Category Archives: Local

How scammers are using homeowners to defraud FEMA

Scammers could be using your identity to get payouts for flood damage that doesn’t exist.

Inspectors did not knock on one victim’s door before leaving, “Sorry we missed you” letter on the door. In another case, inspectors were taking pictures of a property when the homeowner went out to ask what they were doing and why.

In both cases, the inspectors informed the homeowners that they were following up on a FEMA claim for assistance that had been filed for their addresses. Neither homeowner had filed, because their homes had no flood damage.

Consumer expert Amy Davis reached out to FEMA, whose officials said they have heard several similar stories. They said homeowners should report the information to the FEMA Fraud hotline at 866-720-5721.

If someone claims to be a FEMA representative and is on your property, you should always ask to see their FEMA employee ID badge. A FEMA shirt or jacket is not proof of identity. All FEMA representatives, including contracted inspectors, will have a laminated photo ID.

You should also file a police report and put fraud alerts or freezes on your accounts with all three credit bureaus.

One of the homeowners confirmed with FEMA that whoever filled out the FEMA application had his Social Security number. The only information that did not belong to him was the telephone number and email address. The fraudster requested that FEMA send money to them via an electronic funds transfer using a Green Dot bank account.

Download the Click2Houston news app in your app store to stay up-to-date with the latest news while you’re on the go.

Sign up for KPRC 2 newsletters to get breaking news, sports, entertainment, contests and more delivered straight to your email inbox.

Posted in Latest, Local, National, State | Comments Off on How scammers are using homeowners to defraud FEMA

3 Harris County Sheriff’s Office employees indicted in assault cases

A grand jury indicted three Harris County Sheriff’s Office employees in separate assault cases dating back to 2015 and 2016, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

Sgt. Marco Carrizales, 37, was indicted for aggravated assault by a public servant after authorities say he broke a man’s eye socket following a chase.

Carrizales, authorities say was directing traffic for a refinery, when a man allegedly drove through a four-way stop sign.

Carrizales, allegedly hit the man with an “unknown object,” causing seriously bodily injury, breaking his eye socket.

The charge is a first-degree felony.

A grand jury also indicted Harris County jailer, Dylan Goddard, 24, for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for a May 2016 incident.

Goddard was a civilian detention officer at 1200 Baker, when he was transporting an inmate who was wearing handcuffs and leg irons.

Authorities say a surveillance video shows Goddard lifting up the inmate and body slamming him on his skull. The inmate received seven staples to the back of his head.

The charge is a second-degree felony.

A grand jury also indicted a Harris County jailer, Michael Holley, 31, for two misdemeanor charges of assault-bodily injury that occurred in the 1200 Baker Street jail.

Holley, a civilian detention officer, was walking with an inmate in handcuffs on Dec. 14, 2016 as he escorted him to the jail’s infirmary.

Authorities say surveillance video shows the inmate turning to face Holley, who then punches the inmate in the face multiple times and throws him to the ground.

Holley was also escorting a handcuffed inmate on Dec. 19, 2016, when authorities say he shoved the inmate into a wall, according to video surveillance.

Posted in Latest, Local | Comments Off on 3 Harris County Sheriff’s Office employees indicted in assault cases

Woman accused of killing taxi driver appears in court

One of two suspects accused in the murder of a taxi driver appeared before a judge Tuesday morning.

Harris County deputies say Autuan Knox, 31, and Kandis Boone, 25, are charged with capital murder.

Boone was in court Tuesday morning. She is being held without bond.

Investigators said they used the last phone number that called the cab driver to track down the suspects.

They then linked the number to Facebook and surveillance from the taxi.

Knox is expected to appear in court later Tuesday.

The shooting happened in north Harris County over the weekend.

Deputies identified the victim as 43-year-old Sunday Enilolobo.

Investigators said they found his body after several shots were fired at a gas station off the North Freeway and Airtex Drive.

Posted in Latest, Local | Comments Off on Woman accused of killing taxi driver appears in court

Texas death row inmate Duane Buck has sentence reduced to life after Supreme Court orders retrial

Duane Buck, whose death sentence in a 1995 double slaying was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court after allegations of racist testimony from an expert witness, had his sentence reduced to life in prison Tuesday after reaching a plea agreement with Harris County prosecutors.

Buck, 54, was convicted and sentenced to death after killing his ex-girlfriend and her friend in Houston. Last week, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office added two new charges of attempted murder.

Under the plea agreement, Buck pleaded guilty to those new charges and was sentenced to two terms of 60 years in prison, in exchange for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office agreeing to drop its pursuit of the death penalty for the 1995 killings. All three sentences will run concurrently.

In appealing Buck’s initial sentence, his attorneys argued that his sentencing hearing was prejudiced because an expert witness had claimed Buck was more likely to be a future danger because he is black. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, handing the case back to Harris County for a retrial.

“After reviewing the evidence and the law, I have concluded that, twenty-two years after his conviction, a Harris County jury would likely not return another death penalty conviction in a case that has forever been tainted by the indelible specter of race,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement. “Accordingly, in consideration for Buck pleading guilty to two additional counts of attempted murder we have chosen not to pursue the death penalty.”

Buck’s sister, Phyllis Taylor, who was the victim one of the attempted murder charges, has since advocated against the death sentence for him.

“Talking about that night is deeply emotional for me. So I thank the District Attorney, Kim, for agreeing to this sentence because the thought of going through another trial was just too much to bear,” Taylor said in a statement.

Posted in Latest, Local, State | Comments Off on Texas death row inmate Duane Buck has sentence reduced to life after Supreme Court orders retrial

Appellate judges show concern over Harris County bail practices, court ruling

Harris County judges and bail bond companies are fighting against court-ordered changes in the county's bail system. 

NEW ORLEANS — A panel of three federal appellate judges seemed concerned Tuesday morning with Harris County’s bail practices concerning poor misdemeanor defendants, but they also questioned a lower judge’s ruling that changed the county’s system.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans held an hour-long hearing on the pretrial system of Texas’ most populous county, where arrestees who can’t afford their bail bonds regularly sit in jail — often until their cases are resolved days or weeks later — while similar defendants who have cash are released. Harris County is fighting an April ruling in which U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal called the county’s bail practices unconstitutional and ordered the release of almost all misdemeanor defendants from jail within 24 hours of arrest, regardless of their ability to pay their bail amount.

Charles Cooper, the attorney representing Harris County judges, spent most of his time in front of the judges arguing that the federal courts weren’t the right arena for the current bail fight. He said inmates requesting release from jail need to go through state courts first. Judges Edward Prado and Catharina Haynes seemed unconvinced of the argument.

“Is your concern that Judge Rosenthal didn’t let the state get the first bite of the apple?” Haynes asked. “By the time you got to federal court, your entire sentence as a misdemeanor defendant would be complete, I would guess.”

Most misdemeanor defendants in Harris County who are released from jail before their trial are released on money bail — where a judicial officer sets a cash amount to ensure a defendant returns for future court hearings. In her ruling, Rosenthal said the county denied poor defendants due process by usually ignoring recommendations to release defendants on personal bonds, where no money is due, even though they couldn’t afford money bail.

