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July 29th, 2015:

Interview with Jim Bigham

Jim Bigham

Jim Bigham

District J is a geometrically compact district with a high population density, carved mainly from the former District F and anchored in the Sharpstown area. It is in Sharpstown that we meet Jim Bigham, who is challenging two-term incumbent CM Mike Laster. Bigham is an Army veteran and business operations manager who has been active in civic and neighborhood groups since arriving in Houston in the late 80s. He has also maintained a blog, the eponymous jimbigham.com where he writes on subjects like neighborhood crime prevention and TIRZes; more recently, he laid out his rationale for running for Council. Here’s what we talked about:

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2015 Election page.

Judge rules Wilson petitions must be counted

Thanks, Supreme Court. Thanks a hell of a lot.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

City of Houston officials must count the signatures on a petition filed by anti-gay activist Dave Wilson, who is seeking a vote to amend the city charter and bar men “who perceive or express themselves as women” from entering women’s restrooms, a judge ruled Tuesday.

State District Judge Brent Gamble ruled Tuesday that City Secretary Anna Russell has a “nondiscretionary ministerial duty” to count and certify the signatures Wilson submitted in early July, and to present the count to City Council by Aug. 8.

City attorneys, however, intended to file an immediate appeal late Tuesday, said Mayor Annise Parker’s spokeswoman, Janice Evans. She did not comment further.

[…]

Wilson submitted a similar petition in April, but apparently misunderstood state law and was 300 signatures shy of the 20,000 names needed for a charter amendment. He said he started over and said he submitted more than 22,100 valid signatures on July 9.

For months now, Parker’s legal team has contended that Wilson’s proposed charter revision too closely resembles a repeal petition pertaining to the city’s equal rights ordinance that had been tied up in court. His effort is too late and should not be considered, they have said, because those seeking to repeal an ordinance must submit their petition within 30 days of the law going into effect; City Council passed the ordinance in May 2014.

Regardless of the future of Wilson’s petition, the equal rights ordinance itself likely will be put to a vote in November, thanks to a Texas Supreme Court ruling last week.

See here and here for the background. I suppose the good news, if you want to call it that, is that thanks to that awful Supreme Court ruling, we’re going to have a HERO repeal vote anyway, so what difference does this make at this point? Because let’s be clear about two things: One, Wilson’s efforts have totally been about trying to damage HERO. Anyone who believes otherwise also believes in the tooth fairy. And two, if we take that Supreme Court ruling on its face, Wilson could have simply signed the names of the first 22,000 or so registered Houston voters himself on his petitions. If all Anna Russell is supposed to do is check that yep, those are the names and addresses of registered Houston voters, then why not cheat a little to make sure you make it across the goal line? Who’s ever going to know?

OK, I’m being a little bitter here, but just a little. We’ll see what if anything comes of the city’s emergency appeal, but consider this: if we take to heart the core of the Obergfell and Windsor decisions – and Lawrence v. Texas before them – a law that is based on animus against a group of people cannot be constitutional. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems clear to me that Wilson’s hateful proposal could not survive judicial scrutiny if it were approved. But putting all that aside, thins is just wrong. It’s wrong to use the weight of a majority to push around a minority, and it’s wrong to put people’s humanity to a vote. Funny how a heathen like me understands that better than a “Christian” like Dave Wilson.

Paxton girding for indictment

So are we, Kenny. So are we.

Ken Paxton

A Collin County grand jury is expected to weigh evidence brought by two temporary district attorneys assigned to the case. Paxton’s advisers are furiously preparing for a criminal indictment.

The looming showdown has the camps bickering. Anthony Holm, a spokesman for Paxton, contends the AG should not face criminal prosecution.

“As we’ve said for 14 months now, there was no criminal action because there was no crime,” Holm said. “This was solely a civil event with a $1,000 civil penalty.”

Holm took aim at the special prosecutors assigned to the case, calling Houston lawyers Kent Schaffer and Brian Wice lawyers “whose careers are built on defending the sort of child molesters and Mexican drug cartel leaders that Attorney General Paxton was elected to prosecute.”

Holm also accused a local lawyer who provided information about Paxton to a previous grand jury of having a vendetta.

“The Collin County situation is a drastic departure from objectivity, legal precedent or common sense, and it’s time for people to understand a respected public official is the target of a political vendetta,” Holm said. “This witch hunt must end.”

In a written statement, Schaffer and Wice fired back, saying their investigation was “neither a political vendetta nor a witch hunt.”

“The PR shell game Mr. Paxton’s hired gun employs once again seeks to change the conversation from his client’s conduct to personal attacks on us,” they wrote. “He knows full well that we were appointed by a Republican judge in one of the most conservative counties in Texas to conduct a full, fair and impartial investigation, and that is exactly what we intend to do.”

