Sweeny woman pleads guilty to sex trafficking conspiracy involving minors

Sweeny woman has plead guilty to conspiracy and sex trafficking of children, the United States Department of Justice announced Wednesday.

Angela Marks, 24, was originally one of nine charged as part of a sex-trafficking ring that used sexually oriented websites to advertise four minors for sex, the DOJ said.

After having the girls pose in provocative positions, pictures were taken with Marks’ phone and put online for advertising of the victims using the site, Backpage. While the victims were with “customers,” Marks would monitor the three victims’ encounters, even going as far as hiding in the hotel bathroom, according to the DOJ.

These prostitution dates occurred at Hobby Inn and Stay Express Inn in Houston, the DOJ said.

She also collected the proceeds from the dates and provided condoms, food and drugs to the victims, officials said.

Sentencing is set for May 9. Marks faces up to life in prison and a possible $250,000 maximum fine, the DOJ said.

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Man extradited from Mexico to face charges in 2015 deaths of 2 Baytown teens

A man suspected in the deaths of two area teens in March 2015 was extradited to the U.S. from Mexico Wednesday.

Brandon Alejandro Flores, 23, of Dayton, was taken into custody at George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Flores was arrested on two counts of capital murder in the deaths of Alejandro Chavez, 18, of Baytown and Jarvis Morgan, 17, of Baytown.

Chavez and Morgan were reported missing in February 2015, and their bodies were found by local law enforcement in the Double Bayou in southern Chambers County.

Both teens had been shot and their bodies weighted before they were dumped off of a bridge, according to authorities.

Authorities named three suspects in the deaths: Jose Juan Chavez, 20, Valentin Jose Lazo, 31, both of Baytown, and Flores. Chavez and Lazo are awaiting trial in the Chambers County Jail.

A news release from the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office says an “exhaustive effort” by the U.S. Marshal Service led to Flores’ capture. The details of his arrest by Mexican authorities have not been released.

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2 Galveston Ball HS students charged after stolen gun found in vehicle on campus

Two Galveston Ball High School students were arrested Tuesday after authorities said they found a gun in one of the student’s vehicles.

Around 7:45 a.m., Galveston police said they investigated reports of a vehicle burglary Monday in the 1500 block of Strand Avenue in which a handgun was stolen out of a man’s vehicle.

The man also had surveillance video of the burglary.

After reviewing video of the incident, police were able to identify 17-year-old Daryus Cooper, a current Galveston Ball High School student, as the person responsible for the burglary.

Police said Cooper admitted to the burglary and taking the gun.

Cooper told authorities that he hid the gun in another student’s vehicle that was parked on campus.

The owner of the car, a 15-year-old student, told authorities that she knew Cooper put the gun in her vehicle.

The gun was retrieved out of the glove box of the vehicle that was parked in the Galveston Ball High School parking lot.

The female student was arrested and charged with unlawful carrying of a weapon in a weapon free zone and has been remanded to the Juvenile Detention Facility in Texas City. As she is a juvenile, her name is not being released.

Cooper has been charged with burglary of a motor vehicle and unlawfully carrying a weapon.

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After four weeks, state Sen. Carlos Uresti’s criminal fraud case heads to the jury

State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, walks into the federal courthouse in San Antonio on Monday morning, Feb. 12, 2018, as his trial continues.

SAN ANTONIO — If a businessman takes the ostrich approach — burying his head in the sand — to avoid evidence that his colleagues are perpetrating a fraud, is he also guilty of that fraud?

Probably — but state Sen. Carlos Uresti is no ostrich, defense attorneys insisted Tuesday morning in their last opportunity to sway the jury.

The San Antonio Democrat, who’s been on trial for the past month on 11 felony counts, including criminal fraud and money laundering, sat expressionless Tuesday morning as prosecutors and defense attorneys quibbled one last time over whether he was aware of the Ponzi scheme being perpetrated at the now-defunct oil field company FourWinds Logistics, where he served as general counsel, a 1 percent owner and a recruiter of investors, according to court documents.

That question is now in the hands of the jury, which began deliberations Tuesday afternoon in a case that has the potential to end Uresti’s career in the Senate.

Standing beneath several courtroom screens showing a colorful cartoon image of one of those ignorant ostriches, Uresti’s attorneys argued the government hadn’t proven that Uresti was aware of the company’s shady dealings — even aware enough to, ostrich-like, intentionally avoid learning more.

