Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

October 7th, 2020:

Interview with Rep. Christina Morales

Rep. Christina Morales

I have focused mostly on Congressional candidates in my limited series of November interviews, but I did several State House races for the primary – Akilah Bacy in HD138, Ann Johnson in HD134, Sarah DeMerchant in HD26 – and I realized that one important person that I had not yet interviewed was my own State Rep, Christina Morales. She was elected in a special election in HD145 after now-Sen. Carol Alvarado got a promotion to the upper chamber (an opening made possible by Rep. Sylvia Garcia’s election to Congress), and is now running for her first full term. She grew up in the East End neighborhood she now represents, and is the President an CEO of the Morales Funeral Home, a small business founded by her grandparents in 1931. I confess that I had not thought about this going into the interview, but that’s a revealing window into the effect of COVID-19 on many people, especially in the Latino community. That comes up a few times in our conversation, which you can listen to here:

PREVIOUSLY:

Hank Gilbert, CD01
Rashad Lewis, CD36
Julie Oliver, CD25
Elizabeth Hernandez, CD08
Sima Ladjevardian, CD02

Third lawsuit filed against Abbott’s order to limit mail ballot dropoff sites

This one’s in state court.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting Texas counties to one mail ballot drop-off location has been challenged in court a third time.

The lawsuit filed in Travis County court on Monday alleges that Abbott’s order exceeds his authority under the state’s constitution and would make it unreasonably difficult for eligible Texans to use ballot by mail.

“The state of Texas should be working to ensure safe and accessible voting for all Texans. The governor’s order does the opposite,” Cheryl Drazin, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Division, which includes Texas, said in a statement. “Limiting the number of drop-off sites available to absentee voters reduces the options Texans have to participate in the 2020 election without risking their health.”

Several Texas chapters of the Anti-Defamation League are plaintiffs in the case, as are the government watchdog group Common Cause Texas, and Robert Knetsch, a 70-year-old voter from Harris County.

[…]

The plaintiffs argue that Texas election code gives local officials, not the governor, authority to manage elections. So by limiting drop-off locations to one per county, Abbott was overstepping his authority.

The order also went against what the state had already said in other cases, plaintiffs said. In late September, Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said in a filing to the Texas Supreme Court that the state election code allowed local officials to interpret “early voting clerk’s office” as extending to annexes of those offices and the secretary of state had already allowed that.

Because of projected increases in vote by mail and delays in the U.S. postal service’s mail delivery, taking away the option for multiple drop-off locations would harm voters, like Knetsch, who was at high risk for COVID-19 because of his age, plaintiffs said.

Knetsch had planned to drop off his ballot at one of Harris County’s multiple locations, but “now plans to risk voting in-person at his local polling place, despite the risk to his health” because he fears there will be large crowds at the remaining drop-off site.

“Many of the Texans who qualify to vote absentee have disabilities and are elderly, and they rely on public transportation,” Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas said in a statement. “With only one drop-off site per county, these voters would face challenges in travel that might make it impossible for them to vote. The drop-off site limit will also make the one site in each country prone to lines and crowds, endangering voters’ health.”

See here and here for background on the previous lawsuits, both of which were filed in federal court. A copy of the complaint for this suit is here, and a statement from the Brennan Center, which is representing the plaintiffs, is here; you can also see their Twitter thread. I have no idea if one or the others has a better chance of success, I just know that we need to get a ruling Real Soon Now for any of this to make a difference. You can see all the filings from the first federal lawsuit here, and for whatever it’s worth, the top Democratic Congressional leaders have written a letter to Greg Abbott asking him to repeal this order. I’m sure he’ll get right on that.

Here, have a Paxton scandal roundup

At first I couldn’t decide if I wanted to put the juiciest bit up front or at the end. I decided to put it at the end, to hold your interest throughout.

From the Trib, life and business tries to go on at the AG’s office.

Best mugshot ever

It had already been a difficult fall for the Texas attorney general’s office.

The sprawling agency, which employs some 4,000 people in more than 100 offices across Texas, has for months had to contend with the added challenges of the coronavirus, many staff members working from home and others deployed as legal backup to Gov. Greg Abbott in coronavirus-related lawsuits on everything from abortion rights to business closures.

