Explosion at vodka distillery burns 3 in north Harris County

Three people were burned Monday in an explosion at a vodka distillery in north Harris County, authorities said.

The incident was reported about 10 a.m. at a warehouse in the 1200 block of East Richey Road.

According to fire officials at the scene, one of the victims was flown to the hospital, while the other two were driven there.

Officials are working to determine the cause of the explosion, but an investigator said it may have happened during a transfer of the flammable alcohol.

Stay with KPRC 2 and Click2Houston.com for the latest on this developing story.

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Documents: Texas National Guard Installed Cellphone Spying Devices on Surveillance Planes

The Texas National Guard last year spent more than $373,000 to install controversial cellphone eavesdropping devices in secretive surveillance aircraft.  

Maryland-based Digital Receiver Technology Inc., or DRT, installed two of its DRT 1301C “portable receiver systems” in National Guard aircraft in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to a contract between the Texas National Guard and the company. The contract states that the dirt boxes, as they’re often called after the company’s acronym, are for “investigative case analytical support” in counternarcotics operations and were purchased using state drug-asset forfeiture money.

The DRT logo for the technology.  via FOIA

Dirt boxes mimic cellphone towers by tricking every smartphone within a geographic area of up to one-third of a mile to connect with the technology, usually without cellphone users or telecom companies ever knowing about it. Also known as cell-site simulators, the devices can be used from land or air and are capable of intercepting the user’s location, phone numbers dialed, text messages and photos as well as recording or listening to phone calls.

Privacy and civil liberties advocates have called the use of dirt boxes a “digital dragnet,” because it’s nearly impossible for the government to avoid intercepting personal information from innocent cellphone users when pursuing investigative targets.

According to the contract documents obtained by the Observer, the eavesdropping devices were installed in two RC-26 surveillance planes used for counternarcotics operations. At one time, the RC-26s reportedly operated under a front company called Air Cerberus, but have since converted to military registrations, which generally mask their flight routes and unique tail numbers.

In a 2014 story, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the U.S. Marshals Service had been secretly using dirt boxes from a small Cessna aircraft to locate fugitives. Equipment and training was supplied by the CIA, but some officials inside the U.S. Justice Department were concerned that the activity was illegal. The revelations spurred numerous complaints from civil liberties advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the ACLU and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, as well as lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

 

 

Law enforcement’s use of the technology is usually considered legal when used against Americans with a warrant. The Texas Department of Public Safety has made similar purchases for covert surveillance equipment from a DRT competitor, Harris Corp., which offers comparable technology called Stingrays.

But the Texas National Guard is a military force under the governor’s command, not law enforcement. It’s unclear under what legal authorities the State Guard would be operating to conduct electronic eavesdropping. In 2015, the Justice Department issued guidelines for federal law enforcement agencies requiring that a probable cause warrant be obtained from a judge before using such technology. The Texas National Guard refused to explain to the Observer what steps, if any, it takes to secure a warrant prior to deploying the devices, or where the dirt boxes are being used.

Democratic state Representative César Blanco, a former Navy intelligence analyst who is the vice chairman of the Texas House committee that oversees the Texas National Guard, told the Observer that he wasn’t aware of the purchases, which haven’t previously been made public.  

Blanco said the purchases concern him and he wants the Legislature to develop a committee modeled after the House and Senate intelligence committees in Congress, which oversee the sprawling federal intelligence bureaucracies like the FBI, CIA and NSA.

“There are really big privacy and constitutional due-process concerns with the use of this technology,” Blanco said. “If it’s useful to authorities, then I completely understand that. … [But] if  the Texas National Guard want to get into the business of surveillance and utilizing intelligence and classifying intelligence, there’s got to be an oversight body that responds to the citizens of Texas.”

Because law enforcement agencies often sign nondisclosure agreements with companies such as DRT or Harris Corp., it’s difficult to determine how widely the surveillance equipment is used. The ACLU has identified 24 states, including Texas, where cell-site simulators are used by law enforcement.

Members of the Texas National Guard operating on a border levee in Hidalgo County in March 2017.  Scott Nicol

One possibility is the dirt boxes are being used at the Texas-Mexico border, where the Texas National Guard has participated in border security and counternarcotics missions since 1989. Currently, there are 145 Army National Guard soldiers and 70 Air National Guard personnel working in tandem with state, local and federal law enforcement on counternarcotics operations.

But when asked to confirm details about the purchases, including whether the cell-site simulators are being used at the border, the Texas National Guard provided only a short written response: “In regard to your questions, the items you are asking about are not associated with the Operation Secure Texas mission.”

Operation Secure Texas is just one of many missions the Texas National Guard has participated in along the border. Asked whether the National Guard has the legal authority to obtain a warrant to conduct arrests or surveillance, a spokesperson declined to provide someone from the agency to answer questions and instead responded with written answers: “The Texas National Guard’s role along the border has always been to serve as a force multiplier and to deter and refer. Our current supporting roles do not include arrest or law enforcement authorizations.”

Austin attorney Scott McCollough, who specializes in technology and serves on the board of the Austin chapter of EFF, said that if military forces are using the surveillance devices without a warrant, innocent people affected by it might have grounds for a privacy lawsuit against the government.  

McCollough also wondered whether any information collected by the Texas National Guard could be used to prosecute criminals in court if the underlying technology is considered legally questionable.

“These DRT boxes are far more capable than the old Stingrays,” McCollough said, “The old-style Stingrays were not able to capture content. Guess what? The DRT box is. … These newer ones get everything.”

Stephanie Lacambra, a staff attorney at EFF’s national office in San Francisco, said that so much secrecy has surrounded the use of the technology across the country that the public knows too little about what personal identifying information is being collected by the government when it deploys such tools and how the information is being handled. To shield the privacy of citizens, officials should commit to guidelines and make them public, she said.

“Without a clear public policy posted on how they’re going to be allowed to use these kinds of devices, there’s nothing to stop them from using a cell-site simulator in a suburb of Dallas any more than at the border,” said Lacambra. “And people should be legitimately concerned about that.”

The post Documents: Texas National Guard Installed Cellphone Spying Devices on Surveillance Planes appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Police increase reward for information in case of child’s body found on Galveston beach

The Galveston Police Department and the FBI are still searching for more information in the case of a boy’s body found on a Galveston beach.

Monday, the two entities said they have chased down hundreds of leads, but none have been useful. The reward for useful information has been raised to $10,000.

Meantime, investigators have named the little boy “Little Jacob” while they continue to search for his real identity. Investigators say this will help the departments, and the public, with the association of the case.

Police say they continue to waiting for a complete autopsy and when the autopsy is complete, the details of that report will not be made public to protect the integrity of the investigation.

The parents of the child are expected to be alive, police say.

“This is extremely unusual for any part of the country and extremely unusual for Galveston Island,” Capt. Joshua Schirard with the Galveston police said.

The Galveston community has come together to support each other in these two weeks, Schirard said.

Police have released a sketch photo of a 3- to 5-year-old boy who was found dead on a beach in Galveston in late October.

A passerby spotted the child about 5:35 p.m. while walking on the beach near 7th Street and Seawall Boulevard, authorities said.

At the time of the boy’s discovery, there were no recent missing children cases in Galveston, police said. Investigators commissioned renowned forensic sketch artist, Lois Gibson, to draw a sketch of the child for police.

“I want to reach out to that grandmother or the relative or the mommy or the daddy or some neighbor. Somebody who knows the baby,” Gibson said at the time.

Police said no one has come forward to report a missing child in the surrounding area. The medical examiner has not released a cause of death.

The area where the boy was found is not heavily trafficked, police said last month, adding that the particular area is mostly grassland.

Police describe the child as 3 feet tall with a slender build, black hair and brown eyes.

