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June 22nd, 2022:

Where are we with the Paxton whistleblower lawsuit?

We are in the familiar position of waiting for the drawn-out appeals process to conclude. Pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable.

Best mugshot ever

The appeals process has grown a bit longer in state Attorney General Ken Paxton’s effort to dismiss a whistleblower lawsuit by four top agency officials who claim they were improperly fired in 2020 after accusing him of accepting bribes and other misconduct.

Paxton turned to the Texas Supreme Court 7½ months ago after two lower courts rejected his bids to toss out the lawsuit.

Last month, the Supreme Court told Paxton and the whistleblowers to provide justices with a deeper dive into the legal issues involved, kicking off a second round of legal briefing that was recently extended when the court granted Paxton’s request for an extra month to file his expanded brief.

Paxton’s brief is now due July 27, and although the court told Paxton that additional extensions aren’t likely to be granted, the move means the final brief isn’t due until Aug. 31 at the earliest.

That moves the case into election season as Paxton seeks a third four-year term against a Democrat, Rochelle Garza, who has made questioning Paxton’s ethics a campaign centerpiece. Three opponents tried the same tactic against Paxton in this year’s GOP primaries without success.

The timing also puts the case close to the two-year anniversary of when eight top officials of the attorney general’s office met with FBI agents and other investigators to relate their suspicions that Paxton had misused the powers of his office to help a friend and political donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul.

See here and here for the most recent updates. Paxton’s argument is that as an elected rather than appointed official, he doesn’t count as a “public official” under the Texas Whistleblower Act, so the employees who fired him have no grounds to sue. He has other arguments, but that’s the main thing that will be of interest to the Supreme Court. I’m sure you can surmise what I think, but if you want to dig deeper you can click the Texas Whistleblower Act tag link and review other posts in this genre.

Just as a reminder, we are also waiting for the FBI to take some kind of action in their investigation of the Ken Paxton-Nate Paul dealings, the State Bar complaint against Paxton for his attempt to overthrow the 2020 election should have a hearing sometime later this summer, and of course there’s the granddaddy of them all, the original state charges that Paxton engaged in securities fraud, which are now eight years old. He’s sure been a busy boy, hasn’t he?

DPS pins the blame on Arredondo

Look out for that bus!

Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told a state Senate committee Tuesday that the law enforcement response to the Uvalde school shooting was an “abject failure” and police could have stopped the shooter at Robb Elementary School three minutes after arriving were it not for the indecisiveness of the on-scene commander, who placed the lives of officers before those of children.

McCraw said the inexplicable conduct by Uvalde school district police Chief Pete Arredondo was antithetical to two decades of police training since the Columbine High School massacre, which dictates that officers confront active shooters as quickly as possible.

“The officers had weapons; the children had none,” McCraw said. “The officers had body armor; the children had none. The officers had training; the subject had none. One hour, 14 minutes and 8 seconds. That’s how long children waited, and the teachers waited, in Room 111 to be rescued.”

The revelations detailed by McCraw completed a remarkable shift in the police response narrative state officials have given since the May 24 shooting. Twenty-seven days after Gov. Greg Abbott said the shooting “could have been worse” but for officers who showed “amazing courage by running toward gunfire,” his state police director described stunning police incompetence that bordered on cowardice.

[…]

McCraw said though the state police are a far larger agency than the six-person Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District department, Arredondo was the rightful incident commander because he was the most senior first responder who had immediate jurisdiction over the district’s campuses. He said Arredondo could have transferred command to another agency, such as state troopers who arrived, but never did so.

Acting against the orders of an incident commander during an emergency can be dangerous and chaotic, McCraw said, responding to a question about why his troopers did not take charge. But he said the failure of one police agency means all law enforcement performed unacceptably that day.

The story notes the comparison of what Arredondo had said to more recent reporting; you can also see a list of places where the two accounts differ in this subsequent Trib story. One almost feels a little sorry for Arredondo. The main question I have at this point is what if anything are we going to do about this? Forget about adopting any kind of gun safety measures, which Greg Abbott will not do, are we interested in any laws that might prevent, or at least disincentivize, police behavior like what we got in Uvalde when the next mass shooting (whether at a school or not) occurs? One possibility I can think of that also will never pass through a Republican legislative chamber is to dial back qualified immunity for law enforcement officers, at least in this kind of circumstance. If the next Pete Arredondo has to worry about getting his ass sued for taking no action at the next gun massacre, maybe he’ll be more inclined towards action. Whether that might end up as a net positive or not, I can’t say. But it’s at least something we could talk about doing, rather than just talk. And someone else, maybe even someone with actual expertise in the matter, may have better ideas. Reform Austin and the Chron have more.

Of course we don’t do nearly enough for mental health

Because Republicans rush to talk about “mental health” every time there’s another mass shooting, it’s important to remember that their response to meeting the demand for mental health, in schools and elsewhere, has been completely inadequate.

Tucker’s was the kind of positive outcome state lawmakers pictured in 2019, when they worked to increase mental health resources for students after the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School that left eight students and two teachers dead.

Access to those services again is at the forefront as Republican leaders respond to last week’s massacre in Uvalde.

Mental health experts say the 2019 initiatives, including hundreds of millions of dollars more in funding, have only begun to address Texas’ mental health crisis, and that the state does little to track even their limited outcomes. Many school districts are left to fund their own interventions.

There is little evidence that mental illnesses cause mass shootings or that people diagnosed with them are more likely to commit violent crimes. Advocates also warn that scapegoating mental illness can stigmatize the wide spectrum of people living with psychological disorders.

