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Crime and Punishment

Sid Miller’s political consultant indicted

Well, this is interesting.

Todd Smith, a top political consultant to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, was indicted Tuesday on felony charges of theft and commercial bribery related to taking money in exchange for state hemp licenses that are doled out through Miller’s office, according to Travis County district attorney José Garza.

Smith was arrested in May, accused of taking $55,000 as part of the scheme, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. Smith and others were accused of soliciting up to $150,000 to get an “exclusive” hemp license from the Texas Department of Agriculture. Smith allegedly said $25,000 would be used for a public poll on hemp. A hemp license from the state costs $100, according to the arrest warrant.

“We are holding accountable powerful actors who abuse the system and break the law,” Garza said. “Our community needs to know that no one is above the law and will face justice.”

Smith could not immediately be reached for comment but his attorneys said in a statement that their client has not broken any laws.

“We are disappointed that the Travis County District Attorney has obtained an indictment against Todd Smith, he was not invited to address the grand jury. He is not guilty of these charges and intends to vigorously defend himself against the allegations made by the Travis County District Attorney’s Office,” attorneys Sam Bassett and Perry Minton said in a statement.

[…]

Miller on Tuesday evening declined immediate comment, saying he was just learning the news of the indictment from the Tribune reporter. He later went on conservative radio host Chad Hasty’s show and said he’s gonna review indictment, but he’s “not ready to throw [Smith] under the bus” and is “not surprised,” suggesting it’s politically motivated. Miller says he still doesn’t believe Smith did anything wrong.

Smith has faced scrutiny before over his conduct and ties to the Department of Agriculture. In 2018, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Smith promised a San Antonio businessperson an appointment with the Department of Agriculture in exchange for a $29,000 loan. And in 2016, Miller gave Smith’s wife a newly created assistant commissioner position, one of the highest-paying roles in the department.

Miller is unlikely to take this seriously, though he did dump Smith shortly afterwards. His Republican opponents have been all over the story, and I suppose it’s always best to be proactive. As for the indictment itself, I think we all know that this sort of thing either gets resolved very quickly, via a plea deal or (more likely) the charges getting tossed, or it drags out for months if not years. To whatever extent this has an effect on Miller’s re-election chances, it will be because of what has already happened. We already know what kind of a person Sid Miller is, but it never hurts to have a reminder. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

Come watch Ken Paxton light your tax dollars on fire

I mean, Theranos would have delivered a greater return on investment than this.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton has been one of former President Donald Trump’s most reliable allies in spreading the myth of widespread voter fraud, particularly in the 2020 election, and frequently boasts that few states are as vigilant.

His office’s election integrity unit added two lawyers to the team in the last year, bringing it up to six staffers total, and worked more than 20,000 hours between October 2020 and September 2021. Its budget, meanwhile, ratcheted up from $1.9 million to $2.2 million during that time.

Yet records from the office show that the unit closed just three cases this year, down from 17 last year, and opened seven new ones. That includes the newly created unit focused on the 2021 local elections, which has yet to file a single case.

“This is an exorbitant amount of money that has resulted in no benefit for the average Texan,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, a left-leaning nonprofit government watchdog that regularly files public information requests and files suits to force compliance with those requests. The organization shared some records it obtained from the Texas Attorney General’s Office with Hearst Newspapers for this report; others were obtained independently by Hearst Newspapers.

Evers added: “Taxpayers are funding a political stunt meant to fuel the false claim of a stolen election and justify voting restrictions.”

[…]

Richard L. Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California at Irvine, said there’s a more likely explanation, noting that Paxton, who is running for re-election, has “every incentive,” politically speaking, to vigorously go after voter fraud, as it’s an issue that energizes his party’s base.

“He’s finding very little of it despite spending a lot of money and using a lot of resources looking for it,” Hasen said. “The reason is not that such fraud is too hard to find. Those that commit voter fraud tend not to be brain surgeons. The reason he’s not finding a lot of it is because voter fraud is rare.”

Multiple academic studies and journalistic reviews have uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud, nor did a wide-ranging investigation of election fraud in 2020 conducted by the U.S. Justice Department.

There’s more, and the story does a good job of highlighting how Paxton takes the ridiculously small numbers involved in his crusade and exaggerates them to make them sound slightly less small, so read the rest. Just understand that facts have nothing to do with any of this, and won’t do anything to deter Paxton and his raving band of saboteurs. The argument here is exactly the same as the ones that Republicans have been using for at least the last 20 years for spending on “border security”: If they catch more cases of “vote fraud” it means that what they’re doing is working and so they need to get more money for it. If they catch fewer cases, it means that they’re falling behind and need to get more money to keep up. There are no circumstances under which spending less on this useless and harmful exercise makes sense.

One more thing:

While it’s true that the office has more cases pending this year over last year, 44 up from 38, that’s not because of a surge in new prosecutions. It’s because the vast majority of cases that were pending around this time last year are still making their way through the court system.

Among the cases pending include that of Hervis Rogers, a Black man from Houston who was charged this year with illegally voting while on parole, after he had made national headlines for waiting six hours to vote in the 2020 primary election.

A new ruling from the state’s highest criminal court Wednesday may afford legal relief to Rogers and potentially others, after it found that Paxton’s office does not have the constitutional right to prosecute voter fraud without the consent of local prosecutors.

Yes, given that recent ruling, one has to wonder how much of this activity is even legal at this point. I would suggest that attorneys for every one of the defendants in Paxton’s crosshairs, as well as all of those that have been convicted or pled guilty to something, start filing briefs to have cases and convictions tossed. Let’s expose this for the mockery it is.

New details about the Deshaun Watson criminal investigation

All sorts of bad things from the search warrants.

Houston police have at least nine reports accusing Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions, with search warrant records showing that investigators are eyeing indecent assault — a misdemeanor crime — as a possible criminal charge.

The three search warrants — signed in October by a judge to collect data from Watson’s Instagram and Cash App usage — shed light on the Houston Police Department’s criminal investigation into the athlete, who has not been charged with a crime, amid months of litigation from nearly two dozen lawsuits. The search warrants detail accounts from nine women who say their encounters with Watson devolved from massages to misconduct.

The women reported receiving Cash App payments after the sessions, with some amounts ranging from $100 to $300, according to court records.

In two incidents at The Houstonian Hotel, the football player pressured the women into performing felatio, court records show. One licensed massage therapist said Watson contacted her on Instagram and that they met in June 2020 for a massage without incident. During a second appointment at the Memorial-area hotel, he asked her for oral sex.

The woman “felt as if she had no choice,” the investigator wrote.

[…]

Much of the accusations outlined in the search warrants were already detailed in civil lawsuits against Watson but investigators also revealed aspects of the case not previously made public using interviews that the Forensic Center of Excellence — a Houston group of forensic nurses who specializes in trauma — conducted with the accusers.

The Houston Police Department acknowledged in April their investigation into Watson but have declined to comment since. The civil litigation, meanwhile, is still pending.

Investigations by the FBI into Watson’s alleged behavior and the NFL are also happening. Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, has denied wrongdoing by the quarterback, saying any sexual encounters with massage therapists were consensual.

On Wednesday, Hardin said he welcomed the police department’s investigation into his client’s records.

I’ve skipped over most of the more graphic stuff. The HPD investigation is still ongoing, the civil litigation is awaiting the first court dates, and Watson is still a non-playing member of the Texans. Not much else to say at this point.

Indictments and guilty pleas in FBI investigation of former HISD officials

Woof.

A former top Houston ISD official and vendor were indicted Thursday in connection with an alleged bribery scheme over the last decade that federal prosecutors estimate cost the district millions of dollars and resulted in plea agreements with at least five other former district officials, including a former president of the district’s Board of Education.

Federal authorities arrested former Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby, 43, and contract vendor Anthony Hutchison, 60, both of Houston, on Thursday, hours before their initial court appearance. Both men pleaded not guilty to all counts and were expected to be released under conditions that include no contact with current and former HISD employees with the exception of Busby’s wife, who prosecutors said has filed for divorce.

Prosecutors accused Busby of helping award HISD construction and grounds maintenance contracts to Hutchison in return for cash bribes and hundreds of thousands of dollars in home remodeling, according to a 26-count indictment unsealed Thursday.

“This investigation and resulting indictments reflect my office’s commitment to rooting out public corruption,” Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery said in a statement. “We will not stand idly by when there are people in positions of trust who are suspected of such wrongdoing.”

Dick DeGuerin, Busby’s lawyer, denied any wrongdoing by his client.

“For most of his adult life, Brian Busby has been a loyal employee of HISD, rising from the lowest employment to chief operating officer,” DeGuerin said. “He has never taken a penny from any contractors or any illegal money — ever. I am sure that a fair jury will find him innocent.”

[…]

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who served two terms as HISD trustee between 2012 and 2019, and as board president in 2015 and 2018, was among the former officials charged in connection with the alleged bribery scheme and pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. She currently serves as a Houston Community College Trustee. It was not clear Thursday whether she would have to resign or be fired. A spokesman for the college did not respond to a request for comment.

She also worked for Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ community and government affairs team until Thursday.

“The news today came as a shock to us, and we never had any indication of such inexcusable wrongdoing during her time at Precinct One,” Ellis’ office said in a statement. “Upon learning of this news today, her employment was immediately ended.”

Attempts by the Chronicle to contact Skillern-Jones, as well as the other former officials who entered plea agreements, were unsuccessful Thursday.

Those other former employees were identified by prosecutors as Derrick Sanders, 50, Missouri City, officer of construction services; Alfred Hoskins, 58, Missouri City, general manager of facilities, maintenance and operations; Gerron Hall, 47, Missouri City, area manager for maintenance; and Luis Tovar, 39, Huffman, area manager for maintenance.

Sanders had joined Aldine ISD in September 2020 and voluntarily resigned Oct. 22, school officials there said.

Saying he was “extremely outraged,” HISD Superintendent Millard House II, who began leading the largest public school district in Texas in July, told the Chronicle he had ordered a review of the internal team and systems for contracting and vendors, as well as an external review of the district’s procurement procedures before he was even made aware of the charges. He said he had made changes “to make sure everyone on my staff knows it is a new day inside HISD.

“I am outraged. Outraged that we’re talking about this. Outraged how adults who are supposed to be working for the public trust may have taken money from children,” House said. “In my 26 years as an educator — in Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee — I have never seen such a failure. As a parent, as a teacher, as a taxpayer, I promise you – HISD will do everything in its power to never be vulnerable to this kind of alleged misconduct again.”

He added: “I will not be deterred by 10 years of corruption, waste, and fraud that came before me. My team did not create this problem, but we will solve it. Permanently.”

See here for the background. The Chron’s editorial board ripped into Skillern-Jones for her role in this debacle. I wish Superintendent House all the best in cleaning up whatever remains of this mess. And a note to the other HCC Board members: You should probably try to get Trustee Skillern-Jones to resign from that position.

On a completely tangential note, the story that the FBI raided Brian Busby’s house was in late February of 2021, so about 21 months ago. There’s another FBI probe of interest happening in this state, and it began in November/December of last year, or about 12-13 months ago. Just offering that data point as some perspective on how long it can take for these things to go from beginning to indictment, in case your mind works like mine does.

UPDATE: Rhonda Skillern-Jones has resigned as HCC Trustee. Good. The HCC Board will name a replacement for her, with that person having to run again in 2023.

CCA tells Ken Paxton he’s not the supreme prosecutor

Cry me a river, Kenny.

Best mugshot ever

Texas’ highest court for criminal cases on Wednesday struck down a law that allows the attorney general to unilaterally prosecute election cases.

The state’s Court of Criminal Appeals issued an 8-1 opinion saying a provision of the law violates the separation of powers clause in the Texas Constitution, representing an intrusion by the executive branch into the judicial branch. The attorney general can only get involved in a case when asked to by a district or county attorney, the court said.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who has been aggressive in trying to root out voter fraud, bashed the opinion from the all-GOP court. He said in a tweet that the ruling “could be devastating for future elections in Texas.”

