texas’ new immigration-enforcement law and hinted that he’d be unable to take the case over from his colleague in Bexar County.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks told attorneys for the state of Texas that he had a docket twice as busy as San Antonio-based Orlando Garcia after he was asked by the state to declare Austin the appropriate venue for what’s gearing up to be a lengthy court battle over Senate bill 4.

[…]

“San Antonio has a track record of evidence that Judge Garcia can take into consideration,” Sparks said, referring to a seven-hour hearing on Monday in San Antonio where attorneys for both sides argued over the legality of allowing state governments to enforce federal immigration laws. He added that he has a trial scheduled in August that could likely spill into September.

Thursday’s hearing was a dramatic shift from Monday’s display, where Garcia sat largely silent and appeared to take every motion, argument and counter-argument into consideration. Sparks instead often interrupted the attorneys and repeated what he said should be simple questions to answer when the attorneys strayed off topic. He also hinted that he believed parties that joined the lawsuit against the state did so for political purposes.

“The city of Austin just got in because it’s political and they get a lot of advertisement” [in the press], he said.

[…]

The judge also cast doubt on whether any court would be able to declare a law constitutional when it hasn’t gone into effect yet.

“I don’t have the authority to forecast the future and you have a statute that doesn’t come into effect until September,” he told David Hacker, a lawyer for the attorney general’s office.

Sparks didn’t give a time line on when he’d rule on the motion to move the case to Austin.

See here and here for the background. I’m sure there was a good helping of politics in the various cities’ and counties’ decisions to pile onto the anti_SB4 lawsuit, but then SB4 itself was all about politics. Based on the things Judge Sparks said during the hearing, I’d prefer he leave the San Antonio lawsuit be rather than combine it with the Paxton lawsuit. At least he doesn’t seem inclined to take any action before the law is scheduled to go into effect. The Statesman and the DMN have more.

Ellis seeks Harris County entry into SB4 litigation

From the inbox, an email from Commissioner Ellis:

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Despite strong opposition from law enforcement officials, faith leaders, local governments, civil rights organizations, constituents, and advocacy groups, Senate Bill 4 (SB4), the “show-me-your-papers” legislation, has been signed into law. The new legislation unfairly targets immigrant families, allows state-sanctioned racial profiling, and violates rights to due process. SB4 also undermines local governments by forcing them to choose between enforcing a blatantly unconstitutional law or facing strict punishment and excessive fines from the state.

As the nation’s third-largest county with the fifth-largest foreign-born population, Harris County is at particular risk under SB4. Immigrants are a vital part of our community and strengthen the social fabric of Harris County. This new legislation threatens to tear families apart. Immigrants cannot and should not be driven back into the shadows or live in fear because of this unconstitutional law.

Already, local governments have filed suit against SB4, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Monday in San Antonio. Just this past week, the Houston City Council voted to join San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Bexar County and other local governments in a consolidated lawsuit challenging the law.

As Commissioner, I will continue to stand with immigrant families and defend the right of local government and law enforcement to set their own priorities. In a June 9 letter, I asked Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan to seek authorization from Harris County Commissioners Court to join the lawsuit against SB4. I believe it is vitally important for Harris County to fight this unjust law and look forward to working with County Attorney Ryan on this important issue that we both care about. You can read the letter below:

SB4 is a reflection of the anti-immigrant sentiment permeating our society and stands in the way of comprehensive immigration reform. It upholds a flawed and outmoded form of immigration control that tears families apart, increases racial profiling, and violates due process. We need immigration solutions that attend to the complex issues surrounding reform with compassion, efficiency, and effectiveness in mind. And wherever there is discrimination, we must be prepared to speak out and take action.

I’ve got a copy of the letter, which was embedded as an image in the email that Commissioner Ellis sent, here. Houston-area Democratic legislators supported Ellis’ call with a letter of their own that calls on the Court to get involved. I can’t say I expect that to happen – unlike Houston City Council, Commissioners Court is 4-1 Republican – but given the unfunded costs on the county that SB4 will impose, as well as the decline in cooperation with law enforcement, you’d think there’d be a simple dollars-and-cents argument in favor of getting involved. Anything can happen, but I’m not holding my breath. Stace has more.

Feds join the state in defense of SB4

I suppose this was to be expected.

About a month ago, the city of El Cenizo filed a lawsuit against the state, calling the bill unconstitutional. On Monday, the Trump administration got involved.

The defendants in the lawsuit are the state of Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The fight started May 8, the day after Abbott signed SB 4 into law. The city of El Cenizo filed a motion for preliminary injunction against the state, attempting to stop SB 4 from taking effect in September.

“This is a violation of civil rights and human rights. It’s a reckless, dangerous and discriminatory bill that should not only be halted but declared unconstitutional,” El Cenizo Mayor Raul Reyes said.

“This is a battleground,” said attorney Luis Vera, with the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC.

Vera represents El Cenizo. On Monday, his job got a lot more difficult.

“I received an email from the Department of Justice. President Donald Trump has ordered the Department of Justice to enter the case against El Cenizo and to file a brief and a statement of interest in support of the state of Texas, asking the federal courts to deny our motion for preliminary injunction,” Vera said.

I’m sure we’ll be hearing the outraged cries about the evil federal government messing in our precious local affairs any minute now. Until then, the Statesman fills in a few details.

The U.S. Department of Justice contacted Austin’s legal department on Monday indicating its intent to file a “statement of interest” and asked to be involved in the court hearings next week on SB 4, according to a city spokesman.

City officials learned of the Trump administration’s interest just as they were preparing to file a motion Monday asking a court to temporarily block the law, which is set to take effect Sept. 1. The city’s filing contains more than a dozen statements, including those from three Austin City Council members, Mayor Steve Adler, interim Police Chief Brian Manley and South by Southwest co-founder Roland Swenson.

The statements are intended to be used as evidence that SB 4 would create hardship and economic harm for the state if the law is implemented.

“Ultimately, my sincere belief — that I have expressed in multiple public statements to my constituents — is that implementation of SB 4 will make Austin less safe,” Adler said in a sworn declaration to the San Antonio federal court that will hold its first hearing June 26 on a legal challenge to SB 4 filed by San Antonio and Austin.

[…]

Meanwhile, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Monday that his office had joined nine other states in filing briefs in support of President Donald Trump’s executive order that would cut some Department of Justice grants to cities that prohibit local law enforcement from communicating with immigration agents. Austin and Travis County are in compliance with those laws.

Back in April, a federal judge in San Francisco blocked Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order from taking effect while a court fight over that measure plays out. Austin and Travis County are among dozens of cities and counties challenging that order in court.

Paxton’s brief is a separate matter from the SB 4 lawsuits but reflects the growing number of fronts in the fight over “sanctuary cities,” regarded as local jurisdictions that decline in some way to assist federal immigration enforcement.

I think it’s safe to say that all eyes will be on San Antonio on Monday. Hopefully, the city of Houston will have gotten involved by then.

Getting ready for the first SB4 hearing

All eyes are going to be on this next week.

On Monday, June 26, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia will hear the City of San Antonio’s request for a preliminary injunction to block Senate Bill 4, the “sanctuary cities” law, from taking effect on Sept. 1.

The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) is representing the City in the lawsuit, along with the following nonprofit organizations: The Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education, the Workers Defense Project, and La Unión Del Pueblo Entero. The hearing, which is open to the public, will take place at 9:30 a.m. at the Federal Courthouse at 655 E. César E. Chavez Blvd.

“Judge Garcia consolidated three separate lawsuits into one,” MALDEF Vice President of Litigation Nina Perales told the Rivard Report Friday. “The City of Austin is now a part of our case, [along with] El Paso County, Texas Organizing Project, the City of El Cenizo in Webb County, and Maverick County,”

[…]

On Friday, the State of Texas dropped MALDEF from a pre-emptive lawsuit asking a federal court to declare the “sanctuary cities” law constitutional.

“We wrote them a letter and said that if they didn’t drop us we were going to ask the judge to fine Texas for bringing a frivolous lawsuit against MALDEF,” Perales said. “We’re the lawyers – you don’t sue somebody else’s lawyers. MALDEF has five cases against the State of Texas right now, so it’s not just about SB 4. They were draining our resources in other cases, including school finance and redistricting.”

The pre-emptive lawsuit was filed by Attorney General Ken Paxton on May 8 before any legal action was taken against Senate Bill 4. It still includes the following defendants: Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, all of Austin’s City Council members, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, and Austin Interim City Manager Elaine Hart. El Paso County, El Cenizo, Texas Organizing Project, and LULAC have since been added to the list.

“Today, after MALDEF made very clear its intention to pursue all available remedies against the state of Texas for filing a completely frivolous lawsuit against a civil rights law firm, the state relented and filed a voluntary dismissal of all of its claims against MALDEF,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel, in a statement. “This now permits MALDEF to devote its energies to the appropriate forum for resolving the many constitutional questions surrounding SB 4 – federal court in San Antonio.