Officials said this is an extremely unusual case and the circumstances surrounding the child’s death have grown more suspicious during the investigation.

“We are throwing every resource we possibly can at assuring we identify this child,” Capt. Joshua Schirard with Galveston police said.

Investigators said they were looking into a missing person’s case in Hawkins County, Tennessee, involving a boy whose picture is similar to the composite sketch of the boy found dead in Galveston. On Monday, investigators said that the cases are not related.

The Police Department is asking anyone who may have any information concerning this case to call 409-765-3702 or Galveston County Crime Stoppers at 409-763-8477.

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Meet Nueces County’s New DA, a Self-Professed ‘Mexican Biker Lawyer Covered in Tattoos’

Mark Gonzalez at the Nueces County District Attorney’s Office.  Courtney Sacco

Early this year, border agents ran a name-check and wound up briefly detaining Mark Gonzalez as he traveled home to Corpus Christi after a vacation in Mexico. That’s why Gonzalez says he gave the Texas cop that stopped him a couple of weeks later this disclaimer: “When you run my name, I’m probably going to be listed as a gang member. I’m also the DA of Nueces County. Do whatever you want with that information.”

When Gonzalez ran for DA last year, he personified the label “nontraditional candidate” — a defense lawyer with the words “not guilty” tattooed across his chest, someone whose connection to the Calaveras Motorcycle Club even landed him in a police database of known gang members. He vowed to become a lawyer at 19, after he pleaded guilty to drunk driving. The guy next to him in court, who could afford a private lawyer, got the same charge dismissed.

Gonzalez’s office no longer takes misdemeanor marijuana cases (a $250 fine and a drug class gets charges dismissed) and even worked with a local women’s shelter on a pretrial diversion program for people accused of domestic violence for the first time. He spoke with the Observer about his new approach to criminal justice in Corpus Christi.

Q: During your campaign, you talked about needing to restore trust and fairness in law enforcement. What did you mean?

It’s why one of our main objectives now is transparency. We don’t want anybody to say that prosecutors were hiding the ball or didn’t disclose something. We’re open with defense attorneys about what we find, whether it’s good, bad or ugly for us. That’s also how we try to deal with media. As much as we can be, we’re open about what evidence we have, and we only go forward on a case if we can prove it. If there’s a case there, we’ll build it. But we’re not hunting for convictions. It’s about securing justice.

You’ve only been on the other side of law enforcement as a defense attorney. Any trouble getting police to trust and work with you?

As far as the higher-ups, I haven’t had any struggle with them. But I can tell you that the patrolmen, they’re the ones that may have the strongest criticisms of me and the hardest feelings against me just because I’m this defense attorney and a biker.

For the most part, our work here at the DA’s office speaks for itself. And some of those who didn’t trust me at the beginning, I think they’re starting to come around. I get approached all the time by patrolmen telling me, “We were wrong about you.” We’re gaining their trust and confidence, and eventually the work will speak for itself. That’s all that I ask.

What does a reform-minded criminal justice system look like?

I think that every DA has their own ideals and values and idea of what that looks like. For us, it’s about fairness and transparency. But I think in a lot of other ways, these reforms are just about being smart and having common sense. People who have proven they’re dangerous need to stay in jail. But low-level misdemeanors? They don’t need to be there. We need to find another way to deal with those people and that behavior. On one hand, we need to look at the jail’s repeat visitors and see if there’s anything we can do to stop that cycle. But we also need to focus our resources on people who are actually out there criminalizing people over and over again and put them away.

You have a criminal record. You’re the first from your family to go to college. What’s the impact of having someone from your background in power in the criminal justice system?

I hope it brings some humanity back to the office. Realize, we’re not here to destroy people’s lives. We’re here for justice, and sometimes that’s not always going to require a conviction. Just because we can give somebody a conviction doesn’t mean we always should and need to. That’s why we need people who can take a step back and consider their own life experiences and other perspectives. That defendant standing there was me once. So when I look at a case, I’m also thinking, is there a way we can make this person better, some chance we can give them? Don’t get me wrong, some people are going to get an opportunity and mess it up and eventually run out of chances. But we can’t lose sight that there are people and situations where we can help.

What role do prosecutors play in either fixing or exacerbating the system of mass incarceration?

The DA is probably the most important position in every county courthouse across the state. If you have a good prosecutor or a smart prosecutor with common sense, they can influence more widespread change than a judge or anyone else. We decide what cases to take and how to prosecute them. It starts and ends here.

If you have a prosecutor who’s fair and honest and open to diversion, your race, gender and economic circumstances should not play a role in the outcome of your case. Period. It’s the prosecutor who gets to decide whether to treat those cases the same. It shouldn’t matter if you have a high-powered lawyer who’s friends with someone at the DA’s office versus the new guy who just got out of law school who might not have those same relationships at the courthouse. As a prosecutor, you must treat them the same.

You’ve taken pretrial intervention programs beyond just drug cases. Why try it with domestic violence?

For the longest time, there’s been a domestic violence problem in our community. The shelter’s been open for 34 years, and I don’t see them ever closing. Something obviously isn’t working.

Someone would have a misdemeanor case, and then it would happen again and again. There was no intervention after that first incident, just punishment. Now, working with the shelter, we’re making contact with people in these abusive partnerships after that first time to give them the education they need. If defendants sign a confession and attend a six-month family violence class, that charge can be dismissed. And this isn’t something I take credit for — it was the women’s shelter counselors who helped us with this. The goal is to make sure the abuse stops, but also so that it doesn’t escalate into a felony.

What’s your stance on the death penalty?

I am not anti-death penalty, but I wouldn’t call myself an advocate for it. My two first assistant DAs, one is very anti-death penalty and thinks the government should never play a role in ending someone’s life. I have another assistant who thinks an eye for an eye is the way to go. And I guess I’m in the middle. Now I want to see what our community decides. I’m about to present a death penalty case very soon. When the jury makes their decision, it will help us figure out how we handle those cases in the future.

What role do reform-minded DAs play now that federal justice policy has made a 180-degree shift on things like drug charges, mandatory minimums and pot?

Much of what they’ve done hasn’t had an effect on us yet and probably won’t. Nobody governs us and nobody really tells us what to do. We have discretion in how we run this office. But you can already see we’re taking very different approaches that could become a problem in the future.

When it comes to things like mandatory minimums and how you prosecute drug crimes and what to do with marijuana, I think common sense is honestly going to win out on that in the long run. On marijuana, I think legalization is where we’re headed, because honestly it’s the smartest thing to do. We still live in Texas, so it may be hard to overcome some of that old thinking when it comes to drugs. But I think the economic gains and economic efficiency will eventually win people over if the other arguments don’t.

The post Meet Nueces County’s New DA, a Self-Professed ‘Mexican Biker Lawyer Covered in Tattoos’ appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Leon Jacob, man accused in murder-for-hire plot, faces new charge

Leon Jacob, the man accused in a murder-for-hire plot, is facing a new charge.

A grand jury indicted Jacob with aggravated kidnapping Friday.

According to court documents, the charge is connected to his former girlfriend, Megan Verikas.

A court date for the new charge hasn’t been set.

Jacob is already behind bars, charged with solicitation of capital murder.

Prosecutors said he and the late veterinarian Valerie McDaniel tried to hire a hitman to kill their exes.

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The Brief: The deadliest mass shooting in Texas history

Emergency vehicles outside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, where a mass shooting has taken place. 

Thanks for reading The Brief, our daily newsletter informing you on politics, public policy and everything in between. Forward this email to friends who may want to join us. They can sign up here. — CP

What you need to know

At least 26 people walked into a Central Texas church Sunday morning and never returned home.