And, defense attorneys argued, the jury should take care not to convict Uresti because of preconceived biases against politicians.

The criminal justice system doesn’t convict people “because of foolishness, mistakes or negligence,” defense attorney Tab Turner said. “It takes intentional misconduct. It takes knowledge of a crime. They haven’t proven that knowledge. Don’t supply it for them because a senator’s sitting in the room.”

He paused. “That’s what elections are for.”

The animal metaphor came during closing arguments of the month-long trial. If convicted on any counts, the two-decade veteran of the Texas Legislature would be ineligible to continue serving his district, though he could keep his seat during appeals. He also faces jail time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

Prosecutors have argued that Uresti knew about the company’s fraud scheme and that he was in possession of forged financial documents with obvious errors and omissions. Uresti was driven, prosecutors allege, by personal financial struggles to bring investors into a scheme he knew was fraudulent — and he used his reputation as a state legislator to lend credibility to the sketchy investment.

“It’s brought to his attention. He knows the documents are changing — ever-changing. They don’t add up. The sales presentations: lies, lies, lies. The bank statements that happen to perfectly address an investor concern,” said the lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Blackwell. “With all that information available to him, he made a choice. He made a choice to bring others to this con man.”

To support their argument, over the last several weeks prosecutors have called more than 20 witnesses, including defrauded investors, former FourWinds associates and FBI personnel. Denise Cantu, the key government witness who lost about $800,000 to FourWinds’ scheme, testified earlier this month that Uresti leveraged their sexual relationship to persuade her to invest. Uresti has denied that they had an affair.

Defense attorneys have insisted throughout the trial that though fraud plagued FourWinds, Uresti was unaware and uninvolved. Uresti, they said, acted in good faith — and he, like FourWinds’ unfortunate investors, was misled by former CEO Stan Bates. Bates pleaded guilty to eight felonies last month.

“Not one person sat on that witness stand and said, ‘Carlos Uresti knew we were doing this,’” Turner told the jury Tuesday morning. “Not one witness.”

The government bore the burden of proving Uresti guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Arguing that prosecutors had not met this standard, the defense has asked U.S. District Judge David Ezra twice this month to dismiss the case.

Ezra refused both times. He told attorneys there was “a lot of telling evidence” against Uresti. The judge listened to most of the closing arguments Tuesday reclined in his chair with his arms folded over his chest.

Still, defense attorneys revisited that argument Tuesday morning, spending a large chunk of their argument time defining terms like “reasonable doubt” and criminal “intent” to demonstrate that the government had not sufficiently proven Uresti’s guilt.

Uresti is also set for trial in May on separate bribery charges.

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TRUMP SLAPS RUSSIA WITH SANCTIONS OVER ELECTION MEDDLING:

(WASHINGTON DC)

President Trump has issued strict new sanctions against Russia in response to Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. The sanctions come in the form of stiff tariffs on a variety of Russian imports, including:
Imitation alligator skin watchbands
Orange bow ties
Gasoline-powered alarm clocks
Bulletproof jockey shorts
Latex inflatable male sex dolls
Left-handed catcher’s mitts
8 volt flashlight batteries
Meat and fish flavored yogurt
Canned eggs
American flags
Wooden bicycles
Football Bats
Items on the list will be subject to a 70% import tax, starting in 2021.
“The President is taking this stern approach to our dear friends in Russia in order to let them know that he is serious” Sarah Huckleberry-Sanders said in a White House briefing this afternoon, adding “He has taken this major step, even though there was no collusion, and the Russian efforts actually were more helpful to the Clinton campaign.”
The mood at the Kremlin was gloomy after the announcement. A spokesman for Vladimir Pootin told reporters that the sanctions might ignite a trade war, which could be costly to both sides.
“We no have doubt this Tromp is, how you say, koo-koo for the Puffs of Cocoa”, said Russian Press Liason Boris Sukmeovsky, “This has made proof of his devil coming outside of himself now.”
The CEO of Spalding, an American manufacturer of left-handed catcher’s mitts, has applauded the measure, saying it will create an additional job in the United States.

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Mechanic stabbed in neck during argument at Galveston tire shop

A 51-year-old employee was stabbed in the neck during an argument at a Galveston tire shop Monday, police said.

