Category Archives: National

Texas Toxicologist Who Rejects Basic Science Appointed to EPA Science Board

For years Texas’ chief toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt, has accused the EPA of scaring the public about the health risks of toxic chemicals. The EPA, he has said, “ignores good science which demonstrates that a chemical is not as toxic as they think it is,” uses “‘chicken little’ toxicity values” and doesn’t “do common-sense groundtruthing.” Honeycutt has repeatedly put himself outside the scientific mainstream by arguing that pollutants are not nearly as harmful as the evidence suggests.

Mercury? EPA is “overstating” the risks of exposure and ignoring the fact that the Japanese eat 10 times as much fish as Americans.

Arsenic? It couldn’t be unsafe because we’re not seeing increases in cancer rates that would be true if EPA’s assessment is “realistic.”

Ozone? EPA’s ozone rules are unnecessary because “Americans likely spend at least 90 percent of their time indoors.”

Now, the Trump administration is tapping Honeycutt to lead EPA’s Science Advisory Board, a body of experts that provides objective scientific advice to the agency. The board was created in 1978 by Congress and charged with the mission of providing impartial science free of political interference. His appointment — like that of Rick Perry, Susan Combs and Kathleen Hartnett White — continues the trend of the Trump administration headhunting Texas officials who’ve repeatedly attacked the very policies that they’re now charged with implementing.

In announcing his appointment on Tuesday, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt called Honeycutt a “wonderful scientist” and said he had been chosen out of 130 applicants. Honeycutt’s appointment, along with two others to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and Board of Scientific Counselors, will bring more geographic diversity to the boards, which historically have been dominated by appointments from the East and West coasts, he said.

“It’s a big mistake to appoint Michael Honeycutt to lead the Science Advisory Board,” Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said in a written statement. “Dr. Honeycutt has made repeated public statements undermining the integrity of the science on ozone as well as other pollutants, including mercury, despite consensus from the medical community on the harms of exposure to such pollutants.”

Environmental and public health advocates say Honeycutt cherrypicks facts to fit his arguments, which often are contrary to scientific consensus and are often deployed to attack environmental regulation in the courts and in EPA rulemaking. Perhaps the best example of Honeycutt’s role concerns his work on smog.

Smog in Houston  Jonathan Lewis

For more than a decade, Texas has been in a tussle with the EPA over limiting emissions of smog-causing pollutants from power plants. EPA’s limits on ozone, a component of smog, have grown more stringent with time, and as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s chief toxicologist, Honeycutt has attacked the basic underpinnings of limits on smog. Reducing ozone levels, he has said, will not lead to any significant health benefits and if asthma “were actually tied to ozone, you would expect to see the instances of asthma decreasing, not increasing.” Those arguments are contrary to the overwhelming scientific evidence that higher ozone levels exacerbate respiratory illnesses, particularly in children and the elderly.

Last year, Honeycutt sent more than 100 emails to industry representatives, state air pollution regulators, university professors and scientists asking them to support his nomination to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. At the time, he wrote that it would be a “minor miracle” if he were selected. He was also considered for a position on the committee in 2015, which environmental groups petitioned. He “consistently takes positions favoring industry and a lax regulatory climate over public health protections” and his appointment to the committee would lead to “an appearance of a loss of impartiality,” seven environmental groups wrote.  

Honeycutt, who joined TCEQ in 1996, will continue in his role at the agency, TCEQ spokesperson Andrea Morrow said. She said it would be “premature” to answer questions about any changes he might propose to EPA’s chemical assessment process.

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U.S. Supreme Court examines investigatory funding in Texas death penalty case

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 2017.

The U.S. Supreme Court examined a Texas death penalty case Monday morning, weighing when federal courts should grant funding to investigate unexplored mitigating evidence that could toss out a death sentence.

The court heard arguments in the case of Carlos Ayestas, a 48-year-old Honduran national sentenced to death 20 years ago in the 1995 Houston murder and home burglary of a 67-year-old woman. Ayestas’ federal appellate lawyers have sought funding they say is “reasonably necessary” to investigate claims of mental illness and substance abuse that trial lawyers missed. They argue that the mitigating evidence could have swayed the jury to hand down an alternate sentence of life in prison.

The courts denied the funding request, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Ayestas didn’t show “substantial need” for the funding, claiming that there was no obligation for his lawyers to look into those areas, and that any potential findings affected his sentence because of the crime’s brutality and his threatening actions afterward.

“What the court cannot do and what the 5th Circuit regularly does under its ‘substantial need’ rule is say … ‘We’re going to speculate about what you’re going to find when you go out and you look for this mitigation evidence … and we’re going to guess, based on that estimation, that you’re not going to meet that showing,’” said Ayestas’ lawyer, Lee Kovarsky, before the high court in Washington, D.C.

Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller pushed to convince the justices that the high court didn’t even have jurisdiction to hear Ayestas’ appeal because a court’s funding determination is an administrative ruling, not judicial, and therefore unappealable. The liberal justices didn’t bite.

“So where do you go if a circuit is arbitrarily and capriciously saying, ‘We’re not going to give any funds, period’?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. “What happens in that situation? Where does the defendant go?”

Ayestas was found guilty in 1997 of the fatal beating and strangulation of Santiaga Paneque. At his punishment trial, where he would either be sentenced to life in prison or death, prosecutors brought forth evidence of Ayestas threatening to kill people who knew about the murder in the days afterward. The defense brought forth no witnesses, only bringing documents from an English teacher in prison that said he was a good student, according to Ayestas’ brief to the court.

During his state appeals, an investigator raised the issue of a lack of exploration into Ayestas’ life, including any mental or emotional disorders, especially since Ayestas had told an investigator before his trial that he had multiple head traumas and regularly drank alcohol and used cocaine. Still, the appeal looked mostly into failed efforts to get Ayestas’ Honduran family to his trial as witnesses for his defense — not at potential brain damage, mental illness or substance abuse. While his appeal was pending, Ayestas was diagnosed with schizophrenia in prison.

Later, in federal court, his lawyers pointed out the lack of investigation into Ayestas’ claims of trauma or drug use and asked the court for funding to fully develop the claim that his trial lawyer was ineffective for not bringing these factors to the jury’s attention. The decision to deny that request is what led to Monday morning’s arguments.

The conservative justices stayed mostly quiet during the hearing, with the exception of Justice Samuel Alito. He questioned Kovarsky’s argument against the 5th Circuit’s “substantial need” test that the lawyer said prevented Ayestas from getting funding, and Chief Justice John Roberts seemed to side with him.

“A reasonable attorney with finite means might devote those finite means to an avenue of investigation that has very, very little chance of success because there is so much at stake,” Alito said. “The evidence has to … meet some level of importance in order for the standard to be met.”

But mostly, the liberal justices controlled the conversation.

“If you have a person who has since the incident in question been diagnosed as schizophrenic, you know, some bell goes off that says, ‘I think maybe we should do some investigation and try to figure out whether he was suffering from mental health issues at the time of the incident,’” said Justice Elena Kagan as Keller pointed out Ayestas’ diagnosis wasn’t until years after the murder.

And even the newest justice, right-leaning Neil Gorsuch, argued against Keller’s statement that there were no deficiencies in Ayestas’ case, noting how the 5th Circuit had to issue a corrected opinion after it incorrectly stated that Ayestas had received a psychological evaluation pretrial.

“Counsel, you say there was no deficient performance, but the circuit court had to amend its ruling because it had mistakenly said that there had been an investigation of mental health in 1997 by trial counsel,” Gorscuh noted. “How can there have been no deficient performance holding if it withdrew the basis of that holding in its revised opinion?”

Keller countered that the psychological evaluation wasn’t the only reason for its ruling, noting that Ayestas’ lawyers and investigator at trial did not abandon him.

“The investigator began interviewing [Ayestas] several times in February 1996, subpoenaed psychological and disciplinary records, made multiple attempts to contact the Honduran family members, contacted several potential witnesses, searched criminal histories and attempted to obtain deportation records and California records,” Keller said. “In other words, this is not a situation where … there was simply no attempt at trying to provide a defense.”

The court likely won’t rule on the case until next year, when it can either uphold the federal court’s decision to deny funding, send it back to the 5th Circuit for further review or order the court to grant funding.

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Houston woman’s daughter stranded at sea with another woman for 5 months

A planned voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti aboard a small sailboat didn’t start off well for two Honolulu women. One of their cellphones washed overboard and sank into the deep blue water on their first day at sea.

From there, things got worse. Much worse. About a month into their trip, bad weather caused their engine to lose power. Their mast was damaged. And then, as they drifted across thousands of miles of open ocean, their water purifier stopped working.

But the two sailors, accompanied by their dogs, were resourceful and prepared with more than a year’s worth of food, and after more than five months of being lost in the vast Pacific Ocean, sending out daily distress calls that no one heard, they were rescued by the U.S. Navy on Wednesday about 900 miles southeast of Japan. Their intended destination: Tahiti – thousands of miles off course.

The USS Ashland rescued the women after a Taiwanese fishing vessel spotted their crippled vessel Tuesday and alerted the U.S. Coast Guard, the Navy said in a statement released Thursday.

