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June 18th, 2022:

There’s a lot of resistance to releasing information about Uvalde

Wow.

The City of Uvalde and its police department are working with a private law firm to prevent the release of nearly any record related to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in which 19 children and two teachers died, according to a letter obtained by Motherboard in response to a series of public information requests we made. The public records Uvalde is trying to suppress include body camera footage, photos, 911 calls, emails, text messages, criminal records, and more.

“The City has not voluntarily released any information to a member of the public,” the city’s lawyer, Cynthia Trevino, who works for the private law firm Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech, wrote in a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The city wrote the letter asking Paxton for a determination about what information it is required to release to the public, which is standard practice in Texas. Paxton’s office will eventually rule which of the city’s arguments have merit and will determine which, if any, public records it is required to release.

The letter makes clear, however, that the city and its police department want to be exempted from releasing a wide variety of records in part because it is being sued, in part because some of the records could include “highly embarrassing information,” in part because some of the information is “not of legitimate concern to the public,” in part because the information could reveal “methods, techniques, and strategies for preventing and predicting crime,” in part because some of the information may cause or may “regard … emotional/mental distress,” and in part because its response to the shooting is being investigated by the Texas Rangers, the FBI, and the Uvalde County District Attorney.

The letter explains that Uvalde has at least one in-house attorney (whose communications it is trying to prevent from public release), and yet, it is using outside private counsel to deal with a matter of extreme importance and public interest. Uvalde’s city government and its police department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Motherboard.

The city says that it has received 148 separate public records requests (including several from Motherboard), and has lumped all of them together, making a broad legal argument as to why it should not be required to respond to many of them. Earlier this week, Motherboard reported on a similar letter sent to Paxton by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which wanted to suppress body-camera footage because it could expose “weaknesses” in police response to crimes that criminals could exploit. (The main seeming weakness in the Uvalde response was that police, in violation of standard policy and protocol, refused to risk their lives to protect children.)

For example, the city and its police department argue that it should be exempted from releasing “police officer training guides, policy and procedure manuals, shift change schedules, security details, and blueprints of secured facilities,” because these could be used to decipher “methods, techniques, and strategies for preventing and predicting crime.”

That argument sound familiar, doesn’t it? Gosh, I wonder what Ken Paxton will say. Also, it would be good to know how much the city of Uvalde is paying for those outside attorneys.

Here’s more on the same topic:

In the past week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has joined the growing list of state and local officials fighting the release of records that could help bring clarity to how the emergency response unfolded during last month’s deadly shooting in Uvalde.

The governor’s office strayed from that broader opposition Monday, granting a request under the Texas Public Information Act from a Houston television station that sought the handwritten notes he used when he first spoke publicly about the shooting. The notes appear to support Abbott’s claim that he was misled when he initially praised law enforcement efforts during the mass shooting that resulted in the deaths of 19 children and two educators and left many more injured.

The recent release by Abbott underscores both the tremendous power government officials have to decide what is in the public interest and the unwillingness to release records that could call their agencies’ actions into question.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune have submitted about 70 public information requests that could help answer larger questions as state and local leaders continue to offer conflicting accounts about why law enforcement did not confront the gunman sooner during the May 24 massacre. Those requests include 911 audio recordings, body and police car camera footage, and communications among local, state and federal agencies. The newsrooms also requested use-of-force documents, death records and ballistic reports.

Three weeks after the shooting, government officials have not provided the news organizations a single record related to the emergency response.

[…]

Abbott’s office, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Marshals Service and the city of Uvalde are asking the state’s attorney general for permission to withhold records that may offer tangible answers to the contradictory accounts. (Under Texas law, agencies seeking to avoid disclosure of public records typically must make their case to the attorney general.) Other government entities have asked the state for extensions as they decide whether to fight such disclosures. News organizations across the country are reporting similar responses.

Among the arguments provided by government entities for withholding such documents is one from DPS stating that releasing records like footage from body cameras would provide criminals with “invaluable information” about its investigative techniques, information sharing and criminal analysis.

In most cases, however, the agencies argue that releasing such information could interfere with ongoing law enforcement investigations by the federal government and the Texas Rangers, an arm of DPS now tasked with investigating its own department. In a statement, Abbott’s office said that, upon completion of the investigations, “we look forward to the full results being shared with the victims’ families and the public, who deserve the full truth of what happened that tragic day.”

But timely disclosure of the records is paramount given the lack of transparency and contradictory accounts from state and local officials, three Texas Public Information Act experts told ProPublica and the Tribune.

Laura Prather, a First Amendment attorney in Texas, said the reason the state allows agencies to withhold information when it is part of an ongoing investigation is to protect someone who was accused of a crime but didn’t ultimately get convicted, “not to protect law enforcement for their actions in circumstances like this, where the shooter is dead.”

