How scammers are using homeowners to defraud FEMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Police find man’s body stuffed in closet after victim ‘tortured’ to death

Three days after Hurricane Irma impacted South Florida, police officers conducting a welfare check entered a storm-shuttered Hollywood apartment complex, noticed blood stains and found the decomposed body of a man wrapped in a comforter in a bedroom closet.

A police report obtained Wednesday by Local 10 News details the graphic events that led to the death of Ariel Gonzalez and subsequent arrest of Travis Watson.

The body was found Sept. 13 at an apartment on Lincoln Street.

A friend of the victim called police after she said she had been unable to get in touch with him in the days after Irma, so she went to his apartment and noticed a foul smell coming from inside.

According to the report, Detective Desiree McClintock observed chairs positioned along a wall in the dining room. One of the chairs was blocking the door, and another was overturned, McClintock said.

McClintock could see blood spatter and feces in several areas throughout the bedroom, as well as drag marks on the floor leading to the closet where the body was found, the report said.

“The deceased appeared to have some body parts wrapped in plastic and swathed in a comforter, with only a small portion of the head visible,” McClintock wrote in the report. “The visible part of the head had obvious signs of injury.”

Neighbors who were interviewed by detectives said they saw two men going in and out of the apartment during the hurricane. One of them was described as wearing a long, blond wig.

Residents later identified Watson, 30, and the other man from photographs that a detective showed them. Police asked Local 10 not to release the identity of the second suspect, who remains at large.

During an interview with detectives, Watson said Gonzalez, 50, got their attention by whistling at them to follow him inside his apartment. Watson said he and Gonzalez had anal sex, which angered the unnamed suspect.

“Once Watson came back into the living room, (the other man) accused of Watson of cheating on him,” the report said.

Watson said Gonzalez then tried to seduce his partner, but he refused Gonzalez’s sexual advances, according to detectives. Still angry with Gonzalez for having sex with Watson, the man followed Gonzalez into the bedroom and punched him, Watson told detectives.

The second suspect asked Gonzalez where he kept his money, but when he didn’t answer, the man “tortured him,” Watson said.

Watson told detectives that his partner beat Gonzalez with a hanger from the closet and a broomstick from the kitchen. Watson went on to describe how the man used an extension cord to knock Gonzalez off the bed and tied the victim’s hands together with a sheet, unsuccessfully, and then a belt. Watson said the man then “poured hot grease over him.”

“He tortured him and beat him to death,” Watson said of his partner, according to the report.

Watson said he tried to stop the attack once the grease was poured on Gonzalez, but he noticed that the victim “had turned purple and his tongue was sticking out.”

Realizing that Gonzalez was dead, Watson and his partner placed the body in the bathtub to wash off the blood and evidence, and then carried Gonzalez into the living room, where they wrapped him in a sheet and industrial shrink wrap, Watson told detectives.

“Once he was folded and secured into position, he was concealed in the bedroom closet,” the report said.

Watson and the other man tried to clean the crime scene by placing items inside clear plastic bags they found in the kitchen, including the towels they used to wipe up the blood, he told detectives.

During the attack, Watson told detectives, he stole the victim’s wallet and cash. Watson said he and his partner left the apartment about 7 a.m. Sept. 12.

Five days later, Fort Lauderdale police said they found a man who matched the description of Watson sitting at a bus bench, drinking a beer from a brown paper bag.

During a search of Watson’s property, police found a wallet that held a gray card with Gonzalez’s name on it, the report said.

Watson was arrested on multiple charges, including robbery and kidnapping. Detectives are still searching for his partner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dreamers greet DACA renewal deadline with anxiety and unanswered questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s just hard to know,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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North Korean workers prepare seafood for U.S. stores, restaurants

The workers wake up each morning on metal bunk beds in fluorescent-lit Chinese dormitories, North Koreans outsourced by their government to process seafood that ends up in American stores and homes.