At stake was a part of the election code that says the attorney general, the state’s top law enforcement officer, “may prosecute a criminal offense prescribed by the election laws of this state.”

The provision was thrown into jeopardy by a long-winding case involving Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens. After the county district attorney declined to prosecute Stephens over campaign-finance allegations stemming from the 2016 election, Paxton’s office stepped in and obtained an indictment from a grand jury in neighboring Chambers County.

In its opinion, the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned a lower-court ruling that said the election code provision “clearly and unambiguously gives the Attorney General power to prosecute criminal laws prescribed by election laws generally whether those laws are inside or outside the Code.”

Rather, the Court of Criminal Appeals said, “the Attorney General can prosecute with the permission of the local prosecutor but cannot initiate prosecution unilaterally.”

I don’t have any posts about this, but from reading the opinion, Sheriff Stephens, who was elected in 2016, was charged with making false claims on her finance report, specifically claiming that some $5,000 contributions were actually under $50. I don’t know what her explanation was, or why the JeffCo DA declined to prosecute. The rest of the opinion is pretty dense and technical, but the summary of what is at stake is quite simple. Here’s the opening paragraph from the opinion:

Zena Collins Stephens appeals both the court of appeals’ denial of a pretrial writ of habeas corpus and its reversal of the district court’s decision to quash Count I of the indictment. She presents the following question: May the Texas Legislature delegate to the Attorney General, a member of the executive department, the prosecution of election-law violations in district and inferior courts? No. Because Texas Election Code section 273.021 delegates to the Attorney General a power more properly assigned to the judicial department, we conclude that the statute is unconstitutional. Therefore, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals and remand the case to the trial court to dismiss the indictment.

And here’s the section of the law in question, which is now null and void. Interestingly, that law passed originally in 1985, and was last modified in 1997. Either no AG had ever tried this before, or there are some people that have been prosecuted and maybe convicted under this statute that deserve some relief.

Anyway. I for one will sleep better tonight knowing that Ken Paxton does not have unfettered discretion to bring vote “fraud” charges against anyone he feels like. (I’m also old enough to remember when the main function of the AG’s office was civil enforcement and collecting child support. My aunt worked in that office in the 80s and 90s, and that was what her department did.) I’ll give the last word to these gentlemen:

I’ll take my wins where I can get them.

Aguirre indicted

Gotta admit, I had thought this happened long ago.

A Harris County grand jury on Tuesday indicted former Houston police captain Mark Aguirre on an assault charge after he was accused of running a man off the road and pointing to a gun to his head because he thought he was committing voter fraud in the run-up to the 2020 election.

Aguirre will face a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The trial currently is scheduled to begin in February.

Prosecutors allege Aguirre slammed into the back of an air conditioning repairman’s truck at about 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 19 of last year. He pulled a gun, forced the repairman to the ground and put a knee on his back. He ordered another person to search the truck. A police officer happened upon the scene shortly after.

Aguirre, who was fired by the police department in 2003, would later tell investigators he was conducting a “citizens investigation” into an alleged ballot harvesting scheme he thought was orchestrated by local Democrats. He told police they would find hundreds of thousands of ballots in the repairman’s truck.

They found only air conditioning parts and tools. Aguirre said he had been following the repairman for four days.

Aguirre, a licensed private investigator at the time, was hired to investigate fraud claims and paid about $266,400 by the Liberty Center for God and Country around the time of the incident. That group is led by Steven Hotze, the local conservative activist, and Jared Woodfill, the former Harris County Republican Party chairman.

See here, here, and here for some background. Aguirre was arraigned almost exactly a year ago – I genuinely have no idea why it took so long for there to be a grand jury and an indictment. I mean, sure, COVID likely didn’t help, but he was arraigned in peak COVID times, so I don’t know what the effect would be. With the trial scheduled for February, maybe things will move a little faster now, but if you want to explain to me why this all just happened now, please feel free. In the meantime, at least the lawsuit against Steven Hotze is proceeding apace.

Crystal Mason using SB1 to try to overturn her illegal voting conviction

Hope this works. It would be one small good thing to come out of that otherwise harmful law.

Crystal Mason, the Tarrant County woman whose illegal voting conviction has garnered national attention, is asking for a Texas appeals court to overturn her conviction under a new provision of Texas’ recently adopted election law Senate Bill 1.

Mason, 46, was sentenced to five years in prison for attempting to cast a ballot in 2016′s presidential election. At the time, Mason was on supervised release from a federal tax fraud conviction and was prohibited from voting in Texas.

Her lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union this week filed a brief with the Texas Court of Criminal of Appeals citing the state’s new election law that took effect earlier this month in asking for her conviction to be overturned.

Tucked within SB 1 that was passed by the Texas Legislature in this year’s second special session is a section erasing criminal penalties for felons who attempt to vote without knowing that they were committing a crime. That portion of the law came about with Mason’s conviction in mind.

“SB 1 is a repudiation of Ms. Mason’s conviction and five-year sentence of incarceration,” the brief states.

[…]

Her attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union declined a request for comment. The Tarrant County District Attorney’s office, which prosecuted and has argued against overturning Mason’s conviction, said in an emailed statement that SB 1 has no bearing on Mason’s case.

“Even under the new law, she is guilty,” office spokeswoman Anna Tinsley Williams said. “She wasn’t convicted simply for casting the provisional ballot; she was convicted for casting a provisional ballot when she knew she was ineligible to vote. Knowledge of ineligibility is the key. This is not a case of mistaken voting.”

See here and here for some background. House Democrats had negotiated an amendment in the original bill during the regular session that would have retroactively covered Mason’s case, but it was taken out in the conference committee version by Senators on the committee, and that breaking of the faith was one of the catalysts for the initial quorum break during the regular session, which prevented the bill from getting a final vote. In the second special session, after House Dems had returned from Washington, a similar amendment was added to the House version of the bill, but it again ran into resistance in the Senate, with bill author Bryan Hughes the main obstacle. (How bad does Hughes look when even Briscoe fricking Cain was willing to add this provision to the bill?) If people can read the final version of the bill to include or not include Crystal Mason in its scope, then it’s at best a tossup what the CCA will do, and given their usual pro-prosecution bias, I can’t say I’m optimistic. But it’s sure worth the try.

A long story about the bail industry

It’s complicated.

Judges set bail, but it’s the bondsmen who decide how much a defendant pays to get out of jail.

The long-held 10 percent standard — with defendants or their loved ones paying a tenth of the bail amount to a private company — is not gospel anymore in Harris County and likely never was. People have been securing their release from jail on lower fees for years, according to county data and bail agents.

Bondsmen recently have been accepting lower-percentage fees on an increasing number of violent felonies. The discount makes it clear that judges are not always determining what people have to pay to get out of jail, and the implications for defendants, victims and the system are far-reaching.

“That means the cash bond system itself is serving a danger to the community,” state District Judge Chris Morton said. “Any time there’s a for-profit aspect to criminal justice, that creates the opportunity for oppression and inconsistencies in justice.”

Bail is the money a defendant must pay in order to get out of jail. A bond is posted on a defendant’s behalf, usually by a bail bond company, to secure his or her release. Such a surety bond is like a security deposit.

Bail is not intended as a punishment. It is rather a way of securing a defendant’s agreement to abide by certain conditions and return to court. The standard for bail in most jurisdictions — and other states — is that a bail agent requires 10 percent of the bail amount plus collateral to secure a defendant’s freedom. In Harris County, bail companies rarely pay in full and give the court an equivalent of a provisional IOU with the backing of insurance agencies, said County Court at Law No. 8 Judge Franklin Bynum.

If a defendant skips court, prosecutors can move to revoke or forfeit the defendant’s bond. Revocations trigger an arrest warrant and their return to court upon their capture. Forfeitures are a more tedious process that results in the court keeping the bail amount — but only after a judge agrees and prosecutors successfully sue to seize the money.

In Texas, the 10 percent figure is referenced in Texas Insurance Code, which states that payments above that amount could be subject to regulations. No minimum is required.

[…]

Profits diminished for bail companies after Harris County began adopting bail reform in 2017, requiring cash-free releases for most poor misdemeanor defendants. Bail licenses in Harris County have dropped by nearly two dozen since 2017, with about 80 permitted as of September to operate, records show.

One estimate from monitors tracking the implementation of bail reform indicated that bail bond earnings in Harris County went from around $3.5 million in 2015 to slightly over $500,000 in 2019.

The dwindling bail landscape caused agents to adapt or close up shop. Many padded their business with felony cases, some carrying higher bonds and more risk of defendants skipping court. Some bail agents are relying more on payment plans and are not asking for collateral — a house, car or other possession.

The Houston Chronicle reviewed hundreds of court records and found that bail bondsmen for years have been granting less than 10 percent rates on surety bonds. A sampling of data for the first six months of 2021 supported bondsmen, defense attorney and judges’ anecdotes that bail agents are more frequently charging lower fees, sometimes as small as 1 or 2 percent, at times on more violent crimes. Some of the defendants are then put on payment plans for the remainder of the money.

“We’re business people,” said Michael Kubosh, an at-large city councilman and former bondsman. “You collect what you can.”

While seemingly better for defendants, the lower fees are concerning to lawyers and jurists. Several judges worry that they no longer can count on defendants paying 10 percent for their pretrial release; others feel that even at lower rates, bail is still too much for some.

Authorities believe some defendants have committed more crime to pay bail for themselves and others, according to court records.

Jose Luis Perez — on bond for a prior offense — was charged in March with robbing a woman at gunpoint; he told officers he needed cash to pay for the bail, meaning he was likely on a payment plan, prosecutors said. He faced additional charges in federal court, and the state case was later dismissed.

Prosecutors say that the lower payments also minimize the pressure to return to court, because more money down means defendants would feel beholden to family members who put their livelihoods on the line to free them.

Advocates, meanwhile, do not believe any amount of cash bail keeps the public safe, and they feel bail discounts and payment plans show how many defendants — primarily poor people of color — remain on the hook with private enterprises after securing their freedom.

There’s more, so read the rest. As the story notes, only the US and the Philippines have this sort of cash bail system, and that just seems to me like a bad place to be. As you know, I’m a believer in getting rid of cash bail as part of a larger overhaul of the criminal justice system. We’ve taken a small but important step forward in Harris County, but there’s still a lot to do and a lot of resistance to overcome. This story will give you a feel for some of that.

FBI involved in Deshaun Watson case

Never a good sign, though there might be a wrinkle in this one.

The FBI is looking into sexual assault allegations against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, according to opposing legal parties in the player’s civil court cases.

The extent of those probes remains unclear. Defense attorney Rusty Hardin on Wednesday declined to call any federal interest in the sexual assault allegations part of an “investigation,” but he said he knows definitively that one FBI investigation is underway into claims that a woman extorted Watson for money.

The high-profile defense attorney held a 20-minute news conference in direct response to recent statements by his opponent, Tony Buzbee, who said that he spoke to representatives of the federal agency.

Buzbee told the website League of Justice that the FBI appeared interested in Watson’s alleged use of the internet and interstate travel to solicit sessions from massage therapists.

Hardin said he learned Tuesday that the FBI was checking into some claims presented in the 22 civil suits filed earlier this year against Watson. He said he welcomes those federal investigations, but he simultaneously denounced Buzbee for bringing them to the media.

“He wants to leverage his civil lawsuits,” Hardin said. “He knows those lawsuits have no future in the long run. But he wants to be out there and promote himself and the lawsuits and try to get Deshaun to settle them and pay him money so he can ride into the sunset.”

Buzbee, who is representing the women suing the 25-year-old for sexual assault and harassment, denied that any of his clients were being investigated.

“I think Rusty is reaching for straws and that’s kind of silly,” Buzbee said. “God bless him, the FBI, is, not as far as I know, is not investigating the women who have been victimized. They’re investigating Deshaun Watson.”

Buzbee later clarified that he does not know whether there is an official “investigation” into Watson, but that he did speak with federal agents.

[…]

Hardin on Wednesday focused on claims that one of those women extorted Watson for money before filing a lawsuit alleging he forced oral sex. He read text messages that appeared to show the woman apologizing for her own behavior during a session.

