A Prison By Any Other Name

How Texas created a new for-profit lockup, which it really doesn’t want you to call a “prison.”

by Michael Barajas
@michaelsbarajas
February 12, 2018

In early September 2015, guards fanned out across Texas with orders to round up about 200 men, rousing some from bed as early as 3 a.m. and demanding they stuff whatever they wanted to keep into black Hefty bags.

The men weren’t hard to find. They’d all completed lengthy prison sentences for sex crimes. The state calls them “sexually violent predators,” men required not only to publicly register their whereabouts but also to participate in a court-ordered monitoring and treatment program meant to cure them of “behavior abnormalities” and safely integrate them back into society after they’ve done their penance. At the time of the roundup, most were living in boarding homes and halfway houses.

Jason Schoenfeld, who was staying at a Fort Worth halfway house at the time, made a frantic phone call to his friend John, a fellow veteran. John, who’s retired and old enough to be Schoenfeld’s father, met the 46-year-old Gulf War veteran while volunteering at the Fort Worth VA hospital. John taught Schoenfeld breathing techniques to calm his nerves during an exercise class he’d volunteered to lead at the VA; records show the VA gave Schoenfeld a 30 percent disability rating for post-traumatic stress disorder after his combat service. John eventually grew fond of Schoenfeld and wanted to help him, even after learning his new friend had served an 18-year prison sentence for aggravated sexual assault of a child.

civil commitment, civil rights, texas
John keeps a box of letters his friend has sent him since being shipped to the Littlefield facility.  Michael Barajas

John says he heard desperation in Schoenfeld’s voice as he asked whether John could come grab his stuff before it ended up in a dumpster. “It was clear he didn’t have anybody else,” John told me. He says Schoenfeld looked confused to the point of tears when John and his wife arrived at the halfway house. “We didn’t even know what city he was going to,” John says. Schoenfeld gave him two bulging garbage bags; John now stores them in his home.

Schoenfeld and the others were frisked, loaded onto vans and prison buses and driven hundreds of miles to Littlefield, a remote, sparsely populated corner of the Texas Panhandle, where guards shuffled them into the Bill W. Clayton Detention Center, a prison that had been empty for six years.

Once inside those old prison walls, the men surrendered their IDs, Social Security cards, birth certificates and credit cards, along with cash and coins. Guards dug through the Hefty bags, tossing out all sorts of personal items now considered contraband. They went from living in halfway houses that looked like motels to windowless cells with cinderblock walls, hard steel bunks and metal toilets. But officials at the detention center were adamant: This wasn’t a prison. They instructed the men to call their living quarters “rooms,” not prison cells.

Unlike at the halfway houses, the new inmates couldn’t come and go. It wasn’t clear when their sentences would end, if ever.

Two and a half years after the Texas Civil Commitment Center opened its doors, only five men have been released — four of them to medical facilities where they later died.

State officials claim Texas’ new civil commitment program is designed to rehabilitate the men. But their families and friends argue the state has simply stashed them in a for-profit prison on the outskirts of the state, far away from the support services they’ll need if there’s any hope of transitioning back into society — the supposed goal of the facility. Lawyers who represent them consider the state’s new program an unconstitutional extension of the prison sentences the men have already served.

civil commitment, civil rights, texas
Michael Barajas

Like many small towns in the 1990s, Littlefield thought prison-building would bring the kind of jobs needed to prevent young people from moving away.

Critics of private prisons see in the Texas Civil Commitment Center the disturbing new evolution of an industry. As state and federal inmate populations have leveled off, private prison spinoffs and acquisitions in recent years have led to what watchdogs call a growing “treatment industrial complex,” a move by for-profit prison contractors to take over publicly funded facilities that lie somewhere at the intersection of incarceration and therapy. In Texas, their recent attempts to privatize two state psychiatric hospitals failed after families and advocates raised concerns that cost cutting to boost profits would jeopardize the quality of care.

The Texas Civil Commitment Center, however, was a quiet coup that few people saw coming. In 2015, the state signed a $24 million contract with Correct Care Solutions to run the facility; the contract was extended in 2017. The recipe for creating a new for-profit lockup in the era of decarceration: a state agency imploding under mismanagement, a private prison contractor on the rebound and a desperate town saddled with a mountain of debt and an empty detention center. Oh, and sex offenders.

Many of the problems that haunt private prisons elsewhere are evident at the center. Documents I obtained under state open records laws show a steady churn of staff since the prison reopened. The men confined there say that the turnover makes it impossible for them to advance in treatment, which is their only way out of indefinite detention. Correct Care has been scolded for delays in providing medical care and for repeatedly failing to conduct or document all the therapy that taxpayers are now funding.

As the tab for sex offender treatment grows in Texas, the state and Correct Care have found creative ways to squeeze more money from the 277 men now incarcerated in the Littlefield facility, or rather from their families and friends on the outside. While state law allows the program to take a third of any income the men receive in order to help pay for their treatment and confinement in Littlefield, people who send packages to the facility say the company has now applied the concept to gifts. Anyone sending a package to an inmate must submit a receipt for whatever’s inside so officials can charge the sender a third of whatever it’s worth.

Some of the men are still required to help pay for ankle monitors, despite their new home being surrounded by a perimeter of two security fences topped with concertina wire. Inmates say that offenders who get in trouble sometimes end up in solitary confinement for weeks or even months at a time.

The not-a-prison prison operates with more secrecy than most supermaxes. For months I’ve asked to tour the detention center and interview inmates about the conditions there. The agency that oversees the program, the Texas Civil Commitment Office, has refused to answer many of my questions, including why they won’t let reporters inside the for-profit lockup.

Click for an enlarged version.

Officials did, however, instruct me not to call it a prison and to refer to the men as “residents” instead of inmates.

It’s a point they apparently like to stress. When I visited Littlefield in December, a clerk at the motel where I was staying quickly corrected himself after telling me about the Texas Department of Public Safety notices he gets each time a new inmate moves into the detention facility. I let the word slip again while standing at the front door to the Texas Civil Commitment Center, where a gate is topped with coils of razor wire and a sign directs visitors to store cellphones, tobacco products or any other “illicit contraband” in their vehicles.

“FYI, we don’t have inmates here,” a faceless voice over an intercom told me. “We have residents.” When I started taking photographs, a Correct Care guard ordered me to leave the parking lot.

In the 1990s, heinous and headline-grabbing crimes committed by recently released sex offenders grabbed the nation’s attention. Lawmakers across the country reacted by adopting so-called sexually violent predator laws that created the process of civil commitment, which allowed states to hold worst-of-the-worst offenders long after they finished their sentences. Today, about 20 states can detain certain sex offenders for what they may do in the future, sometimes indefinitely.

Critics of the practice compare it to “The Minority Report,” the short story by Philip K. Dick where police predict the future and pre-emptively arrest people for crimes that haven’t yet happened. In the story, authorities use a trio of mutant “precogs” who can see the future. In civil commitment, authorities use polygraphs, plethysmographs (a device that tracks blood flow to the penis to measure arousal) and any number of risk-assessment tools — most of which have come under academic and legal scrutiny — to determine whether sex offenders are dangerous enough to detain, even after they’ve served their time.

Lawmakers created civil commitment for public safety reasons, but tried to make it constitutional by calling it treatment. The U.S. Supreme Court first upheld civil commitment for sex offenders in 1997, ruling that states can confine people who “constitute a real, continuing, and serious danger to society” so long as they’re in treatment, not prison. In a concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy warned that states whose programs morphed into a “mechanism for retribution or general deterrence” wouldn’t withstand judicial scrutiny.

The civil commitment program that Texas created in 1999 was unique in that it committed sex offenders only to treatment, not detention. Over time, however, the program grew more restrictive, requiring most men to live in halfway houses and boarding homes under contract with the state. By 2014, the private prison companies that ran the homes, such as Avalon Correctional Services and GEO Group, were demanding more money, which Texas didn’t want to pay. The agency in charge of the program, the bluntly titled Office of Violent Sex Offender Management, infuriated Houston-area lawmakers when it was caught moving dozens of sex offenders into the city’s Acres Homes neighborhood without telling local officials. A secret plan to build a for-profit prison camp to house the men in Liberty County similarly collapsed.

Going into the 2015 legislative session, experts questioned whether Texas-style civil commitment was even constitutional after investigations by the Houston Chronicle revealed that roughly half the men in the program cycled back into prison for minor rules violations. Not a single offender had ever graduated from treatment in the history of the program. Nobody under civil commitment had ever been charged with committing another sexually violent act.

Senator John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat who co-authored Texas’ original civil commitment law, barreled into the 2015 session fuming over what had become of the program. He was hell-bent on major reforms. But some of his colleagues bristled when they learned “reform” meant not only a complete overhaul of the state agency that had botched the program — including a new name, the Texas Civil Commitment Office (TCCO) — but also a doubling of its budget. Whitmire told them it was necessary to fix a program that was “broken beyond anyone’s imagination.”

civil commitment, civil rights, texas
Michael Barajas

In 2015, Littlefield turned its long-vacant prison into the epicenter of the state’s new civil commitment program.

The law Whitmire authored that session, Senate Bill 746, turned Texas’ program from an outpatient model into something more fuzzy — a “tiered” treatment program that began with offenders in a “total confinement facility” and ended, theoretically at least, where Texas began its civil commitment experiment in 1999: with an outpatient treatment program in which patients were allowed to live in the community. The law also directed the agency to “operate, or contract to operate,” at least one facility for the new program.

In June 2015, Governor Greg Abbott signed the reforms into law. The following month, after a request for bids to open a new secure treatment facility, TCCO’s governor-appointed board of directors gave the agency the thumbs-up to negotiate a contract with Correct Care Solutions.

In a prepared statement, TCCO executive director Marsha McLane said her staff visited “over 130 potential locations for housing our clients,” including the Bill W. Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield. “I was invited by the City Manager. Correct Care was the only qualified, responsive bid received.”

It’s unclear how much the agency knew, or cared, about Correct Care’s history. The company was birthed from private prison company spinoffs and subsidiaries that have over the past decade been accused of everything from leaving a Florida psychiatric hospital patient in a scalding hot bath until he boiled alive to providing such abysmal medical care at a West Texas immigrant detention center that inmates rioted. (McLane refused several requests for an interview.)

On July 31, the state awarded Correct Care a $24 million contract to run the Texas Civil Commitment Center. About a week later, Correct Care entered into a lease agreement with the city of Littlefield, where officials were desperate to fill their long-vacant prison with just about anyone — even hundreds of sex offenders.

While the state calls the Texas Civil Commitment Center a treatment facility, men inside the lockup claim the therapy there ranges from chaotic to nonexistent. They contend that lapses in treatment, which they say stem from near-constant staff turnover, have made it virtually impossible to graduate from the program. In letters from inside, some of the men say they’ve had up to six therapists since arriving in Littlefield and claim their treatment starts back at square one each time they get a new one. Individual counseling sessions have gone from once every two weeks to once every three months, they say.