The women, identified by the Navy as Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava, both of Honolulu, lost their engine in bad weather in late May but believed they could still reach Tahiti using their sails.

“They saved our lives,” said Appel through the Navy release. “The pride and smiles we had when we saw (U.S. Navy) on the horizon was pure relief.”

In a phone call with news media from the Ashland, Appel said they had sent a distress signal for 98 days with no response.

“It was very depressing and very hopeless, but it’s the only thing you can do, so you do what you can do,” she said, according to an audio recording of the call.

A group of sharks attacked their boat one night, and a single shark returned a day later, she said.

“Both of them, we actually thought it was lights out, and they were horrific,” Appel said. “We were just incredibly lucky that our hull was strong enough to withstand the onslaught.”

Asked if they ever thought they might not survive, she said they would not be human if they did not. She credited the two dogs, which she called their companion animals, with keeping their spirits up.

“There is a true humility to wondering if today is your last day, if tonight is your last night,” she said.

Appel’s mother told The Associated Press Thursday that she never gave up hope that her daughter would be found.

Joyce Appel, 75, who lives in Houston, said she got a call from her daughter early Thursday morning more than 5 months after they had last spoke.

She answered the phone as she always does, wondering who wanted to sell her something, when she heard her daughter’s voice on the other end of the line.

“She said, ‘Mom?’ and I said, ‘Jennifer!?’ because I hadn’t heard from her in like five months,” she said. “And she said ‘yes mom,’ and that was really exciting.”

Jennifer Appel departed on May 3, her mother said, but her phone was lost overboard the first day she was at sea, and she hadn’t heard from her daughter since.

“Various things on her boat broke, the mast broke and the engine wouldn’t start when she needed power. So she had several problems that caused her to end up drifting in the ocean,” the elder Appel said.

Joyce called the U.S. Coast Guard about a week and a half after her daughter left Honolulu, she said. “The Coast Guard, in Hawaii, did a search and rescue effort,” she said. “I waited and waited and waited to see when I would hear from her.” In that time, the elder Appel moved and got a new phone number and was worried her daughter wouldn’t know where to call. “I knew she didn’t even know the phone number here,” she said.

“I had hope all along, she is very resourceful and she’s curious and as things break she tries to repair them, she doesn’t sit and wait for the repairman to get there, so I knew the same thing would be true of the boat.”

The mother said the pair’s water purifier had stopped working and they were down to their last gallon of water when Jennifer got it fixed.

Two months into their trip, well after they were scheduled to arrive in Tahiti, the women began making distress calls, but there were no vessels close and they were too far out to sea for the signals to be detected on land.

They told the Navy that they survived because they had packed a water purifier and enough food for a year, mostly dried goods like oatmeal and pasta.

A photo provided by the Navy shows Fuiava smiling as a Navy sailor greets her dog, Zeus aboard the USS Ashland.

The women received a medical assessment, food and beds aboard the Navy ship, where they will remain until the next port of call, the Navy said.

“The U.S. Navy is postured to assist any distressed mariner of any nationality during any type of situation,” said Cmdr. Steven Wasson, the commanding officer of the USS Ashland.

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‘Fail State’ Delves into the Shadowy World of For-Profit Colleges

You’ve seen the ads: smiling, fresh-faced young graduates praising schools like DeVry University and Corinthian Colleges for changing their lives. In a 2008 TV spot typical of the genre, brothers Wilfredo and Manuel Siliezar pose in front of shiny cars, talking about how studying computer technology at ITT Tech led them to great new careers. “We were the first two to have a degree out of our entire family,” Wilfredo says, before enjoying a picnic at the beach with his wife and daughter. A slick 2017 University of Phoenix ad consists of a cinematic montage of a woman’s immigration journey — surviving World War II, arriving at Ellis Island, working at a factory — paired with words of encouragement for her offspring: “I’d succeed so you could wake up one day with the choice to be anything you wanted.” Finally we see her adult great-granddaughter, wearing a power suit and striding triumphantly into a corner office. The production values vary, but the message is the same: For-profit colleges are peddling not just a college degree, but the American dream.

Unfortunately, the dream is a scam. For-profit colleges recruit vulnerable and first-generation students, encourage them to take on huge loans to pay exorbitant tuition, offer subpar instruction and then leave their alumni to struggle with crippling debt. For-profit alumni account for 47 percent of all defaults on federal student loans, and 57 percent of them owe at least $30,000, according to a 2012 Senate committee report. This has been going on more or less unchecked since the 1970s, thanks to a powerful industry lobby that keeps Congress in its thrall through campaign donations.

It’s also the subject of Fail State, a briskly paced and emotional new documentary premiering at the Austin Film Festival on Saturday. Written and directed by Alexander Shebanow, a young filmmaker in his feature debut, and executive-produced by Dan Rather, the film details how the for-profit college industry began, what allowed it to rise to power and why legislative attempts to reign it in have had only limited success.

Fail State begins with a bright spot in U.S. history: the rapid expansion of public colleges and universities in the 1960s and ’70s. We see President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Higher Education Act of 1965 and proclaiming, “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.” That law increased federal funding to universities, created low-interest student loans and encouraged states to do the same. School was affordable and sometimes even free, as in the case of Houston’s Rice University. In-state tuition at the University of Texas at Austin was a mere $136 for the 1960-61 academic year. More Americans went to college than ever before. What could go wrong?

Quite a bit, actually. The film shows how the seeds of the for-profit industry were planted in 1972, when Congress changed how financial aid was allocated. For the first time, aid went directly to students, who could use Pell Grants and loans at any college. A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers believed that this voucher model would give students more choice and increase access — rhetoric echoed today in the “school choice” debate. Instead, for-profits quickly figured out how to market to the most vulnerable students, especially veterans. From 2009 to 2015, $10 billion in G.I. Bill benefits went to for-profits. One of the most upsetting stories in the film is that of Murray Hastie, an Iraq War veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder whose Google search led him to, a for-profit website designed to look like an official government page. A DeVry recruiter soon contacted Hastie, assured him his service member benefits would cover everything, and signed him up. Murray ended up with more than $50,000 in loans and was unable to afford community college once he learned his DeVry credits were useless. “I felt like a failure,” he says.

We meet several former students like Hastie in the film, and the most painful part of their stories is how they all blame only themselves. But with high-pressure sales techniques, including the “pain funnel,” a method that encourages recruiters to spend hours listening to and empathizing with their targets until they gain their trust, even sophisticated students can easily be fooled. The blame lies with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who trade PAC money from for-profit lobbyists for lax regulations. President George W. Bush put Sally Stroup, formerly the University of Phoenix’s chief lobbyist, in charge of higher education policy, which went about how you’d expect. The Obama administration cracked down by cutting off loans at schools where a high percentage of graduates couldn’t get jobs, but Betsy DeVos wasted no time in rolling that back. Today, with Trump University’s swindler-in-chief in charge, the outlook is bleak.

Jennifer Wilson and her diploma.  courtesy/Fail State

Fail State focuses more on policy than on individual stories. It’s a risky choice: You’ll either geek out over the follow-the-money flowcharts and legislative history, or your eyes will glaze over. Still, this approach largely works, mostly due to the film’s judicious editing and selection of talking heads who are both articulate and brief. I wanted to spend more time with people like Hastie and Jennifer Wilson — who enrolled in Everest College to study criminal justice after her daughter was murdered — and to learn how they’re rebuilding their lives. On the other hand, the scenes we do get with former students are all the more powerful for their brevity. Staring longingly at a photo of herself in cap and gown, holding her summa cum laude diploma, Wilson says, “This is the final picture of me while I was still happy. … That was the beginning of the end.” It’s a sad story, but one you won’t soon forget.

Texas Observer publisher Mike Kanin will moderate a panel discussion after Fail State premieres at the Austin Film Festival on Saturday, October 28, at 12:30 p.m.

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Grambling State student charged in double homicide

Louisiana authorities on Thursday arrested a Grambling State University freshman in connection with the shooting death of a fellow student and another man on the campus early Wednesday.

Jaylin M. Wayne was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of Earl Andrews, 23, a Grambling State senior, and Monquiarious Caldwell, 23, both of Farmerville, Louisiana, the Lincoln Parish Sheriff’s Department said. The victims were found in a courtyard between two dormitories after a fight in an adjacent dormitory spilled outside, the sheriff’s department said.

Wayne surrendered to police on Thursday after learning there was a warrant for his arrest. It wasn’t immediately clear if Wayne had an attorney.

Wayne allegedly shot the two men after a disagreement led to a fight between Wayne and Andrews. Caldwell was apparently shot when he tried to help Andrews, authorities said.

Caldwell was visiting Andrews on the northern Louisiana campus, according to CNN affiliate KSLA.

“I feel confident that our investigators have put together a strong case,” Lincoln Parish Sheriff Mike Stone said Thursday in a press release.

Wayne is a freshman from St. Louis, Missouri, Grambling’s president Rick Gallot said in a statement.

“Our thoughts and prayers continue to go out to the Andrews and the Caldwell families during this difficult time,” Gallot said.

