Local candidate’s campaign ad draws criticism

A congressional candidate’s campaign ad is striking a nerve with some, maybe because it was first seen just 24 hours after the Florida high school shooting that left 17 dead Wednesday.

The ad features Kathaleen Wall posing with a rifle and then firing it.

Wall’s ad is getting mixed reviews.

The ad talks about the Republican being soft spoken but not soft on Second Amendment rights.

Some are calling the timing of the ad “tone-deaf.”

One person tweeted:

“After the horrific school shooting in Florida today do you think that you could possibly cancel the tasteless ad featuring you aiming a firearm?”

WATCH: Kathleen Wall for Congress campaign advertisement

On Facebook, someone posted:

“I support the 2nd amendment but in light of the recent tragedy I find your ad with you firing a gun troubling and bad taste. I am a Republican.”

A Rice University political science professor said Wall can bounce back from the mis-timed ad.

“While this ad will certainly hurt Kathaleen Wall with general election voters, that election doesn’t occur until November. Among Republican primary voters, it’s unlikely to hurt her all that much,” professor Mark Jones said.

The ad has appeared on Houston airwaves, including cable channels.

It is not running on Channel 2.

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DPS reverses decision to lay off more than 100 older officers

Texas Department of Public Safety recruit graduation class on April 7th, 2011 in Austin, Texas

The Texas Department of Public Safety has reversed a decision to lay off more than 100 older troopers, according to associations representing agency workers. The troopers are employed under an agency program that allowed them to retire and then be rehired in order to collect retirement benefits and a salary.

The department made a decision in December to cut the positions of 117 law enforcement officers to make up for state-mandated budget cuts for the current biennium, according to a DPS memo. The decision was followed by backlash from several state lawmakers who claimed the decision unfairly targeted older officers.

On Thursday, officials from the Department of Public Safety Officers Association and the Texas State Troopers Association confirmed the department reversed the decision, allowing the troopers employed under the retire/rehire program to stay on in their current roles.

“I’m happy for the troopers. They deserve it,” said state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, the first lawmaker who criticized the layoff decision. “We praise law enforcement at every turn. We needed to come through on this.”

DPS has looked for ways to balance its budget since the end of the legislative session last May, almost always to public outcry. In December, the department said with a 4 percent budget cut and a requirement to hire 250 new troopers under border security funding, the elimination of the positions was necessary. The troopers were to be laid off May 31.

Nevárez and Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, scoffed at the proposal and asked the department to overturn the decision, saying it was picking young recruits over veteran officers. The officers association released a memo saying the Legislature didn’t intend for budget cuts to mean eliminating troopers and pointed to a budget provision that would allow the department to shift money around to prevent any trooper layoffs.

The Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee held a hearing earlier this month on the decision, and DPS Director Steve McCraw told the lawmakers that the agency was working on a solution and that it would cost $19 million to keep the positions. But, he said, the money didn’t need to come from outside of the DPS.

“Some of the challenge is having the flexibility to use our existing funds. It’s not necessarily additional funds,” McCraw said.

It appeared they worked something out. Neither the associations nor Nevárez gave details on how the budget problems were fixed, but they said it’s happened. The Department of Public Safety did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story.

Jimmy Jackson, president of the officers association, said McCraw called him Wednesday afternoon to tell him the Legislative Budget Board had signed off on a solution to keep funding the troopers’ positions. He said the solution involved the offices of the Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

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Man accused of using counterfeit money trying to buy iPhone X through OfferUp

A Houston man is accused of theft after he gave a victim fake money, documents from Harris County Probable Cause Court read.

It happened Dec. 20 when the victim was attempting to sell his iPhone X through the app, ‘OfferUp,’ documents said.

Documents said the victim met with 21-year-old Keyshawn Parrish, of Houston, at a gas station in the 13000 block of Katy Freeway.

Parrish is said to have gotten into the victim’s vehicle, looked at the phone, got out of the car and then walked back to his car, documents said.

Parrish came back to the victim’s car and “snatched the phone from the complainant’s hand” and threw counterfeit money into the victim’s car and drove away, documents said.

The victim later reached back out to Parrish through the app, saying he wanted his phone back, though Parrish never responded, documents said.

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13 suspected in tire, wheel theft ring that operated in 7 counties, officials say

Thirteen people are believed to be connected to a multi-county crime ring that was concentrated on stealing tires and wheels, authorities said.

Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said his investigators partnered with investigators from 11 other agencies to break up the ring that operated in Harris, Grimes, Waller, Washington, Fort Bend, Montgomery and Brazos counties.

Search warrants were executed Thursday at three locations in Harris County, and thousands of stolen tires and wheels were found at a tire shop on West 34th Street in Houston, Herman said.

Herman said it appears that the vast majority of tires and wheels that were stolen in the seven counties since 2016 went to the shop in Houston.

“I can assure you that the tire and wheel thefts, after this, should come to a screeching halt,” Herman said. “These folks were responsible for a large part of our thefts.”

A few of the 13 people connected to the ring have been arrested, and warrants have been issued for the others, Herman said.

Most will face charges of theft and organized crime, Herman said.

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Audit: Company behind Texas ‘clean coal’ project used federal funds for liquor, limousines and lobbying

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry joins the Petra Nova carbon capture and enhanced oil recovery system partners — NRG Energy, JX Nippon Oil and Gas, and Hilcorp Energy — for a ribbon cutting ceremony at the NRG/Petra Nova Power Plant in Thompsons on April 13, 2017.

A now-bankrupt company that received a major federal stimulus grant to build a “clean coal” power plant in West Texas spent millions of taxpayer dollars on alcohol, lobbying, spa services and other questionable — or clearly unauthorized — expenses.

That’s according to a report released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General, which found that the department’s Office of Fossil Energy — under the Obama administration — demonstrated blatantly lax oversight of a $450 million grant the agency awarded in 2010 to Seattle-based Summit Power Group for the “Texas Clean Energy Project.”

The coal-fired carbon-capture power plant — slated for a 600-acre plot near Odessa — was never built. It was championed by former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, who went to work for Summit after leaving office in 2007. She left the company in mid-2016 after the Energy Department — now headed by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry — froze grant funding as the project struggled to get off the ground; it was nearly $2 billion over budget, years behind schedule and unable to find financing.

The Energy Department spent about $116 million on the project before pulling the plug.

The audit released Tuesday found that the Office of Fossil Energy reimbursed Summit for more than $38 million in expenditures without requiring or reviewing documentation to show the charges were allowable and necessary for the project.

That included more than $1.3 million in charges for “questionable or prohibited travel related expenses.” Half of those expenses were charged by a lone consultant “for items such as a spa service, alcohol, first-class travel, limousine services, receipts in foreign currency, and business meals that were prohibited or not fully substantiated.”

In a statement Tuesday that highlighted the company’s seven-year relationship with the Energy Department, Summit said it disagreed with the report’s findings and noted that independent audits never found any issues.