Privacy is forbidden. They cannot leave their compounds without permission. They must take the few steps to the factories in pairs or groups, with North Korean minders ensuring no one strays. They have no access to telephones or email. And they are paid a fraction of their salaries, while the rest – as much as 70 percent – is taken by North Korea’s government.

This means Americans buying salmon for dinner at Walmart or ALDI may inadvertently have subsidized the North Korean government as it builds its nuclear weapons program, an AP investigation has found. Their purchases may also have supported what the United States calls “modern day slavery” – even if the jobs are highly coveted by North Koreans.

At a time when North Korea faces sanctions on many exports, the government is sending tens of thousands of workers worldwide, bringing in revenue estimated at anywhere from $200 million to $500 million a year. That could account for a sizable portion of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, which South Korea says have cost more than $1 billion.

While the presence of North Korean workers overseas has been documented, the AP investigation reveals for the first time that some products they make go to the United States, which is now a federal crime. AP also tracked the products made by North Korean workers to Canada, Germany and elsewhere in the European Union.

Besides seafood, AP found North Korean laborers making wood flooring and sewing garments in factories in Hunchun. Those industries also export to the U.S. from Hunchun, but AP did not track specific shipments except for seafood.

American companies are not allowed to import products made by North Korean workers anywhere in the world, under a law signed by President Donald Trump in early August. Importers or company officials could face criminal charges for using North Korean workers or materially benefiting from their work, according to the law.

Every Western company involved that responded to AP’s requests for comment said forced labor and potential support for North Korea’s weapons program were unacceptable in their supply chains. Many said they were going to investigate, and some said they had already cut off ties with suppliers.

John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, the largest seafood trade association in the U.S., said his group was urging all of its companies to immediately re-examine their supply chains “to ensure that wages go to the workers, and are not siphoned off to support a dangerous dictator.”

“While we understand that hiring North Korean workers may be legal in China,” said Connelly, “we are deeply concerned that any seafood companies could be inadvertently propping up the despotic regime.”

___

EXPORTING LABOR

North Koreans overseas work in construction in the Gulf states, shipbuilding in Poland, logging in Russia. In Uruguay, authorities told AP, about 90 North Koreans crewed fishing boats last year. U.N. sanctions now bar countries from authorizing new work permits for North Korean workers but do not target those already abroad.

Roughly 3,000 North Koreans are believed to work in Hunchun, a far northeast Chinese industrial hub just a few miles from the borders of both North Korea and Russia. Signs in this mercantile city are in Chinese, Korean and Russian. Korean restaurants advertise cold noodles, a Northern favorite, and Russian truckers stop into nightclubs with black bread on the menu.

In an effort to boost the local economy, China and North Korea agreed several years ago to allow factories to contract for groups of North Korean workers, establishing an industrial zone with bargain-priced labor. Since then dozens of fish processing companies have opened in Hunchun, along with other manufacturers. Using North Korean workers is legal in China, and not considered forced labor.

It’s unknown what conditions are like in all factories in the region, but AP reporters saw North Koreans living and working in several of the Hunchun facilities under the watchful eye of their overseers. The workers are not allowed to speak to reporters. However, the AP identified them as North Korean in numerous ways: the portraits of North Korea’s late leaders they have in their rooms, their distinctive accents, interviews with multiple Hunchun businesspeople. The AP also reviewed North Korean laborer documents, including copies of a North Korean passport, a Chinese work permit and a contract with a Hunchun company.

When a reporter approached a group of North Koreans – women in tight, bright polyester clothes preparing their food at a Hunchun garment factory – one confirmed that she and some others were from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Then a minder arrived, ordering the workers to be silent: “Don’t talk to him!”

Their contracts are typically for two or three years, and they are not allowed to go home early. The restrictions they work under make them very valuable employees. North Korean laborers are “more stable” than Chinese workers, said Li Shasha, a sales manager at Yanbian Shenghai Industry and Trade Co., a major Hunchun seafood processor.

Chinese workers have job protections that give them the right to take time off, while North Korean workers complete their contracts with few complaints, rare sick days and almost no turnover.

