Senate votes to start debate on health care bill

Health care workers oppose the Senate bill by wide margins

With Vice President Mike Pence breaking a 50-50 tie, the Senate voted by a hair Tuesday to start debating Republican legislation to tear down much of the Obama health care law. The vote gives President Donald Trump and GOP leaders a crucial initial victory but launches a weeklong debate promising an uncertain final outcome.

The 51-50 vote kept alive hopes of delivering on promises that countless Republican candidates have campaigned on for years — repealing President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul. It also averted what would have been a blistering defeat for a party divided between fervent conservatives demanding the evisceration of Obama’s statute and centrists intent on not pulling coverage away from millions of Americans.

Pence presided over the Senate during the vote, which began after dozens of protesters shouted “Kill the bill” and “Shame” from the chamber’s visitors’ gallery.

Enhancing the day’s theatrics, one pivotal “yes” vote was cast by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who flew to the Capitol just days after revealing he’d been diagnosed with brain cancer and was home considering the next steps in his treatment. With Republicans wielding a narrow 52-48 majority, the 80-year-old’s appearance let Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., lose two GOP senators and still prevail — wiggle room that would have shrunk to just one in McCain’s absence.

McCain entered the chamber 29 minutes into the roll call to a standing ovation from members of both parties and visitors watching from above. Smiling, he exchanged embraces with McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and others, then cast his “yes” vote with two thumbs up.

Before the vote, McConnell declared, “We can’t let this moment slip by,” essentially lecturing GOP lawmakers to give their party’s high-profile legislation a chance to move forward. “We can’t let it slip by. We’ve been talking about it too long.”

Moderate Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, were the only Republicans to defect from their party’s quest. Their complaints about the legislation had included its cuts in Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, the disabled and nursing home residents.

Not a single Democrat backed the effort to overthrow Obama’s signature domestic legislative achievement. In an unusual move, most of them sat in their states during the climactic roll call, eyeing Republicans as they cast their votes.

Technically, Tuesday’s vote meant the Senate would consider a measure the House approved in May eliminating much of Obama’s statute. Like legislation McConnell crafted mostly behind closed doors — and has since revised — it would eliminate Obama’s tax penalties on people not buying policies, cut Medicaid, erase many of the law’s tax boosts and provide less generous health care subsidies for consumers.

But now, the Senate faces 20 hours of debate and a long parade of amendments, and if a measure eventually emerges it is likely to look quite different. Because the chamber’s moderates and conservatives are so riven over how to replace Obama’s overhaul, leaders have discussed passing a narrow bill repealing only some unpopular parts of that law — like its penalties on individuals who eschew coverage — with the ultimate goal being to negotiate a final package with the House.

In the moments before the vote, most GOP critics of the legislation fell into line to allow debate to begin. They included conservative Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, plus moderates Rob Portman of Ohio and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.

Paul said he was voting yes after McConnell told him the Senate would debate his proposal to scuttle much of Obama’s law and give Congress two years to enact a replacement — an amendment that seemed certain to lose.

Trump kept up the pressure on GOP lawmakers, tweeting that “After 7 years of talking, we will soon see whether or not Republicans are willing to step up to the plate!” He added: “ObamaCare is torturing the American People. The Democrats have fooled the people long enough. Repeal or Repeal & Replace! I have pen in hand.”

McConnell’s bill would abolish much of Obama’s law, eliminating its tax penalties on people not buying policies, cutting Medicaid, eliminating its tax boosts on medical companies and providing less generous health care subsidies for consumers. But at least a dozen GOP senators have openly said they oppose or criticized the measure, which McConnell has revised as he’s hunted Republican support.

Besides allowing an early vote on Paul’s repeal plan, moderates were seeking additional money for states that would be hurt by cuts in Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, the disabled and nursing home patients. Conservatives wanted a vote on a proposal by Ted Cruz, R-Texas, letting insurers offer bare-bones policies with low premiums, which would be illegal under Obama’s law.

With leaders still struggling to line up enough votes to approve a wide-ranging overhaul of Obama’s law, there was talk of eventually trying to pass a narrow bill — details still unclear — so House-Senate bargainers could craft a compromise. That, too, was encountering problems.

“This idea that we’re going to vote on something just to get in conference and then figure it out later is nuts,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters.

Had Tuesday’s vote failed, it would have been an unalloyed embarrassment for a party that finally gained control of the White House, Senate and House in January but still fell flat on its promise to uproot Obamacare. Republicans could try returning to the bill later this year if they somehow round up more support.

Obama’s law was enacted in 2010 over unanimous Republican opposition. Since then, its expansion of Medicaid and creation of federal insurance marketplaces has produced 20 million fewer uninsured people. It’s also provided protections that require insurers to provide robust coverage to all, cap consumers’ annual and lifetime expenditures and ensure that people with serious medical conditions pay the same premiums as the healthy.

The law has been unpopular with GOP voters and the party has launched numerous attempts to dismantle the statute. All until this year were mere aspirations because Obama vetoed every major one that reached him.

Ever since 2010, Republicans have been largely united on scuttling the statute but divided over how to replace it.

Those divides sharpened with Trump willing to sign legislation and estimates by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that several GOP bills would cause more than 20 million people to become uninsured by 2026. Polls showing growing popularity for Obama’s law and abysmal approval ratings for the GOP effort haven’t helped.

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Trump’s New Immigration Lockup Draws Local Opposition in Conroe

Demonstrators protest the construction of a 1,000-bed detention center outside the Montgomery County Commissioners Court in Conroe on July 25, 2017.  John Miller

The people of Conroe are getting a new, 1,000-bed immigrant detention center whether they like it or not. The GEO Group Inc., one of the largest private prison corporations in the nation, has already broken ground at the site of what will be the first new Trump-era immigration lockup. “It’s going ahead; I don’t think I have any say-so,” said Toby Powell, Conroe’s 76-year-old mayor.

In April, the federal government awarded GEO a contract to build and operate the $110 million facility, which the company says will earn $44 million in annual revenue. GEO promises to bring nearly 340 jobs to Conroe, a city of 82,000 tucked in the pines just north of Houston. Conroe already hosts an even larger immigrant detention center and a mental health facility, both run by GEO.

But Powell is not impressed. “The majority are $20,000-a-year jobs, which are right at the poverty line, if not below,” he said. It’s true the city will get some new property taxes, “but by the time you think about the burden upon your infrastructure with the low-paying jobs, it’s pretty well gonna wash out.”

GEO spokesperson Pablo Paez said the jobs will come with “average annual salaries ranging from $28,000 to $50,000.”

Private prison corporations usually locate their detention centers and jails in poor, isolated and economically depressed towns — places like Pearsall and Dilley in South Texas, or Taylor outside of Austin. Conroe, on the other hand, is booming. Last year, it was the fastest-growing city in the nation.

In 2013, the city christened a large technology park, and residents can also commute to Exxon’s new campus in The Woodlands for work.

When the idea for the new detention center was first floated in 2013, the editorial board of the Conroe Courier wrote, “It’s not the type of growth Conroe residents should want.” They quipped: “What will Conroe become? Con-vict-roe?”

The future site of the Montgomery County ICE detention center in Conroe.  Bethany Carson

For the mayor, becoming “Con-vict-roe” is a public safety matter as well. “We don’t know the detainees they’re going to have,” Powell said. “They may be MS-13 groups. … So we could have a mixture of a lot of different types of people coming [for visitation], which I’m fearful for the safety and security of my city.”

Gregory Palmore, spokesperson for the Houston Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office, said the facility will hold immigrants waiting for their cases to resolve or those awaiting deportation. “Individuals with varying criminality are also housed in ICE detention centers and placed in pods based on their level of criminality,” he said.

There’s likely nothing the mayor or residents of Conroe can do to stop the facility. The contract is between GEO and ICE, and Conroe already issued the necessary building permit, which Powell claims he was powerless to stop.

Perhaps the only hope is a dramatic outcome in an ongoing GEO-related lawsuit.

