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Vince Ryan

Harris County sues Arkema

Good.

Vince Ryan

Harris County filed suit Thursday against Arkema over chemical fires at its Crosby plant in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, saying the company violated a long list of environmental, safety and building regulations and put first responders at risk.

The lawsuit, filed in state district court, seeks up to $1 million in penalties and asks that Arkema be ordered to upgrade its emergency response plans, build stronger storage areas and set up a notification system for alerting nearby residents of future incidents.

About 300 homes were evacuated and more than 30 people hospitalized — including law enforcement — when a volatile chemical erupted into flames after the plant lost power and generators in Harvey floodwaters.

“This was a very dangerous situation,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement Thursday. “Arkema must take responsibility for its inability to ensure the safety of the people of the Crosby community and those who protect them.”

[…]

The company self-reported multiple emissions from the plant to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality TCEQ during the disaster. Before the company lost control of its organic peroxides, floodwaters overwhelmed its wastewater treatment plant, resulting in industrial wastewater leaking into county waterways. Each separate fire resulted in air emissions from the facility.

Multiple new details were revealed in the county’s lawsuit. The county’s suit claims that Harris County Pollution Control Department detected air pollution outside of the mandated evacuation zone during the crisis.

It also says parts of the Arkema facility is located below base flood elevation, requiring permits the company did not have.

See here for more on the first lawsuit filed against Arkema. Commissioners Court authorized filing this lawsuit in late September. As I said before, I think Arkema needs to be held accountable for the things that it did and did not do that led to the many harmful environmental problems that resulted. Harvey was an unprecedented event and there likely wasn’t much they or anyone could have done to prevent consequences from it, but that doesn’t take them off the hook for their failure to be prepared. The Press has more.

We have a candidate for Treasurer

Dylan Osborne

The Democratic slate for countywide offices in 2018 is now filled out as Dylan Osborne has announced his candidacy for Harris County Treasurer. Osborne has been a City Council staffer and currently works in the Planning & Development Department for the City of Houston. He joins the following on the ticket for next November:

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Diane Trautman, County Clerk
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Josh Wallenstein, HCDE Trustee, Position 3 At Large

All this presumes there are no other entrants into the primaries. Given how crowded some other races are I wouldn’t bet on that, but this is what we have now. As noted in the previous update, we are still awaiting candidates for County Commissioner in Precinct 2, and an HCDE Trustee for Position 4, Precinct 4, as well as some State Reps. Filing season opens in about five weeks.

Did you know that the current Treasurer, Orlando Sanchez, is the longest-tenured countywide official? He was elected in 2006, so this is his third term. County Judge Ed Emmett was appointed in 2007 and won his first election in 2008, along with County Attorney Vince Ryan. County Clerk Stan Stanart and District Clerk Chris Daniel were both elected in 2010. Everyone else, including the At Large HCDE Trustees, was elected no earlier than 2012. There are some judges who have been on the bench longer than Sanchez has been in office, there are Constables and JPs who have been around longer, and of course Commissioner Steve Radack was first elected during the Truman administration (I may be slightly exaggerating), but for countywide executive offices, it’s Orlando and then it’s everybody else. If we want to elevate somebody else to the title of most senior countywide elected official, next year will be our chance to do that.

Harris County Attorney files amicus brief in SB4 lawsuit

Good.

Last week, Harris County Commissioners Court opted not to join a lawsuit challenging the state’s controversial “sanctuary cities” law as unconstitutional.

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, however, has filed a brief asking a federal court to halt its implementation on Sept. 1.

“S.B. 4 will do irreparable damage to this State’s child welfare process, place county attorneys charged with representing DFPS in an irreconcilable conflict, and do further trauma to children who have been placed in the State’s care. Further, there is no legitimate state purpose in treating children who have an unauthorized immigrant parent or other potential care giver differently in child welfare cases,” states Ryan’s brief, which was filed this month in federal court.

[…]

Special Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke said that come Sept 1., with no injunction stopping SB4’s implementation, the county attorney’s office does not know how it will handle certain child welfare cases.

“That’s an ethical hell that we do not want to experience, and that’s why Vince Ryan has asked the federal court for guidance,” O’ Rourke said.

You can see the specific objections in the story. This is not as good as if Commissioners Court had voted to join the litigation, but it’s something. In the meantime, Cameron County and the city of Laredo have joined the plaintiffs, and there are a couple of bills to repeal SB4 that have been filed for the special session, though of course neither of them will get anywhere. It’s still important to make the stand, and in the better-late-than-never department, business interests are weighing in as well. It’s hard to overstate how much damage the Republicans in charge have done to Texas’ reputation this year, and there’s still more to come. Stace has more.

Still a few bugs in the system

A continuing story.

While Harris County officials are complaining that a federal judge’s bail order threatens public safety, the county has failed to provide more than 100 low-level defendants with pretrial services aimed at ensuring they make their court dates.

The latest revelations come amid criticism from District Attorney Kim Ogg, who accused county officials of trying to deliberately undermine the success of defendants released on personal bonds to bolster the county’s argument.

“Clearly the hope is that the reformed bail process fails,” Ogg said in a June 30 email obtained by the Chronicle. “This is necessarily a violation of their ethical duty and certainly not in the best interest of ordinary Harris County citizens.”

Ogg’s email did not identify which officials she believed might be responsible, and her office referred a request for additional comment to a court filing in which she supported changes to the county’s cash-bail system for misdemeanor offenses.

[…]

By missing court, the defendants also miss out on the assistance provided by the county’s Pre-Trial Services Division, such as text reminders about upcoming court dates that other defendants get seven days in advance and again on the day of the hearing.

Kelvin Banks, director of pretrial services, said a vendor, Voice4Net, manages the text messages for the county. He said his office is working with the vendor to set up reminders for those who are released by the sheriff, and is moving forward with plans for an additional staff member and training at the jail.

He said Monday he was reviewing resumes.

“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to give defendants the best opportunity to be succesful on pretrial release,” Banks said.

Another vendor, called Uptrust, met with county officials on June 28, two days before Ogg sent her email, proposing a two-way messaging system that allows defendants to respond and provides information on childcare options and transportation.

It’s a little hard to say what is going on here, based on this story. There’s a lot of he-said/she-said in there. My basic premise all along is that the county has very little credibility on this issue, so I generally discount the complaints from Commissioners and judges about how hard this all is and how they’re Doing Their Very Best and Just Need A Little More Time and so on and so forth. Every action by the county – specifically, by those who continue to fight to support the status quo – is one of foot-dragging and reluctance to make changes, even small ones. I’ve yet to see a show of good faith. If we ever get to that point, then maybe I’ll take their complaints seriously. Until then, I say quit whining and do what the judge ordered you to do.

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.

SCOTUS will not hear Harris County bail appeal

Let this please be the end of the line.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has denied Harris County’s request to stop the release of misdemeanor inmates who can’t afford to post cash bail.

The county had appealed late Tuesday to halt Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s directive that it begin releasing some inmates accused of misdemeanor crimes who cannot afford bail. That order had gone into effect Tuesday, and continued Wednesday, while Thomas considered the county’s application.

Thomas’s denial means some inmates will continue to be released on personal recognizance ahead of their trials if they cannot afford bail. The county still has the option to ask another justice or the full Supreme Court to reconsider Thomas’s denial. Often follow-up requests to other justices are referred to the full court, according to the public information office for the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, an appeals court is also considering the county’s appeal of Rosenthal’s full order.

See here for the background. The full Chron story has more details.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal in Houston issued a 193-page ruling in April that the county’s bail system was unconstitutional and ordered the release of indigent misdemeanor defendants using personal bonds.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday morning rejected the county’s efforts to halt Rosenthal’s injunction while they challenged the full ruling in court. The county filed the same day for emergency consideration before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The latest legal blow left county officials weighing their options and refocusing efforts on challenging the larger order from Rosenthal, said First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard.

The county still has the option to ask another justice or the full Supreme Court to reconsider Thomas’ ruling. Follow-up requests to other justices often are referred to the full court, according to the high court’s public information office.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg – whose office has already begun supporting personal bonds for misdemeanors – praised the court’s decision.

“There is no longer any legal reason why the county cannot comply with Judge Lee Rosenthal’s order,” she said, in a written statement. “Holding people in jail solely because they are poor violates due process, and the courts at every level of our federal judiciary have clearly spoken.”

[…]

Precinct 3 County Commissioner Steve Radack said the county wants a chance to complete its reforms without federal intervention.

“I want the end result to be fairness, and that’s what we have been striving for,” Radack said. “I don’t think you can always get court-ordered fairness.”

The bail bond industry has also opposed the order, which will release thousands of potential clients without requiring them to post bond.

Veteran bondsman Carlos Manzano, of Americas Bail Bonds, said he and many of his colleagues believe the overuse of personal bonds will create a dangerous situation for the community.

“It’s kind of like just like giving everybody a slap on the hand,” he said. “It’s going to blow up in the county’s face. It’s just a ticking time bomb.”

[…]

Legal experts said the county has just about used up all its options in challenging Rosenthal’s order.

“There’s no question that Justice Thomas has concluded that there isn’t clear and obvious irreparable harm to the state if the stay isn’t granted,” said Lonny Hoffman, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center who specializes in federal procedure.

Sarah R. Guidry, executive director of the Earl Carl Institute for Legal and Social Policy at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, said Thomas’ rejection of the county’s appeal will force local changes.

“This is going to put a fire under the county to figure out how to implement this,” she said. “It’s also going to have a huge impact on the bail bonds industry. They’re going to have to figure out a different way to make a living. They’re not going the get the bulk of their income off of poor people who are charged with low-level crimes.”