“We are disappointed that the report was issued without any advance opportunity to review,” the statement said. “As a condition of receiving the award, Summit put in place rigorous financial oversight controls and as the report notes, the project underwent annual independent audits that found no significant findings or questionable costs.”

Asked about the status of the project, Summit’s Chief Financial Officer Rick Burkhardt said via email: “As the report noted, the project company filed for bankruptcy in October of 2017.”

Miller, the former Dallas mayor, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Her support of the project was seen as an extension of one of her major initiatives in Dallas, where in the mid-2000s she spearheaded a successful statewide campaign against a power conglomerate’s plans to build 11 coal-fired power plants that Perry had championed as governor.

In 2005, Perry issued an executive order to help rapidly approve permits for the facilities — a move environmentalists and watchdog groups decried as a backroom deal to help political donors. TXU, now known as Energy Future Holdings, ultimately scrapped plans for eight of the carbon dioxide-spewing plants.

Energy Future Holdings has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Republican state Rep. Sarah Davis on voting for Gov. Greg Abbott: “It’ll be hard to do that.”

State Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, speaks with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at the Austin Club on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018.

State Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, said Thursday that she won’t support a Democrat for Texas governor in 2018, but can’t commit to voting for her fellow Republican Greg Abbott.

“It’ll be hard to do that,” she said of supporting the incumbent governor who has worked hard to unseat her in this year’s Republican primary. “I would most likely just not vote.”

Davis made those comments during a morning interview in Austin with The Texas Tribune’s CEO, Evan Smith.

The governor has been targeting Davis, the chair of the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee, after a legislative session in which she criticized the Abbott’s decision not to include ethics reform among a priority list of 20 items for the special session.

So far, Abbott’s campaign has released four television advertisements endorsing Davis’ opponent Susanna Dokupil. Two of those ads were released recently and accuse Davis of supporting late-term abortion, interfering with Hurricane Harvey relief, blocking ethics reform and aligning with Abbott’s 2014 Democratic opponent Wendy Davis.

The representative denounced the claims and she said Thursday that the ads lacked context. Still, she said she does not agree with a “no exceptions, no abortion ever” viewpoint — putting her in a rare position among Republican elected officials.

Still, Abbott’s move is unusual: Texas governors generally don’t endorse against incumbents in their same party.

“I don’t know if it’s about being a woman or about being a woman that he can’t control,” Davis said.

But should Davis and Abbott both be re-elected in November, the representative said she would “absolutely” work with the governor to further a Republican agenda. Despite their clashes, Davis said she believes Abbott is ethical, albeit sometimes hypocritical in his attacks on her support for ethics reform. And she said they would likely still agree on most issues.

At the Thursday event, Davis also refused to say if she voted for President Donald Trump. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton had a 15-point advantage over Trump in Davis’ relatively moderate district. Davis has used this fact to warn that if her more conservative challenger wins the March primary, the seat could flip to the Democratic nominee in November.

She said she was a “traditional Republican” who was for personal freedom and limited state spending.

If Davis is victorious in March, she will face the winner of the Democratic primary race between Allison Lami Sawyer and Lloyd Wayne Oliver in the general election.

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Family wants justice for woman struck by 3 vehicles, killed in north Harris County

The family of a woman struck and killed by three vehicles demanded justice Wednesday.

Linda Rodriguez, 33, was killed while walking home from work Tuesday, along Red Oak Drive, near FM 1960 in North Harris County.

“Why didn’t you stop and help her?” asked Irma Zuniga, Rodriguez’s roommate. “She could have had a chance.”

Investigators believe as many as three vehicles hit Rodriguez. None of the drivers stopped after hitting her, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said.

“I’m upset that these people are not coming forward and not being responsible. I’m so disgusted. Disgusted,” cried Maribel Rodriguez, Rodriguez’s aunt.

According to investigators, witnesses said Rodriguez was lying in the street around 7:45 p.m. in the 17200 block of Red Oak Drive, near the intersection of FM 1960 and I-45, when she was hit by a truck. The witnesses reported that the driver of the truck stopped briefly, then drove away.

Soon after being hit by the truck, a car hit Rodriguez and the driver kept going, police said.

“There are some cameras in the area from the school right here next to us, so we are reviewing that footage right now to see if it’s going to show anything,” Sgt. Eric Albers said.

Rodriguez’s family hopes the video will help identify the drivers.

“You could have saved her life by stopping, calling 911, asking for an ambulance to get there as soon as possible,” Zuniga said.

The family has set up a GoFundMe page to help with funeral costs, as the investigation into who struck Rodriguez continues.

“There’s got to be somebody out there, somebody out there that knows something and I’m pleading, please come forward,” Maribel Rodriguez said.

Anyone with information about the crashes is asked to call the Vehicular Crimes Division at 713-274-7400 or Crime Stoppers 713-222-TIPS.

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Massage parlor workers offering sex for money in Fort Bend County, sheriff says

The Red Apple massage parlor is just another business in a small strip center in the 11300 block of Highway 6 at W. Airport Road.

It sits next to a donut shop, a restaurant and a beauty shop.

Fort Bend County sheriff’s investigators said they were selling a lot more than backrubs at the parlor.

Just after lunchtime Wednesday, deputies forced their way inside the business, battering down an inner door to get into the massage parlor’s back rooms.

They went in after one of the women who they said offered sex for money.

The massage parlor is situated in a nondescript shopping center on Highway 6.

Neighbors noticed an unusually high number of men coming and going over the last few months.

A worker at the beauty shop next door said she never saw any female customers.

“She says she went there, tried to get a massage, and they say they don’t take women,” the worker said.

The sheriff said it was a front for prostitution.

Three female employees were detained.

“I want to do everything I can to find out who owns this strip center and shut this place down. I don’t want to leave here and, all of a sudden, this place is open next week,” Sheriff Troy Nehls said.

Nehls said he conducted the raid in response to complaints from neighbors who live nearby.

The owner of a deli restaurant next door says it was bad for business.

The sheriff’s department contacted the shopping center owner who agreed the massage parlor won’t be allowed to reopen.

Investigators said they’re satisfied this was not part of a human trafficking operation.

The three women who were detained, all legal immigrants, won’t be charged, deputies said.

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Appeals court mostly upholds ruling against Harris County bail practices

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

A federal appellate court on Wednesday mostly upheld a ruling claiming that Harris County’s bail practices unfairly discriminate against poor misdemeanor defendants.

In October, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on the pretrial system of Texas’ most populous county, where arrestees who can’t afford their bail bonds regularly sit in jail — often until their cases are resolved days or weeks later — while similar defendants who have cash are released. The county was appealing a ruling from U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal that called its bail practices unconstitutional and ordered the release of almost all misdemeanor defendants from jail within 24 hours of arrest, regardless of their ability to pay their bail amount.

In its ruling, the 5th Circuit upheld Rosenthal’s previous findings but said the injunction on the county was “overbroad” and narrowed some of the orders against the county.

