Category Archives: State

Medical marijuana in Texas: What you need to know

Texans can now access medical marijuana legally because of a law signed by Governor Abbott.

In compliance with the Compassionate Use Program, the first dispensary will soon open in Schulenburg, Texas.

Knox Medical officials said the Department of Public Safety makes weekly inspections as they prepare to open.

Founder and CEO of Knox Medical, Jose Hidalgo, said they chose Schulenburg because it is almost right in the middle of San Antonio, Austin and Houston. They are on schedule to begin deliveries next month.

“We’ll go to the major treatment centers and talk to the physicians and find out, ‘Do any of your patients qualify for medical cannabis?'” Hidalgo explained.

What will they be licensed to make?

According to DPS, they are authorized for Low-THC Cannabis as the plant Cannabis sativa L., and any part of that plant or any compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, preparation, resin, or oil of that plant that contains:

A. Not more than 0.5 percent by weight of tetrahydrocannabinols; and
B. Not less than 10 percent by weight of cannabidiol.

Who will get access to cannabis?

The Compassionate Use Program is limited to patients in Texas with intractable epilepsy of any age.

However, Texas Children’s Hospital is planning a different approach.

“A pharmaceutical-grade medication in a clinical trial, with the proper regulations and safety considerations, is something that we would propose as a better pathway than just making an oil and giving it to children,” Dr. Clark said.

Clark said he thinks it’s only a matter of time before a drug showing promise in clinical trials (Epidiolex) will be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Clark said he will wait and prescribe something like that instead of ordering something from a licensed dispensary.

“There is an abundance of studies done out there. None of them are going to fit what an FDA clinical type trial are,” Hidalgo countered. “The reason why the Texas legislature passed CBD cannabis like other states is because the parents of these very, very sick children are demanding it.”

Who determines if you’re eligible for cannabis?

A patient may be prescribed low-THC cannabis if:
The patient is a permanent resident of Texas;
The patient is diagnosed with intractable epilepsy;
The qualified physician determines the risk of the medical use of low-THC cannabis by a patient is reasonable in light of the potential benefit for the patient; and
A second qualified physician has concurred with the determination.

Dr. Clark warns that just like all medications, CBD oil has limits. It’s not a miracle cure and does not work for everyone.

Clark said researchers are not sure why it shows benefits in some patients and not in others.

The FDA still classifies medical marijuana as unsafe.

Is smoking the plant legal in Texas?

No. Smoking is specifically excluded as a medical use, according to DPS.

What do Houston parents think?

Max and Kelly Beatty’s daughter is currently taking Epidiolex in a clinical trial.

“Given the choice, I would take the FDA drug and give that to Scarlett every time but that’s not an option for everyone right now,” Max Beatty said about his daughter with a severe form of epilepsy. “I just want the other families in Texas who are dealing with what we’re dealing with and worse, I want them to have a shot at what we get. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.”

The Beattys said Epidiolex is helping their daughter, Scarlett, to maintain smaller doses of her medication.

She has fewer seizures and she’s more alert.

“She gets to do so much more now than she ever did before so she’s happy now, I think,” Kelly said.

For more frequently asked questions, click here.

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Abbott calls White House’s latest disaster aid request “completely inadequate”

President Donald J. Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday panned the White House’s latest disaster aid request, calling it “completely inadequate” for Texas’ needs in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Unveiled earlier Friday, the request seeks $44 billion from Congress to assist with the Harvey aftermath, as well as the recoveries from other recent hurricanes in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While not final, the number is far less than the $61 billion proposal that Abbott had submitted for Texas alone to Congress last month.

“What was offered up by Mick Mulvaney and [his Office of Management and Budget] is completely inadequate for the needs of the state of Texas and I believe does not live up to what the president wants to achieve,” Abbott said at a Capitol news conference called to unveil a $5 billion grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The president has told me privately what he’s said publicly, and that is that he wants to be the builder president,” Abbott added. “The president has said that he wants this to be the best recovery from a disaster ever.”

Abbott said the $44 billion request is less than what was offered in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — which hit the East Coast in 2012 and was “half the storm of what Hurricane Harvey was.” If Trump wants to see through the “biggest and best recovery ever,” Abbott added, the effort is “going to necessitate both more funding but also better strategies.”

Abbott was joined at the news conference by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who also made clear he was less than pleased with the White House’s latest disaster aid request. Asked whether he was ready to free up a top OMB nominee whose confirmation he has been blocking as leverage to secure more Harvey aid, he replied: “I’m not satisfied. We have to have further conversation.”

At the press conference, Pam Patenaude, Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced that the department will award Texas $5 billion for Harvey recovery. The money will be used to rebuild hard-hit areas throughout the state and be overseen by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush. Apart from the new grant, Bush’s General Land Office is currently managing six other community development block grants that total about $4 billion.

Bush said the preliminary plan of action for the $5 billion HUD grant is complete. As of now, the money is planned to go toward temporary housing and fixing damaged homes.

“We are now tasked with the largest housing recovery in American history,” Bush said.

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Abbott, Patrick push back on TxDOT’s plans for financing new toll projects

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick before hitting the gavel to begin a Senate session Aug. 15, 2017, the day before the end of a first called special session of the 85th Legislature. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told state transportation leaders Thursday they should abandon plans for using an accounting maneuver to get around a constitutional prohibition on some toll projects. Patrick said the idea has left lawmakers “very unhappy” with Texas Transportation Commission members, who appear “to be going in a direction that opposes the will” of legislators and Texas drivers.

Comments from Abbott and Patrick came hours after The Texas Tribune reported that the commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, is considering funding highway rebuilds and expansions in corridors that would also feature managed toll lanes.

Some of those projects could be partially funded with billions of tax dollars that Texas voters overwhelmingly agreed to spend on highway projects. Ballot language that steered those funds to TxDOT also said the money would not be used on toll roads or toll lanes.

TxDOT, though, is considering accounting maneuvers that would still allow toll lanes to be built. Their idea: Voter-approved funds would be spent on the non-tolled main lanes, while the new toll lanes next to them would be funded through gas tax revenue or federal loans that don’t come with restrictions on using them for toll projects.

“It is surprising and disappointing to learn that TxDOT created a plan to add managed toll lanes to virtually every major roadway under consideration,” Patrick told transportation officials in a letter Thursday.

Bruce Bugg, who chairs the transportation commission, told the Tribune Wednesday that Abbott’s office is aware of the idea to use accounting maneuvers to help fund rebuilds that would be next to toll lanes. He also said that he believes the practice would not violate the state constitution.

Abbott appoints the five commissioners that oversee TxDOT and promised Texans that highway capacity would be added throughout the state without new toll lanes financing construction.

“The governor and his staff have been in constant communication with members of the Texas Transportation Commission and TxDOT staff to express their desire to not include new toll roads” in long-term state transportation plans, Abbott spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said Thursday.

TxDOT officials could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.

Meanwhile, State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, has asked the state attorney general’s office to weigh in on whether the accounting idea is legal.

Lawmakers in recent years have fiercely opposed toll roads and managed toll lanes as their constituents have complained about the increasing number of such projects, especially in North Texas. Collin County lawmakers successfully got regional planners there to drop plans for turning carpool lanes on Central Expressway into managed toll lanes. And the Texas House earlier this year killed a major transportation funding bill, largely because projects within it would have included toll lanes.

TxDOT officials’ idea comes as they prepare to update the state’s long-term transportation plan next year. Many of the projects being proposed for the plan include managed toll lanes, which run alongside non-tolled main lanes and generally charge drivers rates that vary based on usage. The tolls increase as more people use the managed lanes. Those increases are meant to prevent the lanes from becoming more congested.

Transportation officials say funding the managed lanes with federal loans backed by toll revenues, while adding non-tolled main lanes with tax dollars, would help the agency build more capacity with limited funds. In meetings, TxDOT documents and interviews, state officials have also indicated that regional planners from the state’s major urban areas are pushing the idea of using managed toll lanes.

Once toll revenues pay off construction costs, the excess funds that drivers would still pay could then be used to maintain existing roads or pay for expanding or building roads in the same areas.

“These local communities are trying to identify solutions to manage and mitigate their traffic congestion throughout their respective areas,” TxDOT project planning and development director Lauren Garduño told transportation commissioners last month.

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Cities race to annex land before new Texas law goes into effect Dec. 1

A road sign outside of Mesquite city limits in Dallas County. Mesquite has rushed to annex land outside its city limits before Dec. 1, 2017, when a new law would require some cities to get the consent of residents before annexing their property.

DALLAS COUNTY — On a recent afternoon, Michelle Singleton played with her dogs behind her house. The pets’ barks and the chirps of crickets were the only sounds on the 15-acre property, which Singleton and her husband, Stan, bought more than 30 years ago. There, outside the North Texas city of Mesquite, they have hosted bonfires, hunted doves and watched their three children grow up.

But now, Mesquite plans to annex their land, and the Singletons are afraid it will ruin their way of life.

Mesquite is among several cities across Texas, including McKinney and Pearland, that have tried to annex land before a new law goes into effect Dec. 1, requiring certain cities to get the consent of a majority of property owners before annexing their land. City governments have said they are responding to the needs of urban growth and normal development. But residents say they just want to be left alone.

“We’ve survived this long without them,” Michelle Singleton said of city officials. “And we don’t need them to survive now.”

Against the clock

City officials in Mesquite and Pearland acknowledge the law has rushed their annexation plans but say annexation had been on their radar long before Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law in August. Mesquite Mayor Stan Pickett said developers who own land outside the city asked early this year to be annexed in order to provide city services to future subdivisions.