“They won’t take a leave for some personal reason,” said Li, whose company shipped containers of squid and snow crab to the U.S and Canada in July and August.

They are also often considered cheaper. Li said that at the Yanbian Shenghai factory, the North Koreans’ salary is the same as for the Chinese, roughly $300 to $385 per month. But others say North Koreans are routinely paid about $300 a month compared to up to $540 for Chinese.

Either way, the North Korean government of Kim Jong Un keeps anywhere from half to 70 percent of their pay, according to scholars who have surveyed former laborers. It passes on to the workers as little as $90 per month – or roughly 46 cents per hour.

The work can be exhausting, with shifts lasting up to 12 hours and most workers getting just one day off each week. At some factories, laborers work hunched over tables as North Korean political slogans are blasted from waist-high loudspeakers.

Through dozens of interviews, observation, trade records and other public and confidential documents, AP identified three seafood processors that employ North Koreans and export to the U.S.: Joint venture Hunchun Dongyang Seafood Industry & Trade Co. Ltd. & Hunchun Pagoda Industry Co. Ltd. distributed globally by Ocean One Enterprise; Yantai Dachen Hunchun Seafood Products, and Yanbian Shenghai Industry & Trade Co. Ltd.

They’re getting their seafood from China, Russia and, in some cases like snow crab, Alaska. Although AP saw North Korean workers at Hunchun Dongyang, manager Zhu Qizhen said they don’t hire North Korean workers any more and refused to give details. The other Chinese companies didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

Shipping records seen by the AP show more than 100 cargo containers of seafood, more than 2,000 tons, were sent to the U.S. and Canada this year from the factories where North Koreans were working in China.

Packages of snow crab, salmon fillets, squid rings and more were imported by American distributors, including Sea-Trek Enterprises in Rhode Island, and The Fishin’ Company in Pennsylvania. Sea-Trek exports seafood to Europe, Australia, Asia, Central America and the Caribbean. The Fishin’ Company supplies retailers and food service companies, as well as supermarkets.

The Fishin’ Company said it cut its ties with Hunchun processors and got its last shipment this summer, but seafood can remain in the supply chain for more than a year. Owners of both companies said they were very concerned about the North Korean laborers, and planned to investigate.

Often the seafood arrives in generic packaging, but some was already branded in China with familiar names like Walmart or Sea Queen, a seafood brand sold exclusively at ALDI supermarkets, which has 1,600 stores across 35 states. There’s no way to say where a particular package ends up, nor what percentage of the factories’ products wind up in the U.S.

Walmart spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said company officials learned in an audit a year ago that there were potential labor problems at a Hunchun factory, and that they had banned their suppliers, including The Fishin’ Company, from getting seafood processed there. She said The Fishin’ Company had “responded constructively” but did not specify how.

Some U.S. brands and companies had indirect ties to the North Korean laborers in Hunchun, including Chicken of the Sea, owned by Thai Union. Trade records show shipments came from a sister company of the Hunchun factory in another part of China, where Thai Union spokeswoman Whitney Small says labor standards are being met and the employees are all Chinese. Small said the sister companies should not be penalized.

Shipments also went to two Canadian importers, Morgan Foods and Alliance Seafood, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Boxes at the factories had markings from several major German supermarket chains and brands – All-Fish distributors, REWE and Penny grocers and Icewind brand. REWE Group, which also owns the Penny chain, said that they used to do business with Hunchun Dongyang but the contract has expired. All the companies that responded said their suppliers were forbidden to use forced labor.

___

HIDDEN LIVES

North Korean workers in China are under much more intense surveillance than those in Russia and the Middle East, experts say. That’s likely because Pyongyang fears they could follow in the footsteps of tens of thousands of their countrymen who escaped to China, or they could interact with South Koreans living in China.

“If a North Korean wants to go overseas, China is his or her least favorable option,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in South Korea. “Because in China, (factories) have essentially prison-like conditions.”