“To be constitutional, this has to be a therapeutic program,” said Scott Pawgan, a Conroe attorney who represents a man inside the facility. “It’s got to be the worst therapeutic program in the history of sex offender treatment, far and away.”

Records show that the vast majority of the 139 workers who have left the old prison since it reopened in September 2015 resigned, including eight clinical therapists whose jobs were to provide treatment for men at the facility. (Two other therapists were fired.) Those records also show the state has fined Correct Care, or “adjusted” its payments by, at least $297,000 since the company took over the program.

Correct Care didn’t respond to many of my specific questions about the lockup, nor would it provide anyone for an interview, instead issuing a prepared statement. “Since the initial compliance reviews, the facility has intensified its efforts to comply with all applicable standards and regulations,” Correct Care spokesperson Jim Cheney said in the statement. “We believe that we have made significant progress in correcting more of the items noted in the compliance reports and we work hard to continuously improve our processes and the outcomes for our residents.”

TCCO general counsel Jessica Marsh, the only official at the agency who would grant me an interview, insists the program has moved past its problems, saying, “We’ve worked really hard to rectify those issues, and at this point treatment is going really, really well.”

In the summer of 2015, when Rachel heard that Littlefield was going to reopen its prison, she immediately wanted a job there.

Decent-paying work is hard to find in Littlefield. “There’s just not much here besides convenience stores and little minimum-wage stuff,” she told me. Though there isn’t a bar in town, there’s a liquor store across the street from two other beer and wine shops, all clustered around a single block. The name of Littlefield’s most famous native son, Waylon Jennings, adorns street signs, faded murals and a water tower that overlooks the town’s main drag, which is pockmarked with vacant and half boarded-up storefronts where pigeons roost.

A licensed vocational nurse, Rachel applied for a job as a “therapeutic security technician” at the center. (Rachel asked that I use a pseudonym for this story out of fear she might otherwise never find work in town again.) She thought the feds were going to house immigrant families at the detention center, or at least that was the rumor at the time.

civil commitment, civil rights, texas
Waylon Jennings’ name adorns the Littlefield water tower near the town’s half-deserted main drag.  Michael Barajas

It was during her job interview that Rachel instead learned she’d be working with sex offenders. She took the job anyway. On the first day, she says, security made sure everyone knew they’d be watching the state’s most violent and dangerous sexual predators. “They told us these guys are violent, that they will snatch you up and try to rape you,” she recalled. “We were all fucking scared from Day One.”

Rachel says she quit a year and a half later, not because she was sick of working with sex offenders but because she was appalled by the conditions inside the lockup, particularly the poor medical care. “People were not getting the treatment they needed,” she told me. “A lot of these guys were really old. The clinic was always running out of medications or never had the right ones. It was all very unorganized.”

Like many small towns in the 1990s, Littlefield thought prison-building would bring the kind of jobs needed to prevent young people from moving away. Many rural towns or counties took on public debt to fund the building of prisons to be operated by for-profit companies, which would then contract with other government agencies to house their inmates. A full prison meant revenue to both pay down the debt and fill the company and local government coffers.

In December 1999, Littlefield City Council approved $11 million in revenue bonds to build a juvenile detention center in a cotton field south of town. They named it the Bill W. Clayton Detention Center after the former Texas House speaker, who grew up in nearby Springlake.

A year later, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal declared the project a “fiasco.” The city fired Texson Management Group, the Austin-based company it had picked to build and operate the detention center, after claiming nearly $2 million had gone unaccounted for during construction. The city took over, borrowed money from the local economic development corporation, and within a year began to consider selling the prison and offloading its failed investment.

But in 2000, the city found another company to run the facility, a Florida prison firm called Correctional Services Corp. In 2005, GEO Group, one of the pioneers of the private prison industry, bought Correctional Services and began courting other states to send their adult inmates to Littlefield, which in the end only brought more trouble. In 2008, a prisoner from Idaho committed suicide after spending a year in solitary confinement at the facility. Idaho’s prison director accused GEO Group of falsifying reports to cover up problems that stemmed from chronic understaffing and pulled some 300 inmates out of Littlefield.

By that point, budget-strapped states were starting to cut prison spending; Texas, for example, has shuttered eight prisons in the past six years. With the market about to dry up, GEO Group abruptly left Littlefield in 2009 and went on to pursue more lucrative and growing slices of the private prison pie, especially immigrant detention. The city, saddled with debt from building the prison, struggled to find another tenant to take it over. Littlefield raised sewer and water fees, laid off city workers and even passed a new half-cent sales tax to keep from defaulting. In 2011, Littlefield tried to auction the empty prison at a fire sale price that still would have left the city millions of dollars in the red. There were no takers. City financial statements also show that for years Littlefield officials tried to get the feds to house immigrants at the prison, but those talks went nowhere.

“We run around a $6 million budget,” said Littlefield Mayor Eric Turpen. “When the facility went dark, servicing the debt was a huge strain on our financials. It wound up absorbing something like 16 percent of our annual budget by the end.”

That all changed in the summer of 2015, when Littlefield became the solution to Texas’ sex offender housing crisis. Turpen admits it took a little convincing for some citizens to “reach a comfort level” with the new clientele, but he says most citizens agreed the city was better off with a facility that was full.

Texas picked Correct Care Solutions to run the lockup not long after the company acquired GEO Care, a subsidiary of the GEO Group with its own scandal-plagued track record in Texas. The for-profit prison contractor had suffered a series of setbacks in Texas before the quick reshuffling of the state’s civil commitment program resulted in a multimillion dollar contract.

In 2012, the company, then GEO Care, came under fire for its management of the Montgomery County Mental Health Treatment Facility, Texas’ first foray into publicly funded, privately run psych hospitals. Within months of opening, state monitors described the therapy programs at the Montgomery County facility as “bedlam” and levied tens of thousands of dollars in fines against the company. Staffers reportedly forced one patient to clean up his own feces and urine. Another was left in an isolation cell for four hours while he banged his head on the windows and walls.

That may help explain why the company failed in its attempts to privatize two state psychiatric hospitals in Texas. In 2012, Texas health officials rejected GEO Care’s bid to take over the Kerrville State Hospital, saying the company’s cost-saving staffing plan would have put patients and workers at risk. In 2015, the state killed a tentative deal to turn the Terrell State Hospital over to the company, now Correct Care, months before the state awarded it the civil commitment contract.

Correct Care also runs civil commitment centers in Florida and in South Carolina, where the state’s department of mental health recently contracted with the company to build a new $36.5 million 268-bed civil commitment facility by the end of 2018.

It’s easy to see why civil commitment may be a lucrative, growing market for companies like Correct Care in states willing to privatize their programs. In a presentation to the Texas House Corrections Committee in February 2017, the Texas Civil Commitment Office predicted it will run out of bed space at the Littlefield lockup by 2019 and either have to expand the facility or build a second one. South Carolina’s state director of mental health put it this way in a Powerpoint presentation last year: “More residents enter the program than leave, resulting in continuous program expansion.”

Cate Graziani, a researcher with Grassroots Leadership who tracks the private prison industry’s movement into treatment and civil commitment programs, says the Littlefield contract felt like a “consolation prize” after Correct Care failed for several years to privatize another state hospital.

“We had just told the state all about this company’s track record of serious problems, and then we turn around and they’re putting people in Littlefield months later,” she said.

By March, Nicoya Waits had finally saved up enough money for the 1,122-mile round trip from her home in Houston to Littlefield. She timed the trip so she could tell her brother happy birthday in person.

Texas prison officials flagged Waits’ brother, Andre Johnson, for civil commitment as he finished his 24-year prison sentence for raping four Houston women when he was 15 and 16 years old. In 2014, a jury trial in civil court ordered him into outpatient treatment and monitoring at a Dallas-area halfway house. In 2015, the program shifted beneath his feet and by September that year, Johnson arrived in Littlefield with the first wave of civil commitment detainees.

Waits says it was a lot like visiting her brother in prison. “I walk up to a fence, I have to get buzzed in, get scanned and searched and go through correctional officers asking me a bunch of questions, locking big heavy doors everywhere we go,” she recalls. “We sit in a visitation room where somebody is monitoring us, both physically in the room and on video. It didn’t feel like an outpatient facility. It felt just like a prison.”

civil commitment, civil rights, texas
Nicoya Waits says visiting her brother, Andre Johnson, at the Texas Civil Commitment Center in March “felt just like a prison.”  Courtesy/Nicoya Waits

Bill Marshall, an attorney who represents several men inside, argues that Texas’ civil commitment program drifted even further into a legal gray area after lawmakers reformed it. Texas has joined other states with lockdown-style civil commitment programs that have been challenged in court in recent years. In 2015, the year Abbott signed the new program into law, judges in Missouri and Minnesota ruled those states’ programs unconstitutional because they appeared designed to keep people behind bars indefinitely. The Minnesota judge called the state’s program, which hadn’t discharged any offenders in its more than 20-year history, “punitive” and lacking the “safeguards of the criminal justice system.”

In late 2015, for the first time ever, a visiting state district court judge in Conroe freed an offender, Alonzo May, a 58-year-old Dallas man, from Texas’ civil commitment program, ruling that the state couldn’t legally send people with outpatient commitment orders into an inpatient program housed out of the Littlefield lockup. Days later, a state appeals court in Beaumont overturned the ruling and sent May to Littlefield.

“If their judgment says they need to be in outpatient treatment, how can you justify putting them in a repurposed private prison if they haven’t done anything else wrong?” said Marshall, who represented May.

Melissa Hamilton, a law professor who studies civil commitment, says Texas’ shift to a lockdown facility could render its program more vulnerable to legal challenges. Hamilton, who recently taught at the University of Houston Law Center and is now a senior lecturer at the University of Surrey, says Texas lawmakers made the program even more punitive in 2017 with amendments that allowed guards at the Littlefield lockup to wield pepper spray and batons.

“They’ve made this program look very similar to criminal imprisonment, which is a big red flag,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton says a series of recent lower-court cases show judges are becoming more skeptical not only of the way states handle civil commitment but also toward other restrictions placed on sex offenders after they’ve served their sentences. A shoddy or haphazard treatment program for sex offenders in detention could be ammunition for the kind of lawsuit that some of the men in Littlefield have already begun filing, she says. Problems at the Littlefield facility could “undermine the argument that the state is serious about treatment,” Hamilton told me.

John says he’s seen his friend Jason Schoenfeld trade the fear of getting sent back to prison under the old program for the kind of malaise that accompanies a sentence without an end date. He’s currently on the program’s next-to-lowest rung on the treatment ladder. John says that for the past two years he has asked the state for approval to bring Schoenfeld to his church, where, he says, members already know of his previous crime and welcome his visit nonetheless.

“Look, I’m not a cheerleader for sex offenders or anything, but I hate injustice,” John told me while sitting in his hotel room in Littlefield. “He went through the justice system, he served the sentence that the system decided to give him.”