The judges repeatedly peppered Cooper with questions about the county’s probable cause hearings, in which judicial officials called hearing officers hear the charges against a defendant, evaluate reports from pretrial interviews and occasionally alter bail. The plaintiffs have argued that defendants are not allowed to speak at these hearings, which Haynes and Prado jumped on.

“They’re called hearing officers. Is there a hearing or do they just look at the form and make a decision?” Prado asked.

When Cooper contended that they did, Haynes cut him off: “But they can’t speak. What is a hearing if you’re not going to listen?”

Judge Rosenthal’s ruling was groundbreaking. In it, she ordered that all misdemeanor defendants who sign an affidavit claiming they can’t afford their initially-set bail bond amount must be released on a personal bond. She also said all those indigent defendants must be released within 24 hours of their arrest, regardless of whether they’ve had their probable cause hearing. If inmates arrived to the Harris County jail from an outlying facility after 24 hours of their arrest and they hadn’t had their hearing yet, the sheriff was ordered to release them on a personal bond. Haynes said she was “shocked” by that order.

“It seems chaotic to say a sheriff can ignore a court order,” she said.

She also questioned the time frame of 24 hours.

“Why not 48 hours? Or 72, or even 96? Where is the magic of 24 hours other than the Texas law to find probable cause, which you’re not challenging?” she asked attorney Alec Karakatsanis of Civil Rights Corps, who was representing the former inmates.

Karakatsanis said the time frame aligned with the state law, and mentioned defendants who lose their job, car and insurance while detained in jail.

Throughout the appellate hearing, judges questioned what was happening in the county since the injunction.

In his argument, Cooper cited multiple county reform efforts that have taken place since the court order took effect in June. In July, the county began using a new risk assessment tool to better recommend to judicial officers setting bail when low-risk offenders should be released on personal bonds. He said, though no data has been recorded in the court, that release on personal bonds has increased.

Haynes questioned whether it was worth sending the case back to the lower court to find new facts since the reforms have taken place. Karakatsanis argued the new facts are unknown, and that there is nothing in the court record to corroborate Cooper’s statements.

County Judge Darrell Jordan, the only Harris County judge who rejected money bail for indigent defendants before the ruling, was at the arguments and said afterward that he wished there were an opportunity to talk about the system under the changes. Overall, he said, the process hasn’t changed. 

“If it is sent back to the lower court, then the numbers will show what is going on,” he said. “People are still being placed in jail and they can’t afford to get out.”

It is unknown when the judges will make a decision whether to uphold Rosenthal’s ruling, overturn it or send it back to the lower court. But after the ruling, Karakatsanis said he was optimistic the court will stand by Rosenthal’s injunction.

“The order that they’re appealing from is based on very solid evidence, and they’re asking for it to be overturned,” he said. “You can’t just come in front of higher courts and say, ‘Well, facts are totally different from what happened…’ without any citation.”

Harris County officials wouldn’t comment on the arguments, but on the courthouse steps, John O’Neill, an appellate attorney for the county, said more defendants skipped court dates after the injunction and before the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.

“If this [lawsuit] succeeds, the criminal justice system in every state in the United States will be thrown into chaos,” he said. “The order has actually produced far more chaos than the flood has.”

Posted in Latest, Local, National, State | Comments Off on Appellate judges show concern over Harris County bail practices, court ruling

28 organizations that got money from the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund

A total of 28 organizations in Houston and Harris County will receive the first round of grants being distributed from the Harvey Relief Fund, officials announced Tuesday.

The first-round of distributions, totaling $7.55 million, represent about 10 percent of the $79 million donated to the fund established by city and county leaders to help those affected by the floods of Hurricane Harvey.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said that it was important that a board representing the community, not politicians, make the decisions on where the money from the fund will go.

Organizers said the board used several factors to determine which groups get the money, including a track record of providing service, the size of the group’s operating budget and the ability to disperse the funds within 90 days. They said the board also placed emphasis on groups that are already working with vulnerable populations to help storm victims find temporary housing.

The organizations that received money are:

Aldine Education Foundation
Alliance for Multicultural Community Services
Avenue Community Development Corporation
BakerRipley
Boat People SOS – Houston, Inc.
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston
Chinese Community Center, Inc.
Coalition for the Homeless/New Hope Housing
Communities In Schools of Houston
Family Service Center at Houston and Harris County
Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation
Houston Habitat for Humanity, Inc.
Houston Food Bank
Humble Area Assistance Ministries
Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston
Jewish Family Service – Houston
Katy Christian Ministries
Main Street Ministries Houston
Memorial Assistance Ministries
Montrose Counseling Center, Inc.
New Hope Houston
North Channel Assistance Ministries
Northwest Assistance Ministries
Salvation Army
SEARCH Homeless Services
Tahirih Justice Center
Volunteers of America, Inc.
West Houston Assistance Ministries, Inc.

Officials said they hope to make the next round of distributions within a month.

More than 100,000 donors contributed to the fund with an average donation of $80, officials said.

Posted in Latest, Local | Comments Off on 28 organizations that got money from the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund

Pasadena drops appeal, will remain under federal oversight of election laws

A strip mall on the north side of Pasadena, Texas, on July 1, 2017. The Houston suburb is under federal oversight for any changes to its voting laws until 2023 — the only setup of its kind in Texas.

In a crucial victory for Hispanic voters in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, the city will remain under federal oversight for any changes to its voting laws until 2023 — the only setup of its kind in Texas.

The Pasadena City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved Mayor Jeff Wagner’s proposal to settle a voting rights lawsuit over how it redrew its council districts in 2013, agreeing to pay out about $1 million in legal fees. Approval of that settlement will also dissolve the city’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling that Pasadena ran afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act and intentionally discriminated against Hispanic voters in reconfiguring how council members are elected.

The local voting rights squabble had caught the attention of voting rights advocates and legal observers nationwide as some looked to it as a possible test case of whether the Voting Rights Act still serves as a safeguard for voters of color.

As things stand now, the dispute won’t set broader precedent across Texas or beyond state lines. But in a state embroiled in court-determined voting rights violations on several fronts, the federal guardianship of Pasadena’s elections is meaningful, particularly following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 finding that conditions for voters of color had “dramatically improved.”

“I think it’s significant that in 2017 we have a trial court finding of intentional racial discrimination by a city in Texas and that the drastic remedy of preclearance has been successfully imposed,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine’s law school who specializes in election law. “The Pasadena ruling indicates that in some places racial discrimination in voting is very much a thing of the present.”

The local skirmish over Pasadena Hispanics’ right to choose their city council members in many ways began at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a landmark case known as Shelby County v. Holder, the high court in 2013 gutted the portion of the Voting Rights Act that prevented dozens of jurisdictions with a history of discrimination against voters of color — including Texas and its municipalities — from changing their election laws without federal approval. Freed from needing to obtain federal “preclearance,” Pasadena’s former mayor, Johnny Isbell, quickly moved to nix the city’s eight single-member districts and instead proposed a “6-2 map” in which two council seats were chosen at-large.

After Pasadena voters approved the new map by a thin margin, civil rights attorneys representing Hispanic voters sued the city, arguing that the new council districts unlawfully diluted the voting strength of Hispanic residents.