“Today’s dismissal represents only a partial cure of Governor Abbott’s and Attorney General Paxton’s apparent problem with premature litigation. A more complete cure involves dismissing the entire preemptive lawsuit they filed in Austin, which is illegitimate against the remaining defendants, just as it was against MALDEF.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I’m sure there will be national coverage of this, which will remind everyone that we’re not just about bathroom bills here in Texas. Houston City Council may have voted to join the fight by this time, though I’d expect it to get tagged for a week. Mark this one on your calendar, next Monday is going to be a big deal. The Observer, which notes that there will be a hearing in Austin on the 29th for “all pending matters” pertaining to his pre-emptive lawsuit, has more.

Paxton gets ahead of the “sanctuary cities” lawsuit rush

That’s one way to do it, I suppose.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton is looking to get ahead of an anticipated barrage of legal challenges to Texas’ ban on “sanctuary cities,” which takes effect Sept. 1.

Shortly after Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 4 into law on Sunday, Paxton filed a lawsuit — known as a complaint for declaratory judgment — asking a federal court to declare the law constitutional. The lawsuit specifically wants the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas to rule the law does not violate the 14th or 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution and is not preempted by federal law.

“SB 4 is constitutional, lawful and a vital step in securing our borders,” Paxton said in a statement.

The lawsuit was filed against the government and elected officials in Travis County, which has been a battleground in Texas Republicans’ push to crack down on criminal suspects living in the United States illegally. The county’s sheriff, Sally Hernandez, drew Abbott’s ire earlier this year when she announced that her department would reduce its cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

You can find a copy of the lawsuit here, which according to KVUE was filed “to avoid a multiplicity of suits in various forms” questioning the constitutionality of the law from the defendants, which include Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, the City of Austin, Austin City Council Member Greg Casar, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and a host of other people affiliated with Travis County. I’ve never heard of this strategy before and I have no idea what its history is, but I’d bet a dollar that Paxton picked the court in which he filed this suit with some care. I’m quite certain it won’t stop anyone from suing, but beyond that I have no idea what might happen. This is going to be a bumpy ride.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

Get ready for the “sanctuary cities” lawsuits

It’s just a matter of time.

Now that Senate Bill 4 is on its way to becoming law, opponents are looking to the courts for relief – and a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case is giving them hope.
The high court struck down parts of a controversial 2010 immigration law in Arizona on the grounds that Congress, not the states, has the power to create immigration law. Experts say that argument could come into play with Texas’ SB 4, which requires local jails to comply with immigration detention requests that federal officials have said are voluntary.

“My opinion is the state is regulating in the immigration field,” said Barbara Hines, senior fellow at the immigration reform group the Emerson Collective. “What the state of Texas is doing is they are creating their own detainer program. That is pre-empted. Immigration is a federal area.”

Among other things, SB 4 would create civil and criminal penalties for officials who disregard requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to extend the detention of jail inmates suspected of being in the country illegally. Those detention requests, or detainers, help facilitate possible deportation proceedings.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, predicted that the bill will follow the same course as Arizona’s SB 1070, better known as the “papers please” law because it required law enforcement officers in Arizona to demand the documentation of anyone they believed was in the country illegally.

Texas’ SB 4 doesn’t require officers to ask, but it prohibits sheriffs or police chiefs from keeping their officers from doing so.

“It allows local law enforcement to ask anybody on the street for their immigration status,” said Anchia, who chairs the Democrat-dominated Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which is fighting the state in court over redistricting maps it says are racially discriminatory.

[…]

Critics have argued the bill would separate families, deport well-meaning immigrants and create a fear in immigrant communities that might undermine their safety.

They picked up a legal argument this week after a group of mayors, including Austin Mayor Steve Adler, met with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for clarity on the ramifications for so-called “sanctuary cities.”

Sessions confirmed Tuesday to the mayors that compliance with the federal immigration detention requests sent to local jails — the central requirement of SB 4 — isn’t mandated under federal law. Rather, the jails can choose whether to hold inmates longer at the request of ICE, Sessions said.

That the comments came from such a high-ranking Trump administration official deflated the notion often associated with SB 4: that local officials like Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez are breaking federal law by choosing to ignore some ICE detention requests.

It also raised questions over whether the state could step in and create an immigration law making the detainers mandatory.

“It is inevitable that you will see cities and counties across the state suing the state. The overreach is unprecedented,” Austin City Council Member Greg Casar said. “I don’t know who died and made Greg Abbott (into) Putin, but our cities are going to fight back.”

See here for the background, and here for more on what Mayor Adler said about his meeting with Sessions. I hope opponents of this lousy bill flood the zone with lawsuits. It’s clear from the HB2 experience that setbacks in court will not stop the Lege from trying the same things again in the future, but it’s still necessary. Also, I say Greg Abbott has always had authoritarian inclinations, he’s just more comfortable expressing them in public now.

There will also be many headaches for law enforcement agencies, which strongly opposed SB4.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo spoke vehemently against Senate Bill 4 Thursday afternoon, calling it a dangerous move by the state Legislature because it would redirect limited HPD resources from crime fighting efforts to an initiative that does not improve public safety.

Acevedo did not share if HPD would alter its policies if SB 4 were to become law. However, he made it clear during the afternoon presser he would make public safety a priority over policies he believe are unrelated.

“I am carrying out my sworn duty and moral duty to speak out on matters of public safety. And I’m not here to keep a job to do it,” he said.

[…]

The legislation would force police to honor all federal requests to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally until federal authorities can investigate the person’s status. It also would prohibit local jurisdictions from passing or enforcing an ordinance that prohibits police officers from inquiring about a detained person’s immigration status, which would nullify the Houston Police Department’s 1990 policy on the matter.

“If that language does not get removed … we’re going to have some negative consequences,” Acevedo said.

Police departments across the state, including Houston, are understaffed, he said. And the bill would diminish those already limited resources, he added. Just this year Acevedo announced plans to target high-crime areas and violent documented gang members.

He also announced a joint effort with the Texas Department of Public Safety to decrease violent crime in the area by creating two squad assigned to the initiative.

However, he believes SB4 may affect those plans.

“We don’t have the resources, nor do we have the bandwidth nor the desire to be ICE agents. If I wanted to work for ICE, I would’ve applied for ICE,” he said.

Acevedo’s worry is that a police officer’s duty and the proposed policy will create a divide among departments throughout the state. While police officers are sworn to protect, he says the bill could open the door for harassment.

“I will lose my ability and authority to direct (my officers) workflow,” he said. “ … And all of sudden I’ll have a police officer that wants to go off and play ICE agent all day.”

He went on to add he hopes that isn’t the case, but that perception would be damaging for Houston – particularly on immigrant communities.

It’s not about what local officials want, it’s about what Greg Abbott wants. Sorry, Chief. The Chron, ThinkProgress, and the Press have more.

Investigation requested into voucher astroturfing

From the Quorum Report:

Rep. Gina Hinojosa

Following a criminal complaint by a GOP former lawmaker, an Austin representative has asked the Travis County District Attorney’s Office to look a letter-writing campaign that has deeply troubled rural Republicans in the Texas House who are opposed to school vouchers.

In a letter obtained by Quorum Report this evening, Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, told prosecutors that she’s heard from many of her Republican colleagues who cannot believe the way in which many of their constituents’ names were used.

As QR readers who have followed this are aware, rural Republicans from East Texas to West Texas have received about 17,000 letters orchestrated by a group called Texans for Education Opportunity. The group claimed credit for the letter campaign but has said everything was done properly.

The problem, though, is that many of those letters utilized the names of people who are opposed to school vouchers in any form and, in fact, some of them have raised concerns about whether their identities were stolen for this campaign.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, has said he thinks lawmakers are being “defrauded” by these letters. One of the letters Seliger received, but the way, was sent in the name of someone who had died months before the letter was sent.

“I am writing to ask you and your office to immediately open an investigation into a massive letter writing campaign that appears to be fraudulent,” Rep. Hinojosa wrote to the Travis County DA Margaret Moore.

See here for some background, and here for a copy of the letter. Rep. Hinojosa is the second person to ask a DA to investigate this, following former Rep. Rick Hardacstle, who was one of the people claimed to be a voucher supporter by this phony campaign. I Am Not A Lawyer so I have no opinion as to whether the civil code or the criminal code would be the more appropriate remedy for this, but it’s definitely fraud of some form, and if my name had been on one of those faked letters I’d want someone in power to Do Something about it, too. We’ll see what happens.

UPDATE: Scott Braddock has more.

Dukes fails to get charges tossed

Too bad for her.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

A Travis County state district judge denied a motion by state Rep. Dawnna Dukes to dismiss four felony counts against her for tampering with public records.

Dukes’ attorneys on March 8 asked Judge Brad Urrutia to dismiss four of her 13 indicted felony charges, arguing that an agreement she signed in September 2016 to waive statute of limitations on those counts was invalid for technical reasons.

Urrutia made a brief written ruling: “Having considered the evidence presented, the argument of counsel, and the applicable law, defendant’s motion is denied.”

His decision was not unexpected after Urrutia expressed skepticism at the hearing, telling Dukes’ attorneys “Your client certainly derived a benefit, a great benefit, from signing a waiver. You’re asking me to create new law.”