The Campaign Legal Center filed suit in June to obtain documents it thinks will show GEO violated federal law by donating to Trump’s campaign despite being a government contractor. The company gave $225,000 to a Trump super PAC through multiple donations, starting about eight months before the company won the Conroe federal contract.

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Set for execution, death row inmate alleges legal fraud in hopes of a stay

TaiChin Preyor was sentenced to death in the 2004 slaying of Jami Tackett in Bexar County.

With two days left before TaiChin Preyor’s scheduled execution, his lawyers have tried just about everything to stop it. That includes alleging that his previous counsel — a disbarred California attorney and a probate and real estate lawyer who reportedly relied on Wikipedia to research Texas legal procedure — committed fraud against a federal court.

So far, they’ve had no luck.

Preyor, 46, is set to be executed Thursday night for the 2004 killing of a 20-year-old San Antonio woman during a home invasion. If he doesn’t receive a stay, it will be the state’s fifth execution of the year — and end the unusually long four-month lull in Texas’ death chamber.

In recent weeks, Preyor’s attorneys have filed a flurry of pleas, with the Texas governor and in state and federal court. They have argued Preyor should be spared the death penalty because his original attorney overlooked an abusive childhood and because his appellate attorneys were incompetent.

“Even if you are someone who believes that there is a role for the death penalty to play with respect to certain crimes, there has to be a baseline there that the person … was capably and competently represented throughout all of his proceedings,” said Cate Stetson, one of Preyor’s current attorneys. “And that baseline clearly was not met here.”

On Monday afternoon, both the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and a federal district court rejected Preyor’s requests for a stay. Preyor will appeal now to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Texas and Bexar County have requested that the execution proceed, noting that it “has been postponed for over a year in order to accommodate [Preyor] and his attorneys, but at the expense of the victims and the state’s interest in finality.”

In court, Bexar County prosecutors accused Preyor of breaking into Jami Tackett’s apartment in the early hours of a February morning. Tackett was in bed with Jason Garza, who testified that Preyor attacked and stabbed him before he ran away to call for help. With Garza gone, Preyor stabbed Tackett multiple times, killing her. He was arrested at the scene covered in her blood.

Preyor claimed he acted in self-defense. In a statement to police, he said Tackett, who sold him drugs, had invited him over and ambushed him with Garza. Preyor said he pulled out his knife after the two began attacking him and that he didn’t intend to hurt Tackett “that bad.”

A jury was unconvinced. They found him guilty and sentenced him to death.

Preyor’s current attorneys aren’t focusing on his conviction but on his death sentence. They argue the lawyer who represented Preyor during his sentencing, Michael Gross, failed to present evidence about Preyor’s abusive childhood, which they argue could have swayed a jury to give him life in prison.

“Gross failed to hire a mitigation specialist, failed to investigate known red flags regarding Preyor’s childhood, neglected to interview family members regarding Preyor’s childhood and social history, and neglected to follow up on not one, but two, medical professionals’ recommendations that Preyor be screened for mental illness or other executive-function issues affecting his capacity and judgment,” Stetson and attorney Hilary Sheard wrote in a filing to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last week. “The cumulative effect of these omissions was disastrous.”

But Gross said in an affidavit filed to the court that he “adequately” represented Preyor, and talked to many family members, school officials, friends and even Preyor himself, none of whom mentioned abuse. “If they had given me any such information, I would have developed that evidence and presented it as mitigation at trial,” Gross said in his affidavit.

Sheard and Stetson argue concerns about Gross’ representation should have been raised during Preyor’s appeals. Preyor blames this on his unusual appellate lawyers.

After becoming frustrated with Preyor’s court-appointed lawyer during his post-conviction appeal, Preyor’s mother turned to Philip Jefferson, a disbarred California attorney who claimed he was retired, according to Preyor’s most recent court filing. Preyor claims Jefferson did most of the heavy lifting in the case and had Brandy Estelle, a California attorney who specialized in probate and real estate law, file documents to the court.

Estelle relied on Wikipedia to research Texas habeas procedures, Preyor alleged, and Preyor’s appeals were denied in federal court.

“The federal habeas petition filed in this court … was so abysmal that it subsequently became an exemplar, circulated among habeas attorneys, as an example of what not to do,” Preyor’s attorneys wrote.

Preyor also alleged that Estelle committed fraud against the court by hiding Jefferson’s role and requesting payment for her legal services from the appellate court, even though Preyor’s family had already paid her.

Estelle did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and Jefferson could not be reached for comment. But on Monday afternoon, a federal court dismissed that fraud allegation, saying Estelle “competently represented” Preyor.

“There has been no showing of any attempt to defile the court, much less egregious misconduct that rises to the level of bribery or fabrication of evidence,” District Court Judge Fred Biery wrote.

Preyor has also requested that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott grant him clemency and commute his sentence to life in prison. The board is expected to vote on his case Tuesday afternoon, but rarely recommends relief to the governor. Abbott has not stopped an execution since taking office in 2015.

“Mr. Preyor experienced severe sexual and physical abuse as a child, but that compelling mitigation evidence has never been heard by any court,” Stetson said Monday evening after the court rulings. “The appellate courts or the Governor should allow Mr. Preyor the opportunity to be represented by capable, competent, and licensed attorneys before his execution proceeds.”

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Concerns raised over new Harris County bail system

County bail system is unfair to the poor...

Some county leaders and officials with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office are raising concerns about new bail procedures implemented as the result of a federal court order. The order comes as the county is in the midst of fighting a lawsuit that argues Harris County’s bail system is unconstitutional.

“To get justice costs money; it’s not free,” said Gilbert Cruz.

Cruz spent two months in jail because he couldn’t afford bail on a misdemeanor charge of interfering with the duties of a public servant. Cruz refused to plead guilty to the charge and accept a deal that would have secured his release sooner.

“I did nothing wrong,” said Cruz.

Cruz was exonerated. The charge against him was dismissed due to insufficient evidence. By the time he was released from jail, however, he had lost his job, his car had been repossessed and his credit rating had been shredded.

“They don’t even say they made a mistake. All they say is, ‘You can go.’ But what about my loss of employment? What about my car I lost?” said Cruz.

Cruz is an example of what many justice reform advocates have claimed is an unfair system of bail that punishes the poor.

“Bail exists not to detain people because they’re poor, but to assure their appearance at trial,” said KPRC legal analyst Brian Wice. “Defendants should not be warehoused prior to trial in misdemeanor cases simply because they can’t afford bail.”

That premise is the foundation of a federal lawsuit filed against several Harris County judges, hearing officers and the Sheriff’s Office. The lawsuit argues poor people get stuck in jail because they can’t pay bail and people with money get released. Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis argues that violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution, and he supports the lawsuit.

“The system in Harris County has been in place far too long with far too many problems,” said Ellis. “The time is for us to do the right thing and do it now.”

The county is fighting the lawsuit, but in the meantime a federal court judge issued an order forcing the county to make changes now.

The judge’s order requires the Sheriff Office to release those charged with misdemeanors within 24 hours of their arrest, regardless of whether they can afford bail. The only exceptions are those wanted in other jurisdictions, by immigration officials, on a mental health hold or those held as part of a family violence protection procedure.

Since the judge’s order took effect, many misdemeanor defendants are being released on unsecured bonds. This means a defendant does not have to pay any money or hire a bail bondsman in order to be released. But those released on an unsecured bond are still required to comply with all conditions of their release and can be sued for the full amount of bail if they fail to show up for court.

According to records obtained by Channel 2 Investigates from the Harris County Office of Court Management, the failure rate for unsecured bonds was nearly 30 percent since the implementation of the judge’s order. The failure rate was just over 9 percent for cash bonds,just over 8 percent for personal bonds and nearly 5 percent for surety bonds.

“Does that number concern you?” asked Channel 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

“Absolutely, it concerns me,” said Maj. Greg Summerlin, with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Summerlin said the intention of the judge’s order is understandable. It is the implementation of the order that is causing concerns.