You know where I stand on this, so you know what I think of those BS fearmongering arguments from Steve Radack and the bail bond people. But hey, if I’m wrong then we’ll find out, because the county now has no choice but to comply. And when we find out that they’re the ones that are wrong and that nothing too bad happens, then what exactly will be the point of continuing to appeal? Settle now and save whatever dignity and lawyers’ fees we still can. It’s the only rational option. Lisa Falkenberg has more.

Judge Jordan deserves to have his position in the bail lawsuit represented

I have problems with this.

Darrell Jordan

The only Harris County judge to fight the county’s defense of its controversial bail system has been notified he will not get his own lawyer to appeal the high-profile federal lawsuit that has divided county leaders.

Judge Darrell Jordan – one of 16 criminal court at law judges sued over the county’s cash bail system – is fighting to keep a county-funded attorney who will carry his push to end the lawsuit to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard, however, sent an email Thursday telling Jordan that the appeal for him and other judges will be handled as a group, even though Jordan disagrees with the other judges.

“By taking me out of the fight – by me not having an appellate lawyer – then I can’t attack the unconstitutional grounds that they’re coming from,” he said. “My lawyer should be coming in, and we should be going over what the other judges have filed … We should be telling the truth from my viewpoint.”

He vowed to continue his challenge of the system.

“This fight is too important to just sit back and give up,” he said in an email to the Chronicle.

Soard said Friday he could not discuss conversations between Jordan and the county attorney’s office because of attorney-client privilege, but he said an attorney from his office is reviewing the matter.

In the email exchange with Jordan, however, Soard said the legal fight has centered on the county, diminishing the legal arguments needed on behalf of individual judges, the sheriff or six hearing officers also named in the case.

“Our office is of the opinion that additional filings on your behalf in this case are not appropriate or necessary at this time,” he said in the email, a copy of which was provided by Jordan to the Chronicle. “We have been unable to identify any claim or defense that you may assert that is separate from that of the County or the other County Criminal Court at Law Judges acting as a legislative body.”

[…]

Typically, the county provides legal representation when leaders are sued in their official capacity. Rosenthal’s injunction targets the judges in their “legislative capacity,” however, since the judges work together to set bail practices, according to Soard’s email.

No judge named in the case has a personal attorney in the appellate process, said Melissa Spinks, the county’s managing attorney for litigation.

Jordan said Friday, however, that he has been excluded from meetings where the 15 other judges discussed the case. He blamed County Attorney Vince Ryan for cutting off his legal representation.

“Vince Ryan has found a way to silence my voice,” he said in an email. “I have no other lawyers to call for advice.”

Soard said he was unaware of Jordan’s allegation that he had been excluded from meetings, but said his office would look into it.

I don’t know what to think about the role the County Attorney has played in all this. The charitable explanation is that as the attorney representing the misdemeanor court judges, Vince Ryan believes he must carry out the wishes of his client, and that he cannot decide for them. That breaks down when one of those clients, Judge Jordan, wants something different than what his colleagues want, which argues for letting him have his own counsel. Of course, that can’t happen without the approval of Commissioners Court. So to some extent Ryan is boxed in, but it’s not clear how much he’s been constrained, and even if he is it’s not clear he can’t find a way to express his concerns over this lawsuit, if indeed he has them. In the end, we’re left to decide for ourselves whether Ryan is acting appropriately, or if any other County Attorney might have acted differently. I can’t fault anyone who thinks the answers to those questions are No and Yes, respectively.

This case is an excellent distillation of the reasons why I so strongly oppose any effort to make judicial elections non-partisan. Let’s be clear, every Republican judge involved in this lawsuit opposes efforts to change the bail system, while the one Democratic judge, who is only there because the creation of a new court caused his bench to be on the ballot during the Democratic tidal wave year of 2016, not only wants the system to be overhauled but has changed the way he operates his court to comply with Judge Rosenthal’s ruling. The division on this issue is entirely partisan, and that is something that the voters ought to know. I personally don’t care if any of these Republican judges are objectively “good” or not, I believe they are completely wrong on this very important issue, and I believe it is appropriate and valid for anyone who shares my belief to vote against all of them for it. The decision to defend and perpetuate this unjust system of bail, and the decision to continue the fight after Judge Rosenthal’s forceful and sweeping ruling, is a political one and it deserves a political response. The people should be fully informed about their judicial candidates, and at least in this election, the party label is a crucial piece of that information. Anyone who would advocate otherwise needs to account for that.

I should add, by the way, that even in the absence of this lawsuit or a willingness to finally settle it, the party label still matters. I can believe, based in large part on the precinct date that we’ve been over multiple times, that at least some of these Republican judges did not vote for Donald Trump last year. Good for them. But there’s no evidence in the data from previous years to suggest that they did anything but vote for Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton and Ted Cruz. I for one believe it is also valid and appropriate to vote against people who voted for Patrick and Paxton and Cruz. I understand that some babies may get defenestrated along with the bathwater in doing so. I’m willing to accept that. Some day, when Republicans are nominating better people than Patrick and Paxton and Cruz, I’ll reconsider. Until then, I say partisan considerations in selecting judges have a lot more value than some people are willing to give them.

Harris County will continue to fight bail lawsuit

Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Harris County has appealed a federal civil rights lawsuit that challenged the county’s bail system, despite rising legal costs that have neared $3 million.

After a heated discussion and a closed-door meeting Tuesday, Harris County Commissioners Court voted 4-1 to appeal the suit and to ask for a delay to a May 15 start date that would require the county to consider an inmate’s ability to pay when setting bail.

The stay was filed after the meeting and Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal promptly issued an order giving all parties until 5 p.m. Wednesday to respond to the defendants’ request for a stay.

Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney from Civil Rights Corps, who represents indigent defendants held in jail because they cannot afford their bail rates said her clients “are disappointed to learn that the county and the judges are appealing Chief Judge Rosenthal’s thorough and comprehensive decision but we are confident that every judge to review it will agree with her and uphold it.” Rossi said her team would “vigorously” oppose a motion for a stay.

County leaders also urged their legal representatives to continue trying to settle the lawsuit, which had led to an order from Rosenthal declaring the county’s system unconstitutional.

“We believe the system she wants to implement is arguably not legal,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has pushed for settlement, cast the the lone vote against the decision to appeal.

“This is really asking the court to give you the funds to appeal,” he said.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who is a named defendant in the lawsuit, also opposes the appeal. He declined to join the other defendants Tuesday in appealing the order, explaining after the Commissioners Court meeting, “We’re just going to move forward to implement it the best way possible and see what all these other proceedings lead to.”

I’m angry about this. It is a huge waste of time and money in pursuit of an unjust resolution. Everyone who supports this needs to be voted out. I don’t know what else to say.

Why won’t the county settle the damn bail lawsuit?

Lisa Falkenberg asks the same question I’ve been asking.

Now that Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal – it should be noted, a Republican appointee — levelled her devastating assessment of Harris County’s rigid bail system a few days ago, ordering county officials to cease practices that violate misdemeanor defendants’ rights to due process and equal protection, you’d think the elected officials who hold the purse strings would admit the futility of fighting the lawsuit and stop funding this exercise in fiscal irresponsibility.

So, why doesn’t the county just settle the lawsuit, and put the money it is spending on lawyers to better use?

I got a surprising answer when I raised that question with the office of Ed Emmett, the county’s chief executive.

“We have consistently been told by the county attorney’s office that the other side does not want to settle,” Emmett said.

The county attorney is Vince Ryan, whose office represents county officials in legal matters. The “other side” is the plaintiffs: two civil rights groups –Texas Fair Defense Project and Civil Rights Corps – and local law firm Susman Godfrey.

Emmett’s spokesman, Joe Stinebaker, said that while commissioners decide whether to keep funding the county’s defense, they can only decide “based on honest and full advice of the county attorney’s office.”

OK. But why would the civil rights groups and a law firm working pro bono to improve the system refuse to settle? Could that be true?

“That’s totally false,” said Neal Manne of Susman Godfrey. “Anyone who claims it’s impossible to settle or we were not willing to settle either has mistaken information or is intentionally not telling the truth.”

[…]

Thoroughly confused, I reached out to the county attorney’s office. First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard promptly responded. I asked him if his office had really been recommending to Emmett and other commissioners not to settle because the other side wasn’t interested.

“I guess I can’t comment on that because you’re getting into settlement talks and we’re not allowed to talk about that,” he said.

He did offer an observation: “It takes two parties to settle a case. We can make offers, we can make suggestions but unless they’re accepted, there can’t be a settlement.”

Well, yes. But failure to agree to specific terms of a settlement is very different from refusing to settle at all. I told Soard about Karakatsanis’ offer to settle if the county would just abide by Rosenthal’s ruling. At this point, it could save the county millions in legal fees.

“If they make an honest promise and put it in writing we’ll certainly look at it,” Soard said. He noted that although his office can recommend a settlement, it can’t mandate one; all the county officials named as defendants would have to agree.

You know where I stand on this. Like Falkenberg, I’m not sure who’s blowing smoke here. The one thing I would push back on is the notion that Commissioners Court merely approves or denies the requests to fund the county’s defense. Our commissioners are a lot more invested in this case than that, and as we have clearly seen, at least two of them (Radack and Cagle) don’t appear to be willing to give up the fight. I would want to know more about what the Commissioners – other than Rodney Ellis, who has been quite vocal about not supporting any more expenditures on the lawsuit – ave been saying and doing. They themselves may not be the clients in this lawsuit, but they sure do wield some influence.