Dukes, an Austin Democrat, cannot appeal the ruling.

See here and here for the background. I don’t have anything to add here, I’m just keeping track of the story and waiting till the filing period to see who’ll challenge Dukes next March, assuming she hasn’t reconsidered her decision to un-resign by then. The Trib has more.

More on the attack on the Paxton special prosecutors’ pay

From Texas Lawyer.

Best mugshot ever

As courtroom twists go, this one is practically unheard-of: On the brink of bringing Texas’ attorney general, Ken Paxton, to trial on felony securities fraud charges, the government’s prosecutors are threatening to bail out of the case unless they get paid.

Whether one of the biggest criminal cases in Texas finally goes before a jury is now in limbo over what prosecutors contend is a deliberate effort by rich supporters of Paxton, an up-and-coming firebrand in Republican legal circles, to delay justice by challenging their paychecks. So far, the tactic is working.

[…]

Supporters of Paxton have made an issue of the $300-an-hour fees being charged by the special prosecutors, who are paid by the Dallas suburban county where the trial will be held. A three-judge panel of a Dallas appeals court agreed to halt payments on the $200,000 in legal bills while it considers a lawsuit filed by Jeff Blackard, a wealthy Dallas developer and onetime Paxton political donor, who has argued that the fees were excessive and costing taxpayers too much.

“Everyone in the courtroom is being paid except for us,” one of the appointed prosecutors, Brian Wice, has said. “No one expected us to work for free.”

Firing back, Paxton’s attorneys earlier this month accused prosecutors of being “financially self-serving” and argued they don’t have a right to be paid until the case is over. As of last year, Paxton had raised more than $300,000 from private sources to pay his own high-powered defense team.

Legal observers say they’ve never seen a case jeopardized quite like this.

“It’s outrageous that the prosecution should be derailed by the defendant somehow, or the defendant’s supporters or friends, defunding the prosecution,” said Joe Turner, a veteran Austin attorney who helped Willie Nelson and Matthew McConaughey beat drug busts years ago.

[…]

Blackard’s attorney denies that the lawsuit is a ploy to keep Paxton from facing a jury.

“It’s not about whether Paxton is or is not prosecuted. It’s about whether the taxpayers’ money is spent properly,” said attorney Eddie Greim, who is based in Kansas City, Missouri.

Prosecutors told a judge in court documents that Blackard “has already succeeded in shutting down this prosecution” and warned that having to appoint replacements will only drag the case out further.

Most of this, which was written before the decision by Judge Gallagher that delayed the trial until the prosecutor pay dispute gets resolved, is stuff we know. As a matter of law, the suit may have merit, but as a matter of common sense it’s completely ridiculous. It simply cannot be the case that a private citizen can derail a prosecution like this. I maintain that the funding for cases like these should be the state’s responsibility. Indeed, it was the state’s responsibility until the 2011 Legislature kneecapped the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County DA’s office. Whatever you think of that action, it created a problem for which there is no current solution. It won’t affect this case, but the Lege really should address this. Ken Paxton will not be the last elected official to cause this issue for a county Commissioners Court.

The people who would have been denied the opportunity to vote in 2016

There were a lot of them.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

At least 16,400 Texans who voted in the November election wouldn’t have been able to cast ballots if the state’s voter identification law had been in full effect, state voting records show.

[…]

Through a public records request to the Texas secretary of state’s office, the American-Statesman obtained copies of the more than 16,400 Reasonable Impediment Declarations signed by Texans in the November election. More than 2,300 of the forms, legal affidavits punishable with a perjury charge if found to be false, were signed by Travis County voters.

The voters who signed the affidavits were concentrated in urban areas, with six counties alone — Harris, Travis, Dallas, Collin, Tarrant and Hidalgo — accounting for more than half of them.

Those voters arrived to the polls without one of the seven forms of ID, but were able to vote after signing the form and providing a voter registration certificate, birth certificate, utility bill, bank statement, government check or any other government document that included the registered voter’s name and address.

To sign the forms, all of those voters would’ve had to have been registered to vote and to produce documentation proving who they were.

[…]

Former Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos, an appointee of Gov. Greg Abbott who stepped down after overseeing the November election, said the potential of 16,400 voters being turned away was less worrisome in light of the fact that about 9 million Texans voted.

“When you put it in perspective, to me it’s not a large number,” said Cascos, a Republican.

Asked if that meant those voters would have been disenfranchised, Cascos said, “I would agree. That is a way to look at it.”

And, he observed, the number of potentially disenfranchised voters “might not be important for a presidential race or a statewide race, but it very well might matter for local votes, where there can be really small margins.”

“At the end of the day, we want to make sure every qualified Texan who can vote should be allowed to vote,” he said, “(16,000) people wanted to vote and got to vote, so that’s great.”

Cascos is right – sixteen thousand out of nine million isn’t that much. He’s also right that every single one of them would have been disenfranchised had they been turned away, and for no valid purpose. That sixteen thousand just represents the people who tried to vote. We don’t know how many others didn’t bother to show up because they didn’t know that they could have voted – it’s not like the state’s “outreach” was terribly effective. And those sixteen thousand voters who would have been disenfranchised, plus those however many who actually were in this one election, are way way way more than the total number who have ever been credibly accused of any form of vote fraud. As long as we’re putting things in perspective, let’s keep that in mind as well.

Alternate funding sources

That’s one way to do it.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, announced plans Friday to raise public funds for Travis County, days after Gov. Greg Abbott canceled about $1.5 million in criminal justice grants over the county’s new “sanctuary” policy.

Rodriguez’s initiative is called Travis County #StrongerTogether and it will allow the community to donate tax-deductible funds to the county in order to help sustain community programs that “protect our women, children and veterans,” according to a news release. The initiative is partnering with the Austin Community Foundation (ACF).

“The people of Travis County are resilient and take care of each other. That’s what Travis County #StrongerTogether is all about,” Rodriguez said in an emailed statement. “If Governor Abbott is willing to sacrifice our veterans, women and children to score political points, then we will show him the power of love.”

[…]

Hernandez has shown no signs of backing down in the face of the funding cuts. In a Facebook post Friday, Hernandez endorsed Rodriguez’s initiative, and predicted the money will help “maintain the programs Governor Abbott has defunded.”

“Together, we can raise the funds necessary to ensure that our community’s values are represented and that the most vulnerable in our community are receiving the assistance they need,” Hernandez wrote.

See here for the background. This went live on Friday the 3rd, and according to the banner on the Travis County Stronger Together webpage, a bit more than $66K had been raised as of 10 PM on Saturday the 4th; it’s now over $89K as of Monday at 3 PM. Not a bad start, and as the Facebook page only has a couple hundred Likes, there’s plenty of room for growth.

On the one hand, this great. Resistance takes many forms, and it would be extremely satisfying to tell Greg Abbott where he can stick that grant money. On the other hand, this is terrible. It’s not any kind of model for a functioning government, and it’s in no way sustainable. Not to put too fine a point on it, but another term for what is going on here is that this particular grant for a specific public purpose is being privatized. In any other context, progressives would not like this. To some extent, this is going to be resolved in the courts one way or another. Different electoral outcomes would also be the end of stuff like this. In the meantime, this is what we have. The Statesman, which has video of Sheriff Hernandez talking about this saga, has more.

Abbott pulls state grant money to Travis County

As threatened.

Sheriff Sally Hernandez

Gov. Greg Abbott has followed through on his threat to cut off state funding for Travis County over its new “sanctuary” policy.

Abbott’s office said Wednesday it has canceled criminal justice grants it usually administers to the county, whose sheriff, Sally Hernandez, recently announced her department would reduce its cooperation with federal immigration authorities when they request an inmate be flagged for possible deportation. The policy was set to go into effect Wednesday.

The move appears to target about $1.5 million Travis County was due to receive this year from the criminal justice division of the governor’s office. The division doled out $1.8 million to the county last year and has already paid out roughly $300,000 in 2017.

[…]

Democrats had pushed back on Abbott’s threat to withhold the grant money by noting it funds programs that help children, women, families and veterans. But the Republican governor has held firm, saying his No. 1 concern is public safety.

“The Governor is willing to sacrifice veterans, women and children to garner political points,” state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said in a statement Wednesday. “Governor Abbott must be held accountable for playing politics with the lives of the most vulnerable in our communities.”

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, went even further in a statement, saying Abbott’s “vindictiveness is more like Russian President Putin’s authoritarian regime than our democracy.”

See here, here, and here for the background. As the Statesman notes, the grants “support projects such as family violence education and a special court for veterans”, so way to get tough there, Greg. One point five million isn’t nothing, and Abbott is looking for more leverage to use, but I feel reasonably certain Travis County could cover the difference if it wants to. Looking over their fiscal year 2017 budget, there’s $169 million allocated to the Sheriff’s office, with another $105 million in reserves. My guess is Abbott will need to find a considerably larger stick to get their attention. But we’ll see, and if the so-called “sanctuary cities” bill passes this year, plus whatever horrors Congress and Trump conjure up, things could change.

Sheriff Hernandez not backing down

Good for her.