“The devil is in the details,” said Summerlin.

Summerlin said one of his concerns is the Sheriff’s Office does not have the ability to verify whether a defendant is telling the truth about their financial status within the 24-hour deadline established by the judge’s order. Each defendant is required to fill out an affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that lists their assets, salary, monthly expenses and the amount of money they can put toward their bail within 24 hours of their arrest.

“When the Sheriff’s Office gets that piece of paper, you have no way to really verify what they’re saying is the truth within that 24-hour time period,” asked Arnold.

“Given the volume, no sir, we don’t,” said Summerlin.

Summerlin said that window gets smaller when defendants arrested by other agencies are transferred to the custody of the Sheriff’s Office anywhere from 12 to 16 hours after their arrest. Summerlin said the judge’s order also states that even if a defendant could eventually gather enough money to post bond, if they can’t gather the funds within 24 hours of their arrest, the Sheriff’s Office must release them on an unsecured bond.

One example of this concern was raised before Commissioners Court and involved a man named Christopher Worley. Court records show he was charged with DWI and a $2,500 bond was set by a hearing officer. On an affidavit filed with the court, Worley listed a salary of $6,000 a month, $23,000 in savings and more than $500 in cash on his person. But, since Worley stated the most he could pay toward his bail was $500, he was released on an unsecured bond. Summerlin said, in that case, the Sheriff’s Office couldn’t verify whether Worley had access to all his funds prior to the 24-hour window expiring so it had no choice but to release him on an unsecured bond.

Worley listed a home address in Oregon and court records show he did not show up for his court date. The county forfeited his bond.

Another example KPRC discussed with the Sheriff’s Office involves Miguel Cornelio. Court records show Cornelio served time in a Texas prison for murder and federal court records show he has twice been deported from the U.S. to Mexico. After serving time in a federal prison for entering the country illegally, Cornelio was transferred to the custody of the county in June to face a DWI charge from 2015.

Summerlin said a booking officer failed to note that Cornelio indicated he was not a resident of the United States. Therefore, immigration authorities were not notified prior to him being released on an unsecured bond. Court records show Cornelio has not shown up for court and has not been found.

“Are you concerned that other people are going to catch on to the fact that all they have to do is say, ‘I can’t pay’? asked Arnold.

“I am concerned,” said Summerlin.

Summerlin said the 24-hour time frame is too short for the Sheriff’s Office to properly vet a person’s financial status or ability to pay bail before they are released. Summerlin points out the judge’s order also applies to those arrested on new misdemeanor charges while released on bond and those arrested for failing to appear in court.

“We are releasing them on unsecured bonds,” said Summerlin.

“Regardless of risk?’ asked Arnold.

“There is no risk assessment in this process. Basically, it’s, ‘Do you have the financial means to pay your bond within the first 24 hours?'” said Summerlin.

Summerlin said a judge will typically raise a person’s bond if they fail to appear in court, to try to prompt compliance, but under the current order, the higher the bond, the greater the chance of being released on an unsecured bond.

“The higher the bond, the less chance they have the money to pay,” said Summerlin.

Summerlin said despite these concerns, the Sheriff’s Office has no choice but to comply with the judge’s order. When contacted by KPRC, officials with the Harris County Attorney’s Office agreed the Sheriff’s Office has no discretion in how it implements the judge’s order.

“It’s an endless cycle and my fear is somebody is going to do something really bad while they’re out there in that endless cycle,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. “At some point, there has to be a stop so that people can be brought to justice.”

Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle echoes Emmett and Summerlin’s concerns.

“This system, there are no consequences. In fact, all the incentives are for noncompliance,” said Cagle.

Both Cagle and Emmett said the county was moving toward bail reform even before the lawsuit was filed. Both said staff was added to see defendants faster and do more to consider low-risk offenders for personal bonds, which requires the person to sign an agreement that they will show up for court and comply with the conditions of their release.

Both Cagle and Emmett also said the county is implementing a new, more than $5 million risk assessment tool at the end of the month. The assessment was announced by the county more than a year ago and was designed in conjunction with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The Public Safety Assessment looks at nine factors when considering a person’s risk of not showing up for the court or committing another crime while on release. This tool is gender-, race-, income- and education-neutral.

Ellis, however, balks at some of his colleagues’ concerns.

“The federal judge was forced to make Harris County comply with our Constitution,” said Ellis. “I think we ought to stop trying to defend the indefensible.”

Ellis also said he feels the county’s bail reform was moving “at a snail’s pace,” and questioned why $3.5 million has been spent defending the targets of the lawsuit. Ellis said he has “concerns about the way the order is being implemented,” but said the county has no one to blame but itself.

“The county had the chance to settle the lawsuit but didn’t,” said Ellis. “If everybody is saying reform is necessary, do it.”

KPRC emailed federal court Chief Judge Lee Rosenthal with some of the concerns raised by county leaders and to ask if she believed the order was being implemented as intended. An email from Rosenthal’s case manager stated the court declined to comment.

The county tried to stop the order from taking effect until the lawsuit was settled but lost that battle in court. The county has appealed the order and continues to fight the lawsuit.

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Crooks return to rob dentist office after police leave

A dentist office in South Houston caught dramatic video of a pair of burglars ransacking the office, and the owner of the business believes police could have done more to thwart the return of the crooks.

“You know the door was broken and you just left it there thinking, ‘Oh, they’re not going to come back,'” Dr. Myoung Hwang said.

The incident happened last Friday at about 7 a.m. No one was inside the office when the break-in occurred, but the burglars left shortly before police arrived, then came back after police left to finish the job.

“This department runs short shifts,” South Houston police captain Eddie Martin said.

“Where you’re checking a business and everything, that’s more than just one person, that’s multiple officers,” Martin said.

Martin said that small departments, often, cannot afford to stand guard at a burglarized business.

“You’re going to have officers tied up just waiting for people to get there when they decide to get there,” Martin said.

Hwang said, from his view, police should have either secured the property, notified the alarm company police were leaving the scene, or stayed at the location until he arrived.

The two burglars remain unidentified and at large. One man has a neck tattoo. The duo arrived at South Houston Family Dental in what appears to be a white 2000 Chevrolet Tahoe.

If you have information about the crime Call the South Houston Police Department at 713-944-1916.

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2 throw drugs out window during high-speed chase, police say

This photo has nothing to do with the story below.

Harris County Precinct 5 deputy constables arrested two people after being led on a high-speed chase down Highway 59.

Investigators said the chase started when they tried to pull over the driver of a Jeep for a traffic violation on West Beltway 8 and Bellaire.

They said the male driver refused to stop.

Deputies said the driver and a woman in the car began to throw bags of drugs from their window.

Houston police joined the pursuit around Bissonnet and the Southwest Freeway.

The man drove around for about 45 minutes before stopping on Twins Hills and Consuela, deputies said.

The man attempted to run away from the scene, but he was caught later, deputies said.

The woman remained in the car and was arrested.

Deputies said both of them had handguns.

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5 arrested after drugs, gun, money seized from Magnolia home

Five people were arrested Friday afternoon after the Montgomery County Precinct 5 Constables Office executed a narcotics search warrant in Magnolia.

Deputies said they seized more than 1.6 pounds of high grade marijuana, 293 Xanax pills, 60 milliliters of liquid morphine, a firearm and more than $13,000 in cash.

Ryan Griffin, 24, Justin Griffin, 26, Devon Gann, 17, Rubben Summerford, 36, and Trew Davidson, 21, were arrested, deputies said.

The charges against the men include engaging in organized crime, possession of marijuana, manufacturing or delivering a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance and money laundering.

Deputies said all of the men are being held in the Montgomery County Jail.

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15 years later, Clara Harris remains in state prison for husband’s murder

Fifteen years have passed since Clara Harris ran over her husband in an infamous murder in the Clear Lake area.
She is expected to stay in state prison through 2023.