Perhaps of most importance to the county, the appellate court pushed back the 24-hour deadline to 48 hours. The appellate judges appeared suspicious about Rosenthal’s time limit in their hearing and said Wednesday that it was too strict.

“Nevertheless, even under our more forgiving framework, we agree that the County procedures violate [the plaintiff’s] due process rights,” Judge Edith Brown Clement wrote.

The circuit opinion also removed the Harris County sheriff from the lawsuit, who was previously one of the defendants. The county appealed Rosenthal’s decision to include both the sheriff and the county judges, but they didn’t bite on the judges.

The county judges, unlike the sheriff, can set bail policies consistent with state law, and yet they participated in an “unwritten, countywide process for setting bail that violated both state law and the Constitution,” Clement wrote.

The case will now go back to Rosenthal for her to modify the ruling.

This developing story will be updated.

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‘The Most Dangerous Man in America’ is a Pleasant Flashback to One of the Wildest Stories of the ’60s

I was born in 1967. The 1960s, for me and most people my age and younger, are almost purely an abstraction. I’ve familiarized myself with more than a few facets of the decade’s art and literature and politics, and a lot of facets of its music, but the construct that is “The Sixties,” as distinct from the dated decade, will always appear to me, in the main, as a mental montage of napalmed Vietnamese children, grieving Kent State students, Apollo rocket launches, dead Kennedys, flowers in rifle barrels, civil rights marches and Altamont, etc. — all of it reinforced by 10,000 viewings of almost identical montages as they’ve appeared in every sort of popular media ever since.

Every one of those images has a story behind it. It’s tempting to think they might all have been told. Not this one.

timothy leary
The Most Dangerous Man in America by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis
Twelve Books
$30; 400 pages

Timothy Leary is probably most enduringly famous as the man who encouraged American kids to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” i.e., trip acid. In the pantheon of quasi-authoritative psychedelic legitimizers, Leary was king. Like a lot of people, I knew the outlines of his story. And I saw him perform, once, at the 1987 River City Reunion in Lawrence, Kansas, alongside Allen Ginsberg, Keith Haring, Andrei Codrescu, William S. Burroughs and Hüsker Dü. He was a sort of stand-up philosopher at that point, a decade before his death, and the impression he made on me was strangely neutered. He’d become an evangelist for space travel and, preciently, networked computers, four years before the birth of the World Wide Web. I remember mocking the Cosbyesque sweater he was wearing. Later, I had occasion to write about a Houston company, Celestis, that briefly advertised the service of shooting cremated ashes into space. Leary had signed up to be at least partially so disposed of.

In The Most Dangerous Man in America, I learned that Leary later changed his mind. And he must have later changed it yet again, because the New York Times reported that on April 22, 1997, a vial of Leary’s ashes was launched on a Pegasus rocket, hitching a ride alongside Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and 22 others into orbit with a Spanish satellite.

It turns out that Tim Leary changed his mind about a lot of things — the recommendability of armed insurrection, for instance  — though not, apparently, about the benefits of mind-altering drugs. There is enough high-quality hash, weed, acid, booze and tobacco in The Most Dangerous Man in America to make Hunter S. Thompson blanch.

But the book is more than a treasure trove of trivia for Leary freaks. It’s a solvent that dissolves the calcified montage of the ’60s and replaces it with an incredibly detailed moving picture of a specific time (May 1970 through January 1973) and places (California, Algiers, Beirut, Switzerland) in which some incredibly interesting people were doing some deeply weird shit. The book reads like authors Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis somehow went back in time and strapped GoPros to the most compelling people in (and out) the country, and then transcribed the whole janky scene. And it accomplishes that feat without the slightest whiff of literary trickery. It’s just straight-up reported prose written in an incessantly immediate present tense. You may not have been there, but you turn the last page with the distinct feeling of having begrudgingly left the strangest party you ever expect to be lucky enough to crash.

The party started, in this book’s rollicking telling, with Leary, then 50 years old, a former Harvard psychology professor already highly regarded as the godfather of the psychedelic ’60s, being bussed from one California prison to another: the California Men’s Colony-West (CMC), a minimum security facility for nonthreatening old men. He’s asked for the transfer, and gamed the penal system’s questionnaire, which, in a previous life, he’d helped create, to appear low-risk. He’d been convicted of possessing two marijuana cigarettes and sentenced to 30 years. In the authors’ recreation, “He’s carrying all his possessions in a small cardboard box — two packs of Bugler roll-your-own cigarette tobacco, two ballpoint pens, and rubber shower shoes that are a good-bye present from a murderer he met in another facility.” Here, on page 7, and not for the last time, the reader pauses to appreciate the uncanny granularity of detail that authors Minutaglio and Davis — a professor of journalism at the University of Texas and former Observer media columnist, and the curator of the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, respectively — have unearthed from previously sealed FBI documents, court records, personal letters, government cables, unprecedented interviews, and Leary’s personal archivist, among other sources. If the subject matter weren’t so potentially triggering (unchecked misogyny, violence, chronic substance abuse), this book should be taught in journalism, history and political science departments nationwide. Story aside, The Most Dangerous Man in America is a triumph of the reporter’s art.

But the story is entirely too compelling to be set aside for even a second. Because Leary, of course, isn’t going to spend 30 years waiting to shuffleboard off this mortal coil in a California prison. On September 12, 1970, four months after his arrival at CMC-West, and just shy of seven months into his sentence, Leary shimmied along 100 feet of cable spanning the 12-foot, barbed-wire-topped chain link fence isolating him from the tumultuous world outside, made his way to a lawyer-arranged and Weather Underground-sponsored rendezvous a half-mile from the prison entrance with an 18-year-old driver sent by the drug-smuggling Brotherhood of Eternal Love, and disappeared into the night. Thus kicked off a global manhunt that captivated the international press and haunted the liquored dreams of President Richard M. Nixon, Leary’s funhouse-mirror doppelganger, and the man who, in search of a poster boy target for his law-and-order agenda, had labelled him the titular most dangerous man in America.

I won’t attempt to recap in 1,200 words what takes Minutaglio and Davis 400 fast-paced and fat-free pages to recount, but even a partial roll call of characters should suffice to entice even casual students of the 1960s. Bill Ayers, G. Gordon Liddy and Eldridge Cleaver all make substantive appearances, alongside Leary’s first wife, Rosemary, his lover and common-law second wife, jet-setter Joanna Harcourt, a mysterious playboy arms dealer named Michel Hauchard and, in a creepy cameo at Folsom State Prison, where Leary finally lands in solitary confinement once his globe-trotting game of cat and mouse comes to a close, Charles Manson.

But despite its almost epic sweep, The Most Dangerous Man in America is finally the story of Leary and Nixon, two men who regarded each other as existential threats, both to each other and to their highly idiosyncratic visions of America. And in this telling, the two men had more in common than either surely recognized. Leary was a true psychedelic believer, yes — and good god, the frequency and quantity of the man’s LSD ingestion was staggering — but also a craven opportunist who took perhaps too much pleasure in, and no small advantage of, his celebrity. Nixon, like Leary, practiced a crass ethics of personal convenience, cynically plying his constituency for political advantage. And both men came close to crumbling under the weight of paranoia that is perhaps the most lasting legacy of their era, even as their fates affirmed an age-old adage: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Former Observer managing editor Brad Tyer edits the Missoula Independent in Montana.