And now we have this.

A new settlement offer is on the table in the high-stakes federal lawsuit over Harris County’s bail system in the face of a judge’s ruling that poor people are wrongly kept behind bars because they can’t post cash bail.

The offer comes less than 24 hours after County Judge Ed Emmett told the Chronicle that he’d been informed repeatedly by the county attorney’s office that the lawsuit couldn’t be settled because attorneys for the inmates were unwilling to reach a deal.

The comments brought an immediate offer to the county from a lawyer representing misdemeanor suspects: Agree to the terms outlined by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal and the lawsuit can be resolved.

“If they’re willing to settle today, we’re happy to settle, and they could stop spending taxpayer money defending a hopeless cause,” attorney Neal Manne, a managing partner at Susman Godfrey, said Wednesday.

[…]

Manne said the settlement offer is just the latest attempt to reach an agreement out of court. He said he submitted the first settlement offer at the county’s request on June 1, which led to two days of mediation in August. After that, the two sides exchanged multiple drafts of proposals, with the final one early this year before the injunction hearing was initially set to begin in February.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said Wednesday that settlement discussions had been ongoing prior to the injunction hearing in March and that he was not opposed to further talks since the judge’s ruling.

“I agree with Neal [Manne] that there have been ongoing talks about possible settlements,” he said. “They’ve made offers. We’ve made offers. I don’t know why it’s the county’s fault. Certainly the county is willing to settle on terms that are reasonable. There’s no question about that. And there’s no questions that there have been talks.”

Well OK then. Unless the county believes the judge’s terms are not reasonable, then the framework for a settlement is right there. What’s it going to be, fellas?

Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences officially opens

Excellent news.

I still want one of these

The greater Houston region now has a sophisticated asset to investigate and solve crimes with the official opening of the new Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences (HCIFS).

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and other dignitaries, including Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, attended a ribbon cutting ceremony at the new facility on Thursday March 16th.

The Institute is located in the Texas Medical Center and it is an impressive state of the art nine story building.

Funded by a bond that was approved by the voters back in 2007, Harris County has invested 75 million dollars in it.

The facility serves both as a crime lab and as the medical examiner’s office.

Among other tasks, its staff will perform autopsies for cases investigated by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) and the Houston Police Department (HPD).

Doctor Dwayne Wolf, deputy chief medical examiner at the HCIFS, explains that “about 11,000 deaths are reported to our office every year, of which we bring in 5,000 bodies for examination, either for autopsy or external examination.”

Construction of this facility was approved to begin in June of 2014, with an expected timeline of three years, so this was on schedule. I expect great things.

Harris County really needs to settle that bail practices lawsuit

Enough already.

Two Houston-based lawmakers called on Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan Friday to dismiss an attorney hired to represent county judges in a federal civil rights lawsuit, after that attorney claimed in a hearing that many people jailed in Harris County were there by choice – not because they could not afford to post bond.

Among other statements, the attorney, James G. Munisteri, told a federal judge Wednesday that as few as “zero” defendants are jailed pretrial who can’t afford to pay and some choose to stay locked up in one of the nation’s largest jails because it’s cold outside.

The ongoing civil rights lawsuit challenges Harris County judges and other officials for granting very few no-cost pretrial bonds to misdemeanor offenders – as few as 8 percent in May when the suit was filed, according to county statistics. The lawsuit claims that judges routinely violate the civil rights of the poor by failing to consider the inability to pay before jailing thousands of people annually before trial for minor crimes like marijuana possession and trespassing.

The county argued in a hearing this week that the lawsuit should be tabled because officials have made improvements and that 23 percent of those accused of misdemeanors were released on no-cost bond as of October 2016.

But Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal declined to put the case on hold Wednesday, saying there was not enough evidence to support the county’s claims.

[…]

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a former state senator, both of whom support bail bond reform, challenged Munisteri’s remarks as “indefensible.” Both argued that “tax dollars should not be used to fund this reprehensible representation.”

Robert Soard, First Assistant County Attorney, said that officials planned to review the matter.

“The quote should be placed in the context of presentations being made by both attorneys for plaintiffs and defendants during a hearing that lasted over one hour. We are awaiting a copy of the actual transcript to determine the actual context and an appropriate response,” he said via email.

See here for the last update, and here for previous blogging. The Press was the first on this story late last week. I’m not a lawyer, but I know a ludicrous argument when I see one, and when a competent attorney makes a ludicrous argument, I figure it’s because said attorney is saddled with a loser of a case. Which is why, as I have been saying all along, Harris County needs to settle this and be done with it. We should take our medicine and quit paying attorneys like Mr. Munisteri to make dumb arguments on our behalf in service of a policy that neither our Sheriff nor our District Attorney wants defended. More from the Press is here.

Precinct analysis: Ryan v Leitner

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan was the only non-judicial incumbent elected in November. Here’s how his race looked.


Dist    Leitner     Ryan  Leitner%   Ryan%
==========================================
CD02    158,149  113,363    58.25%  41.75%
CD07    135,129  116,091    53.79%  46.21%
CD09     25,714  106,728    19.42%  80.58%
CD10     80,244   36,703    68.62%  31.38%
CD18     46,062  154,354    22.98%  77.02%
CD29     35,312   93,732    27.36%  72.64%
				
SBOE6   331,484  269,022    55.20%  44.80%
				
HD126    34,999   25,571    57.78%  42.22%
HD127    47,719   24,876    65.73%  34.27%
HD128    40,809   17,464    70.03%  29.97%
HD129    41,206   26,677    60.70%  39.30%
HD130    58,268   21,630    72.93%  27.07%
HD131     6,719   39,011    14.69%  85.31%
HD132    37,294   30,571    54.95%  45.05%
HD133    46,509   28,002    62.42%  37.58%
HD134    42,937   44,634    49.03%  50.97%
HD135    31,651   27,468    53.54%  46.46%
HD137     8,661   17,869    32.65%  67.35%
HD138    26,893   23,486    53.38%  46.62%
HD139    11,874   39,721    23.01%  76.99%
HD140     6,316   20,762    23.33%  76.67%
HD141     4,969   32,887    13.13%  86.87%
HD142    10,179   34,249    22.91%  77.09%
HD143     8,745   23,486    27.13%  72.87%
HD144    10,725   16,024    40.09%  59.91%
HD145    10,858   22,921    32.14%  67.86%
HD146     9,532   38,323    19.92%  80.08%
HD147    11,719   45,087    20.63%  79.37%
HD148    17,529   29,206    37.51%  62.49%
HD149    15,405   27,290    36.08%  63.92%
HD150    48,085   26,950    64.08%  35.92%
				
CC1      70,740  240,579    22.72%  77.28%
CC2     123,739  124,368    49.87%  50.13%
CC3     188,415  160,213    54.04%  45.96%
CC4     206,707  158,990    56.52%  43.48%
Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan

Ryan is the third-longest tenured non-judicial countywide officeholder, trailing County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez and County Judge Ed Emmett. He just barely missed having the third-highest vote total in 2016, trailing Hillary Clinton, Kim Ogg, and (by 317 votes) judicial candidate Kelli Johnson. The precinct data tells the story you would expect it to tell given this – Ryan won in HD134 and Commissioners Court Precinct 2, and he was generally above the baseline wherever you looked. He had been an above average performer in 2012 and 2008 as well, and he had a successful, no-drama second term.

That may not be the case for his third term, and the people who are most likely to give him heartburn, at least in the early days of 2017, are his fellow Democrats, Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez and DA-elect Kim Ogg. I refer of course to the bail practices lawsuit, where Ryan is (via outside counsel) defending the county, which includes the Sheriff’s office, even though Gonzalez doesn’t want to fight the litigation. Ogg is likely to be on Gonzalez’s side when she gets sworn in, which will be a little awkward for Ryan. More awkward is that defending the county’s position doesn’t sit well with the Democratic base. I saw a bit of griping about this on Facebook before the election, but for obvious reasons that got buried under other matters. But it will be a focus of attention when the case gets back on track in January, and if it gets drawn out this is the sort of thing that can generate enmity, and quite possibly a primary challenger in four years.

That’s a long way off, and there’s no reason why the case can’t be settled. Then Ryan can get back to doing the things he really gets energized about, like going after polluters and other public nuisances. If he keeps that up, he ought to be in good position to be an above-average performer again in 2020.

Dems sweep Harris County

Hillary Clinton had a 100K lead in early voting in Harris County, and increased her lead as the night went on. The only countywide Republican who was leading early on was Mike Sullivan, but later in the evening, at the time when 80% of the Election Day vote was in, Ann Harris Bennett caught and passed him. Kim Ogg and Ed Gonzalez won easily, Vince Ryan was re-elected easily, and all Democratic judicial candidates won.

The HISD recapture referendum went down big, the Heights referendum to update the dry ordinance won, and Anne Sung will face John Luman in a runoff for HISD VII. Statewide, Clinton was trailing by about nine points, and with a ton of precincts still out was already at President Obama’s vote level from 2012. Dems appear to have picked up several State House seats, though not the SBOE seat or CD23. Clinton also carried Fort Bend County, though she had no coattails, and Commissioner Richard Morrison unfortunately lost.

I’m too stunned by what happened nationally to have anything else to say at this time. I’ll be back when I recover.