Her parole was denied nearly a year ago because of the brutality of that crime.

In an interview with KPRC 2 the night of the murder, 15 years ago, she said, “It was an accident.”

The Lake Jackson dentist repeatedly drove her silver Mercedes over her husband, stopping the car on top of his body in the parking lot of the Hilton NASA Clear Lake in Nassau Bay.

Her orthodontist husband, 44-year-old Dr. David Harris, died. The crime was caught on tape.

Earlier on the day of the attack, Clara Harris hired a private investigator to trail her husband, whom she suspected of having an affair with one of his former employees.

That investigator ultimately videotaped David Harris’ dying moments after Cara Harris confronted her husband and a woman inside the hotel lobby.

The fight moved outside, where Clara Harris drove the car over David Harris three times.

She was convicted of murder and sent to prison for 20 years. She will be up for parole again in September.

 

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Woman, 91, kicked out of Sunnyside home

After calling this home on Ashburn Street for more than 60 years, 91-year-old Jane Scott was kicked out on Monday.

“All of my taxes are paid for the year,” Scott said.

Scott’s attorney, Eraka Childs, said the eviction stems from a 2015 insurance bill for $853 on Scott’s reverse mortgage.

She claims even though Scott paid the bill electronically on April 21, 2015, Scott found out her home had already been foreclosed on when she went to court earlier this year.

“There was a gap in the communication and they moved forward with the foreclosure not knowing she had paid. That’s what it looks like,” said LaTrice Martin, a community activist who’s been working with Scott.

As part of the court’s order, deputies with the Harris County Precinct 7 Constable’s office spent much of the morning removing Scott’s personal belongings from the home, including furniture and clothes.

Scott was so upset, she couldn’t bear to watch.

One of the deputies, who is also a real estate agent, recently tried talking to the lender.

“She wanted to try to get them to change things and they would not,” a spokeswoman said.

Late Monday afternoon, Scott was told she could move back into her house for the time being, after the court granted her a temporary restraining order. But by no means is it a permanent fix.

“We’re going to fight it. We are going to get her back in her home. Get this property rescinded and then we are going to begin educating our people. That’s what we are going to do,” Martin said.

Scott is due back in court on Aug. 11.

 

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Congressman: If female GOP senators were South Texas men, I’d challenge them to a duel

Blake Farenthold speaks at the state Republican convention in Dallas on June 12, 2010.

WASHINGTON — A Texas GOP congressman says if the three female Republican senators who oppose a bill repealing Obamacare were men from South Texas, he might challenge them to a duel.

“The fact that the Senate does not have the courage to do some of the things that every Republican in the Senate promised to do is just absolutely repugnant to me,” U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, told his local radio host Bob Jones on Friday.

“Some of the people that are opposed to this, there are female senators from the Northeast… If it was a guy from South Texas, I might ask him to step outside and settle this Aaron Burr-style.”

In 1804, Aaron Burr famously shot and killed his political adversary, Alexander Hamilton, in a New Jersey duel.

Farenthold, whose office did not respond to a Texas Tribune request for comment, was referencing U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to push through a pure Obamacare repeal bill that lacked a replacement, after months of trouble to pass a repeal-and-replace measure, those three senators effectively ended his efforts by announcing they opposed the plan.

But those three women — considered moderate Republicans — haven’t been the only nails in this summer’s health care coffin. Previous iterations of the legislation have faced opposition from the Senate’s more conservative wing, including men like U.S. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Duel language is not new in politics. In 2004, then-U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat who crossed party lines to campaign for President George W. Bush, invoked it against MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews. The comments were met with widespread mockery at the time.

But there’s little funny about such language in the U.S. Capitol these days, after a deranged man shot and injured a Republican member of Congress during a baseball practice in June. U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, was gravely injured in the incident and remains hospitalized.

 

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Turning Tail

Turning Tail

There’s a war on feral hogs in Texas, and the hogs are winning.

When night falls on Storm Ranch, a 5,700-acre expanse in Dripping Springs, it falls purple and soft over fields and groves of oak and pecan. That’s when the pigs come, Josh Storm says, stealing up from the canyon bottoms and brush to root through the leaf litter. Signs of their presence appear throughout the property — broken fences, destroyed gardens, furrows dug in the grass by spade-like noses. “If I had to make a rough estimate, I’d say that there are 150, maybe 200 hogs out here,” Storm says. “They tend to come and go, on adjacent pieces of property as well. So you never really know.”

Storm is a wildlife biologist as well as a rancher, and he speaks with the kind of slow drawl made for explaining things. His property is a hunting ranch, among other things, and every year people arrive to take a shot at the hogs. They pay $100 for a day’s entry, plus $50 per hog shot, and another $50 if they don’t feel like cleaning the carcass themselves. That money is welcome income in the off-season for deer and turkey, and helps replace the broken fences and furrowed ground. By his own admission, Storm has it pretty easy: He doesn’t grow crops on his property, and the damage can be fixed. Others are not so lucky.

Consider the hog. Feral pigs are large: Adult females average 175 pounds and males reach 300 pounds or more. They breed often and in good times can raise three litters of up to 12 piglets apiece in a year. Their senses are sharp. They happily feed on anything from nuts and tubers to carrion and small animals. As anyone who has ever hunted one will tell you, they are adaptable, formidable and not easily fooled. Hogs are exciting game for sport hunting, and their ability to ingratiate themselves into human systems makes them the perfect invader.

Beginning in the 1970s, Texas sportsmen illegally — and unwisely — released wild pigs onto hunting ranches across the state. It was not the first time pigs colonized Texas — a batch had come with explorer Hernando de Soto in 1539 — but this time, for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, the population exploded. They spread out from the ranches, sometimes foraging on supplemental feed left out for deer and pheasant, sometimes methodically working over farmland, sometimes mating with other escaped pigs. Crops of melon and rice, potato and soybean vanished. The agriculture industry reported thousands of dollars in losses, then millions. Hogs began disrupting fragile habitats in state parks. And still more arrived — trapped, trailered in and released as game. By the time state officials managed to put a stop to the practice in the ’90s, it was too late.

According to conservative estimates, there are now around 2.6 million hogs in Texas, more than anywhere else in the United States. Their foraging causes about $52 million in annual agricultural damage, and as their numbers increase they have pushed into suburban and urban areas. (Only El Paso County is thought to be clear of them, and perhaps not for long.) Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s controversial attempt to poison the pigs has thrown the extent of the problem into sharp relief. Hogs in Texas have become not just a pest, but a commodity. Professional hog hunters and landowners who lease their land for hunts stand to lose if pigs are eradicated. Farmers and those suffering their depredations want them gone. And nobody knows how to get rid of them.

A hunting chair on Storm Ranch, where hunters pay $100 for a day’s entry and an additional $50 per hog shot.  Jen Reel

“It goes on indefinitely, how people are trying to make money off of feral hogs,” Will Herring says. We sit outside an Austin coffee shop in the April sunshine, watching the grackles tussle over breadcrumbs. Herring arrived dressed in mirrored sunglasses and a polo shirt, with his hair in a top knot. His main occupation is real estate law; he’s also the co-owner of Wild Boar Meat Company, a business that sells harvested pigs as pet food.

There are perhaps $20 million worth of hog traps scattered throughout the state, Herring says, with the more expensive, remotely operated models going for anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000. Trapped hogs are sold first to meat processing companies, which buy only hogs over 150 pounds at 25 to 30 cents per extra pound. From there, they’re sold to restaurants and wholesalers in America, Europe and Asia. The number of hogs slaughtered annually in Texas is upward of 700,000, Herring says. Assuming all of them are about 200 pounds, a rough estimate means that companies are buying an annual $10.5 million worth of live hogs.