Mesquite City Council members added that the annexation was aimed at controlling inevitable development in the area, not taking over current residents’ homes. The city has dramatically reduced the amount of land under consideration for annexation in response to the negative outcry from private landowners. During an Oct. 26 public meeting, Mesquite City Council member Bruce Archer said if he could annex land without any independent homes, he would.

“Our desire has never been to take in a bunch of homes out here,” Archer said at the meeting. “But I think all of our desire is to do something very nice out here and to make sure things we don’t want don’t come out here.”

Pickett said Mesquite has reached out to residents, offering city staff to help them navigate the annexation.

But state Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, a House sponsor of the new law, Senate Bill 6, said he and his constituents in Kaufman County would not negotiate with city hall because “they don’t have anything we want.” Gooden said the point of the measure — which applies to cities in nine of the state’s most populous counties, plus Henderson County — was to protect Texans who do not want to be annexed by neighboring cities.

“This is the first issue in my three terms of office that I have ever seen 100 percent of people on the same side,” Gooden said. “There’s not one person in this area in Kaufman County that wants to be annexed.”

City codes on country homes

In the Houston area, Caye and Gerard Hauser are in a situation similar to the Singletons’. The couple first moved to a plot of land outside of Pearland almost 40 years ago to escape the city and start afresh. They, like most of their neighbors, started with a small mobile home on a few acres and eventually constructed a house.

Like the Singletons, the Hausers have raised their children on their land and hope to pass it on to future generations. Caye Hauser said they also have livestock and fear annexation could force urban codes on a rural setting.

“These are not just places that we just popped out two or three years ago and lived and hoped that somebody would annex us,” Hauser said. “We’ve been out here. And we’ve been surviving on our own all this time.”

Mesquite Mayor Stan Pickett speaks during a public meeting on annexation on Oct. 26, 2017.
Mesquite Mayor Stan Pickett speaks during a public meeting on annexation on Oct. 26, 2017. Laura Buckman for The Texas Tribune

Residents around Mesquite have similar concerns over potential city regulations. At the city council meeting about annexation last month, property owner Mack Beam said that after his land was annexed into Mesquite 11 years ago, officials cited him for violating codes based on “city living.”

“Within 72 hours after we were annexed, we got our first heaping helping of city services, which were code enforcement people coming in up and down the road out there because our hay meadows weren’t cut to suit the city,” Beam said.

Pickett said that was before his mayoral tenure and that he has no desire to change people’s ways of life. Pickett added that it’s “just not practical” to enforce the same codes used in the Mesquite city center out in rural areas.

In Pearland, however, council member Keith Ordeneaux had a different take. In an email to Hauser’s family obtained by the Tribune, Ordeneaux disputed Hauser’s characterization of their land as “country.” While he said people in annexed areas will have to abide by city codes, prohibiting bonfires and fireworks, he disagrees there will be a serious effects on residents, as the land has already developed into a suburban area. Ordeneaux said in an email to the Tribune that the land had always been subject to possible annexation and the new law simply sped up the process.

Several residents have said annexation will increase their taxes for services they will not use. Property taxes for both Mesquite and Pearland are about 69 cents for every $100 of property value, so about $690 per year for the average Mesquite household, in addition to county and school district taxes.

Ordeneaux added that areas planned for annexation already receive some city functions, such as fire and emergency medical services, without paying city taxes.

“I … do not understand the argument of country living ending once you are annexed into a city,” Ordeneaux wrote in the email to the Hausers. “Besides having to pay city taxes, what concerns do you have about your way of life?”

The state intervenes

The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has intervened in some annexation efforts. The office sent a letter on Nov. 6 to officials of the North Texas city of McKinney, arguing they did not properly follow state annexation procedure. McKinney has since canceled its annexation plans.

Pickett received a similar letter on Nov. 9 from Paxton’s office, arguing Mesquite may have failed to properly notify residents and hold public meetings with sufficient notice. Some property owners said they never received notifications and learned of the annexation efforts through friends and neighbors. Pickett said the city mailed notifications to property owners in early September and posted announcements on its website, as required by state law.

Shortly after Paxton’s office sent the letter to Pickett, a state district court ordered Mesquite to delay its annexation efforts in Kaufman County. But the order does not apply to Dallas County, including the Singletons’ property.

This week, a Texas appeals court denied a request from Mesquite to cancel the order. A delay could cause the city to miss the Dec. 1 deadline — precisely what residents and Gooden hope will happen.

“They say you can’t fight city hall,” Gooden said. “But we are, and we’re winning and we plan to win.”

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A “glitch” on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s website asked for visitors’ Social Security numbers

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn joins fellow Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Tribune CEO Evan Smith for the closing day of The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 24, 2017.

An error on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn‘s website last night required constituents to submit their Social Security number when filling out the comments box on the website.

Normally, Cornyn’s website only requires people to submit their Social Security numbers when they are requesting help with a federal agency. The error last night required it, along with their name, address and contact information, even when leaving the Texas Republican a comment.

A spokesperson for Cornyn said the required field was a “glitch.”

“It was an inadvertent glitch and our website vendor has fixed it,” Drew Brandewie wrote in an email.

As of Tuesday morning, the field has been removed from Cornyn’s website on the “Discuss an issue” page but remains if constituents are seeking help with an agency.

Most other members of the Texas delegation in Congress have similar forms to submit comments on their webpages but do not require a Social Security number for those solely trying to contact the member’s office. However, many use a specialized privacy form that requires a Social Security number for those requesting help with a federal agency.

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Greg Abbott Declares War on Moderate Republicans

Representative Sarah Davis, Governor Greg Abbott  via Sarah Davis, Patrick Michels

In the latest episode of Texas Politics, God’s dumbest reality show, Governor Greg Abbott celebrated the beginning of Republican primary season by going to war — against a popular incumbent lawmaker in his own party, in a district that Hillary Clinton won by 15 points. On Monday morning, Abbott issued a fatwa of sorts, calling for the replacement of state Representative Sarah Davis, a moderate pro-choice Republican, with primary challenger Susanna Dokupil, a right-wing lawyer and board member of the Seasteading Institute, which exists to build libertarian cruise ships and permanently station them in international waters, free from the laws of man.

If that information is hard to make sense of, so are most recent events on Texas Politics. Conservative activists hate Davis, the least conservative Republican in the House. Davis is a generally reliable vote for abortion rights, gay rights, public schools, vaccines, etc. But Abbott’s decision to weigh in against a party incumbent breaks an unwritten rule, and the political logic behind it is hard to parse. House District 134 covers much of Houston’s upscale west side, including Bellaire and West University Place, went for Clinton by 15 percentage points in 2016, and was held by Democrat Ellen Cohen before Davis won it in 2010. Davis is probably the GOP’s best chance to retain the seat, so Abbott’s decision to join the fight seems to put his own desire to unseat Davis ahead of the party’s interest.

Furthermore, Dokupil does not appear to be a particularly strong candidate. In many ways she’s a fairly run-of-the-mill party hack, a lawyer with ties to the Federalist Society, the American Enterprise Institute, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Harris County Republican Party. She co-chaired the national finance committee for Ted Cruz’s 2012 Senate campaign. Then there’s the Seasteading Institute, a political project of Silicon Valley’s chief cryptofascist, Peter Thiel. Seasteaders seek to construct “floating communities in the ocean based on the principles of contract and radical consent” — Burning Man meets Waterworld.

Susanna Dokupil  Courtesy

Dokupil is an enthusiastic supporter of the project. In December 2015, she interviewed the Seasteading Institute’s chief guru, Joe Quirk, who calls himself a “seavangelist” and an “aquapreneur,” for an episode of the institute’s podcast, “Seasteading Today.” Over the course of a surreal half-hour, Dokupil exhorts listeners to join in on the creation of Quirk’s new “seavilizations,” utopian leviathans with “start-up mentalities,” ranging the “floating frontier,” free from the harsh yoke of “land-based government.”

We’ll see, in time, how that flies in west Houston. So, again, why is Abbott getting behind this? It may simply be that he knows Dokupil personally — she was an assistant solicitor general when he was Texas attorney general. Or it may be that he’s keeping his promise from the session that any legislator who crossed him would be put on a “list.”

But it’s worth considering the broader conservative political project here. If Abbott’s goal is an ideologically uniform House caucus, then it’s genuinely preferable to lose Davis’ seat than to allow her to continue to win. Beating Davis in the primary — even if it cedes the seat to a Democrat — removes the only openly pro-choice Republican voice from the caucus, and it pushes other lawmakers who show an independent streak back in the herd.

Because the Republicans are in no real danger of losing their overall House majority anytime soon, it’s better for Abbott and friends to have a smaller, purer GOP caucus. And in Davis’ case, a gentle nudge might be enough to do it — for years, Democrats have talked idly about convincing her to switch parties, a prospect that may now be more enticing. (Harris County Republicans had been set to debate a motion to censure Davis for her too-liberal voting record on Monday night; it was apparently withdrawn after Abbott’s endorsement.)

House Speaker Joe Straus’ retirement gives Abbott and others the opportunity to try to force conformity on the House. That’s going to lead to a lot of strange dynamics in the next four months, as the Republican primary heats up. For one thing, Straus has promised to use his ample campaign funds to push hard for his candidates this cycle, which means Davis’ district provides an opportunity for Straus and Abbott to butt heads.

Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio on May 6.  Sam DeGrave

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the speaker’s election in 2019 on Texans’ lives, and the outcome of that depends entirely on what happens in the next six months of the Republican primary and next year’s general election.