Interview with Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan

Two-term Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan is currently the only countywide Democrat, though we hope he’ll have some company after November. An Army veteran and former City Council member, Ryan served under former County Attorney Mike Driscoll and maintains an unmistakable passion for the office. He has actively pursued industrial polluters and other environmental malfeasants – see this Chron story about the San Jacinto tar pits for an example – and he was first out of the box to sue VW over their emissions flim-flammery. Ryan has many more accomplishments than that – he provided me this fact sheet, which he refers to in the interview, for more on what he’s been doing – and if he gets a third term, you can expect more of the same. Here’s what we talked about:

Interviews and Q&As from the primaries are on my 2016 Election page. I will eventually get around to updating it to include links to fall interviews.

Chron overview of the County Attorney race

It’s the one with the one Democratic incumbent running for re-election.

Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan calls himself the Doberman pinscher of Harris County.

The Democrat county attorney campaigned in 2012 as a government watchdog. He cannot point to any “dramatic” instances he has played the part, but said that is the point: deterrence through Doberman-like intimidation.

“A good watchdog, hopefully, doesn’t have to bite anybody,” Ryan said.

As Election Day nears, his Republican opponent, Jim Leitner, has another explanation: a reluctance to investigate government officials. Leitner said he would bring aggressiveness.

“If you’re the watchdog, you’re doing something,” Leitner said.

On Nov. 8, voters will have a chance to re-elect Ryan, 69, for a third term as county attorney, an office political scientists called immensely powerful but poorly understood by the public.

Ryan’s challenger is Leitner, 66, a criminal defense lawyer who studied with Ryan at the University of Houston law school some 40 years ago. Leitner has served in the Harris County District Attorney’s office, but it will be his first time running for county attorney.

The winner will oversee an office of more than 200 employees and represent the county when it is sued, such as the current civil rights lawsuit accusing the county’s bail bond system of discriminating against the poor.

Ryan was endorsed by the Chron, which noted that even his opponent thinks he’s done a pretty good job. Ryan had a bit of a bumpy relationship with Commissioners Court in his first term, but this one has gone much more smoothly. That said, some Democrats are not pleased with his handling of the bail practices lawsuit, which may dampen support for him. On the other side, Leitner’s work in Pat Lykos’ DA office likely means there are still some Republicans who won’t vote for him, as that blood feud will only ever be settled by the sufficient passage of time. Ryan was re-elected by a decent margin in 2012, and I expect him to win without too much difficulty this year. I’ll publish an interview with him in the near future, so you have that to look forward to.

Endorsement watch: Stay the course

Harris County Democrats have one incumbent up for re-election: County Attorney Vince Ryan. The Chron gives their approval for another term.

Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan

[Ryan] said that he actively pursues pollution enforcement lawsuits against big companies – such as Volkswagen after it lied about emissions tests, or the corporations responsible for the San Jacinto waste pits. But in a state where legislators and regulators routinely erect barriers to citizens seeking justice from the industries that poison our water and pollute our air, Ryan’s headlines over matters of public concern look more like necessary leadership than disregard for cooperation.

That’s not to say Ryan hasn’t been an important team player with other law enforcement agencies across the county. He’s harnessed the power of the county attorney’s office to go after dangerous gangs, sex traffickers and Kush merchants. He also helped the county cut through the Gordian Knot of same-sex marriage by quickly and clearly instructing judges to follow the U.S. Supreme Court after it held bans to be unconstitutionally discriminatory, yet refrained from hounding individual county employees who preferred to pass onto their coworkers the historic duty of marrying same-sex couples.

Running for his third term, the former District C councilman and longtime assistant under former County Attorney Mike Driscoll brings a steady and experienced hand to an important position that has a vast spectrum of responsibilities, including advising county officials, preparing contracts, defending the county from lawsuits and protecting communities through civil action. He’s served the county well, and voters should keep him in office.

Other than some judges, Vince Ryan is the only Democrat elected countywide in 2008 to remain in office. Loren Jackson, who won a special election to fill the remaining term of District Clerk, lost in the 2010 sweep. HCDE At Large trustees Jim Henley, who resigned in 2014, and Debra Kerner, who lost in 2014, and Adrian Garcia, who stepped down as Sheriff to run for Mayor in 2015, followed. I feel pretty good about the Dems’ chances of adding to that roster this year, but it starts with Vince Ryan.

July finance reports for county candidates

Most of the interesting race in Harris County this year are the countywide races. Here’s a look at how the candidates in these races have been doing at fundraising.

District Attorney

Friends of Devon Anderson PAC
Kim Ogg


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Anderson   253,670   55,392         0    368,907
Ogg        143,311   34,417    69,669    108,872

Devon Anderson received a $60K contribution from Richard Anderson; I have no idea if there’s any family connection there. She’s a strong fundraiser, but she’s also had her share of bad publicity, and I suspect it’ll take more money than what she has in the bank to wipe that away. As for Ogg, her biggest single contribution was $13,500 from Nancy Morrison. I feel like Ogg’s totals don’t quite work, since she reported $30K on hand for her February 20 eight-day report, but it’s not that big a deal. This is also a reminder that the totals listed above for Ogg were from the period February 21 through June 30, while Anderson’s are for the full six months.

Sheriff

Ron Hickman
Ed Gonzalez, May runoff report
Ed Gonzalez, July report


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Hickman    127,153  175,247         0    135,868
Gonzalez    38,435   35,587         0     20,117

Hickman had primary opposition, so his report is from February 21 through June 30. He got $21,700 from Suzanne and Keith Moran for his biggest donation. He also spent a bunch of money – $59K to Strategic Media Services for TV ads, $41K too Neumann and Co for mailers, and (my favorite) $10K to Tom’s Pins for “promo items and Golf Promo items”. I bet that’s a lot of pins and little pencils. As for Gonzalez, he had raised $130K from Feb 21 to May 14, during the primary runoff period. His July report is only for May 15 through June 30. In other words, don’t freak out at the disparity in amount raised.

Tax Assessor

Mike Sullivan
Ann Harris Bennett


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Sullivan    70,300   39,196         0    101,564
Bennett     26,190   11,536         0      1,837

Both Sullivan and Bennett were in contested primaries, so both reports cover February 21 through June 30. You could call Sullivan an efficient fundraiser – he raised that $70K from 55 total donors, 52 of whom gave $250 or more, and three of whom gave $100 or less. Bennett has never been much of a fundraiser, and this report bears that out. Some $17K of her raised total was in-kind, which contributed to the extra low cash on hand amount.

County Attorney

Vince Ryan
Jim Leitner


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Ryan         72,400  33,652         0    171,677
Leitner      12,550  10,225     9,500      8,765

Leitner had to win a primary, while Ryan was the one Dem who had a free ride. Ryan is also the one Democratic incumbent, and he built up a bit of a cushion over the past four years. Leitner wins the award for being the one guy to fill out his form by hand rather than electronically. Not a whole lot to see here otherwise.

Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

Steve Radack
Jenifer Pool


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Radack     747,500  177,604         0  1,616,948
Pool        13,750   13,054         0          0

This is the one contested County Commissioner’s Court race. Radack’s Precinct 3 is redder than Jack Morman’s Precinct 2 but less red than Jack Cagle’s Precinct 4. In a normal year, I’d expect Radack to get around 60% of the vote, though downballot candidates have done better than that in recent years; Adrian Garcia topped 47% there in 2008. This is obviously not a normal year, though whether the effect of that is primarily at the top of the ticket or if it goes all the way down remains to be seen. To the extent that there is an effect, Precinct 3 ought to serve as a good microcosm of it.

And for completeness’ sake:

Commissioners Court, Precinct 1

El Franco Lee – Still has $3,774,802 on hand.
Rodney Ellis – $1,959,872 on hand. Same as his state report.
Gene Locke – Raised $258K, spent $182K, still has $115K on hand.

I’m going to step out on a limb and suggest that Gene Locke has run his last campaign. Very little money has been spent from El Franco Lee’s account – one presumes his campaign treasurer hasn’t given the matter any more thought since he was first asked about it in January. Rodney Ellis has promised to give $100K to the HCDP coordinated campaign. I say Gene Locke and J. Kent Friedman (El Franco Lee’s campaign treasurer) should do something like that as well. This year presents a huge opportunity for Harris County Democrats, and it’s not like that money is doing anyone any good sitting in the bank. It’s not my money and I don’t get to say how it gets spent, but I do get to say what I want, and this is it. Put some money into this campaign, guys. There’s absolutely no reason not to.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, Commissioner Locke has nothing to do with the late Commissioner Lee’s finance account. I was under the impression that Lee’s campaign treasurer controls that purse, but it has been suggested to me that (at least by now) that may have passed to his widow. Be that as it may, and again to be clear, Commissioner Locke has no involvement in anything but his own finance account.

Texas to get VW settlement money

It’s something.

Volkswagen has agreed to pay Texas $50 million in connection with the German automaker’s admitted peddling of diesel vehicles rigged to surpass emissions limits, Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Tuesday.

The partial settlement is part of a larger, multibillion-dollar agreement unveiled Tuesday that awards hundreds of millions of dollars to dozens of states and includes a $10 billion buy-back program to compensate consumers who bought the vehicles. Various media reports described it as the largest auto-related class-action settlement in U.S. history.

[…]

Paxton sued Volkswagen Group of America Inc. and parent company Audi of America in October in connection with the automaker’s admitted use of software that allowed its diesel vehicles to circumvent emissions limits. The lawsuits alleged violations of the state’s consumer protection laws and clean air standards. They were among hundreds filed in the United States against VW by governments and consumers.

As part of the settlements announced Tuesday, VW agreed to pay Texas $50 million in civil penalties and attorneys’ fees for its violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, which bans false advertising and sale of misrepresented products. About 32,000 diesel cars capable of emissions cheating have been sold in Texas, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures. That’s compared to about 480,000 nationwide and 11 million globally.