Because turnout among Pasadena’s Hispanic residents has been historically lower than white residents, the civil rights attorneys argued that Pasadena Hispanics under the new map would probably be outvoted by whites when it came to electing the new at-large council members because voting blocs are often aligned along racial lines.

The voters who sued the city also alleged that the map change was made just as Hispanic voters — and the increasing political clout that came with their growing population — were about to shift the balance of power on the council to give their preferred representatives control of city matters on which they long felt neglected.

Following a seven-day federal trial in Houston, Judge Lee H. Rosenthal agreed there was evidence that Pasadena changed its map “precisely because Pasadena Latinos were successfully mobilizing and recently electing more of their candidates of choice.”

In a scathing opinion issued this year, she ruled that the city had violated the Voting Rights Act and reinstated the city’s eight single-member districts. “In Pasadena, Texas, Latino voters under the current 6-2 map and plan do not have the same right to vote as their Anglo neighbors,” Rosenthal wrote.

She noted the state’s discriminatory past when it comes to suppressing voters of color — poll taxes, all-white primaries, eliminating interpreters at the polls — and outlined how it has endured through modern day-elections in a town where voters told a Hispanic candidate campaigning for a council seat that they “weren’t going to vote for a wetback.”

Perhaps more notably for those outside of Pasadena, Rosenthal also ordered the city back under federal supervision under a different section of the Voting Rights Act — the first ruling of its kind since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision.

Rosenthal’s ruling was decisive for voting rights litigation playing out after that ruling, and the city’s move to drop its appeal and let the ruling stand sets up the possibility that Pasadena’s voting rights fight could play an outsized role in other court battles.

In 2013, the Supreme Court left open the possibility that political jurisdictions could be placed back under preclearance — through the Voting Rights Act’s “bail-in” provision — if they committed new discriminatory actions. Rosenthal set a possible standard that other courts can look to in deciding whether to bail in other jurisdictions, legal experts observed.

“It’s one more black mark against Texas” that could help in other voting rights litigation, said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has studied voting rights cases for decades.

Pasadena’s vote to settle the case is likely to disappoint state leaders who had already filed an amicus brief in support of the city’s appeal that warned of “unwarranted federal intrusion.” State attorneys had deemed Rosenthal’s preclearance ruling improper because it was imposed for a single incident of discrimination instead of pervasive and rampant discrimination.

But amid a changing administration in Pasadena — where two out of every three residents is Hispanic — local leaders instead looked to resolve the litigation so the city could move on from a voting rights fracas that painted the city as one willing to suppress Hispanic voters.

“While I strongly believe that the city did not violate the Voting Rights Act or adopt a discriminatory election system, I think it’s in the best interest of the city to get this suit behind us,” Wagner, the mayor, said in a Friday statement announcing the proposed settlement. “It has been extremely divisive and focused our attentions on issues of the past.”

The settlement was celebrated by Pasadena’s Hispanic leaders, who were nervous that the city’s appeal could lead a higher court to wipe out their victory that overturned the 6-2 map — and, more significantly, the city’s return to federal oversight.

Rosenthal’s ruling will still serve as a warning for other cities looking to disenfranchise voters of color, said Cody Ray Wheeler, one of Pasadena’s three Hispanic council members and a vocal opponent of the 6-2 map. Sure, the case could have set a wider precedent if higher courts ruled against the city’s actions, Wheeler said, but extending that fight “doesn’t help people’s streets get fixed.”

“It’s been a black eye on the city,” Wheeler said. “I think the important thing for Pasadena is that we get back to normal and work for our citizens.”

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Posted in Latest, Local, State | Comments Off on Pasadena drops appeal, will remain under federal oversight of election laws

Almost 400,000 Texans’ insurance at risk after Congress fails to renew CHIP

Patients wait to be seen at the People's Community Clinic in Austin, on Nov. 8, 2010.

Insurance coverage for more than 390,000 Texas children and pregnant women is in jeopardy after Congress failed to renew authorization for a federal program.

Congressional authorization for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides low-cost health insurance for children from low- and middle-income families, expires Sept. 30.

Without federal funding, Texas has enough money for CHIP to last until February 2018, according to estimates by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. However, federal lawmakers say they’re working on a plan to continue the program before funding runs out for Texas.

“States don’t want to have to disenroll their kids,” said Maureen Hensley-Quinn, senior program director at National Academy for State Health Policy, a non-partisan group that advises states on health policy. But “there may come a time when [they] have to send families letters” letting them go.

The program, created in 1997 and adopted in Texas in 1999, has cut the percentage of uninsured children nationwide from 25 percent in 1997 to 5 percent in 2015. It also offers prenatal care to about 36,000 pregnant women in Texas. About 340,000 Texan children ineligible for Medicaid are covered under CHIP, and another 249,000 Texan children on Medicaid benefit from CHIP’s 92 percent matching rate. Together, Medicaid and CHIP cover about 45 percent of all children in the state.

Congress last renewed the program’s approval in 2015 until the end of the 2017 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. Members of Congress had discussed voting to renew the program but did not do so in time for the new fiscal year. Why the program lapsed remains unclear outside of House GOP leadership. Even rank-and-file Republicans were unsure of why, a GOP Congressional aide told the Tribune.

Without CHIP, “there aren’t a lot of options” for children in low-income families, said Mimi Garcia, a spokesperson for the Texas Association of Community Health Centers. Community health centers, which often provide health care for uninsured Texans, also saw about 70 percent of federal funding expire on Sept. 30, Garcia said.

“Inaction by Congress so far has created a real threat to the stability of the infrastructure of health services for millions of Texans,” Garcia said.

State officials are among those pressing Congress to re-up funding for the program.

“CHIP is a critical part of the health care safety net in Texas,” wrote Health and Human Services Commission Chief Deputy Executive Commissioner Cecile Erwin Young in a Sept. 26 letter. “CHIP has a proven track record of success, stemming from its adherence to the fundamental principles of state administrative flexibility, personal responsibility, and innovation aimed at enhancing health outcomes for beneficiaries.”

In the letter, sent to the Children’s Health Coverage Coalition, Young said her agency has coordinated with other organizations such as the National Association for Medical Doctors and the National Academy for State Health Policy to support CHIP nationally.

Hensley-Quinn said the National Academy for State Health Policy will work with states to create contingency plans if Congress does not vote to renew funding. Still, there is time for a renewal, she said, with many states not slated to run out of funding until winter or even spring.

Garcia said coverage remains available so long as people keep up with their renewals and funding for the program gets found. Renewal dates for families in counties affected by Hurricane Harvey have been pushed back by 6 months, she said.

Garcia said her organization has been working with advocates at the national level to push for a renewal from Congress. She said they have “heard positive things from Congress that this will get renewed, but we also haven’t seen the action at the same time.”

Members of the two congressional committees overseeing the program, the Senate Finance Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, are currently negotiating a deal on CHIP.

Sources on the House side say they are optimistic that both chambers will be able to strike a deal by Wednesday of this week, but as with all things on Capitol Hill in recent years, there are no guarantees.