The attorney said the FBI approached his team in April about those allegations, and Watson later spoke to the bureau about them.

Buzbee said he detected irony in Hardin’s statements about his client.

“He’s doing the best he can do, but it’s kind of sad that he’s turning it around on the women,” he said.

Hard to know what to make of this. I’m loathe to believe any claim Tony Buzbee makes, but I’d say he’s more likely to be right about what the FBI is doing than Rusty Hardin is in this case. But who knows? The FBI said nothing as per their usual policy, and whatever it is they may be doing, they’ll be done when they’re done. So we wait.

More criminal complaints against Deshaun Watson

Yeesh.

Multiple women have filed complaints with the Houston Police Department related to Texans’ quarterback Deshaun Watson, according to both sides in the football player’s civil sexual assault cases.

Almost half of the 22 women who filed civil claims against Watson have given sworn statements to police and spoken to NFL investigators, attorney Tony Buzbee said Sunday. Defense lawyer Rusty Hardin specified on Monday that eight women in the suits have filed complaints with police. He also said two new women not in litigation have done the same, which ESPN first reported.

Houston police on Monday declined to comment beyond an initial statement they released in early April. One person filed a complaint, they said at the time, leading the agency to open an investigation.

The police and NFL investigations remain underway with no signs of immediate resolution for Watson, who returned to training camp this week amid the allegations of sexual assault and harassment.

Those cases as well as the lawsuits are trudging along, keeping Watson in a holding pattern while he doesn’t play and demands a trade — that in itself an unlikely occurrence until his legal issues end, team sources have said.

“Both processes are very lengthy,” Buzbee said, referring to the police and NFL probes. “We expect to provide further information to the NFL from all victims.”

[…]

Hardin said on Monday Houston officers should also speak to the remaining 14 women who sued but did not file police reports, he said, in order to complete a full investigation.

The lawsuits are meanwhile moving through the discovery process in the Harris County civil courts. Buzbee said his team is currently obtaining written information from Watson, including electronic data and payment records.

See here and here for some background. The complaints by two women who are not suing Watson sounds ominous to me. I know that he’s Rusty Hardin and I’m not, but if I were Rusty Hardin, I might be a little worried about what the police might find when they talk to those other 14 women.

The arrest of Hervis Rogers is a travesty

You should be very mad about this.

Hervis Rogers

A Houston man who made headlines last year for standing in line six hours to vote at Texas Southern University was charged this week by Attorney General Ken Paxton with casting that ballot illegally while on parole.

Just a day before Republicans forced a special session of the Texas Legislature to tighten voting restrictions, Hervis Rogers, 62, was jailed on $100,000 bail in Montgomery County on two counts of illegal voting, court records show, even though he lives and voted in Harris County. Rogers is due back in court on July 20 in what a legal expert called a “symbolic prosecution.”

“The argument of voter fraud is very hot right now, the statistics don’t seem to bear out that it is widepsread but this case will certainly stick, I suspect, in people’s memories as a cautionary tale of why you should never consider doing it,” according to criminal defense attorney Christopher Downey, who is not affiliated with this case.

An indictment filed last month with the Montgomery County District Court claims Rogers was still on parole for a 1995 burglary conviction when he voted in both the March 2020 Democratic primary and November 2018 general election.

He had been released from prison in May 2004 after serving nine years of a 25-year sentence, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He voted in the March elections less than four months before his parole was set to expire on July 1, 2020.

Texas Election Code states that someone on parole for a felony conviction is ineligible to register as a voter, and that violations of election law may be prosecuted in the county where the alleged crime was committed, or an adjoining county. Because Rogers has three prior convictions between 1986 and 1995 — all for burglary or robbery — he is potentially facing between 25 years to life in prison, Downey said.

The charges against Rogers are “extremely unusual” to Downey, who said in his nearly 30 years in criminal law he’s never come across a voter fraud case. The choice to prosecute in more conservative Montgomery County instead of Harris County, where the alleged fraud occurred, also “reeks of forum shopping” and “strengthens the argument that its a symbolic prosecution,” even if the move is legally sound.

If Rogers was indeed ineligible, his only point of contention could be that he was unaware of the restrictions on his eligibility, Downey said, though he noted that ignorance of a law does not amount to much of a legal defense.

“The Hervis case demonstrates why we need to make sure people who have been disenfranchised fully know their rights when it comes to voting, but we also need to change the laws to fully restore voting rights.” said Stephanie Gomez, associate director at Common Cause Texas, a self-described “pro-democracy” group. “There is already a lack of clarity around voting rights restoration for people who have been disenfranchised by the criminal justice system.”

[…]

“When you push forward bills that criminalize our elections, that hurts Texans and people like Hervis,” Gomez said. “It’s not lost on me that the governor has called a special session where they are chasing these claims of widespread voter fraud across Texas … the timing is not lost on me at all.”

See here for when we first met Hervis Rogers. Note that he is being held on $100,000 bail.

Really tells you something about Ken Paxton’s priorities, doesn’t it? I can’t think of a valid reason to hold this guy, or anyone like him, on that level of bond. Among many other things, this is a good example of why the cash bond system is unconstitutional and needs to be completely overhauled.

Look, we all know the reason Ken Paxton is doing this, and why he’s doing it now, more than a year after Hervis Rogers cast that vote, and why he picked Montgomery County as his preferred venue. Hervis Rogers didn’t hurt anyone. In nearly half the states in the country, he’d have been free to vote at this point in his life. He did nothing wrong, and he’s in danger of having his life destroyed for a mistake by a deeply corrupt Attorney General who wants to make and example of him. As a schoolkid I used to hear about this sort of thing happening in scary totalitarian places like East Germany and the Soviet Union. And now it’s happening here. I’m sick just thinking about it. KUHF, which was first to report this, and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: Thankfully, Hervis Rogers has now been released on bail. Everything about this is still a goddamned travesty.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story.

FBI looking into Constable “bachelor party sting” mess

Never a good sign.

Constable Alan Rosen

Federal investigators are probing the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office after several current and former female employees accused superiors of sexually exploiting them during undercover anti-human trafficking operations, a lawyer for the women confirmed Thursday.

Attorney Cordt Akers, who is representing several of the women, confirmed Thursday that federal investigators had subpoenaed his clients to learn more about their allegations.

“Our clients have been in full cooperation with the federal authorities in their investigation into the horrible misconduct in the Precinct 1 Human Trafficking Unit,” he said, in response to questions from the Chronicle. “The serious nature of these crimes deserves serious attention, and we are happy that this conduct will no longer go unchecked.”

FBI Spokeswoman Christina Garza declined to comment on the case.

“Per Department of Justice policy, the FBI does not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation,” she said.

[…]

In an emailed statement, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was “aware” of the allegations and “obviously concerned,” but said the lawsuit prevented her from saying anything more.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia — who has previously clashed with the constables over questions about efficiency or redundant or wasteful law enforcement operations — said the FBI “must have the opportunity to thoroughly investigate these allegations.”

“Without knowledge of specific facts, this is not a time to speculate on what may have transpired,” he said. “That being said the allegations that have been made public are extremely disturbing and these women deserve to have their allegations thoroughly investigated.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I did call for an outside investigation into this case. Not what I had in mind, but it counts. Unless something leaks, we’re not going to know any more about this until such time as the FBI finishes its business. So sit back and wait patiently, and be glad you’re not Alan Rosen right now. The Press has more.

Andrea Yates, 20 years later

This case still breaks my heart.

Twenty years after their killings, attorney George Parnham still dutifully visits the graves of Andrea Yates’ five children.

He regularly drives to Clear Lake to leave flowers for Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke, 2 and Mary, 6 months. He makes sure the grass over their graves is cut. He still weeps when he talks about them.

“I haven’t had a case in my entire career that has impacted my life as much as this case has,” said Parnham. “It’s something about the kids.”

During Yates’ 2002 trial, which drew international attention, many couldn’t fathom how a 36-year-old mother could drown her own children in a bathtub. The definitions of postpartum depression and psychosis were not yet commonly known. In order to defend Yates, Parnham had to educate the public about mental illness.

“When a person is suffering from mental illness and is in a psychotic state, they make decisions based on their own reality,” he said. “They don’t have a decision-making process based on rational thinking.”

The case brought mental health awareness, and postpartum mental illness in particular, into public awareness. Since it happened, more therapists, psychiatrists and medical professionals have dedicated their careers to helping women struggling after giving birth. More resources and interventions have also become available.

“Over the years, we’ve seen more and more women speak up and ask for help,” said Dr. Sherry Duson, a licensed therapist and counselor who founded the Center for Postpartum Family Health in Houston . “And there’s a greater understanding among OB-GYN pediatricians that perinatal mental illness is common and treatable and needs to be addressed.”

You should read the rest. It’s still painful to consider all the ways that Andrea Yates was failed by everyone around her, but at least we are more cognizant of mental illnesses, in particular postpartum depression and psychosis, than we were before. And God bless George Parnham for all the work he did on this case, and for his commitment to Andrea Yates and her children after all this time. May we never see another case like this again.

The HPD transparency portal

This is good.

Traffic stops. Discipline. Use of force. Following widespread calls for police accountability, Houston residents now can use the city’s “Police Transparency Hub” to get far more detailed, accessible information about some of police’s most controversial topics than has ever been available previously.

The online tool — compiled in a series of dashboards — provides information about the work and conduct of Houston police officers, including how often they use force, how often they are disciplined, statistics on the department’s diversity, information on traffic stops, and information on the department’s implementation of “cite-and-release,” in which officers issue citations for some misdemeanor offenses instead of arresting people.

Since the start of the year, police officers conducted 88,301 traffic stops, used force 4,203 times, and issued 152 citations instead of arrests.

In a news release that accompanied the launch of the tool earlier this month, Mayor Sylvester Turner said it was “a significant step toward increasing transparency and accountability while building trust between the public and the police department.”

The website also tells residents how to file complaints about police officers and shares information about other controversial policing topics, including the city’s contract with its officers, the police department’s general orders, the city’s new Office of Police Reform and Accountability, and the Independent Police Oversight Board.

[…]

Criminal justice reform advocates called the dashboard a “critical step” toward keeping HPD accountable but said it needs more work.

“Data transparency is a vital tool to assess the efficacy and fairness of policing,” said Julia Montiel, policy and advocacy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “We hope city leaders will collaborate with advocates to further refine the dashboard.”

See here for the background, and here for the city’s press release. The portal looks pretty useful, and the key here is just that the data is publicly available, in easy to view form. That will help answer a lot of questions, and will be a force for accountability just because people will be able to see how the data trends over time. I don’t know what specifically could be done to make this better, but the suggestion that the city work with activists and get their feedback makes a lot of sense. There was a lot of work done under Mayor Parker to make a bunch of city data available in raw form for developers and other folks who might want to make use of it, and I hope that is the case with this data as well. Take a look at what’s there and see what you think.

The Capitol date rape drug allegation was fabricated

Jesus Christ.

The news landed at the Texas Capitol last month like a bombshell: State police were investigating claims that a male lobbyist from one of the most influential firms in Austin had used a date rape drug on two female legislative staffers.

The Capitol quickly swung into outrage mode. Female legislators wore pink in solidarity with the victims. The House speaker condemned the “disgusting, detestable allegations.” After the alleged culprit was identified, some legislators banned his firm, HillCo Partners, from their offices. And new laws requiring that lobbyists receive harassment training were proposed.

Within a week, however, the Travis County district attorney and the Texas Department of Public Safety announced in a statement that they would not be bringing any charges. “We have concluded there is not enough evidence to support these allegations. … No crime occurred in this instance,” DPS and DA Jose Garza said.

Now, a DPS investigation has concluded that a legislative staffer fabricated the story of the date rape drug to cover up embarrassing personal behavior. “No evidence or facts obtained during the investigation support the allegation,” the 50-page report said.