“For years, Volkswagen intentionally misled consumers about the environmental and performance qualities of the vehicles they sold in Texas,” Paxton said in a statement. “When companies willfully violate the public’s trust, we will hold these entities responsible. This settlement will both compensate the victims of Volkswagen’s fraud and punish the company enough to deter future fraud.”

He noted Texas has not yet resolved claims that VW violated state clean air laws, and that Texas continues to pursue related penalties. A Paxton spokeswoman would not say how much those might amount to.

See here for the background on the Texas lawsuit, and here and here for more about the national case. It’s nice to see the AG’s office on the side of a worthwhile case for once, though honestly this was as close to free money as it gets. I mean, the initial suits were filed less than a year ago. VW had basically admitted fault, and they clearly wanted this to go away. Good on them for that, but boy do they still have a lot to atone for.

And they’re not out of legal trouble just yet:

Several local governments in Texas, including Harris County, have also sued VW — over objections from Paxton — but they were not included in the settlements announced Tuesday. The Harris County lawsuit is pending in Travis County district court.

See here and here for the background on that. I presume Paxton didn’t do anything beyond send a letter to the relevant county attorneys asking them to back off; if he did, I couldn’t find any mention of it. It seems likely to me that with the big settlement out of the way, these others will soon follow, but we’ll see.

Appeals court upholds Wilson residency ruling

No surprise.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

A state appeals court has sided with Houston Community College Trustee Dave Wilson in a lengthy legal fight over whether he lives in the district he represents.

Ever since Wilson was elected to the HCC board in 2013, the Harris County Attorney’s office has argued that he did not actually live in the district when he ran to represent it.

At issue is whether Wilson lived in an apartment in a warehouse on West 34th Street or with his wife at a home outside the district, which he has listed on tax forms. In 2014, a jury unanimously determined Wilson lived at the 34th Street address. A judge later upheld the ruling, and now the state appeals court has done the same.

“The State…did not conclusively establish that Wilson did not reside at West 34th Street on November 5, 2013,” the ruling says. “Wilson, on the other hand, presented evidence that he started living at the West 34th Street property in early 2012; that he intends for that property to be his residence; that he spends most of his time at that property, including sleeping there five nights a week; that he keeps personal belongings and receives personal mail at that address; and that while he spends two nights a week at the Lake Lane house, he always returns to the West 34th Street property.”

[…]

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement that he was disappointed by the court’s ruling, but not surprised, because ” ‘residency’ as the court outlines, is basically where one says he or she lives with relatively insignificant requirements to establish that residency under the law.”

See here and here for the background. I appreciate the County Attorney pursuing this, but we are at the end of the line. Any further pursuit of this matter should be in the Legislature, an option Vince Ryan alluded to in his statement. We’ve discussed this before, and at this point I’d favor an approach that says 1) you can’t claim a homestead exemption at one address and a voter registration at another, and 2) you can’t claim a homestead exemption in one taxing entity (city, county, school district, etc) and run for office in another. No approach to this is foolproof, but this would at least attach a cost to the “I live where I say I live” shenanigans, and that may be the best we can do.

On a side note, I wonder if the absolute thrashing Wilson got in his attempt to knock off Rep. Jessica Farrar in HD148 – she beat him by an 88.1 to 11.9 margin, which is the kind of spread one normally sees when a candidate has only third-party opposition – is partly the result of all the publicity Wilson has reaped from his fluke election to the HCC Board in 2013 and the subsequent attempts to disqualify him. He can’t operate in the shadows the way he used to, because now many more people know who he is and what he’s about. If so, then that’s one positive thing that has come out of this mess.

Morris Overstreet to run for DA

I know we’re all still recovering from Tuesday, but the 2016 filing season is almost upon us, and the Democratic race for Harris County DA just became a contested race.

Morris Overstreet

Former appeals court judge Morris Overstreet announced Thursday that he would seek the Democratic nomination for Harris County District Attorney.

Overstreet, a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who has been a licensed attorney since 1975, said he wanted to bring integrity to the state’s largest DA’s office, currently helmed by Republican Devon Anderson.

“I want to instill integrity, so that the people of Harris County have public trust in the office of the district attorney,” Overstreet said. “As a trial judge and a prosecutor involving hundreds of jury trials and thousands of non-jury trials, I’ve never had any criminal conviction reversed because of any error committed by me.”

Here’s a post of Facebook from Overstreet’s announcement. He had released a video on YouTube on October 28 teasing the announcement. Overstreet was a candidate for Chief Justice, 1st Court of Appeals in 2010, and more recently was appointed by the Waller County Sheriff to an independent panel of civilians to evaluate his department in the wake of Sandra Bland’s death. Overstreet joins Kim Ogg in the race, presumably against incumbent DA Devon Anderson, who has not yet announced but is expected to run and who as far as I know has not attracted a primary opponent. I look forward to the debate in this race, Lord knows there’s plenty to talk about.

As far as the rest of the primaries go, County Attorney Vince Ryan, the sole Democratic countywide officeholder, is expected to run again, and I have not heard word of a primary opponent nor of a Republican challenger yet, though I’m sure there will be the latter. Brandon Dudley, chief of staff to Sen. Rodney Ellis and 2010 judicial candidate, is running for Tax Assessor against Mike Sullivan; Ann Harris Bennett, who ran for Tax Assessor in 2012 and County Clerk in 2010 and 2014, is also running. So far, no one has announced on the Democratic side for Sheriff. The name people bring up when I ask about it is Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen, who would be up for re-election this year. He himself has not said anything, for the same reason former Sheriff Adrian Garcia couldn’t talk about running for Mayor – he’d have to resign as soon as he did say something. There’s some speculation around outgoing CM Ed Gonzalez as well, but Rosen is the name I keep hearing. Incumbent Sheriff Ron Hickman should have at least one primary opponent, 2012 candidate Carl Pittman, but beyond that I don’t know. I’ll do a roundup on judicial and legislative and other races another time. If you have a name and some reasonably informed scuttlebutt to add to this, by all means please do.

Thanks but no thanks, Ken

Harris County will continue to pursue its own lawsuit against VW.

Harris County has responded to Ken Paxton’s request to drop its lawsuit against scandal-plagued Volkswagen. Its answer? A polite no.

[…]

In a reply to Paxton dated Oct. 15, [Harris County Attorney Vince] Ryan wrote, “we were pleased to learn that the Office of the Attorney General has joined Harris County” in the claims against Volkswagen. “We look forward to working together once again in connection with this important effort.”

In other words: No, thanks.

By abandoning their lawsuits, the counties would leave millions of dollars in potential damages on the table.

That’s because under state law, when local governments file such suits, the state is required to join as a “necessary and indispensable party.” In these types of cases, the counties and state split any money.

But the counties would not directly get a share of any damages in the suits Texas is leading.

Any civil penalties recovered in Paxton’s environmental lawsuit would flow into the state’s general fund, while penalties from the consumer protection case will go to the Texas Supreme Court’s judicial fund for programs that provide legal services to poor people, said Cynthia Meyer, a spokeswoman for Paxton’s office. Any other “meaningful restitution” she added, would go directly to consumers duped by Volkswagen’s emissions software.

Ryan’s letter to Paxton noted that, in 1998, Harris County, along with other counties, recovered about $2.2 billion from the tobacco industry through litigation — on top of the billions that the state recovered for itself.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of Ryan’s letter. I’m not an attorney, but as I said before I don’t see why Harris or any other county that wants to pursue its own lawsuit should bow to Paxton’s request. It doesn’t make good financial sense to do otherwise, if a county has the resources to handle the litigation itself. Many counties don’t, but Harris does, and that should be good enough. Stick to your guns, Vince.

Paxton wants to sue VW all by himself

Really?

Seeking to fight scandal-plagued Volkswagen alone, Attorney General Ken Paxton is asking two Texas counties to halt their lawsuits against the automaker — a move highlighting friction between Texas and local governments pursuing tens of millions of dollars in court.

The Republican made the request in letters sent Friday to top attorneys in Harris and Fort Bend counties, both of which beat Paxton to the punch in filing lawsuits over the company’s admitted use of software that allowed its vehicles to sidestep emissions limits.

“The alleged violations by VW harm Texans throughout the state, and a separate Harris County lawsuit undermines the ability to achieve a comprehensive and just statewide resolution of this matter on behalf of Texas,” Paxton wrote in a letter to Vince Ryan, the Harris County attorney. “The Office of the Attorney General requests that the county stand down on its claims and cooperate with the Office of the Attorney General in pursuing the state’s interests – which includes Harris County’s interests – on matters arising from VW’s wrongful conduct.”

Paxton used similar language in a letter to Fort Bend County Attorney Roy Cordes, Jr.

Paxton wrote that both counties failed to communicate with his office before filing their suits, and he knocked them for hiring outside legal help, saying the move “appears to be an unnecessary expense.” The Texas Tribune obtained unsigned copies of both letters.

By abandoning their lawsuits, the counties would leave millions of dollars in potential winnings on the table.

“Harris County, Texas wants a place at the table. That’s why we’re first in line and the first government in the world to sue Volkswagen,” said Terry O’Rourke, special counsel with the Harris County attorney’s office. O’Rourke had not yet seen Paxton’s letter.

“We’ll look at whatever General Paxton’s request is and evaluate it with sincerity,” he added.

In Fort Bend, Randy Morse, the assistant county attorney, said his office could not comment because it had yet to receive the letter.

[…]

Last week, the city of Dallas announced it planned to sue Volkswagen, but it reversed course on Monday, saying Paxton’s statewide suit would do the trick.