The CHIP issue came up during a U.S. House Rules Committee hearing last week on another piece of legislation, a bill that addressed reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration and created tax breaks for victims of the recent spate of hurricanes striking the country.

Many House Democrats opposed that hodgepodge bill because it not include a CHIP reauthorization.

When leading Democrats raised those worries with U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, at a U.S. House Rules Committee hearing, he aimed to assuage their concerns.

“We don’t intend to let them expire,” he said. “We’re going to have to do something.”

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Community Health Centers has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

Posted in Latest, Local, National, State | Comments Off on Almost 400,000 Texans’ insurance at risk after Congress fails to renew CHIP

How Harris County’s federal bail lawsuit spreads beyond Houston

County officials and bail bond companies throughout the state are monitoring the federal lawsuit against Harris County's bail practices.

The next chapter in Harris County’s saga over bail practices is set to play out in federal court Tuesday morning, and officials involved in pretrial processes throughout Texas are holding their breath.

The state’s most populous county is involved in a complicated fight over how its bail procedures impact poor misdemeanor defendants awaiting trial. A federal lawsuit questions the constitutionality of the county’s pretrial system, where arrestees who can’t afford their bail bonds regularly sit in jail — often until their cases are resolved days or weeks later — while similar defendants who have cash are released.

Bail is a legal mechanism to ensure defendants appear in court for their hearings. The most common practice is secured money bail, where judicial officers set a bond amount that must be paid by defendants in order to be released. The bond can either be paid to the court in full and then refunded after all court appearances are made, or, more commonly, paid through a bond company that charges a nonrefundable percentage — usually around 10 percent — but will front the total cost.

Last year, inmates filed suit against Harris County, saying they were wrongfully detained in jail simply because they were too poor to pay their bail bonds. The lawsuit covers all indigent defendants arrested on misdemeanors, like driving with an invalid license or shoplifting.

In April, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal issued a groundbreaking ruling, calling Harris County’s bail practices unconstitutional and ordering the release of almost all misdemeanor defendants from jail within 24 hours of arrest, regardless of their ability to pay the bond amount. The county, which has implemented many of its own reforms since the suit’s filing, has appealed the injunction at the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, where oral arguments will be heard in New Orleans on Tuesday.

“At a minimum, the litigation in Harris County is going to change the dialogue, if not the policy, of all other Texas counties on [personal] bonds.”

— Michael Young, Bexar County’s Chief Public Defender

The ruling came down while the Texas Legislature worked — and ultimately failed — to pass bipartisan statewide reform for pretrial release practices. Some cities and states across the country have reformed their bail programs, either on their own or after court rulings, to move away from money bail bonds and release more defendants on personal recognizance bonds, where inmates are released with no money due up front.

These reforms have taken place in jurisdictions that, like Harris County, routinely used money bail as “de facto detention orders against those financially unable to pay,” Rosenthal wrote in her ruling.

Both sides of the lawsuit recognize the legal outcome in Harris County could have nationwide repercussions for the American bail system. In Texas, counties with wide variations of pretrial practices are measuring their programs against the federal injunction.

“At a minimum, the litigation in Harris County is going to change the dialogue, if not the policy, of all other Texas counties on [personal] bonds,” said Michael Young, Bexar County’s chief public defender.

A question of due process

Jail population reports show that almost 75 percent of people in Texas jails have not been convicted. Bipartisan efforts to lower the rising number of poor defendants stuck in jail was a main topic of Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht’s address to the Legislature in February.

“Many who are arrested cannot afford a bail bond and remain in jail awaiting a hearing,” he said. “Though presumed innocent, they lose their jobs and families, and are more likely to reoffend.”

Hecht spoke as Harris County, the third largest in the nation, was embroiled in a lawsuit where a judge has now said it uses bail bonds to detain poor defendants without necessary due process safeguards. Under state and federal law, indigent misdemeanor arrestees can be detained on money bail “only in the narrowest of cases, and only when, in those cases, due process safeguards the rights of the indigent accused,” Rosenthal wrote.

“Many who are arrested cannot afford a bail bond and remain in jail awaiting a hearing. Though presumed innocent, they lose their jobs and families, and are more likely to reoffend.”

— Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht

Before the court order, 40 percent of Harris County misdemeanor defendants remained in jail until their case was resolved, according to data from 2014 to 2016. The large majority of those people — 84 percent in 2015 and 2016 — pleaded guilty at the first opportunity and were usually released within a day based on time served, according to Rosenthal’s ruling. Just less than half of defendants who were released on bond pleaded guilty during the same time. New numbers since the ruling were not yet available.

The county argues that its practices are constitutional because, under state law, a defendant’s ability to pay is only one of five factors to be considered when setting bail. Other things the county must consider are the nature of the crime and public safety.

“This newly-minted constitutional right to affordable bail applies to every misdemeanor arrestee, with minor exceptions, no matter how great their flight risk or how grave a danger they pose to the community or their victims,” wrote Charles Cooper in the county judges’ brief to the appellate court.

Rosenthal countered that argument by pointing out that even after county officials recommend release on personal bonds for misdemeanor defendants, based on their risk level of reoffending or skipping court dates, judicial officers usually ignore the recommendation and stick to a pre-set bail schedule.

Multiple complexities have entangled the lawsuit. The county sheriff — a defendant in the lawsuit — was ousted in the last election and replaced by a successor largely in support of bail reform. And the county has implemented reforms of its own, including a new tool that will quickly identify low-risk defendants and recommend them for release on personal bonds, regardless of income.

Though Rosenthal applauded the county for its reform efforts (which were not yet implemented at the time of the ruling), she has said the problem of unequal treatment for poor defendants would still exist. Lack of money would still be an issue for moderate and high-risk defendants, and officials would still have discretion to ignore the recommendation of release on personal bond for low-risk people, she said.

Her orders went into effect in June, and hundreds of defendants were released from the Harris County Jail. The county’s reforms took place at the end of July, and officials could not yet give specifics on results.

“This newly-minted constitutional right to affordable bail applies to every misdemeanor arrestee, with minor exceptions, no matter how great their flight risk or how grave a danger they pose to the community or their victims.”

— Charles Cooper, attorney for Harris County judges

County attorneys and the bail bond commercial industry say the order goes too far, and they are asking the federal appellate court to toss out the injunction and the case overall. They argue that the issue isn’t one for federal courts and that the lawsuit is an attempt to get rid of money bail altogether.

“Defendants who cannot post bail are not detained because they are poor,” wrote attorney Paul Clement in a court brief filed by local, state and national bail bonds groups. “Instead, they are detained because the government had probable cause to arrest and charge them with crimes, and wishes to secure their appearance at trial and protect the community.”

Beyond Harris County

Harris County is not unique in its imposition of bail bonds on poor defendants.

Pretrial practices vary widely by county, but almost all in Texas rely primarily on money bail to release defendants, according to a study from Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute. Harris County is one of the few that uses a validated risk-assessment tool to determine whether defendants should be released without paying.

Texas’ proposed legislation this year, which passed out of the Senate but died before being brought to the full House for consideration, would have required counties to use a risk-based tool to determine bond.