Sutherland Springs, the tiny San Antonio-area town home to around 650 residents, is now also home to the deadliest mass shooting at a place of worship in U.S. history — and the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history. Here’s what you need to know:

• The gunman killed a 5-year-old, a 72-year-old and at least 24 others between those ages at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. Around 20 others were taken to nearby hospitals with “minor” to “very severe” injuries. Law enforcement didn’t officially identify the gunman Sunday and said it was too early to speculate on a motive for the killings but U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who represents the area, told The Texas Tribune that the shooter was Devin Kelley of Comal County. The gunman fled the scene after firing inside the church and was found dead inside a car, officials said, adding it was unknown whether he committed suicide. 

• Sutherland Springs has a population of around 643 — so if all of the victims were locals, as Tribune reporter Alexa Ura points out, at least 4 percent of the town’s population was killed in Sunday’s shooting. “We’re not sure if that number will rise or not,” Gov. Greg Abbott said Sunday night at a news conference. “This will be a long, suffering mourning for those in pain.” Cuellar said the church’s 14-year-old daughter and a pregnant woman were among the victims.  

• Up until Sunday, the worst mass shooting in Texas history happened in 1991, when a 35-year-old man drove his truck into a Luby’s in Killeen and killed 23 people before fatally shooting himself. The deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history happened last month, when a 64-year-old fired on a crowd of music festival attendees in Las Vegas and killed more than 50 people. Two years ago, 21-year-old Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people inside a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. And exactly eight years ago on Sunday, an Army psychiatrist shot and killed 12 soldiers and 1 civilian at Fort Hood. CNN has a list of the deadliest mass shootings between 1949 to the present.

• Prayers — and some calls for tighter gun control laws. “May God be w/ the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas,” said President Donald Trump on Twitter. Other Texas officials, such as Attorney General Ken Paxton and state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, echoed similar sentiments — but many Democrats said the deadly shooting is evidence that tighter gun ownership laws are needed. “Once again gun violence destroys lives, while this Congress, owned lock, stock, and barrel by the NRA refuses to act,” said Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, on Facebook. We have a compilation of tweets from Texas officials on the Sutherland Springs shooting here.

• Trump called the shooter a “very deranged individual” while speaking at an event in Japan. “I think mental health is your problem here,” Trump said in a video by the Associated Press. “We have a lot of mental health problems in our country — as do other countries — but this isn’t a guns situation. I mean, we could go into it but it’s a little bit soon to go into it.”

Other stories we’re watching today:

• Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith is talking with state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, at The Austin Club in Austin this morning. Join us for a conversation with the newly announced candidate for speaker of the Texas House, or watch a livestream here at 8.

• The Texas Senate Education Committee is holding a hearing in Houston today to discuss Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts for schools. Follow Texas Tribune reporter Aliyya Swaby for updates.

Tribune today

• Ross Ramsey says it’s easiest to judge public officials the same way you judge folks at work: Are they doing a good job?

• How has voting in Texas changed over the years? Here’s what several veteran voters told us.

• Texas has a host of high-profile legal battles in the works. We’re tracking some of the most significant cases.

• Counterprotesters at last year’s Houston rally say their presence wasn’t influenced by a Russian Facebook ad but by the white supremacists who said they’d be there.

• The filing deadline for Texas’ 2018 primaries is coming into sight — and so are concerns among some prominent Democrats about their party’s statewide ticket.

• There’s a new layer in the debate over protesting the national anthem at Texas’ grade schools. Tell us your story.

• State Sen. Charles Perry and state Reps. Dustin Burrows and John Frullo talked with us on Friday about the upcoming race for speaker of the Texas House. Did you miss the event? Check out our recap.

• The Trump administration wants the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate a lower court ruling that allowed an undocumented teen under federal custody in Texas to get an abortion.

• Another undocumented immigrant — Rosa Maria Hernandez, a 10-year-old who was detained after gallbladder surgery in Texas — is set to be reunited with her family.

Pencil us in

Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith is interviewing state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, at The Austin Club on Nov. 7.

What we’re reading

• Early voter turnout in Hidalgo County nearly doubled this year in comparison to the last constitutional amendment election in 2015. (The Monitor)

• Title IX experts who spent nine months investigating how Baylor University responded to sexual violence reports have verified the school’s ongoing corrective actions. (Waco Tribune-Herald)

• Julián Castro will decide whether to run for president by the end of 2018. (The Austin American-Statesman $)

• Cedar Hill City Council members voted to pump an estimated $160 million into a new downtown development. They failed to mention that a handful of town officials — the mayor included — and their families owned at least 25 properties inside that chunk of land. (The Dallas Morning News $)

• A small charter school in Houston pays its superintendent around $250,000 and owns a condo it used taxpayer money in 2011 to buy that’s valued at $450,000. (The Houston Chronicle $)

Photo of the day

Mourners pray during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church shooting on Nov. 5, 2017. The vigil was held across the street from the church. Photo by Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune. See more photos on our Instagram account.

Quote to note

“I rule it out 99 percent.”

— Wendy Davis, the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, on whether she plans to run for governor again next year.

Feedback? Questions? Email us at thebrief@texastribune.org. As always, thanks for choosing The Brief — if you liked what you read today, become a member or make a donation here

Correction: An item in Friday’s version of The Brief misspelled Jenifer Sarver’s name. 

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Counterprotesters say white supremacists, not Russian Facebook ads, drew them to rally

About a dozen people protested against what they called the threat of radical Islam, at the Islamic Da'Wah Center on Saturday, May 21, 2016, in Houston. They were met by several dozen counter-protesters.

When Ramon Mejía learned about an anti-Islam demonstration in Houston last year, he organized a counterprotest — but he said he didn’t get the idea from a Russian Facebook page.

Last week, federal lawmakers made public that two Russian Facebook pages organized dueling rallies in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center in Houston. One ad from Russian-controlled Heart of Texas announced a May 21, 2016, rally to “Stop Islamification of Texas,” while another announced a “Save Islamic Knowledge” counterprotest.

Counterprotesters say their presence wasn’t influenced by the Russian Facebook ad but by the white supremacists who said they would attend.

“It wasn’t Heart of Texas that we were organizing against. We were organizing against actual neo-Nazis that reside in our community, people we actually know,” Mejía said. “The Russians are just capitalizing on what is already existing in our society.”

Hannah Bonner, a United Methodist pastor who attended the counterprotest, said there’s a community in Houston that’s now accustomed to responding to similar events led by hate groups. The protesters at the Da’wah Center had already been active and organized before the Heart of Texas ad.

“We have to respond repeatedly in different locations and at different times, and in this case, the Russians selected the time and place, but they did not create the fear or the white supremacy — they just created an opportunity,” Bonner said. “We can’t blame Russia for the problem with racism that we have.”

Mejía said he was especially moved to organize when he saw a White Lives Matter leader in Houston, Ken Reed, was going to attend the anti-Islam protest.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, Reed is the executive director of a small but established neo-Nazi group in Houston called the Aryan Renaissance Society. He’s led similar White Lives Matter events in 2016 outside the Houston NAACP, at the Texas Capitol and outside the Anti-Defamation League office.

“This is the only instance we know of where extremists were actually motivated to show up to a ‘Russian’ event,” Mark Pitcavage, an Anti-Defamation League expert on right-wing extremism, said in a direct message on Twitter.

A NewsFix report from the day of the protest said Reed “wouldn’t identify as a member of Heart of Texas.”

“This is America. We have the right to speak out and protest, and that’s what we’re doing. We feel that Texas, our great state, and the United States is being threatened by the influx of Islam,” Reed said, according to the report.

Attempts to reach Reed and other White Lives Matter organizers were not immediately successful.

Steven Orozco, another demonstrator at the anti-hate rally, called the Russian strategy for enflaming racial tensions “smart and brilliant.”

“If that’s what happened, kudos to Russia for pulling off something that’s honestly easy to detect,” Orozco said. “As far as racism in the United States, in that case it’s a very effective tool.”