The post ‘The Most Dangerous Man in America’ is a Pleasant Flashback to One of the Wildest Stories of the ’60s appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Harris County assistant district attorney fired after 2 days on job, authorities say

A Harris County assistant district attorney was fired Wednesday after just two days on the job.

Authorities told KPRC 2 Marlene Bovell lied on her employment application.

She started Monday as an assistant district attorney assigned to the Misdemeanor Division.

In a statement, the Harris County public relations spokesperson Dane Schiller wrote, “When asked on her Harris County District Attorney Office job application if she had ever been arrested or convicted of a crime anywhere aside from minor traffic violations, she responded, ‘No.’ She admitted Wednesday that she had not been truthful on the application.”

Harris County authorities said prior to her hire, her background was checked through databases traditionally used by law-enforcement, to determine if a person has been previously arrested or convicted of a crime. The databases returned no information to indicate she’d had any previous encounters with law enforcement, according to authorities.

The State Bar of Texas, which licensed her to practice law in November 2017, conducts fingerprint checks of applicants.

Bovell worked at the Harris County District Clerk’s Office from July 2013 to July 2015 as an assistant district clerk.

Harris County authorities said background check procedures for all Harris County District Attorney’s Office applicants have been amended.

There’s no word yet on what interaction or interactions she’s had with law enforcement, but KPRC 2 is working to learn more and bring you confirmed information on Bovell’s background.

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Woman charged with retaliation after threatening Harris County judge

A woman has been arrested and charged for threatening a Harris County judge, according to authorities.

A sheriff’s department report said after repeatedly failing to appear in court on a misdemeanor theft charge, Charise Annette Jackson became enraged when Judge Analia Wilkerson increased her bond.

It happened during a hearing on Jan. 31.

Jackson, 41, has a long history of arrests in Harris County going back to 1996 for crimes like theft, drug possession and fraud.

She was before Wilkerson that Wednesday on a misdemeanor theft charge filed last October. She’d failed to appear for court hearings several times since then, so the judge increased her bond.

According to a sheriff’s department report, Jackson became upset when that happened and within hearing of her court-appointed attorney threatened to murder Wilkerson.

In part, the report read:

“(She) Further inquired about the Judge’s family, stating that she will ensure that the Judge does not return to the the bench after the defendant gets released on a ‘P.R.’ bond.”

Jackson’s attorney, Jose Vela, became alarmed and reported the threat to Wilkerson and the court prosecutor. A sheriff’s department investigator was assigned to the case, and Jackson was charged with retaliation, a felony, the same day.

Jackson was arrested and remained in jail until Monday, when she posted a $10,000 bond and was released.

Jackson is due back in court before a different judge for arraignment on the retaliation charge Feb. 20.

KPRC called Wilkerson and Vela for comment, but we haven’t heard back from them.

A spokesman for the sheriff’s department confirmed Jackson had been charged and arrested for retaliation, but declined to appear on camera.

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Pregnant passenger injured in high-speed chase, crash in Conroe

A pregnant woman was taken to a hospital in stable condition after she was involved in a chase and crash in Montgomery County late Monday night.

Just before midnight on I-45 near The Woodlands, authorities said they attempted to pull over a silver Honda with no taillight assembly.

The driver of the vehicle did not stop and led authorities on a chase that reached speeds up to 90 mph, according to authorities.

The driver continued northbound on I-45 while throwing things, believed to be drugs, out of the vehicle, authorities said.

The driver wove through the streets of Conroe, until he struck a utility pole at the intersection of Sherman Street and 2nd Street, authorities said. The driver continued to try to leave the scene, even though one of the front wheels was ripped off. The vehicle struck another pole and several mailboxes before coming to rest against a third pole, according to authorities.

Two men got out of the vehicle and attempted to run on foot, but were apprehended by authorities. One was found hiding in a nearby truck, according to authorities.

A large quantity of meth was found in the vehicle, authorities said.

The passenger was released.

The driver was arrested.

The pregnant passenger was taken to the hospital.

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Coastal communities hit by Harvey will get $1 billion for hazard mitigation, Abbott announces

A man walks through floodwaters after surveying his property in Rockport, which was hit by Hurricane Harvey, on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017. 

Texas communities slammed by Hurricane Harvey can now apply for a share of a half billion dollars in federal money that will cover everything from buying out flood-prone homes to building new seawalls and restoring sand dunes, Gov. Greg Abbott told an audience in Rockport on Tuesday.

The state expects to receive just over $1 billion in hazard mitigation money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency by the one-year anniversary of Harvey’s landfall in late August, Abbott said, but half of that is available immediately.

“We want to rebuild in ways that reduce the risk of future damages to property and to lives,” Abbott told a group of local officials in Rockport, which bore the brunt of Harvey’s Category 4 winds and suffered extensive property damage.

The money is available to cities and counties affected by Harvey, and can be used for:

  • Buyouts of flooded structures and elevating structures above floodplains
  • Floodwalls, seawalls, jetties, sand dune restoration and channeling waterways
  • Retrofitting houses and buildings to withstand hurricane winds
  • Storm surge protection projects

“The money is here, checks can be cut immediately as soon as you get your applications in and get them approved by [the Texas Division of Emergency Management],” Abbott said, adding that the agency’s chief, Nim Kidd, knows “there’s a need for speed.”

Disaster mitigation money is a standard step in FEMA’s long-term recovery strategy after a natural disaster, said Kurt Pickering, a FEMA spokesman based in Austin.

“The whole idea is to make the state … more resilient next time,” he said.

The FEMA money covers 75 percent of project costs. While local governments typically provide the other 25 percent, Abbott said other federal funding sources have been secured to cover that 25 percent for approved Harvey-related projects.

Abbott also gave the audience an update on a long-awaited $5 billion worth of Community Development Block Grants that Congress approved in the fall for long-term Harvey recovery. Administered by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the grants will cover 100 percent of the cost of disaster relief, infrastructure, economic revitalization and housing projects for both local governments and individuals.

HUD has issued its rules for disbursing the money, Abbott said, and the Texas General Land Office must now issue a state plan that HUD has to approve. Abbott said HUD has promised to fast-track that process and he expects the $5 billion to be available by the end of March.

“What this $5 billion of money is for is to rebuild the houses so that everybody’s house is once again gonna be fully livable,” Abbott said.

Abbott said Texas will also receive a still-to-be-determined share of the $89 billion in disaster relief that Congress passed last week as part of the federal budget agreement. He said Texas will get “tens of billions” from that allocation — the money will be divided among areas hit last year by hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters.

That money can be used for everything from extending short-term housing assistance for displaced Harvey victims to local transportation projects, Abbott said.