John and his wife lined up at the gate in front of the Texas Civil Commitment Center early one morning in December. They try to make the five-hour drive to visit Schoenfeld at least once a month. He says he has asked TCCO and Correct Care whether Schoenfeld can someday move to his ranch.

“I get back no response whatsoever from them,” John told me. “Apparently where he’ll live if he ever gets out is not even on their agenda right now.”

Elena Mejía Lutz contributed to this story.

The post A Prison By Any Other Name appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Land commissioner says ‘doctored’ audit critical of his agency’s management the Alamo is under investigation

The Alamo in San Antonio.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush said Friday that a draft audit critical of his agency’s oversight of the Alamo had been “doctored” and is now the subject of a law enforcement investigation.

Citing an ongoing probe, neither Bush nor his aides offered details about how the audit of Alamo Complex Management — prepared by his agency’s own internal audit staff — was changed or who changed it.

“I can’t really comment on the document. I cannot disclose, but we do have evidence that it was a doctored memo,” Bush told reporters after giving a speech to a conservative group. “With respect to internal auditing, that’s a good business practice, that’s what commissioners should do is to constantly find ways to improve.”

Bush spokeswoman Brittany Eck said the agency looking into the matter is the Texas Department of Public Safety. She said the audit is part of an investigation that began when the agency began looking into whether “personally identifying information” had been shared outside the agency.

A copy of the audit obtained by The Texas Tribune, dated Sept. 8, 2017, found that the “unusual” apparatus Bush put in place to manage the Alamo did not comply with all state laws and requirements and is more opaque than it needs to be.

“We determined that the financial formation and accounting of the Alamo Complex fund did not comply with state requirements,” the document says.

The draft audit, which the Austin American-Statesman reported on Thursday, also warns that some of the expenditures incurred so far “can give the appearance that state funds are being used improperly.” That includes $1,400 spent on “refreshments” for meetings and a “party,” the audit said.

Bush said management’s response to the audit was “forthcoming” and he vowed to abide by all laws governing the management of the Alamo, now a hot potato in his re-election contest.

“We will make sure that we are meeting all of the legal requirements that are established by the Legislature, and … will follow the mandates that the Legislature sets forth,” Bush said.

 

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Texas community health centers fear layoffs, closures without federal funding

Karina Ramirez has been going to community health centers with her family all of her life.

It’s affordable, the Nuestra Clinica del Valle is only 15 minutes away from her home in Mercedes, she can go for her annual physical, there’s a short wait time and she likes her gynecologist. Ramirez, 18, who is seven months pregnant with her second child, says she doesn’t go to the doctor very often except for her monthly prenatal care appointments. She is not sure what she would do if the clinic were to close.

“I wouldn’t know; I would have to do some research,” said Ramirez, a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home.

Ramirez is one of the 23 million people — including 1.3 million Texans — who may lose access to community health centers in the next several weeks if the federal government doesn’t renew funding for them. Congress allowed the funding to expire on Oct. 1 and the clinics say they will run out of money in March. The money provides 70 percent of support for community health centers. Health advocates say that while community health centers typically have bipartisan support in Congress, recent fights over immigration, taxes and the Children’s Health Insurance Program have put them in jeopardy of cutting services, laying off staff or closing.

“I feel like we’ve been a stepchild,” said Katy Caldwell, CEO of Legacy Community Health in Houston. “I’m completely frustrated we’re spending so much time and energy on this when we could be devoting this time to providing care to our patients and planning on how we’re going to continue to provide services.”

Community health centers, also known as federally qualified health centers, provide health care such as medical, dental, vision, behavioral health and access to pharmacies. The centers serve patients who are low-income and uninsured and often exist in communities that have a shortage of doctors, dentists and mental health professionals.  There are more than 70 health centers statewide.

Advocates say they are hoping Congress will approve a continuing resolution this week that includes renewing funds for community health centers.

Caldwell said she has doomsday scenarios if her centers run out of federal money next month . The network of clinics serve about 110,000 patients in Houston and Beaumont. Right now, Caldwell says they can still make payroll but if the funding doesn’t get reauthorized soon, she’ll have to go ahead with plans to close clinics, furlough staff and cut back on services.

Caldwell pointed out having community health center funding in flux is especially stressful in the middle of a deadly flu outbreak.

“They’re all going to end up in the emergency room if we lose our funding,” Caldwell said.

Mimi Garcia, director of policy and external communications for the Texas Association of Community Health Centers, said clinics never had the funding actually expire let alone take this long to be secured. She pointed out that the federal money is a reliable source of revenue for health centers that makes it easier for them to apply for bank loans. Without it, banks may be more hesitant to give loans to centers looking to pay for new equipment and repairs.

“It’s not to say I don’t love CHIP,” Garcia said. “I’m so glad 9 million kids have healthcare, but where are they supposed to go if they don’t have a community health clinic? Why aren’t people up in arms about 27 million Americans losing their health clinic?”

In Eagle Pass, William Worrell, CEO of United Medical Centers, is fighting off the possibility of layoffs any way he can. He has halted remodeling projects, implemented a hiring freeze, cut overtime and told staff to only order medical supplies as needed. Worrell said he’s worried about what will happen to patients. The center serves more than 29,000 people.

“Without seeing a doctor they may go without care, they may let their diabetes go, they may not have someone following up behind them,” Worrell said. “Again, it all leads back to them ending up in the emergency room and being in possibly worse condition than they were before.”

Disclosure: Legacy Health and the Texas Association of Community Health Centers have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

 

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‘We don’t have a flu season,’ Texas televangelist Gloria Copeland says

In the midst of one of the most deadly flu outbreaks in recent history, Fort Worth-based televangelist Gloria Copeland denied the existence of flu season.

In a Jan. 31 video posted on Facebook, Gloria Copeland said believers should not be worried about the virus that officials say has killed more than 50 children so far this season.

“We’ve got a duck season,” she said. “We’ve got a deer season, but we don’t have a flu season. And don’t receive it when somebody threatens you with, ‘Everybody’s getting the flu.’ We’ve already had our shot.”

 

Pointing to a Bible in front of her, Copeland said believers have already been healed and then she prayed for anyone who already has the flu to be healed.

“Jesus himself gave us the flu shot,” she said. “He redeemed us from the curse of flu. And we receive it and we take it, and we are healed by his stripes. Amen?”

Copeland then encouraged viewers to ward off the virus with their faith.

“Just keep saying that, ‘I’ll never have the flu. I’ll never have the flu,'” she said. “Put words — inoculate yourself with the word of God.”

According to the CDC, thousands of people in the U.S. have been hospitalized with the flu since the season began in October. Agency officials have earlier predicted an unusually high number of pediatric deaths from the illness.

Nearly 2,900 people have died in Texas from either influenza or pneumonia since the season started on Oct. 1, according to a Feb. 2 report from the state Health and Human Services Department.

Doctors recommend frequent hand washing and staying home when you’re sick as ways to guard against the flu. They also said that while a flu shot doesn’t guarantee avoiding the illness, it does make it milder.

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More than half of Texas public school students are in districts where teacher certification isn’t required

More than half of Texas public school students are in districts that don’t require teachers to be certified, according to state officials, due to a recent law giving schools more freedom on educational requirements.

A 2015 law lets public schools access exemptions from requirements such as teacher certification, school start dates and class sizes — the same exemptions allowed for open enrollment charter schools. Using a District of Innovation plan, districts can create a comprehensive educational program and identify provisions under Texas law that would inhibit their goals.

Data from the Texas Education Agency found that 604 rural and urban districts with innovation plans have received an exemption from teacher certification so far. Texas Association of School Boards spokesperson Dax Gonzalez said most of those districts are using the exemption so industry specialists — such as engineers, nurses and law enforcement officials — can offer hands-on learning to students in career and technology classes.

But the move has some education experts worried that districts are laying the groundwork for having uncertified teachers handle core subjects like math, science and language arts, despite a promise not to do so. Although uncertified educators have been able to teach core classes through waivers and permits, those are approved on a case-by-case basis.

Usually, in order to teach in Texas classrooms, candidates must obtain certification by earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, completing an educator preparation program, passing the appropriate teacher certification exams, being fingerprinted for a national criminal background check and submitting a state application.

In Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District, Tim Soto is one of eight uncertified teachers, all responsible for career and technology courses. The electronic technician was hired to teach classes on hands-on tool usage and safety and electrical field practices.

This is Soto’s first year as a teacher, but he has worked for Harlingen CISD for 26 years as an apprentice electrician and a technology specialist. Soto, a college graduate, said he “jumped at the chance” to to give back to the district. And, he said, he’s received nothing but support from other teachers and his students’ parents in creating his curriculum.

“I was nervous, but things just fell into place,” Soto said. “I’ve found that my years of experience are invaluable for students. Instead of having them just read out of a textbook, I can show them how to use the proper tools and help them avoid making mistakes as an apprentice.”

But districts aren’t required to limit the exemption to only career and technology courses. The blanket certification exemption legally allows them to hire uncertified teachers for staple classes like Algebra I or Biology, and even for special education or early childhood classes.

“We don’t want it to expand,” said Kate Kuhlmann, a lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “There are a lot of people that have great content knowledge, but it’s also really important they have a strong understanding of and training in what it means to be a teacher.”

Because there are already avenues around teacher certification — such as waivers and permits that have to be accepted by TEA, the commissioner of education or the school board — a broader exemption should not be necessary, said Texas State Teachers Association spokesperson Clay Robison. Robison called the innovation plan exemption a way for districts to “cut corners” without the same accountability.

Many states have responded to a national teacher shortage by allowing emergency-type hires, said Desiree Carver-Thomas, a research and policy associate with the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in California. More than 100,000 teachers were unqualified based on their state’s certification standards, according to data between 2015 and 2017, Carver-Thomas said.

But Texas exemption standards are among the broadest nationally, Kuhlmann said. Many states just offer permits or waivers for districts that need to fill classrooms with uncertified teachers. And while states like Kansas and Alabama have innovation district models that offer a teacher certification exemption, Kuhlmann said they have built-in parameters for how many districts can qualify and what classes fall under the exemption.

Still, receiving a response for case-by-case applications in Texas can take nearly a month, and there’s always the possibility of being rejected. And unlike the permit or waiver process, choosing exemptions under a District of Innovation plan involves community input, two-thirds buy-in from the district’s board of trustees and approval from a district-level decision-making committee, said Bruce Gearing, Dripping Springs ISD’s superintendent.

Gearing said he doesn’t foresee his district hiring uncertified teachers outside of career and technical education. Even if that need arises, he said, the district would have to go through a public amendment process to change the implementation of the teacher certification exemption.

“It’s about trust,” Gonzalez, the TASB spokesperson, said. “You either trust local school boards and administrations to go out and find the best teachers for students, or you don’t. And again, this exemption just allows a flexibility that charter schools already have.”

The Texas State Teachers Association, the Association of Texas Professional Educators and the Texas Association of School Boards have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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At East Texas debate, embattled Texas agriculture chief Sid Miller in hot seat

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller (left), and Republican primary challenger Trey Blocker at a debate in Tyler on Feb. 7, 2018. 