Sheriff Sally Hernandez

Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez indicated Thursday she is not backing away from her recently introduced “sanctuary” policy.

Her comments came a day after Gov. Greg Abbott proposed the removal of Hernandez, who announced Friday she would reduce her department’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities when they request an inmate be flagged for possible deportation.

“Our community is safer when people can report crimes without fear of deportation,” Hernandez, whose jurisdiction includes Austin, said in a statement. “I trust the court system and our judges to assess the risks and set appropriate bonds and conditions for all who are incarcerated.”

Hernandez, who was elected in November, has said her department would honor requests from federal immigration officials only if they obtain a warrant from a judge ordering the confinement.

See here and here for the background. Sheriff Hernandez clearly has the moral high ground here – people shouldn’t be held without a warrant, minor offenses should not result in deportation, law enforcement needs the cooperation of the people they police in order to be effective, etc etc etc. Abbott, meanwhile, keeps ratcheting up the pressure. Something is going to have to give here. It’s one thing to pick on Travis County, which is a traditional punching bag for Texas Republicans, but will they go after Harris County, too?

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez appeared at this morning’s rally against 287(g), a flawed immigrant removal program.

Gonzalez reiterated his support of immigrant rights and his promise to rid Harris County of the controversial program. He did, however, ask for patience and time to study and navigate its ending because of its ties to federal and state funding, and because he wants to ensure that such a program targets violent and serious criminals. During the press conference, he also reiterated that the program is run within the jail and not out in the field and that his deputies will not be targeting individual suspects because of immigration status.

Local immigrant rights activists are seeking policy changes and strong statements of support to undo programs that target immigrants and have run amok of their stated intents. Programs which basically federalize local law enforcement are flawed and have been a cause for racial profiling, wasted resources, family separation, and downgraded local economies.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, also sought out by immigrant rights activists recently responded with his strongest statement yet.

I certainly wouldn’t put it past Abbott et al to lash out at anyone and everyone who defies him, but at some point it’s not a good luck for him to be fighting with so many big cities and counties. I don’t know how this plays out, but I suspect it will get messy. And kudos to Mayor Turner for standing up and doing the right thing, as numerous Mayors around the country are doing. We’re going to be in for a lot more of this from Trump, so we’d better be ready for it.

More on the STAR Voting System

The Chron updates us on the latest in modern voting technology.

The drumbeat of election rigging and foreign hacking of voting machines have energized ongoing efforts to develop a new model of digital election equipment designed to produce instantly verifiable results and dual records for security.

Election experts say this emerging system, one of three publicly funded voting machine projects across the country, shows potential to help restore confidence in the country’s election infrastructure, most of which hasn’t been updated in more than a decade.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s taken years and years to get it done,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk and leader of the voting machine project. “Now that we’ve had this election, there’s renewed interest.”

A prototype of the system, dubbed STAR Vote, sits in an engineering lab at Rice University, and bidding is open for manufacturers who want to produce it wholesale. Similar efforts to innovate voting systems are in the works in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“County clerks in these jurisdictions are the rock stars of running elections,” said Joe Kiniry, CEO of Free & Fair, an election systems supplier currently bidding on contracts to manufacture the designs of both Travis and Los Angeles counties. “If they have success in what they do, it will have, in my opinion, a massive impact on the whole U.S.”

Like any aging digital device, the voting machines are eventually bound to stumble, said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He pointed to Detroit, where the number of votes counted didn’t match the number of voters who signed in. And he noted that reports of machines flipping votes more likely result from aged touch screens than a conspiracy to rig the election.

Yet there is seldom space in county budgets to replace the machines, which cost usually between $3,000 and $5,000 each. The vast majority of electronic voting equipment was purchased with federal funds from the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Most money reached the states by 2004, and there’s no foreseeable second wave of federal aid.

“This is really an oncoming crisis,” said Norden, who interviewed more than 100 election officials for a 2015 report about aging voting equipment published by the Brennan center. “A lot of election officials have been unhappy with the choices that the major vendors are providing.”

[…]

STAR Vote runs automatic audits, comparing a statistical sample of the paper ballots with the digital records to verify results.

“The savings are just enormous over doing a recount,” Stark said.

While other systems allow for comparison of precinct-level data, STAR Vote can compare paper ballots with individual voters’ digital ballots, which are encrypted and posted online.

Officials could take a small sample of printed ballots and compare them with digital results to conclude with high confidence that election results were correct.

The system itself is also inexpensive, built with off-the-shelf tablet computers and printers, which Wallach said will cut the price down to half of the current norm. Advanced software makes up for the cheap hardware, designers said, and they plan to make the software open-source, meaning it is free to use and, unlike current systems, can be serviced by any provider without exclusive long-term contracts.

I’ve written about this before, and while I love the design of the STAR machine, I don’t have much hope of getting to vote on one any time soon. The political climate just doesn’t seem conducive to any effort to improve the voting experience, and the lip service we got from Greg Abbott back during the peak Trump-whining-about-rigged-elections period has surely gone down the memory hole. The one possible way in that I can see for these devices is their lower cost. At some point, enough of the current voting machines will become sufficiently inoperable that replacement will be needed, and a cheaper device ought to have an advantage. Let’s hope the process of getting a manufacturer in place goes smoothly.

(NB: “Wallach” is Rice professor Dan Wallach, who as I have noted before is a friend of mine.)

Abbott goes authoritarian

I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, but it is still shocking, even in the world we now inhabit.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday that he and state lawmakers will pursue legislation that would “remove from office any officeholder who promotes sanctuary cities,” raising a new consequence as Republicans crack down on local officials who do not fully cooperate with federal immigration officials.

Abbott is threatening to cut off state funding to Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez after she announced Friday she would reduce her department’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities when they request an inmate be flagged for possible deportation. If she continues with the policy, Abbott suggested a more serious punishment.

“We will remove her from office,” Abbott said in an interview on Fox News.

It was not immediately clear how legislation would remove Hernandez from office. She won her election last year. Sanctuary cities opponents view such officials’ immigration policies as a violation of their oaths of office.

The Fox News interview appears to be the first time Abbott has suggested officials like Hernandez could lose their jobs under sanctuary cities legislation. Abbott is expected to prioritize the legislation in his State of the State address on Tuesday.

[…]

Hernandez’s office did not have an immediate comment on Abbott’s remarks. The governor’s comments, however, quickly drew ire from other Democrats, with the state party saying in a statement that Abbott was “launching a new assault on the will of Texans.”

“I don’t know how the governor would suggest to do that,” state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said at a news conference that was called to push back on sanctuary cities legislation. “Unless the governor wants to be king and remove people from office unilaterally, then I think the people of Travis County will have an opportunity to speak on the sheriff, the governor and all other elected officials when they stand for re-election.”

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, suggested another remedy. “How about removing those from office who make up the law to suit their own political needs!” he said in a statement.

See here for some background. It’s abundantly clear by now that Abbott and his cohort have no respect for the will of local voters and that the only authority they recognize is their own, so it’s a small step from stomping down on local control to overruling an election. I think back on some of the things that people said about President Obama when he lawfully exercised executive power and I wonder, was it fear or longing in their words? The latter seems much more likely. I suppose it’s possible Abbott was just preening for the Fox News cameras, but we have been advised to take authoritarians at their word, and Lord knows Dear Leader Trump has lived up to that. So yeah, I expect to see a bill come out of this. After that, we’ll see.

(All this was happening, by the way, as Harris County residents were being urged to call Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s office to ask about when he plans to end 287(g) as promised during the campaign. Like it or not, people are going to have to pick a side on this.)

Speaking of Il Duce, a federal crackdown on “sanctuary cities” is coming as well. Again, one can only wonder at the thought of President Obama making similar threats to Texas cities – just how quickly could Abbott or Paxton file a lawsuit in a friendly court? We may soon see how the shoe fits on the other foot. A statement from the Travis County legislative delegation is here, a statement from the El Paso delegation is here, and the Current and the Observer have more.

Abbott versus Travis County

This could get ugly.

Sheriff Sally Hernandez

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is formally demanding that Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez reverse her new policy on cooperation with federal immigration authorities or lose state dollars, further escalating a showdown over “sanctuary cities” that have been in the crosshairs of Republican officials.

“This is not a pronouncement of sound public policy; it is a dangerous game of political Russian roulette — with the lives of Texans at stake,” Abbott wrote to Hernandez — whose jurisdiction includes Austin — in a letter dated Monday.

The newly elected sheriff, who campaigned on the issue, announced Friday that her department would reduce its cooperation with federal immigration authorities when they request an inmate be flagged for possible deportation. Her office said it would continue to hold people charged with very serious crimes, such as capital murder.

But that was not enough for Abbott, whose letter calls the policy, which is set to go into effect Feb. 1, “shortsighted” and backed by “frivolous” justifications. He quickly reacted Friday on Twitter, saying that his office “will cut funding for Travis County adopting sanctuary. Stiffer penalties coming.”

Abbott’s threat targets Criminal Justice Division grant money that is administered by his office. Travis County got almost $1.8 million from the division over the past year “based upon the commitment that federal immigration law would be enforced,” according to the letter.