As the story notes, Paxton admitted to breaking the law to avoid a campaign issue. In his mind, that means the matter was settled, even though it had not yet come to the attention of any prosecutor. Now as we know a complaint has been filed and a special prosecutor appointed with a grand jury waiting in the wings, but Team Paxton wants everyone to believe that it’s all ancient history. It doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid. At least, not for normal people.

But prosecutors now say that at the least, there’s evidence that Paxton violated securities law by not registering with the securities board, a third-degree felony. And Schaffer has said he’ll ask for a first-degree felony indictment, though he won’t elaborate on the charge.

The prosecutors could submit evidence of the securities law violation that Paxton admitted to as a slam dunk case. But at least one legal expert says few people are criminally prosecuted for such offenses.

The state securities board did not refer the case for criminal prosecution.

“It’s technically a violation, but you don’t often see that type of violation charged criminally,” said Dallas lawyer Jeff Ansley, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas and a former Enforcement Attorney for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “That’s very rare.”

So the key question remains: What’s the evidence of a first-degree felony?

I assure you, we are all on pins and needles waiting to find out. One hopes that these two career defense attorneys will not pursue excessive charges on flimsy evidence – you know, the sort of thing they are critical of other prosecutors for – so we’ll see what goods they have.

That Paxton is in legal trouble can be attributed in part to the efforts of a watchdog group, and the determination of a local lawyer.

The public integrity unit within the Travis County district attorney’s office said it lacked jurisdiction and forwarded information to Dallas and Collin counties for lack of jurisdiction. Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk didn’t touch the case either, saying she was not aware of any alleged crimes being committed in the county.

That left Collin County, where Paxton’s friend and business partner, Greg Willis, is district attorney.

After receiving a complaint from Texans for Public Justice, Willis stepped aside and said that “appropriate investigation agencies, including the Texas Rangers,” should handle the allegations against Paxton.

“As soon as we saw what he signed with the State Securities Board, it was obvious that he was admitting to felony conduct,” said Craig McDonald, executive director for Texans for Public Justice. “If Greg Willis hadn’t stepped aside, this thing would have died.”

Meanwhile, Dallas lawyer and blogger Ty Clevenger took the extraordinary step of sending information about Paxton to members of a Collin County grand jury, including three from the same church. He said he also dropped off information to a grand jury member’s home. He got their names from Collin County officials by asking; in Dallas, Hawk declined to release the grand jury’s names.

The grand jury that will hear the Paxton evidence from the special prosecutors is not the same as the one Clevenger sought out. One should always be a little wary of crusaders, no matter how enticing their claims are, but again, one hopes that the evidence will back up whatever comes out. There’s been a lot of trash talk from Team Paxton, which is either bravado or whistling past the graveyard. That grand jury is now in, and it’s put up or shut up time. The Observer suggests what may be coming.

William Mapp, the disgraced founder of Servergy, Inc., was identified at the courthouse by WFAA reporter Tanya Eiserer. Servergy, based in McKinney, claimed to produce energy-efficient servers for corporate clients. The company made extraordinary claims about its core product, the Cleantech-1000, claiming it consumed “80% less power, cooling, and space in comparison to other servers currently available.” But there was a problem: The federal Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) alleges that Servergy’s claims about its product were false. And the company, the SEC says, produced fraudulent pre-orders from tech companies like Amazon and Freescale to sell itself to investors.

Servergy raised some $26 million from selling stock between 2009 and 2013, as detailed by information released by the SEC. And it profited from grants from the McKinney Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a local fund that reinvests money collected by local sales taxes. Servergy continued to receive money from MEDC even after a formal SEC investigation began in 2013. Servergy is also connected to a wide variety of other improprieties and shady activities.

Paxton was a prominent Servergy shareholder, owning at least 10,000 shares. But while other investors simply lost their shirts, Paxton’s role in the Servergy case has generated lingering interest from authorities. In 2014, Paxton’s name was included in a list of search terms used by the SEC to subpoena the company, along with several other prominent figures in McKinney. Mapp’s presence at the courthouse today suggests that Servergy’s case is connected to evidence special prosecutors are presenting against Paxton.

That would be a significant escalation in the case against the state’s AG. A large part of the public defense laid out by Paxton’s spokesman Anthony Holm revolves around the assertion that Paxton’s original violation of securities law, regarding his legal clients, was a simple mistake and civil matter that he corrected when it was brought to his attention. The Servergy episode is a whole different kettle of fish, and while it remains to be seen what the prosecutors have against Paxton in connection to this particular episode, it should be a source of significant concern in the AG’s office.

See here for the background. All I can say is “oh please, oh please, oh please”. We’ll see what happens.