“The basic underlying system in a lot of the other larger counties have the same fundamental flaws that Harris County does,” said Jay Jenkins, the Harris County project attorney for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “If you’re using money bail for misdemeanor cases, and you’re not explicitly having a determination of whether or not a defendant can make a particular amount, those counties are going to be susceptible to litigation after this ruling.”

Changes have already started. Dallas County authorized the creation of a pretrial division and risk-based bail system this year, and Bexar County judges changed their practices to make all defendants eligible for a personal bond assessment, according to Young.

But most Texas counties don’t have programs to monitor defendants released on bond, according to the Texas A&M study, and others, like Tarrant, are watching and waiting.

“My county is aware of what’s going on with Harris County,” said Michelle Brown, pretrial services director in Tarrant County, which primarily uses money bail. “We’re talking about implementing a risk assessment at the county, but we’re still in the talking stages. Unfortunately, we don’t make policy, our judges and county commissioners do.”

Posted in Latest, Local, State | Comments Off on How Harris County’s federal bail lawsuit spreads beyond Houston

Houston mayor calls off property tax hike after Abbott delivers $50 million

Gov. Greg Abbott presents Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner with a $50 million check for Hurricane Harvey relief during a news conference in Houston on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.

HOUSTON — Gov. Greg Abbott presented Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner a $50 million check for Hurricane Harvey relief Friday, prompting Turner to rescind a proposed property tax hike for his city.

The money, which comes from the $100 million disaster relief fund appropriated to Abbott’s office during the last legislative session, will go toward immediate relief needs such as reconstruction, Abbott and Turner said at a joint news conference in Houston. Abbott said long-term recovery and preventive measures would be funded by the federal government and the state’s $10 billion savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, but not until exact costs for recovery are known.

“The time to use the thrust of the Rainy Day Fund is when the expenses are known,” Abbott said. “So the members of the Legislature know how best to use the Rainy Day Fund.”

Turner had planned to raise property taxes for one year in order to raise $50 million for hurricane recovery, which would have cost the average Houston homeowner $48. Though the plan drew criticism, Turner said at the time that he would not have proposed the tax increase had Abbott called a special legislative session to use the Rainy Day Fund immediately.

The news conference appeared to resolve a weeklong spat between Abbott and Turner. In early September, Abbott said a special session of the Legislature wasn’t necessary to deal with the response to Hurricane Harvey, but in a Monday interview with The Texas Tribune, Turner said the lack of immediate state funding for relief efforts was forcing him to push for the tax hike. Abbott responded in a Tuesday news conference, saying Houston already had enough funds for hurricane relief and that if the state were to use Rainy Day money, it would come during the next regular legislative session in 2019.

During the Friday news conference, Abbott said there “is a possibility for a special session” to allocate funds for recovery and prevention once those costs are better known.

“Now that the hurricane winds are calm … it’s time that we begin the process of rebuilding Texas, and that’s a tall task,” Abbott said. “This is what the state of Texas is for … We’re proud to be here wearing the same jersey working for the same team.”

Posted in Latest, Local, State | Comments Off on Houston mayor calls off property tax hike after Abbott delivers $50 million

Hearing set for Friday in wrongful death suit in John Hernandez case

A hearing is scheduled for Friday in connection with the wrongful death lawsuit filed against a former Harris County deputy and her husband in the death of a man outside a Sheldon restaurant earlier this year.

Attorneys for the family of John Hernandez said in a statement that attorneys for former Deputy Chauna Thompson and her husband, Terry Thompson, have filed a motion to stay the case.

The lawsuit is separate from the criminal case prosecutors have brought against the Thompsons, both of whom face murder charges.

Hernandez died three days after the May 28 confrontation with the Thompsons outside a Denny’s restaurant. Video of the incident appeared to show Terry Thompson using a chokehold and lying on top of Hernandez while Chauna Thompson held down one of Hernandez’s arms.

Attorneys for the Hernandez family are expected to speak after the 10 a.m. hearing.

Posted in Latest, Local | Comments Off on Hearing set for Friday in wrongful death suit in John Hernandez case

Aide found half-naked after sexual contact with student, deputies say

Deputies have arrested a school employee in Fort McCoy after allegations surfaced that the worker had sexual contact with a student, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday.

Katie Carsey, 36, who worked at McCoy Middle School, was booked into the Marion County Jail on a felony charge after deputies said she admitted to having sexual contact with a then-14-year-old boy.

A deputy was investigating a suspicious vehicle at a church on July 6 said he found Carsey partially clothed. Carsey said she was there to meet a male friend.

A couple months later, detectives said they got word that Carsey had told someone that she narrowly escaped from being caught having sex with her student before the deputy arrived, officials said.

Investigators said when they spoke with Carsey on Wednesday, she admitted to undressing and having inappropriate contact with the boy in her back seat.

The victim, who is now 15 years old, told investigators he jumped out of the vehicle when he noticed the deputy’s patrol car and then ran home.

Carsey is married and has worked in the district for about a year.

Marion Public Schools said it wasn’t notified of the alleged assault until after business hours Wednesday, but school officials believe none of the incidents took place on school property.

Carsey is being held on a $10,000 bond.

Posted in Latest, Local, State | Comments Off on Aide found half-naked after sexual contact with student, deputies say

Slideshow: For southeast Texas, recovery after Harvey is slow

Motiva, the largest crude oil refinery in the United States, can be seen in the distance from Port Arthur on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. Piles of flood-damaged debris are piled outside of homes in the foreground.

In cities, small towns and rural communities throughout southeast Texas, the floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey have receded, but mountains of debris remain. A month after the storm, people are living in tents and trailers or sleeping on the couches of friends and family as they take stock of the damage to their homes and wait for promised help to arrive. After the Category 4 storm made landfall near Rockport on Aug. 25, it lingered inland over the Gulf Coast for four days, dropping almost 50 inches of rain in the Port Arthur-Beaumont area alone.

 