“This region is now going to have the funding that it’s been seeking to build long-desired projects to fully restore this region,” Abbott said.

“We’re very thankful to Congress for providing us the funding that they have,” he added, “but don’t think for a minute that we are done with regard to our requests to Congress.”

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At Border Patrol Checkpoints, an Impossible Choice Between Health Care and Deportation

Undocumented parents confined south of inland checkpoints must choose between risking deportation or forgoing treatment for their child.

by Elena Mejia Lutz
@elenamejialutz
February 13, 2018

At 17, Lucia Ramos feared she would be killed or kidnapped at her home in the Mexican state of San Luis de Potosi. Terrified and poor, she crossed the Texas-Mexico border illegally in 1999. Years later, her fears came true as her brothers, who were involved in organized crime, were kidnapped from their home.

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Diana was born with scoliosis and no arms, possibly due to an undiagnosed genetic disorder.  Courtesy/Ramos family

Lucia (not her real name) moved to Laredo, married and had a daughter three years later. Diana was born with scoliosis and no arms, possibly due to an undiagnosed genetic disorder. Without specialized care and surgery, doctors said, Diana’s backbone could eventually bend so much that it could cause her lungs, stomach and heart to shut down.

But Lucia found no doctors in Laredo who could give Diana the medical treatment she desperately needed. From 2002 to 2005, Lucia twice traveled with her daughter, a U.S. citizen, through an internal Border Patrol checkpoint for doctor’s appointments at Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi. Lucia feared deportation, but agents let her pass freely when she presented them with a binder of Diana’s medical records.

On their third trip to the hospital in 2006, Border Patrol agents at the same checkpoint detained Lucia for about six hours of questioning and deported her to Mexico. Fearing for Diana’s life instead of her own this time, she crossed the border illegally again in 2006 to care for her daughter. But with the threat of deportation looming between their home and the hospital, Diana’s condition went untreated for 11 years.

In July 2017, after hearing rumors that agents were letting undocumented parents travel with sick children, Lucia and her husband, who had a work permit, tried crossing the checkpoint again to take their daughter, now 15, to Corpus Christi doctors. But just as in 2006, Lucia was detained by Border Patrol agents and deported. Diana couldn’t travel without her mother, who she needed every step of the way, including for help going to the restroom. She returned to Laredo with her father, who also cared for Diana’s three brothers, Lucia said.  

“If she would’ve gotten surgery years ago and received better treatment, her back wouldn’t be curved at almost 360 degrees,” Lucia said. “We were desperate because we couldn’t give her the help she needed. We could’ve given her a better life.”

About 18 permanent Border Patrol checkpoints up to 100 miles from the border — stretching from El Paso to Brownsville — have trapped hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants and their family members in isolated border towns with few specialized health care facilities. In many cases, including Diana’s, seriously ill or disabled children with American citizenship cannot travel alone. That means some undocumented parents must make an excruciating choice between risking deportation or not getting treatment for their child. The fear of deportation has caused or exacerbated serious health problems for some patients, including citizen children. Many patients, like Diana, ultimately live with pain and the problem worsens until they might need more costly emergency care.

Immigration attorneys and advocates told the Observer the dilemma has existed for years, but has worsened under President Trump’s emboldened immigration force. The administration has clamped down on approving temporary authorization for undocumented immigrants to travel for humanitarian reasons, according to the attorneys and federal statistics. Before Trump, immigration agents were more likely to exercise discretion in some cases, deciding not to detain or deport parents with sick children or other extenuating circumstances. Now, all undocumented immigrants are on the table for deportation under a Trump administration directive that dismantled an Obama-era policy instructing agents to prioritize deportation of immigrants with a criminal background.

Permanent border checkpoints in Texas.  Yale Law Journal

“The Border Patrol feels empowered to treat people differently now because they feel they have the law on their side when it comes to internal checkpoints,” said Norma Sepulveda, an immigration attorney in Harlingen. “Everyone is subject for removal.”

A few temporary legal options exist for undocumented parents who need to travel, but they are harder to get under Trump. Immigrants who have been deported or currently live outside the country can request humanitarian parole from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which allows them to temporarily enter and travel within the U.S. for humanitarian purposes, such as caring for relatives with a serious medical condition. According to USCIS data, 96 percent of the 360,000 requests submitted in fiscal year 2016 were approved. But in 2017, only 85 percent of 416,000 requests were approved.

The Ramos family was lucky. In August, Lucia was granted a 30-day humanitarian parole, which allowed her to take Diana to the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas. Diana is finally scheduled for life-saving surgery in mid-February.

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An x-ray of Diana’s backbone.  Courtesy/Ramos family

But immigrants are unlikely to voluntarily leave the country to seek parole. Those living in the United States may request deferred action status or a stay of removal that allows families to travel without the risk of being deported. The application process can take several months — not an option for some people with serious medical conditions — and can be cost-prohibitive, said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney in Harlingen. The permits are rarely granted for medical reasons and have become even rarer, she said.

Since Trump, I have yet to get a stay of removal granted. Since Trump, I have yet to get a deferred action approved. Since Trump, I have yet to get anyone granted prosecutorial discretion,” Goodwin told the Observer.

Federal officials could not immediately provide the number of deferred action status requests or stays of removal, but the Observer has requested the data under the Freedom of Information Act.

Sepulveda said she’s seen an alarming increase in the number of undocumented people, including her clients, detained and deported at checkpoints while traveling to receive medical treatment for themselves or family members.

It is “pretty much a guarantee that they will be apprehended or put on the radar for removal proceedings” under Trump, Sepulveda said.

The issue was thrust into the national spotlight in October, when doctors in Laredo sent 10-year-old Rosa Maria Hernandez to a hospital in Corpus Christi for emergency gallbladder surgery. Border Patrol agents at the Freer checkpoint followed Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant born with cerebral palsy, and waited at the hospital as she received treatment. She was taken to a shelter for unaccompanied children in San Antonio and later released after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit. Hernandez’s deportation proceedings are ongoing.

Carla Provost, Trump’s interim Border Patrol chief, issued a memo last month outlining the agency’s long-standing policy on medical care and checkpoints. “Immediate emergency operations should always receive expedited transit through or around checkpoints,” the policy states, but family members traveling with patients “are not exempt from an immigration inspection.”

The policy instructs agents to use discretion during “follow-up inspections or immigration interviews … at the hospital.” Carlos Diaz, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), said the guidelines were in place under past presidents.

“It is a matter of how these rules are enforced, not a matter of what the law is,” Sepulveda said. A section in the CBP memo notes that “each circumstance will need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis with guidance provided by leadership.”

Marsha Griffin, an American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson, said that the Rio Grande Valley — like most of rural Texas — suffers from a physician shortage. “But we happen to be south of the checkpoints,” she said.

Griffin, a Brownsville physician who has practiced for more than a decade in the Valley, said she has seen cases in which premature babies born to undocumented parents near the border must travel alone by helicopter or ambulance. Under Trump, the climate for undocumented immigrants who need health care is “probably the worst” in the last decade, she said.