Stone said the shooting didn’t bear “any resemblance to any of the random acts of violence or domestic terrorism that have been experienced around our country in recent weeks.”

“There’s no place for violence on the Grambling State University campus,” university spokesman Will Sutton said told CNN affiliate KTBS after the shooting.

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‘Wedding crasher’ says she never attacked guest, apologizes to bride and groom

A woman who made headlines after crashing a wedding says she never attacked any guests and was only there to confront her cheating boyfriend.

Shelby McDowell, 20, sent a statement to News 6 about the Oct. 21 situation saying she “never intended for it to have gotten so out of control.”

McDowell claims that her boyfriend of two years, Darby Johns, was attending a wedding in Palm Coast on Saturday alone. McDowell says a friend told her that Johns and another woman were getting “too close” and says she drove to the wedding to investigate the claim.

McDowell admits to wearing a wig and sneaking into the wedding to spy on Johns, saying her intentions were only to confirm her suspicions, then leave the venue. She claims that she saw Johns and the woman kissing and says her “emotions took over.” McDowell claims she walked over to Johns and the woman and threw a drink, only intending to hit Johns, but hit both of them. McDowell claims she did not punch the other woman at this time, contrary to the police report.

Next, McDowell claims she ran to a bathroom stall and began to cry, when four women began banging on the door demanding to know why she was there. McDowell claims she opened the door and told the women, “I am here because Darby and (another woman) were together, and Darby and I are in a relationship.” She then claims she tried to leave, but was punched in the face, dragged to the ground and strangled. She claims she again tried to exit the bathroom, when she ran into the woman who was with Johns. McDowell then claims the woman “came at her” and she acted in self-defense.

Police were called to the scene and McDowell claims police instructed her that if she would not press charges, no charges would be pressed against her. She claims she was ready to leave when she was told that she had been charged with battery. She was then placed in a police car. McDowell says she was not questioned about the incident, and police only took statements from the woman, Johns, and the hotel manager, who she says did not witness the incident. “The woman and the four girls that attacked me were left off scot-free, while I spent the night in jail,” she wrote.

McDowell ended her statement by saying, “I am aware that going to a wedding uninvited is wrong. I am aware that pouring a drink on someone is also wrong.” She reiterates that she was not the first person to make physical contact during the argument saying, “After the drink incident, if the girls had not of attacked me, there would never have been such a chaotic scene.”

An apology to the bride and groom was also added. McDowell stated, “I am very apologetic towards the bride and groom, since this happened at their wedding.”

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Something Yuuuge was Missing From Franklin Graham’s Waco Revival

In mid-October, evangelist Franklin Graham and his “Decision Texas” entourage stopped off at Baylor University in Waco, mainly to bring souls to Jesus but also to talk a little politics. In a half-hour sermon culminating in an altar call for those seeking God’s forgiveness, Graham, president and CEO of the evangelistic organization named after his famous father Billy, told the 7,200 attendees that America is in deep trouble. He criticized the political dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and led the crowd in praying that God would “melt [politicians’] hearts so they’ll begin to work with one another for the good of all humanity.”

Predictably, Graham’s vision of “the good of all humanity” looked a whole lot like the GOP social conservative agenda. He attacked abortion and LGBT equality, and advocated tax reform, border security and a health care overhaul. Yet surprisingly, Graham seemed to distance himself from the man on whom evangelicals have pinned their hopes: Donald Trump.

Waco was the next-to-last stop in Graham’s 1,100-mile waltz across Texas. The tour had already put him in front of tens of thousands of Texans in Lubbock, Midland, Corpus Christi, San Antonio and Round Rock, before concluding in Longview.

Under a blue sky traced by wispy clouds, people of all ages — mostly Anglo, but with a scattering of black, Latino and Asian folks — sat on folding chairs or blankets on the grassy tailgating area next to Baylor’s McLane Stadium. The thumping Christian rock of Crowder warmed up the crowd. Audience members waved their arms and swayed as multicolored lights flashed and smoke swirled around the long-haired, shaggy-bearded musicians onstage. This was definitely not your grandma’s tent revival.

The crowd at Franklin Graham’s ‘Decision Texas’ tour stop in Waco.  David Brockman

As a high-church Episcopalian, I’ll confess that an event like this isn’t really my scene. I had come looking for insights into one of today’s great conundrums: how evangelicals can support a foul-mouthed, twice-divorced, playboy president with shaky knowledge of the Bible and a questionable sense of the need for repentance. This rally seemed like a good place to find clues, since Graham has been one of Trump’s most outspoken apologists. In May, he said Trump is in the White House “because God put him there” and implied that the reality TV star’s disreputable behavior was, paradoxically, a sign of divine favor. More recently, Graham praised Trump’s “Rocket Man” speech before the United Nations, saying it “may have been one of the best speeches ever given to that body.”

So I expected that if Graham turned to politics in his sermon, he’d give a full-throated endorsement of Trump. But in Waco, at least, it never came.

The 65-year-old evangelist took the stage to a standing ovation. He bears a striking resemblance to his famous father, but is more square-jawed, with the looks of an aging movie star. He smiles often, and makes little jokes in his mild North Carolina accent. Though he lacks his dad’s stentorian sermonizing presence — Franklin’s style is more soft-spoken and conversational — he does have a revival preacher’s gift for reducing the nuances of Christian teaching down to a few simple moral platitudes that can push people to repentance.

Graham began his sermon in a nonpartisan mode. “I don’t think I’ve seen political division like I’ve seen where we are today,” he said. He laid the blame on both Republicans and Democrats, and spoke nostalgically of a time when “both parties wanted the best for the country and they worked together.

“The Republicans can’t fix this,” he continued. “The Democrats certainly can’t fix it.” That dig drew chuckles from the audience. “Only God can fix this,” he declared, prompting rapturous applause and cheers.

Then Graham turned to why he thinks America is in trouble. Here that gift for oversimplification came into play. He railed against abortion: “In God’s eyes it’s murder.” He made no exceptions (as his father has) for rape, incest or danger to the woman’s life. As for same-sex marriage, Graham proclaimed that God defines marriage as between “a man and a woman. Not two women. Not two men.” The audience cheered and clapped. “I’m just telling what God has said,” he explained.

As for the issues politicians should be working together to solve, Graham mentioned three that are top priorities for the GOP and President Trump: tax reform, a health care overhaul to repair “a broken system” and “some type of secured border.”

There, however, Graham seemed to distance himself from the president. I expected him to launch into Trumpian anti-immigrant rhetoric, and perhaps even to claim, like Robert Jeffress, that a border wall is God’s idea. But Graham, who gave the invocation at George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration, went in a very different direction.

“Many people want to come here to work,” he said. “We need to make it easy for them to come here to work. We don’t need them to risk their lives trying to come in across the border because they can’t get permission to work here.” While he didn’t go into specifics, he sounded less like Trump and more like the comparatively pro-immigrant Texas evangelicals Darrell Bock and Bob Roberts.

Graham also separated himself from Trump in more subtle ways, but most surprising was the fact that throughout his sermon he never discussed Trump or mentioned him by name. When he led the audience in a prayer for those in authority, he listed a number of officials, including “the president” and “all those in Washington.” But he named only Vice President Mike Pence and Governor Greg Abbott.

Franklin Graham’s tour bus.  David Brockman

I asked the Graham organization whether the evangelist was purposely putting daylight between himself from the president. Spokesperson Todd Shearer said only that Graham’s references to leaders varied from city to city during the tour. In some of Graham’s other Texas sermons, all of which track closely with his Waco remarks, he did mention Trump by name in prayers for those in authority, but steered clear of endorsing the president, his policies or his behavior. Moreover, in San Antonio Graham noted that Trump can’t “turn around” the political division in America — only God can.

Shearer also pointed out that both Pence and Abbott had worked with the evangelist and his charity Samaritan’s Purse on hurricane relief here in Texas. The current issue of Graham’s magazine, Decision, which was handed out to attendees, does mention Trump, but features much more prominent photos of Pence and Abbott working alongside Graham to clear debris in Harvey-ravaged Rockport.

For Graham, Pence is a better fit than Trump. The vice president combines anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, pro-“religious freedom” conservatism with a straitlaced personal morality that Trump so publicly lacks.

It wouldn’t be the first time Graham dissociated from Trump’s comments. After initially defending the president’s response to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Graham later dialed it back, denouncing racial hatred as “venomous.”

I came away from Waco with the impression that Graham’s support for the president is more a dalliance of convenience than a love match. It depends on how effectively Trump promotes the religious right agenda.

Graham’s apparent hesitancy to drape himself in Trump’s politics may be a reflection of the community that follows him. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll suggests that Trump’s support among white evangelicals, while still strong, has slipped considerably.

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Family: Florida deputy caught on camera breaking into dying man’s home

A Palm Beach County deputy was captured on surveillance video last month breaking into an 85-year-old man’s home in Boynton Beach after the man was taken to a hospital and died, the victim’s family said in a statement.

WPBF reported that Deputy Jason Cooke was arrested Thursday night on charges of burglary and grand theft with a firearm.