Recreational hunting is another moneymaker. The very industry that helped kick-start the problem has rebranded itself — accurately — as a conservation necessity, and the chance to fight the porcine hordes with dogs, bows and guns draws hunters from across the country. The state encourages this: Pigs can be taken year-round and without limits, though a license is required. Outfitters offer armories worth of special weapons and gear, including drones fitted with thermal cameras and night-vision goggles. Specialized hunting ranches can charge around $599 for a multiday hunt; those interested in truly splurging can rent a helicopter for around $1,000 an hour. Most hogs shot this way traditionally end up in the shooter’s freezer, since animals sold for human consumption have to be inspected both before and after being slaughtered.

Nowadays, Herring and his business partner, Bryan Martin, are happy to buy them. They started the Wild Boar Meat Company in February 2016 and began any size and 40 cents per pound for gutted hogs. It’s profitable, and it helps kill pigs that otherwise might be released, which suits Herring nicely. “I want all the pigs dead,” he says. “If I were able to be semi-responsible for killing all the pigs in Texas, I’d be very, very happy. I want to put myself out of business.”

This is a fairly common refrain around hog hunting, popping up in articles, forum posts and hunting ranch websites. But with the amount of money to be made off hogs, there’s arguably a vested interest in keeping them around. And while hunting has long been the primary method of dealing with hogs, it hasn’t helped much when it comes to meaningfully decreasing their numbers. In the meantime, farmers and ranchers have been getting increasingly frustrated. “[Hogs] can push a guy from being profitable on a cotton field or a corn crop to not being profitable at all,” says state Representative Lynn Stucky, a freshman legislator and practicing veterinarian. “Currently, one of the concerns of the agriculture industry is that in spite of hunting, in spite of trapping, in spite of all these other means, they’re still losing ground.”

In situations like that it’s easy to look for a miracle cure, even if you know none is coming. Texas spends about $450,000 per year on hog control efforts, but landowners bear the brunt of the cost: The Texas Department of Agriculture estimates that citizens spend $7 million per year fighting the pigs.

Politicians are often looking for some way to get an edge on the pigs. In 2011, state Representative Sid Miller got the “pork-chopper” bill passed, which allowed private citizens to shoot pigs from helicopters. This year, not to be outdone in the licensing of aerial killing, Representative Mark Keough offered a bill to allow the use of hot air balloons in hog hunting. But by far the most public example was an attempt this session by the Texas Department of Agriculture — now led by Sid Miller — to make an emergency rule change authorizing the use of Kaput, a poison based on a blood thinner called warfarin.

Poison has long been considered as a possible check on hogs. For the past nine years, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been studying the use of sodium nitrite, which kills pigs in a matter of hours and is safe for human consumption. Kaput, on the other hand, arrived with little testing or public notice. Produced by a Colorado pest-control company called Scimetrics, it had previously been used against feral hogs in Australia. According to the proposed rules, the poison would be made available only to landowners with a license, stocked in special feeders only pigs could access, and would contain a dye that would turn their fat blue so that people wouldn’t eat poisoned meat by mistake. “With the introduction of this first hog lure,” Miller said in a statement in February, “the ‘Hog Apocalypse’ may finally be on the horizon.”

A deluge of criticism immediately hit the Texas Department of Agriculture from a variety of sources, among them Herring and Stucky. Warfarin is a slow and ugly death for anything bigger than a rat, causing internal bleeding, cramping, suffocation and aneurysms. Hogs subjected to it take two days to three weeks to die, and any scavengers that eat the meat often die too. That, more than anything, persuaded Australian authorities to ban its use. “Ranchers would go out at night and hear the pigs screaming in pain,” Herring says. “Just screaming through the night.”

There were other reasons for skepticism. The Texas Hog Hunters Association raised concerns about the possibility of people shooting and consuming poisoned hogs; many of the meat processors voiced similar worries. The ecologically minded were worried about the secondary poisoning of birds of prey, scavengers or family pets. With a single feeding station costing $1,200 and dosages around $150, even landowners who supported the use of poison questioned the cost. Others were concerned that poisoned pigs would wander onto their property, or that the poison might end up in the soil or water. However, the Texas Farm Bureau endorsed the idea, calling it “a step in the right direction to controlling the population.”

Miller and Scimetrics did little to win over critics. According to Miller, Scimetrics claimed that a product test conducted in Texas in 2015 showed an effectiveness of 97 percent, but no published studies corroborate the claim. After getting his hands on an internal report, Herring found that after setting out bait, the company had marked any hogs that disappeared as successfully poisoned, ignoring their tendency to wander off. “The whole thing is incredibly frustrating,” Herring says. “These people were in the rat poison business. I think they saw an opportunity and rushed to get [Kaput] labeled so they could beat sodium nitrite to market.”

Within a week of Miller’s announcement, the Wild Boar Meat Company, Texas Hog Hunters Association and the Environmental Defense Fund successfully sued to block the rule change. Around the same time, Stucky co-sponsored a bill requiring that Kaput be properly studied before being authorized for wide use; it sailed through the House on a 127-12 vote. (Perhaps in a sign of the Legislature’s mood, state Representative Jonathan Stickland’s biennial attempt to strip money from state hog control during a budget debate immediately resulted in a counter-amendment defunding the highways through his hometown. It overwhelmingly passed.)

Noting the change in the wind, Scimetrics withdrew its attempt to get state registration for Kaput on April 25, citing the potential of future lawsuits. Stucky told the Dallas Morning News that he was happy Scimetrics had stepped back. Miller, who declined to be interviewed for this story, blamed “politically correct urban media hacks and naysayers” for the withdrawal.

courtesy Billy Higginbotham

These 12 wild pigs were captured on private property in Overton as part of a trapping demonstration by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. The pigs were then sold to a local buying station and eventually processed
for human consumption.

courtesy Billy Higginbotham

Megan Higginbotham during a 2007 hunting trip in Llano with her father, Billy Higginbotham, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service professor and wild pig damage abatement specialist.

The fact of the matter is that Texas is not only stuck with its feral hogs, it can only make a dent in their numbers. According to Billy Higginbotham, wildlife and fisheries specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and something of a state authority on pigs, hunting and trapping certainly helps: An A&M study found the combination reduced annual damage by as much as 66 percent. But such techniques have to be deployed widely and consistently. Clear the hogs from one patch of land and they’ll flow in from another; stop hunting them and their numbers will rebound in a year. But consistency is difficult to accomplish in Texas. Even if we had a poison we could use alongside hunting tomorrow, hogs will never be eradicated in the state, Higginbotham says. “You’re gonna have some that would elect to use the toxicant and some that won’t,” he says. “You have landowners today who’ll shoot and trap pigs, and landowners who won’t. That’s not gonna change with poison. You have to use it everywhere.”

There is also the fact that there are plenty of people in the state who still benefit from the pigs’ presence — not just hunters, but some landowners as well. “It’s a thriving industry,” Higginbotham says. “It’s not just the people taking a problem and turning it into a protein source, but also landowners who elect to allow hunting are making a profit. And the meat industry has grown. Both of these have grown as the pig problem has increased. … We’ve got people who are benefiting from wild pigs that don’t want to see them eradicated.”

Tying hog control efforts to financial incentives is an inherently dicey proposition. Hunting and trapping do offer a generally effective method for keeping pig numbers down. But in the absence of a unified approach, the state has to rely on the feral hog industry to manage a problem it had a hand in creating. Pigs are still released on hunting ranches and still raise healthy litters on the corn supplements set out for game. All the while, farmers and ranchers continue to bear the brunt of the damage, their ruined crops fattening the pigs that the industry profits from. If hog hunting suddenly becomes less popular, or if the price of pig meat falls sharply, the hunting and meat industry might slacken, allowing the population to surge. Without a clear solution, the war on hogs continues to drag on.

Still, Herring is guardedly optimistic about getting everyone on the same page. “Landowners don’t want just any and everyone out there blowing holes in their barns and tractors, tearing through their roads, messing up their fields,” he says. “But there’s a lot of people that do want to shoot pigs, and will spend their life’s savings on equipment to go pig hunting. You can shoot ’em all year round. They’re the best animal to hunt, if you like to hunt. We have an army and we have the battlefield, and nobody’s figured out a way to match them up.”