The vast majority of the workers in Hunchun are women in their 20s. Most are thought to be hired back home by labor brokers, who often demand bribes for overseas jobs. The laborers arrive in China already divided into work teams, each led by a North Korean overseer, and remain isolated even from their own employers.

“They’re not allowed to mingle with the Chinese,” said a senior manager at a Hunchun company that employs many North Koreans. He spoke on condition he not be identified, fearing repercussions on his business. “We can only communicate with their team leaders.”

In a sense, the North Korean workers in China remain in North Korea, under constant surveillance.

“They only talk about what they need to,” said a medical worker who confirmed their nationality and had cared for some, and also spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for angering Chinese authorities. “They don’t talk about what they might be thinking.”

They live crowded into rooms often above or next door to the factories, in a world awash in North Korean rituals.

“Let’s Follow the Ideas!” of North Korea’s leaders, urges a poster at the workers’ dormitory at Hunchun Pagoda. Portraits of the country’s first two rulers, worshipped as god-like in the deeply isolated nation, gaze down from otherwise-bare walls. Laundry is often hanging up to dry and potted plants – mostly what appear to be herbs, though one room at Hunchun Pagoda has bright yellow carnations – sit on many windowsills.

It’s a world of concrete. The factory buildings and dormitories at Hunchun Pagoda are grey slabs of unpainted concrete. The yard where the women play volleyball in their free time is concrete. The street outside the front gate is concrete.

At most factories the women prepare their own food and make tubs of their own kimchi, the spicy cabbage dish beloved in both Koreas. Their televisions cannot tune in Chinese programming, and they organize their own sports and singing contests on their days off.

Nearly every compound has a workers’ garden. There are a half dozen rows of corn at Hunchun Pagoda, and kidney beans and melons at Yantai.

A booming Chinese economy means money has come even to cities like Hunchun, where six-lane roads and factories bump up against cornfields that, a year later, often make way for yet another factory. Mercedes are now regular sights on the road and 30-foot billboards at malls show bone-thin models in fur coats.

But when the North Koreans are allowed to leave their compounds, they go to the city’s working-class street markets, where vendors set their wares on plastic sheets or folding tables, or sell directly from the backs of trucks.

Chinese merchants say most North Koreans are very careful about their finances. For instance, while they splurge on expensive spices imported from South Korea, they also buy Chinese noodles that cost less than half of the South Korean brands.

On a recent morning, a group of about 70 North Korean women walked to a Hunchun street market from the nearby Hong Chao Zhi Yi garment factory. They asked about prices for watermelons and plums, browsed through cheap pantyhose and bought steamed corn-on-the-cob for 1 Chinese yuan (about 16 cents) apiece.

As the late summer chill set in one evening, a dozen or so women from Hunchun Pagoda played volleyball in the quiet road in front of the compound’s gate, scrimmaging in the pool of light thrown by the street lamp.

A train horn blew. The women shouted to one another while they played. As a car with a foreigner drove by, one laughingly called out: “Bye-bye!”

___

PROPPING UP NORTH KOREA

Estimates vary on how many North Koreans work overseas and how much money they bring in.

South Korea’s intelligence agency estimated in 2014 that 50,000 to 60,000 work in about 50 countries, most in China and Russia. That number may now be up to 100,000, according to Lim Eul Chul, a scholar at South Korea’s Kyungnam University who has interviewed numerous former laborers. Estimates that their labor brings in revenue of $200 million to $500 million annually to the North Korean government come from scholars, who base their findings on academic research papers, South Korean intelligence reports and sources in the Chinese business community.

That has made the workers a significant and reliable source of revenue for the North Korean regime as it struggles beneath the weight of increasing UN sanctions, which the U.S. estimates could cost Pyongyang upwards of $1.5 billion each year in lost export revenues. In the last month alone, China has said it’s cracking down on North Korean exports, businesses and joint ventures, but it has a long history of not enforcing sanctions in practice.

Despite the pay and restrictions, these are highly sought-after jobs in North Korea, a chance to move up a rickety economic ladder and see a bit of the world beyond the closed-in nation.

