Category Archives: State

Houston serial killer faces execution this week

Death row inmate Anthony Shore.

Houston’s “Tourniquet Killer” is on his way to the Texas death chamber.

Anthony Shore, the confessed serial rapist and strangler whose murders in the 1980s and 1990s went unsolved for more than a decade, is scheduled for execution Wednesday evening. The courts have shot down his latest appeals that argued a traumatic brain injury decreases his culpability, and a plea for relief to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles was denied Monday afternoon.

Shore, 55, has been on death row since 2004, when he was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1992 rape and murder of 21-year-old Maria Del Carmen Estrada. The killing was one of four similar murders of young women and girls and one aggravated sexual assault where the girl was able to escape.

The murders took place between 1986 and 1995, according to court documents. All became cold cases in the years after the bodies of Estrada, 14-year-old Laurie Tremblay, 9-year-old Diana Rebollar and 16-year-old Dana Sanchez were found, dumped behind buildings or in a field, partially naked with rope or cord fastened around their necks like tourniquets.

Finally, in 2003, Houston police matched Shore’s DNA — on file from a 1997 no-contest plea of sexually molesting his two daughters — to Estrada’s murder, according to a court ruling. After hours of interrogation, Shore confessed to all of the killings, telling police he had an “evilness” in him.

“I think if I tell you what I’ve done that it will release the evilness, and I would feel better,” Shore told a police sergeant.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said Shore was a “true serial killer” after the trial court set his upcoming execution date in July.

“His crimes were predatory, and his victims the most vulnerable in society — women and children. For his brutal acts, the Death Penalty is appropriate,” she said in a statement.

Recently, Shore’s legal team has pointed to a previously undisclosed traumatic brain injury, likely obtained in a 1981 car accident, as a reason to stop the execution. Knox Nunnally, Shore’s court-appointed appellate lawyer, said he is not arguing that Shore is innocent or undeserving of punishment, but that courts should look at people with brain injuries the way they look at minors and the intellectually disabled — ineligible for execution based on decreased reasoning skills and culpability.

“We think if a jury had heard that evidence … that it is possible a jury could at least change their decision that Mr. Shore deserves life instead of death,” Nunnally said, referring to the alternative sentence in a capital murder conviction. “Because by no means are we claiming that … a head injury was the only reason he committed these crimes, we’re saying it was a contributing reason.”

The courts rejected Shore’s appeal and the broader argument that brain-injured people are ineligible for execution. It’s a rejection that concerns Nunnally as a combat veteran, he said.

“My fear is that if we’re denying this for Anthony Shore, what’s gonna happen if we have a combat vet who comes up five or six years from now and he has suffered a severe injury from combat?” he said. “The state’s going to use Anthony Shore’s case as an example of precedent.”

On Monday morning, Nunnally said that his team was still looking at other possible appeals in the next two days before the execution but that nothing was currently pending. If it proceeds, Shore’s execution will be the seventh in Texas this year and 21st in the nation.

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Some Texas Republicans in Congress again outraised by challengers

U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, speaks at a town hall meeting in Houston on March 25, 2017.

After Democratic challengers outraised four Texas Republicans in Congress earlier this year, some Republicans recaptured fundraising momentum in the third quarter – but not all of them.

Campaign finance reports for federal candidates covering July through September were due on Saturday. The reports show signs of of Democratic enthusiasm continuing, though U.S. Reps. Pete Sessions of Dallas and Will Hurd of Helotes, both Republicans, posted strong third quarters.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, barely outpaced his challenger, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, and two GOP congressmen saw Democratic challengers raise more money.

Hurricane Harvey may have depressed fundraising overall, with many incumbents and challengers posting lukewarm quarterly hauls.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate and certainly not tasteful to raise money from people who’ve been devastated and lost everything,” said U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a Houston Republican who was outraised by two of his Democratic challengers.

Democratic numbers were also smaller, suggesting candidates who announced earlier this year picked off the low-hanging donors in their previous campaign reports. And candidates who entered races only recently had less time to raise money.

But also, there was a larger dynamic at work. Ali Lapp is the operative who oversees the super PAC that supports Democratic House candidates, said donors are holding back from challengers because of the crowded nature of the Democratic primaries.

“With so many good Democratic candidates running in primaries, it’s no surprise that many Democratic donors are waiting to give direct candidate donations until after the field shakes out a bit, or even until after the primary is concluded,” she said.

Here’s a look at how campaigns fared in some closely-watched races:

U.S. Senate

Last week, O’Rourke announced he would report $1.7 million in fundraising. Cruz promptly announced a $2 million haul – but that included his individual campaign, his leadership PAC and a joint fundraising account.

Cruz’s campaign filing to the FEC, obtained by the Tribune Monday, offers an apples-to-apples comparison between the two candidates. It showed that his individual campaign raised $1.76 million, or $52,042 more than O’Rourke. Cruz reported a $3.58 million cash-on-hand advantage.

Texas’ 7th District:

Culberson is one of two Republicans in Congress from Texas – the other is Sessions – drawing high interest from Democrats because Democrat Hillary Clinton carried these two districts last fall, even as Republican Donald Trump won the state by 9 points.

Culberson was again outraised by two Democratic challengers, Alex Triantaphyllis and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. Culberson posted a $177,000 haul, while Triantaphyllis drew $217,000 and Fletcher $185,000.

The two Democrats not only raised more than the incumbent during the period, but they also emerged from the quarter with larger war chests. Culberson had $389,000 in the bank, while Triantaphyllis had $536,000 — the most of any Democratic congressional challenger in the state — and Fletcher $403,000.

A third Democrat looking to take on Culberson next year – Laura Moser – came close to also outraising Culberson, taking in $167,000.

Texas’ 23rd District:

Hurd posted a $400,000 haul and now has $870,000 in cash on hand. The national GOP is all in for him and have underscored his re-election as a top priority. Hurd’s sprawling district, which spans most of Texas’ border with Mexico, is widely viewed as the most competitive in the state.

The Democratic side is murkier. Former prosecutor Jay Hulings raised $200,000 in about six weeks’ worth of campaigning, while former Air Force Intelligence Officer Gina Ortiz Jones raised $104,000.

Hulings leaned in part on donations from several members of his Harvard Law School class, like U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio. There are early signs that other members of Congress are beginning to coalesce behind him: Two members of Democratic House leadership – U.S. Reps. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Joe Crowley of New York – also donated to his campaign.

Texas’ 32nd District:

Sessions ramped up his fundraising a bit in the third quarter, raking in $437,000 after raising $401,000 during the last period. Democratic challenger Ed Meier emerged as the fundraising leader in the crowded primary to challenge Sessions in 2018, taking in $242,000 in the third quarter — the biggest quarterly haul of any Democratic congressional challenger in the state.

At the same time, another Democratic candidate, Colin Allred saw his fundraising sharply drop to $62,000 for the third quarter after debuting with a $206,000 haul during the previous period. The drop came as Allred spent big on online fundraising consulting — nearly $70,000 to one firm alone during the third quarter.

A third, newer Democratic challenger, Lillian Salerno, received $133,000 in donations from supporters during her first 18 days of campaigning. Sessions still has much more cash on hand — $1.2 million — than any of his Democratic challengers, with the closest war chest — $438,000 — belonging to Meier.

Texas 2nd District:

Non-profit executive Todd Litton surprised many in Texas politics when he outraised U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, in the second quarter this year. He came up short this time around, but not by much. Litton raised $116,000 to Poe’s $132,000.

With a historically Republican DNA, this district is not considered a top-tier race. But Litton is running a professional, if long-shot, campaign and some political observers have speculated that this district could come into play if a major Democratic wave sweeps the country.