“If parents go [with their children], they can be permanently separated from their child,” Griffin said. “They’re not violent criminals. And that’s where we are.”

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He’s been a Texas Supreme Court justice for a month. Now Jimmy Blacklock must become a candidate.

Gov. Greg Abbott swears in Jimmy Blacklock to replace Don Willett on the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2017. Blacklock previously served as the governor's general counsel.

Jimmy Blacklock is new to this — so new that the card outside his Texas Supreme Court office still has the old occupant’s name on it; so new to the court that even his extensive collection of law books has yet to completely fill the wood shelves of his sunny office on the Capitol grounds; so new that the velcro hanging strips stuck on his walls do not yet bear decorations.

Blacklock, 37, has experience with the law — he boasts stints in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the state attorney general’s office and as general counsel to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. But 2018 marks the first year he’ll sit on the bench. And it will also be his first time running a campaign — at least since his successful bid to lead the Yale Law Republicans (an uncontested race, as he recalls).

Abbott appointed Blacklock to the state Supreme Court last month to fill a seat vacated by former Justice Don Willett, who left the state court to join the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Willett’s term expires at the end of this year, thrusting Blacklock immediately into a partisan campaign to keep the new post.

In that race, he’ll have to walk a familiar but ill-defined line, one his predecessors have become accustomed to treading. On the bench, he’ll be expected to serve as an impartial arbiter of justice — but on the side, he’ll have to wage a partisan campaign to keep his seat in an increasingly polarized state.

Abbott gave him considerable room for error by selecting — and expressing his strong support for — Blacklock just before the filing deadline for the 2018 elections. That helped keep the field clear of Republican primary challengers, including one who had initially announced plans to run upon Willett’s confirmation.

But Blacklock’s long-term future still requires a delicate balance that all judges in Texas must strike: Lean your weight too far on one side of that line and you risk your prized impartiality, or at least the appearance of it; fall off toward the other and you could fall out of favor with the Republican base.

While working for Abbott, Blacklock fought on behalf of Texas leadership on many of the state’s most divisive partisan issues, including abortion, same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act. Now, he says he’s ready to transition from advocate to arbiter.

“Most everybody who comes to the bench having been a lawyer has worked on all kinds of issues and advocated for all kinds of clients,” Blacklock said in an interview last week. “When you take that hat off and put on the judicial robe, you swear a solemn oath to the Constitution, to perform that role fairly and impartially — to look only to the laws and the Constitution.”

But Blacklock has already put toes on either side of that line. On his website, he touts his “conservative record” advocating for the “right to life,” the Second Amendment and religious liberty. He also pledges to “never exceed the limited role assigned to the judiciary” — to take each case on its merits “accurately and impartially.”

In the last several days, Blacklock’s website has undergone numerous changes, including the removal of phrases like “lifelong conservative Republican” and “Republican from a young age,” as well as references to his work as a Republican precinct chairman and election judge. A page titled “Jimmy’s Conservative Record” — a link that used to appear on his website’s home page — is no longer prominently featured, though the page remains live.

Blacklock said Monday that he and his staff “just needed to simplify and streamline the website.”

And while Abbott is helping him politically, Blacklock’s old boss isn’t helping him project impartiality. Last month, Blacklock joined Abbott at the annual “Texas Rally For Life,” where the newly-minted justice’s presence was unusual, although not unheard of. More striking were the governor’s remarks about his appointee.

Abbott had already praised Blacklock as something of a known quantity. In November, he said,  “I wanted to make sure that the person I appointed was going to make decisions that I know how they are going to decide.” But before a crowd of several thousand in Austin, the governor added specificity to that praise.

“I don’t have to guess or wonder how Justice Blacklock is going to decide cases because of his proven record of fighting for pro-life causes,” Abbott said.

That was a disturbing statement for some lawyers, legal ethicists and judges — especially given Abbott’s past as a Texas Supreme Court justice himself. The Texas Supreme Court rarely hears abortion-related cases. Even still, any indication that a judge has pre-decided an outcome could cross a bright legal line.

“The governor should know better. The governor is essentially saying: ‘Let me tell you, this guy will always rule in a certain way,’” said James Alfini, the former dean of South Texas College of Law Houston and the co-author of Judicial Conduct and Ethics, a guide for judges. “And that’s wrong. Just plain wrong. He’s basically destroyed any image of impartiality on that issue that he might have.”

In his undecorated office last week, Blacklock walked those statements back on behalf of his mentor.

“What I take the governor to mean — what I know he means — is that, because I worked for him for many years, he is confident that I mean what I say when I talk about my judicial philosophy,” Blacklock said. “I will be the kind of judge who looks only to the text of the Constitution and the text of the laws, and does not go beyond that to impose my own personal views on these cases.”

Blacklock’s difficult position is nothing new. Partisan judicial elections in Texas have long drawn criticism, with some of the harshest words coming from former and sitting justices themselves. Texas is one of just seven states that elects Supreme Court justices in partisan races.

In recent years, there have been several legal and legislative challenges to the current system. Just this week, a case went to trial in federal court over the issue, questioning whether the statewide system of judicial elections dilutes the voting power of Texas Latinos.

Nathan Hecht, the state Supreme Court’s current chief, criticized partisan elections in his 2017 State of the Judiciary speech, saying “judicial independence is the casualty” of an increasingly harsh political climate. And Willett, Blacklock’s predecessor, was one of the most vocal critics.

“Our imperfect system requires judicial candidates to put on their game face, get over their delicate sensibilities, and run unabashedly the way Texas law defines them: as politicians,” Willett told the San Antonio Express-News in 2012. He added that “how you run should never impact how you rule.”

But even Willett ran explicitly partisan campaigns himself. In a 2012 campaign ad, Willett touted his reputation as the state’s “most conservative justice,” and “the judicial remedy to Obamacare.” He also said he “fought the liberals” who wanted to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Blacklock wouldn’t weigh in on the system of partisan elections — when asked, he chewed on his words carefully and highlighted the need to balance judicial independence with accountability to voters.

“This is the system we have in our Constitution,” he said.

Whatever he thinks of that method, it will shape his work off the court — and he’ll be expected to keep it from affecting his work on the court.

“The main challenge is balancing the important work of the court with the demands of the campaign,” Blacklock said. “I swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution by applying the law to these cases to the best of my ability. That has to be my primary focus at all times — even though I’m running for office.”

“It doesn’t leave time for hanging things on the walls,” he said with a laugh.

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Email hack targets Texas EquuSearch members, files

An organization that has spent nearly two decades searching for missing people across the Houston area and other parts of the world now is looking for the culprits who hacked its email system.

The intrusion into EquuSearch’s server is more than just an inconvenience.

The hacks have already cost at least one member thousands of dollars.

“His emails were hacked and actually to the point where he had four different bank accounts,” Equusearch founder and director Tim Miller said. “(The) money was all combined into one account and then withdrawn and not a little amount: $37,000.”