Witnesses said Charles Schatlowitz and a customer were involved in a verbal altercation when the customer stabbed Schatlowitz, a mechanic, in the neck around 3 p.m. at the A&A Tire Shop in the 5700 block of Stewart Road.

“My dad’s a good man. He’s a mechanic. He helps people as much as he can,” Schatlowitz’s daughter Sharla Schatlowitz said. “For somebody to sit there and do that to him, that’s evil.”

The man who stabbed Schatlowitz left the scene. Police are searching for him. He is described as being black, about 5 feet 8 inches tall, weighs about 180 pounds, had a shaved head and was wearing a dark shirt.

The shop’s owner said the argument began when the customer tried to use an air hose.

“Unfortunately, the mechanic went and unhooked the air hose. The other person got mad and then stabbed him here,” said the owner of the tire shop, Marco Rabago, pointing at his neck.

Schatlowitz was taken to an area hospital and rushed into surgery, police said. They said he made it through surgery and is in stable condition.

The family is hoping for a quick arrest.

“The main concern now is for him to be found and be brought to justice,” Sharla Schatlowitz said.

Anyone with information on this incident is asked to call the Galveston Police Department at 409-765-3702 or Crime Stoppers at 409-763-TIPS (8477).

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Hitchcock HS student threatens school after being caught cheating on test, police say

An 18-year-old Hitchcock High School student was charged with making a terroristic threat after he was caught cheating on a test, according to police.

Trevion Oryan McFadden told a teacher that he was going to turn Hitchcock High School into another Florida after he was caught cheating on an exam on Friday, police said.

Hitchcock Police Department Chief John Hamm said McFadden is a recent transfer from the Dickinson Independent School District.

McFadden made the threat in front of other students, police said.

Authorities are pushing to have the charge upgraded to a felony because the threat caused “fear of an imminent” act.

McFadden was arrested Monday at the high school as his parents were meeting with administrators, Hamm said.

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2 dead in possible murder-suicide in Galveston, police say

A 94-year-old woman and a 67-year-old man were found dead at a Galveston residence on Monday and, according to police, the man killed the woman before killing himself.

Authorities have not released the names of the victims.

Around 1:50 p.m., authorities said, they responded to reports of a possible suicide at a residence in the 6700 block of Fairway Drive.

The woman was found inside the home and the man was found in the backyard with a shotgun lying near him, police said.

Both were dead from gunshot wounds.

Witnesses told police they heard what could have been gunshots just before police arrived at the house.

Galveston police are investigating the incident as a murder-suicide, but the investigation is ongoing.

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Houston Fire employee relieved of duty while facing felony charges in Colorado

The Houston Fire Department announced it has relieved an employee of duty pending an administrative investigation after being accused of kidnapping and sexual assault in Denver, Colorado.

Luke McIntosh faces felony charges related to kidnapping, sexual assault with physical violence, victim sex offense/robbery and sex assault of helpless victim, Denver court records show.

He is being held on a $100,000 bond in Colorado. He is set to appear in court at 8 a.m. March 8, according to court records.

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Speeds reach 130 mph in chase from Dickinson to South Houston

A chase that started in Dickinson and ended in South Houston reached speeds of 130 to 140 miles per hour early Sunday.

The chase started around 1:20 a.m. when deputies attempted to stop a Chevrolet pickup truck for traffic violations near Termini Street and Highway 3, Dickinson police said.

The driver refused to stop for officials, and the chase began near Highway 3 and Deats and ended at Highway 3 and Mississippi Street, police said.

The truck was involved in a crash when it hit another car at Highway 3 and Edgebrook, police said. There were injuries in the vehicle that was hit by the pickup truck.

The chase ended with a crash that left several people with minor injuries, police said.

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Man accused of beating 4-year-old to death, injuring two other children facing charges

A 32-year-old man accused of beating his girlfriend’s 4-year-old son to death and injuring two other children on Friday is being charged with capital murder, police said.

The San Antonio Police Department arrested Michael Cruz Arroyo after his girlfriend found him intoxicated on the bed with her 4-year-old boy dead next to him.

SAPD said Arroyo and his girlfriend both checked into the Days Inn motel located on the city’s East Side in the 4000 block of I-10 East on Friday night when she left her three children with Arroyo.