In a separate audio recording obtained by Hearst Newspapers, the investigator went even further, describing the accused lobbyist, Richard Dennis — not the female staffer — as “the victim” in this case. “She lied to me,” the investigator, Special Agent Patrick Alonzo, can be heard saying. “She orchestrated all this.”

DPS turned over the results of its investigation to the district attorney’s office indicating that the woman was deceitful in her dealings with the police, but prosecutors declined to charge her. Garza, a Democrat elected in 2020, did not respond to questions from Hearst Newspapers.

In a lengthy interview in the office of his attorneys, David and Perry Minton, Dennis said that when he learned he was the suspect in the drugging case, he felt like his career was over. At one point, he said, he thought about killing himself.

“I contemplated, with my life insurance, maybe I am at this point better off not walking this earth, to my family, than I am walking in it,” said Dennis, 42. “She needed an alibi. For some reason, this is the story that she settled on.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I believed the accuser. There was no reason not to – there was nothing fantastical about her claim. Far too many women have their own stories to tell, and the Capitol’s reputation as a hostile work environment for many women is well earned. The policies put in place following the 2017 stories about the Capitol’s culture were not very robust, with the omission of lobbyists from the mandatory sexual harassment training being dumb and obvious. I don’t regret emphasizing the voices of the women who were speaking out following this accusation.

But this story turned out to be a lie, and the lobbyist who was named by the accuser (and whose name was published by Michael Quinn Sullivan’s website The Scorecard) was the actual victim. That’s terrible for Richard Dennis, who did not deserve to have any of this happen to him. I was suspicious when the investigation ended with no charges being brought – we have certainly seen that outcome in cases where the story was not made up – and that turned out to be wrong. I hope Richard Dennis is able to get his life back together and that he gets any help he might need in processing what happened to him, and I hope that people remember him for more than this.

This is also terrible for everyone who has been or is being or will be victimized by an actual sexual predator, because now there’s another reason for many people to dismiss and disbelieve them. False accusations like this are quite rare, something like two percent of the total, but they sure leave an impression. I don’t know what drove this woman to make the decision she did, but I sure hope she lives with the regret and guilt of that choice for a long time. She did a lot of damage, and not just to Richard Dennis.

This story may have been untrue, but the culture at the Capitol, and so many other places, remains a problem. It still needs everyone’s efforts to fix it. Don’t let one lie and one liar distract you from that.

HempLicenseGate

The headline on this Trib story is “Top political aide to Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller arrested in alleged scheme to take money in exchange for hemp licenses”, and I have no idea how to make it any pithier than that.

The top political consultant to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller was arrested Thursday on allegations that he participated in a scheme to solicit money and campaign contributions for state hemp licenses issued by Miller’s Texas Department of Agriculture.

The consultant, Todd Smith, ultimately took $55,000 as part of the scheme, an arrest warrant affidavit obtained by The Texas Tribune says. Smith and others involved in the scheme are alleged in the warrant to have solicited a total of $150,000 to guarantee a license, including a $25,000 upfront cost for a survey that they said was required to get a license in Texas. Some of the money would also go toward funding unnamed political campaigns, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit alleges that Smith committed third-degree felony theft.

“Todd Smith created by words and his conduct, a false impression of fact that affected the judgment of others in the transactions to obtain a hemp license and/or conduct a survey that was never attempted by Todd Smith,” the affidavit says.

The allegations were investigated by the Texas Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit, which is responsible for looking into claims of public corruption.

[…]

The affidavit says Smith used another person as a middle man between himself and those interested in getting licenses. The affidavit does not provide much information about the middle man other than that he was “introduced to Todd Smith by a friend in August 2019.”

The affidavit includes the account of one man who wanted to get involved in the hemp industry and met the middle man at a social gathering in August 2019. The affidavit says the middle man told the license-seeker that he was “working directly with senior leadership at the TDA” and that he “needed $150,000.00 in cash, with some of the money going toward campaign contributions, in order to receive the ‘guaranteed’ hemp license.”

The license-seeking man agreed to the deal, setting off a chain of events that included a November 2019 visit to Austin where he handed the middle man $30,000 cash in a car outside El Mercado, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Austin near the TDA offices, according to the affidavit. Williams went through an alley to take the money to the TDA headquarters before returning to the car and collecting Vinson for a scheduled meeting at the offices.

The affidavit says the license-seeker learned later that month that he was not guaranteed a license, despite the scheme that had been proposed to him. He reached Smith via phone, who “denied any knowledge but did admit to receiving a $5,000.00 gift from” the middle man, according to the allegations.

You can see the affidavit here. As the story notes, these hemp licenses were created in the 2019 Legislature for the purpose of allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp, which had been illegal under prior marijuana laws. HB 1325 from last session modified the legal definition of marijuana as part of the solution for that, and in the process made it harder for prosecutors to pursue low-level marijuana possession cases. None of that has anything to do with this case, which appears to be your basic “greedy dude with access to power attempts to cash in” story, at least on the surface. Good luck to the famously articulate Sid Miller explaining that to the voters.

Houston police reform items announced

It’s a start.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Thursday unveiled a sweeping effort to reform policing in Houston by banning no-knock warrants for non-violent offenses, restructuring the police oversight board, publicly releasing body camera footage when officers injure or kill residents, expanding diversion programs and allowing online and anonymous complaints against officers.

The reform package, which Turner outlined at a City Hall press conference with Police Chief Troy Finner and other city officials, comes nearly 11 months after the mayor appointed a task force to explore changes the city should make after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The group published a lengthy report last September that recommended 104 reforms to policing in Houston. Turner at the time said he supported “almost all” of the measures.

The city made more modest changes before and after it unveiled the report, such as an executive order curbing certain uses of force, “safe harbor” court to provide alternatives to jail for people who cannot afford to pay fines, and joining a cite-and-release program that gives citations instead of arrests for certain nonviolent crimes.

The slow pace in addressing big-ticket items, though, frustrated advocates looking for more immediate reforms. Turner sought to change that Thursday, addressing many of the central recommendations in the task force’s report. He said the city now has implemented more than half its suggestions.

Among the changes: a dashboard to track police misconduct and encounters while also accepting anonymous complaints; a revamped oversight board with full-time investigative staff; the ban on no-knock warrants, one of which resulted in two civilian deaths and unearthed a major scandal for Houston police; and the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of critical incidents.

The online complaint form, available in five languages, and data dashboards will be available by the end of May, Turner said. It will allow for anonymous complaints, which advocates have said is critical.

Scott Henson, executive director of justice reform nonprofit Just Liberty, said a similar change had a profound impact in Austin, where officers began anonymously reporting each other for infractions.

[…]

Turner also said he will use more than $25 million in federal pandemic relief dollars over three years to expand diversion programs, a key victory for some advocates who had called for the city to add mental health counselors to police responding to certain calls, or replace them altogether.

The diversion programs include Crisis Call Diversion, which directs certain 911 calls to mental health professionals with the goal of resolving an incident without a police response; Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams, which dispatch mental health professionals without law enforcement; and Crisis Intervention Response Teams, which pair a mental health counselor with a police officer.

The mayor said the city will expand the call diversion program to around-the-clock coverage, at an annual cost of $272,140, and hire 18 new mobile crisis outreach teams at a cost of $4.3 million per year, as the task force recommended.

While the report called for 24 new crisis intervention teams, the city will hire six new teams to add to the current staff of 12, among other efforts.

“We do ask our police officers to do way too much, and put them in some very precarious situations where the outcomes sometimes are not positive,” Turner said.

See here for the previous update. Overall, this seems pretty good, and the announcement drew praise from CMs Letitia Plummer and Tarsha Jackson, who are among the leaders in pushing for reforms on City Council. Some advocates were more muted, but at least no one was quoted in the story with harsh criticism. It’s still early days, so we’ll see about that. The next step is in the implementation, which will be another measure of the commitment from the city, as well as an indication of if we’re going in the right direction and at the right pace. It’s a good start, now we need to take the next steps. The Press has more.

On the topic of criminal justice reform, there were also a couple of items of interest from the Lege. First, the George Floyd Act passed the House.

The Texas House on Thursday quickly gave preliminary approval to three police reform measures that are part of a sweeping set of legislation following the in-custody murder of George Floyd last year.

The bills would require Texas law enforcement agencies to implement more uniform and substantive disciplinary actions for officer misconduct, bar officers from arresting people for fine-only traffic offenses and require corroboration of undercover officer testimony.

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, lead author of the bills and the omnibus George Floyd Act, said the disciplinary measure was about fairness and accountability.

“The bill is by no means a cookie cutter process,” said Thompson, D-Houston. “Every case of officers’ misconduct is different. But so are other crimes in this state.”

The approved measures will head to the more conservative Senate after a final vote in the House. The upper chamber has also passed targeted pieces of Texas’ George Floyd Act — though only those that are also supported by police unions. The measure on officer discipline is strongly opposed by major police unions.

See here for some background. I am cautiously optimistic, but with the Senate working to pass permitless carry over the objections of law enforcement, I fear they’ll aim to appease them by watering down this bill. We’ll see.

Also from the Lege: Smaller penalties for pot possession passes the House.

The Texas House preliminarily approved a bill that would lower the criminal penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana and provide a path for many Texans charged with such a crime to expunge it from their criminal records. The bill applies to possession of one ounce or less — approximately two dime bags.

Currently in Texas, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor, which can be punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. House Bill 441, authored by state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, would reduce possession of one ounce or less to a Class C misdemeanor, which carries no jail time. Police also wouldn’t be allowed to make arrests for possession at or under an ounce.

In a committee hearing, Zwiener said the language had been worked on with Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and praised the “bipartisan conversation” over reducing possession penalties. The House passed a similar measure two years ago, but Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick opposed it and quickly declared it dead in the upper chamber. Patrick’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

I continue to believe that no measure of marijuana decriminalization will pass the Lege as long as Dan Patrick is in a position of power. I will be happy to be proven wrong about that.

No charges files in Capitol date rape drug incident

A not very satisfying resolution.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and Travis County District Attorney’s Office said Thursday “that there is not enough evidence to support” an allegation that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer and that “no crime occurred in this instance.”

“DPS has conducted a thorough investigation following allegations of drugging of a Capitol staffer by a lobbyist,” the joint statement said. “Together, we have concluded that … criminal charges are not appropriate.”

The statement did not name the lobbyist, and officials have not offered further details — including the names of anyone allegedly involved — since DPS confirmed it was investigating the allegation, as first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

Earlier this week though, after DPS confirmed it was investigating the allegation, Bill Miller, a co-founder of the prominent Austin-based HillCo Partners, told The Texas Tribune that one of its employees was “a person of interest” in the investigation.

In a statement after Thursday’s news, Miller said that neither the firm nor the employee “had absolutely anything to do with the” allegation and said “DPS found we are completely clear of any and all wrongdoing.”

“The announcement today confirms our own internal investigation into the issue,” Miller said. “We commend law enforcement for a forceful and swift investigation into this serious matter.

After news of the investigation surfaced Saturday, state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers expressed outrage, with many House members declaring that they planned to ban from their offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation. By Sunday, Buddy Jones, another co-founder of HillCo told state lawmakers in an email that the group had hired outside legal counsel and “a respected former law enforcement official” to launch an investigation into the matter.

Meanwhile, Austin lawyers David and Perry Minton, who said earlier this week they were representing a person” purportedly being looked into” for the investigation, said in a statement Thursday that the allegation was “100% false.”

“It is our opinion that the individual or individuals involved in this outrages and immoral scheme [of making the allegation] should be held accountable by their employers and then prosecuted by our new district attorney,” the two said.

See here and here for the background. You can see the full statement here. Saying there’s not enough evidence to support the allegations is not the same as saying that nothing bad happened – to say “no crime occurred” is a tautology, since that is exactly what it means to not bring charges. We have due process for a reason, and this is the result. Maybe nothing did happen, or at least nothing that was ill-intentioned. Maybe it was too late for a drug test to render a judgment, since rohypnol metabolizes quickly. Maybe this was just another powerful guy getting away with it. We’ll never know for sure. If the lobbyist in question, whose name has been released by one right wing website, is innocent then this really sucks for him, since this incident will always follow him around. It’s going to suck even more for the woman who made the allegation, especially if it was true.