“Your policy is in violation of that commitment,” Abbott told Hernandez. “Unless you reverse your policy prior to its effective date, your unilateral decision will cost the people of Travis County money that was meant to be used to protect them.”

In the letter, Abbott also made clear that he intends to make an example out of Hernandez during the 85th Legislative Session that started earlier this month. Abbott is set to lay out his priorities in his State of the State address, which is scheduled for Jan. 31.

Let’s pause for a moment to marvel at the glory of Greg Abbott – Greg Abbott! – demanding that federal law be obeyed and enforced. It’s almost as if all of his previous blathering about “states rights” and “federal overreach” was based not on principle but crass partisan politics. I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

While basically everyone agrees that violent criminals who are undocumented should be deported, they represent a tiny fraction of the people who have been expelled from the country. The vast overwhelming majority are just ordinary people, including a lot of children who get swept up with their parents; many others get left behind without one or both parents. The Chron goes into some of the issues.

Though Travis County could be the first jurisdiction in Texas to lose funding over its immigration detainer policy, it’s not the first time Abbott has threatened to cut money over the issue. After Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez made minor changes to her county’s policy last year, he also promised to slash funding. It ultimately stayed in place because the county never declined an immigration detainer.

Harris County Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez has said that he is also concerned about holding inmates without pending charges for immigration enforcement, but will continue working with the federal government while he studies the issue.

Political fighting over so-called sanctuary cities has waged for years.

Though it is strictly the federal government who enforces immigration law, Washington and local entities began cooperating on the issue in 2008. The program matches the fingerprints of every person booked into jail against a sweeping law enforcement database, including immigration information from the Department of Homeland Security.

After they determined someone was here illegally, federal officials could request that local authorities detain those immigrants even if they were otherwise eligible for release, say by posting bond or having their criminal charges dropped.

Roughly one-sixth of the record 2.5 million immigrants President Barack Obama deported between 2008 and 2015 were removed through this program, many of them after being booked into jail on misdemeanor crimes.

Critics said it encouraged racial profiling and deported immigrants accused of minor crimes such as traffic offenses rather than focusing the government’s limited resources on violent immigrants. Several federal courts, none in Texas, also found that it could violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Five states and more than 500 counties have scaled back on cooperating with the federal government on the issue, according to a tally by the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy group in Los Angeles.

Though the Obama administration overhauled the program in 2015 to try to address constitutional concerns, they remain. Last summer, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office was sued for holding a man for more than two months after officials dismissed the misdemeanor assault charge that had him flagged by immigration officials to begin with.

Lena Graber, an attorney for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a national immigrant advocacy group in San Francisco, said federal detainer requests are civil orders, not arrest warrants meeting Fourth Amendment requirements.

You know all those arguments we’ve been having about why bail reform is needed to ensure our county jail isn’t stuffed full of people who aren’t a threat to anyone and who in many cases have never been (and never will be) convicted of a crime? The same is true for immigrant detention centers, and the stakes are a lot higher. That doesn’t even get into the whole sordid private prison industry, which has been the driving force behind the construction of many of those detention centers. Requiring local police to enforce federal immigration law is a huge drain on their resources, and has been devastating to a lot of people who have done nothing harmful. And as Sheriff Hernandez fights this battle in Travis County, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez made his own promises about 287(g), which he says he is still working on. People are going to expect an answer soon. Campos and Stace have more.

Dukes indicted

Boom.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

A grand jury has indicted state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, on abuse-of-office charges, the Travis County District Attorney’s office said Wednesday. She could face up to 28 years in jail and fines of up to $138,000.

The first indictment charges 13 counts of tampering with a governmental record, a felony punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. These charges are based on allegations that Dukes made false entries on travel vouchers to obtain money for expenses she was not entitled to, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said in a news release.

Two separate indictments were also handed down for abuse of official capacity by a public servant, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000. These “relate to allegations that Rep. Dukes misused public funds for her personal gain, and that she converted campaign funds to personal use.”

In a Facebook post Wednesday, Dukes said she is “disappointed” with the grand jury’s decision and will “be entering a plea of not guilty.”

On Wednesday afternoon, she went to the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center to get fingerprinted and have her mug shot taken. In brief remarks outside the county courthouse Wednesday afternoon, Dukes, flanked by her lawyers, she said she is “very relieved … to begin the process of getting out the other side of the story that I have not been able to speak about since February.”

“I will focus my time and my energy on the people of District 46 and their issues and their concerns,” Dukes told reporters. “I do not intend at all to allow anyone to get me distracted.”

See here and here for the background. I have not been calling for indicted AG Ken Paxton to resign from his office, partly because as crooked as I think he is, he hasn’t been convicted of anything yet, and partly for the crass political reason that I’d rather have us Dems run against a possible convicted felon than against a clean replacement. I have no crass political reason for wanting Dawnna Dukes to stay in office, and as we know she had originally said she was going to resign for various personal reasons then changed her mind at the last minute. As such, while I remain steadfast in the belief that one is innocent until proven guilty, I’d really like to see Dawnna Dukes resign. She is highly unlikely to be an effective advocate for her constituents this session, and they deserve better. But that’s ultimately their call as much as hers – if the people who have been electing her want her to leave, she should listen to them. I hope they do, and I hope she does.

Dawnna Dukes case to go before grand jury

Awesome.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

Travis County prosecutors and Texas Rangers will present evidence to a grand jury that state Rep. Dawnna Dukes abused the power of her office, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore told the American-Statesman.

Among possible charges: abuse of official capacity and tampering with public records, Moore said.

Dukes was sworn into office for a 12th term Tuesday after reneging on a plan to step down before the Legislature convened.

Moore said that the grand jury proceedings will begin next Tuesday.

[…]

The case against Dukes began when members of legislative staff in early 2016 questioned her requiring them to do personal errands for her and work full-time on a nonprofit event. In one instance, Dukes gave a state employee a raise to cover gas money for driving her daughter to and from school.

See here for the background. KXAN was first with the story, and adds some more detail about the resignation that wasn’t.

When asked why she decided to retract her resignation, Dukes told KXAN’s Political Reporter Phil Prazan that she made her decision because her experience and qualifications make her the best person for the job. She said she had to listen to her constituents.

“I listened to the constituents who requested over and over and over again, since my announcement, that I would reconsider that I would come back,” says Dukes, who has served HD 46 since 1995. Dukes says she worked with her doctors to make sure she was healthy enough to make sure she would not be absent from the 2017 session.

[…]

There are currently five people who are vying for House District 46 and all appear to still be moving forward with their campaigns. Former Austin Mayor Pro-Tem Sheryl Cole held a news conference Tuesday afternoon to say that she’s still in the race, whether it will be in a special election or the Democratic primary for 2018.

Chito Vela also sent out an advisory for his official campaign kickoff, which is scheduled for Thursday. In his message, he says, “East Austin needs a progressive voice that will fight for the interests of working class voters.”

Gabriel Nila, the only GOP candidate going for the seat, knew he had an uphill battle in a district that typically votes at least 80 percent Democrat.

“Our concern, mine and several other people, is that she will do the exact same thing that she did in 2015—make a couple of appearances here and there, but not take care of the issues that need taking care of,” said Nila.

That sound you hear is me banging my head on my desk. The Trib has more.

Dukes un-resigns

Ugh.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes confirmed to the Texas Tribune in an email Monday that she is not resigning from her post with House District 46, just two days after blindsiding supporters and fellow lawmakers with her reverse decision.

Dukes, an Austin Democrat, announced in September that she would retire from office on Jan. 10, the first day of the legislative session, after more than 20 years in the Texas House. She cited ongoing health issues and concerns over caring for her 9-year-old daughter but it came while the Travis County District Attorney office was conducting a criminal investigation over her alleged misuse of staff and government funds.

On Saturday, just days after her own spokesperson confirmed to the Tribune that her resignation would go forward, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Duke had told the new Travis County District Attorney, Margaret Moore, that she had changed her mind about retiring. The decision came as a surprise to candidates intending to vie for her seat after she resigned.

See here and here for the background. I feel like an idiot now for ever believing her, but at least I’m not as big an idiot as her spokesman.

On Friday, Bill Miller a spokesman for Dukes, confirmed to the Tribune that Dukes still planned to resign on Tuesday. “She won’t be answering questions prior to that date,” he wrote in an email to the Tribune.

Asked Saturday about the report Dukes wouldn’t resign after all, Miller told the Tribune that he had breakfast with [Travis County DA Margaret] Moore last week and “presumably, it would be a topic of conversation between us if Dukes told her she would not resign.”

“I know what I was told long ago and no one has told me otherwise. [Dukes] is going to do whatever she is going to do,” Miller wrote in an email.

Bet the next staff meeting is a bit awkward. The Statesman reported on this over the weekend, and it gets even weirder.

It wasn’t clear Saturday whether Dukes’ health had improved or why she had reversed course. She has kept a low profile since news broke of possible ethics violations nearly a year ago, and has not responded to repeated requests for comment from the Statesman over the past several months. She did not immediately respond when contacted on Saturday.