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What we know about Texas church shooter

A picture is starting to emerge of the suspected gunman in a deadly mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Two law enforcement sources briefed on the investigation identified the shooter as Devin Patrick Kelley, 26.

Kelley was once a member of the US Air Force, spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said. He served in logistics readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, starting in 2010.

Kelly was court-martialed in 2012 for two counts of Article 128 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, assault on his spouse and assault on their child, Stefanek said. Kelley received a bad conduct discharge, confinement for 12 months and a reduction in rank, she said. The Air Force did not provide a date of the discharge.

Kelley is accused of killing 26 people, including the 14-year-old daughter of the church’s pastor, and injuring more.

A man who lives next door to the church grabbed his own gun and approached Kelley as he was leaving after the shooting. The gunman dropped a rifle in front of the church and fled in his car, officials said.

Kelley was found dead in his car from a gunshot wound about eight miles from the church, a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation told CNN. It’s not clear if he shot himself or if the neighbor shot him.

Kelley purchased the Ruger AR-556 rifle in April 2016 from an Academy Sports & Outdoors store in San Antonio, a law enforcement official told CNN.

When Kelley filled out the background check paperwork at the store, he checked the box to indicate he didn’t have disqualifying criminal history, the official said. He listed an address in Colorado Springs, Colorado when he bought the rifle, the official said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called the incident the largest mass shooting in the state’s history.

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Harris County Precinct 4 deputy constable shot several times, officials say

A Harris County Precinct 4 deputy constable was shot several times Sunday, according to officials.

The shooting was reported about 6 p.m. at 9006 Walnut Glen Drive.

Officials said the deputy constable was rushed to Memorial Hermann Hospital for treatment.

A spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said that the deputy constable was shot several times in the legs and is expected to survive.

Harris County deputies at the scene told KPRC 2 reporter Bill Spencer that the gunman was in custody.

The identity of the deputy constable was not immediately released.

It was not immediately clear what led up to the shooting.

Stay with KPRC 2 and Click2Houston.com for the latest on this developing story.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrecly reported that Herman told KPRC 2 that the gunman was in custody.

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$500 million in Ike relief is still unspent. Will Texas do better after Harvey?

U.S. Air Force member conducted search and rescue operations on Galveston Island after Hurricane Ike on Sept. 13, 2008.

The billions in long-term disaster relief dollars that will fund Texans’ recovery from Hurricane Harvey’s devastating blow are still far from reaching state coffers. But there’s already tension brewing over how much federal money  should be spent to fix flood victims’ homes and how much should go toward repairing government buildings and launching new flood control projects.

Those critical choices will hinge on a key decision: Who will control how the money is spent, the federal government or Texas?

State leaders want as few limitations as possible on what could be the biggest influx of federal recovery money to ever hit the state, arguing that officials in cities and counties battered by the storm know best whether money should go to individual households or public works projects.

The state’s requests for flexibility — followed by Gov. Greg Abbott‘s Tuesday trip to Washington to deliver a $61 billion wish list predominantly made up of Harvey-related infrastructure projects — have sparked alarm from veterans of previous battles over long-term recovery funding.

With the recent past as their guide, they fear homeowners and impoverished communities will get shortchanged in favor of large-scale infrastructure projects that could have little connection to disaster recovery.

They point to Hurricane Ike, which struck Galveston in 2008 and flooded an estimated 100,000 homes along the Texas coastline not long after Hurricane Dolly hit the Rio Grande Valley.

At the time, the state received $3 billion from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that oversees long-term rebuilding from natural disasters. A Texas Tribune review of projects funded with that money found it went to a wide range of purposes that local officials tied to disaster recovery, including building new community centers in at least eight different counties, replacing lights at a Little League baseball field, putting a new roof on a sports stadium, and restoring a beach pavilion.

Yet almost 10 years later, more than $500 million — most of it earmarked for housing-related projects — for Ike and Dolly recovery still hasn’t been spent.

“The hard truth of this is there aren’t going to be enough resources to make everyone whole, there aren’t going to be enough resources to harden all the infrastructure, there just aren’t,” said Maddie Sloan, a lawyer for Texas Appleseed, an advocacy nonprofit. “So there have to be priorities set, and how priorities get set is a big deal.”

Some local officials have already begun to push for using long-term recovery money from the federal housing department for infrastructure projects.

At a meeting in Houston’s flood-prone Meyerland neighborhood last month, the city’s chief resilience officer told a crowd of hundreds that officials are “actively pursuing” HUD money to use as the local contribution toward flood control projects that would also be funded through other federal sources.

“We can use HUD money for local shares of other stuff,” Stephen Costello said.

Meanwhile, more than 51,000 southeast Texans are still displaced and living in hotel rooms, more than two months after Harvey slammed into the coast, dumped more than 50 inches of rain in some areas and damaged more than 563,000 homes. More than 149,000 people have qualified for rental assistance while they wait out repairs or look for a long-term place to call home. An unknown number are living with family or friends or paying for their own short-term housing needs.

“It’s often the case that the needs of Texans to rebuild and recover don’t rise to the same level of some of those government projects that people have in mind,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.

How the money will flow

Abbott split long-term disaster recovery efforts between the land office and a commission headed by Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp. The two entities have told federal officials they need a collective $121 billion to help cities, counties and families recover, though it’s still unclear how much overlap there could be in the two requests. State leaders have also been clear that they aren’t expecting to get all they ask for.

The land office is overseeing housing assistance programs, including long-term recovery dollars that typically go toward rebuilding houses or repairing damaged apartments. But the land office is also overseeing infrastructure projects that could be funded from the same pot of money.

The commission Sharp leads is focusing on flood control, roadways, water services projects and buying out or elevating flood-prone houses. While Sharp’s commission compiled a 301-page report detailing money needed for public works projects across the Texas coast, no state or federal agency has put together a comprehensive account of the damage Harvey did to Texans’ homes.

Instead, state officials’ request for long-term housing money is an estimate based on the number of households requesting immediate emergency aid, the average cost of a Texas house and how much money it cost to rebuild houses in previous disasters.

Land office leaders readily admit that many Texans may not receive federal assistance to cover their losses from Harvey. They also say that for the cost of rebuilding a handful of damaged homes, they can pay for projects that can protect many more homes from future floods.

“So the locals need the ability to make that determination on what’s the best way to benefit that particular area,” said Pete Phillips, a senior director with the state’s General Land Office.

But giving local elected leaders that level of discretion is what has some housing advocates worried.

“That’s absolutely what created the problems before,” Henneberger said.

State priorities challenged after Ike, Dolly

In many ways, concerns about the rebuilding process are rooted in Texas’ problematic history of disaster relief spending.

The lump-sum relief funds HUD gives states and local governments comes with some restrictions on how the money can be used. Those stipulations usually include how long the public has to weigh in on state and local plans for the funds, thresholds for how much must go toward housing rather than infrastructure and a minimum amount that must be spent to help low- and moderate-income disaster victims.

“The goal is not to hand everybody a little bit of money,” Henneberger said. “The goal is to make sure that the limited amount of money can help those who could not otherwise recover.”

After Ike and Dolly, the state put two separate agencies — one for housing and one for non-housing projects — in charge of overseeing local governments’ use of the money.

Local officials quickly used that money to rebuild infrastructure, while a large portion of the money that should have gone to help Texans rebuild their homes remains unspent nearly a decade later.

At the time, monitoring reports from the federal housing department blamed that slow trickle of money for housing on bureaucratic chaos at the state level. Gov. Rick Perry blamed the delays on the federal government.

A year after Ike and Dolly hit, Henneberger’s and Sloan’s nonprofits accused Texas officials of violating fair housing laws and HUD’s own rules for spending disaster funds.