Putting all that aside, and putting aside the bills that have been filed to try to do something about sexual harassment and sexual assault at the Capitol, the one thing that seems clear is that little to nothing will change from a cultural perspective. Women aren’t going to be any more respected or valued at the Capitol, and the men who have been at the forefront of creating the hostile environment they work in – as well as the men and women who enable that environment – will not be held accountable. It’s aggravating, and I say that as a dude who has never been in a remotely similar position. My thoughts are with the woman who made the report, and with everyone who has ever gone through something like that. The Chron has more.

More on the Capitol date rape drug allegation

Good for Speaker Dade Phelan for forthrightly calling this out, but the underlying issue is a matter of culture, it’s been this way for a long, long time, and it’s going to be a slog to change it.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan in a speech to colleagues Monday called for reforms to some of the chamber’s policies relating to sexual harassment training and reporting, days after an allegation came to light that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer.

“These allegations shake our Capitol family to its core,” the first-term Republican speaker said soon after the House gaveled in, “and I am disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol.”

On Saturday, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed it had opened an investigation into a complaint made recently by a Capitol staffer. Officials though have so far declined to comment on further details, including the names of anyone allegedly involved. The news was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

News of the allegation prompted state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers to denounce the alleged incident, with some House members declaring on social media they were banning from their Capitol offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation.

By Sunday, HillCo Partners, a prominent Austin-based lobby firm, told state lawmakers in an email that it had launched an internal investigation into the matter, with one co-founder of the firm later telling The Texas Tribune that HillCo had been “tipped off” that one of its employees “is a person of interest” in the investigation.

Phelan said he was directing the House General Investigating Committee to establish an email hotline for staffers in House offices to submit reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace.

The speaker also said he had directed the House Administration Committee to change the chamber’s required sexual harassment prevention training to be completed in-person rather than virtually.

See here for the background. Again, I commend Speaker Phelan for taking this seriously – we’ve all seen plenty of examples of people in similar positions of leadership who have done much worse. But let’s be honest, there’s only so much that an email hotline and in-person sexual harassment prevention training can do. The problem is cultural, it’s deeply rooted, it’s not tied to a party or ideology, and it adapts to changing circumstances. It’s going to take the collective action of the entire Capitol community to make this stop – not just not tolerating the behaviors that have existed for decades, but calling them out and imposing consequences, even on friends and ideological allies. I don’t have to tell you that this won’t be easy – just look at how the “Me Too” movement has played out in society at large – and it won’t be quick. It’s just that there’s no other choice.

I’m going to end with a few more tweets, and the hope that the staffer who was victimized by this predator finds the justice she deserves. There’s video of Rep. Phelan’s speech at KVUE, and the Chron and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: Welp…

Whoever was at the center of this was always going to defend himself. This tells me that his defense will be quite vigorous. It could get a lot more contentious from here.

DPS investigating allegation that a lobbyist drugged a female Capitol staffer

That’s the headline on this story, and it’s disturbing.

Texas Department of Public Safety investigators are looking into an allegation from at least one female Capitol staffer who believes a lobbyist used a date-rape drug on her during a meeting downtown, an agency spokesman told the American-Statesman Saturday.

Officials recently received a complaint from an alleged victim, prompting the investigation, DPS spokesman Travis Considine said. He would not identify the lobbyist and was unable to say when and where the incident happened.

No charges have been filed and no arrests have been made.

Authorities also said they were not prepared to disclose where in the Capitol the alleged victim worked or for which member to protect her identity.

[…]

The allegation is reminiscent of 2017 media reports of sexual misconduct in the Capitol that went back years and led to lawmakers overhauling procedures for sexual harassment reporting in 2019.

The rules, which do not apply to lobbyists, require House members and staffers to take training on identifying and responding to such misconduct, and made the chamber’s general investigating committee the main body to vet allegations.

Obviously, there’s a lot we don’t know. There’s a good chance this won’t ever lead to an arrest, in which case we may never know any more than what we know now. What we do know is that the state Capitol has long been a hostile and dangerous place for women. (I presume that is also the case for nonbinary and gender non-conforming people, we just have less reporting on it.) A lot of the focus has been on the alleged behavior of some legislators, but it’s clear that lobbyists are a big part of the problem, too. Maybe this will lead to some names being named, or for the harassment rules to be extended to include lobbyists. For sure, there is much that needs to be done to make the Capitol environment safer, and all of it starts with regulating, punishing, and just generally not tolerating the offensive, harassing, dangerous behavior – committed overwhelmingly by men – that has been excused and ignored for so long. But even before that, we have to own up to the fact that there’s a problem first.

I’m going to end with a few words from the women who feel the threat of all this every session. We must do better.

UPDATE:

Make of that what you will.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story, with further comment from HillCo Partners.

One crime Texas isn’t so tuff on

And that’s sexual assault, in the category of crimes Deshaun Watson has been accused of.

As the Houston Police Department investigates at least one criminal complaint against Deshaun Watson, a review of the allegations made in civil court against the Texans quarterback show officials could be limited to pursuing misdemeanor charges for all but a few serious accusations.

More than half of the 23 women who sued Watson say he made sexual contact without their consent. In Texas, that’s a misdemeanor in criminal court, on par with burglary of a vehicle or property theft between $750 and $2,500.

Three plaintiffs allege that Watson either forced or coerced fellatio — a second degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

[…]

Texas lags behind some states in punishing offenders in cases of sexual assault that don’t rise to the level of rape. The Houston Chronicle analyzed a database of sex crimes laws across all 50 states compiled by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. It found that unwanted sexual contact described in more than half the lawsuits — where there is no penetration involved — is a felony in a dozen of them, but not in Texas.

Experts say classifying what Watson is accused of doing as misdemeanor indecent assault minimizes the seriousness of such crimes and discourages victims from coming forward.

“The gravity of indecent assault or indecent acts can vary so substantially,” said Geoffrey S. Corn, South Texas College of Law Houston’s Gary A. Kuiper Distinguished Professor of National Security Law. “Compelling someone to touch your genitals or touching them with your genitals is a much more aggravated crime” than grabbing someone’s buttocks.

[…]

Other states impose harsher punishments than Texas. In Utah, for example, forcible sex abuse — touching a person’s anus, buttock, pubic area or any part of someone’s genitals, or touches a female’s breasts — is a second-degree felony punishable by one to 15 years in prison.

Alaska classifies non-consensual sexual contact as sexual assault in the second degree, a class B felony. It’s punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

But in Texas, the same crime is only a class A misdemeanor. At most, a person found guilty of indecent assault would receive a year in jail and be fined $4,000.

Corn said each offense could be punished separately. But still, “treating it conclusively as a misdemeanor is troubling,” Corn said.

I should note that the penalties cited in this story are the maximum for the given crime. Most likely, an offender who was convicted or accepted a plea for them would get a lesser sentence. I’ve learned enough over the years to be very skeptical of aggressive punishments for most crimes, as they seldom have any positive effect on the frequency with which those crimes are committed, and of course because of the great racial disparities in our criminal justice system. That doesn’t mean Texas has the right idea with its punishments for these non-rape sex crimes. If anything, it tells us more about the state’s attitude towards this kind of crime. (*) There are a lot of reasons why people (mostly but not entirely women) are reluctant to come forward when they are victimized in this fashion, but the prospect of seeing their attacker get off with a light sentence even in the best case scenario is surely one of them.

(*) – Compare, for example, to the multi-year prison sentence Crystal Mason got for voting when she wasn’t eligible. If her conviction is upheld by the Court of Criminal Appeals, she would serve more time than Deshaun Watson would if he were convicted under most of the charges levied against him.

Watson seeks names of accusers

This was going to happen sooner or later.

Attorneys for Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson on Thursday urged several state courts to require the disclosure of the names of the women accusing him of sexual assault and harassment — a move one legal expert called an intimidation tactic.

In a new court filing, defense lawyer Rusty Hardin lambasted the women’s attorney, Tony Buzbee, for holding a “trial by press conference” and making it difficult for Watson to respond to the 22 separate accusations without knowing who filed suit. The anonymous women, most of whom are massage therapists, allege that Watson assaulted or harassed them during sessions in 2020 and 2021 in Texas, California, Georgia or Arizona.

Hardin filed multiple requests Thursday but said he intended to file them in all of the women’s cases.

“Through the spectacle of the last few weeks, Mr. Watson has been unable to responsibly defend himself in the face of overwhelming national media coverage,” Hardin said in the filing for a special exception to the original petition. “Mr. Watson’s counsel cannot in good conscience publicly respond to the specific allegations being made because any response would be based on dangerous speculation about the identity of the accusers.”

[…]

The women are all officially listed as “Jane Doe” in court documents. Two Texas Rules of Civil Procedure prevent plaintiffs from filing civil claims using pseudonyms, Hardin said. One rule requires plaintiffs to state their name if it is known, and the other requires giving the defense fair notice of the claims involved. An exception is made for minors in sex assault cases.

A judge could potentially permit the defense to learn the identities of the plaintiffs but order the names not be released publicly, University of Houston law professor Meredith Duncan said.

Tahira Khan Merritt, a Texas attorney who litigates civil sex assault cases in state and federal court, said judges have discretion as to whether they would allow the case to proceed under a pseudonym. Prohibiting a pseudonym would merely be an intimidation tactic so early in a case, she said.

“The use of pseudonyms is very common across the United States,” Merritt said. “The only reason they would push it is to shut the victim up and discourage others from coming forward.”

Buzbee previously told Hardin he could provide the names if they used a confidentiality order, Hardin said.

As we know, two accusers have come forward publicly, but the others have not. At the court hearings today, they got some of what they wanted.

Two Harris County judges ordered in separate hearings on Friday that Tony Buzbee refile sexual assault and harassment cases against quarterback Deshaun Watson with the names of the accusers made public.

State district Judge Dedra Davis granted defense attorney Rusty Hardin’s request and asked that Buzbee refile a case in her court and disclose one of the women’s names within two days. Buzbee had suggested a private disclosure to Hardin for the women, who were initially all listed as “Jane Doe.”

A second judge, Rabeea Sultan Collier, made the same determination in the cases of three other women late Friday morning. Ten other women agreed to allow Buzbee to release their identities, and the woman in Davis’ court was “emboldened” and told Buzbee not to fight the judge’s decision, he said.

[…]

Hardin told Collier that making names public, while a concern for women’s safety, is also necessary for the defense. Since Solis and one other woman identified themselves during a Tuesday news conference, his team has received information about them from outside parties, he said.

Davis agreed that both parties needed fair treatment and that the women needed to be protected. But she agreed with Hardin that his use of publicizing the case in the media hurt his arguments.

“Everything’s been thrown into the spotlight,” she said. “I understand that you said in private you will allow the accuser to be known but it’s been very public.”

Collier heard arguments about 12 cases, nine of which were moot since the women agreed to have their names released. Solis’ case, the first to be filed, landed in her court, which means it is customary that any consolidation of cases would also move to her courtroom.

Hardin and Buzbee also agreed on a consolidation agreement Friday. All 22 women’s cases will proceed in Collier’s court before trial, but would move back to their original courts for a trial.

OK then. There are still hearings to be had for the remaining women, so we’ll see how that goes. We also now have a preview of the defense.

Deshaun Watson’s attorneys on Friday issued their first extensive defense of the star quarterback, alleging that every sexual act he partook in was consensual.

Rusty Hardin and a team of four women spoke from the Hilton Americas hotel downtown, issuing statements of support to the media and apologizing for remaining quiet as Watson was hit with 22 separate lawsuits of sexual assault and harassment. But the veteran, high-profile defense attorney also prodded reporters to look more closely at the behavior of the women’s lawyer, Tony Buzbee, who he said withheld the names of the anonymous plaintiffs until it was vital that they be made public through an emergency hearing.

