Category Archives: State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, Pruett is fighting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.flickr.com/photos/dopey/

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

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

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

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

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

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How scammers are using homeowners to defraud FEMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dreamers greet DACA renewal deadline with anxiety and unanswered questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s just hard to know,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hearing in Paxton case to consider delaying trial for third time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paxton will not attend the hearing Wednesday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She also questioned the time frame of 24 hours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Harris County’s federal bail lawsuit spreads beyond Houston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Michael Young, Bexar County’s Chief Public Defender

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

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

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

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

A question of due process

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

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

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

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

— Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Charles Cooper, attorney for Harris County judges

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

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

Beyond Harris County

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thousands of Poor Texans Could Lose Health Care With Congress Distracted by ACA Repeal

A patient gets her blood pressure checked at the Waco Planned Parenthood.
A patient gets her blood pressure checked.  Jen Reel

Safety net health centers in Texas have been scrambling for attention from Congress as they face a funding cliff Saturday that could leave hundreds of thousands of poor Texans without care. But lawmakers in Washington have been distracted by Republicans’ latest Obamacare repeal bill, which would cut billions in federal funds to states and leave millions more Americans uninsured.

On Tuesday, the GOP repeal bill was declared dead (for now), but the heated, weeks-long debate sucked time and energy from lawmakers and advocates. Now, four days ahead of the funding deadline, lawmakers are preparing to leave for the week without any action on bipartisan legislation to continue a federal grant for community health centers, leaving them in what they say is a dangerous limbo.

Without congressional intervention, safety net providers will face a 70 percent cut to their federal funding beginning October 1 — an estimated $150 million reduction in Texas, according to the Texas Association of Community Health Centers (TACHC). The centers provide primary care to underserved communities and have stepped in to offer care in areas devastated by Hurricane Harvey. More than 1.3 million people — most at or below the poverty level — receive care annually at about 460 sites around Texas, which has the highest uninsured rate in the country. Of those, about 200,000 Texans could lose care if the funding in question is not continued.

The federal grant at issue, established under the Affordable Care Act, primarily funds care for uninsured patients. According to national estimates, allowing the federal grant to expire could lead to a $3.6 billion decrease in funding for centers in fiscal year 2018, the departure of 51,000 doctors and other staff and loss of access to care for 9 million patients.

Action this week is unlikely, but Congress can elect to bring back the funding grant after the September 30 deadline. That would need to happen quickly, though. Centers in Texas have enough funding to continue full operations for an average of about 44 days, according to TACHC. Well ahead of those funds running out, they would need to start preparing for reductions. The longer Congress waits, the greater the uncertainty for the centers, and the more services will be cut, advocates say.

Lawmakers’ procrastination has already taken a toll. Community health centers in Texas have reported that some doctors have elected not to take jobs there because they didn’t know if services would continue, according to TACHC. The organization worries about banks declining loans, staff leaving, infrastructure projects coming to a halt and patients being turned away because of uncertainty, even if the grant is later approved.

“The greatest threat we face is instability … most health centers don’t have enough cash reserve to deal with it,” said José Camacho, executive director of TACHC, adding that it costs health centers about $40,000 to recruit a new doctor, a particular challenge in rural areas. “It’s taken us over 50 years to build the network of services for patients that we have right now. If that’s interrupted or destroyed, it will take years to rebuild. We’ve seen it happen with family planning clinics, and we’ll see it happen as a result of Harvey. It’s not easy to rebuild.”

As the state has cut funding to family planning clinics and kicked Planned Parenthood out of the low-income women’s health program, the centers have seen demand for care increase. Texas’ decision not to expand Medicaid means centers are not getting that revenue from many uninsured patients who otherwise would have been eligible for the coverage, so they rely more on the federal grant. Proposed GOP cuts to Medicaid, and the failure of Congress to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) by September 30, could add further instability, advocates say.

Ten Texas representatives — seven Democrats and three Republicans — are signed on as co-sponsors of the bill introduced earlier this month to extend health center funding. It was referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but no hearing has been scheduled, and there’s nothing on the House or Senate calendar to address the issue. Texas Republican Joe Barton, of Ennis, is vice chair of the committee, while Lewisville Republican Michael Burgess chairs the health subcommittee and Gene Green, D-Houston, is its ranking member. None has signed on to the legislation.

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Slideshow: For southeast Texas, recovery after Harvey is slow

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

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

 

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