The advocacy groups said in a complaint to HUD that the state used flawed data in deciding how to split relief money between public works projects and Texans whose homes were damaged by the hurricanes. They also said the state effectively “steered resources away” from hurricane victims by awarding a $16.6 million contract to a consulting firm that helped local governments understand how disaster grants work and identify infrastructure projects that would qualify.

In a May 2010 agreement between the state and the nonprofits, the federal housing department forced Texas to rework its plan for the relief funds. The department also increased the amount of money that Texas was required to spend on lower-income residents and ordered the state to use more than $200 million to rebuild, replace, buy out or construct housing for lower-income Texans.

Today, $297 million of unspent Ike and Dolly money is earmarked for housing recovery. That includes money set aside for public housing in Galveston, where plans for affordable units have been mired in opposition from other residents, politics and federal complaints for years.

While the state holds the money and ensures recipients spend it according to HUD’s parameters, it’s up to local governments like cities and counties to turn those dollars into construction projects. The General Land Office has managed the funds since 2011, and officials there say they plan to close out remaining projects by the end of 2019.

Sloan, with the Texas Appleseed Project, said the state’s performance has improved since the state land office began overseeing the second round of hurricane relief funding.

“There’ve been dramatic increases in the amount of home repair money going to low-income households, better benefits to renters of different income levels, and the state has said every infrastructure project needs to benefit low- and moderate-income people,” she said.

But Henneberger said the lack of a comprehensive plan to help Texans put their lives back together after Harvey — and the overwhelming focus on infrastructure in the state’s wish list released this week — is frustrating and worrisome.

“We want to see that the money is targeted fairly between infrastructure and individual benefits to disaster survivors who need to recover their lives and rebuild their homes,” Henneberger said.

Worry in Meyerland

In the past two months, Congress has agreed to spend more than $51.8 billion on disaster relief following a string of natural calamities including three hurricanes and California’s deadly wildfires.

The federal housing department has yet to determine how to divide the money among the affected states and territories, but the agency said it will do so based on which areas have the greatest “unmet need,” said spokesman Brian Sullivan. They make that evaluation using data from insurance claims, FEMA, and the Small Business Administration, which provides disaster relief loans to homeowners.

“Everybody is collecting information about the places that were hit the hardest, who suffered the greatest degree of serious or maybe even severe housing damage, how many families were insured or uninsured, it’s like you’ve got to untangle this ball of yarn,” Sullivan said.

While government officials continue taking stock of the overall impact, hundreds of thousands of Texans are still slogging through their individual recoveries. At last month’s meeting in Meyerland about flood control projects, tensions boiled over inside a church packed with hundreds of residents listening to officials discuss infrastructure and federal funding.

The houses in that neighborhood straddling Houston’s Brays Bayou were inundated with feet of water after Harvey battered southeast Texas — some for the third time in as many years. Many residents are waiting to see if their repeatedly-flooded homes will be targeted for buyouts, while others who flooded for the first time this year are months or years from learning if there will be federal money to help them fully rebuild.

Some Meyerland residents asked officials about particular flood-control projects during the meeting’s question-and-answer portion. Others had more immediate needs on their mind.

“Some people don’t care about long-term plans,” Larry Zomper said once he got a turn at a microphone. “We wanna know how to live now, what decisions to make now.”

Disclosure: Texas Appleseed and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

This story was produced in partnership with the Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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Prosecutor asks for current medical standards in death penalty evaluations

Bobby Moore, a man who has been on death row since 1980, will have his case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

When determining whether someone with a death sentence has a mental disability, Texas has long used outdated standards partially created by elected judges. Now that those standards have been ruled unconstitutional, one district attorney wants the state to use a markedly different measuring stick: current medical science.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg sent a brief to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Wednesday afternoon in the case of Bobby Moore, a man convicted in the 1980 shooting death of a Houston supermarket clerk. Ogg now says Moore is intellectually disabled, but the questions surrounding the prisoner’s mental capacity led to a March Supreme Court ruling that invalidated Texas’ method of determining intellectual disability for death row inmates. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the court’s opinion that the state’s test created an “unacceptable risk” of executing intellectually disabled people, a practice deemed unconstitutional.

But while the ruling tossed out Texas’ old way of determining the disability, it didn’t create a new one. Instead, cases of death-sentenced inmates who were deemed competent for execution under the old test were suddenly ripe for new litigation, and at least two men who had been on death row for decades had their sentences changed to life in prison — all while awaiting a final ruling on Moore’s intellectual capacity.

Ogg asked for Moore’s sentence to be reduced to life in prison, and her brief also asked Texas to create a new way of determining intellectual disability — one that sticks to the medical books.

“‘Unacceptable risk’ necessitates that the States should strictly adhere to the definitions of intellectual disability as contained within the most current versions of the clinical manuals,” said the brief.

She implored Texas to conform to the standards set by the American Psychiatric Association, similar to how Louisiana and Mississippi determine intellectual disability. If the Texas court accepts Ogg’s suggestion, death penalty experts say it will put Texas in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling and will put fewer Texas death penalty cases in front of the high court in the future.

“You don’t have the same systemic problems in states that are using medical definitions,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national organization critical of current death penalty practices. “We see persistent problems in states [that] have adopted standards that are clearly inconsistent with the contemporary medical standards or have created procedures that make it virtually impossible to prove intellectual disability.”

Dunham said in general that states have sought to conform to previous Supreme Court rulings, but others — Texas, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas and Florida — have created hurdles for proving the disability. He said the best way for Texas to avoid future problems is to use existing medical standards.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office, which represents the state in federal death penalty appeals, and several district attorneys in counties where intellectual disability cases are in play did not return phone calls Thursday.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, but it left it up to the states to determine how to qualify the condition. The legal definition of intellectual disability doesn’t have to fully match a medical definition, but it does have to be informed by the current medical frameworks, according to the court.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals created its own method two years later. Death penalty critic Judge Elsa Alcala wrote in a 2015 opinion that the test was only meant to be a temporary solution “in the absence of any legislative guidance.” The method found inmates facing execution intellectually disabled if their IQ was 70 or below. If an IQ was above 70 but close enough to be within a margin of error (the state put Moore at 74), the court would look at how well the person functioned in daily life by referencing 1992 medical guidelines and a controversial set of questions called the “Briseno factors.”

The factors included questioning if a neighbor or family member would consider the person disabled, the person’s ability to lie and the planning involved in the murder. In its March ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said the Briseno factors strayed too far from medical-based frameworks.

“The [Court of Criminal Appeals] overemphasized Moore’s perceived adaptive strengths — living on the streets, mowing lawns, and playing pool for money — when the medical community focuses the adaptive-functioning inquiry on adaptive deficits,” Ginsburg wrote.

Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with the incorrect usage of the Briseno factors but wrote in a dissenting opinion that the court’s majority tossed the Texas court’s ruling without considering societal standards.

“The Court instead crafts a constitutional holding based solely on what it deems to be medical consensus about intellectual disability,” Roberts wrote. “But clinicians, not judges, should determine clinical standards; and judges, not clinicians, should determine the content of the Eighth Amendment.”

It’s unknown when the Texas court will make a decision in Moore’s sentence or a new way to determine intellectual disability. In the meantime, the death penalty’s intersection with intellectual disability is up in the air.

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How to earn quick cash by flipping items

There’s a simple way to make quick cash and we think just about anyone can do it. Have you ever heard of flipping? You buy something at a thrift store or garage sale and you resell it to make money.

Flipping is a great way to add to your income, but you have to know what to look for. It’s like a citywide scavenger hunt and the prize is quick cash in your pocket.

“I love getting out in the thrift store, trying to find the hidden treasures,” thrift shopper Jen Meneely said. “It’s kind of like gambling. I love gambling.