“The public has the right to know what happened that day, and right now they can only act on rumors and conflicting information,” said Prather, who is representing ProPublica in an unrelated defamation lawsuit. She said law enforcement must be transparent in order to earn the public’s trust, but agencies are instead using their discretionary powers “to thwart the public from getting information that they are rightly entitled to.”

Because state law allows government officials to withhold information in cases that don’t result in a conviction, it creates a loophole that lets governments deny records in cases where the offender was killed and will not be tried.

That results in a challenge for members of the public seeking records related to Uvalde because “either way, there is a statutory basis for these governmental bodies to seek to withhold information,” said Jim Hemphill, an attorney who serves on the board of the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation.

We’ve heard about the “dead suspect” loophole before. I have a modicum of sympathy for withholding some information during an active criminal investigation, but here we already know who did it and there won’t ever be a criminal trial, at least not for him. Especially given the sheer amount of contradictory information that has been out there, we really deserve a lot of timely disclosure.

House Speaker Dade Phelan has talked about addressing that loophole in the next legislative session. Maybe there are some other items for them to address as well.

Members of the Uvalde Police Department are refusing to cooperate with a Texas House committee probing the law enforcement response to the Robb Elementary School shooting, the Express-News reports.

In comments Thursday, Committee Chairman Dustin Burrows — a Republican state rep from Lubbock — said Uvalde school district police department personnel were providing testimony to the three-member panel, according to the daily.

“There is a question mark, however, about the Uvalde Police Department itself, about whether or not they will visit with us voluntarily,” the lawmaker added. “We’ll see if they do that.”

The committee is in Uvalde for two days to hear closed-door testimony about the May 24 mass shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead. Even if Uvalde police officers don’t voluntarily testify, the committee has the power to issue subpoenas, the Express-News reports.

You have the power to compel their cooperation, or at least to make it a lot more painful to not cooperate. I’m just saying.

“Significant” suspension expected for Deshaun Watson

I should think so.

The NFL will argue that Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson should receive a “significant” suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, multiple people familiar with the case said Friday.

The league “probably” will seek a suspension of one full season for Watson, a person on Watson’s side of the case said Friday. A person familiar with the league’s view of the case cautioned to be “careful” about specifying a precise length at this point for the suspension the NFL will seek. But that person also said: “Significant would be the proper term.”

[…]

Under a process that was revised in the most recent collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFLPA completed in 2020, the initial ruling on a prospective suspension or fine will be made by Robinson, now an attorney in Wilmington, Del., after retiring from the bench in 2017.

The case would be finished, with no appeals possible, if Robinson rules that there was no violation of the personal conduct policy. If she rules that there was a violation of the policy and imposes a penalty, either side could appeal to Goodell. The NFLPA pushed for revisions to the personal conduct policy in the CBA after clashes, some of which spilled into courtrooms after litigation filed by the union and players, in previous disciplinary cases. Previously, Goodell was responsible for making both the initial disciplinary ruling and resolving appeals.

It’s not clear whether Robinson will hold what amounts to a quasi-trial before making her decision. She declined to comment this week, referring questions to the league and union.

The NFL’s investigation has been conducted by Lisa Friel, the former chief of the sex crimes prosecution unit for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office who is the league’s special counsel for investigations.

Friel interviewed at least 11 of the women accusing Watson who are represented by attorney Tony Buzbee, according to a person familiar with the investigation, along with other women. She reviewed relevant available documents. The NFL’s representatives interviewed Watson over several days in Houston.

[…]

The league has made a presentation on the case to the NFLPA and Watson’s representatives, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. That led those on Watson’s side of the case to conclude that the NFL will seek a substantial penalty.

It’s not clear whether Major League Baseball’s two-season suspension of pitcher Trevor Bauer under its domestic violence policy will serve as a precedent for the NFL’s proposed suspension of Watson, another person familiar with the league’s view said in recent weeks. But the NFL is aware that the length of the Bauer suspension could affect the public’s expectations and reaction in the Watson case, that person said.

Outside NFLPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler has become involved in the case. A person familiar with the NFL’s view said the league is wary that Kessler will argue for no disciplinary action at all.

Kessler declined to comment Friday, referring questions to the NFLPA. The NFLPA could cite the lack of criminal charges, although the NFL’s policy allows discipline to be imposed without such charges.

The NFLPA’s defense of Watson will raise the issue that owners Daniel Snyder of the Washington Commanders, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys were not suspended by the league for incidents involving them and their teams. That was confirmed by a person with knowledge of the case after first being reported by Pro Football Talk.