When the mother returned, she found her 4-year-old son on the bed next to Arroyo, police said. The boy was dead with visible injuries to the head.

 

EMS pronounced the boy dead at the scene and his siblings, a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old, were transported to Christus Santa Rosa with possible injuries, SAPD said.

SAPD said Arroyo was transported to University Hospital and is being treated for possible toxic ingestion.

Arroyo is being charged with capital murder and two counts of injury to a child, SAPD said.

Arroyo’s bond is set at $2 million.

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SAISD police officer arrested, accused of causing wrong-way crash on Loop 1604

A San Antonio Independent School District police officer was arrested early Thursday after investigators said she caused a wreck while driving the wrong way on Loop 1604.

Christina Vasquez, 29, faces a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated.

According to a blood draw warrant, San Antonio Police Department officers responded to North Loop 1604 and Gold Canyon Road around 2:25 a.m. Thursday.

Officers said Vasquez was seen driving a vehicle west in the eastbound lanes before it crashed into another vehicle.

Vasquez, who has worked for SAISD since June 2016 and was off duty at the time of the wreck, was described at the scene as staggering and swaying, according to the warrant.

At one point Vasquez mistakenly told an officer she had been on Highway 281 when the crash happened.

The warrant does not indicate if anyone was injured in the crash.

An SAISD spokeswoman confirmed Friday afternoon that Vasquez has been placed on administrative leave, pending the outcome of a district investigation.

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2 women charged in deadly shooting of Dollar General employee

Two women have been charged in connection to the shooting death of a 20-year-old man in north Houston last year.

Authorities said on Dec. 17, 2017, Kaila Alexine Nelson and Dinesha Renee Jackson were responsible for Dequan Donte Anderson’s death.

Anderson got inside his car and was taking a bag of money from his place of employment to the bank when he was approached by an unknown person, police said.

The person opened Anderson’s car door and tried to grab the bag of money. The person then shot Anderson multiple times, according to police.

Anderson attempted to drive away and crashed his car in a nearby median, police said.

He was pronounced dead at an area hospital.

Witnesses told police the shooter ran north on Oxford Street and got into a dark blue Dodge Avenger, which then left the scene.

Nelson, 23, and Jackson, 23, were identified as the suspects in the case, police said.

Nelson was identified as the shooter and is charged with capital murder. She was arrested in Marietta, Georgia, on Feb. 7 and confessed to her role in the incident, police said.

Jackson was arrested Feb. 14 in Houston. She also confessed to her role in the incident and is charged with aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon.

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Woman offered sex acts to deputies for squatting rights, deputies say

A woman is accused of offering to perform sex acts on deputies in an effort to continue squatting on property in north Harris County.

Precinct 4 Constable’s deputies said while they were out on a call on Wednesday in the 17000 block of Nanes Drive, they encountered Deziree Demarco, 30.

Authorities say they issued criminal trespass warnings to Demarco and 14 other people who were living in tents illegally on property in the area.

Demarco refused to leave and told deputies she would perform sexual acts for them in order to be allowed to stay in the area, authorities said.

She was arrested and charged with bribery. She was denied bond and remains behind bars.

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Officials: Deputy shoots roommate of handcuffed man who shot another deputy

The roommate of a handcuffed man who shot and wounded a deputy last month before killing himself was shot several times by another deputy at the scene, authorities said Friday.

Harris County deputies said they had taken Matthew Cobb, 35, into custody the night of Jan. 31 at a home on Kiplands Way Drive in connection with an earlier domestic disturbance when Cobb pulled a hidden gun from his waistband and shot one of two deputies who were at the scene in the arm.

Investigators said that when Cobb began firing, the two deputies and Cobb’s roommate began running downstairs. When the uninjured deputy reached the bottom of the stairs, he turned back and fired at the roommate, investigators said. The roommate was hit several times, investigators said.

After the incident, investigators said they were still trying to determine who shot Cobb’s roommate.

In the frenzy, Cobb ran into a bathroom and killed himself.

The roommate, who suffered critical injuries, and the injured deputy were treated at a hospital.

Surveillance video that was first reported on by KPRC 2 showed the injured deputy holding his arm and falling to the ground. Moments later, several deputies were seen carrying a wounded man from the home.

Deputies said they are still investigating the case.