As for Poe, mega-donor John Nau III gave to the incumbent, an indicator that more money could pour into the district at the first sign of trouble. But even as Poe had the upper hand in raising money this cycle, Litton had a low burn rate on his money and ended the quarter with more cash on hand.

Texas 21st District:

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, was one of two incumbents who found himself outraised this cycle, marking the second time it has happened this year. Challenger Joseph Kopser raised $213,000. just above Smith’s $199,000 and well ahead of several other Democrats vying to challenge Smith.

Smith is the chairman of the House Space, Science and Technology Committee and should be able to kick his fundraising up if he senses trouble. Moreover, he has nearly a $1 million in cash-on-hand.

Open seats:

Texas’ 3rd District:

State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, raised over $1 million in the first five weeks of his campaign to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano. The haul included a combined $500,000 in loans from the candidate, who is independently wealthy. Taylor has $916,000 in the bank heading into the fourth quarter. He faces a lesser-known primary rival in Roger Barone, a Plano businessman who has not filed any campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission since he launched his bid in April.

Texas’ 16th District: 

Democrat Veronica Escobar, the former El Paso County judge, pulled in $333,000 in just over the first month of her bid to replace O’Rourke who is running for U.S. Senate in 2018.

Escobar’s most prominent primary opponent is Dori Fenenbock, the former El Paso school board president. Fenenbock, who has been in the race longer than Escobar, raised $257,000 in the third quarter, $50,000 of which came from the candidate. Entering the next quarter, Fenenbock has $405,000 to spend versus Escobar’s $297,000.

Claire Allbright contributed to this report. 

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To fund bid against Ted Cruz, former mayor puts up building as prize in “essay and rib contest”

Former Corpus Christi Mayor Dan McQueen resigned after 37 days in office.

Dan McQueen is an unconventional candidate for unconventional times.

Months after wrapping up a 37-day stint as Corpus Christi mayor that saw him frequently lash out at critics over social media, McQueen is trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the Republican primary.

Now, he is rolling out a fundraising strategy that involves concise writing and a 12,000-square-foot commercial building about a block from Corpus Christi City Hall. Also, Texas beef short ribs.

McQueen is hoping to fund his long-shot campaign by selling a two-story brick and cement property that was “rumored to have served [late acting star] Steve McQueen” during its early days as a five and dime store, according to postings on his campaign website. The building will go to whoever wins the candidate’s “McQueen MotorCycle Café Essay & Rib Contest.”

By submitting a fee of $250, an essay of no more than 300 words about job creation and an original recipe for a half rack of ribs (“Think Wings, but applied to TEXAS BEEF SHORT RIBS!”), someone could claim McQueen’s building and assume its property tax bill, according to a contest entry form posted on McQueen’s website.

“Dan McQueen has placed his down town Corpus Christi Texas business on the market and also formed this contest to help fund the purchase for some who may have lost everything,” the website says, referencing Hurricane Harvey’s devastation to the Gulf Coast. “He wants all American’s to have a shot at the American Dream while also helping the Texas Coastal Region.”

McQueen instructs participants to send their entries to a Jefferson City, Mo. address that is listed as a UPS Store.

In launching the essay contest, McQueen is joining a national trend — with a few examples in Texas — of those who have sought to sell property in such a way, though McQueen may be the first to do so to fund a political campaign. The idea is to draw enough entries to earn the seller a healthy payout while giving the winner property at a rock-bottom price. The essay portion is supposed to inject skill into the contest, keeping organizers from running afoul of state lottery laws that ban certain games of chance.

Property sales by way of essay contest don’t always go smoothly. Media reports in recent years have detailed contests that failed to gain enough entries and others that triggered accusations of rigging.

It’s not clear any other organizers of such contests have added ribs to the equation. Experts said McQueen should be careful about how he documents any contest entry fees — if he’s truly using them to fund his campaign.

“If he’s taking all of these $250 interests into his contest, he would have to report [to the Federal Election Commission] every $250 person who enters his contest and sent out an essay,” said Randall “Buck” Wood, a longtime ethics attorney in Austin and a Democrat. “It sounds like it’s not going to be successful anyway.”

McQueen would refund contestants if he fell short of 1,500 entries “or adjusted lower if desired,” according to the contest rules. A flyer posted on his website advertises the property at $525,000. The Nueces County Appraisal District values the property at $138,290.

Unlike the campaign website, the contest entry form makes no mention of McQueen’s Senate campaign. Wood and other experts said McQueen — if he’s to follow best practices — should add several pieces of information to the form: that the contest is funding his campaign, for example, and that federal law requires candidates to report information on those who contribute more than $200.

Brendan Fischer, director of federal and FEC reform at the Campaign Legal Center, said McQueen should be careful not to accept bids from foreign nationals or other parties barred from contributing to U.S. political campaigns.

“You can see how this creates a situation where you can run afoul of the law,” Fischer said. “A much better way of raising money for his campaign is to sell the property and just donate money to his campaign. It seems like it’s a much more tortured effort to create this sort of convoluted lottery.”

Reached by phone while driving to a campaign stop, McQueen declined to discuss his fundraising efforts.

“Once you start fixing some of the damage that you guys created, because of bad journalism,” McQueen told the Tribune, “man, I would love to have a conversation about it.”

McQueen announced his Senate bid in August, but as of Friday, his name did not show up in a Federal Election Commission database of candidates who filed paperwork to run. Candidates for Congress are required to officially declare their candidacy within 15 days after they’ve raised or spent $5,000.

He is one of at least two heavy underdogs challenging Cruz in the Republican primary next March. He’s arguably better known than the other hopeful — Houston energy attorney Stefano de Stefano — thanks to a whirlwind tenure as Corpus Christi mayor.

Sweeping into office last year, McQueen touted himself as an engineer, entrepreneur, Navy veteran and political outsider, and he promised to fix the city’s problems himself while creating jobs. He ultimately shut out local news media and launched Facebook tirades following reports that questioned his credentials and behavior. McQueen resigned last January, weeks after being sworn in.

McQueen, also a karate instructor, has since embarked on what he calls a “100 board breaks across Texas” campaign — an effort to “break addiction” by karate-chopping wooden boards in various cities.

Additionally, he self-published a stream-of-consciousness book called “37 Day Mayor: Truth – FAKE NEWS – America’s Future (Volume 1).” Sprinkled with words in all-caps, McQueen defends his credentials, excoriates journalists and discusses ideas he’d bring to Washington. For instance, he would offer undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship if they volunteered to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall. McQueen also advocates cutting taxes.

“NO, NO, NO. When did No mean yes. If I say no, it means no,” McQueen writes. “But we continue to tax.”

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U.S. House passes hurricane relief bill after tense day for Texas delegation, Abbott

Members of the Texas congressional delegation from both parties discuss funding for recovery from Harvey at a press conference in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 7, 2017.

WASHINGTON — It was a tension-filled 24-hour scramble for Texas’ congressional delegation before the latest disaster relief spending vote, as Gov. Greg Abbott entered the fray in the effort to secure more funds to help the state rebuild after Hurricane Harvey.

The bill, which the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed Thursday afternoon in a 353-69 vote, is expected to be taken up by the U.S. Senate next week when that chamber returns from recess.

All House Democrats — including Texans — voted for the bill. Six Texas Republicans – U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis, Louie Gohmert of Tyler, Jeb Hensarling of Dallas, Kenny Marchant of Coppell, John Ratcliffe of Heath and Roger Williams of Austin – voted against the spending measure.

But ahead of Thursday’s vote, there was more than a day of frustration and second-guessing. Some in Texas’ 36-member House delegation questioned whether their state’s needs were being neglected as Puerto Rico, ravaged by Hurricane Maria, and California, which is combating devastating wildfires, faced more dire situations. An all-hands-on-deck late-night meeting with key members of the delegation and House leadership focused on a letter the delegation sent to leadership last week requesting $18.7 billion in aid.