What makes the outcome of the next speaker’s race so difficult to game out — apart from the fact that our world broke at some point in the last couple years — is that there are three strong competing phenomena in the House right now. The first is simply that Democrats may be approaching a wave election. The Democrats have a meaningful chance of winning more seats in the House next year than they’ve won since 2008. That could be helpful in the effort to select a Straus-type speaker.

The second is that Republican primary fights between moderates and conservatives will be especially vicious this year, particularly if Abbott puts the weight of his political machine behind it. That could be good for Democrats, but it also diminishes the chances of selecting a moderate speaker, because the casualties of the primary will include at least a few more experienced moderates, replaced in the ranks by pliable freshmen, as they always do.

The third is that the Republican circle is tightening. The GOP and affiliated organizations, such as Texans for Lawsuit Reform, are pushing hard for Republican candidates to pledge to select the next speaker without Democrats. This leads to a paradox: It’s plausible that House Democrats emerge from next year’s election stronger than they’ve been in years, yet more powerless than ever before.

The post Greg Abbott Declares War on Moderate Republicans appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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He thought he had a free court-appointed lawyer. Then he got a bill for $10,000

The Hill County Courthouse in Hillsboro.

After Kelly Unterburger and his girlfriend were pulled over for speeding in 2011, a state trooper searched the car and found what was described in court documents as a bag dusted with white powder. Unterburger was arrested for possessing less than a gram of a controlled substance and brought before a North Texas court.

The U.S. Constitution says people too poor to afford a lawyer should be appointed one paid for by taxpayers. And Unterburger — who said he was wrongly accused — was told he would be. So he was surprised when, years later, a bill arrived saying he owed thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees.

“If I’d known they were going to charge me,” he said, “I would have spent more time screening lawyers.”

In Texas and across the country, defendants are sometimes asked to repay part or all of the costs of their court-appointed lawyer through a practice called recoupment. Texas counties recouped more than $11 million from poor defendants in 2016, 4.5 percent of the total amount spent on indigent defense statewide.

Critics argue the practice can seem “untoward, to say you’re given this [constitutional] right but we’re going to charge you for it,” said Beth Colgan, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law. But proponents say it’s sound public policy and a way to tamp down on a ceiling-less mandate borne largely by local taxpayers.

Since 2001, when Texas drastically revamped its public defense system, the costs of assigning lawyers to poor defendants has skyrocketed, from $91.4 million to nearly $248 million in 2016. County coffers have paid the most. Last year, the state allotted around $32 million to indigent defense; counties together paid $216 million, 87 percent of the overall amount.

“Small, economically disadvantaged rural counties like Hill County, we have limited budgets, and we spend a significant amount of money on indigent defense,” said David Holmes, the county attorney there. It “is just and right to ask that if you offend the laws of the state or victimize citizens of this county – and the taxpayers of the county provide you with a lawyer that you don’t have to pay for up front – if you at some point have the ability to do that, you ought to do it.”

Depending on the court, defendants in Texas can be deemed indigent if their income is less than $49,200 for a family of four.

Some defendants are told at the outset of their case that they may be liable for their court-appointed lawyers’ costs. But Unterburger says he wasn’t. He says he didn’t know what seemed like the guarantee of a free lawyer could be rescinded. And he was especially shocked when the bill came in 2014, and it said he owed nearly $10,000.

Policies differ from court to court

Data maintained by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission shows wild variation in how much money Texas counties recoup from poor defendants. Johnson County, where Unterburger was charged, recouped nearly 15 percent of the money it spent on indigent defense last year. According to the data, Andrews County made back nearly 70 percent of its public defense costs in 2016, while 51 others recouped nothing at all.

County-to-county discrepancies aren’t unique to Texas, Colgan said. Recoupment policies differ from court to court but are often part of a “package of economic sanctions” tied to a case’s resolution, she said. Lawyer’s fees are sometimes included in plea deals or listed as a line item alongside administrative court costs that defendants are asked to pay at sentencing.

Colgan, who has researched recoupment policies in different states, said some jurisdictions use a flat fee to make back lawyer’s fees, while “in other places, it’s targeted at the amount of expenses actually incurred.”

Before levying lawyer’s fees, the court is supposed to determine that a defendant can afford to pay them. Critics say that determination does not always happen in a formal way, and they worry defendants may waive their right to counsel if they think they’ll receive a bill for that representation later.

On average, attorneys appointed by Texas courts are paid $200 for a misdemeanor case and $600 for a non-capital felony, said Wesley Shackelford, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission’s interim executive director. Cases that go to trial, like Unterburger’s, can incur significantly higher costs.

With the help of an attorney at the Texas Fair Defense Project, Unterburger was able to have the nearly $10,000 bill dropped.

Unterburger spent about three years imprisoned as he took his case to trial, and then appealed the guilty verdict.

“I didn’t even know that’s a law,” said Unterburger, who now does irrigation and landscaping work. “I worked really hard to stay up with everything,” including paying hundreds of dollars in probation fees.

“It doesn’t seem like it’d be fair,” he said of the recoupment practice.

Emily Gerrick, the lawyer who assisted him, says she argued the court had made a mistake in ordering the $10,000 bill. But “for a lot of people they really aren’t able to challenge it, because they don’t have a lawyer to help them or the court is just going to refuse.”

Donnie Yandell, Caprock Regional Chief Public Defender, said counties’ efforts to receive reimbursement for lawyers’ costs are often fruitless.

“Judges tell you about [setting up] payment plans for these people,” said Yandell, who is based in Lubbock. “You don’t get any more money out of them.” Many of his clients “scrape by,” and “just don’t have the money to start out with.” He added, “You can’t get blood out of a turnip.”

A new state law

A state law that went into effect Sept. 1 extends the period during which defendants can be asked to repay their lawyer’s bill. While that window used to close at sentencing, defendants can now have their financial status re-evaluated at any point while they serve out their sentence. Whether in jail, prison or on probation, it’s a period that sometimes lasts years.

Shackelford says the law has “safeguards” to protect defendants’ due process rights. Judges must first provide defendants with written notice that they’re on the line for lawyer’s fees and offer them a chance to rebut with evidence their ability to pay.

The law was enacted in “an effort to protect the collateral victims of crime: that being the law-abiding, taxpaying citizens that are having to absorb all these costs when it was unnecessary,” said Mark Pratt, the district attorney of Hill County, who weighed in on an early version of the legislation.

That rendering of the bill, filed in 2015, failed to pass. State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, authored the 2017 law.

Pratt says if a poor defendant later comes into funds — wins the lottery, say, or gets an inheritance — it makes sense from a public policy standpoint for that person to reimburse the county. The law allows for the reverse, too: If a defendant loses a job while on probation, their financial status can be re-evaluated so they pay less. Defendants can’t be asked to repay more than the county paid.

In a statement, Birdwell said the law was passed “with the simple intent of clarifying that a defendant’s status as indigent can change over time throughout adjudication and serving a sentence.” He added that it “gives judges additional discretion to protect both taxpayers and defendants during the duration of the judicial process.”

Enough precautions have been taken “to ensure that this will be properly used to recover additional funds from those that are able to pay and it’s not used as any form of punishment for those that cannot,” said James Allison, general counsel for the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas. He doesn’t expect the statute will be heavily used and said counties are “not interested in wasting our time and resources pursuing people that can’t pay.”

Allison said increased funding from the state for indigent defense is needed to alleviate the burden on counties. Across the country, Texas ranks among those that spend the least per capita on indigent defense – with most of the funds coming from counties, according to a 2008 National Legal Aid and Defender Association report and a 2010 American Bar Association report respectively.

“I think the idea behind it is a pretty good idea,” Yandell said of the new law. “I just don’t know how well it’s going to be implemented.”

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At the Texas Capitol, victims of sexual harassment must fend for themselves

Disgust overwhelmed her when she felt his tongue on her hand.

A capitol staffer, she had been at a large party celebrating the end of a legislative session a few years ago and was on her way out when a male lawmaker she had never spoken to reached for her.

“You can’t leave yet,” the staffer remembers the lawmaker telling her as he held her hand tightly. She thought he was going to bring her hand to his mouth and kiss it. Instead, he licked it and refused to let go.

“It was in a crowded place,” said the staffer, who no longer works at the Capitol and spoke to The Texas Tribune on the condition of anonymity for fear it would affect her current job. “Maybe it was so subtle that no one else saw anything [but] the audacity of someone to do that and think it’s OK — it just boggled my mind.”

As sexual misconduct accusations pile up against men in power across the country, interviews with more than two dozen current and former lawmakers and legislative aides indicate sexual harassment not only is pervasive at the Texas Capitol but also regularly goes unchecked. Most of those interviewed described how men at the Capitol — some of them lawmakers — engaged in a wide range of harassment, including degrading comments and gestures, groping and unwanted sexual advances.

Yet not a single formal complaint of sexual harassment has been filed in either the House or Senate since 2011, according to a review of public records and interviews with officials responsible for fielding complaints. Even though sexual harassment policies have been in place for two decades, few employees interviewed by the Tribune even knew they could file a formal complaint.

The policies themselves are outdated — both reference a state agency that no longer exists — and rely on Capitol officials with little incentive or authority to enforce them, particularly in cases of harassment by lawmakers.

“Well, you know we can’t fire them. The people get to fire them,” said Patsy Spaw, of elected officials. As the secretary of the senate, Spaw’s duties include resolving complaints in the chamber.

“There’s nothing to talk about”

Many of those interviewed spoke of a Capitol culture that offers little support for victims and expressed fears that speaking out would lead to retaliation or career sabotage. Instead, women who work in the Legislature said they try to protect one another by quietly exchanging stories. They pass along the names of men to stay away from and the hallways in the Capitol to avoid.