“It is a great way to make money, but you really have to know your product,” Pippa Williams said.

Williams and Meneely met at a thrift shop and hit it off. They started shopping together right away and then created the website and blog Too Cheap Blondes. They don’t typically “flip” items, but they certainly know what to look for.

“There are people out there who do this to supplement their income. There are others that do it full time and make a lot of money doing it,” Williams said.

Good items to flip include furniture, artwork, books and kitchen items. The Too Cheap Blondes” think the easiest item to flip is clothing.

Clothing

“Do your research, know exactly what brands sell really well and you can flip quick,” Meneely said.

Williams recently found a Tommy Hilfiger jacket from the 1990s with a huge flag on the front.

“These are so hot right now,” she said. “The thing that makes this so valuable is it has the big logo flag. I found this for $2 at a Family Thrift Store and this is going to sell anywhere from $300 to $400 on Ebay.”

Other popular resale brands include Kate Spade, Tory Burch, Burberry and Levis jean jackets and vests.

How do you know if the item will make money? Go to Ebay and type in the name of the item. Filter the “sold” items and you will see how much they are actually being sold for. That will help you decide if it would be worth it to try to resell the item you find.

Furniture

“Thrift stores are a treasure trove for highquality, vintage, solid wood furniture,” Meneely said.

As you probably know, companies just don’t make furniture the way they used to. There is always solid wood furniture at thrift stores and often it’s something you can buy and resell for a profit.

“The average price on, say, a solid wood buffet is about $120 to $150, which might seem like a lot,”
Meneely said. “Some of these don’t even need to be updated. Just, you happen to be the one to find it. You can sell this easily for $400 to $500.”

Chairs with fabric that can be easily recovered are also great items to flip. People who recover and upholster furniture frequently look to buy vintage furniture to fix up and sell. You can often grab a chair for $20 to $40 and sell it for an easy $100.

Artwork

You’ll find artwork in just about any thrift store. Look for original works of art. Shopping local is prime for finding artists specific to the area where you live, and you can sell the art online to someone in a different area of the country.

“This is an artist out of Santa Fe who is famous for her watercolors,” Meneely said. “I think these have a value of around $300 and they are here at the Salvation Army for $2.99.”

Meneely and Williams recently paid $10 for an original piece from a Houston artist worth $2,500. They listed it on a Facebook trading group and sold it the same day for $100. They said that while they knew it was worth a lot more, they were just happy to get a quick buck instead of sitting on it and waiting for a higher bidder.

Kitchen items

Plenty of people have a nostalgic memory of a kitchen gadget or item that was at their grandmother’s house. Because of that, vintage kitchen items often sell for a great price.

For example, KPRC Channel 2 News found Starbucks mugs for $2, and they are selling for $30 on Ebay.

Pewter items often resell well, too. A $3 pair of pewter bunny salad servers from Mexico are listed for $40 online.

“It’s the thrill of the hunt,” Williams said.

Selling

For smaller items, you can easily ship, Ebay is your best bet, because you are selling to a wider audience. You end up paying about 20 percent
in fees.

For larger items, such as furniture, try neighborhood Facebook selling groups or Craigslist. Take precautions when meeting people you are working with through the sites. The Houston Police Department has a safe zone system set up for people who are meeting to exchange items sold online. They encourage people to use parking lots of police stations around town. Officers are not allowed to help out with the transaction.

You can check here for a safe zone location near you.

25+ places to sell your items

eBay
Real reel
Poshmark
Tradesy
Craigslist
Amazon
Etsy – vintage only, i.e., old lunchbox
Shopify
Offerup – App
Listia – App, various items
Depop – Clothing
Gone – Electronic trading app
Vinted – Clothing
Chairish – Furniture, art
Decluttr – Electronics, game consoles, books, DVDs, refurbishables
Close5 – Antiques, home goods, automobiles
Trove – Furniture, decor
Hoobly – Specializes in dog trading
5miles – Various items
Carousell – has a smaller grouping option on the website

Physical locations for “flipping”

Once upon a Child – Plato’s Closet for children
Buffalo exchange – Physical location
Plato’s closet – Physical location

Old-fashioned yard sale – Yard sale apps available or self-advertise with personal social media platform:

http://www.yardsalehelper.com/
http://yardsailr.com/
http://yardsales.com/

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Rick Perry ties fossil fuel use to sexual assault prevention

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

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said Thursday fossil fuels can help prevent sexual assault because the “lights are on.”

His comments came during an event hosted by NBC News and Axios in Washington, D.C., where Perry was to lay out the administration’s upcoming energy policy priorities.

The former Texas governor brought up sexual assault while describing a recent trip to Africa, where he was told “people are dying” because they lack access to energy, according to a transcription by The Hill newspaper.

“It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out into those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, ‘one of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I’m not going to have to try to read by the light of a fire and have those fumes literally killing people.’”

“But also from the standpoint of sexual assault, when the lights are on, when you have light that shines, the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts,” Perry continued.   

Perry has been pushing the expansion of fossil fuels since he assumed the position as energy secretary.

The Sierra Club, an environmental group that generally supports Democratic candidates, called for Perry’s resignation following the interview.

“It was already clear that Rick Perry is unfit to lead the Department of Energy, but to suggest that fossil fuel development will decrease sexual assault is not only blatantly untrue, it is an inexcusable attempt to minimize a serious and pervasive issue,” the Sierra Club said in a statement.

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Abbott Supports Removing Inaccurate Capitol Displays. Do Slavery-Denying Plaques Count?

Representative Eric Johnson left Friday’s sit-down with Governor Greg Abbott confident that they agreed on two things. First: markers and monuments at the Texas Capitol should be historically accurate. Second: a plaque inside the Capitol that claims the Civil War “was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery” does not pass that test.

Almost immediately after the meeting, Abbott’s office half-denied, half-downplayed Johnson’s public statements that the governor was “supportive of the plaque coming down.” Abbott’s spokespeople insisted he simply asked the State Preservation Board to “look into the issue.” Johnson pushed back and, by Monday, Abbott’s office acknowledged that the governor thinks “substantially inaccurate” markers at the Capitol should come down.

What Abbott won’t publicly say is whether he thinks it’s “substantially inaccurate” to deny that the Civil War was fought over slavery. (We asked his office for comment and received no response.)

That’s not entirely surprising, considering that defending Confederate monuments has morphed into a sort of cause célèbre in some pockets of the conservative movement. After the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville this summer, Abbott resisted renewed calls to remove Confederate monuments and markers around the Capitol, cautioning that “tearing down monuments won’t erase our nation’s past.” Only 9 percent of Republicans who responded to the latest UT/Texas Tribune poll support relocating or removing the state’s many Confederate markers. White House chief of staff John Kelly even pushed the slavery-denying Lost Cause narrative this week, telling a Fox News host that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”

State Rep. Eric Johnson
State Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) on the House floor.  Courtesy state Rep. Eric Johnson

Johnson, who says he’s “seriously considering” a run for speaker of the House next term, wants to see every Confederate monument on the Capitol grounds fall, but his focus in recent months has been on the so-called Children of Confederacy Creed. Last week, Johnson filed his official request with the State Preservation Board to remove the plaque, which was mounted just steps from the Capitol rotunda during the civil rights era. The marker denies slavery’s role in the Civil War, despite the state’s declaration of secession, filed nearly a century earlier, that claimed the country was “established exclusively for the white race” and declared that black people were “rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race.” The Texas Ordinance of Secession also states that “the servitude of the African race … is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator.”

“We have a legal document that is housed in our state archives that tells the world why Texas seceded from the union,” Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, told the Observer. “We have this document that says the Civil War, at least for Texans, is about slavery. Then you have a plaque up outside my office that says the Civil War’s not about slavery? It’s just patently false. That’s why the plaque needs to come down.”