Their monthly earnings in China are far more than many would earn in North Korea today, where official salaries often equal $1 per month. Experts estimate most families live on about $40-$60 a month, with much of their earnings coming from trading in the growing network of unofficial markets.

And there are plenty of benefits to working overseas. The laborers can use their earnings to start businesses in these markets, and can buy the status symbols of the slowly-growing middle class – Chinese rice cookers, watches, TVs, tableware – selling them back home or using them as bribes. Simply going abroad is so rare that returning workers can find themselves highly sought-after when it comes time to marry.

Lim Il, a North Korean refugee, bribed a series of officials – with 20 bottles of liquor, 30 packs of cigarettes and restaurant gift cards – to get a job as a construction worker in Kuwait City in the late 1990s, when North Korea was still suffering through a horrific famine.

“I felt like I had won the lottery,” he said. “People fantasized about getting overseas labor jobs.”

Lim, a man in his late 40s who fled to South Korea in 1997 and now writes novels about the North, said that even though he was never paid his $120-a-month salary, he was happy to simply get beef soup and rice every day.

“Unless you were an idiot, you wouldn’t give up such an opportunity,” he said. While he never thought of himself as a slave, looking back he says that is the right description: “These North Korean workers (today) still don’t know they are slaves.”

The new law in the U.S. labels all North Korean workers both overseas and inside the country as engaging in forced labor. (While U.S. law generally forbids Americans from conducting business in North Korea, the AP employs a small number of support staff in its Pyongyang bureau, operating under a waiver granted by the U.S. government to allow the flow of news and information.)

“There are not many countries that, at a government level, export their own citizens as a commodity to be exploited,” said an official at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

For years the State Department has blacklisted North Korea in its human trafficking reports, saying the overseas laborers and their families could face reprisals if the workers complain or try to escape, and criticizing Pyongyang for keeping much of the workers’ earnings. China, Russia and other countries hosting North Korean labor are all members of the United Nations International Labor Organization, which requires workers to receive their full salaries.

Luis CdeBaca, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for human trafficking issues, said both federal law enforcement agents and importers should be making sure workers are treated fairly. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, responsible for enforcing the law that bans imports that are products of forced labor, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“If you think about a company like Walmart, which is spending a lot of money, time and effort to clean up its supply chain, sending auditors and inspectors to factories, working with suppliers, all of that is thrown out the window if they are importing products made with exploited North Korean labor,” said CdeBaca. “It contradicts everything they are doing.”

CdeBaca conceded the North Korean workers might like their jobs.

“The question is not, ‘Are you happy?’ ” he said. “The question is, ‘Are you free to leave?'”

___

Associated Press journalists Leonardo Haberkorn in Uruguay, Han Guan Ng and researcher Fu Ting in China, Kelvin K. Chan in Hong Kong, Frank Jordans in Germany and Jon Gambrell in United Arab Emirates contributed to this report. Mendoza reported from California.

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3 Harris County Sheriff’s Office employees indicted in assault cases

A grand jury indicted three Harris County Sheriff’s Office employees in separate assault cases dating back to 2015 and 2016, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

Sgt. Marco Carrizales, 37, was indicted for aggravated assault by a public servant after authorities say he broke a man’s eye socket following a chase.

Carrizales, authorities say was directing traffic for a refinery, when a man allegedly drove through a four-way stop sign.

Carrizales, allegedly hit the man with an “unknown object,” causing seriously bodily injury, breaking his eye socket.

The charge is a first-degree felony.

A grand jury also indicted Harris County jailer, Dylan Goddard, 24, for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for a May 2016 incident.

Goddard was a civilian detention officer at 1200 Baker, when he was transporting an inmate who was wearing handcuffs and leg irons.

Authorities say a surveillance video shows Goddard lifting up the inmate and body slamming him on his skull. The inmate received seven staples to the back of his head.

The charge is a second-degree felony.

A grand jury also indicted a Harris County jailer, Michael Holley, 31, for two misdemeanor charges of assault-bodily injury that occurred in the 1200 Baker Street jail.