[…]

Dukes’ decision did not come on the advice of Fort Worth defense attorney Michael Heiskell, who had been representing her.

“That was not my advice to her,” said Heiskill, who said Dukes had not consulted with him before reversing her decision to step down.

Is he still her attorney?

“Apparently not,” Heiskill said.

Heiskill said he had been contacted earlier in the week by Houston attorney Dane Ball who said he was looking into the matter at Dukes’ request.

Heiskill said it had been his hope that if Dukes had stepped down, the Travis County district attorney would not have sought an indictment.

“But all that’s been scuttled now if what I am hearing is true,” Heiskill said.

Well, maybe the DA will force the matter. Regardless, I look forward to supporting someone in the 2018 primary against Dukes. The Austin Chronicle has more.

As long as we’re talking about improving our voting machines

Then this is what we should be talking about.

Dana DeBeauvoir

[Travis] County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir called Rice University computer science professor Dan Wallach, who has been poking holes in voting-machine security for years. He’s testified before Congress on the subject.

Now DeBeauvoir wanted him to design a new one.

“Wow,” he says. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

The last time voting technology went through a major design change was after the disastrous Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election. Confusion over badly designed and incompletely punched paper ballots threw the results into chaos.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, committing $4 billion to help localities buy new electronic voting machines.

“All of these machines, we understand now, are wildly insecure,” Wallach says. “Even though the vendors made claims that they were great, those claims have turned out to be false. And we’re now dealing with that problem.”

But replacing them costs money that many localities don’t have, and it’s not clear that Congress will pony up again.

So Wallach’s new system would have to be cheaper than what’s on the market now.

[…]

The system that the team of cybersecurity and usability experts came up with is called STAR-Vote, for secure, transparent, auditable and reliable.

It has two parts: A kiosk containing an off-the-shelf tablet computer and a standard inkjet printer, plus a metal ballot box with a built-in scanner.

Off-the-shelf parts keep the cost down and can be easily sourced and replaced. Wallach says the metal box costs more than all the electronic components inside it. The whole system should cost half or less what current machines do, which cost about $3,000 each.

Voters make their selections on the touchscreen tablet, which is kept off the internet and stripped of all software (and potential vulnerabilities) except the voting application.

State-of-the-art cryptography protects the integrity of the vote. But it’s not the only safeguard. Hard copy remains one of the most secure ways to cast a ballot.

“The crypto can do some really great tricks,” Wallach says. “But if you don’t trust the cryptography, that’s OK. Because we also have printed paper ballots that go into a box.”

Voters can see who the computer says they chose. The vote is only cast when the voter puts it in the ballot box.

And if there is any question about the electronic votes, the paper ballots are the backup.

This is nothing new – I wrote about it in July of 2014, and Wallach’s team made a presentation about STAR-Vote in August of 2013. The point is that this system, which is both more secure than what we have now while also being less expensive, could be in place for the 2018 election if we really wanted it to be. Given the lip service some Republicans like Greg Abbott are giving to election integrity, this is totally doable. You will know by what happens in the 2017 legislative session whether Abbott et al meant any of it or not.

(Disclaimer: As noted before, Dan Wallach is a friend of mine.)

Statewide review: 2016 was like 2008, but not in a good way

vote-button

There’s no point in beating around the bush, so I’ll just come out and say it: Despite the excitement about increases in voter registration and heavy early voting turnout. statewide Democratic candidates outside of Hillary Clinton generally did not do any better than their counterparts in 2008. Republican statewide candidates, on the other hand, were generally setting new high-water marks for vote totals. Every statewide Republican other than Wayne Christian topped Donald Trump’s 4,681,590 votes, with all of them but one besting it by at least 100,000. Meanwhile, only Dori Contreras Garza’s 3,598,852 votes exceeded President Obama’s 2008 tally. Overall turnout was up in Texas (in absolute numbers, though not in percentage), but while Dem turnout was better than 2012, it didn’t hit any new heights. I fear we may be at a plateau, as we have been in the off years since 2002.

Why am I not more encouraged by Hillary Clinton’s 3.8 million-plus total? Because I estimate at least 100,000 of her votes came from people who supported Republicans in other races, and because the dropoff from her total to downballot candidates was enough to show no visible growth. For these purposes, I’m using judicial races as my metric, as I believe it is a better proxy for partisan intent. I used as a baseline for comparison between 2012 and 2016 two Court of Criminal Appeals races – the 2012 Sharon Keller/Keith Hampton race, and the 2016 Mike Keasler/Robert Burns race. I believe these contests are low enough profile to draw a relatively small number of crossovers, and in this particular case they were the only such races each year to have just a Libertarian candidate in addition, thus allowing for a more apples-to-apples comparison. I put all the county totals into a spreadsheet and then calculated the difference between the two. From a Democratic perspective, there’s good news, so-so news, and bad news.

I’ll get to the news in a second. You can see the spreadsheet here. I’ve put a list of the 62 counties in which Democrats gained votes from 2012 to 2016 beneath the fold. Take a look and then come back, and we’ll talk about what I think this means.

Ready? Democrats really killed it in the big urban counties. Harris, Bexar, Travis, El Paso, and Dallas combined for nearly 240,000 more Democratic votes in 2016, compared to 83,000 for the Republicans, a net of over 150K. Dems took such a big step forward in Harris County that HD144 might not really be a swing district any more, while HDs 132, 135, and 138 are now in the picture as pickup opportunities, with HD126 a little farther out on the horizon. I’ll have more to say about Harris County beginning tomorrow, but I feel like maybe, just maybe, we’ve finally turned a corner. I know that the off-year turnout issue is a problem until we can demonstrate that it’s not, but I believe it’s getting hard to dispute the assertion that there are just more Democrats in Harris County than there are Republicans. I also believe that national conditions will be different in 2018 than they were in 2010 and 2014. Doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be better, but they will be different, and when you’ve consistently been on the short end of the stick, having conditions change – even if you don’t know how they will change – is a risk you ought to be willing to take.

Democrats also showed a nice gain in the big Latino counties (Hidalgo, Cameron, and Webb), while netting over 9,000 votes in Fort Bend. I’ll be looking at Fort Bend data later as well, and while this wasn’t enough to push any non-Hillary Dems over the top there, it’s a step in the right direction.

The so-so news is that Dems more or less held steady in most of the big suburban counties, by which I mean they mostly lost a little ground but not that much. Other than Fort Bend, Dems posted a solid gain in Hays County and barely gained more votes in Brazoria County than the GOP did. They had modest net losses in counties like Tarrant, Collin, Denton, and Williamson, such that one might feel we are at or near an inflection point in those counties. In math terms, the second derivative is approaching zero. This is a genteel way of saying that we’re falling behind at a slower pace. Better than falling behind in huge chunks, but still not good news.

The bad news is that in several other suburban counties, and basically all the non-Latino rural ones, Democrats got crushed. Montgomery County continues to be a sucking chest wound, with 21,087 more Republican votes and 8,432 more Dems. Comal County is Montgomery’s little brother, with continued steady growth and a deep red tint that shows no signs of abating. And if you’re old enough to remember when Galveston County was reliably Democratic, well, the score here is 10,335 more votes for the GOP, and 1,521 more for the Dems. So, yeah.

It’s the rural counties where things really become dreary. I said the Dems gained votes over 2012 in 62 counties. That means they lost votes in 192 others. Now, most of these are small counties, and the losses themselves were small in most of them; the average loss was 323 votes. But Republicans gained an average of over 700 votes in each of those counties, and as they say after awhile it adds up. Plus, some of these counties are now more exurban than rural, and like the suburbs are seeing steady growth. Two examples for you are Johnson County, northwest of Travis and home of Cleburne, and Parker County, west of Tarrant where Weatherford is. Those counties saw a combined voter registration increase of about 20,000. Of that, 17,201 were Republican and 449 were Democratic. That right there is enough to negate the Democratic net gain in Dallas County.

The single most eye-catching item in here is Polk County, up US59 between Houston and Lufkin; Livingston is the county seat. Unlike Johnson and Parker, it has about the same number of voters as it did four years ago. The difference is that in 2012 fewer than half of registered voters bothered, while this year nearly everyone did. Turnout in the Presidential race in Polk County was an mind-boggling 89.48%, and nearly the entire increase came from Republicans. In this CCA comparison, Mike Keasler got 12,183 more votes than Sharon Keller did, while Robert Burns improved on Keith Hampton by only 1,845 votes. All this with only 38,530 total registered voters. OMG, to say the least.

So what should we be doing about this? Well, we should keep doing what we’re doing in the urban counties, because it definitely bore fruit this year. I’d like to think we’re starting to maybe get a little traction in the suburbs, at least some of them, but it’s going to take a lot more resources and an effort that doesn’t just gear up at campaign time to really get that going. Mostly, we need to have a way to make sure we’re being heard in these places, because I don’t think we are, not outside of the faithful who are there. If I were a fabulously wealthy person who wanted to move the needle outside the urban counties, I’d throw a bunch of money at the Texas Organizing Project and ask them to figure out (and execute) a way to do for these suburbs and exurbs what they’ve been doing in Pasadena. It’s slow and methodical and just one piece of the puzzle, but we have got to start somewhere.