Cooke has since made his first court appearance, where he was ordered held in lieu of a $28,000 bond and to be placed on house arrest after posting bond.

The victim’s family released the surveillance video to the public Tuesday. Family members said the video was captured Sept. 12 after their father was taken to a hospital because he had fallen and hit his head during a power outage caused by Hurricane Irma.

According to a probable cause affidavit, the victim, Moe Rosoff, lived alone and weathered the storm by himself.

Authorities said Rosoff’s son asked deputies to conduct a welfare check on his father, and three deputies went to the home to find Rosoff on the floor of the master bedroom.

He was taken to Delray Medical Center, where he died later that day.

The victim’s children said Cooke broke into the home after receiving the garage door entry code over his police radio and stole money, jewelry and several prescription medications.

Rosoff’s family reported the incident to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office on Sept. 20 after viewing the surveillance video, but the family said Cooke wasn’t arrested until five weeks later so that the deputy could enter a 30-day drug rehabilitation program.

“We were told that Officer Cooke denied the crime at first, but after he was shown the video, he admitted the crimes,” the family said. “Found in Mr. Cooke’s patrol car was a 2016 prescription bottle containing Vyvanse, a central nervous system stimulant, 47 pills of Tramadol Hydrochloride, a strong pain killer (with 3 different markings), Proclorperazine Maleate an anti-psychotic drug and Carisoprodol (Soma) a muscle relaxant. Not all of these medications we think were taken from our father, leading us to believe that this was not Officer Cooke’s first crime.”

Besides being outraged that their father was targeted by a deputy, the family said it is concerned that Cooke was working in an official capacity under the influence of multiple medications.

“If Officer Cooke was operating in his official capacity under these medications, it is our belief that he may have posed a significant threat to the public’s safety since just a few of the noted side effects of these medications include confusion, impaired thinking, impaired reactions, abnormal behavior, tremors, drowsiness, altered state of consciousness and anger,” the family said.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office did not comment on Cooke’s employment status.

“Unfortunately, sometimes an employee makes a bad decision which leads to misconduct,” a statement from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said. “This misconduct was reported, investigated and subsequently determined to be criminal in nature, resulting in the charges.”

Rosoff’s family said Cooke is on paid administrative leave.

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Federal government rolls out eight border wall prototypes

Ground views of different border wall prototypes as they take shape during the Wall Prototype Construction Project near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry on the U.S./Mexico border south of San Diego, California.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced Thursday that it has completed a major step toward construction of the Trump administration’s planned wall on the southern border with Mexico.

In a statement, the federal agency said that it has completed construction of eight wall prototypes, which will undergo a series of tests over the next 30 to 60 days. The prototype construction was done in San Diego.

“Border security contributes to our overall national security and relies on a combination of border infrastructure, technology, personnel, and partnerships,” Ron Vitiello, CBP’s acting deputy commissioner said in a statement. “Border walls have proven to be an extremely effective part of our multi-pronged security strategy to prevent the illegal migration of people and drugs over the years.”

In all, six companies, including Houston-based Texas Sterling Construction, built eight prototypes. The company has existed for more than 60 years, according to its website. A call seeking additional details about the border wall project was not immediately returned.

Construction of the controversial barrier was a hallmark of Trump’s presidential campaign, and he moved forward with the process shortly after taking office. In a Jan. 25 executive order, he mandated that agencies “take all appropriate steps to immediately” plan and design the wall. His promise that Mexico would pay for it, however, hasn’t panned out. The Mexican government has repeatedly rejected that notion. The total price tag for the project isn’t clear, though some reports state the figure could exceed $20 billion.

This month, the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee passed the Border Security for America Act, introduced by Austin Republican and committee chairman Michael McCaul. The legislation would authorize $10 billion for wall construction and an additional $5 billion for upgrades to the country’s ports of entry.

But other lawmakers, including some Republicans, have rejected the notion of such a wall, and have argued instead for a “smart” or “virtual” wall that uses technology, including sensors, drones and other efforts, instead of a physical barrier.

According to Thursday’s news release, CBP will test the San Diego prototypes in several areas, including anti-digging, climbing or breaching strengths, whether they are safe for U.S. Border Patrol agents and whether they impede traffic.

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In ‘The Second Coming of the KKK,’ a Timely Lesson in the History of American Hate

A Ku Klux Klan initiation in Bay City, Texas, 1922
A Ku Klux Klan initiation in Bay City, Texas, 1922.  University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Fort Bend Museum

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Fed up with world affairs, Americans rejected internationalism and closed their doors to immigrants. As they got used to new communications technologies, they found themselves susceptible to believing the outright lies that national media networks fed them and they gleefully consumed. Demagogues whipped up white people’s race resentments and status anxieties and rode them to electoral victories. Hate groups thrived like never before.

The decade was the 1920s, and the most popular of the hate groups was a rehash of the original Ku Klux Klan. Former Confederates formed the first Klan in the South during Reconstruction explicitly to terrorize would-be black voters. They were successful for a time, but white Americans outside the South rejected the KKK’s murderous tactics. Congress passed new laws to protect freedmen’s civil rights and President Ulysses S. Grant’s newly formed Department of Justice enforced them aggressively, which forced the Klan to disband by the end of the 1870s. But just before the United States entered World War I, the group rose again and flourished throughout most of the 1920s. This is the period explored by historian Linda Gordon in her sharply argued new book, The Second Coming of the KKK. Gordon makes no pretense of neutrality, and she encourages readers to draw bold lines between the political milieu of the Second Klan and our current predicament.

At its height, the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan had more than a million dues-paying members. It dominated politics throughout the United States — it was even stronger in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest than the South — and millions of Americans shared the Second Klan’s ideas about the supremacy of the white race.

The Second Klan used violence to maintain racial segregation and assert white supremacy, but on a much smaller scale compared to the first. Members of the Second Klan feared and hated African Americans, but they distinguished themselves further from the original KKK by making enemies of Jewish merchants, Greek bakers, South Asian laborers, Italian immigrants, Mormons, Catholics, bootleggers, jazz fans and flappers, among others. Gordon finds that the Second Klan drew as much from the American traditions of nativism, temperance, fraternalism, hucksterism, Christian evangelicalism and right-wing populism as it did from racism, and it used modern public relations techniques to great effect.

Whereas former Confederate officers and other southern conservative elites led the first Klan, the second drew mainly from the middle classes and organized most successfully outside of the South. The KKK of the 1920s was stronger in Oregon and Indiana than it was in Mississippi and South Carolina and more popular in cities than in the countryside. Perhaps most importantly, while public opinion turned fairly quickly against the first Klan and the federal government prosecuted its members during Reconstruction, the Klan of the 1920s was for a few years utterly mainstream. Leaders of both political parties endorsed Klan principles and in many cases openly accepted their support.

"The Second Coming of the KKK" by Linda Gordon
The Second Coming of the KKK
by Linda Gordon
$27.95; 288 pages

This Klan was also a force in Texas. National leader — excuse me, Imperial Wizard — Hiram Evans, a Dallas dentist, began his Klan career by leading a 1921 attack on a black bellhop at Dallas’ Adolphus Hotel who had been accused of “improper relations with a white woman.” (Sheriff Dan Harston declined to prosecute the perpetrators. He too was a member of Dallas’s Klavern No. 66.) Big D was Klan Kountry in that decade. When Sarah T. Hughes, later a powerful Democrat and federal judge, moved to Dallas in 1922, she estimated that every single elected official in the county was a member of the Klan. Klans organized within the Democratic party throughout the state and helped elect mayors, judges, state legislators and even U.S. Senator Earle Bradford Mayfield to office.  

The Dallas Klan won support from the most respected pastors in the city and continued to grow without opposition until a Dallas Morning News editorialist struck back, calling the KKK “the exemplars of lawlessness” and a “threat to personal and religious freedom. The Klan responded with fake news and a power play. After launching a whisper campaign that the DMN was run by Catholics loyal only to the pope, the KKK encouraged a boycott of the newspaper’s advertisers that nearly put it out of business.

The Second KKK, Gordon argues, influenced the national conversation in ways that still resonate. “The Klannish spirit — fearful, angry, gullible to falsehoods, in thrall to demagogic leaders and abusive language, hostile to science and intellectuals, committed to the dream that everyone can be a success in business if they only try — lives on,” she concludes.

Does it ever, and Gordon is not shy about connecting the dots. Describing Americans of the 1920s and the politics they made, Gordon deploys presentist terms such as “fake news,” “dog whistle,” and “social media.” I found each of the uses acceptable in context, but the cumulative effect may strike some readers as jarring.

Given these historical echoes, it’s worth looking at why the Second Klan dissipated when it did and what lessons its downfall holds for us. Gordon argues that the KKK was in many ways a victim of its own success. Thirty states passed racist eugenics laws and Congress passed the most sweeping immigration restrictions in U.S. history in direct response to Klan pressure. Mainstream politicians at all levels of government wrote the Klan’s ideas about racial hierarchy into law. Its most enduring achievement, Gordon concludes, “may have been its influence on political consciousness: its redefinition of Americanness, and thereby of un-Americanism, would continue to influence the country’s political culture.”