“You either created a distance or didn’t place yourself in situations where you had to interact with them,” said a former staffer who dealt with unwelcome advances from a lawmaker on the Senate floor and at an end-of-session party.

Another former staffer described the Capitol as a place where sexual harassment is “as common as a hello,” where powerful men can prey on employees with impunity. She recounted greeting several guests at a lobbyist’s party who were sitting at a table. Among them was a lawmaker, who in a “split second” shot his hand up her skirt.

The staffer said she pushed his hand away and quickly left the event in distress. She remembers being thankful for wearing the “right underwear,” noting that otherwise he could have penetrated her.

Feeling powerless, she said she didn’t disclose the incident to anyone. “To be able to have success in this world, you’ve got to keep quiet,” she said.

In accounts published last week in the Daily Beast, other women, including journalists, reported their own experiences being sexually assaulted by Texas lawmakers.

The House and Senate have had a sexual harassment policies since 1995. Both generally state that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and lay out basic procedures for reporting any misconduct.

The House policy directs employees to make complaints to the chair of the House Administration Committee — an influential position set by the House Speaker and currently held by Republican state Rep. Charlie Geren — or to the manager of the House payroll and personnel department. Over in the Senate, complaints would be reported to Spaw, the Senate Human Resources office or supervisors in individual offices.

But those officials have little to no authority over lawmakers who are ultimately elected by voters back home. In the Senate, a legislator could be reprimanded privately or publicly if they were found to have sexually harassed someone, Spaw said. In the House, the state Constitution gives lawmakers “the power to punish a member for disorderly conduct and, in extreme cases, to expel a member,” Jon Schnautz, the chamber’s ethics adviser, said in a statement.

Several former staffers said they would not have reported their experiences with sexual harassment to House Administration because they had no confidence that the member-led committee would be objective.

“I probably would never even have felt like that was an outlet that I could trust, but I didn’t even know that was a process that existed,” said Genevieve Cato, a former House employee who has spoken publicly about harassment at the Capitol.

Another staffer said she didn’t feel Geren’s committee was a “safe place to report that.”

Geren, a Fort Worth Republican who’s served in the House for almost two decades, refused to answer questions from the Tribune about how his committee would handle a sexual harassment complaint because, he said, the committee had not received any.

“There’s nothing to talk about because we don’t have any,” Geren said. “I don’t deal in ifs. When there’s one I’ll handle it. And that’s it.”

Asked if the policy needed revision, Geren said he would not further discuss the issue. “I don’t have any more comments about it,” he said.

For her part, Spaw said any complaints filed in the Senate would be taken “really seriously,” though she said a resolution would also depend on the Senate Administration Committee and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to take action.

“Each situation would be individual,” she said. “But it is a conundrum … I’m thankful I’ve not had to deal with it.”

Labor and sexual discrimination law experts say the chambers’ policies offer few assurances that complaints will meet adequate resolutions.

Having lawmakers in charge of investigations is “absolutely problematic,” said Elizabeth Boyce, an attorney for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. Without an independent and impartial entity to investigate any claims of sexual harassment, Boyce said, it’s too easy for personal judgments to come into play.

“I don’t think that [an investigation] can be fairly done by someone that they’re likely friends [with] or working together in other capacities,” she said. “There’s a conflict of interest there that I think would impede any impartial investigation.”

Legal experts also raised concerns that the House policy says victims may first confront harassers to tell them to stop the behavior.

“This is treating a sexual harassment complaint different than any other kind of complaint,” Boyce said. “If there was an employee stealing from the company, for instance, you wouldn’t expect the person who caught them … to tell the person to stop before they make the complaint.”

The Senate’s policy doesn’t explicitly suggest victims should confront their harassers, but staffers have been instructed to do so. During a 2016 in-person training seminar on sexual harassment in the Senate, a trainer laid out “strategies for confronting sexual harassment on the job” that included instructions to “clearly let the harasser know you don’t welcome any advances,” according to a video recording of the training a reporter viewed on the Senate’s internal employee system.

It’s not unusual for policies to ask employees who encounter sexual harassment to address offenders about their behavior before reporting it, said Audrey Mross, a Dallas-based employment attorney. But it is crucial those policies emphasize this is only applicable in cases of mild behaviors and only if they are comfortable having those conversations, she said.

“This needs to be in big capital letters,” Mross said.

A power imbalance

The task of reporting workplace sexual harassment at the Capitol is further complicated by concerns that speaking out could damage relationships essential to the legislative process.

“The sexual harassment at the Capitol is not just, ‘Hey, you’re cute’ — it’s about power. And some of the people in power are bullies,” said a former female chief of staff.

Early in her tenure in the state Senate, Wendy Davis remembers having a conversation at a political event with an older man who happened to be a recently elected, first-term House member. Unaware she was a fellow lawmaker, he reached forward, as though to pat her arm, and instead reached between her arm and breast and cupped her breast.

“It wasn’t an accidental brushing,” the former state senator said. “It was a purposeful touching of my breast.”

Davis told her colleagues in the House about the incident and “as a consequence of that, he had a challenge getting anything passed,” she said.

Finally, he apologized. But Davis, the Fort Worth Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2014 after serving in the state senate for six years, acknowledged that her position gave her a form of recourse not available to other women working in the Capitol.

”This is the problem for young women who are working in settings of power differentials,” she said. “They don’t have the power to create the same consequences. And in places like that, we have to be sensitive to creating an avenue for consequences that will not penalize the young women who stepped forward.”

Another female staffer said she questioned what good making a complaint would do after she was harassed by a state senator. After cornering her at a political reception and saying they should “get together,” she said the senator tracked down her cell phone number and called her the next morning.

She wasn’t aware of a formal complaint process, but she decided against even telling her boss, a House lawmaker, because she worried about the effect it could have on the bills they were working on when they went through the Senate.

The staffer was further resolved not to speak out by how the people who witnessed the incident responded. Some seemed so accustomed to the lawmaker’s treatment of women, they simply thought “it was funny.”

“I just shook it off,” she said. “I still have to work with all of these people. For my own sanity, I’m going to pretend like it never happened.”

But even when their bosses are supportive, staffers may balk at filing a formal complaint.

State Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat in the House since 2006, recounted an instance when a Capitol staffer told her about a state senator who had made “humping motions” toward her while they were alone in an elevator. Howard said the staffer did not want to be named in an official complaint, so she reported the behavior herself to Geren and House Speaker Joe Straus’ office in case there were any future issues with the senator.

“I said ‘I would like to be able to report this’ — she didn’t want to,” Howard said. “Part of the problem with reporting is that women don’t want to come forward because they often become embroiled in things that make them look like they’ve done something wrong when they haven’t.”

Howard, who said she looked up the House’s sexual harassment policy after a Tribune reporter asked about it, called it “totally insufficient.”

“There’s just nothing here,” she said. “It’s disturbing to learn more about it myself.”

Hoping to facilitate the reporting process for her staff, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia said she created an additional sexual harassment policy specifically for her Senate office that instructs staffers to go directly to the chief of staff or Garcia if they’ve been subjected to harassment.

The Houston Democrat said she would have been “shocked” to learn there was even a single formal complaint of sexual harassment in the Senate, noting the culture around the Capitol is far from supportive of staffers who may fear retribution or being ostracized if they report such behavior.

After speaking with the Tribune, Garcia said she was considering legislation to form an independent entity to oversee complaints in both chambers. She also pointed to a recently passed measure in the U.S. Senate, requiring mandatory sexual harassment training for all senators and their staff, as a possible model.

But even with those possible solutions in mind, Garcia acknowledged it is more difficult to confront sexual harassment at the Capitol — where lawmakers who may be harassing staff have all of the power — than the average workplace.

“The whole officialdom is a totally different animal,” Garcia said. “We’re not employees. We’re elected. A lot of the rules don’t apply to us.”

Abby Livingston contributed to this report.

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Human Rights Lawyer on How Government is Complicit in Mexico’s Drug War

Cover image for the “Human Rights Abuses in Coahuila, Mexico” report.  University of Texas School of Law

More than a decade into a violent conflict that seems nowhere near being resolved, Mexico is a country haunted by the missing. The Mexican government estimates that more than 32,000 people have disappeared in the last decade — a statistic that is likely far too low, since it comes from a federal database that relies on flawed data.

In 2010, University of Texas law professor Ariel Dulitzky was appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to a five-person working group tasked with investigating the spike in kidnappings. What he found was a government unwilling to tackle the growing problem, which was highlighted by the unsolved 2014 mass kidnapping of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College. In their new report, “Human Rights Abuses in Coahuila, Mexico,” Dulitzky and his students investigate another unsolved tragedy: the March 2011 kidnappings of at least 300 men, women and children by members of the Zetas cartel in the Cinco Manantiales region in the Mexican border state of Coahuila.

University of Texas law professor Ariel Dulitzky.  Mari Correa/©maricorrea

In 2016, Dulitzky, director of the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, tasked his students with analyzing witness testimonies from three federal trials in San Antonio, Austin and Del Rio that involved key members of the Zetas. One of the report’s most troubling conclusions is that, according to witness testimonies, the Zetas paid two powerful politicians — Humberto Moreira, the former governor of Coahuila, and his brother Ruben, the state’s current governor — several million dollars in bribes so that they could operate with total impunity.