Data on the counties where Dem turnout grew is beneath the fold. More to come over the next week or so.

(more…)

Wait, who supports paper ballots now?

I have three things to say about this.

Following repeated allegations by Republican Donald Trump that the election may be rigged to ensure a win for Democrat Hillary Clinton, Texas lawmakers are actively considering ways to boost confidence in the state’s elections during next year’s legislative session.

Among the ideas drawing interest: adding paper trail backups to thousands of electronic voting machines.

The idea was brought up in a tweet Saturday by Gov. Greg Abbott.

“That’s a great idea & we are considering it as an election reform measure. Election integrity is essential,” Abbott tweeted in response to a voter who tweeted that he wanted printed proof of how he cast his ballot.

Over the last decade, several Texas lawmakers have filed bills to require paper trails on electronic voting machine. The proposals often include adding a printer in a sealed case to the state’s electronic voting machines so voters could check their votes against the receipt. The paper trail could be consulted in the event of a recount.

During the 2007 legislative session, interest in the idea stalled following estimates that adding the printers to all of the state’s voting machines could cost $40 to 50 million, according to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article from the time.

One of the 2007 bills was authored by then-state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. Now a state senator, she said she may re-introduce her previous legislation.

“I agree with Governor Abbott’s call for election reform,” Kolkhorst said Tuesday in an emailed statement. “I have personally spoken with his office about re-introducing my legislation from 2007 to strengthen ballot integrity by requiring a paper record be printed of a person’s vote on an electronic voting machine. Texans have the right to inspect and verify that their vote was accurately recorded.”

[…]

The move toward election reform comes amid an election season in which Texans have expressed concerns about election rigging and voter fraud. Last week, Trump highlighted reports of voting machines in Texas changing votes for president from voters casting straight-ticket ballots. Those reports, however, have been largely debunked by election officials, who have stated that alleged instances of “vote flipping” were the result of user error.

1. I’m old enough to remember when suspicion of electronic voting machines and faith that only paper ballots could ensure the integrity of our electoral system was a shibboleth on the left, largely having to do with dire conspiracy theories about the Diebold corporation and vote counting in Ohio in 2004. Here’s a little blast from the past for those of you who have blocked this out or weren’t there for it the first time. Who knew that a sociopathic sore-losing narcissist could spark such an interest in voting machine integrity among Republicans? For that matter, who knew that so many Republican voters could be that suspicious of the electoral process in a state whose elections they have been dominating for over 20 years? Clearly, all these Republican County Clerks and Republican-appointed elections administrators can’t be trusted.

2. Travis County has already done a lot of the heavy lifting on building a better mousetrap. Maybe we should just emulate their work and save us all a bunch of time and effort.

3. Putting aside the question of paper ballots for a moment, perhaps we should take a moment and contemplate the fact that the electronic voting machines we use now are all a decade or more old, and are generally past their recommended lifespan. If we do nothing else, spending a few bucks to upgrade and replace our current hardware would be an excellent investment.

Early voting, Day Eight: We do have a pretty good idea of who has been voting so far

Why such a mushy article about the state of early voting so far?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Because Texas voters can use a single click to back an entire slate, the down-ballot candidates running countywide have ever-slimming chances of influencing their destinies. As polarization and straight-ticket voting grow, the outlook is even more challenging for judicial candidates, who do not like touting their candidacies in a partisan way in the first place.

“It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad,” said District Court Judge Ted Halbach, one of a handful of Republican judges who eked out wins in 2008 and again four years later. “I’ve been the beneficiary and now I face the challenges. But you only can worry about what you can control – and you can’t control very much.”

The 2016 presidential battle, which may go down as the ugliest and most unusual of modern times, could have a profound local impact. Both candidates provoke high negative opinions, which could depress voter turnout or inspire it.

Early vote totals suggest the latter. More than 566,000 ballots were cast in the first week, a record. Lane Lewis, the Democratic Party chairman for Harris County, said the early turnout bolsters his hope for another “wave” election.

“Do I believe Democrats are doing well? Absolutely,” Lewis said. “Five days of voting is not enough to predict an outcome. I wouldn’t say anyone is beating the victory drum.”

Donald Trump’s faithful seem likely to show up en masse, but U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was the big winner in the spring primary, taking 45 percent of the Harris County vote. What will the Cruz supporters do? There is a reasonable possibility that suburban Republican women will cross the party divide and give Hillary Clinton a local win to match what opinion polls are showing in many states. The question is, will they step back to help the down-ticket Republicans?

“This year, nobody knows,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a 2008 Republican survivor. “Will the turnout be high or low? Will they turn out for Trump or against Trump? Will Hillary get the same kind of enthusiastic turnout Obama did? I don’t see it. But it’s true that we don’t really know.”

The countywide down-ballot races include sheriff, district attorney, county judge, education board, constables and scores of judicial seats. The people seeking them this time cannot decide whether to be confident or scared, Emmett said.

“I was at a candidate meet-and-greet the other day, a bipartisan thing, and in talking to those candidates, to a person they were frantic over who was going to show up and vote,” he said. “Nobody knows.”

“We treat Harris County as a very evenly divided battleground ‘state,'” said Harris County Republican Chairman Paul Simpson. “When I was running (for chairman), that was my constant message. It was a Democratic county, then became Republican, then switched to be very evenly divided. Every cycle is a pitched battle.”

[…]

Political consultant Keir Murray, who works with Democratic candidates, said he is optimistic about the party’s future, though like everyone else he is not so sure about this year.

“The problem is, if you are a Republican office holder, you don’t have a lot of margin for error,” Murray said. “If you get marginally lower turnout from your base voters, you lose. Or, if you see some real uptick in Hispanic voting – and they have not been voting near their rates of registration – that would make a difference. There is evidence that this could happen because Trump has said very negative things about them.”

All due respect, but we do know who is voting, because the County Clerk puts out a roster of everyone who has voted after each day, and we have a pretty good idea of how they are voting. In fact, the Chron wrote about this on Friday, so I have no idea why they switched into this nobody-knows-anything mode. It’s true that the question of who among those that have not yet voted will turn out remains murkier, but the evidence we have so far is that there are still a lot more high-propensity Democrats left to vote, more than the number of high-propensity Republicans. I understand having a story that talks to the people who are on the ballot and who are being affected by what is going on now, but if you’re going to talk about what is happening, the consultant types are in a much better position to give you real information.

Anyway. The Trib has a nice tracker of the changes in early voting turnout for the biggest counties over the past three Presidential races. It’s up everywhere, but the uptick in Travis County in particular is amazing. El Paso is also doing very well, and so far the conventional wisdom is that this is good for Pete Gallego in our one swing Congressional district, CD23. That would have been at least a competitive race without the Trump factor, but maybe this time it will be blue all the way down, and not just in the Congressional race.

I went to bed before the Monday EV report came out, though I saw on Facebook that the number of voters was in the 73,000 range. That’s in line with the daily output from last week, though down a bit from the end of the week. We’ll see if things will slow down or level off, or if the usual pattern will hold and the last two days this week will be heavier. Here’s the Day 7 EV report, which brings you up to date through Sunday. The weekend was even better for Dems than the first five days were, so it’s all about what happens this week. The tracker spreadsheet is here, and I’ll update that when I get the Monday report.

UPDATE: And here are the Day 8 EV totals. It’s down a bit, but still higher than Day One was. The spreadsheet has been updated.

Help a crony out?

Collin County, y’all.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Collin County lawmakers debated intervening in Ken Paxton’s legal woes by pressuring county leaders to cut funding for the case, according to a series of private text messages exchanged last week.

Taxpayers in Paxton’s home county are on the hook to pay for his prosecution, which has dragged on for months as he’s appealed three felony indictments for violating state securities laws. Local Republican leaders have expressed concern about the case’s six-figure cost but have said the law leaves them no choice but to pay up.

But five Collin County lawmakers thought otherwise.

In a series of texts sent last week, which The Dallas Morning News obtained through open records laws, they discuss how to persuade County Judge Keith Self to violate a court order requiring him to pay three special prosecutors.

Should they send a signed letter to the Commissioners Court? Should they get lawyers involved? Or should they simply pressure Self to refuse to pay the prosecutors, a decision for which he could be found in contempt of court?

“All of us agree (hopefully) on the end goal. Question is what can we do to move the ball toward that goal line,” Plano Republican Rep. Jeff Leach sent in a text on Monday, to which Rep. Matt Shaheen responded, “I’ll ask Keith [Self] if they lowered the fees and discuss options to stop payment.”

“Perfect,” Leach texted back. “Let him know we are here to help — not hurt. If Keith got sent to jail for this — I’d be the first to bail him out.”