Communications director Marc Rylander departed more than a month ago, and Nick Moutos, an assistant attorney general, lost his job at the agency in early September after revelations that he had shared racist rhetoric and QAnon conspiracy theories on social media. Meanwhile, top state attorneys are juggling a handful of fast-moving election-related lawsuits — When will early voting begin? Will Texas ballots allow for straight-ticket voting? — and gearing up for a Nov. 10 argument before the U.S. Supreme Court, the culmination of a yearslong effort to strike down the Affordable Care Act.

But things hit a fever pitch this weekend as seven of the agency’s most senior staff members accused their boss, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, of crimes including bribery and abuse of office, as the Austin-American Statesman and KVUE-TV first reported Saturday night. One of the whistleblowers, Jeff Mateer, abruptly resigned his position as Paxton’s top aide Friday after telling a human resources administrator at the agency that he and other aides “have a good faith belief that the attorney general is violating federal and/or state law including prohibitions related to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses.”

But Paxton, who has pledged to forge ahead as attorney general, pointed the finger back at the seven aides.

“Despite the effort by rogue employees and their false allegations I will continue to seek justice in Texas and will not be resigning,” Paxton said.

Now, agency staff will have to juggle coordinating child support payments, open-records requests and major court dates under the cloud of fresh allegations against their boss, without Mateer, and with an internal battle quietly raging between Paxton and many of the most senior aides who remain.

Yes, so many distractions they must deal with as they work so hard to take away your health care and restrict your access to the ballot box. I don’t know how they manage to do it all.

A spokesperson for the agency, Kayleigh Date, said Saturday that the top aides made the allegations against Paxton “to impede an ongoing investigation into criminal wrongdoing by public officials including employees of this office.”

And she seemed to suggest that state officials hope to investigate or even prosecute the whistleblowers.

“Making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law,” Date added.

Date declined to provide any further details about the investigation or how the agency will run amid the chaos. She also did not respond to questions about how many of the seven remain employed at the agency.

For his part, Paxton worked Monday to signal business as usual, appointing Brent Webster, a former assistant criminal district attorney in Williamson County, to replace Mateer in the critical role of first assistant attorney general.

Paxton also had lunch at an Austin barbecue restaurant with Bill Miller, a friend and longtime lobbyist, who said Paxton was surprised and puzzled by the allegations and maintains that he has not done anything wrong.

Miller said Paxton hadn’t heard from law enforcement or retained an attorney on the matter and pointed out that the aides leveling accusations against Paxton have yet to publicly show evidence: “There’s a lotta smoke; where’s the fire?”

Paxton doesn’t understand where the claims came from, and “he isn’t going anywhere,” Miller said, but is committed to forging ahead with the agency’s work with Webster as the new first assistant.

Yes, it would be nice to know what if anything is happening with these accusations. As per usual custom, there won’t be any comment from the FBI or US Attorney’s office, so unless someone leaks to the press, or until people with badges and search warrants show up at the office, all we can do is wait and speculate. I hate to say it, but there may not be much news on this for awhile.

The Chron goes into the politics and gets some detail on one of the more alarming charges.

Texas political analyst Mark Jones of Rice University, who has studied the felony case that has been hanging over Paxton for five years now, said these allegations are different.

“This isn’t an accusation that comes completely out of left field regarding a public servant who has an unblemished track record,” Jones said. “This is someone, from when he arrived in the state House, moved to the state Senate, moved to the office of the attorney general, has had a trail of questionable ethical behavior.”

Jones added: “We’re talking about the chief law enforcement official in the second-largest state in the country.”

Most state Republicans, watching as Paxton has weathered such allegations in the past, have backed him or stayed silent over the years. This time likely will be different, Jones said.

Hearst Newspapers reported Sunday that Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, whom Paxton hired as a special prosecutor, issued grand jury subpoenas last week targeting “adversaries” of Paul, according to a senior attorney general’s office official. There were 37 subpoenas that targeted actions of federal authorities in an August 2019 raid of Paul’s home and offices, the Austin American-Statesman reported Monday.

One of the signatories on the letter accusing Paxton, deputy attorney general for criminal justice J. Mark Penley, filed a motion in state District Court in Austin to halt the subpoenas. The motion to quash them was granted Friday, records show.

Many questions remain about the nature of the alleged bribery and how Cammack came to work for the office in a move that has been opposed by half of Paxton’s executive staff.

Paxton has not responded to questions about any contract the office had with Cammack, when he was hired, how much he is being paid or any other details.

Hearst Newspapers has filed open records requests for records of payments to Cammack as well as any agreement the office had with him.