“It’s absolutely something that should be addressed — but it’s not a panacea,” said Greg Hansch, executive director for the Texas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It’s more of a secondary or tertiary factor.”

Gov. Greg Abbott and other top Republicans have pointed to the shortage of mental health resources, especially in rural Texas, as a key factor in the Uvalde shooting, while rejecting calls for stricter gun laws.

The 18-year-old gunman, who killed 19 children and two adults, legally purchased the assault-style weapon he used in the shooting spree and had “no known mental health history,” Abbott said.

Even with the 2019 reforms, mental health care remains vastly underfunded in Texas. That largely is because of budget cuts two decades ago and years of stagnant funding to community mental health services. Today, Texas provides less access to care than any other state, and nearly three quarters of children and teenagers with major depression do not get treated, the highest rate in the country, according to the nonprofit group Mental Health America.

Without a direct source of state funding for mental health care, school districts in Texas are forced to rely on a patchwork of state and federal programs, most of which do not guarantee that money will flow to mental health services for students or training for teachers. As a result, only a tiny fraction of Texas’ roughly 1,200 public school and open-enrollment charter districts have enough counselors, social workers and psychologists to meet professionally recommended student-to-provider ratios, according to a recent Houston Chronicle analysis.

Central to lawmakers’ 2019 response was a new mental health consortium overseen by the University of Texas System, with a $99 million initial investment for programs focused on children and teens, including virtual visits between child psychologists and students referred by school staff. The Legislature also increased funding to Communities in Schools, which places staff directly on campuses and had employed Tucker’s social workers.

In addition, lawmakers required school officials to form “threat assessment teams” to identify students who may pose a risk of violence, and put forth another $100 million to school districts every two years that can be used to hire security personnel, provide mental health services and buy physical upgrades, such as metal detectors and bullet-resistant glass.

In the first year, however, just 12 percent of Texas school districts reported using any of the funds for mental health support, while 8 percent said the money was used for behavioral health services, according to a survey by the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University.

A task force later found the Texas Education Agency was not collecting meaningful data on mental health programs in schools, including the number of students they serve or “any standard outcomes” they measure. The Legislature responded with a bill last year to bolster reporting, but the agency has yet to release any results.

Annalee Gulley, director of public policy and government affairs for Mental Health America of Greater Houston, said lawmakers have taken encouraging steps to support mental health but should have paired the funding with more direction for school officials on how to spend it.

“A critical lesson learned in the years following the Santa Fe High School shooting is funding alone is not enough,” Gulley said. “Instead, the state must connect financial resources to guidance on the most effective strategies to support the safety and well-being of educators and students following such a catastrophic event.”

Much of the focus since 2019 has been on the telehealth effort known as TCHATT, including more than $50 million in added pandemic funding last year. The program has been slow to expand, however, serving only about 6,000 students so far. By comparison, Communities in Schools serves 115,000 students annually on a $35 million budget. There are more than 5 million students in Texas.

So yeah, still a long way to go, and that’s before we get to things like the challenges of hiring all of the counselors that would be needed in Texas’ 1200 school districts and thousands of schools. And this story never mentions the need to expand Medicaid, which would be the single biggest thing that we could do in Texas to improve mental health care for everyone, not just for students. I started the draft of this post a couple of weeks ago, before the Cornyn/Murphy gang got what passes for traction on a bipartisan framework for a gun control bill (still no bill, and the framework remains under negotiation, but there’s an agreement to come to an agreement, and that’s the progress in question), and since then we’ve had that, more ridiculous talk about all of the non-gun things that actually cause mass shootings, the lunatics at the Texas GOP convention basically accusing Cornyn of treason, and a bunch more people getting shot and killed, but we haven’t had much talk about mental health. As with gun control itself, the Republicans and their gun enablers will be happy to just let that fade away, until the next time it has to be trotted out as an excuse for the latest mass casualty.

Watson settles 20 of the lawsuits against him

Interesting.

A lawyer for several women who accused Deshaun Watson of inappropriate sexual behavior during massage sessions has said that 20 settlement agreements with the former Texans athlete have been reached.

Tony Buzbee, lawyer for women in 24 cases, said Tuesday that the accusers accepted confidential settlements in connection to the lawsuits, most of which were filed in 2021 and onward.

Buzbee cited Ashley Solis’ complaint as instrumental in the legal battle. He noted that her case is among those that have not reached a settlement.

“The truth is, without her courage and willingness to come forward, the NFL wouldn’t currently be contemplating discipline; there would be no examination of how teams might knowingly or unknowingly enable certain behavior; sports teams wouldn’t be reviewing their personnel screening processes; and this important story wouldn’t have dominated the sports headlines for more than a year,” Buzbee said.

The terms of the settlements were not disclosed. Records in the Harris County District Clerk’s Office did not immediately reflect the settlements.

It should be noted that Watson nearly came to a settlement agreement with all then-22 plaintiffs last November, as part of an effort to enable a trade to Miami. As such, the possibility of a settlement with most if not all of his accusers was always there. The timing is notable, though if this batch of agreements was finished in an attempt to mitigate the forthcoming suspension Watson will receive from the NFL, it seems that won’t matter. Per ESPN, an NFL spokesperson has said “today’s development has no impact on the collectively bargained disciplinary process.” Which is to say, whatever discipline Watson was in line to get on Monday, he’s still in line to get it. But at least from his perspective he’s maybe reducing the risk of further exposure. Maybe. Sean Pendergast has more.