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LIVE: 13 Russian nationals, 3 Russian entities charged with interfering in US political process

The office of special counsel Robert Mueller says a grand jury has charged 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities.

READ THE INDICTMENT

The defendants are accused of violating U.S. criminal laws to interfere with American elections and the political process.

The complaint lists the defendants as:

Internet Research Agency LLC, aka Mediasintez LLC, aka Glavset LLC, aka Mixinfo LLC, aka Azimut LL, aka Novinfo LLC
Concord Management and Consulting LLC
Concord Catering
Yegeniy Viktorovich Prigohzhin
Mikhail Ivanovich Bystrov
Mikhail Leonidovich Burchik, aka Mikhail Abramov
Aleksandra Yuryevna Krylova
Anna Vladislavovna Bogacheva
Sergey Pavlovich Polozov
Maria Anatolyevna Bovda, aka Maria Anatolyevna Belyaeva
Robert Sergeyevich Bovda
Dzheykhun Nasimi Ogly Aslanov, aka Jayhoon Aslanov, aka Jay Aslanov
Vadim Vladimirovich Podkopaev
Gleb Igorevich Vasilchenko
Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina
Vladimir Venkov

Charges include conspiracy, wire fraud, bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.

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Dog food withdrawn over concerns about euthanasia drug pentobarbital

The J.M. Smucker Co. is withdrawing some shipments of dog food amid reports that it could be tainted with traces of a drug used to euthanize animals.

The company said Thursday it is pulling back shipments of several varieties of wet canned Gravy Train, Kibble ‘N Bits , Skippy and Ol’ Roy brands. It said it is investigating how the euthanasia drug pentobarbital got into its supply chain and is focusing on a single supplier of a minor ingredient used at one manufacturing facility.

The recalls come after WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., said it tested 15 cans of Gravy Train. It found nine cans, or 60 percent of the sample, tested positive for pentobarbital.

Smucker cited experts noting that the low levels of the drug cited in the report do not pose a threat to pets.

“However, the presence of this substance at any level is not acceptable to us and not up to our quality standards,” said the company, which is based in Orrville, Ohio. It said it does not use meat from euthanized animals in its pet food.

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Indictment says Russians communicated with a person affiliated with a Texas grassroots group during 2016 election

Voting precinct at the Parker Lane United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas

A federal indictment against 13 Russian nationals accused of conspiring to defraud the United States by meddling in the 2016 presidential election says that co-conspirators posing as U.S. citizens communicated with an American who was “affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization.”

The indictment from a grand jury convened by Special Counsel Robert Mueller doesn’t appear to identify that person. But it says the alleged conspirators “learned from the real U.S. person that they should focus their activities on ‘purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.'”

Afterward, the indictment alleges, the co-conspirators “commonly referred to targeting ‘purple states’ in directing their efforts.

The indictment, which also targeted a Russian organization called the Internet Research Agency, says Russians waged “information warfare” starting in 2014 and throughout the 2016 election with fake identities and social media accounts.

Mueller was tasked in May 2017 to investigate election meddling and possible collusion in Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election. He has already filed charges against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort over money laundering, conspiracy against the United States and more. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to giving false testimony to the FBI in the case.

Mueller is also reportedly investigating Trump for obstruction of justice. Trump has denied any collusion or obstruction.

According to the indictment, the Russians were trying to spread “derogatory information” about Hillary Clinton and some of Trump’s Republican primary opponents to elevate Trump — including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

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George P. Bush’s secret mansion is financed by an undisclosed loan from Texas donor’s bank

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush speaks to the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Urban Affairs hearing on Harvey in Houston on Monday, October 2, 2017.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush lives in an Austin mansion he financed at a bank owned by a major Republican donor who employed his wife, Austin lawyer Amanda Bush.

But voters would be hard-pressed to connect all those dots.

Bush’s name doesn’t appear in online property appraisal records for the 4,000-square-foot house he bought in a gated West Austin enclave in 2014. And the $850,000 mortgage from donor Brandon Steele’s East Texas bank isn’t disclosed on the personal financial statements that Bush, like all state candidates, must file.

The house — with four bedrooms, a fireplace in the master bedroom and a pool out back — is legally owned by a family trust that also isn’t disclosed in Bush’s personal financial statements.

For all practical purposes, it is a secret mansion.