TYLER — Embattled Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller spent the better part of a Republican primary debate Tuesday night defending a volley of perceived missteps that have plagued his first term.

And the pressure wasn’t just coming from his opponent, Trey Blocker, a longtime Austin lobbyist and conservative podcast host. Moderator JoAnn Fleming, one of the state’s most prominent Tea Party activists, peppered Miller, a former state lawmaker, with questions about a variety of actions he’s taken during the past three years that would appear to stray outside the bounds of traditional conservatism.

Among them: Why did Miller raise fees on farmers and ranchers while also doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses to agriculture department employees? Did doing so somehow violate agency policy? And what was the reasoning behind it all in the first place?

In his responses, Miller — who is known for his social media bluster — painted a picture of a state agency that was in dire shambles when he arrived in January 2015 after winning office in a GOP sweep. Morale was at an all-time low, he explained. And the bonuses — which he said weren’t given to executives — were aimed at boosting it.

“That’s one of the best moves we’ve made,” Miller said, explaining it paid off “tenfold or more.”

As for the fees — hiked after Miller unsuccessfully lobbied the Legislature to restore budget cuts that he voted for as a state lawmaker — Miller said many of them hadn’t been raised in decades and that doing so meant that taxpayers wouldn’t have to subsidize the agriculture industry. He also disputed a state audit that found that the fee hikes generated tens of millions in excess income.

Later, though, he said the department hopes to lower the fees or even offer rebates by this summer.

“I could have done that before the election,” he noted. “But we don’t work that way at the ag department; we’re taking our time and doing it right.”

JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America We The People, moderates a Republican primary debate between incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and challenger Trey Blocker.
JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America We The People, moderates a Republican primary debate between incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and challenger Trey Blocker. Bob Daemmrich

Lowering fees is one of Blocker’s main campaign promises; the hike, he said Tuesday, was “tantamount to theft.”

“I want to restore honesty, integrity and fiscal responsibility to the Department of Agriculture,” Blocker said in his opening statement. “The sad fact is we can’t trust Miller to govern as a conservative anymore.”

Toward the end of the hour-and-a-half-long debate, Fleming asked Miller if there’s any mistake he’s made during his first term that he would do over if he could.

“If I think of one, I’ll let you know, but I can’t think of one,” Miller said after a lengthy pause.

Fleming heads up Grassroots America We The People, one of a few high-profile conservative groups that backed Miller in 2014 but have withheld endorsements so far this cycle (at least one has thrown support behind Blocker). However, Miller is still the favorite to win on March 6, having secured key GOP endorsements.

“Just because every other conservative group does something doesn’t necessarily mean we will do that,” Fleming said in an interview before the debate. “We’re independent. We make our own decisions based on the best information we can compile.”

A third candidate in the race, Jim Hogan, is not actively campaigning.

It was clear on Tuesday that Miller is taking Blocker’s challenge seriously. The Stephenville native repeatedly dismissed Blocker, who lives in Fredericksburg, as a “low level” lobbyist with connections to Democrats.

Blocker countered that Miller used to be a lobbyist himself. And he noted that President Donald Trump — who Miller spent much time praising on Tuesday — also has donated to Democrats.

After the debate, several attendees — there were about 50 in all — said they were still undecided.

“Which liar do you trust?” said Rick Eisenbach, president of the board of directors of Grassroots America We The People, which will soon convene to decide which candidate to support. “I think the homework is just beginning for us.”

 

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Medical cannabis dispensaries are opening in Texas, but the newly legal oils still aren’t easy to procure

Marijuana plants cultivated at Compassionate Cultivation, a home-grown medical cannabis company in Austin that serves patients throughout Texas, on Jan. 19, 2017.

Modern medicine has helped Laura Campbell’s 27-year-old daughter, Sierra, fight off many of her persistent seizures. At her peak, Sierra suffered from more than three seizures a day. Now, she’s down to one or two per month.

But the gains come with their own frustrations.

“She takes five pills twice a day, plus more if she needs an emergency supplement in case of a seizure. It damages her brain every time she has [a seizure]. Her IQ has gone down and her neurological functions are suffering,” Campbell said, trailing off between tears. “With every seizure she has, it just gets worse for her.”

Now, Campbell, an Austin resident, is hoping she can wean her daughter off the “harsh” meds and turn to cannabis oil instead. That treatment was legalized in 2015, and a dispensary in Schulenburg made its first delivery of the oil to a young Texas child last week.

But as dispensaries are opening, Texans like Campbell’s daughter might still have a hard time getting access to the oil from marijuana plants right off the bat. Currently, fewer than 20 doctors across the state are registered with the Texas Department of Public Safety to prescribe it.

Sierra Cruz, 27, during her last long-term hospital stay. Cruz got intracranial monitoring to see if she was a candidate for brain surgery after prescription medication and a VNS implant failed to control her seizures.
Sierra Cruz, now 27, during her last long-term hospital stay. Cruz got intracranial monitoring to see if she was a candidate for brain surgery after prescription medication and a VNS implant failed to control her seizures. Courtesy of Laura Campbell 

They are able to do so under the Texas Compassionate Use Act, which legalized the sale of a specific kind of cannabis oil for a small group of Texans: epilepsy patients, like Sierra, whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

But to qualify for the medicine, Texans must have tried two FDA-approved drugs and found them to be ineffective. The patients also must be permanent residents of Texas, and get approval from two of the 17 doctors listed on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas.

Under the law, a physician can only sign up for the state registry if, among several other requirements, the doctor has dedicated a significant portion of his or her clinical practice to the evaluation and treatment of epilepsy and is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in either epilepsy or neurology.

While a primary doctor must physically see the patient before prescribing low-THC cannabis, the second physician doesn’t have to have make contact, according to a spokesman with DPS. Rather, the second doctor only needs to approve the first doctor’s diagnosis.

Still, the system is frustrating to parents of patients like Sierra, whose mom worries that the dearth of eligible doctors will prevent her daughter from getting the help she needs.

“I’m going through this list thinking that I’m going to have to call these doctors and see if they even accept new patients,” Campbell said. “Then if we’re lucky enough to get in, how am I going to pay for these doctors? I’m not sure insurance will cover it.”

“It’s just a daunting process,” she added.

Michael Perry, the director of neurology at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, is one of the physicians registered to prescribe the cannabis oil. He called the two-doctor rule “essential.”

“It’s important to have an independent physician not involved in the day-to-day care of the patient to look and see if [cannabis oil] really makes sense,” he said.

Out of the thousands of epilepsy patients he sees, Perry said he’d only consider prescribing the oil to a handful of them, since he wants to make sure all other treatment options have been exhausted first.

Perry, who signed up with the registry in January, said it’s likely other neurologists haven’t signed up yet because — until recently — there was no product being dispensed. He also suspects a lot of doctors still don’t feel comfortable prescribing cannabis oil to their patients.

“I don’t think anyone knows how to prescribe it, to be honest, because it’s still an evolving science to figure out what the doses are, what the side effects are and how efficacious the medicine is,” Perry said. “When we’re talking about the [cannabis] oil that’s going to be produced by the dispensaries, they’re all slightly different.”

“To some degree, they’re all different medications,” he added.

“New territory for Texas”

State law is narrow in the kind of cannabis oil it allows. Only products with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol — the psychoactive element in marijuana known as THC — and high levels of cannabidiol — a non-euphoric component known as CBD that is used to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions — can be sold.

Late last year, the Texas Department of Public Safety has authorized a total of three dispensaries to begin growing and distributing the product.

Twenty-nine states now allow for comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Texas is now one of 17 states to pass a law allowing for the use of “low THC, high CBD” products for medical reasons in limited situations.

Laura Campbell with her daughter, Sierra Cruz.
Laura Campbell with her daughter, Sierra Cruz. Courtesy of Laura Campbell

While Texans like Campbell worry about the shortage of licensed doctors, advocates and dispensary owners are united behind one message: Texas families might need to hold on a bit longer.

“I know many families are tired of waiting and are frustrated. We hear you,” said Sindi Rosales, the CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation of Central & South Texas. “We know that you’re anxious to get the oil and we’re doing everything we can do to try to help physicians get the information they need to so can be comfortable with the process.”

Rosales added that she doesn’t think Texas families should be concerned.

“This product is coming out differently than how a typical medication for epilepsy comes up the pipeline,” Rosales said. “There’s still a lot of questions about the product and I think that’s adding to some of the slow movement.”

Morris Denton, the CEO for the distributor Compassionate Cultivation, said he expects more doctors to join the registry in the coming weeks.

“This is new territory for Texas and new territory for all these doctors,” Denton said. “If the maximum number of doctors was 17, then we’d have a lot of concerns. But this is the beginning of what we expect to be an ongoing process.”

Both Denton and Rosales encouraged eligible Texans to speak to their physicians and to let them know if they want to try the cannabis oil.

In the meantime, Campbell said she’s going to start making phone calls to doctors already on the registry and try to encourage Sierra’s epileptologist to join the growing list. While four of the 17 doctors able to prescribe CBD oil are located in Austin, two are pediatric neurologists who she says likely won’t see Campbell’s adult daughter.

“I just feel bad because you’re supposed to do anything for your kid, right? At all costs. I don’t know for sure how much the oil will help, but I’ve seen cases where it just makes a world a difference,” Campbell said. “We’re just ready for a change.”

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Fake Pasadena cop tries to pull over mother

Still terrified by what happened days ago, Ashley Glover has a warning for others: be on the lookout for someone posing as a law enforcement officer trying to pull people over in Pasadena.

“I’ve never had anything like this happen to me before that’s why I’m so shaken up about it,” Glover, a concerned driver, said.

Glover said it happened to her late Thursday night when a dark SUV pulled up close behind her, and the driver flashed the vehicle’s high beams several times and even blared some sort of loud horn.

“I looked at my side mirror and saw that there was no markings on the car saying that it was a cop car it says there was no red and blue lights I just went ahead and took off,” explained Glover.

Even scarier though, she’s said the SUV followed her through neighborhoods, even running a red light, while her cellphone had died and her 4-year-old son slept in the back seat.

“Once I realized that it wasn’t a cop then I really freaked out because then I was like okay this guy is following me and he’s right on my tail,” Glover said.

Glover said she was finally able to shake the SUV and pulled into a restaurant parking lot after a nearly 10- to 15-minute-long chase and called the police.

“They were like no we haven’t had any reports of anybody fleeing or anything so it wasn’t us I was afternoon that definitely was not a cop,” said Glover.

Looking back on it now, Glover said she’s thankful that her instincts told her not to stop and to get to safety.

“I was terrified that something bad was going to happen. Like, I could feel it in my heart that something bad was going to happen if I stopped,” said Glover.

Glover describes that suspicious SUV as a black or dark-colored vehicle and is either a Jeep Liberty, Dodge Nitro or something similar.