“We were anxious to see those items included,” said U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston. “When they were not, we were concerned, but we understood this bill was essential to keep the flow of federal funding intact and uninterrupted.”

Thursday’s bill included $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s main relief fund and the cancellation of $16 billion in debt owed by the troubled National Flood Insurance Program, which thousands of Texans are expecting payouts from after Harvey.

“If this did not pass, the flood insurance program would run out of money  and would not be able to pay off insurance claims, and that would not be acceptable,” Culberson said.

While the vote was far from a nail biter, there was discussion as late as Thursday morning that the bulk of the Texas House delegation could vote against the bill to protest a lack of funding for the Texas rebuilding effort.

The scramble began Wednesday afternoon, when Abbott publicly urged the Texas delegation to oppose a spending plan that probably would direct most of its money to the relief efforts for Puerto Rico. After a late-night meeting and call with the U.S. speaker of the House, Abbott backed off on his opposition  — but the flare-up left many in the delegation concerned about future aid.

With most of the $36.5 billion directed to FEMA’s main relief fund, Abbott and some in the delegation assumed most of the bill’s funding would go to Puerto Rico, much of which remains without power.

Abbott initially argued that the Texans should have fought for the standalone $18.7 billion request that he and nearly all of the state’s members of Congress had officially requested last week. 

“I am disappointed that most members of the Texas congressional delegation have agreed to go ahead and vote for this bill, from what I know at this time, when Texas needs this money,” Abbott told the Houston Chronicle in a Wednesday interview. “It appears the Texas delegation will let themselves be rolled by the House of Representatives.”

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke with Abbott about his concerns Wednesday night, a conversation first reported by The Dallas Morning News.

Ryan and two other members of House leadership – U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise – also met with Houston-area Republican members and several Texas Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee.

Ryan and other House leaders assured the Texans, including Abbott, that more federal money is on the way.

“Governor Abbott was assured by House leadership that as soon as November, Texas will get the disaster assistance funding we’re requesting for Army Corps of Engineer projects, Community Development Block Grants, and funding for dredging Texas ports, expanding bayous and critical flood mitigation projects, among other priorities,” Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said in a statement.

“The Governor will hold House leadership to that promise on behalf of Texans whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Harvey. In the meantime, the Governor and the Texas delegation will continue working together as a team to help Texans recover and rebuild.”

Delegation split

There were essentially two camps in Congress over Abbott’s last-minute lobbying, according to interviews with about a dozen sources inside and beyond the Texas delegation.

One group agreed with the governor that Texas was losing out on major funds as dire straits in Puerto Rico took precedence over efforts to rebuild in areas ravaged by Harvey.

While few in the delegation begrudged funding for Puerto Rico, there is a growing concern that the recent onslaught of natural disasters in other parts of the country will cause memories of the calamity in Houston to fade in the minds of other members of Congress and their constituents.

In this camp, Abbott’s sentiment was privately cheered as giving voice to a frustration that is bipartisan and stretches beyond Texas. Members of the Florida delegation told the Tribune that they, too, were concerned about their state’s capacity to rebuild, particularly with the citrus industry, given the federal aid offered thus far.

In the other camp, there was obvious ire with Abbott’s comments to the Chronicle, particularly his urging the delegation needed to get “a stiff spine,” which was interpreted by some as accusing Texans in Congress of being spineless.

Culberson pushed back against that notion.

“We still don’t have a complete account of the scale of the damage,” said the Houston congressman, who added that providing a comprehensive account of the cost at this point was “not possible.”

Some of the tensions over the version of the bill that reached the House floor Thursday emerged from an impression that the chamber’s GOP leadership took marching orders from the White House and cut House appropriators out of the process.

“Leadership forced on the committee a funding bill that lacked enthusiastic support from seven committee members from states affected,” a senior Appropriations Committee member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely, told the Tribune.

Despite the unease within the delegation Thursday, there remains hope that Texas will ultimately secure tens of billions of more dollars in federal funding in the coming months. Since the storm, some estimates for what’s needed for a full recovery have reached as much as $150 billion.

Patrick Svitek and Claire Allbright contributed to this report. 

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It’s Time to End Austin’s Failed Experiment in Police Oversight, Activists Say

Richard Munroe

Richard Munroe just wanted to talk to someone when he called 911 at 3:48 a.m. on July 5, 2015. Sobbing and drunk, the 25-year-old Austin man unloaded on the dispatcher. He hadn’t talked to his mother in months, he’d recently quit his job and had spent time in a mental hospital. He asked if police could track his address from the call, saying more than once he didn’t want the cops to come; the dispatcher assured him they couldn’t track him. “What you’re doing is what we teach people to do from the time they’re little,” the dispatcher told Munroe. “When you have an issue, if you need something, you call 911.”

Munroe realized police were outside his door when, 20 minutes into the call, his dogs started barking. He grew more upset when officers started shouting at him. Among the dispatcher’s last words to Munroe: “Let me tell them they need to slow it down.” Instead, one officer rushed Munroe with a Taser when he came out of the house wielding what turned out to be a BB gun. The officers claim they fired 23 bullets toward the house, six of which struck and killed Munroe, because they heard a popping sound and saw him raise what looked like a real gun. Just minutes earlier, Munroe and the dispatcher had talked about Fourth of July fireworks that were exploding across the city that morning.

The BB gun Richard Munroe was carrying when shot by Austin Police in 2015.  Courtesy/Texas Criminal Justice Coalition

A Travis County grand jury cleared all three officers who shot Munroe. The Austin Police Department’s internal affairs investigation concluded that they didn’t violate any department policies, and none were disciplined. The city’s investigation into Munroe’s death would have ended there if not for the Citizen Review Panel that Austin had created years earlier for an independent look at such incidents. The panel is supposed to identify problems and make recommendations the department can implement to prevent future tragedies.

The Citizen Review Panel’s analysis called Munroe’s case “an example of what not to do” during a mental health call. That’s in part because the three officers who shot Munroe only had a combined 26 months on the job. Police summoned a helicopter to fly around Munroe’s neighborhood but never called for a crisis response team or mental health officer trained to deal with people in emotional distress. Cops fired nearly two dozen rounds toward Munroe’s house without even knowing whether anyone else was inside.

In all, the city-sanctioned panel of police watchdogs submitted eight recommendations to former APD Chief Art Acevedo aimed at preventing future needless police killings. If nothing else, wrote review board chair Dominic Gonzales, Munroe’s death should be a teaching moment for the department.

Austin’s Citizen Review Panel made at least 18 different recommendations to reform policies, procedures and training at APD in letters sent to the chief throughout 2016. According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, which obtained those letters and shared them with the Observer this week, none of those reforms have yet been incorporated. Some of them, such as revamping department policies in order to emphasize de-escalation in mental health calls, are recommendations that the board has made time and time again.

APD hasn’t responded to the Observer’s questions about the letters.



Gonzales says he’s frustrated that cases like Munroe’s continue to happen, despite the panel’s recommendations. “Actually, frustrating doesn’t go far enough to describe how it feels when you continue to see this pattern, particularly with people who are mentally ill.”

To Kathy Mitchell, a policy advocate with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, APD’s refusal to act on the recommendations suggest that Austin’s 16-year experiment in police oversight has failed. In 2001, the city created the Citizen Review Panel, along with Austin’s Office of the Police Monitor, as part of the city’s contract negotiations with the local police union. The bargain was supposed to create independent police oversight in exchange for a 22 percent pay increase for officers, according to the Austin American-Statesman. In a recent statement, Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday said the agreement created “the most transparent police department in the state, hands down.”

Mitchell and others say that transparency has not led to accountability. Watchdogs insist that police oversight in Austin isn’t working, not because review board members aren’t doing their jobs but because APD higher-ups aren’t listening. “What good is citizen oversight if police won’t listen to it?” Mitchell told the Observer.