That secrecy raises questions about whether Bush violated state ethics laws — his campaign says he has not — or if he’s just found a loophole you can drive a Texas-sized pickup through.

Under Texas law, candidates must disclose a “beneficial interest” in real estate, along with any loans over $1,000. But it’s not clear if those obligations apply to the kind of trust the Bushes set up. Bush aides say they don’t, and an official at the Texas Ethics Commission said the agency apparently has not yet encountered this type of scenario.

“I’m not aware of any opinions from the commission specifically addressing these facts,” said Ian Steusloff, general counsel at the Ethics Commission. “Whether that constitutes a beneficial interest would depend on the facts. Every case is different.”

In a written statement, Bush’s political director Ash Wright dismissed any reporting on Bush’s private trust and the undisclosed $850,000 loan as “another absurd fake news story from the liberal media” — though errors discovered by The Texas Tribune later prompted the campaign to promise that Bush will amend his ethics filings.

Wright said Bush put the house in a trust to prevent disclosure of his address in county property records — for his family’s personal safety.

“Commissioner Bush purchased his home just like every other family does by taking out a mortgage at a bank. For security reasons, the Commissioner used a trust to buy the house to protect his family’s address from being publicly listed,” Wright wrote in the statement. “Having received death threats, he thought it wise to protect his family.”

Longtime ethics lawyer Buck Wood, who helped draft the bill that produced the personal financial disclosure requirement in Texas, said failing to reveal major assets and loans at the very least violates the spirit of state ethics law. He said requiring the disclosure of financial ties between political benefactors and officeholders was one of the main goals of the watershed 1973 ethics reforms.

It was a debate animated by the abuses of the 1971 Sharpstown Scandal, which featured allegations of financial misconduct by the Democrats who dominated Texas politics at the time.

“This is the root cause of the problem that we passed the ethics bill for in the first place. It was to find out if you’ve got conflicts of interest,” said Wood, a Democrat. “You have a financial relationship that’s involving hundreds of thousands of dollars with somebody who is interested in what goes on in your office, yet you don’t have any idea how this is being financed?”

Wood said if Bush’s interpretation of the ethics law is correct — that the assets and liabilities of such trusts don’t have to be disclosed — other politicians will follow his lead.

“Everybody will start doing this,” Wood said.

Bush campaign spokesman Lee Spieckerman said Bush and his wife are both the creators and the beneficiaries of the trust. He said keeping the trust, the house and its financing arrangement private is allowed under state ethics law.

“The whole reason behind the [personal financial statement] is to show any potential conflicts of interest that might affect an officeholder’s discharging of his/her official duties,” Spieckerman said in an email. “The Bush home obviously doesn’t pose such a conflict.”

Steele, the donor and bank owner, said he had no involvement with or connection to Bush’s trust. A six-figure donor to the 2016 effort to get Bush’s father, Jeb Bush, elected president, Steele said he considered the Bush family to be friends.

“Very sweet people. I count it a privilege to have gotten to know the whole family over the years,” Steele said. “I hope they consider me a friend to them as well.”

A Tyler businessman and board chairman of American State Bank in Arp, Texas, Steele has given George P. Bush’s campaign more than $100,000 in cash and in-kind donations, including numerous trips on his private plane and a $32,000 in-kind donation to hire country singer Joe Nichols for a 2014 election-night party.

He said that because of privacy laws and the threat of fraud against consumers his bank does not “divulge anything about our customers” and therefore he couldn’t talk about any loans his bank may or may not have made to the nephew of former President George W. Bush.

Steele confirmed that Amanda Bush was a senior vice president and non-equity partner at one of his companies, Steele Resources. George P. Bush disclosed his wife’s employment at Steele Resources on the personal financial statement covering the 2015 calendar year but failed to report it for 2016 even though she worked at Steele Resources most of that year.

“Thank you for pointing out this error!” Spieckerman, the Bush spokesman, wrote in a follow-up email. “We inadvertently left Steele Resources off of the 2016 PFS and will amend.” Bush will also amend his reports to add three nonprofit boards related to oversight of the Alamo, Spieckerman said.

Bush’s campaign noted that former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, his GOP opponent, also left off an Alamo-related nonprofit from his disclosures when he was at the helm of the General Land Office. Patterson acknowledged the error and said, “I’ll fix it.”