“We look forward to the state taking action in the upcoming months to require Volkswagen and Audi to bring the affected vehicles into compliance with state environmental laws and improve air quality in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and we urge the state to do so in an expeditious manner and at no cost to affected motorists,” the city said in a statement.

See here and here for the background. Personally, I don’t know that I would trust the state to look after my own interests as well as I would in a case like this. Pursuing environmental justice is not exactly one of Ken Paxton’s strong points. If I were in those County Attorneys’ shoes, my reply would be to suggest that Paxton file a brief with the judge in my case stating his position, and let the judge decide the best course of action from there. The Press and the Chron have more.

County sues VW for $100 million

Good.

Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan

Harris County on Tuesday set in motion a $100 million environmental lawsuit against Volkswagen, claiming emissions from 6,000 diesel cars circulating on roadways in the region have caused harm to the population. County Attorney Vince Ryan said his review of filings indicated this could be the first government suit against the car company since the executives admitted to cheating on emissions monitoring in diesel cars released since 2009.

Commissioners Court approved the suit Tuesday morning and hired three law firms to handle the matter on a contingency basis. The county plans to file the suit Tuesday afternoon, according to Robert Soard, first assistant county attorney.

The county does not have Volkswagens in its central fleet, according to Dre Dupont, who oversees the vehicles. Instead, the focus of this suit will be on the extent to which the car company and its affiliates violated Texas emissions standards, creating a public health hazard for everyone within the borders of Harris County.

The Press is pretty snarky about this, but as Judge Emmett noted in the Chron story, VW has already admitted liability. Why wouldn’t we sue? I don’t know what the likelihood is of collecting a substantial sum, and it may be that our suit gets consolidated with the many others already out there, but VW deserves all the trouble it’s going to get. Good for Vince Ryan for taking the initiative.

No support for a jail administrator

Not without the consent of the Legislature.

go_to_jail

The idea of shifting leadership of the Harris County Jail to an administrator may be losing steam, several county leaders said Thursday after reviewing a feasibility study by the sheriff’s office.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack asked newly appointed Sheriff Ron Hickman in May to look into the possibility of appointing a jail head who would report to court members and run the facility with an independent budget.

While the report Hickman commissioned does not deliver a straightforward recommendation, the disadvantages it outlines – including transportation and accountability headaches – far outweigh the advantages. The largest obstacle is Texas law, which places responsibility for county jails with the sheriff.

Five years ago, Radack began angling for a jail administrator to oversee the 9,400-bed behemoth that houses the largest mental health patient population in the state and falls under the purview of a law enforcement officer, the county sheriff. County Attorney Vince Ryan explained in a legal brief then that splitting off the jail was not an option under the state constitution.

[…]

The 16-page report by Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Batton reviews various models of urban jails around the country – from Cook County, Ill., to Miami-Dade to Las Vegas – but concludes that for the jail “to operate as an autonomous and independent entity … Harris County would need to pursue tailoring legislation to provide a clear authority with a statute to establish such a department.”

In other words, without changes to state law, part of the job of the sheriff remains as overseer of the jail.

See here for the background. Basically, Lt. Batton’s report agrees with what Vince Ryan said back in May. It’s certainly possible that the county could ask the Lege to modify the laws in question, though I’m sure that folks like Sen. Whitmire would have an awful lot of questions if that happened. I’ll say again, if the county does want to pursue this, and Sheriff Hickman thinks it’s a good idea, then let’s hash it out in the Sheriff’s race next year, and let the result of that election stand as a proxy for whether or not this ought to be taken up. I’m far from sold on this idea, but I could be persuaded.

Sheriff asks for more funds for body cameras

Good move.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office recently applied for a grant from the Department of Justice to purchase 750 wearable body cameras, a new technology aimed at improving government transparency and accountability after a year of high-profile police-involved shootings around the country.

A 30-day trial run with body cameras by a few dozen deputies earlier this year encountered some obstacles, including stormy weather, brisk temperatures and loud music.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson has also issued $900,000 to fund body cameras for the sheriff and another $1 million for the city of Houston. The federal grant would bring in another $900,000 to match the funds Commissioners Court has agreed to.

A measure sponsored by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, sets out statewide policy for the use of the cameras, which retail for about $400 apiece. But the basics of operating them and dealing with the massive amount of data they will create presents some new challenges for county government.

The patrol officers who tried them out said they weren’t sure if they could don raincoats when it raining outside and still get decent footage from the body-worn cam. Loud music in the background during domestic calls was hindering the audio quality, said Deputy Thomas Gilliland, spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

[…]

The county attorney’s office has told the sheriff and the information technology department that law enforcement will also have to budget for redacting the video, if bystanders are caught unwittingly on camera.

“We’re working together to draft a plan that will protect the privacy and safety of Harris County residents while ensuring any resulting program is cost-effective and in compliance with state and federal laws,” said Barbara Armstrong, deputy managing attorney for public law, who heads a multi-department planning committee on body cameras at the County Attorney’s Office.

See here for previous blogging on body cameras. I don’t have a whole lot to add here, just that there are a number of potentially challenging questions, about things like the official usage policy and how the data will be managed and stored and made available, that need to be answered, by the HCSO and HPD and any other law enforcement agency as we go. These things have a lot of promise, but we have to get the implementation right to reap the rewards of that promise.

And we begin the next fight

It’s always going to be something.

RedEquality

In a somber and defiant statement, Attorney General Ken Paxton proclaimed his next battlefront would be in defense of religious liberty.

“The truth is that the debate over the issue of marriage has increasingly devolved into personal and economic aggression against people of faith who have sought to live their lives consistent with their sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage,” he said. “It is not acceptable that people of faith be exposed to such abuse.”

Hours later, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a memo to the heads of state agencies directing them to “preserve, protect, and defend the religious liberty of every Texan.” That order “applies to any agency decision,” including granting or denying benefits, the memo says.

Abbott’s office directed questions about who would enforce such a policy to the attorney general. A spokeswoman for the attorney general did not immediately return to a request for comment.

Those celebrating the gay marriage ruling, including civil liberties groups and gay rights advocates, said Texas’ Republican leadership seemed to be picking a fight.

“I think a lot of us anticipated that this would be the next front, that there are going to be some public officials around the country who are going to try to use religious liberty as a way to avoid complying with the ruling,” said Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “But we don’t agree that government offices that are open to the public should be able to pick and choose, on the basis of personal religious beliefs, which citizens to help and which citizens to turn away.”

Added Robertson: “We may end up having to litigate some of these issues.”

Daniel Williams, legislative director for the gay rights group Equality Texas, said that if a state agency employee denied spousal benefits to another employee in a same-sex marriage, it would be “setting itself up for a very short-lived legal challenge.”

“The ruling today was pretty explicit that the state may not impose upon same-sex couples a definition of marriage that excludes them,” he said.

Yes, there’s Paxton demanding to have his authoriteh respected, and Dan Patrick egging him on by asking if county clerks with “religious objections” can refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses. I’ve gotten whiplash following the saga in Harris County, but in the end Stan Stanart caved, after a bit of a push.

Delays in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Harris County led to a showdown between two elected officials Friday, hours after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must recognize such unions.

County Attorney Vince Ryan will seek a court order compelling County Clerk Stan Stanart to issue licenses to same-sex couples, said Sue Davis, a spokeswoman for Ryan. Although couples in Dallas County, Bexar County (San Antonio) and Travis County (Austin) began obtaining licenses within hours of the Supreme Court ruling, Harris County couples still languished in the clerk’s office in the early afternoon.

Ryan, in a memo to Stanart, said, “Our opinion is that the law requires that you immediately begin to issue marriage licenses to all qualified applicants without regard to gender.”

Stanart’s office said it intended to issue the licenses, but said it was waiting for a form from the state attorney general with slots that did not indicate gender.

“We were told if we use the wrong form it will be null and void,” said George Hammerlein, a deputy clerk.

You can see a copy of Vince Ryan’s letter to Stanart here. The Harris County Clerk’s office began issuing same-sex marriage licenses at 3 PM, a few hours after several other counties had done so. (Clearly I was wrong to advise waiting, and that’s just fine by me.) Some other counties, not to mention other states, have not joined in. The Observer’s liveblog is the best resource for following the timeline. The Press had reported that one couple who had been turned away earlier in the day by the Harris County Clerk filed a lawsuit, but there were no details, and all that happened before Ryan’s intervention was reported. For sure, there will be some litigation, both in Texas and nationally. One fight ends, another begins.

Separating the Sheriff and the jail

As Commissioners Court prepares to name a replacement Sheriff, they have some bigger plans to discuss as well.

go_to_jail

A revolutionary idea is being pitched that would reshape the law enforcement agency by removing the troubled jail from the sheriff’s responsibilities. One county commissioner is leading the charge to create a new jail administrator who would answer to Commissioners Court rather than the sheriff.

Garcia recently announced his resignation so he could run for mayor of Houston. As would-be sheriffs scrambled to get résumés to Commissioners Court to fill Garcia’s term through 2016, the most vocal proponent of carving up the job over the past week has been Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

Radack believes the sheriff should handle police work and other directors should be held accountable for the jail, its health system and its information technology division. He said the jail’s budget is bloated, mental health cases should be better monitored and the sheriff should focus on patrolling, preventing and investigating crime in unincorporated areas of the county.

This division of power is untested in Texas, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Brandon Wood, who runs the commission, said Bexar County is the only one under the state’s local government code to assign a person to run its jail, but even in that case the sheriff oversees the jail administrator.