Had an astounding set of sex scandals and financial frauds not brought down the Second Klan’s leadership in the late 1920s, it is entirely possible that the organization would have remained a force into the Great Depression, when its brand of right-wing populism might well have curdled into a homegrown version of European-style fascism. Gordon’s conclusion is nevertheless mildly optimistic: In the 1920s a majority of Americans may have agreed with the Klan’s values and the assumptions behind white supremacy, but over the past century pluralist ideals have been ascendant. “[T]oday’s right-wing populists, even as they can win elections, face majorities who reject their values,” she writes.

We can certainly hope so, but we should also make it as close to impossible as we can for them to win elections. That will take something similar to the combination of a journalistic crusade, a critical mass of citizens willing to stand up for multicultural values, and the good luck that brought down the Second Klan in the 1920s.

The post In ‘The Second Coming of the KKK,’ a Timely Lesson in the History of American Hate appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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US launches ‘most advanced’ stealth sub amid undersea rivalry

Touted as the world’s most technologically advanced fast attack submarine, the USS South Dakota is set to join the US Navy fleet amid a growing threat to American undersea dominance from several foreign rivals.

Operating beneath the ocean’s surface, a submarine’s strategic value is often tied directly to its ability to navigate in or near enemy waters without being detected to conduct reconnaissance or attack missions.

For years, the United States has maintained a technological edge over the submarines developed by rival nations, but recent advances made by Russia and China have sparked concerns of an emerging threat to American undersea superiority.

Christened earlier this month, the nuclear-powered USS South Dakota marks the US Navy’s latest effort to maintain that edge and provides a technological blueprint for future development.

Virginia-class submarines currently cost roughly $2.7 billion each.

The Navy’s 70-boat submarine fleet is made up of three major types of boats: ballistic-missile submarines, attack submarines, and cruise-missile submarines.

The Navy currently fields 17 Virginia-class fast attack submarines, which are built to operate in the world’s littoral and deep waters.

Virginia-class submarines can launch torpedoes at other submarines and at ships. They can also launch missiles at ground targets, gather intelligence, and deploy Navy SEAL units for special operations.

“Their inherent stealth, endurance, mobility and firepower directly enable them to support five of the six maritime strategy core capabilities — sea control, power projection, forward presence, maritime security and deterrence,” the Navy said.

Incorporating “acoustic superiority” that is expected to provide unparalleled stealth capability, the USS South Dakota will be used as a “demonstrator to prove out advanced technologies,” according to Navy spokesperson Lt. Seth Clarke.

Lessons learned from South Dakota will be incorporated into later Virginia-class submarines — “increasing our undersea domain advantage, ensuring our dominance through the midcentury and beyond,” Clarke said.

“Stealth capability is one of the crucial advantages of submarines … the Virginia-class brings capability and capacity that is so crucial as we head into potential peer conflict down the road.” according to Randy Forbes, a former US representative who served as chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee while in Congress.

The 360-foot USS South Dakota is scheduled to officially enter the fleet in August 2018.

The Navy plans to upgrade its Virginia-class boats while developing the next-generation, nuclear-armed Columbia-class.

One of those upgrades includes outfitting Virginia-class submarines with additional “Virginia Payload Modules” for Tomahawk or next-generation missiles to provide more strike capacity.

Most Virginia-class submarines currently feature two Virginia Payload Tubes, each capable of launching six Tomahawk cruise missiles, according to the Navy.

Expected to be operational by 2024 or 2025, that added firepower will help fill the gap as the Navy plans to retire several of its aging fast-attack and ballistic-missile submarines in coming years, according to Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Brewing submarine rivalry

Forbes said the United States has traditionally been able to track foreign submarines but recent advancements made by the Chinese and Russians highlight the need for developments like those seen on the USS South Dakota to maintain American undersea dominance.

Russia has invested heavily in developing its own underwater stealth capabilities in recent years and their submarine technology is approaching the level of the US fleet, much like the peer-to-peer comparison seen during the Cold War, according to one congressional aide familiar with the issue.

While the Russian military is not necessarily building a large quantity of submarines, it is developing boats with advanced quieting capabilities that are “very competitive” with those in the US fleet, said Hendrix.

“Russia is modernizing its existing fleet of Oscar-class multipurpose attack nuclear submarines and producing their next generation Severodvinsk Yasen-class,” US Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year.

“The Russians are making a leverage investment … with submarines you don’t have to build a lot of them,” according to Hendrix.

The United States has also recently noticed an uptick in Russian submarine activity — conducting “spurts” of heavy patrols across various regions, according to the aide and a US Navy official.

“They can’t maintain the presence we do with 24/7 operations, but this activity is meant to push the boundary and to see what the US reaction will be,” the aide said.

But while the United States continues to monitor foreign submarine activity, the increase in Russian patrols is widely viewed as presence and testing maneuvers that do not pose an immediate military threat.

It’s something the United States should be reacting to but not overreacting to, the congressional aide told CNN.

In 2016, US Navy commanders told CNN that Russian submarines had become increasing assertive in the Atlantic Ocean and that their undersea activity was reaching levels unseen for decades.

The commander of the USS Missouri submarine, Fraser Hudson, assessed at the time that the renewed Russian activity is not just “a political statement but the Russians are seeking to gain experience in case hostilities were ever to break out between it and the United States.

“Honestly, I think it’s operational experience. You maintain the experience in those (areas of responsibility) so that if anything were ever to happen, they have experience,” he said last year.

A Russian sub also turned up off the coast of Florida in 2012, and the USS Missouri was called on to track it.

In addition to flexing their military muscle in an attempt to show “they still are or want to be a dominant super power,” the Russians are also trying to test whether their submarines can travel for long periods without being detected, according to the aide.

“The Russians are probably at about 80% of the capacity they were at during the Cold War,” according to Forbes, who also noted that they are constantly pushing the envelope in terms of capability.

China, on the other hand, is opting for a quantity over quality approach when it comes to building up its own submarine fleet.

“The Chinese are not as advanced but are getting there and they are producing diesel submarines in numbers,” the congressional aide told CNN. “In the end, numbers are a capability in themselves.”

Hendrix also noted that there is no indication the submarines being developed by China are close to being as advanced as those in the US arsenal but warned their approach of producing a large number of boats does pose a threat.

“Quantity can have a quality,” Hendrix said.

In addition to adding to the size of its submarine fleet, Harris warned earlier this year that they are also advancing their undersea capability.

“China is improving the lethality and survivability of its attack submarines and building quieter, high-end diesel and nuclear-powered submarines,” he said.

Both China and Russia have also increased their presence in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, where Harris said 230 of the world’s 400 foreign submarines are operating.

Roughly 160 of those 230 submarines belong to China, North Korea, and Russia, according to Harris.

Forbes said the United States must also develop a strategy to counter Chinese and Russian activity in “gray zones” where they are incrementally expanding their presence by strategically “fighting and competing” through military posturing.

China’s claims in the South China Sea represent one glaring example as to how they’ve been able to successfully implement this type of strategy in a way that allows them to expand their military reach without engaging in direct confrontation, according to Forbes.

Forbes also explained that the United States has yet to develop a coherent strategy to counter Russian and Chinese gray zone activity — a challenge that will require both the Navy and Congress to reconsider the way it utilizes American sea power.

“Major strategy is not some secret play you pull out in the fourth quarter of a football game,” Forbes said, adding that if US military leaders don’t articulate a strategy to Congress there is no way a plan will be implemented.

Emerging challenges

By most accounts, the United States still maintains the most capable submarine fleet in the world, but while the addition of the USS South Dakota represents a leap forward in technological advancement, some argue the Navy still faces challenges.

Despite President Donald Trump’s request for additional defense spending, years of budget cuts and continuing resolutions have had a severe impact on the Navy’s maintenance and shipbuilding efforts.

The Navy plans to build 30 Virginia-class submarines and replace its 14 aging Ohio-class boats with 12 Columbia-class submarines, the first of which is expected in fiscal year 2021.

In March 2016, the Government Accountability Office reported that total program acquisition costs will be about $97 billion, including $12 billion for research and development and $85.1 billion for procurement.

There are also discussions about extending deployments and service lives for existing submarines to help make up the difference.

But even if the Navy is able to achieve its goal of producing two or three new fast-attack boats per year, the service will only have 41 attack submarines by 2029, according to the Navy’s FY17 30-year plan.

An attack submarine inventory of 41 boats falls well short of the 65 to 70 boats needed to effectively maintain undersea dominance, according to Hendrix.

Harris told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year that he agrees with assessments indicating a need for 66 fast attack submarines.

The need to continuously upgrade submarine stealth capabilities also presents a challenge for the Navy, according to Forbes, who said there comes a time when the cost for another decibel of quietness becomes too expensive.

Increased costs and the development of new detection techniques that do not rely on the sound a submarine makes could change the way the US Navy thinks about undersea warfare, according to Forbes.

“If we can’t make up the numbers we will have to move to a different way of fighting,” Forbes said, adding that the current strategic mindset revolves around “one-on-one” submarine combat.