Three panels investigating Sandra Bland’s death

One was appointed by the Sheriff:

Sandra Bland

In the wake of the controversial arrest of Sandra Bland and her jailhouse suicide, Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith has asked for an independent panel of civilians to evaluate all aspects of the way he runs his department, from the cell blocks to the streets, and make public recommendations for change.

“He wants to use this tragedy as a growth opportunity,” said long-time defense attorney Paul Looney, who has been asked by the sheriff to form the five-member committee.

[…]

“We have been given carte blanche. We have been told we’ll have access to any piece of paper we want. We can visit with any prisoner or person without notice,” Looney said. “We can go on ride-alongs,” he said of riding in patrol cars with deputies to observe them first-hand.

Looney said the committee will be a diverse group of leaders and that none will be in law enforcement. He also said they won’t pull any punches in making recommendations, which will be shared with the public.

“In a time period of great tragedy, there is also a great opportunity for growth, and he doesn’t want to miss that opportunity,” Looney said of the sheriff. “I don’t intend to be kind, the people I include on the committee will not be kind. We intend to be constructive.”

One was appointed by the District Attorney:

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis formed a second independent committee Monday to review the arrest and death of Sandra Bland and also released a toxicology report that one expert said suggests the 28-year-old woman used marijuana shortly before jailers found her hanging in her Waller County Jail cell.

Mathis said he was bringing in defense attorneys Lewis M. White and Darrell W. Jordan, both of whom are African-American, to lead a panel that will oversee the work of his office and make recommendations about charges for possible criminal conduct during the arrest and confinement.

“There are many lingering questions regarding the death of Sandra Bland,” Mathis said, explaining why he has asked for help just days after Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith formed a similar committee to review jail procedures.

[…]

The announcement that officials were forming another independent review committee did not build much trust with critics.

Former Waller County Justice of the Peace Dewayne Charleston said he didn’t know White or Jordan, so he couldn’t speak to their abilities or loyalties, but questioned any committee whose leaders are “appointed by the same person they are providing oversight for.”

“He’s not bound to take their advice, suggestions or recommendations, so it’s just window dressing,” said Charleston, who has called for Mathis to recuse himself from the case. “They could give him the best, most accurate recommendation but if he’s not obligated to accept it or just takes parts of it, it doesn’t really matter.”

Both White and Jordan have limited prosecution experience, graduated from Texas Southern University’s law school and work in small firms with five or fewer attorneys, according to the Texas State Bar’s website.

White, who passed the State Bar in 2002, worked under Mathis as a prosecutor for a year. Jordan, who passed the bar in 2006, has served as a prosecutor in the Army National Guard, where he still is a defense attorney. Jordan also has worked as a talk radio host for KCOH, part of the broadcasting company owned by Houston mayoral candidate Ben Hall.

Vivian King, a prominent Houston defense attorney and former prosecutor, said she did not know White, but had confidence in Jordan, who she had as a student at TSU.

“I think he’s confident and smart and will ask for guidance where he needs it,” she said. “He does care about getting it right.”

JoAnne Musick, the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers, said the decision to bring in someone familiar with the county, like White, might give the duo a useful perspective. But she said that insider status also could undermine the public’s trust in the process.

“Houston is a very close and large area with tons of experienced former prosecutors and defense attorneys that could undertake that review,” she said, noting she knows neither White nor Jordan. “Their selection seems a little odd.”

Musick is one of five people selected by Hempstead and Houston attorney Paul Looney to serve on the sheriff’s review committee, which has not yet met. On Monday, Looney identified the others: Juan L. Guerra Jr., criminal defense lawyer; Randall Kallinen, civil rights attorney; Morris L. Overstreet, a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals; and former U.S. Rep. Craig Washington.

Jordan ran in the 2010 Democratic primary for judge of the 180th Criminal District Court. Here’s the judicial Q&A he did if you want to know a little more about him. The Sheriff’s panel has several well-known people on it, and I think they will live up to Looney’s promise that they will not hold back.

There will also be a legislative hearing:

The same day Waller County officials released results of Sandra Bland’s autopsy report, state lawmakers announced they will meet next week to discuss jail standards and police relations.

Members of the House County Affairs Committee, chaired by Houston Democrat Garnet Coleman, on Thursday will discuss “jail standards, procedures with regards to potentially mentally ill persons in county jails, as well as issues stemming from interactions between the general public and peace officers.”

That hearing will be tomorrow, July 30. Here’s the press advisory from Rep. Coleman, who can always be counted on to do a thorough job, and more on the hearing in the Trib. We need to learn all we can from this tragedy, and then to actually follow through on it, or we’re just going to keep having more like it. Still more here from the Trib.