This is Exhibit A for why having a central Public Integrity Unit is a good idea. Now, in this case, the PIU in the Travis County DA’s office did investigate, and declined to pursue charges because they determined that the alleged crime did not occur in Travis County and thus was not in their jurisdiction. I don’t know if this situation was affected by the recent legislation that took a lot of these investigations away from the PIU in Travis County, but I do know that if the Travis County DA were doing this prosecution, we wouldn’t have Ken Paxton’s buddies trying to short-circuit it. If we’re going to have these prosecutions handled by home counties, we need better laws to prevent this kind of meddling. If a special prosecutor is needed, that special prosecutor should have fairly wide latitude to request funding to complete its job.

Record registration numbers for Harris County

Nice.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As registration closed, Harris County’s voter roster had grown by more than 6 percent since 2014, the steepest increase in 16 years. More than 323,890 new names have been added, bringing the county voter roll to more than 2.2 million.

Harris County is not alone. The Texas Secretary of State’s office two weeks ago reported the addition of more than 1 million registered voters across the state.

“The growth is out of proportion of what we have traditionally encountered,” said Doug Ray, the assistant county attorney overseeing voter registration.

[…]

Mi Familia Vota organizers say this election cycle, which has seen Hispanic people put at the center of some vicious debate, has inspired a boom in participation.

“I have seen something I have never seen,” said Carlos Duarte, Texas director for Mi Familia Vota. “Which is, people approaching us with the clear intention to register. In the past, we would have to approach them and explain to them why this is important.”

In recent months in the Houston area, the group has set up voter registration booths at high schools, community colleges, festivals, fairs and church services. It even partnered with several taco trucks to distribute registration forms. The group’s local volunteers turned in 2,700 voter registration forms this year and handed out about 1,000 more.

It stands to reason that if voter registration is way up statewide, then it will necessarily be up in the most populous counties as well. It may be a few days before we have final full numbers, but I’m guessing 15 million is well within reach. Of interest is that in Harris County, registrations among people with Spanish surnames were up 22 percent, while registrations among everyone else were up 10 percent. Make of that what you will.

A few stories from elsewhere in the state. Bexar County:

A record number of Bexar County residents could head to the polls this election, according to early totals from county officials.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the last day to register to vote in Texas, 1,036,610 people had signed up to vote in Bexar County, about 118,000 more registered voters than in 2012, the last presidential election.

With a few hours left to turn in voter forms, Jacquelyn Callanen, Bexar County elections administrator, expected that number could go up by at least 5,000 more.

“We’ve been busy,” Callanen said over the phone from the election office on Frio Street. In addition to a steady stream of walk-ins, the office had as many as 50 phone calls at any given time.

“I didn’t expect to see this huge swell at the end of the last two days of registration,” Callanen said. “That’s been a pleasant surprise.”

Callanen said the elections office had 500 walk-ins Monday and 1,000 walk-ins Tuesday alone. She credits the almost 13 percent increase in registered voters from 2012 to both a booming county population and the fact that this year is a non-incumbent presidential election, “which also has an awful lot of interest.”

Travis County:

Travis County reached a voter registration milestone ahead of this year’s presidential election. Local election officials set a goal after the 2012 election to have 90 percent of the county registered. As of [Monday], officials met that goal.

“Ninety percent of Travis County eligible citizens are registered to vote for the first time in recent history – maybe ever,” said Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s voter registrar.

He says his office has stacks and stacks of voter registration cards.

“You should see the pictures of the piles of cards over here,” he said.

The Statesman puts that at 725,000 registered voters, possibly more, which is an increase of some 90,000+ over 2012. Harris County’s percentage of adults registered is just under 80%, according to the Chron story. It sounds like Travis County is measuring against the Citizen Voting Age Population, which if so is not truly comparable to Harris. Be that as it may, Travis County has always been an overachiever on this measure.

Pre-deadline stories from Dallas County peg the increase at over 100,000 there, while El Paso County was at 420K total voters, or 35K more than 2012, as of Friday. Again, total registrations do not necessarily correlate to turnout, but no matter how you slice it, there’s going to be a lot of people voting this year. I can’t wait to see what the early voting numbers look like.

Miller avoids charges for his questionable trips

Can’t catch ’em all.

Sid Miller

Travis County prosecutors will not press criminal charges against Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller for tapping taxpayer funds for two trips that involved personal activities — including an appearance in a Mississippi rodeo and the receipt of a medical injection in Oklahoma called the “Jesus Shot.”

“We have decided to close our file and not pursue criminal charges against Commissioner Miller on these allegations,” Assistant District Attorney Susan Oswalt wrote in a memo to the Texas Department of Public Safety dated Sept. 8 first reported by The Houston Chronicle. “Our office has determined that criminal intent would be difficult to prove in this case.”

Travis County was reviewing an investigation that the Texas Rangers launched after the liberal advocacy group Progress Texas filed complaints about the Stephenville Republican’s February 2015 trips.

Those complaints followed media reports indicating that Miller personally benefitted from the state-funded trips.

A statement posted Tuesday to Miller’s Facebook account said the commissioner was “pleased this process is now complete and that he has been cleared of any wrongdoing.” The statement also thanked the Travis County District Attorney’s office and the Texas Rangers for their “professionalism.”

[…]

In her memo, Oswalt wrote “it is clear that Commissioner Miller used campaign and state funds to pay for the two trips,” but noted that he had fully repaid the state.

“Additionally, the total amount spent on the trips was relatively small, the state has been refunded all the money it expended on these trips, and the facts have been made known publicly so that Commissioner Miller is likely to be more careful in the future,” the memo said.

See here for the background. Let’s be clear, this isn’t a vindication of any kind, and Miller clearly wasn’t innocent. ADA Oswalt basically says as much in the memo – he did it, we all know it, but the amount involved was small, he paid it back, proving “intent” will be nigh impossible, so it just isn’t worth our time and limited resources to pursue. Miller will claim vindication anyway, and because the story ends here and we all have short memories, he’ll mostly get it. But we know what happened. The Chron and the Current have more.

Two more Clinton campaign offices opened in Texas

In Austin:

Hillary Clinton

The Democratic National Committee opened its Austin headquarters on Sunday.

The move comes amid a surprisingly narrowing gap (given the longtime deep-red status of the state) between Clinton and her GOP rival, Donald Trump, for the presidency. The office is located at 61 N. Interstate 35 at Holly Street, serving as the base for local organizing activity and house volunteers operating phone banks and organizing meetings, KXAN-TV reported.

Members of the public were invited to the opening in quintessentially Texas manner, with barbecue. The office also comes just days before Clinton running mate Tim Kaine makes his second visit to Austin on Sept. 23 to raise campaign money.

And in San Antonio:

Last week the Democrats opened an office in Houston and another Saturday in San Antonio.

The San Antonio campaign office will be the hub for the push to elect Clinton and other Democrats on the Texas ballot in November.

Organizers there will put volunteers to work at phone banks and canvassing neighborhoods.

Democrats expect to hold events at the Alamo City office as we get closer to the general election.

These go along with the Houston office. We were told at that time that more such offices would be coming, though the campaign did not specify any details. If I had to guess, I’d say maybe an office in Dallas, one in El Paso, and one in the Valley, but I’m just guessing. In my fondest dreams, we’d have them in places that aren’t Democratic but which have growing populations and voters who really ought to be contacted – Fort Bend, Williamson, Collin, you know the placews I’m thinking of. Maybe some year when there are more resources and Texas is seen as a legit swing state. For now, however many we do get, it’s good to have them.

Reducing pot prosecutions one county at a time

Some Texas cities are taking direct action to dial back the drug wars and reduce their jail population.

Zonker

As lawmakers have wrestled in recent years with easing restrictions on marijuana use – an issue they likely will confront again when they convene in January – prosecutors in the state’s most populated areas are relaxing their pursuit of cases that involve recreational amounts of the drug.

An American-Statesman analysis shows those practices are resulting in a spike of marijuana dismissals in Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Travis and Tarrant counties. In each of the five counties, the rate of dismissal has risen since 2011, dramatically in some places. The trend also appears to be playing out statewide, where 23 percent of all misdemeanor marijuana cases were dismissed in 2011. In 2015, nearly a third were.

Yet that doesn’t mean Texas is witnessing de facto legalization: the number of new misdemeanor pot cases filed by police has stayed relatively constant.

The rate of dismissals is increasing fastest in North Texas. According to data kept by the Texas Office of Court Administration, Tarrant County prosecutors went from dismissing just 9 percent of cases five years ago to 24.3 percent last year. In Dallas County, the dismissal rate more than doubled, from 18 percent in 2011 to 41 percent last year.

Someone nabbed with a small amount of weed in Harris County in 2011 had about a 1 in 5 chance of getting the case dismissed; now it’s about 2 in 5 after officials developed a deferral program in which defendants have their cases thrown out if they meet certain qualifications.

In Travis County, prosecutors in recent years also have dismissed a greater percentage of marijuana cases. But much like in Bexar County, the frequency of dismissals was already significantly higher than in other counties.

For instance, Travis County in 2011 dismissed 42.6 percent of all resolved cases, compared to a statewide average of 22.9 percent.

Most of this is just due to prosecutors not wanting to pursue such minor offenses, and who can blame them? It’s not a substitute for policy, or a change in state law that would institutionalize this behavior. That’s still needed, even if the Legislature isn’t ready for it.