There is some precedent elsewhere. County supervisors in Santa Clara, Calif., split the county jail from its sheriff, with voters’ approval, in 1988 in the wake of rampant overspending on the part of the officeholder. A consultant for the reformed jail, Jeffrey Schwartz, said Santa Clara’s department of corrections answered to county supervisors until the arrangement was ultimately rescinded in 2012.

Commissioners have long questioned Garcia’s management of the jail. The most recent scandal stemmed from his firing of six jailers, suspension of 29 others and the demotion of a major in the wake of a grand jury indictment of two jail guards in the case involving a mentally ill inmate housed in a bug-infested cell.

One might get the impression from reading this story that problems at the Harris County jail began with Adrian Garcia. In reality, of course, the jail was a longstanding cesspool of neglect and mismanagement thanks to the ineptitude of Tommy Thomas. Thomas couldn’t have done it without the utter lack of oversight from Commissioners Court that he received. It wasn’t until after the voters finally sent Thomas into retirement that Commissioners Court – in particular, Steve Radack – began to give a crap about how the jail was being managed. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Is this idea even legal?

Robert Soard, first assistant Harris County attorney, said separating the health department at the jail is legal, under a 2011 revision of the state statute, but the current law designates the sheriff as “the keeper of the county jail.” So the legal question that County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office has been researching in advance of the sheriff appointment is whether a jail administrator can answer to Commissioners Court under Texas law. As Wood explained, the sheriff has discretion to appoint someone to run the jail. However, the law says “the sheriff shall continue to exercise supervision and control over the jail.”

Alan Bernstein, legislative liaison for Garcia, said what is being proposed seems untenable: “There’s a state law that controls this issue and until there’s a different law there would be nothing (for us) to respond to,” Bernstein said. “It isn’t Adrian Garcia’s state law. It isn’t state law for Harris County. It’s state law for every sheriff in every one of the 254 counties in Texas.”

Soard said the county attorney’s office will advise Commissioners Court how to attempt this setup only if it is legal.

I’m no fan of our current or previous Attorney General, but isn’t this a question for that office? I know that AG opinions take, like, six months to get written, but wouldn’t we all feel a little better if we knew someone had been researching this for all that time?

And is it even workable?

Radack said his idea is to create more transparency and efficiency. He envisions the court making a verbal agreement with the new sheriff about a separate jail administrator, which could later be formalized. However, the deal would not be binding. “Ultimately, the sheriff has the opportunity to revoke the agreement,” he said.

From an organizational perspective, it makes some sense to split the responsibility for the jail out from the Sheriff’s office, much like many counties have moved responsibility for elections out from the County Clerk’s office. It’s not clear to me how adding in an appointed administrator adds to transparency and efficiency, however. I’d like to hear a lot more about that. If this is a condition of employment for the Sheriff that the Commissioners are about to appoint, well, what does that say about accountability and public involvement? Shouldn’t the public at least have a chance to learn about this idea and come to an opinion about it before the Court moves forward on it? I’m just saying.

And, as Stace worries, if this is a back door to some kind of harebrained jail privatization scheme, well, that’s a huge can of worms to open at a very convenient time. I sure hope that isn’t the ulterior motive here, but it’s not like it should surprise anyone if it is.

County appeals Wilson decision

Here we go again.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

Harris County officials are asking an appeals court to reconsider the question of where Dave Wilson lived when he ran for his seat on the Houston Community College board,

The Harris County Attorney’s office is appealing a reluctant ruling by state district Judge Mike Engelhart, who in August upheld a jury verdict that Wilson did in fact live in an apartment in a warehouse on W. 34th Street that he claimed as his residence when running for the HCC seat in November.

The county attorney contends that Wilson actually lives with his wife in a home outside the city limits, and outside the boundaries of HCC District II. County attorney officials argue Wilson claims residency wherever he wants to run for office.

[…]

While some have questioned the county’s persistence in the case, officials in the county attorney’s office have said that the jury’s ruling sent an inappropriate message to those looking to run for office — in effect, that “anything goes” when it comes to residency.

“A lot of people are looking at the result of this and concluding that … the concept of residency, as far as qualifying for election goes, is meaningless,” Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said at the time. “If Mr. Wilson can claim he lives in a warehouse at the same time he has a homestead exemption at another location, then anybody can claim to live anywhere.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Color me skeptical of this. I rather agree with the County Attorney that the ruling in this case has functionally rendered the concept of residency meaningless. At some point, however, that needs to be an issue for the Legislature to deal with, if they choose to do so. Wilson found a loophole and burrowed into it, and the law as it stands doesn’t address that. I don’t see how an appeals court will see it differently. Campos has more.

Game room lawsuit dismissed

From last week:

After a lengthy tussle over new game room regulations for Harris County, a federal judge Tuesday issued an order denying requests from a local game room owner to stop the new regulations.

“The game room situation in Harris County is a big problem,” said Fred Keys, an assistant attorney for Harris County. “This is a good result for the citizens of Harris County.”

In his suit against both county and city officials, game room owner Fabian Elizondo was attempting to stop enforcement of new game room regulations, which took effect May 30. He contended the new Harris County regulations would inhibit his right to make a living because the rules are too vague, making them difficult to follow.

U.S. District Court Judge David Hittner issued an order denying requests for relief from Elizondo, including his request for a permanent injunction against enforcing the new regulations. Hittner is expected to issue a final judgement in the next few weeks.

Attempts to reach Elizondo’s attorney were unsuccessful.

Now, Elizondo and his seven game rooms will be responsible for complying with those new regulations. The only regulation he is safe from, for now, is getting new county permits.

See here for the last update. Harris County adopted tighter rules late last year, and is doing the enforcement of the rules, with HPD working under these rules for enforcement within Houston. I’ll be interested to see what if any effect this has on the game rooms – will they comply, or will they just go further underground? Should make for an interesting case study if nothing else.

County Attorney asks judge to overturn Wilson verdict

I’m not sure what the point of this is.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

Although a jury decided Dave Wilson lived where he claimed when he ran for the Houston Community College seat he holds, the drama surrounding the perennial candidate continues.

Harris County attorneys filed a motion Wednesday asking Judge Mike Engelhart, who oversaw Wilson’s three-day residency trial earlier this month, to overturn the jury’s unanimous finding and rule in the county’s favor. The county argues Wilson does not live in a warehouse on W. 34th Street that he claimed as his residence when running for the HCC seat in November.

[…]

“We are asking the judge to rule that as a matter of law Mr. Wilson should not be entitled to enjoy the benefits of having two different domiciles such that he derives benefits from both,” Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said in an email. “We believe that claiming one domicile for one purpose (tax exemption) precludes, as a matter of law, simultaneously claiming a second domicile for a different purpose (qualification for public office). We are asking the judge to rule on this issue.”

Wilson won his case two weeks ago. I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not sure on what grounds the County Attorney is asking Judge Engelhart to throw out the jury verdict. Isn’t this what appeals courts are for? This story at least answers that question.

The county is using a legal tactic wherein a party can argue that the facts in a case are indisputable and a judge can determine a jury’s verdict was wrong. It’s called non obstante veredicto, Latin for notwithstanding the verdict, and is essentially the after-trial version of a summary judgment. While it’s not unusual, it’s not typically successful, legal experts said.

“You take your shot at it and see if it works – and usually it doesn’t. Ninety-nine times out of 100 it doesn’t,” said David Crump, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center who teaches civil procedure courses, among others.

[…]

Jury verdicts tend to be regarded as final, said Frank Carroll, who runs TexAppBlog.com, an appellate law blog for non-appellate lawyers, and coaches moot court and mock trial at the University of Houston Law Center.

“There’s almost a dogma that when a jury makes a verdict, we don’t like to upset those verdicts,” Carroll said. “As far as the odds go, it’s kind of a long shot. It’s not the longest shot, but certainly the odds are against you.”

However Judge Mike Engelhart rules after an Aug. 18 hearing, the dispute is likely far from over.

“No matter which way he rules, it’s going to go to the appellate court for a better answer,” Ray said.

Well, now I understand what the County Attorney has in mind. They say that if Wilson didn’t violate residency requirements, then those requirements have no meaning. I agree, but as much as I don’t like the jury’s verdict, I don’t see how you can say that it’s objectively wrong. The issue all along has been the vagueness of the legal requirements for residency, which is why I’ve suggested an easily verifiable standard that the Legislature could implement. But that has no bearing on this case. Here, the county claimed Wilson didn’t really live at that warehouse, Wilson claimed he did, and the jury believed him, or at least they didn’t believe the county enough. Not the result I wanted, but I can respect it. What am I missing here?

Harris County settles with HCAD

Not sure about this.

Less than two months after formally challenging the way the local appraisal district calculates the value of vacant commercial land, Harris County has backed down.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday OK’d the withdrawal of a petition filed in early June by the county attorney challenging the Harris County Appraisal District after the two sides reached an information-sharing agreement. The vote came a day before the petition was scheduled for a hearing in front of HCAD’s independent Appraisal Review Board.

The county’s petition was based on the preliminary findings of a study the court ordered earlier this year that concluded the appraisal district had undervalued undeveloped commercial property by more than 80 percent this year. That finding was based on a random sampling of two dozen vacant commercial lots across the county with a combined assessed value of $75.3 million. An expert consultant the county hired in January found that empty lots meant to hold apartments or retail space – making up only about 2 percent of the county tax base – were worth a combined $140.8 million, or 83 percent more than HCAD appraised.

Unlike home and business owners, who can protest appraisal values for individual properties, counties can challenge appraisal values only for entire categories of property.

On Tuesday, though, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard told the court that county staff had reached an agreement with HCAD and asked for permission to withdraw the challenge petition submitted to the district on June 2.