[…]

Watson has been receiving two to three massages a week for four years, totaling sometimes to 150 a year, Hardin said. Most of the allegations seem to stem from 2020 and 2021 because the massage industry has changed over the course of the pandemic with the closure of spas and tendency of massage therapists to turn to Instagram for marketing, he said.

Watson, 25, largely operates from Instagram, and he doesn’t have a large team of massage therapists at his disposal through the Texans as many would believe, his attorneys said.

The female attorneys at the press conference clarified that they were not the only people from Hardin’s office on the lawsuits and did not appear to speak for appearances. They were only there because they wholeheartedly believe Watson, they said.

Attorney Leticia Quinones, a sexual assault survivor herself, said that she and other women on the team personally met with Watson and were convinced of his innocence. She urged the public to look at Watson’s “credit history” of good deeds in the community and success in overcoming a rough childhood.

She said Watson has a target on his back after signing a $160 million contract. He’s separately trying to leave the Texans.

“This 25 year old man was thrown in the depths of something he wasn’t accustomed to – money fam and stardom,” Quinones said.

Quinones added however, “I don’t discount anything that a young woman believes happens to her,” and after taking questions, Hardin agreed that “good guys” are capable of doing bad things.

Hardin said he simply wants to move the needle back to the middle in terms of public discourse following weeks of attacks from Buzbee’s team.

I’ve tried not to jump to any conclusions as the plaintiffs have made their accusations, and I’m going to continue to try to stay neutral as the defense begins to speak. There is sure to be a lot more said on all of this. Sean Pendergast has more.

A Watson accuser has come forward

Listen to what she says.

The first of 22 women to file a sexual assault and harassment lawsuit against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson spoke out on Tuesday, coming forward publicly in response to the defense team’s questions over the accusers’ identities.

At a news conference in attorney Tony Buzbee’s downtown high rise office, licensed massage therapist Ashley Solis shared her experience as a woman who is now struggling in her profession in the aftermath of the alleged assault. Buzbee then distributed pages of documents showing messages that he claims Watson sent to some of his clients, and his associates named a second woman who filed one of the lawsuits.

Solis said she now has difficulty touching patients without shaking, and on several occasions she has had to end sessions early.

“We were all deceived into thinking that Deshaun Watson was a great guy,” Solis said. “Unfortunately we know that good guys can do terrible things.”

Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, released a lengthy statement containing a series of email exchanges allegedly between Buzbee’s camp and a Watson representative, claiming Buzbee sought $100,000 to settle Solis’ allegations just one month before he filed her suit.

“Mr. Buzbee himself repeatedly claimed that the litigation he filed on behalf of other Jane Does ‘isn’t about money,’” Hardin said. “In fact, according to the documentation below, Mr. Buzbee sought $100,000 in hush money.”

Separately, he said Buzbee has not turned over any of the documents he shared with the media. Hardin has previously criticized Buzbee for failing to give him the names of his clients, which he says prevents him from investigating the claims.

See here for the previous update. I would much rather live in a world where no one ever had any reason to accuse Deshaun Watson – or anyone else, for that matter – of any kind of inappropriate sexual behavior. One is allowed to have complicated feelings about all of this. I’m still wrestling with a lot of contradictory emotions and reactions, and I’m a pretty lukewarm Texans fan. While Deshaun Watson and Rusty Hardin have the right to defend his actions and his reputation, Ashley Solis deserves to be treated with respect. She’s already being attacked by trolls, which is a great illustration of why very few women make this kind of accusation lightly, and why most of these plaintiffs have remained nameless so far. Watson and Hardin will get their chance to question her account and her veracity, and we will get to make up our own minds about it, hopefully once all the evidence is in. Let’s all please try not to be jackasses about this.

I mention Watson and Hardin defending Watson’s reputation because that is very much at issue here.

Nike has suspended its business relationship with Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is facing 22 civil lawsuits that allege sexual assault and harassment.

“We are deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations and have suspended Deshaun Watson,” Nike said in a statement e-mailed to the Chronicle. “We will continue to closely monitor the situation.”

Beats by Dre also has terminated its relationship with Deshaun Watson, according to sources not authorized to speak publicly. Watson had a business relationship with Beats by Dre since he was drafted in the first round in 2017 out of Clemson.

Also, Reliant Energy has dropped its relationship with Watson as a brand ambassador is over.

“Reliant is aware of pending civil lawsuits and a criminal investigation involving Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans quarterback,” Reliant said in an email. “Our relationship with Watson as a brand ambassador was scheduled to end this spring prior to these allegations, and there are no plans for future engagements or contracts with him. We take accusations of this nature very seriously. With respect to the legal process, we do not have any further comment on this matter.”

Not hard to understand why these companies took this action. The stakes overall are a lot higher than endorsement deals, but this is a significant development. Sean Pendergast has more.

Why lawsuits?

If you’ve wondered why the women who have accused Deshaun Watson of sexual harassment and assault have filed lawsuits against him instead of police reports, this Chron story offers some reasons.

The 22 women suing Deshaun Watson for allegedly sexually assaulting and harassing them have been criticized for not first taking their allegations to police.

But experts say a civil suit is often a sexual assault victim’s best shot at justice.

“In a civil case, you can expect a broader range of accountability,” said Elizabeth Boyce, general counsel and director of policy and advocacy for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. “You might settle before trial and that might include a public acknowledgment and apology.”

[…]

But experts said there are myriad reasons why a victim would choose to file a case in civil court instead of a criminal complaint — including compensation to pay for any emotional and medical care needed after an assault.

“Victims of sexual assault had something stolen from them,” said Noblet Davidson, founder and clinical director of enCOURAGE Trauma Center in Houston. “They need to be compensated. If you get in a car accident, you get compensated.”

The fear of being outed, for example, can deter a victim from filing a police report, Boyce said — especially when the alleged perpetrator is famous.

“Confidentiality and privacy is always at the heart of these cases,” Boyce said. “Honestly, it’s a fear of any victim of sexual assault that this is going to result in some sort of public condemnation or harassment.”

The nation has seen it play out over and over again, Boyce said.

When California professor Christine Blasey Ford testified before Congress, alleging that now-Supreme court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in high school, she received death threats. She and her family had to move multiple times and had to pay for a private security detail.

[…]

For some victims, taking their assault to police can seem hopeless.

Not only are they retraumatized each time they have to describe their assault, Boyce said, but it can also seem as if they are not in control of the outcomes.

“In criminal cases, the state doesn’t represent the victims, they represent the state and they control every aspect of the case,” Boyce said. “And so often (the cases) are refused for prosecution for a variety of reasons — if they think they can’t win or they think there’s too much political pressure.”

The criminal investigation process also is intrusive and time-consuming, with court hearings, follow-ups with police and medical appointments, said Olivia Rivers, executive director of the Houston-area advocacy nonprofit Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Officers may show up at the victim’s house or workplace. Family and friends — who the victim may not want to tell about the assault — may be interviewed to corroborate the report.

“A sexual assault exam can take hours,” she said. “How do you explain to your family why you were at a hospital for that long? Or how do you explain to your employer why you had to miss so much work for court?”

Additionally, the burden of proof also is lower in a civil court than in a criminal prosecution. Civilly, the victims only have to show a preponderance of evidence, but in criminal cases, authorities have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the assault happened.

Therefore, it can easier for victims to get some form of justice in a civil court, whether it be a public apology or a monetary award for pain and suffering — especially when there isn’t enough physical evidence to criminally convict a perpetrator.

“Sexual violence … isn’t taken seriously by society,” Rivers said. “This about having their voices heard.”

Sometimes, victims might seek both criminal prosecution and civil damages.

At least one alleged victim has done exactly that, and others may follow. In the meantime, lawsuit #22 is on the books. We won’t know how successful this approach is until we have some resolutions in these cases, but the reason why the lawsuits were filed should be clear.

HPD now investigating Deshaun Watson

Someone filed a report.

Already facing a rash of civil lawsuits, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson now has been named in a criminal complaint, according to the Houston Police Department.

HPD confirmed it “is now conducting an investigation and will not comment further during the investigative process.”

The probe comes as Texans quarterback faces 21 civil lawsuits from massage therapists or wellness professionals who allege he sexually assaulted or harassed them at various points during massage sessions in 2020 or 2021.

Watson and his attorney, Rusty Hardin, have denied the claims

Hardin, who has publicly chastised Watson’s accusers for not disclosing their names in the litigation, said his team will cooperate with police.

“We welcome this long overdue development,” Hardin said of the investigation. “Now we will learn the identity of at least one accuser.”

Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, who is representing the alleged victims in the civil lawsuits, pushed back against the criticism of the alleged victims, saying they are courageous in coming forward.

“It takes great strength to do what these women are doing,” he said. “We are not only dealing with the future of a star quarterback, we are dealing with the physical health, mental health, safety, and well-being of courageous people who had the fortitude to step forward, although powerless, against the powerful.”

On Friday, Buzbee said that he was aware of the criminal complaint filed Friday morning.

“I will also confirm that other criminal complaints will follow, as previously indicated, in Houston and in other jurisdictions and with other agencies,” he said.

That’s more direct than Buzbee’s previous word salad on the topic. It seems likely we were always headed in this direction, but the story so far has proceeded in an unusual manner, so who really knows. Nothing to do but wait and see what if anything comes of this, and how many other reports get filed.

CCA to review Crystal Mason’s conviction

Good.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed to review the illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction.

The state’s court of last resort for criminal matters granted Mason’s petition on Wednesday, elevating the profile of a case that could test the extent to which provisional ballots provide a safe harbor for voters amid questions about their eligibility. Her 2016 vote was never counted.

After discovering she was not on the voter roll, Mason submitted a provisional ballot in that year’s presidential election on the advice of a poll worker. Because she was still on supervised release for a federal tax fraud conviction, she was not eligible to participate in elections and her vote was rejected. Throughout the case, Mason has said she had no idea she was ineligible to vote under Texas law and wouldn’t have knowingly risked her freedom. But Tarrant County prosecutors pressed forward with charges, arguing Mason’s case came down to intent.

A trial court judge convicted her of illegally voting, a second-degree state felony, relying on an affidavit Mason signed before casting her provisional ballot. The affidavit required individuals to swear that “if a felon, I have completed all my punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned.” Mason said she did not read that side of the paper.

The all-Republican court’s decision to review Mason’s case is notable. The Court of Criminal Appeals isn’t required to review non-death penalty convictions, and it rarely grants requests to do so. However, the court indicated it won’t hear oral arguments in the case and instead rely on legal briefs.

Mason turned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals late last year after a state appeals court panel affirmed the trial court’s judgement.

In her petition to the court, Mason’s lawyers argued the appeals court erred in upholding her conviction because the state’s illegal voting statute requires a person to know they are ineligible to vote and Mason did not. In its ruling, the three-judge appeals panel wrote that the fact Mason did not know she was ineligible was “irrelevant to her prosecution.”

“The State needed only to prove that she voted while knowing of the existence of the condition that made her ineligible,” Justice Wade Birdwell wrote in the court’s opinion. In other words, Mason’s knowledge that she was on supervised release was sufficient for an illegal voting conviction.

Mason’s lawyers argued that letting that finding stand “eviscerates” a voter’s right to cast a provisional ballot under the Help America Vote Act, which established provisional ballots as a way for people whose registration is in doubt to record their votes and allow local officials to later determine if those ballots should be counted.

“These issues have far reaching implications for Texas voters who make innocent mistakes concerning their eligibility to vote and could potentially be prosecuted for such mistakes, including the tens of thousands of voters who submit provisional ballots in general elections believing in good faith they are eligible to vote but turn out to be incorrect in that belief,” their brief read.

See here and here for some background. We can argue about whether Mason should have been convicted, and we can argue about whether people in Mason’s position should be able to vote (spoiler alert: my answers are “no” and “yes”, in that order), but if you believe a five-year prison sentence fits this “crime”, you’re just wrong. There are plenty of murderers and rapists who get off more easily than that. And by the way, if the various voter suppression worming their way through the Lege get passed, the state will have a lot more power to throw basically harmless people in jail for similar violations of made-up rules. The CCA is hardly known for being lenient on defendants, but I hope this time they do the right thing.