“In the future, submarines may have to fight more like an aircraft carrier,” he said, describing a system in which submarines are complemented by a variety of unmanned platforms.

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What does boycotting Israel have to do with Hurricane Harvey relief?

Questions were quick to follow when the city of Dickinson posted an application online for a Hurricane Harvey repair grant. An item on the application requires a person to pledge they will not boycott Israel.

Channel 2 Investigates learned the language was included because of a new state law, House Bill 89, that went into effect on Sept. 1.

What is House Bill 89?

House Bill 89 states government entities cannot invest public funds in companies that boycott Israel. The law requires that before a government entity enters into a contract with a company, it will verify in writing the company “does not boycott Israel,” and “will not boycott Israel during the term of the contract.”

Governor Abbott signed the law in May and it went into effect Sept.1. You can watch the signing ceremony here.

The governor has previously stated his support of Israel as a U.S. ally and major trading partner with Texas.

How does it apply to hurricane relief in Dickinson?

Mayor Julie Masters said the language was included on the advice of the city attorney. Masters said even though the grant came from private donations, once the city took control of the money, it became public funds. Masters said the grant is offered to both private citizens and small businesses, which is why the city attorney felt the new law applied.

“We are asking the state for some clarification. We erred on the side of caution, because we don’t know if the law applies to citizens who hire contractors, who then use sub-contractors,” Masters said.

Could the language be changed on Dickinson’s application?

Yes. Masters said the city attorney is seeking clarification from the state and will address the issue again with city council Tuesday. Masters said she spoke with one of the authors of the law, who told her she believes the law only applies on the state level.

What has been the reaction to Dickinson’s application?

Residents KPRC2 spoke with seemed more perplexed than upset.

“I understand (the city) has to protect its investment. As silly as it sounds, I don’t have a problem with not boycotting Israel,” Calvin Huffman said.

“I’m neutral with it,” Miriam Rosales said.

Masters said she has gotten an earful from all sides; mostly from outside the city. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a strongly worded response, calling Dickinson’s grant application “reminiscent of McCarthy-era loyalty oaths.”

“The government cannot condition hurricane relief or any other public benefit on a commitment to refrain from protected political expression,” read a statement from the ACLU’s Texas Legal Director, Andre Segura.

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Police: 3 Texas men arrested after shot fired at Richard Spencer protesters

A Texas man who fired a shot at a group of protesters after Thursday’s Richard Spencer speech at the University of Florida and the two men who encouraged him to open fire have been charged with attempted homicide, Gainesville police said.

Tyler Tenbrink, 28, fired the shot, after he and two brothers in a silver Jeep shouted obscenities, threats and chants about Hitler at the protesters, who were at a bust stop on SW Archer Road, police said. Tenbrink has also been charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

According to the arrest report, William Fears, 30, and Colton Fears, 28, both of Pasadena, Texas, shouted “I’m going to f****** kill you,” “kill them” and “shoot them,” before Tenbrink fired the shot, which missed and hit a nearby building.

Police said that as the Jeep sped off, one of the protesters was able to get the license plate and reported it to investigators, who relayed it to law enforcement in the area. An off-duty deputy with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spotted the Jeep with the matching Texas tag around 9 p.m. on I-75 about 20 miles north of Gainesville.

Units from the Alachua Police Department, the High Springs Police Department and the Florida Highway Patrol conducted a high-risk felony stop on the Jeep at the 405 Mile Marker of I-75 North and took the three men into custody, police said.

“I am amazed that immediately after being shot at, a victim had the forethought to get the vehicle’s license number” Gainesville police spokesman Officer Ben Tobias said. “That key piece of information allowed officials from every level of multiple agencies to quickly identify and arrest these persons. This was an amazing team effort by everyone involved.”

According to police, just before 5:30 p.m. Thursday, the men in the Jeep stopped to argue with the group of protesters on SW Archer Road and one of the passengers yelled “Hail Hitler” and other chants.

The protesters argued back and one of them hit the rear window of the Jeep with a baton, according to the arrest report.

The Jeep then pulled about 10 feet away, stopped again and Tenbrink got out and pulled a handgun on the protesters as the Fears brothers egged him on, police said.

At least two of the three have shown connections to extremist groups, according to Gainesville police.

The three remain in the Alachua County Jail. The Fears brothers are each being held on $1 million bond and Tenbrink is under a $3 million bond.

Tenbrink’s previous conviciton was for assault on a family or household member in 2014. He pleaded guilty/no contest.

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Perry pursuing policy on coal, nuclear power at odds with Texas record

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry testifies at a Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing in Washington, D.C. on Oct 12, 2017.

An unusual coalition of fossil fuel interests, environmentalists and free-market adherents has criticized a proposal from U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry that would prop up coal and nuclear plants across the country. And some of those familiar with Texas politics are wondering if the Perry that served as state governor for 14 years would have opposed the plan, too.

In a 2011 interview, then-Gov. Perry told blogger and radio host Erick Erickson, “Get rid of the tax loopholes, get rid of all of the subsidies. Let the energy industry get out there and find — the market will find the right energy for us to be using in this country.”

That statement was par the course for Perry, who as governor helped oversee the deregulation of Texas’ electrical sector and has championed competitive markets and opposed federal interference.

But to some, his views have shifted since he became President Donald Trump’s Energy Secretary in March.

“The boot is on the other foot,” Perry said at an event in April. “Are there issues that are so important to the national security of this country that the federal government can intervene on the regulatory side? I’ll suggest to you that there are.”

Perry raised eyebrows in September when he urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to give certain fuel sources what amounts to a subsidy, but one borne by consumers rather than the government. And at a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, Perry called the notion that there’s a free market in electrical generation a “fallacy.”

“We subsidize a lot of different energy sources. We subsidize wind energy, we subsidize ethanol, we subsidize solar, we subsidize oil and gas,” Perry said at the hearing. “Government’s picking winners and losers every day,” he said later.

Lawmakers on the committee were quick to point to the disparity between Perry’s current position and those during his tenure leading Texas.

“It seems like with your new effort you are gaming the system and not doing what we did when you were governor in Texas,” U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, said at one point.

U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, warned Perry that he was creating the impression that “you prefer government control over the free markets.”

“We both know that’s a pile of Bevo longhorn poo-poo,” Olson said.

Threat of energy outages

Perry’s proposal says generators that can store 90 days’ worth of fuel onsite — like coal and nuclear plants — should be shored up because they can keep the electric grid running in the event of a disturbance.

Many of these generators face premature retirement, Perry wrote last month. Referencing a 2014 “polar vortex” and the hurricanes that have battered Texas and other coastal areas, he said, “It is time for [FERC] to issue rules to protect the American people from the threat of energy outages.”

If approved, critics say the plan would increase residents’ electricity bills, penalize other sources of energy and signify a break from FERC’s free-market tendencies. Perry has asked the independent commission to make a decision on his recommendation in 60 days — a timeline some say is too fast.

But opponents have taken issue with more than the proposal’s pace. A broad coalition has criticized the plan as an ineffective solution put on too hasty a path. Some criticize it as pollution-causing and backward-looking; others say it amounts to a bailout and argue against government putting its thumb on the scale.

Industrial Energy Consumers of America, a group that represents Koch Industries and is supportive of nuclear and coal power, penned a letter saying the proposal would “distort, if not destroy, competitive wholesale electricity markets.”

Pat Wood, a former chairman of Texas’ Public Utility Commission, expressed his antipathy in more colorful language, likening the plan to a “lovely little Christmas turd” while at an industry conference, according to news reports.

Perry “clearly is acting based on what his boss, Trump, would like him to do,” said Lenae Shirley, a senior director at the Environmental Defense Fund. “When institutes that represent the Koch brothers are aligning with environmentalists on this, that sends a pretty strong message that this is not the right move.”

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to revive the coal industry, and his administration has already dismantled some policies favored by renewable energy advocates.

Even companies that support reforming wholesale electricity markets disagree with the specifics of Perry’s proposal.

“DOE is saying we need to have fuel security in the event of some catastrophic failure of the transportation or natural gas systems,” said Abraham Silverman, vice president and deputy general counsel at NRG Energy, which owns the retail electricity business of Reliant Energy in Houston. “That’s not crazy.”

“That said,” he added, “we are not proponents of bailouts. We’re not proponents of subsidies to targeted generators. We think the DOE was on the right path in highlighting the problems, but the specific proposal that they put forward was, I think, problematic.”

“Good for American energy”

At last week’s hearing, Perry said he’s committed to an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy — and pointed to his “real track record” as governor. “But the wind doesn’t always blow,” he added. “The sun doesn’t always shine. The gas pipelines, they can’t guarantee every day that that supply is going to be there.”

He suggested the Obama administration had been biased toward renewables and, in April, he commissioned a study to see if regulations, mandates or other tax policies are “responsible for forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants” such as coal and nuclear generators.

That report, which had been highly anticipated by both members of the energy industry and environmentalists, noted 531 “coal generating units” closed across the country between 2002 and 2016 and laid most of the blame for those closures on the “advantaged economics of natural gas-fired generation” — with regulations and rising output from wind and solar energy as lesser factors. The study’s authors did not find that such closures had made the grid unreliable.