Children of the Confederacy
A plaque in the hall that rings the Capitol’s main rotunda. It declares the Civil War was not fought over slavery. Representative Eric Johnson has called for its removal.  Kelsey Jukam

Johnson claims that Abbott agreed the plaque was historically inaccurate. He says the governor then brought up an instance two years ago when he threw out a mock nativity scene that a church-state separation group had set up in the Capitol basement. It’s unclear if Abbott was joking, or whether he really thinks a cardboard cutout “winter solstice” display featuring the Founding Fathers, the Statue of Liberty and the Bill of Rights is comparable to a plaque that’s for decades told Capitol visitors that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War.

 

 

Johnson hopes an analysis of the plaque’s history, which Abbott has publicly acknowledged asking the State Preservation Board to do, opens the floodgates on the larger discussion about the more than 170 Confederate markers in Texas. “This conversation has to start somewhere in Texas,” Johnson told the Observer. “This plaque makes it clear what was going on in the late ’50s when some of these monuments went up. It clearly shows the propaganda campaign, the attempt to rewrite the history of the Civil War.”

When it comes to the plaque at hand, Johnson says Abbott’s hairsplitting doesn’t really matter so long as the preservation board does its job. “If the whole thing swings on historical inaccuracy, then that plaque’s doomed.”

The post Abbott Supports Removing Inaccurate Capitol Displays. Do Slavery-Denying Plaques Count? appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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A Russian Facebook page organized a protest in Texas. A different Russian page launched the counter-protest.

Screenshots released by federal lawmakers of Russian-linked Facebook pages promoting anti-Muslim and pro-Muslim rallies on the same day in 2016 in Houston.

Federal lawmakers on Wednesday released samples of 3,000 Facebook ads purchased by Russian operatives during the 2016 presidential campaign. The ads conveyed the wide range of influence Russian-linked groups tried to enact on Americans – but one set of ads in particular hit close to home.

Last year, two Russian Facebook pages organized dueling rallies in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center of Houston, according to information released by U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican.

Heart of Texas, a Russian-controlled Facebook group that promoted Texas secession, leaned into an image of the state as a land of guns and barbecue and amassed hundreds of thousands of followers. One of their ads on Facebook announced a noon rally on May 21, 2016 to “Stop Islamification of Texas.”

A separate Russian-sponsored group, United Muslims of America, advertised a “Save Islamic Knowledge” rally for the same place and time.

On that day, protesters organized by the two groups showed up on Travis Street in downtown Houston, a scene that appeared on its face to be a protest and a counterprotest. Interactions between the two groups eventually escalated into confrontation and verbal attacks.

Burr, the committee’s chairman, unveiled the ads at a hearing Wednesday morning and said Russians managed to pit Texans against each other for the bargain price of $200.

“You commented yesterday that your company’s goal is bringing people together. In this case, people were brought together to foment conflict, and Facebook enabled that event to happen,” Burr said to Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch.

“I would say that Facebook has failed their goal,” Burr added. “From a computer in St. Petersburg, Russia, these operators can create and promote events anywhere in the United States in attempt to tear apart our society.”

Stretch told the Senate Intelligence Committee that ads such as these were most likely directed at different audiences.

Both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate Intelligence committees met with representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter at the Capitol Wednesday.

In a press conference following the House hearing, the top Democrat on the committee, Adam Schiff of California, said lawmakers hope to make all of the Russian-bought Facebook ads available to the public in the next few weeks.

“People really need to see just how cynical this campaign really was and how this operation directed by a former KGB operative who is now the president of Russia was designed to tap into these really provocative and divisive issues here in the United States,” Schiff said.

Going forward, Schiff said Congress will consider new regulations of political advertisements. He said the question is how they will adapt these oversight measures to social media platforms.

U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, is currently leading the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into election meddling by Russia.

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24 Texas Dairy Queens closing after franchise company files for bankruptcy

A Dairy Queen franchise company with 70 locations across Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma has filed for bankruptcy.

The company, Vasari LLC, has about 900 employees, according to the court filing.

So far, 29 Dairy Queen locations have closed, including 24 in Texas, three in Oklahoma and two in New Mexico.

The closest Texas location run by the company is in Conroe on 1612 North Frazier Street.

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USDA Rolls Back ‘Fair Practice’ Rule That Would’ve Protected Texas Chicken Farmers

They get lured in by the promise of an easy, steady paycheck. Just raise some chickens, keep them healthy, and the company — Tyson, Sanderson Farms or some other industrial poultry processor — will take care of the rest, farmers are told.

They sign an exclusive contract and take out a loan to build several 24,000-square-foot chicken houses on their land. At first, everything’s fine. But eventually the growers, as they’re known in the industry, run into trouble, said Mike Weaver, a Pilgrim’s Pride contract farmer in West Virginia.

Weaver, who is also the president of the Organization for Competitive Markets, an antitrust think tank in Nebraska, told the Observer that sometimes the companies demand expensive improvements be made to the chicken houses, such as new heating or feeding systems that growers can’t afford. Sometimes entire flocks of up to 100,000 birds inexplicably die, he said. Many growers see their pay slashed and their expenses skyrocket. It gets so bad that some contractors have to take a second or third job just to make loan payments on the chicken houses. Some declare bankruptcy; at least one committed suicide.

A rare federal lawsuit allowed to go forward in Oklahoma this year bears out allegations made by Weaver and other farmers.

Mike Weaver

“Your choices are to lose your farm or raise their chickens,” Weaver said. “The bank’s beating door your door and you’re gonna have to declare bankruptcy or something else drastic. Sometimes [farmers] think it’s hopeless.” He said farmers are frequently taken advantage of, but due to nondisclosure agreements in the contracts signed by growers, many outside of the industry are unaware of the abusive practices.

About 800 of these contract farmers work in Texas, the nation’s sixth largest poultry producer. The three major players in the industrial chicken game — Tyson, Sanderson Farms and Pilgrim’s Pride — all have operations in Texas, mostly in the eastern part of the state. All three companies have been accused of mistreating farmers by employing tactics that push contractors into a cycle of crippling debt and bankruptcy. Now, due to last month’s rollback of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed rule meant to protect farmers, they’ve lost what little hope they had to sue companies who take advantage of them.

Experts say the USDA’s decision to kill the Farmer Fair Practice rule, an Obama-era protection for contract growers that was slated to take effect this month, could indicate that the president won’t stand up for the farmers who overwhelmingly voted him into office.  

Wes Sims, president of the Texas Farmers Union, a century-old rural advocacy group based in Sweetwater, told the Observer that he’s disappointed but not surprised by the rule’s withdrawal. And with Trump’s administration siding with agribusiness interests instead of farmers, “How do you stop them?” he said.

While the Texas Farm Bureau supported added protections for contract growers, the National Chicken Council and other meat processing industry groups have hailed the rule’s withdrawal.

Representatives for Tyson, Sanderson Farms and Pilgrim’s Pride did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Farmers previously have said that meat processors pit them against one another in what’s called a “tournament system.” Those who raise the fattest chickens with the least feed are paid the most, while their competitors split the money that’s left. Farmers can do little to improve their position, since companies control which chicks and feed are sent to them. Enough poor showings in the “tournament” can put a grower out of business for good.

Contracts between farmers and meat processors usually stipulate that farmers must settle disputes through arbitration instead of in court. Theoretically, farmers can still file a lawsuit against the companies, but court rulings have held that for a suit to even go forward, plaintiffs must prove that unfair practices are occurring industry-wide. The Farmer Fair Practice rule, which was initially proposed in 2010 and delayed several times before being nixed on October 18, would have eased that requirement.

“There’s no other industry that has to meet that standard,” said National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson. “If you’ve been harmed, you should have the right to redress.”