This right here is what I want to know more about, and it won’t be dependent on any loose lips or federal action. Let’s get those records and see what they tell us.

The Chron also has a timeline of Paxton’s malfeasance and pettifoggery. The MontBlanc pen episode is probably my favorite of them. The Trib reminds us that AGs in Texas often go on to run for other things, though not always with success. I don’t see much of a future in higher office for Paxton, but he went from the House to the Senate to the AG’s office pretty quickly, so it’s not like it couldn’t happen.

And finally, the bit you’ve been waiting for, from Law.com:

Appointed prosecutors who have been pursuing felony securities fraud charges against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for five years are researching new allegations that Paxton committed crimes in office.

If Paxton gets charged with new crimes, the prosecutors would seek to revoke his bond.

[…]

“We’re making contact with the individuals involved to determine what exactly happened and what evidence exists that suggests he was involved in misconduct,” said Kent Schaffer, one of the appointed prosecutors in Paxton’s pending case.

If Paxton does get charged with new criminal offenses, the prosecutors in his current felony case would file a motion to revoke Paxton’s bond, explained Schaffer, partner in Schaffer & Carter in Houston.

“When you’re under indictment in a felony case and you’re on bond, if you get a new violation, then your bond can be revoked and you can be held without bond,” he noted. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen. So far, we don’t have any evidence. He is not charged in a new case.”

Also, if Paxton eventually goes to trial in the securities fraud case, and he were also charged for crimes related to the new allegations, then Schaffer said the prosecutors would tell the jury about the new alleged crimes during the sentencing phase of the trial in order to argue for a harsher sentence.

Now, this could all be many months off, if it happens at all, but still. Enjoy the thought for a moment. You deserve it.

The swan song for eSlate machines

We’re still using them for this election, as clunky and outdated as they are, but they’re on the way out.

Harris County may shatter turnout records with as many as 1.5 million voters in this year’s presidential election, the county clerk estimates.

It also has achieved a less desirable position, however — the county will be the largest jurisdiction in the United States that cannot audit its election results because it uses a voting system that does not produce a paper record.

Of all the paperless votes in the country, about 1 in 5 will be cast here, according to an analysis by the New York University Law School-based Brennan Center for Justice.

“If there’s some reason to cast doubt on the election outcome, there’s nothing independent of the software to turn back to with a paperless system,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the center’s election reform program. “All you can likely do is re-run the results and have the software come up with the same results as the previous time. I don’t think that’s great for voter confidence.”

[…]

Despite warnings from election security experts and an acknowledgment by past Republican and Democratic county clerks that new machines were needed, Harris County failed to follow the state’s other urban counties in doing so before 2020. Texas is one of 14 states that still permits paperless voting systems.

The county since 2002 has used the Hart InterCivic eSlate machine, remembered by many voters by its spinning wheel interface. It records votes on a mobile memory card which then is brought to a central counting site, uploaded onto a computer and tallied.

[…]

Fort Bend County Elections Administrator John Oldham said he decided to make the switch after the Legislature in 2019 nearly passed a ban on paperless machines. Plus, his 13-year-old machines had begun to fail.

“They were having issues with the capacitors on the motherboard burning up,” Oldham said. “The last couple years, we were getting 15 to 20 of these things happening every election.”

Harris County failed to move as quickly, however. Both 2018 candidates for county clerk, Republican Stan Stanart and Democrat Diane Trautman, pledged to replace the aging eSlates.

“We must replace the current electronic machines with a machine that produces a verifiable paper trail,” Trautman said a few days after she won the election.

She initially had hoped to acquire the new machines in time for the 2020 presidential election — Houston even hosted a voting machine trade show this past July — but within months of taking office concluded the timeline was not feasible.

The county last December began soliciting vendor proposals, aiming to debut new machines in the May 2021 elections.

Launching a new voting system in a low-turnout election is wise because it allows county clerks to resolve inevitable problems with a wider margin for error, said Rice University professor of computer science Dan Wallach.

“Otherwise, you’re just inviting new system jitters making a mess when you really, really want smooth sailing,” Wallach said in an email.

At least we know what we’re getting with them. While it’s true that the 2018 candidates for County Clerk made promises that have not yet been fulfilled to replace the eSlates, Stan Stanart was first elected Clerk in 2010, so he could have moved sooner than that. Be that as it may, we’ll get new machines for next year. Expect there to be some serious activity in this department when the new elections administrator comes on board.