In the report, Dulitzky and his students conclude that both the Zetas and elected officials are to blame for the violence in Coahuila. They also argue that U.S. law enforcement, through its debriefing of numerous witnesses in the United States, is more than likely holding vital information that could help grieving families in Mexico locate the remains of their missing loved ones, or at the very least, help them confirm their deaths. Dulitzky spoke with the Observer about the new report’s findings and his continuing fight to find justice for the families of the disappeared in Mexico.

What does this new report tell us about the conflict in Mexico?

One thing it tells us is that through corruption and intimidation, many state authorities worked for the Zetas and coordinated with the Zetas and let them operate without any obstruction. This finding is not new, but what is new is that [it comes] from the testimonies of insiders in the Zetas and they were very explicit.

And there are a couple of other things: There is a clear presence of Zeta operatives in Texas and in other parts of the United States, according to their testimonies. They are present not only in Texas, but in other states including New Mexico, Oklahoma, California, Illinois and Georgia. It’s also very clear that what is happening in Mexico is not just a Mexican problem alone. The testimonies are clear that the weapons are bought here, especially in Texas, and transported to Mexico. And the drugs come from Mexico to the United States. The main responsibility lies with Mexican authorities, but the U.S. government should also do more because of the transnational aspect of the Zetas’ operations.

What is the current status of the recovery of bodies in Coahuila from the 2011 massacres?

The state government established a special prosecution office to deal with the disappearances. They have periodic meetings between the prosecutors and relatives of the disappeared, but there’s no coherent plan to search for the missing. Three weeks ago, the Mexican Congress passed a very comprehensive law that creates a national system for the search for the disappeared. We hope it will have a positive impact, but first it needs to be implemented. It will be a challenge because the testimonies indicate that with some of the people who disappeared their bodies were incinerated or dissolved in acid. So those bodies are never going to be recovered.

How do you hope Mexican authorities will respond to this report?

We hope that our research and others doing this type of research will better help with the implementation of the new law on the disappeared. And that more concerted efforts will be made to search for the missing. We also want to make clear that corruption is an integral element of the violence happening in Mexico. So when we talk about disappearances, our main focus is that dealing with corruption is a way to prevent more of them from happening.

In the report, you conclude that U.S. law enforcement has vital information about the massacres that hasn’t been made public.

What is clear is that some of the U.S. law enforcement agents who testified in the trials received from witnesses they spoke to much more detailed information on victims and human rights abuses and potential locations where bodies could be. U.S. law enforcement says it gave that information to the Mexican authorities, but the Mexican authorities said they couldn’t find the addresses or the places were too dangerous for them to go to. So that information was never made public. It was never given to any human rights organizations or to the families who are searching for their relatives. We hope that U.S. law enforcement will give that information to human rights groups.

You’re Argentine, and many South American countries have dealt publicly with the disappearances in the ’70s and ’80s during the dirty wars [of state-sponsored terrorism]. Mexico also had a dirty war, but there was never any acknowledgment or reconciliation. Now, once again, the Mexican government seems unwilling to acknowledge the missing. Why is Mexico such a tough case?

That is a very good question. When I visited Mexico with the UN working group on enforced disappearances, we looked both at the disappearances during the dirty war in Mexico in the ’70s and ’80s and the current disappearances. We found at least two elements that were common in both periods. First, there is this pattern of structural impunity, and the second is the presence of the military conducting domestic security operations.

One of the main differences between Mexico and [Argentina] is that in Argentina, there was a clear break between the dictatorship and the new democratic government. There was also a change in the entire state apparatus from the judiciary to the executive branch. This type of break from the past has never happened in Mexico. It was a slow process where at first the opposition started to win local government races, then the majority in Congress and eventually the presidency in 2000. But the PRI [the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for 71 years] still remains one of the main political actors and now they are in the presidency again, so that transition was very different from Argentina’s. In Mexico there are many constraints on accountability for what happened in the past.

Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, November 14, Ariel Dulitzky and his students will present the report “Human Rights Abuses in Coahuila, Mexico,” at 4:30 p.m. at the University of Texas School of Law. Observer reporter Melissa del Bosque will also participate in the panel.

The post Human Rights Lawyer on How Government is Complicit in Mexico’s Drug War appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Gov. Greg Abbott endorses primary challenger to state Rep. Sarah Davis

Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, speaks to media regarding her request to add Ethics Reform to the special session on Aug. 2, 2017.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday endorsed a primary challenger to a fellow Republican, state Rep. Sarah Davis of West University Place, following through on his promise earlier this year to play a more aggressive role in the 2018 election season.

Abbott released a video throwing his support to Davis opponent Susanna Dokupil, who worked under Abbott when he was the state’s attorney general.

“We need leaders in Austin who will join me to build an even better future for Texas,” Abbott said. “That’s why I’m so proud to support Susanna Dokpuil for state representative of House District 134 in Houston, Texas.”

Davis, who chairs the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee, had clashed with Abbott over the summer over the governor’s decision not to include ethics reform among a list of 20 items he directed lawmakers to tackle during a special session. Heading into that special session, Abbott had raised the prospect that he could back challengers to incumbents who were less than supportive of his agenda. Dokupil is the first primary challenger to an incumbent he has endorsed this cycle.

Dokupil served as assistant solicitor general in the attorney general’s office.

Abbott made his first endorsement in the 2018 House primaries last week, backing state Rep. Paul Workman, an Austin Republican who had authored legislation for Abbott’s special session agenda. Workman faces a primary challenger from his right, Jay Wiley.

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Analysis: A media exec in Texas politics, not quite ready for prime time

Bruce Jacobson is vice president of media for LIFE Outreach International and executive producer of Life Today TV.

Editor’s note: If you’d like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey’s column, click here.

Today’s column is brought to you by the Bureau of First Impressions. That agency, like the “Bruce Jacobson Jr. for United States Senate from Texas” campaign, is an imaginary entity that may or may not really exist.

Candidates started officially filing for the 2018 election cycle in Texas over the weekend. Some were doing their prep last week — and one of them forgot to hang an “under construction” sign on his website and his campaign.

Jacobson, an executive in Christian TV in Tarrant County, told reporters earlier this year that he was “prayerfully considering” a primary challenge against Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

He’s still thinking, apparently, but someone in his camp is working on his website.

Publicly. Awkwardly.

It’s like turning on a microphone with nothing to say, or a camera with nothing to see.

Here’s what it said on his website on Friday afternoon.

“This test website is merely a temporary platform for a federal candidacy that may or may not be announced shortly. This beta website does not constitute an announcement of a candidacy and does not indicate support or opposition for any announced candidate.”

That tells us that there’s a lawyer hiding in there somewhere. Here’s a translation: “We haven’t filed our paperwork, campaign finance information, etc. Please don’t spank us.”

The earlier version, snagged by the Texas Tribune’s alert political editor, Aman Batheja, was much less lawyerly, and much, much more entertaining:

“This Website is Under Construction.

“This is highly likely going to be the website for Bruce Jacobson, Jr. for his possible upcoming campaign for the United States Senate. This website is currently going undergoing testing.

“Had this website been live, you would have seen information about Bruce Jacobson, Jr., about his positions on the issues for the 2018 United States Senate campaign that impact the great State of Texas.

“Had this website been live, you would be given area to donate to this possibly upcoming almost official campaign for the State of Texas representative who could be serving Texas in the United States Senate.

“Had this website been live, you would most likely be viewing the Bruce Jacobson, Jr. For United States Senate announcement video which is of course, currently being edited for a highly possible announcement and press release about Bruce Jacobson, Jr. most likely to be announcing next week and then serving as the Senator from the great State of Texas after a peaceful non-combative primary with the 34th U.S. Senator from Texas Ted Cruz. Senator Cruz will be defeated and we would really, really love your support in the primary and the general election, provided we announce sometime next week.”

It’s a small mistake — the sort of thing that happens when the effervescent marketing arm of a campaign gets ahead of things. Some of the website looked last week like it will probably look if and when the Jacobson juggernaut leaves the runway. His biography is up. There’s a page where supporters and curious political reporters can throw their names onto the campaign’s email list.

The place to take donations isn’t live yet — this isn’t a campaign yet, right? But the “Nationbuilder” template for the site is there, along with setup instructions for larval campaigns like this one: “Accepting donations requires a couple of steps… Be sure to delete this information or replace it with a short reason to provide financial support for your efforts.”

Why would he run? What would his positions be? That’s unknown for this maybe-maybe not effort. One page is set up for “United State Senate Issues for Texas in 2018,” but all it says, after the typos, is “Stay Tuned.”

Okay. There’s time. We can wait.

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Rent-to-own complaints spur investigation by federal agency

A Rent-A-Center in Newport News, Virginia on Sept. 22, 2017. 

A U.S. government consumer watchdog agency is investigating the $8 billion rent-to-own industry and related companies over questions about unfair, deceptive and abusive practices, NerdWallet has learned.

Investigators for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are asking specifically about Rent-A-Center, the nation’s largest rent-to-own enterprise with more than 2,400 stores selling furniture and appliances mostly to low-income Americans.

A months-long investigation by The Texas Tribune and NerdWallet last month found that rent-to-own companies have used a little-known Texas law to press criminal charges against thousands of customers who fell behind in their payments in Texas and other states.

NerdWallet also reported in a joint investigation with Raycom Media that Rent-A-Center customers nationwide have complained their credit had been harmed and they were badgered by bill collectors over accounts they had paid off.

Five days after the stories appeared, Rent-A-Center’s top executive, Steven L. Pepper, resigned amid a continuing power struggle on the board of directors. Shares of the publicly traded company, headquartered in Plano, Texas, have declined nearly 75 percent in the last four years as it has struggled to increase revenue.