Court is now in session

Another aspect of the maskless mandate.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday lifted most restrictions on in-person state court proceedings after Gov. Greg Abbott this week reopened Texas.

Almost all in-person court proceedings had been banned since the local onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving courts no choice but to embrace remote hearings and appearances. With that requirement now ended, the Supreme Court is still encouraging judges to hold online trials and hearings, but will allow in-person proceedings if minimum health standard protocols and scheduling protocols are in place, according to the latest emergency order.

Local presiding judges also have the authority to require masks and impose social distancing requirements.

Harris County judges aim to solidify any changes to court operations by the end of next week, Administrative District Judge Robert Schaffer said.

“We have safety protocols in place that we’re going to continue with,” he said. “I think we’re going to take a breath, a deep breath, and read it (the order), and take another deep breath and read it again and try not to do a knee jerk response to it.”

[…]

Misdemeanor Judge Sedrick Walker, adminsitrative judge over the Harris County Criminal Courts at Law, said that based on his reading of the order, courts must take action to avoid spreading COVID-19. Masks are a way of doing that, he said.

“I can’t speak directly to the opinion of each individual misdemeanor judge at this time, however, I am confident that our judges would continue to require face coverings/masks in the courtroom,” he said. “In accordance with the guidance from the CDC and Harris County Public Health, the use of face coverings will continue to be required in my courtroom.”

The courts have been pretty backed up since the beginning of the pandemic – that has been a key factor in the high jail population in Harris County, among other things. I don’t know how much this helps, but maybe it moves things along a little. I hope there’s some effort to track COVID cases that may be related to in-person court hearings, just so that we can stop and make changes as needed.

A poll about jailing people

Of interest.

New polling from The Appeal and Data for Progress shows that most Harris County residents support bail reform measures and want fewer people in the county’s overcrowded jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The polling shows 59 percent of residents in Harris County favor releasing people charged with low-level offenses. Support for that comes from 64 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans, according to the survey of almost 500 likely voters in Harris County.

The polling also found that 62 percent of people including 59 percent of Republicans, favor releasing people with less than six months left in their sentence.

In general, 65 percent of Harris County voters and two-thirds of Republican voters said they supported the use of ticking and citations as an alternative to jail.

The polling serves as proof that public opinion is firmly with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis, and other criminal justice reform advocates who have worked to overhaul the county’s cash bail system.

See here for more on the data. It’s meager, and I don’t see anything on the Data for Progress website to supplement it, so take it for what it is. As with all DfP polls, it was done via web panel, with 478 respondents. I point this out not because I think it’s a huge vindication of my own opinions, but because I’d really like to see a closer examination of these questions, and of the (frequently emotional rather than fact-based) arguments against them. I suspect that the potential to move these numbers, especially among partisans, is quite large, but we don’t know enough yet to say by how much. To the extent that we can have a thoughtful conversation about the costs and benefits of a policy to minimize the jail population along these lines, we should.

Trump commutes Stockman sentence

Crooks of a feather.

Best newspaper graphic ever

President Donald J. Trump on Tuesday commuted the remaining prison sentence of former Republican Texas congressman Steve Stockman, who was sentenced to 10 years in 2018 after he was convicted of nearly two-dozen felonies, including fraud.

Prosecutors said the conservative firebrand from Friendswood misused $1.25 million in funds from political donors to pay for expenses like hot air balloon rides, kennel bills and a new dishwasher — rather than for charity like the donors were told. He was also accused of planting an undercover intern in the state House office of a political rival.

Former U.S. Reps. Bob McEwen and Bob Barr, Republicans from Ohio and Georgia respectively, were among the public figures who called for Stockman’s release, according to a statement from the White House Press Secretary, announcing the outgoing president had pardoned 15 people and commuted the sentences of five.

Stockman, 64, has underlying health conditions that place him at heightened risk during the pandemic. He has already been infected with the coronavirus while in prison, the release said.

He has served more than two years of his decade-long sentence, and will “remain subject to a period” of supervised release and a requirement that he pay $1 million in restitution, the release said.

See here for the background. The Chron story mentions a pardon as well as the commutation, but it’s not clear to me that was the case. What is clear is that this latest batch of pardons is another hive of scum and villainy, and we’ve still got four weeks to go.

I suppose I should feel some outrage about this particular order, as one of the nation’s leading Steve Stockman obsessives, but my reaction when I saw the Chron headline was a sigh and a head-shake. It’s not like this was a surprise, after all. Steve Stockman is exactly the type of person Trump is moved to help. I’m a little surprised it hadn’t already happened. At least he still has the restitution to pay. Either Stockman will fade back into obscurity from here, or he’ll find another way to get arrested, because that’s the kind of person he is. I don’t know what else to say.

A closer look at the Aguirre/Hotze debacle

This WaPo story was pointed out in the comments here, and it’s worth your time to read. I should note that while the Houston Chronicle has not (at least so far) identified the air conditioning repairman that Aguirre attacked, this story did identify and talk to him. For now, I’m going to stick to the Chron’s style guide, so where the WaPo story includes his name, I’m going to put “[the ACRM]” in my excerpt, to stand for “the air conditioning repairman”.

The episode illustrates the extreme and sometimes dangerous tactics that a set of conservative groups have employed in an effort to substantiate President Trump’s unproven allegations of widespread voting fraud in the election. Theories about truckloads of missing mail-in ballots, manipulated voting machines and illegal mail-in ballot collections have abounded in far-right circles, despite a lack of credible evidence, leading to threats of violence against election workers and officials.

Many of the fraud allegations have come in the form of lawsuits that have been rejected by state and federal judges across the country.

The overall effort in Houston stands out because it relied on an expensive, around-the-clock surveillance operation that, for reasons so far unknown publicly, targeted a civilian — authorities called him “an innocent and ordinary air conditioner repairman” — with no apparent role in government or election administration. The operation was also financed by a newly formed nonprofit group run by a well-known GOP donor in Texas and prominent former party officials in Harris County, the state’s most populous county, corporation records show.

The nonprofit group, the Liberty Center for God and Country, paid 20 private investigators close to $300,000 to conduct a six-week probe of alleged illegal ballot retrievals in Houston leading up to the election, the group has said. None of its allegations of fraud have been substantiated.

The group’s president, Steven F. Hotze, did not respond to an interview request.

Aguirre declined to say why the operation focused on [the ACRM].

“I’m not trying my case in the paper,” Aguirre, who was released on $30,000 bail, told The Post in a brief phone interview on Dec. 16. “I don’t care about public opinion. I’m trying my case against these corrupt sons of [expletives].”

The origins of Aguirre’s election fraud investigation date to the formation of the Liberty Center for God and Country in late August.

[…]

Hotze’s nonprofit group was created “for the purpose of ensuring election integrity primarily,” said Jared Woodfill, Hotze’s personal lawyer and the former executive director of the Harris County Republican Party, the county that includes Houston. Woodfill is listed on state incorporation records as a director of the nonprofit group, along with Jeffrey Yates, the former longtime chairman of the county’s Republican Party. Yates did not respond to phone messages.

“The socialist Democrat leadership in Harris County has developed a massive ballot by mail vote harvesting scheme to steal the general election,” a now-deleted fundraising page for the group alleged. “We are working with a group of private investigators who have uncovered this massive election fraud scheme.”

The group raised nearly $70,000 through a GoFundMe page from Oct. 10 through last week. Hotze has said publicly that he donated $75,000 to the probe and that an unnamed individual had donated another $125,000.

Hotze turned to Aguirre to assemble a team of 20 private investigators, according to Aguirre’s attorney, Terry Yates, who is not related to Jeffrey Yates.

“Mark would say he’s the guy who was in charge,” Terry Yates told The Post.

I’m not going to try to guess what might be going on in Steven Hotze’s whack-a-mole brain, but I do want to understand why these jokers came to focus on this one poor guy. There had to be some reason for it, however irrational and ultimately wrong-headed. If nothing else, the attorney that eventually files a massive lawsuit against Hotze for the pain and suffering our ACRM endured will want to know the full story.

In September, Aguirre wrote an affidavit for a lawsuit brought by Hotze and the Harris County GOP before the Texas Supreme Court seeking to curtail early and mail-in voting. The affidavit alleged Democrats had devised a scheme to submit as many as 700,000 fraudulent ballots in Harris County. The Texas Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit on Oct. 7.

Nevertheless, law enforcement officials in Harris County began looking into the claims in the affidavit. The affidavit did not mention [the ACRM], but described what it contended was a broader ballot-harvesting effort directed by local Democratic officials.

Four investigators from the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office, which is responsible for investigating voter integrity issues, were assigned to the investigation, an official said.

“We looked into the allegations,” said Constable Alan Rosen, who said investigators conducted interviews with various people but got no cooperation from Aguirre and other private investigators. “We wanted to investigate their side of the story and they wouldn’t talk to us.”

“No proof was ever substantiated,” according to Rosen.

As the Nov. 3 Election Day neared, Aguirre and other unidentified private investigators began to monitor [the ACRM] more closely, court records show. By mid-October, they had devised a plan to carry out extensive monitoring that kept eyes on the air conditioning repairman day and night, court records show.

Beginning around Oct. 15, the investigators started “24 hour surveillance” on [the ACRM]’s mobile home, a police affidavit states. They set up a “command post” nearby, renting two hotel rooms for four days in a Marriott hotel, according to the affidavit. As they watched [the ACRM], Aguirre unsuccessfully tried to convince law enforcement authorities at the state level that he was on to something big, according to several law enforcement agencies and court records.

On Oct. 16, Aguirre called a member of the state attorney general’s election task force, Lt. Wayne Rubio, to request that Rubio order a traffic stop of [the ACRM]’s vehicle, court records show. Rubio declined. Aguirre “seemed upset that the Department of Public Safety could not stop and detain an individual based solely on [Aguirre]’s uncorroborated accusations,” Rubio later told police, according to the affidavit.

Aguirre told Rubio that he would make the traffic stop and execute a “citizen’s arrest,” the affidavit states. Rubio did not respond to interview requests, and the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

Aguirre also contacted Jason Taylor, a regional director at a separate statewide law enforcement agency — the Texas Department of Public Safety — the agency said in a statement to The Post. That contact came a day before Aguirre is accused of ramming [the ACRM].

“Mr. Aguirre brought up the allegations of election fraud during a phone call on Oct. 18, 2020, with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Regional Director,” a spokesman wrote. “Based on that call, the matter was then discussed with the (DPS) Texas Ranger Division. The decision was then made to refer Mr. Aguirre to the Office of the Texas Attorney General.”

Aguirre later told police he was frustrated that he had “not received any help” from law enforcement agencies, according to the police affidavit.

So many questions here. What evidence did Aguirre present to DPS and the AG task force? Clearly, it was pitiful, because had there been anything at all to the juicy allegation of Democrats engaging in massive fraud, these guys would have been all over it, but that’s not the whole picture. The bigger question is, should Aguirre’s delusions have given these guys cause to worry about his actions and the potential danger to the ACRM? Did they take his threat of a “citizen’s arrest” seriously, and if not why not? Imagine for a minute if our ACRM had had a concealed carry license, and had made the determination when he saw Aguirre approach him that his life was in danger (which, as it happens, it was) and he needed to defend himself. Or instead imagine if Aguirre had gotten jumpy and made the same decision for himself. This “citizen’s arrest” could very well have had a body count, which is why I ask, should the law enforcement officers that Aguirre complained were unwilling to help him have taken action against him instead? It’s more grist for our ACRM’s future attorney, I suppose.

Police later reviewed grand jury subpoena records from Aguirre’s bank, the police affidavit states, and saw wire transfers of nearly $270,000 to his account from the Liberty Center for God and Country with payments of $25,000 each wired on Sept. 22 and Oct. 9, and $211,400 deposited the day after the alleged assault.

Houston police declined an interview request and said they would not answer specific questions about the case because the department’s investigation is ongoing.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which charged Aguirre after a grand jury indictment, also declined to answer questions. “This is an active, ongoing investigation,” spokesman Michael Kolenc wrote in an email.