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Man dies after shooting outside of Fish Place in Texas City

An argument at the Fish Place in Texas City led to a shooting outside the restaurant, Texas City police said.

The confrontation started early Saturday morning at the Fish Place, but the shooting happened across the street, near Highway 3 and FM 1765, police said.

The victim who was later pronounced dead at the hospital had been shot in the chest. A woman who was also at the scene was shot in the leg, police said.

Police are working to get surveillance video from the store, police said. There is no information on the shooter.

Police are working to learn more about the incident.

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After land office inks Harvey contract, Land Commissioner George P. Bush gets donations from contractor

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush at the GOP state convention in Dallas, Texas, on May 12, 2016.

The government’s seemingly sluggish response to Hurricane Harvey has been a headache for Land Commissioner George P. Bush, whose office plays a major role in getting Texans back into damaged homes.

One company that is trying to help him out — in more ways than one — is Horne LLP, a big accounting firm that provides disaster recovery services to governments. On Oct. 30, 2017, the company signed a $13.47 million contract with the agency Bush oversees, the Texas General Land Office, to help with Harvey recovery efforts.

Three days later, more than two dozen Horne LLP executives helped out Bush with his re-election campaign, sending him $27,500 in political cash — including $1,000 from the Horne partner who signed the contract.

The Texas General Land Office, led by Republican Land Commissioner George P. Bush, signed a contract with Horne LLP for Harvey disaster recovery services on Oct. 30, 2017. On Nov. 2, 2017, three days later, Bush received $27,500 from Horne executives, including Jonathan Krebs, who signed the contract. Krebs gave Bush $1,000.
The Texas General Land Office, led by Republican Land Commissioner George P. Bush, signed a contract with Horne LLP for Harvey disaster recovery services on Oct. 30, 2017. On Nov. 2, 2017, three days later, Bush received $27,500 from Horne executives, including Jonathan Krebs, who signed the contract. Krebs gave Bush $1,000. Texas Ethics Commission

 

Republican Land Commissioner George P. Bush reported receiving $27,500 in campaign cash on Nov. 2, 2017 from executives of Horne LLP, including a $1,000 from partner Jonathan Krebs. Three days earlier, on Oct. 30, 2017, Krebs signed a contract to provide the Texas General Land Office with disaster recovery services related to Hurricane Harvey.
Republican Land Commissioner George P. Bush reported receiving $27,500 in campaign cash on Nov. 2, 2017, from executives of Horne LLP, including a $1,000 from partner Jonathan Krebs. Three days earlier, on Oct. 30, 2017, Krebs signed a contract to provide the Texas General Land Office with disaster recovery services related to Hurricane Harvey. Texas Ethics Commission

No laws prohibit donations from employees of state government contractors, but the timing of the Horne money “sure looks like a big thank you,” said Dave Levinthal of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan group in Washington that tracks the influence of money in politics.

“Nothing says thank you like sending a big hunk of cash the way of a governmental official you felt has done right by you or done your bidding or made a decision that was favorable to your business interests,” Levinthal said. “There doesn’t appear to be anything legally standing in the way of doing it.’’

Bush’s political director Ash Wright said trying to tie the GLO’s decision to Bush’s donations amounted to “fake news.”

“The donations came after — not before — the contractor had been chosen,” Wright said. “Commissioner Bush played no role in the selection of the contractor. And the donations represent a very small piece of Commissioner Bush’s massive $3.3 million cash-on-hand.”

None of the donors reached by The Texas Tribune agreed to interviews about their contributions to Bush. However, Horne partner Jeff Aucoin, before referring the Tribune to a company spokeswoman, said he was not aware of the company’s contract with the GLO when he wrote a personal check for $500 to the land commissioner.

Meanwhile, another Horne LLP partner, Kirk Hines, said he made his $500 donation “on behalf of the business” but otherwise referred questions to the company’s executive partner, Joey Havens.

In an emailed statement, Havens said Horne LLP had provided disaster recovery services to the GLO in the past and noted that the contract it got on Bush’s watch was awarded after a competitive bidding process. 

Horne was selected as the best firm based on the scores of four finalists who responded to the land commission’s request for proposals. 

“As a firm, we do respect the privacy of our partners and don’t comment on their personal contributions whether charitable or otherwise,” said Havens, who chipped in $3,000 to the Bush re-election effort. “I have confirmed that none of our partners or staff have ever discussed the referenced RFP with the commissioner nor has the commissioner requested a political donation.”

In the internal selection process employed by the GLO, “experience and qualifications” counted for 25 percent of the overall score, “methodology and schedule” accounted for 50 percent and price accounted for 25 percent. Horne did not have the best price but did rank highest overall with 81 percent, compared to the next highest competitor, Witt O’Brien’s, at 76 percent, according to figures provided by Bush spokeswoman Brittany Eck.

“It is important to weigh costs of the contract with ability to complete the mission within the timeline expected,” Eck said. “Our staff has been dedicated since the storm on helping folks return home, so that is our priority. What is going on in the political world is not something our staff is focused on.”

Bush’s Republican primary opponent, former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, noted that the contributions from Horne executives were among more than $370,000 worth of out-of-state campaign dough in recent filings and suggested the incumbent spend more time at home dealing with Harvey victims.

“With tens of thousands still out of their homes maybe the commissioner should be doing his job instead of raising campaign cash in NYC, San Francisco or Washington, D.C.,” said Patterson, who had $95,000 in the bank compared to Bush’s $3.3 million at year’s end.

Patterson has made the GLO’s Harvey response efforts a top issue in the uphill race to get his old job back. In early December, Patterson, faulting Bush’s agency for failing tens of thousands of homeless Texans, said the GLO had repaired only two homes at that point — a claim rated as “mostly true” by the fact-checking organization Politifact Texas.

Bush’s office says the GLO is at the mercy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the use of federal housing repair funds provided to the state agency and solely determines eligibility for the programs.

Wright, Bush’s political director, shot back at Patterson in his response to questions about the Horne contract. He said the process used at Bush’s GLO was far superior to the one used by his opponent.

“In 2015, Commissioner Bush reversed his predecessor’s practice (of) often giving out no-bid contracts,” Wright said. “The new RFP protocol implemented by Commissioner Bush has made the GLO contracting process the most transparent and most effective it’s ever been.”

Disclosure: The Texas General Land Office and Jerry Patterson have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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“They’re just setting those babies up for the penitentiary”: How minor offenses feed overcrowding at Houston youth jail

The Harris County Juvenile Justice Center in downtown Houston. The youth detention center has been overcrowded for years. 

HOUSTON — Throughout Texas, it’s clear: Even as the state’s population has skyrocketed in recent years, kids are getting into a lot less trouble with the law.

Prosecutors are filing fewer criminal charges against them. Statewide, juvenile prisons are holding fewer youth. And counties are keeping fewer kids in detention while they wait for their cases to get resolved.

So why has the the juvenile detention center in Harris County — home to Houston, America’s fourth-largest city — been bursting at the seams?

Just like the rest of the state, Harris County has seen fewer juveniles enter the criminal justice system over the past decade. Yet the population of the 210-cell juvenile detention center, which mostly holds kids between 10 and 16 years old who have not yet been convicted of a crime, has spiked in recent years.

Last year, an average of close to 300 kids stayed there each day, up from just over 160 a few years back. The population spike has forced some youth to sleep in common areas, in portable beds that look like little plastic boats, and last year an average of two dozen kids had to be held in a separate building because the detention center was too full.

That’s put an enormous strain on the staff there, officials say. Fights break out more often, and kids get a lot less individual attention during school hours.

“Harris County is bucking the trend,” said Michele Deitch, an attorney and senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in Texas juvenile justice policy. “All around the country, and certainly all around the state, the numbers are down in detention.

“The need for the beds just isn’t there anymore,” Deitch said. “So the idea that this one county is experiencing an increase … that should raise a lot of questions.”

The overcrowding affects kids and families far beyond the Houston area: It is one reason lawmakers decided not to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility in Texas from 17 to 18 last year. Seventeen-year-olds accused of crimes in Texas are usually sent to an adult county jail; the “raise the age” bill would have made them part of the juvenile justice system instead.

Harris County’s juvenile probation chief, Tom Brooks, said the detention center’s overcrowding is mostly due to “a high number of egregious offenders” — kids accused of crimes like armed robbery and assault — who often stay in detention longer.

Brooks added that the county has worked hard to stop unnecessarily locking up kids. Last year, nearly 2,000 fewer kids were booked into detention compared to 2010, according to county data. The ones that are left “actually are here for a legitimate reason, and their due process takes longer,” Brooks said.

But data obtained by The Texas Tribune — along with interviews with experts, parents and advocates — suggest there’s more to the story. Local officials might blame the overcrowding on bad kids, but experts say it’s more about a bad system in Harris County, where local officials plan to build a new juvenile detention center at an estimated cost of $65-70 million.

The data from Harris County’s juvenile probation department shows:

  • The average number of kids held in the detention center charged with minor offenses such as trespass, theft and violating probation — things that some experts say shouldn’t land kids behind bars at all — increased by 64 percent from 2010 to 2017. Meanwhile, the average number held for violent crimes like armed robbery and rape, called “felonies against persons,” increased by about 46 percent.

  • Minor offenders were locked up in the detention center for an average of nearly three weeks in 2017, twice as long as in 2010.

  • From 2010 to 2017, the average number of African-American youth held in the juvenile detention center more than doubled, and the number detained despite being labeled “low risk” has increased by 75 percent.

Experts say this is an unusual trend when it comes to juvenile justice. It’s becoming widely accepted that imprisoning kids — and even adults — for low-level crimes is probably doing more harm than good. Taking someone away from their home and school for a minor offense like shoplifting, and placing them alongside those accused of far more serious crimes, is bad for the child and for society, they say.

“Anytime you disrupt the kids’ routine, you take them out of the home, away from whatever stable influences they have … It’s not a good situation,” Deitch said. She added that the Harris County data suggests “there’s something very punitive going on.”

Michael Schneider, one of the judges who handles juvenile delinquency cases in Harris County, expressed concern after seeing the data. “Why is the increase in detention greater than the increase in violent crime?” he asked.

Paul Holland, an associate law professor at Seattle University who studies national juvenile justice policy, called what’s happening in Harris County “alarming.” He said the trend in detention there can’t just be blamed on an increase in violent crime; local decisions are probably having an impact, too.

“It really does seem like it’s a system thing and not a kid thing,” Holland said.

“There’s a presumption against locking them up”

Texas is one of just a handful of states that still prosecutes 17-year-olds as adults and sends them to adult jails and prisons. There’s a growing movement to change that, but Harris County’s overcrowded juvenile detention center has made some lawmakers hesitate.

Last year nearly two-thirds of the Texas House of Representatives, including some of the state’s most conservative lawmakers, voted to place 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system starting in 2021. But the idea went nowhere in the state Senate.

John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston who is chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, opposed the legislation. He said the state needs to reform its juvenile justice system before making such a big change. He also cited Harris County’s overcrowded juvenile detention center: “Harris County cannot absorb 17-year-olds unless we have a plan.”