That trend has been largely borne out in Texas, where Perry, as governor, helped oversee the deregulation of the state’s electricity market. Under Perry, natural gas production surged thanks to technological advances like hydraulic fracturing, and Texas became the nation’s leader in wind energy generation. Data from the state’s largest grid operator shows wind capacity grew from 116 megawatts in 2000 to more than 11,000 megawatts by 2014.

“If we go back in time, I’m sure we could find a dozen quotes from Gov. Perry very excited about these kinds of developments,” said Chrissy Mann, a senior representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Brandy Marty Marquez, one of the state’s Public Utility commissioners who previously served in the governor’s office as Perry’s chief of staff, said Perry “probably was among the first people to coin the phrase ‘all-of-the-above approach’ because Texas is one of the early adopters of renewable energy, specifically wind.”

While Perry long touted free-market principles as governor, he also championed spending millions in tax subsidies for firms relocating or expanding in Texas, programs critics derided as “corporate welfare.” And as governor, he did push for the permitting of new coal plants while other states were scaling back amid pollution concerns.

But those facilities, or Perry’s lobbying for them, weren’t highlighted in a December 2016 op-ed from a former state regulator about why Perry becoming Trump’s Energy Secretary would be “good for American energy.”

Barry Smitherman, the former chairman of Texas’ Public Utility Commission and Railroad Commision, cited the building of new transmission lines for wind energy, the encouragement of more competition in the electric market and the “shale revolution” as “three particular areas where Perry’s leadership led to significant benefits for working Texans, energy consumers and the broader energy industry.”

Coal plants closing

Marquez said Perry’s proposal is a responsible and reasonable way to approach issues with the grid — and that he’s consistently advocated for a diversified energy portfolio. Anybody surprised by his plan “hasn’t been paying attention,” she said. “He sent it over to FERC so that there can be a transparent dialogue, an open dialogue about it,” she said.

But even if FERC adopts Perry’s plan as is, it would largely not impact nuclear or coal-powered plants in Texas.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s largest grid operator, is not under the purview of FERC. “Only action by the Texas legislature or the [Public Utility Commission] would affect our rate structure,” said Robbie Searcy, an ERCOT spokesperson. Diverse energy sources, she added, have helped ERCOT maintain a reliable system and competitive market.

According to ERCOT data, coal made up 22 percent of the state’s generation capacity last year. But the coming closure of several coal-powered plants in the state has set the stage for wind to overtake coal in Texas’ overall energy mix in 2018, according to Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute.

Vistra Energy’s subsidiary, Luminant, announced earlier this month that three of its Texas coal plants will shutter next year, if ERCOT gives the okay. In environmental groups’ crosshairs for years, the Monticello, Big Brown and Sandow plants have earned the dubious distinction of being among the “dirtiest” in the country. But the plants succumbed to financial, not activists’, pressure, according to company officials.

“The long-term economic viability of these plants has been in question for some time,” Curt Morgan, president and CEO of Vistra, said in a statement. Because a few of the retiring plants were built in the 1970s, Rhodes said they probably needed some capital investment just to upgrade and maintain the facilities.

If ERCOT determines the plants aren’t needed to keep the state’s energy grid reliable, their retirements could prompt the elimination of more than 800 jobs.

“Coal’s powered America for a long time,” Mann, the environmental advocate said; but the closures align with Perry’s proposal. Natural market forces — and for some, an inclination toward renewable sources — means “coal has to get phased out,” Mann said. “Perry’s report recognizes that and is looking for a way to artificially prop up a dying industry rather than finding ways to help transition communities that have relied on coal.”

Bill Peacock, vice president of research at the conservative-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation, said a better solution is to rid the market of subsidies, rather than adding more. “We support markets as a way to decide which fuel is best to meet the energy needs of America,” he said. “To that extent, we don’t believe in subsidies for wind or solar or coal or nuclear or natural gas. It’s across the board. We’re not trying to pick winners and losers and we don’t think anybody else ought to either.”

Disclosure: The Environmental Defense Fund, NRG Energy, Vistra Energy and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Cornyn: Trump assured me more Harvey aid for Texas coming in November

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn speaks at the Texas State Rifle Association general meeting in Round Rock on Feb. 25, 2017.

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate will not add more funds earmarked for Texas’ recovery to a new disaster spending bill slated for a vote this week, the state’s senior senator said on Thursday.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn told reporters on a conference call Thursday afternoon that he spoke with President Donald Trump and his budget director Mick Mulvaney and was assured that a separate spending aid bill would come soon.

“It’s coming in November, and it will be for Texans recovering from Harvey,” Cornyn said. 

Few Texans were pleased with a $36.5 billion disaster relief legislation that passed the U.S. House last week, with some including Gov. Greg Abbott arguing the bill did not do enough for Texas. That is now the bill moving through the Senate chamber and will likely be up for a vote Thursday night or Friday morning.

Many in the delegation worry that the majority of the bill’s funds will go to the most dire hurricane-devastated theater, Puerto Rico. The legislation also largely ignored an $18.7 billion request most of the delegation and Abbott had requested from Congress.

In September, Trump signed into law a short-term, $15.25 billion measure to address the immediate emergency in Texas and in Florida, which suffered serious damage from Hurricane Irma.

Cornyn suggested earlier in the week he would band with colleagues in other areas affected by disasters to add additional relief spending to the current bill. 

“In talking to a number of my colleagues from Florida, some from out west where the wildfires are creating a lot of devastation, I think there’s some interest in seeing whether the Senate should add to what the House has done,” Cornyn said on Tuesday.

In the end, though, he said he would keep the pressure on the president and Congress to act soon on additional Texas aid.

“We don’t want the federal government to kick the can down the road, because as time goes by,” he said. “I don’t want people to forget about Hurricane Harvey.” 

 Claire Allbright contributed to this report. 

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U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson walks back comments on sexual assault

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, on Thursday walked back controversial comments about sexual assault she made a day earlier.

The issue has become a topic of national conversation since dozens of prominent women accused film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault.

Johnson acknowledged her initial comments on the matter “regarding behavior and attire come from an old school perspective that has shaped how some of us understand the issue.”

The flare-up started on Wednesday, in an interview with the Dallas NBC affiliate.

“I grew up in a time when it was as much the woman’s responsibility as it was a man’s — how you were dressed, what your behavior was,” Johnson said. “I’m from the old school that you can have behaviors that appear to be inviting. It can be interpreted as such. That’s the responsibility, I think, of the female. I think that males have a responsibility to be professional themselves.”

In a follow-up question in the same interview, Johnson insisted she meant for the comments to empower women.

“I think we also need to start talking about the power that women have to control the situation. There’s law enforcement, you can refuse to cooperate with that kind of behavior,” she added. “I think that many times, men get away with this because they are allowed to get away with it by the women.”

Johnson’s Wednesday comments met scathing online criticism, both on news sites and on Twitter.

On Thursday afternoon, her office released a lengthy statement pulling back from those sentiments.

“Sexual assault and harassment has no place in our society,” the statement said. “This is something I believe deeply. And at each turn of my professional life, I have made it my mission to fight for women’s rights. I do not blame the victims of sexual assault for the actions of their assailants.”

Johnson came to Congress in 1992. Democrats branded that cycle “The Year of the Women,” as a reaction to the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee panel that held now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings.

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U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders face off in tax code debate

U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, defended the recently unveiled GOP plan to overhaul the tax code in a Wednesday night debate against U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

“This debate is very very simple, Bernie and the Democrats want every one of you to pay more taxes,” Cruz said during the program, which was hosted by CNN. “And the Republicans want to lower the taxes for each and every person watching this debate.”

The Republican tax framework would reduce the number of tax brackets from seven to three at rates of 12 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent, increase the Child Tax Credit and eliminate most itemized deductions as well as the estate tax.

Sanders argued the plan would cut taxes by $1.9 trillion dollars for the wealthiest 1 percent, increase the national debt and cut welfare programs.

“I do not believe that America is about giving tax breaks to the very, very wealthy and cutting life-and-death programs for the working class,” Sanders said.

Cruz, a polished debater who looked comfortable behind the podium, delivered a practiced message that ultimately promoted every aspect of the GOP’s plan.

Sanders said while his plan might raise taxes, it would be so that more people have access to affordable health care, child day care services and better education.

“We are talking about taxes today, but … this isn’t just about taxes, it’s about a vision for America,” Sanders said.

Their respective visions often took the attention away from discussion over the merits of rewriting the tax code throughout the evening, with the moderators often having to redirect the focus back to the questions at hand. The two senators, standing only three feet apart, constantly interrupted one another, waved hands in each other’s faces and made snide comments.

At one point, Cruz told Sanders that he should “curb his enthusiasm,” and that Larry David’s impersonation of him is “spectacular.”

After Cruz replied to an audience question saying repealing the estate tax would encourage more people to keep their businesses open, Sanders paid Cruz a compliment: “That’s a good speech, but it has nothing to do with reality.”