The CFPB sent Rent-A-Center a civil investigative demand in late July, requesting details about customer accounts it had sold to a debt buyer and other information about its business practices.

Investigators have interviewed people familiar with Rent-A-Center’s record-keeping. They asked about the company’s ability to credit customer payments properly and to report accurate information about consumers to credit reporting agencies, say people the CFPB interviewed.

Bureau staff members have also inquired about complaints that Rent-A-Center store managers pocketed consumers’ money instead of applying it to their accounts, one person interviewed by the agency told NerdWallet. He asked not to be identified because of a nondisclosure agreement he signed with the CFPB.

The CFPB declined to comment on its investigation.

Errors in customer accounts

The NerdWallet-Raycom investigation detailed the account errors and mistreatment of customers, including people who say they were threatened with criminal prosecution and had their doors kicked in. NerdWallet provided guidance to consumers harmed by the company.

Shareholders filed a federal lawsuit against the company in December 2016 over problems with its system for tracking customer payments. The complaint said Rent-A-Center had difficulty starting a new point-of-sale system in 2015, causing “severe harm” to company operations.

The company introduced the system despite repeated internal warnings about its flaws, leading to outages that caused customers to fall behind on their rental agreements, the shareholders allege in court filings. Rent-A-Center conceded its system had flaws. The company failed in an attempt to get the lawsuit dismissed.

A former senior information technology employee who helped with the rollout told NerdWallet that Rent-A-Center’s system had glitches that could show up in any account.

“There was no way to assure the veracity of any specific transaction,” said the former employee, who asked not to be named because of a nondisclosure agreement he signed with the company.

Gina Hethcock, a Rent-A-Center spokeswoman, said in an email this week that the company had received an inquiry from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regarding a prior debt sale. She said the accounts involved in the debt sale, and the CFPB’s inquiry, are unrelated to the rollout of the point-of-sale system the company uses in its 2,400 stores.

Rent-A-Center has long pushed to keep federal regulations at bay, spending more than $7.2 million lobbying Congress in the past decade, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Rent-A-Center petitioned the CFPB in August to modify or set aside its investigative demand. The company argued in a 30-page letter that the purpose of the investigation, and the broad nature of the bureau’s questions, exceeded the agency’s jurisdiction. The CFPB responded by agreeing to modify certain questions and document requests but said it has the authority to investigate the company.

Many of the complaints against Rent-A-Center detailed in the NerdWallet-Raycom report came from customers who signed lease agreements with the company for furniture sold at independently owned furniture stores.

Those transactions occurred through a Rent-A-Center subsidiary known as Acceptance Now, which operates inside nearly 1,300 furniture showrooms, including Ashley Furniture and Rooms to Go. In those showrooms, customers pick out furniture they want, but instead of buying it from the store, Acceptance Now buys it for them and leases it back to them. This process removes the store from any responsibility in disputes.

The Federal Trade Commission received 2,779 complaints about Rent-A-Center and Acceptance Now between January 2016 and June 2017.

Customers say credit reports were affected

Nearly one-third of the 674 consumers who filed complaints against Acceptance Now said they had asked the company for a record of their payment history or verification they owed money.

The company’s representatives failed to provide it, often saying they had no way of doing so, former customers said.

Ten percent of those 674 customers said errors ended up on their credit reports.

In late 2014, as Rent-A-Center was expanding its Acceptance Now program, it deemed more than 18,000 accounts seriously in arrears and sold them to a debt buyer.

At least 20 percent of the debts were invalid, says Branden Vigliotti, president of Lismore Holdings, who purchased the accounts. Customer after customer told collection agents he worked with that they had paid off their debt, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes under duress, sometimes as the result of a civil court action, Vigliotti said.

Vigliotti is in mediation with the company, which has disputed his claims.

Companies that mishandle customer records can be subject to penalties by state or federal regulators, says Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.

Companies have also been fined or forced to offer restitution to consumers for violating the law. The investigative demand Rent-A-Center received says the purpose of the CFPB’s investigation is to determine if rent-to-own and related companies have violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act or the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

DeWine led a 2015 push by state attorneys general to force credit reporting agencies to fix inaccuracies on consumers’ credit reports.

He urged consumers who have been harmed by Rent-A-Center to contact their state attorney general.

“This is an industry that needs regulation,” he said in an interview. “This is an industry that is really hurting poor people.”

Jill Riepenhoff, an investigative producer at Raycom Media, contributed to this report.

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Joel Osteen impersonator breaches security at Los Angeles event

A Joel Osteen impersonator is making waves after a video he posted went viral.

The impersonator is a comedian — pretending to be Osteen at an Osteen event in Los Angeles last month — but no one is laughing after an apparent security breach at the LA Forum.

In the video, you witness comedian and Osteen-lookalike Michael Klimkowski getting free parking and breaching security measures by entering the event without getting checked.

Along the way, he poses for pictures with fans.

The incident happened in October.

We have reached out to the Forum, but so far, haven’t gotten any comment.

The real Houston pastor, and his wife, Victoria, were in California for a night of worship open to the public.

A spokesman with Lakewood Church says Osteen never met the imposter.

The spokesperson also says Osteen’s security never confronted Klimkowski — it was Forum security and the Los Angeles Police Department that handled Klimkowski.

The Lakewood spokesman also adds that they are unsure if Osteen has ever met Klimkowski — but they have seen him in at least one book signing in Los Angeles.

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Cornyn and Cruz under pressure over allegations in Alabama Senate race

Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, center, flanked by U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (left) and John Cornyn.

WASHINGTON — Texas’ two U.S. senators found themselves under intense pressure Thursday after explosive allegations surfaced that a candidate both men have endorsed pursued underage teenage girls decades ago.

The Washington Post is reporting that Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican nominee in an upcoming Senate special election to succeed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, tried to become romantically involved with four girls between the ages of 14 and 18 while he was in his 30s.

U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz have both endorsed Moore in his bid.

Less than an hour after the story broke, senators were called to their chamber for a routine vote and were met with a crush of reporters.

Cornyn, the second-ranking GOP senator, called the allegations “deeply disturbing and troubling.”

“I think it’s up to the governor and the folks in Alabama to make that decision as far as what the next step is,” he said.

Cruz declined to answer questions as he passed reporters.

A cascade of other GOP senators — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — told reporters that if the allegations are true, Moore must drop out of the race.

Cornyn then returned to reporters.

“Obviously, it’s very troubling, but I think people are trying to sort it out and figure out what the appropriate response is, including Sen. [Luther] Strange,” he said, referring to the temporarily-appointed senator whom Moore defeated in the GOP primary.

“If it is true… I don’t think this candidacy is sustainable, but we believe in a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, and so I think it’s important for the facts to come out.”

Cruz is in a particularly complicated political position. Prior to the Washington Post report, Brietbart News had its own pre-emptive story that was highly defensive of Moore. Former White House adviser Steve Bannon runs the website. He recently threatened to challenge every GOP senator in their primaries with the exception of Cruz.

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Coastal officials say feds failing Harvey victims on short-term housing

Fulton Mayor Jimmy Kendrick told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Disaster Impact and Recovery that he's had suicidal thoughts as he tries to lead his city through its recovery from Hurricane Harvey. 

Coastal Texas officials whose counties and cities bore the brunt of Hurricane Harvey’s deadly blow this summer unleashed a barrage of complaints about recovery efforts at a Texas House subcommittee hearing in Corpus Christi on Wednesday.

The mayors and county leaders voiced frustration — and one shared a vivid account of suicidal thoughts — stemming from what they described as a woefully inadequate federal response to the storm’s vast destruction.

With winter coming, they told stories about residents still living in tents and hotels more than two months after the storm battered southeast Texas. Their criticisms were largely focused on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of initial recovery efforts.

“They rank high on promises and way low on promises kept,” Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan said.

FEMA officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The local leaders also told the Texas House Appropriations Subcommittee on Disaster Impact and Recovery that the state has not funded all communities’ relief efforts in an equitable way, an apparent reference to $50 million Gov. Greg Abbott gave Houston after a public dispute with Mayor Sylvester Turner.

And although the storm impacted communities across a wide swath of the state differently, they said one immediate need stands above the rest: securing more temporary housing for residents who will spend years recovering.

“You can’t rebuild a community unless your citizens have a place to live, and our citizens don’t have a place to live,” said Nueces County Judge Loyd Neal.

Their comments come on the heels of housing advocates and experts expressing worries that state leaders’ push for up to $121 billion in federal recovery money is focused more on public works projects like flood control than on individual assistance like rebuilding Texans’ flooded houses.

More than 886,000 Texas households applied for some sort of disaster aid after Harvey swept through a large swath of the state. As of last week, more than 51,000 southeast Texans were still displaced and living in hotel rooms, according to FEMA data, and at least 26,000 are handling temporary housing on their own, which could include living in damaged homes, staying with loved ones or paying for short-term housing needs out of pocket.

The state says more than 7,000 families still need government-subsidized temporary housing such as apartments or trailers while their homes are rebuilt. Mayors and county officials on Wednesday issued several criticisms about the bureaucracy residents must contend with as they seek immediate disaster aid.

“These people have gone through four steps and still don’t get any help,” said San Patricio County Judge Terry Simpson.

He also said that residents will begin the process with one FEMA worker only to have another one give them different instructions or explanations about aid qualifications or requirements weeks later.

“The system is broken,” he said. “The system doesn’t work the way it was planned to work.”

Bujan said more than 100 residents in Port Aransas lost their homes and only five families have been approved for temporary trailers.

“Those five trailers have never arrived,” he said. “They’re not there. I don’t know where they’re at.”