One such battleground lies off a nearly imperceptible path at Storm Ranch, down a grassy strip bordered by a wire fence on one side and a low wall of stacked limestone chunks on the other. Between them a corn dispenser stands out in the open, the ground beneath its metal legs scattered with dry kernels. Thirty feet or so from the feeder sits a simple blind. Sometimes, when night falls and the pigs are in the neighborhood, they wander up from the bottoms and eat the corn. Sometimes a shot rings out from the nearby blind or a chair. A pig falls; sometimes two or three.

It doesn’t matter. They always come back.

Opening photo: A feral hog’s portrait is captured in 2015 by a sensor-triggered camera placed in a creek bottom in Atascosa County. Photo by Casey Smartt

This article appears in the June 2017 issue of the Texas Observer. Read more from the issue or become a member now to see our reporting before it’s published online.

The post Turning Tail appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Death toll in San Antonio immigrant-smuggling case rises to 10

The truck with human trafficking victims — nine of whom died from heat exposure — was discovered at a Walmart in southwest San Antonio.

The death toll from the weekend’s immigrant-smuggling tragedy in San Antonio has risen to 10, and the driver in the alleged crime is scheduled to appear in a federal courtroom Monday morning.

James Mathew Bradley, Jr., 60, is being held for his alleged role in the incident, in which San Antonio police found dozens of people in the back of a sweltering trailer early Sunday morning.

Police initially said that 38 people were in the truck, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials said the actual count is 39; officers found one additional person hiding in a wooded area near the scene. Eight people were found dead and two more died later at local hospitals. All of the deceased were adult males.

A criminal complaint is likely to be filed sometime before Bradley’s appearance, an ICE official said. But it’s unclear what charges Bradley could face.

Though Sunday’s news made worldwide headlines, ICE officials said in their statement that Sunday’s human smuggling attempt was one of thousands made since 2016. During that fiscal year, ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit investigated 2,110 such attempts that resulted in 1,522 criminal convictions. That same year, the unit made 2,734 criminal arrests and 3,007 administrative arrests related to human smuggling.

In May, Border Patrol agents found 14 undocumented immigrants hiding in a grain hauler at the agency’s checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas. And in the news release, acting ICE Director Thomas Homan said Sunday’s incident reminded him of another Texas tragedy he saw with his own eyes.

“I personally worked on a tragic tractor trailer case in Victoria, Texas, in 2003, in which 19 people were killed as a result of the smugglers’ total indifference to the safety of those smuggled and to the law,” he said.

It’s unclear where the immigrants in Sunday’s attempt were from or where their ultimate destination was. The ICE official said they are being treated at local hospitals and “officials will not release the identities or alienage of victims until relatives can be notified.”

 

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Ex-Mexican drug cartel leader gets 30 years in US prison

A former high-ranking member of the Zetas cartel in Mexico must serve 30 years in a U.S. prison and forfeit $10 million for his drug-related crimes, prosecutors said.

Ivan Velasquez-Caballero, 47, of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, was sentenced Friday by a federal judge in Laredo, Texas.

Velasquez-Caballero is expected to face deportation following his release from prison, officials said.

Known in Mexico as “El Taliban,” Velasquez-Caballero agreed to plead guilty in 2014 to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances and conspiracy to launder monetary instruments.

Mexican authorities in 2012 arrested Velasquez-Caballero in the northern city of San Luis Potosi and extradited him to South Texas on drug-related charges.

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Kushner’s statement on Russia: What to know

President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner released a statement Monday morning to the Hill intelligence committees about his contacts with Russians during the presidential campaign and transition.

Kushner denied any collusion with the Russian government, which was engaged throughout 2016 in a campaign of its own to interfere in the election and help Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

The 11-page statement from Kushner is his first public accounting of his interactions with Russians during the presidential campaign.

Here’s a look at the highlights:

Kushner says he had four contacts with Russians last year. The first was a handshake with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak before a Trump speech in April. The second was the highly controversial meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June. The third was a meeting with Kislyak during the transition. And the fourth was with Russian state-run banker Sergey Gorkov during the transition.

These four interactions were already known from previous news reports, though Kushner added new details in his statement on Monday, including information about relevant emails and logistics.

He says none of these interactions were about collusion or election interference, saying, “I did not collude, not know of anyone else in the campaign who colluded, with any foreign government.”

Kushner denied reading the full email forwarded to him by Donald Trump Jr. before the Trump Tower meeting. That email explained that the Russian lawyer wanted to meet with Trump campaign officials to give them information from the Kremlin that would hurt Clinton, as part of its effort to help Trump.

He says that he was late to the meeting and only in the room for 10 minutes while the issue of Russian adoptions was discussed. The statement says he emailed an assistant, asking that person to call his cell phone so he would have an excuse to walk out of the meeting. Kushner didn’t publicly release the email but did provide it to the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Kushner denied a Reuters report that said he spoke with Kislyak on the phone twice during the campaign. That report cited seven unnamed sources saying Kushner spoke with Kislyak on the phone at least twice between April and November 2016. Kushner’s lawyers denied the story when it came out in May. Kushner said in his statement that he checked some of his phone records and that his team hasn’t found “any calls to any number known to be associated with Ambassador Kislyak.”

Kushner acknowledges shaking hands with Kislyak before a Trump speech at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016. This event has attracted scrutiny from investigators on Capitol Hill, who have been trying to figure out the extent of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ interactions with Kislyak the same day. Sessions testified last month that he didn’t recall any such meeting.

For the first time, Kushner said he got an email one week before the election from someone he didn’t recognize called “Guccifer400.” The email threatened to release Trump’s tax returns unless Kushner paid hush money. Kushner says he ignored the email at the advice of a Secret Service agent. The US government says Russia created an online persona called Guccifer 2.0 as a front to release emails it stole during the campaign, but there is no indication that Guccifer400 was part of the Russian meddling effort.

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Analysis: In special session, Texas Senate’s the hare, House is the tortoise

The three leaders of Texas appear jovial at a short meeting of the Cash Management Committee on July 18, 2017, as they face a potentially contentious 30-day special session of the 85th Legislature. 

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Does this seem familiar? The Texas Senate is ripping through an ambitious agenda, racing through the 20 issues on the governor’s special session agenda in an effort to finish within the 30 days allotted for that work.

The Texas House is more deliberate, spending its time on the single issue that must pass — sunset legislation that would continue, for two more years, the lives of five government agencies — and leaving the other 19 issues for later.

This full-speed-ahead vs. slow-and-steady tension was the hallmark of the regular legislative session earlier this year. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, presiding officer of the Senate, laid out an ambitious plan, giving the low bill numbers — Senate Bill 1, Senate Bill 2 and so on — to his legislative priorities and hurrying those off to the House for consideration and collaboration.

That strategy has its charms, especially to anyone with enough legislative experience to know that end-of-session deadlines are often fatal even to bills that have widespread support in both chambers of the Legislature.

Get the work done early, before the storm that always comes at the end.

It has a tactical disadvantage, however, because the chamber that hurries sends all of its darlings to the chamber that’s moving slowly. It’s like sending a stream of hostages to a kidnapper. If the Senate wants a lot of bills passed and the House does, too, there are opportunities for trade. If not — if the Senate wants things and the House doesn’t have a wish list — it puts the hurry-up Senate in the jaws of the we’ll-get-to-it-sometime House.

Time, the truest friend to legislative assassins, is especially short in special sessions.

The governor can’t really change the flow of things. He can implore. He’s got the bully pulpit. But his only official role here is to start the session, name the subjects for consideration and then wait to see whether any bills make it back to him for signature or veto. Except for his power to pick the subject matter, it works a lot like the regular session.

Last week, Senate Republicans used every rule available to speed consideration of the sunset legislation, because Gov. Greg Abbott said it had to pass before he would open the agenda to other issues.