Bush’s home, nestled on a cul-de-sac in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Austin, was most recently valued on county tax rolls at $1.5 million. Described in a real estate listing as a home with “Mexican flair” boasting “city views,” the house has a Spanish tile roof, four bedrooms, three and half baths and a three-car garage.

Once the Tribune found out the land commissioner lived in the tony abode, the connection to Steele’s bank could be found in county property records; Steele’s campaign contributions to Bush and other candidates are a matter of public record.

The Tribune asked his campaign why the land commissioner took such elaborate steps to block the disclosure of his home address from county tax rolls in the first place. People with his military background — Bush served as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan in 2010 — can request confidentiality by filling out a simple form and checking the appropriate box.

Spieckerman said the family has received “suspicious packages” in addition to death threats and wanted confidentiality for both their home and their rental property, not only to protect themselves but also their tenants.

So Bush created the trust for the home property and has used the exemption for former soldiers in combat zones to keep an Austin rental property valued at $388,000 — in the Caswell Lofts overlooking Pease Park — off the Travis County Appraisal District’s online database since January of 2015. By law, though, the exemption only applies to a person’s home address.

After the Tribune inquired under freedom of information laws why the rental property’s ownership had been deemed confidential, the appraisal district abruptly informed Amanda Bush on Feb. 7 that it would rescind the exemption she had applied for — and got — a little over two years ago.

“Dear Mrs. Bush, in responding to a request for public information it came to our attention that confidential protection was erroneously granted to your property,” county officials wrote. “We are removing the confidential protection from the property as it is not your home address as required by Section 20.025 of the Texas Property Tax Code.”

Jerry Patterson and the Texas General Land Office have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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AT&T project bringing faster internet leaving damage, headaches in its wake

From Tomball to Pearland, and all over the greater-Houston area, AT&T is in the middle of a massive project to speed up its internet service. But as it digs and tunnels new cables for miles underground, it is leaving major damage in its wake.

KPRC2 News dug deeper to find out what you can do to protect your property.

Loud machinery and flags marking underground utilities are the sounds and signs of progress for AT&T’s new Gigapower project. Contractors are installing fiber lines underground in neighborhood’s all over greater Houston, but AT&T’s progress is causing major setbacks for many families.

Joyce Skala’s home in Cypress burned to the ground when contractors hit an electric line.

“Everything you look at when you leave your house in the morning, it was gone,” Skala told KPRC2 News consumer expert Amy Davis two months after the Nov. 14 fire. “I have not heard from a soul — not one. Not even a representative of a representative.”

The day after Skala’s fire, AT&T contractors hit an electric line in Shelli Moore’s yard in another neighborhood. It was a fix she was told would cost about $2,000.

“That would break me,” she said. “I have no idea where I would come up with that kind of money, but we have to have lights and heat,” Moore said.

While she worried, workers kept digging, hitting a gas line two days later, and another one in the same neighborhood four days after that.

“People in my neighborhood are mad at AT&T,” homeowner Pam Grossman said.

On Facebook, homeowners shared the same stories of AT&T from Sugar Land to Pearland: Breaking down fences and not replacing them, tearing up yards and cutting gas lines.

Contractors are using pneumatic missiles to bore through the ground several feet deep. Crews then push pliable piping all the way through the tunnel. The pipes run the length of several houses, up to a block, but hitting another line in its path can damage property several streets away.

“It wasn’t even at my house,” Skala said. “It started four houses down.”

When fire marshals showed up to investigate, the report showed how contractors pointed fingers. The owner of Connect Links, subcontracted by NX Utilities and contracted by AT&T, told investigators, “There was no way that his company was involved in the fire.”

“I couldn’t get anywhere with AT&T,” homeowner Anni Shugart said.

Her Cypress home was damaged in the electric surge that destroyed Skala’s home. When she filed a claim with AT&T for her damages, she, like others, received a denial letter. AT&T told her to contact contractor NX Utilities instead.

Shugart finally filed with her own insurance company so she could start repairs, but now she’s out her $4,500 deductible.

“Well, I hope I’ll get it back eventually,” she said. “It’s a lot of money.”

KPRC2 asked AT&T how many claims it has received and denied stemming from the fiber project. A representative declined to answer.

When asked who is ultimately responsible, real estate attorney Nikolas Spencer said, “All of them are.”