Members of the Black Student Alliance demonstrate against police brutality at the University of Texas at Austin.  BSA-Texas/Twitter

Citizen oversight boards exist in some form in most large police departments across the state, often as the result of contract negotiations between cities and their police unions. In addition to Austin, citizens sit on panels in Dallas, San Antonio and Houston that review police shootings and allegations of police misconduct but only make nonbinding recommendations that police officials are free to ignore. Activists say Austin’s track record demonstrates the limitations of that system.

For example, Austin review board members recommended that police interview all witnesses to a police shooting, not just other cops. (In several letters, the board questioned why police didn’t take statements from civilian witnesses at the scene of a shooting.) Mitchell says none of the recommendations have made it into APD’s policy manual for officers. Some suggested changes can likely only be addressed by changing the city’s police union contract, which currently includes a rule barring officer suspensions for misconduct after 180 days have passed.

That’s in part why Austin Justice Coalition founder Chas Moore and others are urging Austin officials to make radical reforms to that contract this year, such as ending a policy that effectively sweeps some officer misconduct under the rug after enough time has passed. City officials and police union reps are in a final round of negotiations for the contract this month. Otherwise, Moore and others want city leaders to blow up the contract.

That would end the Citizen Review Panel, which Moore says isn’t working anyway. “These people get to see their internal investigation after a person is killed,” he said. “If their urgent recommendations are simply ignored, then we need a completely new approach.”

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Prosecutors drop 1 of 13 felony charges against Rep. Dawwna Dukes

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, has a laugh with State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, during afternoon debate on the budget  April 6, 2017.  

Prosecutors dropped one of their felony charges against state Rep. Dawnna Dukes on Wednesday, acknowledging that their case against the Austin Democrat has weakened since a grand jury indicted her on that and 12 other felony counts earlier this year.

The Travis County district attorney’s office wrote Wednesday that evidence they had used — gathered from Dukes’ cell phone — was incorrect. Originally, prosecutors claimed Dukes’ cell phone data showed she was out of Austin on a day when she received payment for working at the Capitol. But, according to Wednesday’s filing, a crime analyst from the Department of Public Safety, in at least one instance, mixed up the data she extracted from Dukes’ phone, using information from the wrong calendar date.

That means prosecutors will abandon one felony charge alleging Dukes had falsified travel information to collect a state official’s daily pay on a day when she did not work at the Capitol. The Travis County District Attorney’s office has until Oct. 30 to say whether it will continue to pursue the other 12 felony charges.

“When analyzing the correct data … [the Department of Public Safety] stated Ms. Dukes’ cell phone indicated activity near downtown Austin, Texas, which puts her within range of the Capitol building,” prosecutors wrote.

A lawyer for Dukes praised the decision.

“The prosecution made the right decision by dropping this charge,” Shaun Clarke, the attorney, said in an email. “Now they need to drop the twelve remaining charges.”

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ICE Detained a Pregnant Rape Survivor for Six Months, Records Show

Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe, Texas  Joe Corley Detention Center/Facebook

Carolina Ramirez had spent three weeks locked up in a prison-like detention center north of Houston when she discovered she was pregnant. It had taken the 23-year-old two months to travel from El Salvador to Texas, a difficult journey during which her smuggler raped her multiple times. Now, she was carrying his child. Ramirez desperately wanted out. Her mental health was deteriorating, and she wasn’t ready for an impending court date. But it would be six months before she was finally released.

Documents obtained by the Observer show Ramirez, who requested a pseudonym, repeatedly asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for parole on medical grounds so she could stay with family in Missouri as her case advanced. Federal policy encourages release of pregnant women and her attorney, Raul Tovar, was sure officials would let her go. Instead, immigration agents kept Ramirez locked up in the Joe Corley Detention Center, a for-profit facility that’s been the site of a hunger strike and rape allegations. Advocates say Ramirez’s story is part of a troubling trend of prolonged detention of pregnant women in ICE custody.

In September, seven organizations filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, accusing the agency of “failure to abide by its own policy against detaining pregnant women.” The complaint includes stories from 10 pregnant women who were locked up in recent months, including Ramirez. The women reported bad food, nausea, vomiting, depression and inability to get specialized care. In the last year, at least five women have miscarried in detention, according to the Huffington Post.

Multiple Obama-era ICE directives, the latest in 2016, prohibit detaining pregnant women absent “extraordinary circumstances” due to their “particular needs and vulnerabilities.” Under that guidance, pregnant women who arrived at the border were typically assigned a court date and released within days. But advocates say these directives are increasingly ignored under Trump.

“Suddenly, starting in July or August, we started to hear of more and more cases [of pregnant women in detention],” said Katharina Obser of the Women’s Refugee Commission, a national organization. And some advocates noted a change as early as last November.

Jennifer Elzea, an ICE spokesperson, wouldn’t confirm whether Obama’s 2016 directive is still in effect, saying release decisions are made based on the “individual facts and circumstances of the case.” Elzea also provided statistics: 525 pregnant women were detained since October of last year, with 33 in detention as of September 13. Elzea said she couldn’t provide complete figures for the previous year and didn’t provide a month-by-month breakdown, making it impossible to identify a trend.

Ramirez spent six months of her pregnancy locked up in the Joe Corley Detention Center, a 1,500-bed facility surrounded by razor-wire fencing on a dead-end road in Conroe. Until two years ago, it was an all-male facility. Owned and operated by the for-profit prison corporation GEO Group, the center holds detainees at three levels of security concern, including men who are violent offenders. (The groups are housed separately according to gender and security level, said Houston ICE spokesperson Gregory Palmore.)

In 2014, more than 180 detainees took part in a hunger strike at the facility over poor food and telephone access, according to an internal ICE review. A Salvadoran man has alleged he was raped twice at the facility in late 2013 and called “stupid” by an ICE official when he reported it. And, in April 2016, the Women’s Refugee Commission toured the facility and criticized conditions in a report released last week.

In that jail-like setting, Ramirez discovered on February 17 that she was pregnant, records show. Ramirez requested to be released by ICE, but the agency said she had to pass an initial screening first. Ramirez failed the interview in late February, but her attorney challenged the results, and two months later, the decision was reversed without explanation. Meanwhile, she stopped eating, began sleeping excessively and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, according to medical records.

When her attorney asked ICE to release Ramirez again in early May, the government refused for a new reason: Ramirez had entered the country illegally before.

immigrants, migrants, refugees
Photo of Border Patrol agent in McAllen in 2016. Ramirez was apprehended by Border Patrol in late January near Falfurrias, where she was left by a second smuggler.  Jen Reel

In 2014, Ramirez had come to the U.S. without documentation and was detained in Cameron County. While in detention, according to her parole request, she learned her mother had suddenly died back home, leaving her 12-year-old niece with no one to care for her. Ramirez abandoned her legal case and returned to El Salvador to take care of her niece, who then migrated to Missouri a year later. Ramirez’s father and five siblings all live in Missouri, and being alone in El Salvador left her an easy target for the gangs, said Tovar.

In late April, ICE surprised Tovar by saying they couldn’t release Ramirez because of her previous entry. Again, he disputed the decision, and after another two months, Ramirez was released in July without explanation — when she was more than seven months pregnant.

In total, Ramirez’ detention likely cost U.S. taxpayers about $22,000.

Now, Ramirez is finally with her family in Missouri, and Tovar said they’re working to find her a new lawyer in the area. She’s due to give birth any day now.

The post ICE Detained a Pregnant Rape Survivor for Six Months, Records Show appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Texas man travels to Orlando to sexually assault 9-year-old girl, police say

A 64-year-old man from Texas was arrested Saturday after Orlando detectives foiled his plans to meet a 9-year-old girl for sex, according to the Orlando Police Department.