Brooks, the Harris County juvenile probation chief, is against the idea, too — for “fiscal reasons as well as philosophical reasons,” he said in an interview with the Tribune last year. In a separate interview, he also said his juvenile detention center already has many “sophisticated and streetwise” teenagers and that he can’t afford an influx of 17-year-olds from the adult jail.

But some say this argument is misleading. Most 17-year-olds in Texas end up in adult jail for low-level offenses such as marijuana possession and theft, according to a report released last year by advocates who want to raise the age of criminal responsibility. If the state instead decided to send them into the juvenile justice system, “there’s a presumption against locking them up” at all, said Deitch, the UT-Austin expert.

Experts and advocates, along with Deitch, also think Harris County shouldn’t use its overcrowded detention center as an excuse to argue against change. They said the county should dig into its own data to figure out why there’s overcrowding, and how to fix it. Instead, to their dismay, the county is building a new detention center, which is expected to open in 2020 with hundreds more beds.

Brooks said Harris County has no other choice: The juvenile justice system is seeing more and more mentally ill kids who have nowhere else to get help.

“If we could come up with more mental health resources,” it might be possible to lower the detention center’s population, he said. But given state funding cuts, “I don’t see that getting any better.”

Across Harris County, Brooks said, there’s a lack of beds for troubled youth  — not just those who haven’t been convicted of a crime yet, but also “post-adjudication” juveniles whose cases have been finalized but need services like substance abuse rehab or mental health treatment — and it can take time to find them a place to get the help they need. Last year, an average of 35 kids per day stayed in the detention center while they waited for services.

Whitmire said he believes, like Brooks, that “we’re dealing with a very tough group of kids and it’s driving up the numbers in Harris County. They appear to have larger numbers of violent, youthful offenders.”

He was surprised to hear that the number of kids in detention for misdemeanors and violations of probation has also increased sharply. Perhaps those kids already had a criminal record before their latest offense, he pointed out.

If not, “you don’t need to lock them up,” Whitmire said. “You lock up the people that you’re afraid of, not the ones you’re mad at.”

“Is that the best way to teach the lesson?”

Some advocates have compared the situation at Harris County’s juvenile detention center to what’s happening in its adult jail. The jail has been at the center of a lawsuit over keeping poor people behind bars for days or weeks simply because they can’t afford to bail themselves out.

There’s no bail in the juvenile justice system; instead, the probation department is the first to decide to detain kids, and judges regularly check in afterward. But research suggests that even just a few days in detention can increase kids’ chances of getting into more trouble later.

“I just feel like they’re getting those kids ready to really go to jail,” said Ikeyraura Shorts, whose now 16-year-old son spent weeks in the Harris County juvenile detention center last year after getting into a fight at school. “They’re just setting those babies up for the penitentiary.”

Ikeyraura Shorts at her home in Houston. She says her 16-year-old son was locked up for more than two weeks in Harris County's juvenile detention center after he got into a fight at school.
Ikeyraura Shorts at her home in Houston. She says her now 16-year-old son was locked up for weeks in Harris County’s juvenile detention center after he got into a fight at school. Michael Stravato for the Texas Tribune

After Shorts’ son was arrested, the county’s probation department would have used its own special scoring tool to decide whether he should be locked up. The department would consider factors like whether he’d been accused of something violent and whether he had a criminal history.

If he scored an eight or lower, he would be considered “low risk,” which means he should generally be sent home. A score of 15 or higher would almost certainly land him in detention.

There’s no way to know what score Shorts’ son got, because those records aren’t public. But Shorts said he’d never been accused of anything worse than a misdemeanor, so he probably would have been considered low risk. Yet he ended up in detention for more than two weeks.

The idea of the scoring system is to avoid human biases, like racial stereotyping. But officials can still ignore low scores and detain a juvenile anyway — and data shows that’s exactly what’s happened in recent years. From 2010 to 2017, the number of juveniles detained despite having a low score increased by 63 percent.

Brooks, the juvenile probation chief, did not appear to be familiar with this data until the Tribune showed it to him last year.

“Anecdotally, I would probably attribute it to mental health,” he said. “We’re just getting younger and younger, very sick kids.”

Shorts said detention did her son more harm than good. Each time she made the 45-minute drive to visit her son three days a week, he looked “really distressed,” she recalled. “All he did was sit up and [say], ‘I’m not going home. I’m not going home. I’m not going home. I’m gonna be here for real.’”

Brooks insisted that the department is following its scoring system whenever possible, but sometimes there are factors beyond anyone’s control. According to county data, the most common reason low-risk kids got locked up last year was that there were active warrants out for their arrest.

An active warrant may sound serious, but a lot of times all it means is that a kid missed a court date. And if those kids later get picked up by police, Harris County’s policy is to detain them, no matter what.

That’s what happened to Diane McCoy’s son. Facing misdemeanor charges for a fight at school, the now 14-year-old was picked up by police on his way home from basketball practice last year after he missed court. The fight had happened two years earlier, McCoy said, and she’d lost track of the court date.

The day after he ended up in juvenile detention, McCoy and her mother drove to the detention center downtown and begged a judge to release him. “It’s really my fault, I forgot about the court date,” McCoy told the judge as her son stood in the front of the courtroom in handcuffs and his grandmother sobbed. He was released.

Counties across the country lock up kids for this reason. But many people think it’s unnecessarily harsh, including Schneider, the Harris County juvenile judge.

“I can’t tell you how many times probation comes to me and they tell me, there was a kid who missed court last week because his mom couldn’t give him a ride,” Schneider said. “You don’t want to punish a child and subject them to being locked up if the problem is that their parents have zero transportation options.”

Some large counties have changed their tactics when it comes to warrants. In Cook County, Illinois — where Chicago is located — judges can issue an “alternative warrant” to kids who miss court, which doesn’t force police to lock them up. A similar system is in place in Seattle.

Locking up kids simply for missing court is “another example of the system not treating an adolescent like an adolescent,” said Holland, the Seattle University expert. “We all agree, showing up to court is important, but is that the best way to teach the lesson?”

“My mom is at work”

The Harris County juvenile probation department plays a big role in initially locking up kids. But once they’re in detention, judges have the power to keep them there. Kids must get a detention hearing before a judge within two business days of their arrest; after that, they get a similar hearing every 10 business days.

This system is supposed to protect kids from staying behind bars for too long, but advocates and lawyers say that some Harris County judges are rarely willing to release kids from detention, no matter the circumstances.

“If a kid has any type of gang affiliation, they stay in custody,” said Gene Wu, a Houston lawyer who is also a Democratic state representative. “Or if there’s any type of weapon involved, even if it’s a BB gun, they stay in custody. Well, that’s kind of stupid.”

Jay Jenkins, an attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform, said many Harris County detention hearings he has witnessed seem like a sham: The decision is already made before the kid walks through the door.

“A lot of times, they’re just marching these kids out, telling them that they’re detained, and then they’re marching them back … there’s not a lot of concern for the kids’ well-being, nor is there concern for protecting the kids’ legal rights,” he said.

It’s almost impossible to evaluate these claims, because no one in Harris County compiles data on what happens during these hearings. One thing is clear, though: Kids are spending a lot more time in the county’s juvenile detention center than they were a few years ago, and judges have the most influence on how long they stay.

These days, Harris County Associate Judge Aneeta Jamal presides over most detention hearings. She said she might decide to keep supposedly “low-risk” kids in detention because they have a criminal history or they’ve been accused of making threats a school — ”a misdemeanor, but it’s a very serious offense,” she said.

Jamal added that she wants to make sure juveniles show up for court, though experts and advocates say it’s a bad idea to keep them locked up just for that purpose.

Brooks, the juvenile probation chief, also said kids may be staying longer because of delays on the prosecutor’s side. He said he’s working with the district attorney’s office to make improvements there.

But during visits to the juvenile courts building last summer and fall, the Tribune observed a lot of disorganization. At times, kids would go before a judge and no one seemed to know what was happening with their case.

For example, as one young man stood in front of Jamal last June, she wondered why he was in detention at all. She noted that he had pending cases, but they were all from 2016. So why was he back in the detention center?

“Did he get picked up on a [warrant]?” Jamal asked the child’s court-appointed lawyer.

“I think so,” the lawyer said, uncertain.

Jamal continued to shuffle through papers on her desk, looking confused. “These are 2016 cases. I just don’t understand. This is really odd,” she said.

With no family present to take the young man home, he stayed in detention.

That scenario played out frequently during the time a Tribune reporter observed juvenile detention hearings.

“My mom is at work,” one young man told Jamal during his detention hearing. He had been locked up because he missed a court date for the same reason, he explained: “My mom had to go to work. If she’d missed work she’d have gotten fired.”

“I need your mom here,” Jamal told him.

He stayed in detention.

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

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How a federal proposal could affect millions of dollars in Texas workers’ tips

The United States Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., on June 26, 2017.

A U.S. Department of Labor proposal that could change how workers in Texas and the rest of the nation receive tips is facing greater scrutiny after a report revealed the department withheld an unfavorable economic analysis.

Released last December, the proposal would give employers greater freedom to decide where their employees’ tips go. Businesses like restaurants could share “front of the house” workers’ tips with “back of the house” workers, such as dishwashers and cooks, or they could pocket employees’ tips for themselves. The proposal would only apply to employers who pay a full minimum wage of $7.25. The Trump administration has said the plan is an attempt to help decrease wage disparities between tipped and non-tipped workers.

But a Bloomberg BNA article says that Labor Department leaders scrapped an economic analysis of the proposal that revealed workers could lose billions of dollars under the new tip proposal.

Under the plan, Texas could see $676.3 million of tips transferred from employees to employers’ pockets in a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. But Texas groups disagree on the estimated impact of the proposal.

Some U.S. businesses, including those in Texas, have a choice on how to pay tipped workers. One is to pay tipped workers the federal minimum tipped wage of $2.13 — as long as employers opt for a “tip credit” in which employers promise that the money made in tips will amount to minimum wage or higher. A second choice is to pay the workers the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and allow them to also take tips. California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Alaska, Wisconsin and Guam are required by their respective states to pay tipped employees the full state minimum wage plus tips.  The new proposal would provide employers that pay workers full minimum wage an option to take and share their tips.

Richie Jackson, CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, argued that the Labor Department plan wouldn’t affect most Texas workers; he believes the majority of Texas employers use a tip credit.

“It’s really a non-issue in Texas,” Jackson said. “The rule will not be something that is applicable to most employers who employ tipped workers in Texas.”

Ed Sills, a spokesman for the Texas AFL-CIO, said tips should be the sole “property of the people that own them,” and he challenges the argument that the proposal is supposed to close the wage gap between tipped and non-tipped workers.

“The wage inequality gap between front of the house and back of the house workers can be addressed by employers,” Sills said. “The way to do it is to pay the back-of-the-house workers more than they do.”