I think one year is the minimum. The charges against Watson are considerably greater than those against Bauer, and as such I wouldn’t mind seeing him get two years as his punishment. Maybe Robinson or Friel found Watson’s accusers to be not fully credible, or maybe the NFLPA’s argument about the lack of punishment for these miscreant owners will hold some sway, I don’t know. I just don’t have any sympathy for either Watson or the Browns. Whatever the case, the expectation is that there will be an answer by the start of NFL training camp, which is to say by late July.

Harris County GOP drops its lawsuit over election night vote dropoffs

It wasn’t getting anywhere, anyway.

The Harris County GOP on Friday dropped its lawsuit, filed on the day of last month’s primary runoff election, challenging the county’s plan for counting ballots.

Local Republican party officials argued the county’s ballot transport protocol violated state election law. The lawsuit, filed just hours before polls closed on Election Day, could have caused serious delays in counting ballots on May 24 had the Texas Supreme Court agreed with the Harris County GOP that the plan was unlawful. Instead, the court did not issue an opinion and election night ballot counting proceeded uneventfully at NRG Arena.

[…]

The Harris County Elections Administrator’s office debuted the plan in the May 7 election — deputizing law enforcement officials and full-time county staffers to deliver ballots from the polling location to the county’s central counting station.

Traditionally, the responsibility of transporting the ballots to the counting station on election night has fallen to election judges, the final task at the end of their 15-hour day. An election judge is the person in charge of running a voting location. In a primary election, each polling location has one judge from each party overseeing their own party’s voting process.

The Harris County GOP pushed back on the county’s plan, arguing only election judges are allowed to transport ballots and instructing Republican election judges to drive ballots themselves. The Election Administrator’s office notified Republican election judges they could “opt in” to the county’s plan if they wished, and at least 31 of them did so.

At a May 11 hearing with the state House Elections Committee, Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria argued the county’s ballot delivery plan utilizing law enforcement officers and deputized staffers is in compliance with Texas law.

Keith Ingram, the secretary of state’s director of elections, told lawmakers in the hearing he disagreed with that interpretation and believed Harris County’s plan violated the law.

See here for the background. As noted recently, the Supreme Court never responded to the initial writ, so I assume this was just a matter of the local GOP deciding it wasn’t worth the effort to continue. With a new election administrator about to come on board, we can revisit the matter and see if there’s a consensus to be had. From what I’ve gathered from talking to people, the multiple-dropoff-locations idea, which had been Diane Trautman’s original plan, is probably the best way to go. But we’ll see what happens.

Rice to join AAC in 2023

As expected given prior developments.

Nearly eight months after accepting an invitation to join the American Athletic Conference, Rice on Wednesday announced it has finalized an agreement to officially enter the league in 2023.

Rice — along with UTSA, North Texas, UAB, Florida Atlantic and Charlotte — will jump from Conference USA to the AAC on July 1, 2023.

Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard said the announcement “brings Rice athletics a step closer to its very bright future.”

Left out of the Big 12 following the breakup of the Southwest Conference in the mid-1990s, Rice spent eight years in the Western Athletic Conference and eventually joined C-USA in 2005.

The AAC’s agreements with the six new schools — which were spread out over the last five days — ends the latest round of conference realignment that began last summer with Texas and Oklahoma accepting invitations to join the Southeastern Conference. That set off a wave of moves, with the Big 12 adding the University of Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida from the AAC and independent BYU, and the AAC quickly adding six C-USA schools to form a 14-team football league.

On Friday, the AAC said it reached agreements on $18 million exit fees with its three departing schools — who will join the Big 12 on the same date — to pave the way for Rice to finally set a concrete date to join its new league.

As part of the departure, Rice will forfeit two years of revenue distribution, an amount estimated at $3 million, according to an industry source familiar with the payouts.

The move to the AAC outweighs any short-term loss of revenue, with Rice expected to benefit from an increase in visibility (the AAC has a multimedia rights deal with ESPN) and boost financially. Football-playing schools in the AAC received anywhere from $5.33 million to $9.44 million in revenue distribution, according to tax documents for the 2020-21 fiscal year. C-USA schools receive $500,000.

The AAC’s press release is here. By “prior developments” I mean UH and other officially joining the Big XII in 2023. It just made sense for the AAC to fill out its roster with its new players at the same time. The question still remains about when UT and OU will leave the Big XII for the SEC, but they’re on their own timetable. It’s not a big deal for the most part if those two overlap with the new Big XII members for a season. I hope this conference is more durable and sustainable than previous ones were (I will admit for a fondness for the old and too-short-lived WAC 16, which honestly would have been an awesome conference if certain members hadn’t broken off to form the Mountain West) and that Rice does its part to improve its teams and facilities. It’s been a rough few years for Owl fans. I hope this is the start of something better.