An Orlando police detective was working undercover online in September and posted an advertisement on an e-commerce website as the Orlando parents of a 9-year-old girl. The ad referenced meeting “experienced parents to learn new things from about raising little ones,” according to the arrest report.

Mark Andrew Nichols, of Austin, Texas, responded to the detective’s post the same day it went live. He said he was “very interested” and wanted to talk more, the detective said. During the course of a week, Nichols sent several emails and texts to the fictitious parents expressing his interest in meeting, according to the arrest report.

About eight days later, the detective responded to Nichols posing as the father of the girl. The fake father explained to Nichols that he and his wife were trying to get their 9-year-old daughter into modeling and asked him what types of “interests” he had about the girl, the detective wrote in the report.

“When you say interests, are you asking generally? Or sexually?” Nichols responded to the father.

The suspect added that he was “fascinated” with incest and it was an “extreme turn on” for him. Nichols told the detective that he wanted to have sex with the 9-year-old but wanted to make sure the girl’s parents were “comfortable’ with it first. He told the detective posing as the father that he would love to “watch” or participate, according to the report.

Nichols added, “I am extremely respectful about all of this,” and said he was planning a trip to the Orlando area soon and would like to meet the family, according to the report.

The detective, posing as the father, asked what Nichols would like to do with the girl.

According to the arrest report, Nichols responded:

“I would like to visit you all. I am interested in having sex with (child decoy’s name) and (the child decoy’s mother’s name). I am bi so I am open to some bi play with you if you are interested. If you are not, that is fine. I would maybe like to watch you have sex with (the child). Be there. Touch and re-assure her. Then have sex with her myself. Would (the child) want to watch me with mom?” He further texted, “I want to be respectful and just provide you all with a fun, safe experience.”

Further text messages between the decoy parents and the suspect were graphic.

The detective, posing as the mother, asked Nichols if he had a daughter or had ever done any of the things he described to his own children. Nichols said he “enjoyed bath time” with his own daughter, but “back then, I would just never do anything,” according to the report.

On Saturday, Nichols flew to Orlando and when he arrived to meet with the girl and her parents he was arrested. He brought Skittles and Sour Patch Kids to the meeting, according to the report.

Nichols is charged with attempted sexual battery on a child under 12, attempted lewd or lascivious conduct, solicitation of a minor via a computer, obscene communication, traveling to meet a minor and unlawful use of a two-way device.

Nichols was booked into the Orange County Jail. According to jail records, he is being held without bail.

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Days from execution, man convicted in prison guard’s murder insists on innocence

Robert Pruett was sentenced to death in 2002 for the murder of prison guard Daniel Nagle. Pruett says he was framed by corrupt guards and inmates while the prison employee union says chronic understaffing led to Nagle's murder.

A man convicted in the 1999 murder of a Texas prison guard faces execution Thursday for the sixth time in a case where DNA testing has taken center stage.

Robert Pruett was sentenced to death in the stabbing of Daniel Nagle, a 37-year-old guard at a prison in Beeville. Pruett was a 20-year-old inmate serving a 99-year sentence at the time for being an accomplice in a murder committed by his father when he was 15.

Nagle was found lying in a pool of blood, stabbed repeatedly with a makeshift knife next to a torn up disciplinary report he had written on Pruett, according to court records. The prosecution argued that Pruett killed Nagle in retaliation for the report, and the jury agreed, but Pruett has consistently denied his involvement in the crime. He said he was framed by corrupt guards and inmates, and his lawyers have argued against the testimony used at trial.

“The only supposed eyewitness testimony came from inmate informants. Such so-called snitch testimony is notoriously unreliable,” wrote attorney David Dow in Pruett’s latest filing to a federal appellate court.

For years, he has sought multiple rounds of DNA testing on clothes, the weapon and the torn-up report in an attempt to prove his innocence. It has saved him from execution multiple times since 2013.

But in April, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals finally ruled that the results of two rounds of DNA testing were inconclusive and therefore would not have changed the result of his conviction. A new execution date was set for Oct. 12.

“You’ve got to have faith in your juries and the many courts that have scrutinized the evidence and the claims here, and I just don’t see any room for there being a claim of innocence here,” said Jack Choate, executive director of the Special Prosecution Unit, which prosecutes Texas prison crimes.

Still, Pruett is fighting.

The Court of Criminal Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court denied his latest claims in state court last week, but he has also sued in federal court, claiming recent refusals by the trial court and prosecution to proceed with further DNA testing violates his due process rights.

The DNA evidence that was tested and deemed inconclusive by Texas’ high appellate court needs more examination, Pruett argues in court filings. The testing looked primarily at the murder weapon, where a partial female profile had been found in the latest examination.

Pruett argues that the court should further investigate the profile, to see if it could identify a culprit, but the state argued the weapon was likely contaminated by people on the defense team and journalists who have handled it without gloves since the trial. The court denied further testing.

“Even if there were contamination, that conclusion would only demonstrate that the State had violated another provision of state law by failing to ensure the weapon is properly preserved,” Dow wrote to the court.

Pruett’s latest federal appeal was rejected by the appellate court Friday, but he could still appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Choate said that he expects the execution to proceed.

“I would be surprised to see the courts take a different position this late in the game,” he said.

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The Case to End Assembly Line Justice for Poor People in Harris County

Harris County hearing officer Jill Wallace (left) and Andrew Goodson  Screenshot/YouTube

On October 1, 2016, police arrested Andrew Goodson for carrying a knife just short of 6 inches long, a Class A misdemeanor in Texas. The next day, guards brought him and dozens of other inmates into a large room at the Harris County Jail, the nation’s third largest county lockup. One by one they walked to a red square tile situated below a screen that linked them, via video conference, to a prosecutor and a hearing officer who sets bail for the county’s misdemeanor courts.

According to court records, Goodson, 46, was living out of his car at the time and had only $29 to his name. He simply couldn’t afford the $250 bail bond payment that would buy his freedom.

In a video recording of the hearing, Goodson asked hearing officer Jill Wallace for a personal recognizance bond — an option for defendants too poor to make bail — but Wallace shut him down before he could even finish the sentence, citing a quarter-century-old arrest record out of Florida. (Court documents indicate he’s never been convicted of a felony, nor had he ever before been arrested in Harris County.) Wallace grew agitated when the defendant again tried to talk, telling him, “I’m not letting you talk because I’m going by what I feel is best for the community.” When he asked again if he could speak, Wallace yelled “No!” Wallace’s demeanor shifted once Goodson was out of sight. She laughed with the prosecutor after quipping that sending him back to jail “makes me feel better.”

Until recently, the bail process for low-level arrestees in Harris County functioned with the efficiency of an assembly line, sending poor defendants back to jail, sometimes for days or weeks, until they could resolve their cases. Last year, civil rights groups sued the county on behalf of those arrestees. In April, Lee Rosenthal, the chief federal judge for the Southern District of Texas, declared the county’s practice of using cash bail as de facto detention orders, regardless of someone’s ability to pay, an unconstitutional violation of poor people’s right to due process and equal protection.

Citing hearings like Goodson’s, Rosenthal found that Harris County’s attempts to reform the system haven’t gone far enough and this summer ordered that the jail release almost all misdemeanor arrestees on personal bonds after 24 hours if they can’t make bail. On Tuesday, lawyers for the county went to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to argue there’s no constitutional right to “affordable bail” and that Rosenthal’s ruling risks throwing pretrial systems across the country into disarray. The case could change the landscape of American bail practices in ways that reverberate throughout the criminal justice system. Some even say Rosenthal’s ruling could be the beginning of the end of cash bail in America as we know it.