The hearing also featured state and local education officials detailing the high cost of displaced students and damaged school buildings. City, county and school officials also told lawmakers they expect to also face extreme budget woes once the value of damaged properties are reappraised and tax revenues plummet.

Fulton Mayor Jimmy Kendrick drew a spattering of applause after he testified that the stress from trying to recover with inadequate federal response keeps him from sleeping some nights. He said frustrated residents have focused some of their ire on him, lobbing unfounded accusations about him on social media.

“There’s been times I’ve sat there and thought about putting a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger,” he said.

A two-pronged approach

Abbott split long-term recovery into two initiatives, each overseen by a different state entity vying for limited federal funds. A commission headed by Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp is focusing on securing money for infrastructure projects. The Texas General Land Office is spearheading efforts to find temporary housing for displaced Texans and also plans to oversee billions in federal dollars that will help them rebuild or renovate their homes.

But the land office is also seeking money for infrastructure projects — and doesn’t want the federal Housing and Urban Development department to limit how much long-term disaster relief money can be spent on public works projects versus housing recovery.

“The key to this is not thinking of it simply as rebuilding, but rebuilding to prevent damage from future storms and thus make Texas more resilient,” said Brittany Eck, a land office spokeswoman.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush said at Wednesday’s hearing that helping Texans is of primary importance. But he also said recovery money should be used to protect economic development and the private energy industry from the next disaster.

“We can’t lose sight of long-term resiliency,” he said.

Abbott’s two-pronged approach is similar to the state’s playbook after Hurricanes Ike and Dolly. But housing advocates complained about how the state handled those funds, and HUD eventually forced Texas to rework its plans for the money and required more spending on housing for lower income residents.

Nearly 10 years after those storms, more than $500 million in disaster relief funds remains unspent. About $297 million of that is earmarked for housing.

“No positive headlines”

Local officials on Wednesday also complained that FEMA says privacy laws prevent the agency from sharing why individual residents are declined assistance or asked to provide more information.

“We can’t exactly share the criteria by which applicants are being declined,” Bush said.

As his agency begins steering those approved for short-term assistance toward five different federal programs, Bush said he has lobbied for a moratorium on home foreclosures in impacted counties.

He also suggested that his office’s hands are tied on some matters by an “extensive, voluminous” agreement with FEMA to oversee short-term housing programs.

“People are going to be frustrated,” Bush said. “There are going to be no positive headlines as it relates to temporary housing.”

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The Faith-Tinged Fatalism of Greg Abbott’s Response to Texas’ Deadliest Mass Shooting

Texas Governor Greg Abbott attends a candlelight vigil held for the victims of a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017.  (AP Photo/Laura Skelding

By the time Governor Greg Abbott appeared in front of TV cameras Monday morning, a sharper image of the country’s latest mass shooting was taking shape. Officials had already confirmed that 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley had a history of domestic violence, like many other mass killers. That should have prevented him from purchasing the Ruger assault-style rifle he used to slaughter at least 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. Instead, Texas’ worst mass shooting in modern history represents yet another breathtaking failure by the federal background check system.

Abbott told news anchors on Monday that Texas had denied Kelley’s application for a state handgun license. But Texas, unlike some other states, doesn’t require a permit to purchase a rifle or handgun, making the feds the only real check on gun buyers in the state. When CNN’s Chris Cuomo pressed Abbott, the Texas governor invoked the spiritual realm, saying a prayer vigil with mourners in Sutherland Springs the night before had taught him “the best way to confront this evil is by using the forces of God to confront and overcome this evil.” When CBS’ Gayle King asked Abbott how he’d ensure those “evil” people don’t have access to firearms, he urged the country to return to “the fundamentals of our faith-based nation.” King cut him off mid-sentence, trying to bring the interview back to guns, but Abbott wasn’t swayed.

“The important thing is that if you go back to early times of this world, to the times of yesterday and last week, evil exists in this world,” Abbott said. In a later interview with Fox News, he raised Hitler, Mussolini, the Dark Ages and even “post-New Testament” periods of violence as signs that “evil is something that has permeated this world.”

Ken Paxton image cropped for hero purposes
Ken Paxton  patrick michels

Abbott wasn’t the only Texas politician to give the typical thoughts-and-prayers response to mass shootings a fatalistic, faith-tinged spin this week. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton abandoned his usual law-and-order bromides, instead questioning gun-control laws if criminals will just break them. Meanwhile, in a press conference Monday afternoon, Senator Ted Cruz labeled the massacre in Sutherland Springs a story of “inspiration and hope” before scolding the media for even asking about guns. “Evil is evil is evil,” Cruz insisted, “and will use the weaponry that is available.”

Bad people taking advantage of readily available weapons to carry out heinous crimes is actually the reason that calls for gun control follow each tragedy like Sutherland Springs, the country’s 307th mass shooting so far this year. Gun deaths in the United States eclipse those in other Western industrial nations, which researchers continue to connect to the widespread availability of firearms here. As Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center puts it, “more guns = more homicide.” Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Austin was among the chorus of liberal and progressive politicians blaming Republicans for their inaction on the issue in light of the shooting. As he wrote in a Sunday afternoon Facebook post, “Once again violence destroys lives, while this Congress, owned lock, stock and barrel by the NRA refuses to act.”

Kelley appears to have been able to buy the weapon he needed to gun down an entire church service because of a notoriously buggy background check system for gun purchasers, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. On Monday afternoon, the Air Force admitted it hadn’t properly entered Kelley’s 2012 court martial for domestic violence into the federal database. That means the Academy store in San Antonio that reportedly sold Kelley his guns never learned that he was convicted of beating his wife and step-child. In addition to kicking and choking his wife, Kelley “assaulted his stepson severely enough that he fractured his skull,” Don Christensen, a retired colonel and former chief prosecutor for the Air Force, told The New York Times on Monday. “He pled to intentionally doing it.” The shooting may even hint at a larger flaw. The U.S. military appears to have sent almost no records of domestic abusers to the federal database, according to The Trace, a gun-focused news outlet.

What’s come out already about the bloodshed in Sutherland Springs raises questions for state officials like Abbott. The military news website Task & Purpose questions why, if Texas’ gun-licensing system flagged Kelley and denied him a permit to carry a gun, that information never made it to the feds, who could have actually stopped him from owning one. (When asked, Texas Department of Public Safety didn’t immediately say when the agency denied Kelley a gun permit.)

By the time Abbott went on air with conservative talk radio host Mark Levin on Monday evening, his message had already started to shift from the Biblical version of “shit happens.” He was ready to talk gun control once the day’s news had proved to him that the country doesn’t need more firearms restrictions. Instead, he told Levin, our violence-plagued nation needs better enforcement of existing laws.

Abbott wasn’t even sure that would do much to end the killing. As he told Levin, “if someone is willing to break the law to kill someone, then that person is likely willing to break the law to get a gun illegally.”

The post The Faith-Tinged Fatalism of Greg Abbott’s Response to Texas’ Deadliest Mass Shooting appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Execution date set for Sugar Land man on death row

An execution date has been set for a Sugar Land man on death row for arranging to have some of his family members shot and killed so he could collect a $1 million inheritance.

Bart Whitaker is set to be executed on Feb. 22, 2018.

Investigators said that on Dec. 10, 2003, Whitaker arranged to make the shooting look like he and his family members interrupted a burglary as they returned home from dinner.

A masked gunman inside the home shot and killed Whitaker’s 19-year-old brother, Kevin, in the front room of the house. Then the gunman shot and killed Whitaker’s 51-year-old mother, Tricia. The shooter also wounded Whitaker’s 54-year-old father, Kent. A bullet hit Whitaker in his arm.

The gunman and a third person in the crime are also in prison, serving sentences.

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Free of criminal charges, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes says she was victimized

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, says she's healthy enough to serve another term in the Texas House during a conversation on Nov. 7, 2017 at the Austin Club.  

In her first public appearance since being cleared of criminal charges, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, said Tuesday she had been maligned by the Travis County district attorney, other Austin-area Democratic lawmakers and the news media.

Dukes, speaking at a Texas Tribune event in Austin, said she was motivated to give extensive public comments, for the first time since her criminal charges were dropped, “because it’s an opportunity to tell the real story.”

Last year, amid a criminal inquiry into whether Dukes had misused her public office, she announced she would resign, citing health reasons. On Tuesday, Dukes shed new light on her health issues. At the time, she said, according to a doctor’s diagnosis, “the outcome of my life looked very dim.”

Dukes later chose not to resign. She now faces a slew of Democratic primary challengers who announced they would run when it appeared Dukes would not return to the Legislature.

Dukes said Tuesday she had suffered simultaneously from “MS and MG,” an apparent reference to multiple sclerosis and myasthenia gravis. And she explained that, after a car accident left her seriously injured, she then suffered an additional injury to her neck — which was “severed, having already been weak,” she said — after some horseplay at the Capitol involving a purse strung around her neck.

Still, Dukes said she had recovered sufficiently to serve her district. “I’m healthy enough to serve another term,” she said. “I have fought back. I have on my high heels.”

The representative has come under fire by political opponents for missing votes at the Capitol. She downplayed those concerns, calling them inaccurate. She said Austin-area lawmakers had plotted against her. State Rep. “Donna Howard was the ringleader, and [Rep.] Celia Israel followed up,” Dukes said.

“There was a concerted effort by my delegation to make me appear more absent than everyone else,” she said.

Dukes arrived 40 minutes late to the Tribune event, citing a medical emergency.

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Texas back in federal court over anti-“sanctuary cities” law

Protesters opposed to Senate Bill 4, known as the "sanctuary cities" law, turn out in force for the last day of the legislative session on May 29, 2017.