Once Abbott opened the gates, the Senate set 13 committee meetings for Friday, Saturday and Sunday — racing through the items on the special session agenda in order to get as many of them as possible in front of the full Senate before the end of the session’s second week.

The House, meanwhile, has limited its attention to the must-do sunset legislation, content to lumber through the red-meat items on Abbott’s agenda after that one is out of the way.

“This isn’t a race,” House Speaker Joe Straus told the San Antonio Express-News when asked about the different tempos.

That’s right, sort of. Hardly anyone outside of the Texas Capitol and the bubble that surrounds it really cares about the inch-by-inch progress of legislation, about which side acted first and whose amendments got on; they just care about what passes and what doesn’t, about who voted their way and who didn’t.

The difference in speed will give Patrick and the Senate — and the governor, if he wants to join in — an opportunity to pressure the House to act on what the Senate has sent over. They win on the noisemaking front.

It gives the House the power to edit the Senate’s work, to decide what ultimately gets to the governor and what doesn’t, to control the flow of the special session. It plays into one of the Capitol’s favorite clichés, too: “The process is designed to kill bills — not to pass them.”

Time, the truest friend to legislative assassins, is especially short in special sessions. The first of the session’s four Fridays is already behind us. The House — the tortoise in this race — is just coming up to the starting line. The hare — the Senate — is already sprinting.

All by itself.

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Texas Senate panel targets mail-in ballot fraud after high-profile case

 

A Texas Senate panel approved a measure Sunday aiming to crack down on mail-in ballot fraud — largely through increased penalties.

“Mail-ballot voting is a prime target for illegal voting and election fraud,” said Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who authored the measure, Senate Bill 5. “In the U.S., the right to vote is sacred. Any attempt to steal an American’s vote … must be addressed.”

In a 9-0 vote, the Senate Committee on State Affairs sent the bill to the full chamber. The mail-in voting issue was among the items Gov. Greg Abbott placed on his call for the special legislative session that kicked off last week.

The focus on absentee balloting puts the Republican-dominated legislature on a new path for changing the voting process by addressing a documented vulnerability in Texas elections. Previously, lawmakers targeted rare in-person election fraud with voter ID legislation eventually blocked by federal courts.

State law allows Texans with disabilities, those who are at least 65 years old or those who plan to be out of their home county during voting to request a mail-in ballot, and that process falls outside of voter ID requirements.

Saturday’s legislative movement on the matter comes amid an investigation of mail-in ballot irregularities affecting city council races in Dallas, where 700 suspicious ballots were sequestered after the county’s district attorney received an “off-the-charts” number of complaints from voters, according to news reports. Many people — especially in West Dallas — said they received mail-in ballots they didn’t request and feared that someone else voted in their place. Earlier this month, a grand jury indicted a man for allegedly taking a Dallas woman’s blank mail-in ballot, filling in a candidate’s name, and delivering it to the county’s election department.

Hancock’s bill would widen the definition of mail-in ballot fraud, boost penalties for certain offenses, strengthen rules for signature verification and require election judges to notify voters when ballots are rejected. It would also limit who could assist mail-in voters.

The bill’s proponents — including representatives with the state Republican Party and Texas Association of Election Administrators — said it would protect the votes of elderly and disabled Texans who are most likely to be targeted by those who abuse the mail-in balloting system. County prosecutors rarely spend much energy prosecuting mail-in balloting fraud, they said, because the current penalties are too soft.

“This bill is long overdue,” said Alan Vera, who chairs the Harris County GOP’s Ballot Security Committee, adding that the proposal “puts some badly needed teeth into election law enforcement.”

The bill would create a state jail felony — carrying up to two years in prison — for those who provide false information on an application for a mail-in ballot; intentionally causes false information to be provided on a ballot application; or knowingly submits or alters a ballot application without a voter’s knowledge. The bill would further bump up penalties for offenses involving voters older than 65.

Also under the bill, those found to be carrying a ballot without a voter’s authorization could be charged with a third degree felony, carrying penalties of two to 10 years in prison.

Critics called some of the penalties too harsh, and suggested there were more effective ways to prevent fraud.

“The bill’s penalty enhancements are extreme,” said Matthew Simpson, deputy political director for the ACLU of Texas.  “Someone could fail to sign an envelope and find themselves facing a penalty of 2-10 years in jail.”

Cinde Weatherby, with the Texas League of Women Voters, said the enhanced penalties could discourage elderly Texans and those with disabilities from voting by mail.

Some who testified Sunday pointed out that lawmakers already took a step this year to prevent one type of absentee ballot fraud.

Last month, Abbott signed into law a bipartisan bill aiming to simultaneously curb voter fraud at nursing homes and widen ballot access to elderly Texans who live in them. It created a process for collecting absentee ballots at nursing homes and similar facilities — turning them into temporary polling places during early voting to discourage facility staffers, political operatives or others from trying to manipulate residents’ votes.

Texas lawmakers have been slow to beef up protections against mail-in ballot fraud, despite vowing for years to protect the integrity of elections.

Lawmakers six years ago passed the nation’s strictest voter photo identification law, a politically contentious measure that, experts and federal judges say, disproportionately made it tougher for Latino and black Texans to vote. The state has spent millions of dollars defending that law and has yet to win a round in federal court. As legal appeals continue, lawmakers this year passed a bill to soften the requirements — by making permanent a court-ordered fix for the 2016 elections.

The 2011 voter ID legislation was part of a trend in Republican-led statehouses across the country that proponents said would reduce voter fraud. But the law only applied to ballots cast in-person, where experts have found scant evidence of widespread trouble.

“The bill did nothing to address mail-in balloting, which is much more vulnerable to fraud,” wrote Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, of Corpus Christi, in an April ruling that the Legislature intentionally discriminated against minorities in passing the ID law.

Lawmakers in 2011 would have known they were addressing the less-documented problem if they had read their own past research.

“Overall, most allegations of election fraud that appear in the news or result in indictments relate to early voting by mail ballots,” the Texas House Committee on Elections concluded in a 2006 interim report.

That committee offered similar findings in a 2008 interim report.

Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.

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Drunk Driver Sentenced to 50 Years for Fatal Crash

Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady announced today that Billy Wayne Denison, 38, was sentenced yesterday to 50 years in prison for Intoxication Manslaughter.

On Monday, July 17, 2017 Denison pled guilty in the 122nd District Court and requested to have the court determine his punishment. A punishment hearing began Tuesday morning. During the three day hearing the State presented testimony and other evidence that detailed for the court the events that led to the death of Roger Reed, a Santa Fe resident, on September 26, 2015.

Galveston Police Department (GPD) officers were dispatched to major accident on the northbound lanes of the Causeway at around 1:13 am on Saturday, September 26, 2015. Upon arrival, officers found Roger Reed lying in the roadway, unconscious and bleeding. The motorcycle Reed was driving had extensive rear-end damage. Reed was transported to the hospital where he was immediately pronounced dead as a result of his injuries. Medical testimony revealed that Reed had multiple skull fractures, chest injuries, and a spinal fracture.

Officers found Denison, in his vehicle that was stopped at the bottom of the Causeway near the Tiki Island exit, drinking a bottle of Kaluha White Russian. There was also an empty bottle of Kaluha in the front cup holder and a broken bottle of Bud Light Lime on the pavement near Denison’s driver door. While speaking to Denison, officers noted that he smelled strongly of alcohol, had a slurred speech, swayed, and stumbled. Dennison told a Firefighter, who was checking him for injuries, that “I was going a hundred bro. I was going a hundred.” Denison admitted to hitting the motorcycle and that in addition to the alcohol found in his vehicle he had drank beer prior to driving. Officers obtained a search warrant for Denison’s blood after he refused to voluntarily give a sample. Analysis on the blood sample taken was conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety Houston Crime Lab. The results showed that Denison had a blood alcohol level of 0.137 when the sample was taken.