“Wealth-based pretrial detention is a key driver of mass incarceration,” said Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney for Civil Rights Corps, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. “Ending the practice of keeping people in jail due to their poverty would make it more difficult for prosecutors to coerce guilty pleas and would help ensure that, whether rich or poor, arrestees can exercise their right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.”

In her exhaustive 193-page opinion, Rosenthal found that Harris County jailed hundreds of legally innocent people because they were too poor to pay a bondsman. Rosenthal concluded that the practice “exacerbates the racial disparities” that already exist in the criminal justice system. She cited research showing that defendants who fight their cases from behind bars are much more likely to plead guilty, be sentenced to jail and face longer jail sentences than people who can afford to pay for their pretrial release. Rosenthal labeled it “sentence first, conviction after.”



In Harris County, there’s ample evidence of those perverse incentives. For instance, starting in 2013, local prosecutors began notifying hundreds of defendants who took plea deals on drug possession charges that lab tests conducted months and even years after their convictions proved negative for drugs. In her ruling, Rosenthal found that Harris County prosecutors even sometimes threatened to seek harsher sentences if defendants wouldn’t take a guilty plea.

It’s obvious why someone would want to get out of jail as fast as possible, even if that means eating a criminal conviction that could cost them their job, public housing or scholarships. Consider the case of Patrick Joseph Brown, the 46-year-old man beaten to death in the Harris County Jail two days after he was booked for allegedly stealing a guitar. As the Houston Press reported, Brown got stuck in jail because he couldn’t pay the $300 premium on his $3,000 bond and, like 90 percent of the county’s misdemeanor defendants, wasn’t given a personal bond.

Against this backdrop, Harris County has made reforms in recent years that Rosenthal called laudable, such as giving bail hearing officers a more objective risk-assessment tool and providing public defenders at bail hearings. However, Rosenthal also called those reforms insufficient. It’s ultimately still up to individual hearing officers to decide whether poor people get personal bonds. Hearing officers and county judges regularly give people charged with crimes that indicate poverty — begging, trespassing or sleeping under a bridge — bond amounts that are clearly beyond their reach. Rosenthal said courts had an “unwritten custom” to deny all homeless people personal bonds, even for the pettiest of charges.

Even some local judges are fed up. Judge Darrell Jordan of Harris County Criminal Court 16 says that too many courts automatically equate poverty with risk and set unattainable bonds that keep poor people in jail. Jordan, who was elected to his seat last year after the bail lawsuit was already filed, testified on behalf of the plaintiffs that the county cannot fix the problem on its own. Since taking the bench in November, Jordan says he’s granted personal bonds to almost every defendant who appeared before him and couldn’t afford bail.

“Other judges are basically saying that a person is potentially violent or unsafe to the community if they’re unable to come up with that $500 to pay on a $5,000 bond,” Jordan told the Observer. “Somehow, that’s what all of a sudden makes them too unsafe to release. So I guess around income tax time, when everybody has a little bit of extra money, everyone becomes safe then, huh?”

At the Fifth Circuit appeals court Tuesday, lawyers for Harris County argued that Rosenthal’s order went too far. Charles Cooper, the county’s appellate attorney, spent much of his time telling the judges that misdemeanor defendants can still contest their bail-setting through the proper legal channels.

Judge Catharina Haynes, one of three Fifth Circuit judges who heard the case, seemed to dismiss that argument, saying the lengthy process to contest bail would last longer than most jail sentences for misdemeanor convictions. “How can that really be a remedy?” she asked.

On the other hand, Haynes said she was “shocked” by Rosenthal’s order to release people on personal bond after 24 hours, calling it “chaotic.”

The Fifth Circuit could affirm Rosenthal’s decision, overturn it or send it back to her court for further evidentiary hearings on the impact of her ruling on the county’s ongoing reforms. Trisha Trigilio, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, told the Observer that Rosenthal’s ruling, if it stands, should lead to fundamental changes beyond Houston. “The legal issues that are raised in the Harris County bail case are the same constitutional issues that we run into in jurisdictions across the state,” she said.

The post The Case to End Assembly Line Justice for Poor People in Harris County appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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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.

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Dreamers greet DACA renewal deadline with anxiety and unanswered questions

DACA supporters held a press conference in front of the Texas Attorney General's Office in Austin on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, after the Trump administration announced the program was ending. 

For more than 40,000 young undocumented immigrants, Thursday could be marked by a mad scramble to submit renewal applications for a federal program that’s shielded them from deportation for years.

The day marks the deadline for beneficiaries of the Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, to submit renewal applications for the program that began in 2012. It awards a two-year work permit and a reprieve from deportation proceedings to undocumented immigrants who came to the country before they were 16 years old and were 30 or younger as of June 2012.

President Donald Trump announced last month that he would keep a campaign promise by ending the program early next year, though he said he’s sympathetic to the young immigrants, known as “Dreamers,” and wants Congress to come up with a solution. Since the program launched, it has benefited more than 800,000 recipients — including more than 124,000 Texans. As of Wednesday morning, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had received 112,000 out of a potential 154,000 renewals.

“It’s been a very anxiety-producing time” since last month’s announcement, said Adam Luna, the communications director for United We Dream, a Washington-based advocacy group. “We’ve had a lot of educational and social media materials sent out. We want to engage people in the process and remind them they’re not alone, which they’re not.”

Thursday’s deadline only applies to DACA recipients whose benefits expire before March 5, the date Trump stated the program will end. Renewals will be honored for two years after the date they are approved. But tens of thousands who don’t fit that time frame are expected to be out of luck as soon as their most recent DACA expires.

Luna said that even among those who are eligible to renew, the cost to re-file, $495, has proven a barrier to many applicants. That led United We Dream and other organizations, including the Mexican consulate offices in Austin and Dallas, to launch scholarship drives to help Dreamers pay the dues. As of Thursday, United We Dream alone was able to fund about 1,600 applications, Luna said.

Nicholas Hoffman, a DACA recipient who came to the country from Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1998, said he’s done without meals and gas money in the past to foot the bill for his renewal fee. He filed before Thursday’s deadline but said he’s still worried about not getting approved.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be accepted or not because I procrastinated a little too long,” he said. But Hoffman said he understands why Trump rescinded the program, and why Obama created it.

“Obama did do it illegally,” he said, referring to the former president creating DACA by executive order instead of waiting on Congress to act. “But he did it with good intentions. That’s why nobody questioned Obama for doing it. I understand why Trump is doing this because it’s kind of an ‘F. U.’ to the old administration. But at the same time, he’s toying with over 800,000 people’s lives. That’s what makes my blood boil.”

Hoffman’s view of DACA’s legality matches that of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who helped force Trump’s hand on the program. Months earlier, Paxton urged the U.S. Department of Justice to end the program, claiming it was an unlawful overreach by Obama. Paxton and nine other state attorneys general wrote in a June 29 letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that should the program stay intact, they would formally challenge it’s legality in court on Sept. 5, the day the Trump administration announced plans to end the program.

While he waits on word from the federal government on his renewal, Hoffman and tens of thousands like him will be watching to see what Congress — and Trump — decide to do over the next five months.

The White House met with Democrats over DACA last month, but the meeting ended with mixed signals being sent in all directions. Trump had dinner at the White House with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California. Democrats later announced they had a deal to protect the Dreamers without funding another one of the president’s campaign promises: his “big, beautiful wall” on the southern border. But Trump quickly denied any deal was reached. Since then, Dreamers and their supporters have demanded a “clean” DREAM act – legislation that will codify DACA but that doesn’t include ramped up enforcement, funding for a wall or for additional Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Border Patrol agents.

“We need to have Washington move away from [legislation] where a group of immigrants gets the boot taken off their necks but punches another group of immigrants in the face,” Luna said.

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In historic win, charters getting state funding for facilities for the first time

Children from charter and private schools all over Texas turned out for the 85th legislative session's National School Choice Rally on Jan. 24, 2017.