Holley, a civilian detention officer, was walking with an inmate in handcuffs on Dec. 14, 2016 as he escorted him to the jail’s infirmary.

Authorities say surveillance video shows the inmate turning to face Holley, who then punches the inmate in the face multiple times and throws him to the ground.

Holley was also escorting a handcuffed inmate on Dec. 19, 2016, when authorities say he shoved the inmate into a wall, according to video surveillance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woman accused of killing taxi driver appears in court

One of two suspects accused in the murder of a taxi driver appeared before a judge Tuesday morning.

Harris County deputies say Autuan Knox, 31, and Kandis Boone, 25, are charged with capital murder.

Boone was in court Tuesday morning. She is being held without bond.

Investigators said they used the last phone number that called the cab driver to track down the suspects.

They then linked the number to Facebook and surveillance from the taxi.

Knox is expected to appear in court later Tuesday.

The shooting happened in north Harris County over the weekend.

Deputies identified the victim as 43-year-old Sunday Enilolobo.

Investigators said they found his body after several shots were fired at a gas station off the North Freeway and Airtex Drive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hearing in Paxton case to consider delaying trial for third time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paxton will not attend the hearing Wednesday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She also questioned the time frame of 24 hours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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28 organizations that got money from the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund

A total of 28 organizations in Houston and Harris County will receive the first round of grants being distributed from the Harvey Relief Fund, officials announced Tuesday.

The first-round of distributions, totaling $7.55 million, represent about 10 percent of the $79 million donated to the fund established by city and county leaders to help those affected by the floods of Hurricane Harvey.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said that it was important that a board representing the community, not politicians, make the decisions on where the money from the fund will go.

Organizers said the board used several factors to determine which groups get the money, including a track record of providing service, the size of the group’s operating budget and the ability to disperse the funds within 90 days. They said the board also placed emphasis on groups that are already working with vulnerable populations to help storm victims find temporary housing.

The organizations that received money are:

Aldine Education Foundation
Alliance for Multicultural Community Services
Avenue Community Development Corporation
BakerRipley
Boat People SOS – Houston, Inc.
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston
Chinese Community Center, Inc.
Coalition for the Homeless/New Hope Housing
Communities In Schools of Houston
Family Service Center at Houston and Harris County
Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation
Houston Habitat for Humanity, Inc.
Houston Food Bank
Humble Area Assistance Ministries
Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston
Jewish Family Service – Houston
Katy Christian Ministries
Main Street Ministries Houston
Memorial Assistance Ministries
Montrose Counseling Center, Inc.
New Hope Houston
North Channel Assistance Ministries
Northwest Assistance Ministries
Salvation Army
SEARCH Homeless Services
Tahirih Justice Center
Volunteers of America, Inc.
West Houston Assistance Ministries, Inc.

Officials said they hope to make the next round of distributions within a month.

More than 100,000 donors contributed to the fund with an average donation of $80, officials said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Harris County’s federal bail lawsuit spreads beyond Houston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Michael Young, Bexar County’s Chief Public Defender

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

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

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

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

A question of due process

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

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

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

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

— Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Charles Cooper, attorney for Harris County judges

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

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

Beyond Harris County

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HHS Secretary Tom Price resigns amid criticism of his travel on private planes

President Donald Trump’s health secretary has resigned, after his travel on costly charter flights triggered investigations and angered his boss.

Tom Price’s partial repayment and public regrets couldn’t save his job.

The Health and Human Services secretary became the first member of the president’s Cabinet to leave office in a turbulent young administration that has seen several high-ranking White House aides ousted. Price served less than 8 months.

Trump had said he was “not happy” with Price for hiring private charters on the taxpayer’s dime for official travel, when cheaper commercial flights would have worked.

The flap over Price has overshadowed Trump’s agenda and prompted scrutiny of other Cabinet members’ travel. The House Oversight and Government Reform committee has launched a broad investigation of top political appointees.

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