The town hall was a rematch of sorts for Cruz and Sanders after a previous CNN debate in February over health care. Since their respective runs for president in 2016, the two have become megaphones for their brand of party politics.

Republican president leading the country, Cruz said his party must act.

“We have got to deliver on our promise to cut taxes for working families, for small business, for farmers, for ranchers,” Cruz said. “I’ll tell you what I believe: that you know better how to spend your hard-earned money than the government does.”

Before Congress can even take up the details of rewriting the tax code, they must pass a budget. That vote may come as soon as the end of this week.

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After Failing to Prop Up Coal in Texas, Rick Perry is Trying Again Nationwide

Rick Perry
Governor Rick Perry speaks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.  Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

In late 2005, then-Governor Rick Perry was in the middle of a protracted battle with a coalition of environmentalists, renewable energy advocates, mayors and local leaders. TXU, the state’s largest utility, had announced that it wanted to build 11 new coal plants. At the time, natural gas and coal made up about 46 and 39 percent, respectively, of the energy mix of Texas’ main grid. The fracking boom had not yet hit Texas, and wind power provided a tiny percentage of the state’s energy needs.

TXU was betting big on coal having a bright future. John Wilder, the utility’s controversial CEO, claimed the new investments would shield Texans from spikes in natural gas prices, in particular because the volatile commodity’s price had quadrupled and experts projected the low prices of the 1990s would not return. The U.S. also had an abundant coal supply, he noted.

Perry loved the plan. It probably didn’t hurt that he was running for re-election at the time and had received about $200,000 from TXU since 2000. On the campaign trail, Perry claimed the coal plants would be cleaner than the national average and ordered the state environmental agency to expedite their review.

Now, 12 years later, Perry and TXU’s plan to invest in coal seems shortsighted. While TXU is moving away from coal investments, as energy secretary Perry is continuing to prop up old and dirty coal plants at a time when scientists are warning that countries need to reduce carbon pollution to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Texas’ energy mix  Data courtesy ERCOT/Graphic by Naveena Sadasivam

Natural gas prices, of course, dropped considerably and coal has become more expensive to mine. Today, coal only makes up about 29 percent of the energy mix in Texas and the cost of building wind farms has decreased dramatically. Last week, Luminant, a subsidiary of Vistra Energy formerly known as TXU, citing “an oversupplied renewable generation market and low natural gas prices,” announced that it will retire three coal plants — Monticello, Big Brown and Sandow — by early 2018. Once those plants shut down, for the first time, wind will generate more power in the state than coal.

Ultimately, in 2006, facing pressure from environmental groups and business interests, TXU dropped its plan to build eight of the 11 coal plants. Perry’s order to fast-track the environmental reviews was also blocked by a court. And now one of the coal plants Perry wanted to see built — Sandow 5 in Milam County — is among those facing closure. Another, Oak Grove Plant Project in Robertson County, has low cash flows. The plants began operations in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

But Perry doesn’t appear to have learned from his experience in Texas. As energy secretary, Perry has proposed guaranteeing profits to plants in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest that stockpile coal. Perry claims the plan is necessary for grid reliability and cites the 2014 polar vortex as an example of why the government should subsidize coal plants. If the plan is implemented, it will cost taxpayers between $800 million and $3.8 billion every year through 2030 regardless of whether the plants are making money, according to one estimate.

“It’s basically putting your thumb on the scale in favor of coal and nuclear plants,” said David Schlissel, director of resource planning at the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis. “It’s a gift from the Trump administration to their friends in the coal industry.”

For Perry, the costs are secondary. “I think you take costs into account, but what’s the cost of freedom?” he testified before the House energy subcommittee recently. “What’s the cost to keep America free? I’m not sure I want to leave that up to the free market.”

Even if Perry’s plan to guarantee profits to the coal and nuclear industry is implemented, he won’t be helping Texas coal plants. That’s because the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), Texas’ primary grid, is the only major wholesale electricity market that doesn’t fall under the supervision of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will be responsible for implementing Perry’s plan.

In 2016, Schlissel authored a report that seems prescient now. He analyzed the economics of running seven Texas coal plants and predicted that the Monticello and Big Brown plants were bleeding money. Continued operation of the two “will be extremely unprofitable for Luminant,” he wrote.

Graph from the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis

Schlissel based his analysis on two main drivers: the increasing cost of producing coal-fired power and the decreasing price of power on the energy market. As natural gas plants and renewables produce energy at a cheaper rate, there’s less demand for coal-fired power. Since the cost of operating and maintaining coal plants doesn’t change dramatically when they produce less power, utilities then make less money per megawatt of coal energy. The double whammy has made coal uneconomic in Texas, Schlissel said.

“What’s killing these coal plants is not the Obama war on coal,” said Schlissel. “It’s the natural gas’ war on coal and all the wind available on [the grid].”

Schlissel wasn’t alone in predicting Luminant’s decision to shut down the three coal plants. In a 2016 report, ERCOT projected that between 8,000 and 18,000 megawatts of coal-fired plants will be shut down between 2017 and 2031. The group modeled eight scenarios and found that in all cases the Monticello and Big Brown plants would be shuttered.

Robbie Searcy, a spokesperson for ERCOT, said her group will study whether the three Luminant plants are needed for reliability and will make determinations about them by December. Luminant has said it hopes to close the plants by early 2018, but when they’re shut down will depend on ERCOT’s recommendation.

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Cruz presses Sessions on Trump administration’s “catch-and-release” policy

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the 30th D.A.R.E. International Training Conference in Grapevine, Texas, on July 11, 2017.

Amid a heavy backlog in immigration courts in Texas and California, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday said the federal government was considering ways to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants who are granted hearings before immigration judges before being deported. While a legislative solution is preferred, he added, his agency was investigating what it could do absent Congressional action.

The comments were made during a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing where U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pressed Sessions on whether the federal government was still operating under an Obama-era, “catch-and-release” policy where undocumented immigrants are not immediately deported.

“That is highly troubling. When I heard those reports in January and February, I told [U.S. Border Patrol agents] ‘Give the administration some time to get their team in place.’ You can’t turn a battle ship overnight,” Cruz said. “It’s now October.”

“We are looking at if there are any things we can do effectively, short of legislation,” Sessions responded. “But there is no doubt Mr. Chairman, we need legislation on this subject and several others.”

Sessions pushed back against Cruz’s description of the process as a “policy” and said it was instead the current reality because immigration courts are experiencing a record number of backlogged cases. He said that’s due to a “loophole” that allows undocumented immigrants who claim a credible fear of returning home the right to appear before an immigration judge in the United States.

“There are so many people claiming [credible fear] and being entitled to hearings that we don’t have the ability to provide those,” he said. “And they are being released into the community.”

The number of pending deportation cases in the country has more than doubled since 2011, according to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. That year there were about 297,500 pending cases but as of August 2017, the number had grown to more than 632,000. More than 100,500 of those cases are pending in Texas, the second-highest number after California’s 118,750.

Advocates argue that the Trump administration’s efforts to make deportations more “efficient” are actually hindering efficiency and jeopardizing due process. In a report released Tuesday, Human Rights First said that an earlier policy of sending immigration judges to the border led to several postponed cases elsewhere and an eventual lack of representation for undocumented immigrants who have access to counsel.

“Recent policies of the Trump Administration have decreased access to counsel in immigration courts and added to systemic inefficiencies,” the report states. “The waves of postponements triggered by the attorney general’s decision to send judges to detention centers ‘along the border’ on detail assignments…have caused lawyers (many of which provide pro bono legal services) to waste their limited resources preparing for hearings that are often cancelled.”

Immigrant rights groups and attorneys are also quick to point out that not everyone who claims credible fear is released while they await a hearing. A recent case out of Texas involved a Mexican journalist, Martin Mendez Pineda, who fled the resort city of Acapulco after he was attacked by Mexican federal officers and later threatened at gunpoint by six armed men, according to case documents provided by his attorney. But after trying – and failing – to be released from immigration detention while awaiting his hearing, he eventually gave up and voluntarily returned to Mexico.

Sessions remarks on Wednesday come a week after the attorney general suggested that immigration judges should have quotas in an effort to reduce the current case backlog. The suggestion didn’t go over well with immigration judges.

“Tying numerical case completions to the evaluation of the individual judge’s performance evaluation specifically interferes with judicial independence and clearly will put immigration judges in a position where they could feel forced to violate their legal duty to fairly and impartially decide cases in a way that complies with due process in order to keep their jobs,” the National Association of Immigration Judges said in a written statement prepared for Wednesday’s hearing.

On Monday, at a forum at the University of Texas, Austin-based immigration attorney Virginia Raymond said the judges’ opposition to the proposal speaks volumes.

“Most of them are former [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] attorneys. It’s not like they are bleeding heart humanists who care about refugees and immigrants,” she said. “And if they are saying this doesn’t work, maybe that’s saying something.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin 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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U.S. House passes hurricane relief bill after tense day for Texas delegation, Abbott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delegation split

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

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

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

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

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

Culberson pushed back against that notion.

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

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

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

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

Patrick Svitek and Claire Allbright contributed to this report. 

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