A Texas Workforce Commission spokeswoman said the agency does not track how many businesses in Texas use a tip credit.

According to the Bloomberg BNA story, the U.S. Department of Labor’s internal analysis showed that employees’ tipping losses under the proposal reached into the billions and department officials told staff to change the data methodology to “lessen” the impact. Although later calculations showed reduced tip losses, senior officials were still uncomfortable with including the numbers in the public proposal, the article added. The department received White House approval to publish the report on Dec. 5, withholding the economic analysis.

In January, the Labor Department issued a 30-day public comment period, allowing people to express their opinions on the proposal. As of Thursday, the public has five days left to respond by the Feb. 5 deadline. Currently, the proposal has over 147,300 formal comments. The department says it will evaluate the responses before making a decision.

The new tipping proposal would disproportionately affect women, the Economic Policy Institute said in its report. Of the $5.8 billion nationally in tips per year they estimate would be shifted from workers to employers, $4.6 billion — nearly 80 percent — would be pulled from the pockets of women working tipped jobs, the report says. These high numbers for women can be attributed to the fact that women are more likely to both be tipped and earn lower wages.

As the debate continues to unfold, Texas service workers are monitoring and expressing concerns about unintended consequences.

Tim Rinkerman of Austin said the tips he gets between his two jobs at a coffee shop and a restaurant are vital. Under the new proposal, he’s worried some employers might not be honest if allowed full control of tips.

“When you’re making minimum wage, it’s kind of hard to get by,” said Rinkerman. “It’s not cool [for businesses] to have the ability to pocket tips.”

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Houston Forensic Science Center analyst fired for shredding homicide case notes

An analyst at the Houston Forensic Science Center was fired last week after it was discovered that original notes about a homicide case were shredded, officials said.

According to a news release from HFSC, the analyst was fired Jan. 24 after the problem was reported to a supervisor of the digital multimedia evidence section.

Officials said that the employee had made several administrative errors in her original case notes about the scene. She was ordered to return to the scene a few days later to correct the errors and keep the original case notes, officials said. Instead, she did not follow the instructions and shredded the original notes, officials said.

“HFSC will not tolerate the potential professional misconduct and takes seriously any mishaps that may impact a criminal investigation,” HFSC CEO and president Dr. Peter Stout said in a written statement.

Stout said an audit will be conducted on not only the homicide case in question, but also more than 100 cases the former analyst completed during her nearly two years at the agency.

The issue will also be disclosed to the state oversight board as suspected professional misconduct, officials said.

Houston police and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office were also notified of the problem, officials said.

It was not immediately clear which homicide case is involved in the irregularity.

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Suspect in 3 killings found in Harris County after escaping Mississippi jail

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation says a suspect in three slayings who was listed among the agency’s Top 10 Most Wanted fugitives has been captured in Texas.

The bureau said in a tweet Thursday morning that Antoine Lashun Adams was taken into custody in Harris County, Texas.

Police in Mississippi and Tennessee have been looking for Adams, 28, since he escaped a jail last month in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

Adams is accused of killing a man and leaving him in a Mississippi ditch late last year. He also faces two murder charges in Memphis. Adams was arrested in August in Texas and brought to a Mississippi jail, where he crawled under a fence to escape.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that Adams was detained at a Walmart for alleged shoplifting and deputies used a recently donated mobile automated fingerprint identification system to determine his identity.

“This arrest of a dangerous murder fugitive shows the value of the strong community support we receive from partners such as the Northwest Chamber of Commerce,” said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said.

The statement said Adams is awaited extradition back to Mississippi.

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Report: U.S. Rep. Farenthold of Texas to retire amid sexual harassment scandal

U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, will retire from Congress after finishing his current term, according to the Washington Examiner.

“GOP source confirms: is retiring under pressure from ,” said a tweet Thursday from David Drucker, reporter with the Examiner.

The decision came after a difficult December for the four-term congressman. Farenthold, one of the quieter members of the Texas delegation, found himself embroiled in a charged atmosphere of sexual harassment allegations in Washington, D.C.

The final blow came in the form of a CNN report on Wednesday night alleging new sexual harassment allegations.

Farenthold was under enormous pressure from House GOP leadership to step down.

House GOP sources familiar with the events of the last 24 hours tell the Tribune that he met with the National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers on Wednesday evening and spoke with U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan twice late Tuesday.

The sources did not tell the Tribune what was discussed at these meetings.

On Dec. 1, a Politico report brought attention to a three-year-old dispute involving accusations that Farenthold’s allegedly inappropriate behavior led to the termination of a former staffer, Lauren Greene. The two parties settled the matter out of court two years ago, and the controversy was all but dormant. But Politico revealed that the money used to settle the case — $84,000 — came from taxpayer funds.

Greene’s charges also were simply no longer palatable to a Capitol Hill community that is in flames over sexual harassment accusations. In the first full week of December, no fewer than three members of Congress — two from the House and one from the Senate — resigned from Congress over their own controversies.

Behind the scenes and in public, Farenthold firmly maintained his innocence.

But last week, the House Ethics Committee established a subcommittee to examine Greene’s charges. Furthermore, the Houston Chronicle recently reported that Farenthold’s office held sexual harassment training.

The decision comes just days after the Monday statewide candidate filing deadline. Farenthold spent the last week under incredible pressure from his colleagues in Congress and Republicans in Texas.

First elected to Congress in 2010, Farenthold was part of the massive wave that landed the GOP in control of the U.S. House. His race was a late-developing upset in what most political operatives believed was a safely Democratic seat.

But by October 2010, Farenthold gained ground as the campaign of longtime Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz collapsed.

In the next round of redistricting, Republican mapmakers dramatically redrew his district to protect the seat from a substantive Democratic challenge.

Even after the Greene’s accusations came to light in 2014, no serious candidate in either party mounted a serious challenge to him — although Democrats did attempt to recruit candidates in the Corpus Christi-based district in early 2015.

But re-election looked much tougher this time around.

The candidate field against him was shaping up to be strong.

Bech Bruun, the now-former chairman of the Texas Water Development Board, resigned from that position on Thursday in order to challenge Farenthold for the nomination.

Other Republicans were already running, including Michael Cloud, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee and former chairman of the Victoria County GOP, Christopher Mapp, Jerry Hall and Eddie Gassman, have also lined up for potential campaigns.

At least two Democrats are running for the seat as well.

Farenthold spent much of his time in Congress working on transportation and judicial policy. A former local radio host and computer consultant, Farenthold is an effective communicator on technology issues.

But he stumbled on other fronts. Most recently, he suggested — in jest — that he would like to duel several female senators who were opposed to the GOP health care overhaul.

Farenthold is a sixth-generation Texan with a prominent political last name. His step-grandmother is Frances “Sissy” Farenthold, a Democratic former member of the state House and a 1972 candidate for governor.

Farenthold is the eighth member of the Texas delegation to announce he would leave Congress. U.S. Reps. Sam Johnson, R-Richardson; Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio; Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas; and Ted Poe, R-Humble,  Gene Green, D-Houston; Joe Barton, R-Ennis; announced their retirements this year. U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke , D-El Paso, is leaving his seat to run for Senate.

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This Texas lawmaker could finish his term from jail

Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, during a House Environmental Regulations Committee on April 16, 2013.

There’s a chance state Rep. Ron Reynolds could be sentenced to serve a year in jail next year. If that happens, he wouldn’t have to resign, according to state officials.

The Houston-area Democrat recently lost his appeal to a 2016 conviction of five misdemeanor barratry charges for illegal solicitation of legal clients. Reynolds, a once-practicing personal injury lawyer, says his attorney is working to submit a petition to the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals to review the opinions issued by Texas’ 8th Court of Appeals, which upheld his conviction. It’s a last-ditch attempt to avoid serving his sentence of a year in jail.

In an interview with the Tribune, Reynolds refused to address what he would do if his final appeal fails.

“We’re very – and I’ve even got a second opinion – are very confident that we’ll prevail, so I don’t think it will get to that point,” Reynolds said in a phone interview.

Should Reynolds end up in jail next year, the four-term lawmaker could still hold office and continue to run for re-election. According to Sec. 141.001 of the Texas Election Code, the only criminal misconduct that would require an elected official to resign would be a felony conviction. Reynolds’ convictions qualify as misdemeanors.

“So technically, the representative could be serving out his sentence for a misdemeanor and still be a state representative,” said Sam Taylor, communications director for the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

Reynolds’ legal woes date back to 2012, when authorities arrested him after an undercover investigation by the Harris County district attorney’s office. That investigation revealed that a chiropractic firm was persuading patients to sign contracts that named Reynolds as their legal counsel before the patients had physical exams or even met him.

Those charges were dropped when two investigators involved in the case came under fire for, among other things, allegedly stealing evidence in different cases.

Reynolds was arrested again in 2013 after authorities raided his law office and those of seven other area attorneys for their alleged involvement in a quarter-million-dollar kickback scheme with Robert Valdez, a co-owner of two chiropractic clinics and the alleged ringleader behind the operation. The other attorneys accepted plea arrangements; only Reynolds went to trial.

He was initially convicted of misdemeanor ambulance-chasing charges in November 2014, but that verdict was overturned after a judge declared a mistrial. Reynolds was indicted again on related charges in the summer of 2015 in Montgomery County, which resulted in the 2016 conviction he’s currently fighting.

The court sentenced Reynolds to pay a $4,000 fine and serve a year in jail. He also had his law license suspended. He’s currently out on an appellate bond while he challenges his conviction.

At the time, Reynolds told the Tribune the jury disregarded evidence demonstrating that he did not know cases referred to him by Valdez had been illegally solicited. He said that would be the basis of his appeal.

But Joel Daniels, a Montgomery County assistant district attorney who was among the lawyers who tried Reynolds’ case, noted that the opinions issued by the three-judge Eighth Court of Appeals on Nov. 29 were unanimous for each of the five charges. That bodes well for the prosecution’s case, he said.

“We are greatly gratified by the appeals court rejecting Mr. Reynolds’ attempt to overturn a jury’s verdict,” Daniels said. “This important decision brings Mr. Reynolds one step closer to justice.”

Delinquent filer

At the same time Reynolds’ criminal case plays out, he’s also facing potential civil action for failing to submit nearly two years’ worth of campaign finance reports.

Reynolds owes the Texas Ethics Commission $52,000 in delinquent filing fees for overdue campaign finance reports and another $1,500 fine for a missed personal financial statement.

He last filed a report on Feb. 22, 2016.

Reynolds blames his former treasurer for misplacing records that he says his accountant is still trying to reconcile. He said he hopes to have everything “done and filed before the end of the year. So, I’m holding him to that.”

The Texas Ethics Commission sends its first of three notices to late filers within 10 days of when the report was due. After the third notice, which Reynolds has likely received, the commission refers the matter to the state’s attorney general, according to Ian Steusloff, general counsel for the commission.

“As part of that process, the [attorney general’s office] can file a lawsuit in state district court to obtain payment, which can include additional costs in attorneys fees, court costs, and interest,” Steusloff said an an email.