For the first time in Texas, public charter schools will receive state funding to pay for leasing and maintaining buildings and facilities — expanding their access to the state’s limited money for public schools.

In August, the Legislature passed House Bill 21, a school finance law that included up to $60 million annually for charter facilities funding beginning in fiscal year 2018-19. That funding will be divided per student among the charter schools that meet state standards. Charter advocates, who have petitioned for decades to get such funding, argue that the law is the first step toward receiving the same total dollars per student as traditional school districts. However, critics counter that the law diverts funds from the larger number of students who attend traditional public schools.

Traditional public school districts primarily pay for facilities through bonds repaid with local taxes. Some receive help with bond payments through two state funding programs passed in the 1990s. Instructional funds come from a different pot of state and local money.

Publicly funded and privately managed, charter schools do not levy taxes and, until this year, did not receive any state funding for facilities. They receive the average per-student funding of all traditional school districts, and have used that for both instruction and facilities.

In 2012, the Texas Charter School Association sued the state for facilities funding, arguing their schools were being funded inequitably by the state. The $60 million allotted through HB 21 will help charters that have not been able to build on existing property to serve more students, said David Dunn, the association’s executive director. “This is a good first step. It’s a great start toward covering the gap in funding, but it doesn’t get us the whole way,” he said.

This year, Houston-based YES Prep charter carved $3 million out of a state instructional allotment of about $86 million to fund repairs across 14 of its 17 campuses in the city. HB 21 would provide administrators with just under $3 million for those repairs, meaning an additional $3 million is free to spend in the classrooms.

“It’s still not enough in the long run,” YES Prep CEO Mark DiBella said. “It won’t be enough to cover maintenance alone. It certainly won’t be enough to cover any new buildings.”

The same school finance law also provided a $60 million boost for one of the state facilities funding programs passed in the 1990s, which will help some traditional school districts repay their bonds. But the majority of Texas’ fastest-growing school districts receive no state support for facilities and will not see any through this law, said Guy Sconzo, executive director of the Fast Growth Schools Coalition, which advocates for such districts.

Sconzo said he was disappointed that the Legislature granted 5 million students in school districts the same total amount for facilities as the 300,000 in charter schools. “There’s something grossly inequitable about that,” he said.

Mike Feinberg, founder of KIPP charter schools, said the $60 million allotted to charters in the law would not have been enough to fund all the traditional public schools that need it. “This is not game-changing money at the end of the day” for fast-growing school districts, he said. “It’s hard to rationalize how $60 million would have made a big difference when what they needed is in the billions.”

The state is working toward increasing the number of high-performing charter schools. Currently, the number of charter licenses is capped statewide at 305 by 2019, and about 171 are operational at latest state count. The U.S. Department of Education last week granted the Texas Education Agency $38 million in grants for the 2017 fiscal year to expand its charter schools — one of nine awards to state agencies across the country.

With the door open for charters to get state facilities funding, charter and traditional public school advocates will be vying for funding increases from the same pot of limited money in future legislative sessions.

“We’ll go back to the drawing board and figure out how we continue to advocate for more facilities funding,” DiBella said. “Across the board, [the school finance system] is not equitable.”

Disclosure: The Fast Growth School Coalition has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune.  A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Attorney General Ken Paxton’s trial is delayed for a third time

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton during press conference announcing a lawsuit that had been filed against the U.S Dept of Education, U.S Dept of Justice and other agencies which are requiring TX public schools to open restrooms, locker rooms to both sexes. May 25, 2016

HOUSTON — Attorney General Ken Paxton‘s trial has been put off for a third time.

The judge in the securities fraud case against Paxton sided Wednesday with prosecutors who had been pushing for another trial delay because of a long-running dispute over their fees. The decision by Harris County District Court Judge Robert Johnson scrapped Paxton’s current Dec. 11 trial date and left the new one to be determined, possibly at a Nov. 2 conference.

Paxton had been set to go to trial on Dec. 11 on the least serious of three charges he faces. The date for that trial had already been pushed back twice because of pretrial disputes, first over the venue and then the judge.

For more than two years, Paxton has been fighting charges that he misled investors in a company from before his time as attorney general. The delayed trial deals with the charge that Paxton failed to register with the state securities board.

Paxton has pleaded not guilty to all the allegations. He has already been cleared in a similar, civil case at the federal level.

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Judge blocks Texas secretary of state from giving voter information to Trump commission

People wait in line at the George Washington Carver Library in Austin, Texas, to cast their vote on Election Day 2016.

A Texas district judge has issued a temporary restraining order preventing Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos from handing voter information to President Donald Trump‘s voter fraud investigation commission.

The order, which came out Tuesday, adds Texas to a growing list of states not complying with the president’s investigation into the 2016 elections, which Trump says suffered from large-scale voter fraud.

Judge Tim Sulak of the Austin-based 353rd Texas Civil District Court issued the order in response to a lawsuit filed July 20 by the League of Women Voters of Texas, its former president Ruthann Geer and the Texas NAACP against Pablos and Keith Ingram, the Texas Elections Division director in the the secretary of state’s office. The lawsuit seeks to stop the state from handing over voter data from the state’s computerized voter registration files to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The suit argues that doing so would reveal voters’ personal information, “which may be used to solicit, harass, or otherwise infringe upon the privacy of Texas voters.”

The secretary of state’s office didn’t immediately return a request for comment for this article.

The League’s current president, Elaine Wiant, said the organization is especially concerned that releasing the data could make millions of voters’ personal information public, making it vulnerable to commercial use. Texas law forbids public voter information from being used commercially, but with the presidential commission, Wiant said “there is no guarantee how it will get used.” Wiant also said the League is concerned that releasing the data would make voters’ birthdates public.

“In today’s world, that is just way too much information to be made available to the public,” Wiant said. “There are serious security concerns.”

The order, which expires Oct. 17 or with further order from the court, says that handing over voter information could cause “irreparable” injury. Without “appropriate safeguards,” the order argues, the data is likely to become public, potentially violating voters’ privacy rights, their interests in “avoiding commercial solicitation, chilling of their First Amendment rights, and the diminution of their efforts to encourage voting.”

Trump launched the commission by executive order in May following his unsubstantiated claim that “millions” of votes were cast illegally. The White House previously told The Texas Tribune that Trump “wants to ensure that the integrity of all elections, which are the cornerstone of our democracy, is preserved.”

The commission sent requests on June 28 to all states’ secretaries of state for a wide array of voter information. Several states, led by both parties, immediately refused to hand over data, with Mississippi’s Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann famously saying the presidential commission could “jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Pablos, however, said at the time: “The Secretary of State’s office will provide the Election Integrity Commission with public information and will protect the private information of Texas citizens while working to maintain the security and integrity of our state’s elections system. As always, my office will continue to exercise the utmost care whenever sensitive voter information is required to be released by state or federal law.”

The hearing for the suit is set for Oct. 16. Wiant said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the case.

“It’s just hard to know,” she said.

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East Texas county sues drug companies, alleges role in opioid crisis

An East Texas county is suing a slew of prescription painkiller manufacturers and distributers in federal court, accusing them of fueling an opioid addiction epidemic that has gripped communities across the nation — in part by allegedly inflating the drugs’ benefits in treating chronic pain and downplaying the addiction risks.

In filing the lawsuit, Upshur County became the first of what could be more Texas governments to seek financial damages from companies alleged to have played a role in the opioid crisis.

Lawsuits are also expected from the East Texas counties of Bowie, Delta, Hopkins, Lamar, Red River and Smith, lawyers representing those governments — and Upshur County — said Wednesday.

The development comes as Attorney General Ken Paxton has inserted Texas into a 41-state investigation of companies that manufacture or sell opioids. The states last month served investigative subpoenas or other requests to eight such companies and their affiliates, including some named in Upshur County’s lawsuit.