Flood damaged debris piled outside of homes in Port Arthur Texas. The city saw 47 inches of rain during the storm.
Flood-damaged debris piled outside of homes in Port Arthur, Texas. The city saw 47 inches of rain during Hurricane Harvey. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
One of three approved debris removal sites in Port Arthur, where some residents have raised concerns about the city’s plans for post-Harvey clean up.
One of three approved debris removal sites in Port Arthur, where some residents have raised concerns about living close to the accumulating piles of waste. “It’s just not right,” said Tami Pinkney, who lives in a home across the street from one of the sites. “This is not safe. It’s just not safe.” Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
Guadalupe Carrillo sorts through flood damaged items at her home in Port Arthur, Texas.
Guadalupe Carrillo sorts through flood-damaged items at her home in Port Arthur, Texas. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
After Hurricane Harvey, flood waters from the Neches River, hit Rose City, a small community of about 500 people near Beaumont. The river crested at a record breaking 19 feet. Along with nearly every home in the area, the city’s water system was inundated in the post-Harvey flooding, and residents are still without running water.
After Hurricane Harvey, flood waters from the Neches River hit Rose City, a small community of about 500 people near Beaumont. The river crested at a record-breaking 19 feet. Along with nearly every home in the area, the city’s water system was inundated, and residents are still without running water. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
Robert McLaughlin removing sheetrock from a flooded home with mold growing on the walls in Rose City.
Robert McLaughlin removes sheetrock from a flooded home with mold growing on the walls in Rose City. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
“This is a total disaster,” said Carol Sue Smith, who is living in a tent behind her flood damaged house in Rose City. She is returning from a trip to city hall with provisions: soap, razors, water, and a hot meal. The only potable water in the community comes from two large tanks set up there, where residents can fill up containers to take back to their homes.
“This is a total disaster,” said Carol Sue Smith, as she returns from a trip to city hall with provisions: soap, razors, water and a hot meal. The only potable water in the community comes from two large tanks set up there; residents can fill up containers to take back to their homes. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
Carol Sue Smith is living in a tent behind her flood damaged house in Rose City, where there is still no working water system.
Carol Sue Smith is living in a tent behind her flood-damaged property in Rose City until she is able to make enough repairs to move in again. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
A discarded gun safe, with the lock cut open, in Rose City.
A discarded gun safe sits atop a pile of debris in Rose City. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
Clarke Godkin bought an RV to use at his hunting lease about two years ago. Now it’s become his semi-permanent home while he attempts to make repairs to his flood damaged house in Rose City. Here he is trying to connect the trailer to electricity.
Clarke Godkin bought an RV to use at his hunting lease about two years ago. Now it’s become his semi-permanent home while he figures out what to do with his damaged house in Rose City. “I feel blessed, even though we’ve lost everything. We’ve been here 20 years and lost everything. But some folks, they’ve lost everything and have nowhere to go.” Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
A Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster recovery center, where Harvey victims can register for assistance and find a number of other services from state, federal, and local organizations. There are currently two in the county— this one in Beaumont, one in Port Arthur. Ken Higginbotham, a FEMA spokesman in Beaumont, said that flood damage was so extensive in Jefferson County that the agency had trouble finding a suitable location for them.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster recovery center, where Harvey victims can register for assistance and find a number of other services from state, federal and local organizations. Until Monday, when a third center opened in Hamshire, there were only two in Jefferson county — this one in Beaumont and another in Port Arthur. Ken Higginbotham, a FEMA spokesman in Beaumont, said that flood damage was so extensive in the county that the agency had trouble finding suitable locations for the centers. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
Veda Armstead takes a phone call outside of a Beaumont disaster recovery center. Armstead said she was able to save some clothing from her flooded house — a few items that were hanging or on higher shelves — but that everything else was “wiped out.” She’s currently moving between the homes of friends and relatives while she figures out whether she’ll be able to make repairs on her home.
Veda Armstead takes a phone call outside of a Beaumont disaster recovery center. Armstead said she was able to save some clothing from her flooded house — a few items that were hanging or on high shelves — but everything else was “wiped out.” She’s moving between the homes of friends and relatives while she figures out whether she’ll be able to make repairs to her home. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
Cinnamon Perry, left seated, said she would be living in a tent in a nearby RV park until she figured out what to do next after flooding destroyed her home in Winnie, Texas.
Cinnamon Perry, seated left, said she would be living in a tent in a nearby RV park until she figured out what to do next after flooding destroyed her home in Winnie, Texas. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
Crystal and Ollie Green rode their bikes to the Beaumont disaster recovery center, where they are seeking help after their apartment flooded.
Crystal and Ollie Green rode their bikes to the Beaumont disaster recovery center, where they are seeking help after their apartment flooded. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
Posted in Latest, Local, State | Comments Off on Slideshow: For southeast Texas, recovery after Harvey is slow

Even Hurricane Harvey Can’t Temper GOP Hostility Toward Texas’ Big Cities

Governor Greg Abbott and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner  photos by Patrick Michels

On August 4, less than a month before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick appeared on the Fox Business Network with a diagnosis for what ails the nation. “Where do we have all our problems in America?” he asked. “Not at the state level run by Republicans, but in our cities that are mostly controlled by Democrat mayors and Democrat city council men and women. That’s where you see liberal policies. That’s where you see high taxes. That’s where you see street crime.”

In September, another big problem appeared over Houston, a messy city run by one of those dangerous Democratic mayors, Sylvester Turner. Houston is the state’s beating heart, and Harvey could end up being the most expensive natural disaster in American history. In the past, it would have been of some comfort to the mayor of Houston that the lieutenant governor and some of his top allies, such as state Senator Paul Bettencourt, hailed from the Houston area, because they’d help make sure the city’s needs were met in the months and years ahead. That’s not the case now, and it’s worth taking a moment to place Harvey in the context of the extraordinary animus the Legislature often seems to have for local governments and the people who run them.

Turner now has one of the most difficult and unpleasant jobs of any public official in the United States. To take just one example: An immediate crisis the city faces is waste removal — there are whole neighborhoods full of tall piles of ruined furniture and trash that will rot in the rain and attract pests. Turner recently told the city council that many of the contractors who do the kind of removal work Houston needs fled to Florida, for better rates after Hurricane Irma. The best case scenario is that “most” of the waste will be cleared by Thanksgiving, two months from now.

Flooded furniture, wood and other materials line Houston residential streets more than three weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall.  Hana Bakkar/Courtesy

If things go slowly, residents will inevitably blame Turner, just as a backlash immediately materialized when he recently proposed a temporary 8.9 percent property tax hike, which would raise about $113 million for Harvey recovery. For the average homeowner in the city, that comes out to about $117 a year, which doesn’t seem like terribly much given the circumstances. More importantly, Turner’s hands were tied. The storm wiped out the city’s emergency funds and destroyed a lot of city property, and though FEMA will pay 90 percent of trash removal costs, Houston’s share is still something like $25 million. Nonetheless, Turner caught a lot of heat for the proposal.

Later, a new agreement with FEMA caused Turner to reduce the amount he was asking for to $50 to $60 million. For the state, that’s chump change — the rainy day fund alone has more than $10 billion. Though state leaders have signalled a willingness to spend some of the rainy day fund on disaster relief, no one’s rushing to appear overly generous. When Turner’s hand was forced and the tax bump was proposed, state officials had two options: Reassure Houstonians about the forthcoming availability of state money, or let Turner, the Democratic mayor of a city Republicans are increasingly struggling to contest, twist in the wind.

Senator Paul Bettencourt (right), Governor Greg Abbott (front) and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick  Facebook

You know which one they chose. “I don’t understand this mindset,” Bettencourt, Patrick’s lieutenant on tax issues and a resident of the city of Houston, told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s beyond tone deaf. I don’t believe governments should be showing this type of attitude when people are down. Taxpayers are going to be furious.” Bettencourt then added that he now opposes provisions that let local governments raise taxes more easily in the event of a disaster or emergency. Bettencourt even told a Houston radio station that he’s against using any state money to help the city, offering that Houston should be “using the funds that are already there to avoid a tax increase.”

On Tuesday, after Turner made a public request for money from the rainy day fund, Governor Greg Abbott joined in, telling reporters that the fund wouldn’t be touched until the 2019 legislative session. Turner “has all the money that he needs,” Abbott said. “In times like these, it’s important to have fiscal responsibility as opposed to financial panic.” The governor went on to accuse the mayor of using Harvey recovery efforts as a “hostage to raise taxes.”