GPD Sergeant Robert Sanderson, the Accident Reconstructionist, determined that the victim was traveling north in the outside lane when he was struck from behind by Denison. Denison’s vehicle and Reed’s motorcycle were stuck together and continued traveling north for several hundred feed before the motorcycle dislodged. The impact appeared to have taken place at the top of the Causeway based on skid marks, gouge marks, and scuff marks starting there and continuing to where the motorcycle was found.

Sgt. Sanderson also testified that based on evidence at the scene, he determined that Denison appeared to continue to drive way from the based on skid marks and oil on the road beginning a short distance from the motorcycle and ending where Denison’s vehicle stopped due to the damage it sustained.

The owner of the vehicle Denison was driving testified that she was a friend of Denison’s and that he had taken her vehicle without her permission. This was confirmed by Denison during his own testimony. Testimony about Denison’s time in prison revealed that he had a lengthy disciplinary history which included testing positive for drugs and multiple fights.

Denison faced a punishment range of 25 to 99 years, or life, in prison because of two felony enhancements; a 2003 conviction for Escape and a 2005 conviction for Burglary of a Habitation. In addition to the enhancements, the State presented multiple other felony and misdemeanor convictions. In 1998 Denison was convicted of Possession of Marijuana and Evading Arrest. In 2001 he was convicted of Driving While Intoxicated, and Failure to Appear. He was conviction in Georgia in 2002 for Driving Under the Influence. In 2003 Denison had convictions for Criminal Trespass, Resisting Arrest, Criminal Mischief, and Unauthorized Use of a Motor Vehicle. In 2005 he had convictions for Assault Causing Bodily Injury and a second conviction for Burglary of a Habitation. Lastly, in 2014 he was convicted for Reckless Driving.

During closing arguments, the State argued that since Denison turned 17 years old he has been in and out of prison and jail, doing nothing but committing crimes. Assistant District Attorney Kayla Allen told the Court to think about “how many victims have to suffer at the hands of the defendant. How much is enough.” Denison has 5 felony and 10 misdemeanor convictions, many involving victims. ADA Allen argued that not only did Denison commit another victim he crime, he killed someone. The State asked the Court to sentence Denison to life in prison.

The Court took a short recess to consider the evidence and arguments before returning with a verdict of 50 years in the Institutional Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The Court also made an affirmative finding of a deadly weapon. Denison will have to serve at least one-half of his sentence before being eligible for parole.

Denison was prosecuted by Assistant District Attorneys Kayla Allen and Ross Hill in the 122nd District Court, with visiting Judge Mary Nell Crapitto presiding. The investigation was conducted by the Galveston Police Department.

 

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Tanker Crew Rescues 5 In Capsized Boat

A tanker crew came to the rescue of five people after their boat capsized 12 miles off the coast of Galveston on Saturday afternoon.

The crew of Overseas Texas City contacted the Coast Guard to report the capsized vessel just after noon on Saturday. The tanker crew was then able to navigate to the capsized boat and rescue everybody aboard, none of whom were injured.

“If not for the courage of the fearless crew of the tanker Overseas Texas City, the outcome of today’s events may not have been as successful,” said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Rendon. “It is incredibly important that boaters are aware of their surroundings and prepared for emergency situations.”

A Coast Guard crew transported the rescued boaters to shore.

It’s not immediately clear why the vessel capsized.

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Man Sentenced to 45 Years on Drug Charges

Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady announced today that Charles Lynch, 59, was sentenced yesterday to 45 years in prison for Possession of a Cocaine with Intent to Deliver.

Lynch was arrested in September 2015 for possessing more than four grams of crack cocaine following the execution of a search warrant at his residence. On Monday, July 17, 2017 Lynch’s jury trial began in the 405th District Court.

On September 23, 2015, La Marque Police Department officers, with the assistance of other local agencies, executed a search and arrest warrant at a residence in La Marque. The search warrant was the result of an investigation into illegal drug trafficking by Lynch at his residence. Lynch and several other people were found in the residence when officers made entry.

During the search of the home, officers identified a bedroom as belonging to Lynch. The bedroom contained several items belonging to Lynch that included mail, prescription bottles, a cell phone, and bills all with Lynch’s name on them. On a dresser, with Lynch’s cell phone, was found several pieces of crack cocaine and a knife with cocaine residue. In a trash can next to the dresser, officers found several torn plastic baggies. In a trash can in the kitchen officers found additional torn plastic baggies. The lead investigating officer testified that plastic baggies like the ones found are commonly used to package illegal drugs, like crack cocaine, for sale.

The drugs found were sent to the Texas Department of Public Safety Crime Lab for testing. The results of the tests confirmed that the substances found in Lynch’s bedroom was cocaine and weighed more than 4 grams.

The jury heard closing arguments Wednesday morning and retired to deliberate. They returned with a guilty verdict shortly before 1:00 p.m., after deliberating for about an hour. Lynch elected to have the court determine his punishment. The punishment phase began Thursday afternoon. Lynch faced a punishment range of 15 to 99 years, or life, in prison because of one felony enhancement; a 2006 conviction for Delivery of a Controlled Substance.

During the punishment phase, the State presented evidence of the felony enhancement conviction and evidence that Lynch had three additional drug-related felony convictions from 1990 and 2006. Assistant District Attorney Kiara Gradney told the Court that Lynch’s history has shown that he hasn’t been and won’t be a productive citizen. ADA Gradney argued that Lynch’s convictions, which go back to 1990, are evidence that nothing will deter him from a life crime.

The Court took a brief recess before returning with its punishment verdict. After considering the evidence and the arguments the Court set Lynch’s punishment at 45 years, in the Institutional Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Lynch will have to serve at least one-fourth of his sentence before being eligible for parole.

Lynch was prosecuted by Assistant District Attorneys Kiara Gradney and Adam Poole in the 405th District Court, with Judge Michelle Slaughter presiding. The investigation was conducted by the La Marque Police Department.

During the search of the residence, officers also found $515.00 that they believed to be the proceeds from Lynch’s illegal drug activity. The money was seized and later forfeited to the State as contraband in January 2016.

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After Texas “human trafficking crime,” Lt. Gov. Patrick lauds sanctuary city law

The truck with human trafficking victims — nine of whom died from heat exposure — was discovered at a Walmart in southwest San Antonio.

Following the deaths of nine people in what police are calling a “human trafficking crime,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took to Facebook Sunday to highlight the importance of cracking down on “sanctuary cities.”

Police found eight people dead in a tractor-trailer in a Walmart parking lot early Sunday morning, with no air conditioning in the sweltering summer heat, according to the San Antonio Express-News. One later died in the hospital, and about 20 survivors suffered from heat stroke and dehydration. Some survivors identified themselves as Mexican nationals.

Patrick wrote the incident was indicative of why Senate Bill 4 is so important. The law, scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1, requires local authorities to cooperate with federal immigration officials and allows police to ask about the immigration status of people they lawfully detain.

“Today’s tragedy is why I made passing Senate Bill 4 to ban sanctuary cities — which is now law — a top priority,” Patrick, a Republican, wrote on his Facebook page Sunday afternoon, with a link to an ABC News report. “Sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law. Sanctuary cities also enable human smugglers and cartels. Today, these people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need a secure border and legal immigration reform so we can control who enters our country. We continue to pray for the families and friends of the victims.”

The cities of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso and El Cenizo are among the local governments suing Texas over the law.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a formal statement with no mention of SB 4, instead highlighting the importance of a bill he signed to help the trucking industry report signs of human trafficking.

“The loss of these lives is a heartbreaking tragedy,” he said. “Human trafficking is an epidemic that Texas is working to eradicate. To that end, Texas will continue to provide protection for the victims who have been robbed of their most basic rights, and bring down the full weight of the law for the perpetrators of this despicable crime.”

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also weighed in on the incident Sunday morning. “Border security will help prevent this Texas tragedy,” he wrote on Twitter.

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

 

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