Spencer said everyone from the guy with the shovel to AT&T’s top brass bears some responsibility.

“If they know that this particular subcontractor is routinely causing fires at people’s houses, or even just nicking the lines themselves, that’s a repeated and dangerous situation that AT&T is on notice as happening. They’re responsible for that,” Spencer said.

If contractors have caused damage to your home and are giving you the runaround in paying for repairs, an attorney may be able to help. Homeowners looking to prevent problems before they happen can take advice from victims.

“I think I would definitely take a day off work and be here when they were in my backyard,” Moore said.

If you can’t be home, find a neighbor who can help monitor the progress.

Contractors are required to call 811 to have all underground lines marked before they begin digging, but you can call, too, to have gas, electric and phone lines marked at no charge.

Take pictures of your property before crews start digging in case they fail to put it back the way it was.

AT&T wouldn’t talk with us on camera for this story, but a representative sent the following statement via email:

We are aware of these issues and I’d refer you to NX Utilities, who can update you on the specific cases you mentioned. There is no one available for an on-camera interview. Below is our official company media statement in response to your inquiry and some background information about how we work to avoid construction issues and when they do occur work quickly to resolve them.

AT&T media statement:

“We have helped to position Houston as a gigabit city by bringing our fastest internet connections to more than 600,000 homes, apartments and small businesses in the area.

“Our goal is to minimize impact on residents before, during and after construction and to keep them informed through a variety of means throughout the network expansion process.

“If construction-related issues do occur, we work quickly to resolve and restore any impacts from our work.

“Some additional information on our process that may be helpful background:

“We have dozens of supervisors and inspectors in the field to ensure our contractors are performing to our standard. We work closely with city officials to ensure our work is done in a timely and orderly fashion. Our contractors are trained to obtain proper permitting, closely follow local construction codes, and abide by rules governing rights-of-way and property easements.
“It is our practice to place door hangers at each residence and place signage within subdivisions to identify what’s taking place and how to reach us in the event of an issue. We track damages and other issues and review performance with our contractors performing the work. As we identify poor performers, we cull those out.
“Whether large or small, these damages impact the public and that is not lost on us. Damage can occur for a number of reasons, from contractor error to locates not being accurate. Before we begin a project, we talk with locating firms to provide them with some high-level visibility into where we anticipate completing work on a regular basis. Furthermore, as a part of the large project locate process, we typically provide 30-60 days’ notice versus the minimum 10 days.
“We are constantly reviewing our processes and vendors to evaluate our efforts. We make changes as needed to ensure improvements in the process. We work with excavators, other utility owners, locaters, and state and local municipalities to identify best practices of our own forces, that of our contractors, and their sub-contractors.”

KPRC2 reached out to NX Utilities. General Counsel Paul Kestenbaum sent the following message via email:

“Thank you for contacting NX Utilities. We take any complaints from residents in the areas where we work very seriously,” Kestenbaum said in the email. “We work very hard to resolve them quickly in order to minimize any disruptions. We are working with multiple parties and their insurers to address all concerns as quickly as possible. NX Utilities has been and will continue to work within the requirements of all state and local laws that govern our industry.

“As to the specific cases you referenced:

“Nov. 14: I suggest you review the Fire Marshal’s report and supplement on the fire to fully understand the causes of the damage. There were many companies involved and the investigators and insurance companies are working to determine the final report. We are in the process of working the claims we have received related to this incident as expeditiously as possible.
“Nov. 15: This service line was not properly marked by the utility company. We have been in contact with the homeowner on a regular basis so we can complete restoration work once the weather improves. A temporary line to repair the issue was placed the day of the occurrence and the line was permanently repaired on Jan. 1/3/18. We previously had told the homeowner that we will cover the cost of the temporary connection and are waiting for submission of CPS invoices for the temporary line.
“Nov. 17: This gas line was accidently (sic) struck by a shovel during the required hand dig process of locating the gas line. The proper authorities were notified immediately and service was restored within hours. The occurrence happened mid-day, although it did take until evening to complete the restoration.
“Nov. 21: This damage resulted from utility service line not being properly marked, which public records filed by the power utility confirm. During the repair of the line, the power utility removed the fence and reported to us that it would put it back up upon completion of repairs. All other normal and customary restoration work was completed by NX the same day.”

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