Bettencourt and Abbott are doing what state lawmakers frequently do now — putting political pressure on local governments to draw attention away from what the state is doing and gather ammo for future internecine battles in Austin. (All last session, Bettencourt was at war with local officials over property tax policy.) The difference now is that he’s doing it right after Texas’ largest city had its legs shot out from under it, at a time when you might hope Houston-area lawmakers would not only refrain from taking potshots at Turner, but find ways to affirmatively help him. But, hey, it’s just business as usual: Everything good in Texas is to the credit of the brave boys and girls of the Lege, and everything bad is the fault of county commissioners courts, city councils and school boards.

Aren’t the different layers of government supposed to work together? In Texas, they generally do not. I’ve talked to many local officials, including Republicans in deep-red counties, who can’t for the life of them get a call returned from their GOP state representative or senator. Even big-city mayors sometimes get the stiff arm, and lawmakers seem to take pleasure in nullifying or canceling popular city ordinances, sometimes because of lobby money but sometimes, it seems, simply out of spite.

Consider Houston before the storm. Its school systems are heavily penalized by the state’s school finance system, which forces locals to raise property taxes. It has huge immigrant populations whose relationships with the police were negatively affected by Senate Bill 4. The culture wars at the Legislature — and the poor quality of state services — hinder Houston’s appeal to the international business community. Houston’s health care system has suffered greatly from the Legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid.

This is despite the obvious fact that Texas’ appeal, and strength, is the quality and dynamism of its big cities. Six of the nation’s 20 largest cities are in Texas, and each has a distinct identity and appeal. (Well, maybe not Dallas.) The state should be helping cities. To take but one too-late example, the Legislature is the only body that could have cut through the mess of overlapping political jurisdictions to control development and strengthen flood planning in greater Houston in a unified way.

Instead, we have a state government that sees its largest generators of economic activity — the six metropolitan areas in which more than half of the state lives — as some kind of threat, either because of their values or the demographic and political threat they represent to the Republican Party. You might hope Harvey would temper that, but don’t hold your breath.

The post Even Hurricane Harvey Can’t Temper GOP Hostility Toward Texas’ Big Cities appeared first on The Texas Observer.

Posted in Latest, Local, State | Comments Off on Even Hurricane Harvey Can’t Temper GOP Hostility Toward Texas’ Big Cities

Abbott: Houston has enough funding for Harvey recovery

John Sharp, Texas A&M University chancellor and head of the new Governor's Commission to Rebuild Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott and Nim Kidd, Chief of Texas Emergency Management, get briefed on recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey at the FEMA Joint Field Office in Austin on Sept. 14, 2017.    

If the state taps into the Rainy Day Fund to help with recovery following Hurricane Harvey, it won’t be until the next legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott said during a news conference Tuesday.

Abbott’s announcement comes after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wrote to the governor asking the state to use the $10 billion fund. Turner said without significant state help, Houston will be forced to raise property taxes for one year to bring in $50 million for recovery efforts.

Turner said he would not have proposed the tax hike had the governor called a special session to tap into the fund.

Abbott, who has said the state has enough resources to address Harvey-related needs between now and the next legislative session, added Tuesday that the state has already granted Houston almost $100 million for debris removal and established an “accelerated reimbursement program” for recovery efforts.

Abbott said he would pay any invoice the city submits to the state within 10 days.

Turner “has all the money that he needs,” Abbott said. “He just needs to tap into it.”

“In times like these, it’s important to have fiscal responsibility as opposed to financial panic,” Abbott said. He later added that “the mayor seems to be using [Harvey recovery] as hostage to raise taxes.”

Abbott also reaffirmed his support for Senate Bill 4, legislation aimed at outlawing “sanctuary cities,” during the news conference.

“During the initial phase, the focus was on saving lives,” Abbott said. “As we get back into the normal course of daily activities, it’s gonna be important for all people who live in this country to follow the law.”

Posted in Latest, Local, State | Comments Off on Abbott: Houston has enough funding for Harvey recovery

U.S. House passes tax breaks for victims of Harvey, Irma and Maria

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in his office in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., September 21, 2016.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed a measure Thursday morning that will lift tax penalties on Hurricane Harvey victims who tap into their retirement accounts and offer them other tax breaks. But the vote was not unanimous among Texas members of Congress, and it was not without tension.

The bill, which also includes victims of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, passed on a 264-155 vote. Most of the Texas delegation backed the bill, but four Democrats voted no, while U.S. Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, and Sam Johnson, R-Richardson, did not vote.

The bill now goes to the U.S. Senate for consideration. If it becomes law, it will allow hurricane victims to receive tax-deductions on personal losses from the storm and ease penalties for those who pull money from their retirement accounts to cover storm-related costs.

It was a messy piece of legislation, marrying the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration to the tax measure — along with smaller items like funding for a Native American diabetes program.

All Texas Republicans backed the bill, along with the House Democrats from Houston — U.S. Reps. Al Green, Gene Green and Sheila Jackson Lee — and U.S. Reps. Henry CuellarVicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela from South Texas. But four Texas Democrats did not back the bill: U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, Marc Veasey of Fort Worth.

Democrats who voted no gave varied reasons. Some were unhappy the tax breaks did not include other natural disasters, while others objected to the lack of hearings on the bill or the fact that it didn’t include an extension for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Trump wants to terminate in the spring unless Congress can pass legislation to preserve it.

A previous version of the legislation failed on Monday night in the U.S. House. It needed a much higher threshold — two-thirds of the chamber — because the author of the bill, Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands, aimed to move it through as an emergency measure.

Brady, the chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, expressed his disappointment in a Monday night statement, calling the House Democrats’ decision to mostly withhold support for his bill as “the very worst of Washington, putting politics ahead of people.”

He followed up with stronger wording on Tuesday afternoon.

“The sick Democrats voted AGAINST tax relief for those affected by Harvey, instead of helping out families who have lost so much,” he tweeted.

It’s the sense among some in Brady’s sphere that the comment was directed at Texans, specifically, who did not back the bill. For weeks now, the delegation has presented itself as a united front in dealing with the storm.

Vela moved from a no on Monday to a yes on Thursday, but he was was not pleased with Brady.

“Is he calling out the four Republicans who voted against Hurricane Harvey funding in the first place? is he calling them ‘sick Republicans?’ ” Vela asked.

The Harvey legislation also reignited a bitter regional fight between members from the northeast and Texas Republicans. A bipartisan group of members from New York and New Jersey have repeatedly expressed outrage at the Texans for backing legislation that supports victims of Hurricane Harvey when they did not do the same during super storm Sandy, which battered the Northeast in 2012.

And no one was angrier this week than U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat, who also serves on the tax-writing committee and proposed similar but unsuccessful tax breaks in the aftermath of that storm.

“He’s gone too far,” he said of Brady in an interview with the Tribune on Tuesday.

The U.S. House voted down a measure on Thursday that would expand the tax breaks for Sandy victims and other natural disasters that occurred in the last five years.

At a U.S. House Rules Committee meeting Tuesday evening chaired by U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, the Dallas Republican repeatedly described the desperate situation in Texas and the Caribbean and urged his colleagues to move on the legislation, calling it “common sense.”