In withdrawing the protection, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said the rule would have caused “unnecessary and unproductive litigation.” U.S. Representative Mike Conaway, a Midland Republican who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, echoed the sentiment. “I appreciate the Trump administration’s dedication to regulatory reform through the rollback of unnecessary and burdensome regulations like these,” Conaway said.

Though some farmers who have quit the industrial chicken raising business have raised the alarm about industry abuses, many active growers are loathe to speak with the press. If they do, they face retribution from processors, including being provided with sickly chicks and bad feed, or having their contract canceled, Sims said.

“The company controls all the inputs. They control everything,” he said. “If they speak up, stand up for themselves, they’re done.”

With the proposed rule withdrawn, a lawsuit being heard in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Oklahoma may be contract farmers’ last hope. In Haff Poultry Inc. v. Tyson Foods Inc., farmers have accused processors of colluding to trade information in an attempt to limit farmers’ compensation. The lawsuit claims companies keep farmers “in a state of indebted servitude, living like modern-day sharecroppers on the ragged edge of bankruptcy.”

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Trump nominating Ryan Patrick, son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, to be U.S. attorney

Former Houston prosecutor and district judge Ryan Patrick is Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's son.

President Donald Trump is nominating former state District Judge Ryan Patrick, son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, to be the next U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, the White House announced Wednesday.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Patrick will become the top federal prosecutor in one of the busiest districts in the country. The Southern District, which includes Houston, Galveston and Corpus Christi, represents 43 counties, 8.3 million people and 44,000 square miles of the Lone Star State.

Patrick graduated from Baylor University and South Texas College of Law in Houston before working for six years as an assistant district attorney in Harris County. In 2012, Texas Gov. Rick Perry appointed Patrick to the 177th state district court in Harris County. But Patrick returned to private practice after losing that seat in November to Democrat Robert Johnson.

Patrick would replace Abe Martinez, a career civil servant who has served as acting U.S. attorney since March, when President Donald Trump asked for the resignation of dozens of U.S. attorneys across the country, including Kenneth Magidson, an Obama appointee who had filled the role since 2011.

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Fired in 2009, football coach Mike Leach still rages at Texas Tech and Texas law

Washington State University football coach Mike Leach was preparing for a game against the University of Colorado two weeks ago when another foe leapt into his mind.

“They are outright crooks at Texas Tech,” the coach declared about 15 minutes into his weekly press conference, referencing the school where he worked before going to Washington State. “Are there crooks there? Yeah. I mean, like, felons. They ought to put them in jail.”

Leach was fired by Texas Tech University nearly eight years ago. But his outburst against his former employer surprised no one. Ever since he left, he has been waging a fight to get more than $2 million he believes Tech owes him from his coaching tenure. He has taken that fight to court, the Texas Capitol and to social media. But so far, state law has left him helpless in the quest to get the money he thinks he’s owed.

He has been stymied by Texas law, which protects the state and its entities from lawsuits — even if the entity violates a contract. So with the legal route blocked, he has turned his focus in recent months to shifting public opinion against Tech and the law that is protecting it.

About six weeks ago, he hired a former Houston investigative television reporter, Wayne Dolcefino, to try to dig up dirt and increase public pressure on Tech.

“Mike Leach went through the legal system, and he got shafted because there is a law that protects Texas Tech — that allows them to cheat someone out of a contract,” Dolcefino said last week. “The sad thing about that is I am sure it happens throughout the state. We have a law that allows the government to totally screw you around and get away with it.”

Whether Leach actually got screwed is a question that remains hotly debated. Leach was relieved of his duties in the final days of 2009 — right before a longevity clause on his contract kicked in that would have paid him $800,000. He had been arguably the most successful football coach in Tech history and was a hero to many students and alumni because of his eccentricity and innovative play-calling. His postgame press conferences were legendary, as he was known to indulge reporters in chats on his obsessions like pirates and the artist Jackson Pollock.

School officials said at the time that allegations of mistreating players and “insubordination” gave the school little choice but to fire him. His removal had been set in motion a few weeks earlier when the family of wide receiver Adam James complained that James was told to sit in a dark closet while suffering from concussion symptoms.

‘The facts and circumstances that led to his termination for cause are clear,” the school said in a statement. “He admittedly ordered that a student-athlete with a concussion be placed in a darkened area — not an athletic training area — and forced to stand. This occurred on two occasions.”

Leach and his supporters, meanwhile, argue that he was actually fired over personality conflicts with Tech’s leadership at the time, which they say were stoked during a tense contract negotiation from months earlier. Most of those leaders have since departed Tech — the school has had turnover at president and chancellor positions since Leach left.

The distinction mattered. Leach’s new contract had a five-year term, and it promised him $400,000 for each remaining year if he were fired before it ran out. But the buyout only kicked in if he were fired “without cause” — basically if he hadn’t done anything wrong but lose football games. The school fired him “with cause,” however, so it claimed it didn’t have to pay him the $1.6 million it would have otherwise owed him.

Leach was outraged and demanded that buyout money, plus the $800,000 he would have received if he had stayed on as coach for one more day. But he soon found there was little he could do. He tried to take the school to court, but his lawsuit was tossed out due to “sovereign immunity,” the legal concept that protects the state from lawsuits. The concept stems from the idea that the state wouldn’t be able to conduct its necessary business if the threat of lawsuits was constantly hanging over its head. The concept isn’t unusual — the federal government is also protected by sovereign immunity. But Texas’ sovereign immunity provision is particularly strong and applies to lawsuits over government contracts as well.

Leach’s frustration is not unusual, said Michael Shaunessy, an Austin attorney with experience suing and representing government entities and who trains lawyers across the state on sovereign immunity. The immunity does serve an important purpose, Shaunessy said, but also leaves contractors vulnerable if their interpretation of the contract differs from that of the state.

“It adversely affects people’s willingness to do business with the state of Texas,” he said. “I have clients who charge more when they are doing work for a government entity in Texas.”

Still, he said, he doesn’t have that much sympathy for Leach, who makes about $3 million per year as Washington State’s coach. (Washington State has traditionally been a bottom-dweller in the Pac 12 Conference, but has a strong 7-2 record under Leach this year.)

“If we are going to make a change about sovereign immunity on the contract side, we need to do that because it has a greater impact on businesses that do business with the state — and the impact it has on the state,” Shaunessy said. “To get into it over Mike Leach just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Leach has shown no sign of giving up. In 2011, with the pro bono help of a leading Austin lobbyist, he urged lawmakers to pass a bill that would have allowed him to sue Tech. A sympathetic House member, Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, filed a bill on his behalf, but it never made it out of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee.

Eiland and Leach then enlisted two other House members to ask for then-Attorney General Greg Abbott’s opinion about whether Leach should be allowed to sue, but they didn’t make any progress on that front.

Now, Leach is making a public relations push. Dolcefino recently launched a website, paycoachleach.com, that features a petition signed by about 1,800 people and background information on sovereign immunity. The site compares Texas’ sovereign immunity to laws in oppressive regimes like North Korea, Iran and Syria.

Dolcefino also hosted a rally outside a recent Tech home football game, giving out balloons and urging people to visit the website. And he has submitted multiple open records requests to the university in search of evidence of waste, abuse or fraud at the school. The goal, Dolcefino said, is to put so much pressure on Tech that it simply decides to pay Leach the money he believes he is owed.

Tech has expressed no interest in reopening the discussion, saying in its statement that “the courts decided this case years ago, and there is nothing more to add.” But Dolcefino said he is just getting started.

“Mike Leach is not the kind of guy who surrenders,” Dolcefino said.

Disclosure: Texas Tech University 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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Texas Toxicologist Who Rejects Basic Science Appointed to EPA Science Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smog in Houston  Jonathan Lewis

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

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

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

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