Jennifer Speller, a spokeswoman for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, couldn’t immediately offer details on the status of Reynolds’ case but said “the office has taken collection action on matters referred by the TEC.”

Re-election bid

Reynolds filed for re-election at the end of last week. He faces a single Democratic challenger, Houston attorney Wilvin Carter.

First elected in 2011, Reynolds has easily beat primary opponents. But in 2016, that changed when he received 48.5 percent of the vote in a four-way primary that forced a May runoff he ultimately won.

Despite his ongoing legal battle and a looming jail sentence should his latest appeal fail, Reynolds said he’s confident he’ll win again in 2018.

“I’ve been through three primary challenges previously on this issue, and my constituents have the utmost confidence in me and they have continued to insist that I run for re-election,” he said.

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Paul Pressler, former Texas judge and religious right leader, accused of sexually assaulting teen for years

Paul Pressler, retired justice of the Texas 14th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

A former Texas state judge and lawmaker has been accused of sexually abusing a young man for several decades starting when the boy was just 14, according to a lawsuit filed in October in Harris County.

The lawsuit alleges that Paul Pressler, a former justice on the 14th Court of Appeals who served in the Texas state house from 1957–59, sexually assaulted Duane Rollins, his former bible study student, several times per month over a period of years. According to the filing, the abuse started in the late 1970s and continued less frequently after Rollins left Houston for college in 1983.

In a November court filing, Pressler “generally and categorically [denied] each and every allegation” in Rollins’ petition.

The abuse, which consisted of anal penetration, took place in Pressler’s master bedroom study, the suit alleges. According to the lawsuit, Pressler told Rollins he was “special” and that the sexual contact was their God-sanctioned secret.

Pressler is a leading figure on the religious right in Texas and was a key player in the “conservative resurgence” of Southern Baptism, a movement in the 1970s and 1980s that aimed to oust liberals and moderates from the church’s organizational structure. Pressler’s wife Nancy, his former law partner Jared Woodfill, Woodfill Law Firm, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and First Baptist Church of Houston are also named as defendants in the suit.

Rollins seeks damages of over $1 million.

When asked about the suit, Ted Tredennick, Pressler’s attorney, pointed to Rollins’ record, which is peppered with arrests on DUIs and other charges over the last several decades.

“Mr. Rollins is clearly a deeply troubled man, with a track record of multiple felonies and incarceration, and it is the height of irresponsibility that anyone would present such a bizarre and frivolous case — much less report on it,” Tredennick said. He would not give any further comment or respond to specific questions.

Rollins and his lawyer, Daniel Shea, say his past legal troubles stemmed from behavior fueled by alcohol and drug addictions sparked by the childhood sexual abuse. In 1998, Rollins was jailed for 10 years on burglary charges. Pressler advocated for Rollins to receive parole in 2000, when he was first eligible, and then again in 2002. In his 2002 letter to the parole board, Pressler pledged to employ Rollins and be “personally involved in every bit of Duane’s life with supervision and control.”

Woodfill called the accusations against Pressler “absolutely false” and described the lawsuit as “an attempt to extort money.” He also said he plans to file counter charges against Rollins and his lawyer for a “frivolous and harassing lawsuit.”

Shea said Pressler previously settled with Rollins over a 2004 battery charge for an incident in a Dallas hotel room. That settlement is not public, Shea said, but reference is made to such an agreement in recent court filings.

Shea said that though Rollins filed that assault charge more than a decade ago, he had a “suppressed memory” of the sexual abuse until he made an outcry statement to a prison psychologist in November 2015. Harvey Rosenstock, a psychiatrist who has been working with Rollins since August 2016, wrote in a letter included in the suit that Rollins is a “reliable historian for the childhood sexual trauma to which he was repeatedly and chronically subjected.”

Pressler was President George H.W. Bush’s pick to lead the Office of Government Ethics  in 1989, but the administration ultimately ruled Pressler out after an FBI background investigation. News reports from the time suggest that Pressler was dismissed due to unspecified ethics issues.

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Amid sexual harassment controversy, U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold faces tough re-election

U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi.

WASHINGTON — In the face of a storm of controversy and a slew of challengers, U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold indicated Monday he’s still running for re-election.

This time around, it will likely be a lonely battle for the Corpus Christi Republican.

“It’s lonelier than it’s been in past times, but he’s not alone,” said Farenthold’s chief of staff, Bob Haueter, on Monday evening.

Farenthold found himself at the center of the sexual harassment firestorm engulfing the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 1 when Politico reported that he had settled a sexual harassment lawsuit using $84,000 in taxpayer funds.

Farenthold fiercely denies the accusations, both in public and in private, and he quickly pledged to pay back the $84,000 involved in the settlement.

The issue initially faded away in 2014 after the settlement and after the U.S. House Office of Congressional Ethics, an advisory arm of the House, recommended to the member-driven U.S. House Ethics Committee to dismiss the charges.

But the controversy continued to dog him after the U.S. House Ethics Committee announced recently that it would give the allegations a closer examination. Then on Friday, the Houston Chronicle reported that Farenthold and his entire congressional staff underwent sexual harassment training in 2016 after the he was accused of gender discrimination.

But in this new, charged atmosphere and with that Politico revelation, the U.S. House Ethics Committee announced on Thursday that the arm would give the allegations a closer examination.

All this sets the stage for the fight of Farenthold’s career.

Five Republicans have launched bids to unseat Farenthold in his 27th Congressional district, most prominently former Texas Water Development Board chairman Bech Bruun, who resigned from that post and filed to run as a Republican for the congressional seat Friday.

At least four other Republicans, including Michael Cloud, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee and former chairman of the Victoria County GOP, have launched bids for the seat. On the Democratic side, at least four Democrats have lined up for potential campaigns.

Democrats are candid about the seat being out of reach for them, meaning Farenthold’s biggest hurdle is in the GOP primary. The crowded field increases the odds of a runoff, and a rule of thumb in Texas politics is that it is near-impossible for an incumbent to survive the second round of a primary.

Farenthold’s political troubles come amid — and in large part due to — an environment of increased sensitivity to sexual misconduct in Washington, D.C.

Two female Republican members from out of state, U.S. Reps. Mia Love of Utah and Barbara Comstock of Virginia, have called on Farenthold to not just retire but resign.

Democrats last week purged two favorites from their ranks: U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan announced their resignations. Franken did so in a highly reluctant matter, suggesting he was a sacrificial lamb to allow Democrats to attain the moral high ground on the issue of sexual harassment.

Liberals then quickly made Farenthold the poster boy of alleged harassment, and they demanded he resign. Failing that, they urged GOP leadership to push him out.

But leading Republicans — and Texas delegation members — remained silent. Democrats were quick to construe that as tacit approval of Farenthold’s alleged behavior.

In interviews with a dozen or so delegation insiders, they say it is a different story behind the scenes. Texas Republican members would prefer for Farenthold to step aside (he has until Tuesday to withdraw, but there are few signs he intends to do so). At the same time, there is little interest in publicly knifing him — that’s just not how things are done in the tight-knit delegation.

Even so, if a new and credible allegation surfaces, Farenthold could see the political ground swiftly shift underneath him.

Most Texas Republican operatives predict his fundraising will dry up amid the bad publicity, and it’s unlikely GOP colleagues will rush to donate to his campaign as is the common practice when a longtime incumbent is in political trouble.

Despite all of those developments, Farenthold’s close advisers are sticking with him, and there is a clear sense of ire within his inner circle about the Office of Congressional Ethics’ investigation and dismissal recommendation did not put the story to rest.

A group of past and current employees circulated a letter defending Farenthold, describing him as having “always treated us fairly and with dignity and respect.”

And he has the support of a prominent figure in Texas state politics: pollster Chris Wilson.

“We wouldn’t work for someone who has been demonstrated to abuse women,” Wilson said. “But an accusation, especially one that has already been investigated, doesn’t make him guilty.”

“I sat down with the Congressman, his wife and his staff and after learning more about the process undertaken by the Office of Congressional Ethics, I agree with the OCE’s findings that the charges were unfounded,” he added. “And I’m proud to be part of his re-election effort as I believe Farenthold to be an honorable man.”

Cassandra Pollock and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

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Houston bounty hunter accused of running international sex trafficking network

A Houston bounty hunter and his girlfriend were accused of targeting, recruiting and exploiting young women from Colombia, according the the U.S. Department of Justice.

HTown Hunter, also known as Luis de Jesus Rodriguez, 26, and his girlfriend Helen Leon Mesa, 28, are in custody after a grand jury indicted the couple for allegedly running an international sex-trafficking conspiracy.

Justice department authorities are accusing the couple of promising young women from Colombia a better life in the United States if they worked for them as dancers at a Houston nightclub.

“During the victims’ recruitment, the defendants also directed them to watch YouTube videos portraying Rodriguez as a bounty hunter, creating the false impression that he was a law enforcement officer, according to the allegations,” explained the released statement from the department of justice.

Htown Hunter has several videos of Rodriguez working as a bounty hunter, but his website said he has since retired.

The indictment also said that once the victims were brought to the states, Rodriguez and Mesa would put them in Houston strip clubs and forced them, “into signing debt bondage contracts, ranging from $13,200 to $25,000. Rodriguez and Mesa also allegedly required victims to make daily payments of approximately $250 towards their debt.”

Authorities said the couple would get victims to pay the daily quota by threatening to harm their families, monitor where they went and “ultimately forcing them into engaging in commercial sex acts.”

The allegations in the indictment continue, stating the Rodriguez and Mesa acted in visa fraud to transport the victims. They’re accused of creating fake backgrounds and occupations of the victims along with coaching them on what to say during the visa application interviews.

Rodriguez and Mesa are expected to make their first court appearance in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Dena Palarmo on Monday.

It’s still sealed, but the Department of Justice said there is also another person who has been charged, but not yet in custody.

The couple could face a minimum of 15 years to life in prison of convicted of sex trafficking. They could also receive a maximum of 10 years in prison for the visa fraud charges if found guilty.

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Snow falls on Galveston County

If you were to take a stroll around Galveston Friday afternoon, you would have never known it snowed throughout the night and early morning hours.

PHOTOS: Viewers share snow scenes

On the island, it was a mixture of snow and rain that didn’t stick to the ground. Jamaica Beach saw its fair share of flakes, but most of the snow fell in Texas City.

The Buc-ee’s in Texas City had so much snow that employees had to brush off the pumps so customers could use them.

“I’m loving the snow,” motorist Nicol Anderson said. “Look at what we have, we’re going to have a merry Christmas this year with Santa Claus and all that.”

PHOTOS: Snowmen around Houston

Fortunately, there were no major accidents on the roadways. KPRC2 did, however, come across a vehicle that overturned on I-45 in La Marque.

La Marque police had to close a portion of the southbound lanes to clear the car. There were no injuries.

While the snow stuck around for a few hours, it quickly moved southeast of Texas City and dissipated once it hit the Galveston shore in the late morning.

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