Attorneys for the state of Texas are set to head back before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on Tuesday to defend the state’s new immigration enforcement law, Senate Bill 4, against charges that the measure is discriminatory and violates the U.S. Constitution.

But the Texas attorney general’s office enters the courtroom with some wind at its back after a three-judge panel of the court allowed parts of the controversial law to go into effect in late September.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB 4 into law in May, but several local governments, including the cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Cenizo, as well as Maverick and El Paso counties, filed suit to block the measure from going into effect.

As passed, SB 4 allows local law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest and punishes local government department heads and elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration “detainers” — requests by agents to turn over immigrants subject to possible deportation — in the form of jail time and penalties that exceed $25,000.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in late August halted several parts of the bill, including the provision that requires jail officials to honor all detainers. He also blocked other sections that prohibit local entities from pursuing “a pattern or practice that ‘materially limits’ the enforcement of immigration laws” and another that prohibits “assisting or cooperating” with federal immigration officers as reasonable or necessary. He did not block the part of the bill that says police chiefs, sheriffs and other department heads cannot forbid officers from questioning a person’s immigration status.

The state of Texas countered after Garcia’s ruling and asked a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit to lift Garcia’s ruling while the case played out. The panel ruled the detainer provision could stand but the part that requires local jails to “comply with, honor and fulfill” detainers does not require detention based on every detainer issued. The panel also determined that law enforcement officers, including campus police, with “authority that may impact immigration” cannot be prevented from assisting federal immigration officers.

Attorneys will argue on Tuesday on whether Garcia’s initial injunction should be in effect until he rules on the substance of SB 4 in its entirety.

Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing several of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said among the issues is whether SB 4 violates the First Amendment.

Opponents say the law’s language prohibits law enforcement officers from speaking out against SB 4 or crafting policies that don’t focus on immigration enforcement. They also claim the law violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states that immigration laws are a federal — not a state — responsibility.

Perales said issues related to the Fourth Amendment — prohibiting illegal search and seizure — could also arise because the previous panel allowed the bulk of the detainer provision to stand. At issue, she said, is “whether SB 4’s mandatory detainer provision could force counties — primarily [the government entities] with jails — to violate a person’s Fourth Amendment rights.”

During a conference call with reporters last week, MALDEF president and general counsel Thomas Saenz said there’s no way to predict when a ruling will be made after Tuesday’s arguments.

“They can take as long as they would like. In the meantime, Judge Garcia’s injunction, as modified by the [three-judge panel’s ruling], will remain the law until this panel makes its decision,” he said.

But the 5th Circuit’s eventual ruling might not be the last word, Saenz added, because either side could petition the U.S. Supreme Court to make the final determination on whether Texas can craft its own immigration-enforcement provisions and how far-reaching they can be.

A spokesperson in Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment about Tuesday’s proceedings.

Tuesday’s debate will be the latest in what’s been a year-long battle over the legislation. Filed in November 2016 and deemed an “emergency item” by Abbott, the legislation was the subject of marathon public testimony in Senate and House committee hearings, where witnesses were overwhelmingly against the measure.

After the bill was signed, protesters took to the State Capitol on the last day of the regular legislative session and disrupted proceedings in the House to the extent that the lower chamber was forced to recess until the Department of Public Safety cleared the gallery.

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With no state-approved textbooks, Texas ethnic studies teachers make do

Ethnic studies teacher Elizabeth Close works with student Olivia Capochiano at LC Anderson High School in Austin. 

When 16-year-old Adán Zylberberg was in need of a book about Malcolm X for an ethnic studies project, Elizabeth Close handed him a copy of “Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography,” which brought to life the civil rights activist’s history in vivid black and white drawings.

It was not an unusual pick for Close’s students. During the six-week unit on civil rights, the ethnic studies teacher at Anderson High School in Austin taught her class from a wide array of sources: a college-level multicultural history book, teaching materials from the Southern Poverty Law Center, video clips from “The Daily Show,” contemporary news articles and old photos of segregated public facilities from the Library of Congress.

She doesn’t think all that could fit into one textbook.

“It’s a constant process to continue finding better sources, better connections, better ways to make it relevant to them,” said Close.

The Texas State Board of Education will vote this week on whether to approve two ethnic studies textbooks — a Mexican-American studies textbook and a Jewish Holocaust memoir — submitted in response to a board request last November to offer approved texts aligned to the statewide curriculum. Last year, the board rejected a different Mexican-American studies textbook proposal that advocates and academics decried as error-ridden and racist.

Tony Diaz, an activist who helped get last year’s book struck down, submitted “The Mexican American Studies Toolkit” in response to the board’s call last year. If the board votes yes, Diaz’s proposal would be the only Mexican-American studies textbook officially approved by the state.

But would Texas teachers actually use the book? That depends on the district.

Austin ISD developed its ethnic studies program over the past year, without additional state resources. But a smaller district might not have the staff or money to build a program from scratch, educators said. Texas does not require districts to choose textbooks the state board approves, but many administrators find it easier to use a state-vetted book rather than research other texts on their own to ensure they meet state standards, according to Texas Education Agency spokesperson Debbie Ratcliffe.

In 2010, Arizona state legislators banned ethnic studies for being too divisive, prompting a nationwide backlash that has, in turn, spurred enthusiasm for teaching the subject to high school students. (A federal judge later ruled the Arizona law violated students’ constitutional rights.) Many advocates cite a Stanford University study showing Hispanic and Asian students who took ethnic studies in San Francisco high schools improved their grades and attendance.

In Austin ISD, one of the only districts in Texas with a multi-ethnic studies program, administrators and teachers started last fall figuring out what credit students would receive and what skills and concepts students would be expected to learn, said Jessica Jolliffe, the district’s social studies supervisor.

This year, nine teachers across eight campuses in the district offer a general ethnic studies class, looking at the histories of different ethnic groups and races within the context of U.S. history.

Rather than try and shoehorn such a sprawling, nuanced topic into a single textbook, Jolliffe bought copies of Ronald Takaki’s “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America” — a college-level ethnic studies resource — for each classroom, and then gave teachers a $500 budget to buy additional books to suit their classes’ abilities.

Ethnic studies teacher Elizabeth Close pulls together various texts from her own studies and experience to use as teaching materials.
Ethnic studies teacher Elizabeth Close pulls together various texts from her own studies and experience to use as teaching materials. Laura Skelding

Close found Takaki’s multicultural history too advanced for most of her students, so her bookshelf is also filled with graphic novels, memoirs and illustrated histories of various ethnic groups. Diaz’s book would not be particularly useful for her class, she said, since she already has a wealth of Mexican-American studies resources.

Yet for 15-year-old Chloe Hightower, having a traditional textbook would make Close’s ethnic studies class more convenient — and easier to explain to her friends, many of whom don’t even know the school offers it. “I would love the idea of having a book we could get to read instead of having to look up everything,” she said. “People are not trying hard enough to make ethnic studies something people hear about.”

That sentiment comes up a lot, Close said.

“The number one question from students is, ‘Why haven’t we learned about this before? Why did we have to wait for this optional class to get some of this?’” Close said.

The State Board of Education in 2014 rejected a push to approve ethnic studies as a new required class. Instead, the board put out a call for ethnic studies textbooks with the goal of making it easier for districts to offer relevant courses as general social studies electives. Since the board has not developed specific curriculum standards for ethnic studies courses, publishers can’t know how many districts will offer them or what form those classes will take so they are less likely to spend time and money writing relevant textbooks for them, said Christopher Carmona, Mexican-American studies professor at University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley.

“That’s one of many problems with the state board. They’re asking us to create textbooks for a course that doesn’t exist yet,” Carmona said.

He leads a coalition attempting to advance Mexican-American studies in high schools across the state. He took an informal survey showing only about 30 teachers in Texas offer Mexican-American studies courses, either as a stand-alone course or dual-credit course with a local university. Most are along the border or in urban areas with higher percentages of Hispanic students.

Carmona, along with a few other high school teachers and university academics, informally reviewed Diaz’s book to ensure it was academically sound. “There were a lot of things we had to fix,” he said.

The group added in sections detailing crucial parts of Mexican-American history, such as the Supreme Court decision to give Mexican-Americans equal protection under the Constitution and Mexican-American involvement in the Civil War. The scholars also removed existing sections, including one essay that references drinking beer, thought to be unsuitable for high school students.

An earlier official state review of the book found similar issues. Diaz said he is addressing the errors found by both groups.

When El Paso ISD teachers were deciding on a textbook this summer for a new Mexican-American studies program, they read through Diaz’s textbook proposal alongside several existing books already used in other districts. They decided not to use Diaz’s book, in part because they were not sure it would get approved this fall.

Instead, teachers unanimously picked “Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement” by F. Arturo Rosales, which they found on a textbook list for a course Houston ISD offers.

“They said the language is more student friendly, it has more pictures, it gave students a chance to actually expand on it,” said Velma Gonzalez Sasser, El Paso ISD student success coordinator.

This year, three high schools offer Mexican-American studies, and two middle schools have integrated Mexican-American studies into their Texas history classes.

Visiting a high school class recently, Gonzalez Sasser sat riveted as students discussed the 1917 El Paso-Juárez Bath Riots, which were sparked after a 17-year-old Mexican girl refused to submit to a toxic fumigation procedure federal officials were using to kill lice on Mexicans crossing the border and convinced others to do the same.

“I never heard of this in my life,” Gonzalez Sasser said. “I went to school here. I’ve lived in El Paso all my life. I’ve never heard of it.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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