Defendants in the Upshur County challenge, filed in U.S. district court in Marshall, include: Purdue Pharma, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Pfizer, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Allergan, AmerisourceBergen Corporation, Cardinal Health, McKesson Corporation, Abbott Laboratories, and Johnson & Johnson.

Opioids are a family of drugs including prescription painkillers like hydrocodone, as well as illicit drugs like heroin.

Prescription and illegal opioids account for more than 60 percent of overdose deaths in the U.S., a toll that has quadrupled over the past two decades, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Drug overdose deaths in 2015 far outnumbered deaths from auto accidents or guns.

Texas saw 1,186 opioid-related deaths in 2015, while the nation as a whole had 33,000 such deaths that year. Researchers have flagged opioids as one possible factor in Texas’ staggering rise in women’s deaths during and shortly after pregnancy.

In its lawsuit, Upshur County argues it “has spent and continues to spend large sums combatting the public health crisis created by Defendants’ negligent and fraudulent marketing campaign,” and is seeking an unspecified amount in damages.

“There is no denying that we have an opioid crisis in America, and that the human misery and financial damage it causes is enormous,” said Jeffrey Simon, co-founder of Simon Greenstone Panatier Bartlett, who is representing Upshur County in the suit. “Although accidental overdoses have become the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, the pharmaceutical industry has not been fully held accountable for its role in creating this epidemic.”

The drug companies refuted the allegations on Wednesday, and pointed to policies that they said deter painkiller abuse.

“The people of Cardinal Health care deeply about the devastation opioid abuse has caused American families and communities and are committed to helping solve this complex national public health crisis,” said Geoffrey Basye, a spokesman for Cardinal Health. “We will defend ourselves vigorously in court and at the same time continue to work, alongside regulators, manufacturers, doctors, pharmacists and patients, to fight opioid abuse and addiction.”

In its own statement, Purdue Pharma said: “We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution. … We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”

Simon, the attorney representing Upshur County, said his lawsuit would not interfere with the states’ investigation of companies involved in manufacturing and distributing opioids.

“There is no direct relationship with the investigation that AG Paxton has joined,” he said in an email. “Both will work in parallel, but the more information that is developed through the combination of these efforts, the better the public is served by revelation of the truth.”

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Reward raised for man on Texas 10 Most Wanted Sex Offenders list

The reward for one of Texas’ 10 most wanted sex offenders has increased to $8,000 for the month of October, the Department of Public Safety said.

Manuel Muniz, 47, who is wanted for failure to comply with sex offender registration requirements and parole violation, has been wanted since February.

Muniz was convicted in 2007 of aggravated sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was paroled in November 2016.

The Department of Public Safety said Muniz, who has ties to communities in Bosque County, has a criminal history that also includes assault, burglary and obstruction and retaliation.

Muniz is 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs approximately 235 pounds. He has tattoos of Vietnamese symbols on his right forearm and other tattoos on his upper arms, abdomen, left thigh and finger. He also has scars on his right eyebrow and forehead.

Anyone with information about Muniz or his whereabouts can call Crime Stoppers at 800-252-8477.

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Texas business mogul Mark Cuban offers details for hypothetical 2020 presidential run

Mark Cuban is a tech billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.

Texas business mogul Mark Cuban offered new details about how he would hypothetically run for president in 2020 in a podcast posted Tuesday.

In an episode of “ViewPoint” hosted by CNN contributor Bakari Sellers, Cuban, who describes himself as “independent all the way through” and “not traditional in terms of politics at all,” said he was “considering” a run for the White House and drew strong contrasts between himself and President Donald Trump.

“I don’t think anybody who knows me, anybody who listens to me, anybody who talks to me is going to think I’m anything like Donald Trump,” Cuban said on the podcast.

Cuban said were he to run, he would have “no problem” with publicly declaring his business holdings and releasing his tax returns — which Trump famously refused to do. But he said he would not divest from personal business interests if he were elected, saying Trump has only faced problems with his business possessions because he “isn’t transparent about them.”

Cuban, who created a massive personal fortune after investing in startups and other business interests, is famous for being a “shark investor” on the ABC reality show “Shark Tank” and his high-profile ownership of a majority stake in the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.

During the 2016 presidential election, he endorsed Hillary Clinton and was a vocal critic of Trump, though he had previously expressed interest in joining both Clinton’s and Trump’s tickets as vice president.

When Sellers asked Cuban if he would be willing to campaign against Republicans during the 2018 midterm elections, Cuban said, “Probably not.”

Cuban said key issues facing the country include income inequality, health care and technological competitiveness. Calling health care a “right,” he said the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature health law, was a “step in the right direction” — but adding that “any system built on insurance will fail.”

Ultimately, Cuban said he still hasn’t decided whether to run for office.

“If I can come up with solutions I think people can get behind and truly solve problems, then it makes perfect sense for me to run,” he said. “If it comes down to, do I think I can win because I can convince more people to vote for me, then no, I won’t run.”

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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.

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Hearing in Paxton case to consider delaying trial for third time

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton during a press conference to recognize January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month on January 12, 2017.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton‘s lawyers and the prosecutors handling the securities fraud case against him are preparing to debate a familiar topic Wednesday: whether his trial should be delayed — for a third time — until the prosecutors can get paid.

Both sides are due in Houston for a hearing on the prosecutors’ latest effort to push back the trial amid a long-running legal battle over their compensation — a fight that recently reached the state’s highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Earlier this year, when Paxton’s case was before a different judge, the prosecutors were unsuccessful in a prior attempt to delay the trial until they could collect their paycheck.

Currently, Paxton is set to go to trial Dec. 11 on the less serious of three charges he faces. The date for that trial has already been pushed back twice due to pretrial disputes, first over the venue and then the judge.

In a recently filed motion, the prosecutors asked the judge in the Paxton case to further delay the trial until the Court of Criminal Appeals can sort out of the payment issue — “a process which could take many months.” That ongoing litigation, coupled with logistical difficulties created by Hurricane Harvey, “make a trial date in December impossible” for the prosecutors, they wrote.

Paxton’s team scoffed at that ask in a response Tuesday, saying the prosecutor pay battle is “wholly irrelevant to the trial.”

“If ‘a trial date in December [is] impossible,’ for the attorneys pro tem as they state in their brief, then their remedy is not further degradation of Paxton’s right to a speedy trial — it is withdrawal,” Paxton’s lawyers wrote. “Should they wish to do so, Paxton will not lodge any objection.”

Last week, the Court of Criminal Appeals intervened in the dispute over the prosecutors’ pay, issuing a stay of a lower-court ruling last month that voided a six-figure paycheck for them. In its decision, the Court of Criminal Appeals gave all sides 30 days to respond to the prosecutors’ argument that the lower court, the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals, overreached when it invalidated the payment.

The issue of the compensation of the prosecutors on the case stems from a series of lawsuits from Jeff Blackard, a supporter of the attorney general, who has sought to limit the payments by the Collin County Commissioners Court, arguing excessive taxpayer money is going toward prosecuting Paxton. The commissioners ultimately took up the fight, asking the 5th Court of Appeals to cut off the prosecutors’ pay.

For over two years, Paxton has been fighting charges that he misled investors in a company from before his time as attorney general. The Dec. 11 trial deals with the charge that Paxton failed to register with the state securities board.

Paxton has pleaded not guilty to all the allegations. He has already been cleared in a similar, civil case at the federal level.

Paxton will not attend the hearing Wednesday.

“Attorney General Paxton is traveling on official business to meet some long standing commitments that were made prior to the hearing,” Matt Welch, a spokesman for the Paxton campaign, said in a statement. “Both the judge and the special prosecutors agreed to waive his appearance requirement.”

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