But Miller said the hack also could involve the families of people EquuSearch is searching for.

“There’s a lot of personal information on there that we don’t want to get out,” Miller said. “Just us and law enforcement have that information.”

The hack at this point isn’t jeopardizing any current cases — but EquuSearch has brought in law enforcement and IT technicians to determine the source of the attack.

“We’re all targets. It doesn’t matter who we are,” Miller said. “Unfortunately it’s a world that we live in. Unfortunately it appears as though it’s getting worse every day.”

Equusearch was founded in 2000.

The organization has a network of more than 700 members potentially impacted by the hacks.

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Harold Farb’s family says report proves he was murdered

A world-renowned forensic pathologist is convinced a legendary Houston millionaire philanthropist was the victim of homicide.

Harold Farb, a wildly successful real estate developer, was found dead on the floor of his shower in 2006.

He was 83.

Members of his family, early on, concluded he was murdered, although they have never said, publicly, who they suspect committed the crime.

The Houston Police Department investigated the case, but never filed charges, and that agency has left the case open for more than a decade.

PHOTOS: Harold Farb through the years

But Monday, a new document came to light. Written in March 2015, it was written and signed by forensic pathologist, Vincent Di Maio.

Di Maio is well-known and respected in the field, having worked in dozens of high-profile cases.

Di Maio was hired by members of the Farb family to review the autopsy and other facts surrounding the case.

Di Maio wrote:

“Based on the aforementioned facts, it is my opinion that, in all medical probability, this is a homicide. There are two possibilities as to manner of death in this case, suicide or homicide. If this case was suicide, Mr. Farb would have had to cut the end of the catheter while clamping off the end that entered his body so that no blood sprayed out on the bathroom floor. He then would have had to place the cut end of the catheter in the garbage, disposed of the scissor or knife, gotten into the shower and released the clamped off end of the catheter. Since no clamping device was found, he would have had to clamp off the catheter with his hand. In my opinion, this scenario is not possible.”

On Monday, a civilian representative with the Houston Police Department said the case of Farb’s death was classified as “open but inactive.”

The representative said that they encourage the family to contact HPD’s Cold Case squad with any new information. The Farb family has previously said the Houston Police Department has not been receptive to evidence that points to murder.

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$20K reward offered in 1986 Valentine’s Day murder cold case

Fort Bend County investigators are still working to solve a cold case from 1986.

On Valentine’s Day in 1986, Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office authorities were called to Marilu Geri and Stephen Geri’s residence in the Tealbriar development off Highway 6.

Deputies arrived at the home in the 9800 block of Chalford that morning 32 years ago after receiving reports that Marilu Geri was found bleeding and unresponsive.

She was taken to an area hospital with multiple gunshot wounds. She was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The Geris moved to Chalford Street, which is north of where Sugar Land Airport is today, and operated an insurance business out of their home together, according to authorities.

On the day of Marilu Geri’s murder, she was supposed to host a part at the home to celebrate Valentine’s Day and her mother’s birthday.

Her mother discovered her body when she arrived with decorations, according to authorities.

“This was a tragic crime that has lingered for more than 30 years,” Sheriff Troy Nehls said. “Despite the time frame, we are hoping there are residents who remain in the Houston area or elsewhere who might recall some detail that will lead to an arrest.”

The story garnered national attention when it was profiled on “Unsolved Mysteries.”

Anyone who has information about this crime is asked to call Fort Bend County Crime Stoppers Inc. at 281-342-TIPS (8477), send a text message by texting “FBCCS” plus your tip to CRIMES (274637) or submit it online here: http://www.fortbend.crimestoppersweb.com/.

Information that leads to the apprehension of and filing of charges against the individuals involved in this case could earn you as much as $20,000. All calls to Crime Stoppers are anonymous.

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Houston-area officials approved a plan for handling a natural disaster — then ignored it

The gym at Kempner High School in Sugarland, in Fort Bend Co. southwest of Houston, was converted to a shelter during Hurricane Harvey.

Seven months before Hurricane Harvey inundated the Houston area with a trillion gallons of water and led to widespread criticism of the Red Cross, Harris County adopted a disaster-preparation plan whose key assumption was that the Red Cross would be slow to act. “In a major disaster where there is widespread damage, the local resources of the Red Cross may be overwhelmed and not available immediately,” stated the plan. “It may be upwards of 7 days before the Red Cross can assume a primary care and shelter role.”

The 17-page document, entitled the “Mass Shelter Plan,” was unanimously approved by the county’s governing body on Jan. 31, 2017. ProPublica obtained the plan, which until now has not been public, as part of a public records request.

The Mass Shelter Plan described the Red Cross as the county’s “lead partner” but was unequivocal in assigning responsibility should a calamity occur: “In the event of an emergency that requires evacuation of all or any part of the Harris County population, Harris County is ultimately responsible for the coordination of the evacuation, shelter and mass care of displaced local residents.”

The goal, according to a county spokesperson, was to provide shelter for up to 10,000 displaced residents. [Harris County’s population is 4.5 million; roughly half of those people live in Houston.] The plan proposed that county employees be trained as shelter volunteers, outlined specific roles for shelter staff and indicated the county would identify and survey buildings that could be used for emergency housing beyond those already identified by the American Red Cross [ARC].

“The main idea behind the plan is to have county personnel staff and manage the shelters up to 7 days until ARC volunteers can transition operations,” county emergency management planner David Alamia wrote in a December 2016 email obtained by ProPublica.

But in the seven months between the plan’s passage and the landfall of Harvey, the county took few steps to implement its strategy. Indeed, when dire flooding forced thousands of people from their homes, 3,036 emails obtained in a public records request suggest, officials didn’t even seem aware that a plan existed.

“Harris County had the forethought to identify — and rightfully so — that the Red Cross might not be able to be there for upwards of seven days depending on storm severity, and then they didn’t follow through on their plans,” said Meghan McPherson, an adjunct professor of emergency management at Tulane University, who reviewed the plan at ProPublica’s request. “It doesn’t seem they made a connection between what they promised the public and what they did.”

A scramble to open shelters

Hurricane Harvey, which struck in late August last year, generated a heroic response. The tales of citizens taking care of each other and volunteers improvising were legion. By contrast, the Red Cross came in for lacerating criticism. Local media chronicled myriad problems. Cities within Harris County emailed the county’s emergency management office asking for Red Cross help and the county acknowledged it couldn’t send it. “I hate to say this, but the Red Cross is completely out of resources,” county official Kristina Clark told the fire marshal in Humble, Texas. She advised him to open his own shelter, and get the word out that evacuees would need to bring “THEIR OWN food, sleeping bags, clothes, medication, etc.” One Houston councilman grew so exasperated that he confronted the Red Cross’ CEO in a parking lot and called the Red Cross, during a council meeting, the “most inept, unorganized organization I’ve ever experienced.”