See here and here for the background. I’m not totally clear on the details here, if this is an advance for the cause of better appraisals of commercial properties or not. All that’s been agreed to is better information sharing, not that we’ll get better outcomes. There’s no quote in the story from any of the prominent critics of HCAD, and I haven’t seen any reaction from them on their sites, either. So, I’m not sure what to make of this. If you’re in a better position to judge, please leave a comment.

Wilson wins residency fight

That was quick.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

Houston Community College trustee Dave Wilson lives in the residence he claimed and can keep his seat on the college system’s board, a jury decided Thursday.

“Thank you,” Wilson shouted when the verdict was announced about 4:30 p.m.

Harris County officials filed a lawsuit seeking to remove Wilson from office on grounds that he did not actually live in an apartment at 5600 W. 34th St. in the HCC district he represents. Because of this, county officials said, he was unqualified to hold his seat.

Jurors disagreed.

[…]

A slew of exhibits by the defense showed that if Wilson doesn’t live in the warehouse, he’s gone to great lengths to make it look like he does.

Wilson’s blood pressure medicine is mailed to 5600 W. 34th St. His bank statements and bills go to the warehouse. His numerous magazine subscriptions – from Forbes to National Geographic and Hemmings Motor News – go there, too. He’s also registered to vote there and lists the address on his driver’s license.

The sticking point is that Wilson’s wife lives on Lake Lane. It’s also where Wilson’s children were raised, where Wilson says he spends his weekends and where the family gathers to celebrate holidays. Wilson also listed the home as his address on tax returns. Wilson says that’s because he wants the check sent to the house, so he can sign it over to his wife.

I’ve said all along that if nothing else I hope we get some kind of standard out of this, because the residency laws as they stand now are ripe for gamesmanship. I don’t know if this definitively settles the matter, but it certainly sets an outer bound, which we could call the Wilson Line. Anything less egregious than what he did is apparently okay.

Yesterday’s story, which focused on the county’s case, showed how Wilson tests boundaries better than any toddler or teenager you’ve ever known.

Houston Community College Trustee Dave Wilson, whose name has become a staple on local election ballots, has made a habit of claiming one residence after another to qualify for his numerous runs for office, a Harris County attorney argued in court Wednesday.

Wilson has also claimed tax exemptions at a home on Lake Lane, which is in the Lone Star College System district. Lake Lane is where his wife lives and where he raised his children, spends his weekends and has his family gatherings, Douglas Ray, an assistant county attorney, told a jury in his opening argument in a case to determine where exactly Wilson lives.

Wilson lives exactly where he says he lives: in a “fully furnished” apartment in a warehouse on W. 34th Street, in District II of the HCC system, defense attorney Keith Gross told the jury. Just because his wife lives on Lake Lane does not mean it has to be his residence, Gross argued.

[…]

Wilson has stated on voter registration cards, drivers licenses, tax and other forms that he has lived at four addresses since 2005, and those addresses all line up with some motive – whether that is to run for office, or take out a tax exemption – Ray told the jury.

“When it’s convenient for him to claim for some economic reason he lives on Lake Lane, he’s lives at Lake Lane,” Ray said. “When he wants to run for office, well he lives wherever he needs to live.”

Wilson lived, and still does live, exactly where he claimed when he filed to run, his attorney said,adding his client spends “more than 70 percent” of his time on 34th Street. He has a driver’s license there, is registered to vote there and has all of his bank statements sent there. He’s lived there since early 2012.

But since moving there, he’s also registered to vote at another address, on Claremont Street, where he never lived, so he could run for an open state Senate seat, Wilson testified during questioning. Wilson said he “intended” to live there, but he did not end up running.

His defense attorney says “nowhere is it ever written” that you can’t live somewhere, if your motive is to run for political office. Wilson, an anti-gay activist, only wants to “improve the community” and has offended people in his quest to do so, Gross said. The case against him is politically motivated and that’s proven by the fact that more than 4,500 Harris County voters are registered at commercial buildings, as Wilson is, and the county isn’t going after any of them, Gross said.

Residence, Wilson and his attorney argued, is based on three factors: volition, intention and action. People can choose to live wherever they want. That they intend to live there, and that they actually hang their hat there make the place a residence.

Basically, Wilson says he lives wherever he says he lives at the time, and that’s sufficient for the law. Nothing else matters – the homestead exemption on the house where his wife lives, the ever-changing nature of the address on his voter registration, the fact that some of his “residences” are not permitted as residential, etc. The law is vague and he’s hardly the first person to take advantage of that. He’s just the most blatant and least apologetic about it.

And now a jury has accepted it. So be it, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s right. More to the point, I don’t think this is how it should be. As you know, I have an idea what I’d like to see the Legislature do about it. I plan to start my lobbying effort shortly.

Dave Wilson residency lawsuit is underway

Almost missed this.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

A trial is set to begin Tuesday morning to determine whether Houston Community College trustee Dave Wilson actually lived in the district in which he ran last November.

Wilson, who ousted former HCC Chairman Bruce Austin in the Nov. 5 election by 26 votes, is being sued by the Harris County attorney. The lawsuit says Wilson did not live in the college system’s District II – the bulk of which sits in northeast Harris County – when he ran for office. Wilson has contended that he lives in “a 1,140-square-foot apartment upstairs” at his office, located at 5600 W. 34th St., which is in the district.

The building there is an 11,340-square-foot commercial metal warehouse, according to county records. A city inspection in January determined Wilson doesn’t have permission to use the warehouse as a residence.

Wilson, a 67-year-old businessman, gained national attention when he beat a 24-year incumbent for the predominantly black district after leading voters to believe he was black. Wilson – who is white – mailed campaign fliers without his photo that said he was endorsed by Ron Wilson – his white cousin, who happens to share the name of a black former state representative.

Jury selection begins this morning, and the trial is expected to last about a day and a half.

See here and here for the background. The trial was originally scheduled to begin April 15, but you know how these things go. The trial may have already concluded by the time you read this, or maybe it will stretch till tomorrow. In any event, I presume we’ll get a ruling soon. I hope there’s some more news coverage to go with it when that happens – this blurb on the free chron.com and this News 92 FM piece were all I saw for it. A search in houstonchronicle.com came up empty, and if there was something in the dead tree edition I missed it. I’d have missed this as well if Houston Legal hadn’t included it in its daily link roundup yesterday.

I have no idea what will happen in this trial. As we’ve discussed before, there’s little precedent to go by, and a lot of vagueness when it comes to what constitutes “residency”. If nothing else, I hope this will help with that. If Wilson loses, I expect him to appeal, going all the way to SCOTUS and maybe the World Court in the Hague if need be, because that’s how he rolls. If Wilson wins, I don’t know if Vince Ryan will pursue it any further. I’m not sure it would be worth the effort unless there’s good reason to think the trial judge screwed up.

I’ve been giving some thought to how this could be better addressed via legislation, and what I’ve come up with is this: A bill that says you are not eligible to serve as a trustee or the equivalent on a school board, community college board, MUD or RUD board, and anything else I might be overlooking, if you or your legally married spouse claims a homestead exemption outside the boundaries of the political entity in question. Note that this wouldn’t prevent someone like Dave Wilson from running for something like the HCC Board of Trustees, but it would require him to sell the house on which he has the exemption, divorce his wife, or give up the exemption. (I put the “spouse” requirement in there because you know the first line of escape by this kind of scoundrel would be to put the home in question in the spouse’s name. It also provides a loophole for same sex couples, at least until same sex marriage is officially legal in Texas. Yeah, I’m evil like that.) If you want to run for something here while owning a home there, you can still rent an apartment or claim a spot on someone’s couch and re-register as a voter here to qualify. You just have to forfeit the tax advantage on that house over there. I think that’s a suitable answer.

Now this is the part where I remind everyone that I am not a lawyer, and so there may be some legal or practical reason why this idea is nuts and completely unworkable. If so, please let me know in the comments. If you want to point out that this would affect some politicians that I happen to like as well as Dave Wilson, my answer is that I’m fine with that. They can make whatever choice to get right that they want, and we’ll have one less fig leaf in politics. If there isn’t a good reason why this idea is stupid, then I plan to start lobbying a few of my favorite State Reps about it. I didn’t include cities in my fantasy bill because I think they should come up with their own requirements for office, but if this can work at the Lege then I’d certainly support amending Houston’s charter to this effect as well. What do you think? Like I said, if this is crazy, go ahead and tell me why.

UPDATE: Today’s Chron reports on the first day of the trial. I’ll have a full post about this tomorrow.

Game room enforcement back on in Harris County

Better choose your eight liner provider carefully.

After clearing a few legal hurdles, Harris County’s new game room regulations – on which the city of Houston is piggybacking – are set to take effect Friday.

Late Tuesday after a hearing, a federal judge denied a request from a game room owner and operator for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked the new rules from being implemented. The accompanying lawsuit against Harris County – the second filed since Commissioners Court approved the regulations in December – still is active, with another hearing set for next month.

Under the regulations, game rooms with six or more video poker or “eight liner” machines will be required to obtain permits, pay a $1,000 annual fee, shut down between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., and leave windows unobstructed. The shops also will be required to identify themselves with signs reading “Game Room” and would be barred from requiring a membership for entry, a practice officials say keeps police out.

The new rules were originally set to take effect in March, but the Harris County Sheriff’s Office decided to delay implementation until May 30 to allow more time for game rooms to comply.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. According to Hair Balls, a motion for preliminary injunction is set for June 23, but enforcement is now happening. So be careful where you gamble, you never know when the heat may be on.