As I said before, I really hope that this ongoing investigation includes Hotze and the malevolent organization he spawned to finance this travesty. I sure won’t be surprised to learn that they were not scrupulous in following the law prior to Aguirre’s attack on the ACRM. Don’t be afraid to go where the evidence leads.

Aguirre’s arraignment

The latest update on the Aguirre/Hotze fever-dream “vote fraud” case.

An ex-Houston police officer on Friday swore he is “done” with private investigations after being arrested and charged with assaulting an air conditioning repairman he claimed was involved in a massive ballot fraud scheme.

Mark Aguirre, a former Houston Police Department captain who is now a licensed private investigator, called in to state District Judge Greg Glass’ courtroom for his first court appearance in the case. His setting originally was scheduled for Thursday but was postponed because he has COVID-19, his attorney said.

As conditions of his release on bond, Aguirre is barred from contacting the repairman, possessing firearms, or continuing to work with the Liberty Center for God and Country, which hired him to investigate voter fraud leading up to the Nov. 3 general election.

When prosecutors requested Aguirre no longer work with the right-wing group, he volunteered not to do any more investigations, period.

“No. I’m done,” he said.

Aguirre frequently works with law firms around Houston, defense attorney Terry Yates said.

Glass denied prosecutors’ requests that Aguirre be monitored by a GPS tracking device. He has one firearm that he said he would turn over to his attorney.

Aguirre was charged Tuesday with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a felony, and was released after posting bond on a $30,000 bail.

[…]

Yates gave a different account of what happened in an interview Friday, alleging that the incident took place after Aguirre and the repairman were involved in a “fender bender.” Yates said the repairman got out of his truck and rushed at Aguirre, prompting the confrontation.

“(The police) came out and investigated, and after they took quite a bit of time out there interviewing everybody, they gave (Aguirre) his gun back and told everybody to go their separate ways,” Yates said.

See here and here for the background. My first thought is that I’m going to need to come up with a pithy name for this saga, because the description I used in the opening of this post just won’t do. My second thought is that if Aguirre goes and does something stupid before his trial, at least he met the criteria of being able to pay a bail bondsman for his ability to be out on the street. My third thought is that defense attorney Terry Yates, and by extension Hotze, is going long on the defense here by claiming a completely alternative reality, one in which the victim in the alleged crime is actually the instigator and the defendant is the real victim. I presume there will be a heaping helping of conspiracy as part of this defense, since there was a few weeks between the event in question and the arrest of Aguirre. I wonder if Yates will have any evidence to present to back his claims about the van driver, or if he’s just going to spray a lot of countercharges and hope to confuse the jury. I have previously speculated that there may be further investigation into the payments that Hotze made to Aguirre, and so I wonder if we will see further charges down the line. Or maybe this is all there is and it will fizzle out, perhaps into a misdemeanor plea. It’s something to look forward to in 2021, at least.

Hotze spews some BS

That could be a perennial headline, like a pinned tweet, but here it’s for a specific purpose.

Conservative activist Steven Hotze said Wednesday he does not know if the former Houston police captain he hired to investigate voter fraud really did detain an air conditioning repairman at gunpoint and direct his associates to search the man’s truck for stolen ballots, as prosecutors alleged a day earlier.

He did not witness the predawn Oct. 19 confrontation with his own eyes, so he chalked up the felony charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon against Mark A. Aguirre as “one man’s word against another man’s word.” The repairman’s truck contained only parts and tools, authorities said.

Hotze did not, however, apply that same skepticism in urging the public to take seriously his claims of a large-scale ballot harvesting operation perpetrated by powerful Houston Democrats that he said Aguirre and around 20 other investigators in his employ had uncovered and then foiled leading up to the Nov. 3 general election.

During a bizarre news conference that began with Hotze accusing Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg of a politically motivated prosecution and concluded with him recommending an unproven drug to ward off COVID-19, the activist alleged that Democrats had attempted to forge hundreds of thousands of mail ballots without providing evidence to support his claims.

Hotze confirmed that he paid Aguirre $266,400 to investigate voter fraud allegations through his group, Liberty Center for God and Country, including more than $211,000 the day after the Oct. 19 incident. And he called the assault charge “bogus,” questioning why Aguirre was not arrested earlier.

“Two months later? Really? … Something smells,” Hotze said.

Hotze said he would not condone Aguirre’s actions if they were proven true, but he called the inquiry from a reporter a “hypothetical.” And he said he was not worried about being legally implicated as the one funding Aguirre’s investigative work.

See here for the background, and here for an update on defendant Mark Aguirre. Challenge accepted, I hope. Nothing would please me more than to see someone slap handcuffs on Steven Hotze. An acceptable consolation prize would be for one of Houston’s fine trial attorneys to sue the bejeezus out of him on behalf of the air conditioning repairman who was threatened and terrorized by Aguirre and whatever other thugs were involved. A multi-million dollar judgment, along the lines of the cases that the SPLC won against various domestic terrorists in the past, would be a fine coda to this story.

The real danger of unhinged conspiracy theories

Because sometimes malevolent people act them out, with potentially deadly consequences for others.

An air conditioning repairman was driving in south Houston around 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 19 when a black SUV rammed the back of his truck. When he pulled over in the darkness and got out to check if the other driver was OK, the man in the SUV drew a pistol and ordered him to the ground.

He complied. As the other driver drove a knee into his back, the repairman saw two other vehicles pull up, and feared he would be killed in what he believed was a predawn carjacking.

Instead, according to an indictment announced Tuesday by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, the incident was a brazen attempt by a former Houston police captain to secure evidence to support a far-fetched claim that prominent local Democrats had orchestrated a scheme to harvest more than 700,000 ballots leading up to the Nov. 3 election. The ex-lawman, Mark A. Aguirre, 63, faces a felony charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon stemming from the Oct. 19 confrontation.

“He crossed the line from dirty politics to commission of a violent crime and we are lucky no one was killed,” District Attorney Kim Ogg said. “His alleged investigation was backward from the start — first alleging a crime had occurred and then trying to prove it happened.”

Aguirre told police they would find hundreds of thousands of ballots in the repairman’s truck. Instead they found only air conditioner parts and tools.

The Chronicle is not identifying the repairman.

Court records chronicling Aguirre’s arrest also reveal new details of an extensive investigation of alleged voter fraud funded through an organization run by conservative activist Steven Hotze and former Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill. Affidavits by Aguirre and others were used as evidence in several lawsuits the Republicans filed this fall challenging Texas and Harris County’s election plans.

The charging documents reveal that beyond pushing a conspiracy theory that Democrats had collected hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots, the “citizens investigation” by Aguirre and others put at least one resident in danger.

The repairman said as the man later identified as Aguirre held him at gunpoint, additional vehicles arrived at the scene. Aguirre ordered a second person to search the victim’s truck, court documents state. Other people then drove the truck to a different location.

A Houston police officer happened upon the scene, stopped and ordered Aguirre to release the repairman. After police confiscated two handguns Aguirre was carrying, he told Detective John Varela that he and others were part of a group called the Liberty Center, an affidavit by Varela states.

According to the affidavit, Aguirre said his team had been surveilling the repairman for four days, convinced he was involved in a ballot harvesting conspiracy at his mobile home. The repairman, Aguirre alleged, had about 750,000 fraudulent mail ballots which he was “using Hispanic children to sign” because the youths’ fingerprints would not appear in databases.

Varela said the victim let police search his home and truck, where Aguirre said the ballots were stored. Officers found the home was “appropriately furnished” and the truck had air conditioning tools and equipment, but neither contained any evidence of a ballot harvesting operation.

[…]

Affidavits by Aguirre and former FBI employee Charles Marler were part of a lawsuit filed this fall by conservative Houston activist Steven Hotze, who sought to prohibit voters from dropping off mail ballots in person before Election Day.

Aguirre and Marler provided sworn statements included in the lawsuit alleging that powerful Democrats in Harris County had devised a scheme to submit as many as 700,000 fraudulent mail ballots, representing nearly a third of the entire voter roll.

Citing secondhand sources and videotaped interviews, the pair alleged that several African-American businessmen and elected officials were involved, including Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, State Sen. Borris Miles and Biden campaign Texas political director Dallas Jones.

All three denied the claims. Aguirre in October hung up on a reporter seeking evidence of the allegations. Aguirre and Marler did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

There’s more, so keep reading. If the name Mark Aguirre is familiar, it’s because he was a captain with HPD who was fired for his role in the infamous bust of dozens of teenagers for alleged street racing – see here for a brief highlight of Aguirre’s role in that debacle. According to the story, Aguirre was paid over a quarter million bucks from the Hotze and Woodfill-run outfit Liberty Center for God and Country, most of which came right after the alleged assault. Hotze is of course out there in front of the media lying his ass off, because that’s who he is and what he does. I can’t help but feel the financial aspect of this, and the “I’m so shocked such a man might be accused of such things” reaction that Woodfill gave in the Chron story, means there will be more to this as the case progresses. We saw all of the lawsuits that Hotze filed against voting this election, there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t go farther than that in pursuit of his electoral fantasies. You can be sure I’ll be keeping an eye on this. TPM, the Trib, the Texas Signal, Daily Kos, and Juanita have more.

Why can’t we get our jail population down?

I found this story from Thanksgiving weekend frustrating.

Harris County’s efforts to reduce its jail population have flatlined, despite more than $7.5 million aimed at alleviating systemic burdens so that the county could attempt to reduce its inmates by a targeted 21 percent.

Even after creating programs to lessen the population and reduce racial disparities in jail, criminal caseloads mounted and the facility returned nearly to capacity, county officials said. When Harris County in 2016 joined the nationwide Safety and Justice Challenge – meant to help retool the use of lockups – more than 8,789 people were in jail. On Nov. 23, that number was 8,724 — a decrease of less than 1 percent. To meet the program’s goal, the population would need to have fallen under 7,000.

County leaders next week will reapply for a final round of funding from the MacArthur Foundation to sustain progress made in the challenge overseen by the nonprofit Justice Management Institute. It remains to be seen whether how much the county will receive given the struggle to reduce the jail population.

Even if the county receives the full amount, achieving its goal remains distant, said Thomas Eberly, Harris County’s site coordinator for the challenge and program director of the Justice Management Institute, which works with localities to improve justice systems.

“I do think that the odds are not in Harris County’s favor because of past performance,” said Eberly. “We’re five years into this and the change that was expected hasn’t been achieved, and it’s quite honestly not even close.”

Some county leaders remain positive, however, citing implementation of a series of programs as part of the challenge. They include hiring a “fairness administrator” to address racial inequities and a community engagement outreach coordinator, as well as creating a cite-and-release program and a Reintegration Impact Court to divert those who have low-level cases from jail.

The MacArthur Foundation could award up to $660,000 for one year of sustainability and $500,000 for a second year.

The foundation has already provided $4.25 million to the county since 2015, and county commissioners in 2016 allocated more than $3.3 million from general fund reserves to help pay for reforms.

“We remain optimistic that we’re going to have some breakthroughs,” said Jim Bethke, Harris County’s director of justice administration.

It’s a long story that goes in a number of directions, so go read the whole thing. The main explanations cited are the damage to the courts caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, as both have contributed to long delays in resolving cases. The changeover in the courts due to the 2018 election plus the effort put into the bail reform program was also cited, though it’s not clear to me why that would contribute to the problem – the whole point of bail reform was to have fewer people rotting in jail while they wait for their trials. I needed more information to understand what that had to do with it.

Later in the story, the HPD cite and release program was listed as a potential mitigating factor going forward. It’s only been in effect since September – the Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February. Diversion programs by the DA’s Office were also cited. I would have liked to know more about how much these could help, or more to the point could have helped if they had been in place longer. Not to put too fine a point on it, but one simple way to have fewer people in jail is to out fewer of them in jail in the first place. It’s very much in our power to arrest fewer people for minor non-violent offenses, with marijuana possession being at the top of that list. Circumstance can explain some of this problem, but our choices are a big part of it as well. There’s plenty we can do to change that.