Evacuees from Meyerland — a neighborhood in southwest Houston hit hard by Harvey — arrive at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017.
Evacuees from Meyerland — a neighborhood in southwest Houston hit hard by Harvey — arrive at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017. Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune

For its part, Harris County’s emergency management department clearly scrambled to open shelters on short notice, emails show. Indeed, employees seemed taken aback that their department would have a role. “As far as coordinating mass care, GOODNESS we had to do that too,” wrote Stevee Franks, a recovery specialist in the county’s office of homeland security and emergency management, in a Sept. 10 email to a peer in a nearby county. “Shelter after shelter and Red Cross was absolutely no help.” As she put it, “we had to open shelters ourselves which was stupid stressful.” [We have left the spelling and punctuation in emails as is. Franks did not respond to a request for comment.]

Franks’ email did not mention that the county had passed a plan to avoid this exact scenario — nor did any of the emails examined by ProPublica.

Similarly, Steve Radack, a Harris County commissioner for nearly three decades, seemed unaware of the existence of the plan — which he voted for — when asked about it in an interview with ProPublica. “I cannot speak to that,” he said.

Like many, Radack praised the efforts of volunteers in the aftermath of Harvey. But as stirring as those efforts were, the Mass Shelter Plan envisioned a more centrally organized approach that emphasized training. “Harris County employees will have the opportunity to be trained in Shelter Operations,” it stated.

The plan cited more than a dozen roles that could be filled by shelter staff, and noted that the Red Cross recommended six staff members per 100 shelterees. But in the months between the plan’s passage and the landfall of Harvey, the county hosted only one training, for about 40 volunteers, in May 2017.

Paul Suckow, a senior planner with the Harris County Community Services Department, was among those trained. He said the group was taught the basics of shelter operations: what needed to be set up before the public arrived, how to assemble and clean the cots the Red Cross would provide, and what to do with other supplies. All of the scenarios they role-played, Suckow said, assumed that a shelter run by the Red Cross would already be set up and waiting. Opening and managing a shelter, he said, “would be a higher level of training than we received.”

Harris County emergency management spokesman Francisco Sanchez said only one training session was held because that was all the county and the Red Cross — which offered the training — had time to organize. A second training was scheduled for Aug. 30. It was canceled, Sanchez said, because of Harvey.

Sanchez said the Mass Care Plan came about as a result of “candid conversations” with the Red Cross about its sheltering capacity during flooding events after previous missteps in the county. “There is a tendency,” he said, “for American Red Cross process or flow to become very challenged, quite frankly overwhelmed, in flooding events.” But plans are made to be changed in emergencies, Sanchez said, and that’s what happened after Harvey hit. “A plan is flexible,” he said. “It’s scalable. We can apply it and we can adapt it — and we can throw the rules out the window to serve the residents of Harris County.”

Other county officials mostly sidestepped questions about the lack of preparation and defended their efforts. The dozens of shelters opened by the community and the county were evidence of good management, Commissioner Radack argued. He contended the Red Cross “let us down” and was “basically AWOL.”

Radack also complimented County Judge Ed Emmett, who runs emergency management for the county. “Somebody would be hard pressed to find any county that moved as quickly as Harris County did to assist people,” he said. “I think it was a great effort.”

Emmett told ProPublica in a statement that the “unprecedented disaster” meant that many normal responses would have been “unrealistic.” He asserted that the county’s shelter operation during Harvey “has been recognized as the best ever provided, and will likely become the model used around the country.”

Shelter surveys ‘do not exist’

Among our requests for documents, ProPublica asked for a list of shelters that the county had identified and surveyed in advance, as the Mass Shelter Plan called for. That request yielded an unexpected response.

Harris County did not provide any emails showing such preparation, but did — seemingly unintentionally — send internal emails in which county officials discussed ProPublica’s request with each other. An email dated Nov. 1, 2017, sent by Brian Murray, the office of emergency management’s planning supervisor, indicated that the shelter surveys envisioned by the county plan “do not, and never did, exist.”

Rosio Torres-Segura, a media specialist for emergency management, then emailed her supervisor, asking, “Do you want to reply to the reporter or do you want me to tell her these documents do not exist. She’s going to ask why?”

That supervisor, Francisco Sanchez, then told ProPublica the reason they did not exist was because the county had decided to leave the task to the Red Cross. “The end result of the plan and how it was implemented included extensive dialogue offline where we came to an understanding with the American Red Cross that they had unique expertise in selecting and inspecting pre-identified sites,” he said. “As hurricane season approached, it made sense to rely on the work of the American Red Cross and their existing inspections so we could be prepared to act more swiftly in the event of a storm that threatened our community.”

The Red Cross offered a different recollection. The organization “was always under the impression that the county might take steps to identify additional shelters beyond those listed” in the Red Cross system, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Penninman. “That kind of flexibility is critical in large and complex disasters like the response to Hurricane Harvey.”

Speaking more broadly, Penninman disputed the premise of Harris County’s plan. A seven-day response, she wrote in a statement, is “not the Red Cross standard, nor does it reflect the actual performance of the Red Cross and its partners. The Red Cross national standard is to respond immediately, maintain sufficient local resources to handle 48 hours of emergency sheltering activity, and resource for planned peak shelter populations within the continental United States within 96 hours.”

Penninman asserted that within 48 hours of the arrival of Harvey, “the Red Cross had 6 shelters open in Harris County with a population of 3,649.” And by 96 hours in, she said, the Red Cross was operating 43 shelters serving 14,154 people.

Asked about the county’s failure to identify shelters in advance, Sanchez pointed to a space that was used successfully — the NRG Convention Center, which ended up housing 7,400 people — but only at the last minute. According to Sanchez, “Many of the relationships necessary to make that happen were a direct result of writing the mass shelter plan.”

But Rene Solis, who leads disaster relief efforts for BakerRiply, said he was unaware of the Mass Shelter Plan. BakerRipley, a nonprofit that focuses on community development, ran the emergency operations at the NRG Center.

The decision to allow BakerRipley to manage the NRG Center was made only the day before the shelter opened, Solis said. “There was no expectation or plan for us to [manage] the NRG Center,” Solis said. “It came about because of urgent need.”

Asked to identify any ways in which the county adhered to the Mass Shelter Plan, Sanchez said the county “worked to secure a cache of cots and other supplies” to supplement the Red Cross’ resources; updated the county’s mapping system to reflect the location of existing Red Cross shelters; and “worked extensively to strengthen partnerships with school districts and nonprofits that might support shelter operations.”

Here, too, some of Sanchez’s assertions didn’t square with the memories of others, in this case the Houston Independent School District. “No one from the county asked HISD for anything,” said school district spokesperson Lorena Cozzari, “nor did HISD ask the county for anything during the storm.”

Notwithstanding the steadfast defense of county efforts by its executives, some staffers seemed to recognize, in emails they sent in the weeks after Harvey, that the planning didn’t go as well as hoped.

“We are not a sheltering command for hurricanes,” noted a document, labeled “The Harvey Fact Sheet,” that circulated among county employees on Oct. 9.  “We rely on the Red Cross.”

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