When asked if the delegation was still united despite the split votes on the Harvey bill, U.S. Rep Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, was optimistic

“I think we are,” he said.

Republican and Democratic members of the Texas delegation held a press conference following the bill’s passage in what they called a demonstration of their bipartisanship on the issue.

“Our bill specifically helps hurricane victims keep more of their paycheck, pay for the cost of their expenses in property damage and have more affordable and immediate access to the money they saved for their retirement so they can rebuild their families and their homes and their businesses,” Brady said. “Our legislation will also encourage more Americans to donate generously to those in need.

“Taken together these provisions will provide the support our communities need to recover from this destruction.”

Claire Allbright contributed to this report.

Posted in Latest, Local, National, State | Comments Off on U.S. House passes tax breaks for victims of Harvey, Irma and Maria

Texas can enforce more of ‘sanctuary cities’ law

Texas for now can require law enforcement to honor federal immigration requests to detain people in local jails for possible deportation under a new “sanctuary cities” law supported by the Trump administration, a federal appeals court ruled on Monday.

The decision prompted one notable critic of the immigration crackdown, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, to announce that her Austin jails would now honor all detainers from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. The elected Democrat had become a polarizing figure after announcing on the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration that the county’s jails would no longer comply with all such requests.

But the unanimous ruling of a three-judge panel in New Orleans wasn’t seen as so clear-cut by others. Some lawyers said they believed the decision did not demand total compliance with federal agents, while other local officials struggled to interpret the ramifications.

Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton hailed it as a clear victory allowing the state to “enforce the core” of the law known at Senate Bill 4.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling negates some of U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia’s Aug. 31 halt to much of the law one day before it was to go into effect. The decision lets Texas enforce the detainer provision, pending fuller oral arguments in November.

“We are pleased today’s 5th Circuit ruling will allow Texas to strengthen public safety by implementing the key components of Senate Bill 4,” Paxton said in a statement.

Major cities such as Houston, Dallas and Austin had sued the state, saying the measure was unconstitutional and warning that it would have a chilling effect in immigrant communities.

Nina Perales, an attorney for the Mexican American Defense and Legal Education Fund who is also representing the cities of San Antonio and El Paso, said the ruling appeared to leave wiggle room for interpretation.

“I don’t read this decision as making all detainers mandatory,” she said.

Hernandez said her policies had been updated to comply with the latest ruling and that she looked forward to “further clarification” from the courts. Her spokeswoman, Kristen Dark, said the changes mean that Travis County jails will now honor all detainer requests.

Jose Garza, an attorney for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, acknowledged that the state now potentially had room to pursue penalties against chiefs or sheriffs who don’t comply.

The Republican push to pass the law roiled the Texas Legislature throughout the spring. One GOP legislator notified federal immigration agents about protesters who held signs saying they were illegal, and told a Democratic colleague who pushed him during an argument, that he would shoot in self-defense.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has praised the Texas law and the Department of Justice filed arguments in support of it, as did several attorneys general from other states.

The law’s opponents argue it violates the Fourth Amendment by requiring police to detain people suspected of illegal immigration without probable cause. They also say it illegally puts local police in the federal role of immigration enforcement officers, and is unconstitutionally vague as to exactly when a local law enforcement officer would be in violation of the law.

Supporters of the state law say immigration officials have already determined probable cause when they seek to have local officials detain someone. They also argue that federal and local officials have a long history of cooperation on immigration matters and that the law is clear in its prohibition against local policies restricting immigration enforcement.

Posted in Latest, Local, National, State | Comments Off on Texas can enforce more of ‘sanctuary cities’ law

Town mayor facing assault charges

For the second time in a month, the mayor of the Waller County town of Brookshire is facing a warrant for his arrest. This time, Brookshire Mayor Eric Scott is charged with misdemeanor assault.

Court documents read the charge stems from an argument he had with his city secretary in June. A court documents reads Scott slammed the door of his office and caught his city secretary’s “knee and leg between the door jamb and the door.”

Brookshire’s city secretary declined to comment.

Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith stated Scott has until 8 a.m. Saturday morning to surrender on the current warrant and post a $2,000 bond.

Last week, a separate warrant was issued for Scott’s arrest involving a run-in with a member of the town’s Police Department. A copy of the warrant reads Scott tried to push his way into the department’s dispatch office after being told the area was restricted to law enforcement personnel.

The warrant states Scott then tried to push his way past on officer and shouted he has “the authority to be anywhere in the building he wanted to go.” The warrant reads the incident was witnessed by several people.

While the warrant states Scott interfered with official duties, he has not yet been formally charged with any crime involving this incident. The case is being reviewed by the Waller County District Attorney’s Office.

Scott surrendered to the Sheriff’s Office on this warrant and was released on a personal recognizance bond. Officials with the Police Department declined to comment.

“All I can really say is it’s quite embarrassing,” said Brookshire City Council member Kim Branch. “This is a beautiful town, this could flourish if we have the right leadership, but right now we’re lacking in leadership.”

Posted in Latest, Local, State | Comments Off on Town mayor facing assault charges

How Galveston is offering a free beach weekend

Galveston was one of the spots hit hard by Harvey.

In an effort to support relief efforts, the Galveston tourism community will host a free beach weekend Sept. 30 through Oct. 1.

Galveston Cares weekend will include free admission to all beach parks, free parking along the seawall, free trolley fairs throughout the island, a free family challenge event at Stewart Beach and a fireworks show in honor of first responders and discounted rates at participating attractions.

There will also be special promotions to benefit relief organizations.

The Galveston Island Wild Texas Shrimp Festival will donate $2 of every Gumbo Stroll ticket to Harvey relief efforts and participating hotel partners will offer special promotions.

The Shrimp Festival will take place on Sept. 30.

Moody Mansions museum and The Bryan Museum will be offering a buy-one-get-one-free special on admission tickets. The Grand 1894 Opera House will host a free “open mic” event from 12 -4 p.m. Saturday.

Galvez Bar and Grill is donating $5 for every prime rib dinner sold Thursday through Sunday through the end of October. Burger King is responding by offering ten of their chicken nuggets for $1.49 for a limited time.

Posted in Latest, Local | Comments Off on How Galveston is offering a free beach weekend

Lyft ride leads to hate crime charge for Houston man

The Harris County District Attorney’s office said an attack that happened during a Lyft ride in Houston over the summer was a hate crime.

Matthew W. Dunn, 39, of Houston, is charged with assault after what allegedly unfolded during a Lyft ride on July 21.

Dunn is accused of attacking a Lyft driver because of his Middle Eastern heritage. Prosecutors said that makes it a hate crime.

According to a news release from the district attorney’s office, Dunn is accused of berating the driver over his background and religion. He is also accused of physically attacking the driver. Dunn allegedly grabbed the driver by the hair, punching him and choking him.

Dunn has not been arrested. Crime Stoppers of Houston is offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information on his whereabouts. If you would like to snitch this loser out, you are asked to call Call 713-222-TIPS.

Posted in Latest, Local | Comments Off on Lyft ride leads to hate crime charge for Houston man