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A kinder, gentler voter purge

How nice.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Two years after Texas officials fumbled an effort to double-check the voting rolls on a hunt for non-citizens — and instead threatened the voting rights of nearly 60,000 eligible Texans — similar efforts to purge non-citizen voters are now the law of the land, thanks to provisions tucked into the massive elections bill enacted earlier this month.

The Secretary of State will once again be allowed to regularly compare driver’s license records to voter registration lists in a quest to find people who are not eligible.

But while Republicans are determined to make another run at the controversial purge that alarmed civil rights groups two years ago, they insist they’ve made key changes to prevent a repeat of the same mistakes.

“They blew it last time,” acknowledged Republican State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.

So much so, then-Secretary of State David Whitley resigned his position in the aftermath and triggered a public apology from his office. Civil rights groups also sued his office and blocked the state from continuing the purge at the time.

Starting by December of this year, the Secretary of State will review Department of Public Safety records every month looking for potential non-citizens. But this time lawmakers have put in a provision that intentionally bars the Secretary of State from going too far back in time as it scours drivers’ license records, something that led to some of the problems in 2019.

In some instances, the state flagged legal voters who had become naturalized citizens since the time they first applied for a driver’s license a decade or more earlier. Non-citizens, including those with visas or green cards to stay in the U.S., are able to get Texas driver’s licenses. The state’s 2019 analysis flagged those drivers, but it never accounted for the fact that about 50,000 Texans become naturalized citizens each year.

The result was many legitimate voters receiving letters warning they were at risk of being knocked off the voter rolls and facing potential legal action because of faulty data.

By hastening to send out the written warnings, civil rights groups said the state caused a lot of fear and confusion, particularly for naturalized citizens.

“Definitely this is substantially better than what they were doing before,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

But Gonzalez said he’s still worried about the reliability of Department of Public Safety drivers’ license databases and the inherent pitfalls of trying to compare millions of records against millions of other records. He said there is just too much room for error.

“There are still concerns that they will be falsely flagging people,” he said.

There’s too much to even sum up, so just go here for all things David Whitley. The provision the Democrats fought for should limit the damage, and for that we can be thankful. But there’s still no reason to trust anything the state is likely to want to do to “clean up” the voter rolls. They have not earned any benefit of the doubt. I will be delighted to be pleasantly surprised by this, but we very much need to keep a close eye on the process, because again, the state cannot be trusted.

Abbott’s migrant roundup order still blocked

Good.

A federal judge in El Paso on Friday extended her order blocking Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive to state troopers to pull over drivers transporting migrants “who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19.”

U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone lengthened her restraining order by another two weeks after a hearing Friday, according to a court filing. Her original order on Aug. 3 was set to expire Friday.

In July, Abbott ordered state troopers to pull over civilian drivers giving rides to recent immigrants who may be infected with the virus and redirect the drivers to their origin point. If the driver didn’t comply, the troopers should seize their vehicles, the order said.

Soon after, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Texas and Abbott, describing the governor’s executive order as “dangerous and unlawful.”

In the lawsuit, the DOJ said Abbott’s order would disrupt federal immigration officials’ network of contractors and nongovernmental organizations that help host recently arrived migrants while their legal cases are pending.

See here and here for background on the suit filed by the Justice Department. There’s also now another lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of several groups; as far as I know there has not yet been a hearing for that. In keeping with my earlier posts, I don’t know how this is likely to play out, but as a rule any time Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton lose in court, it’s probably a good thing.

Alvarado’s filibuster ends

It was a strong effort, and she deserves credit for it.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

After 15 hours of speaking nearly nonstop against the GOP’s priority elections bill, State Sen. Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat, concluded her filibuster on Thursday morning.

“Voter suppression anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere,” Alvarado said in her closing remarks, as fellow Democrats surrounded her to show their support.

Yet, as expected, after Alvarado got some hugs and took a seat to rest her feet, the Senate voted 18-11 along party lines to advance the bill and send it to the House, where it will be stalled by a Democratic walkout that has lasted a month.

While Alvarado’s filibuster could not — and did not — kill the bill, it exemplifies the at-all-costs attitude the Democrats are bringing to their opposition to it. Alvarado acknowledged that the tactic was a temporary measure in an interview with the Texas Tribune.

“I’m using what I have at my disposal in the Senate,” Alvarado told the outlet. “The filibuster isn’t going to stop it, but a filibuster is also used to put the brakes on an issue — to call attention to what is at stake — and that is what I am doing.”

See here for the background. The point here isn’t about winning – Dems know they’re outnumbered and cannot hold off any of these bills if they come to the floor. The point is about fighting, and showing your voters that you’re fighting. Midterms are about turnout, and you can’t win if your voters aren’t engaged. It’s the same principle as with the quorum-busting, though that also had other purposes, such as directly lobbying Congress and focusing national attention on the issue. You do what you can so that in the end you can say you did all you could. Sen. Alvarado did all she could.

As for the quorum-busters, they’re back on the lam.

The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday overruled a Houston judge who had provided Texas House Democrats with the legal shelter they requested to avoid civil arrest for absconding from the state Capitol.

After Houston Rep. Gene Wu successfully challenged his warrant in Harris County state district court on Wednesday, 44 additional Democrats had followed in his footsteps, hoping for the same outcome.

The stay from the state’s highest civil court came swiftly, potentially scrambling the plans of those Democrats and others who’d made plans to return home.

A dwindling number of House members remain in Washington, D.C., where they have spent a month rallying for federal voting rights legislation that would supersede existing Texas elections laws as well as bills that Republicans are pushing in Austin. The Democrats have until Monday to respond in court.

“Despite the high court’s ruling, Texas House Democrats remain committed to fighting back with everything we have to protect Texans from Republicans’ repeated attacks on our freedom to vote,” Wu said in a statement on behalf of the caucus. “Instead of trying to calm the situation and find ways to peacefully resolve the situation, Texas Republicans continue to add more fuel to this fire. We will not be deterred. If anything, this action continues to solidify our resolve to stand up for Texans.”

In his motion to the high court, the state’s Solicitor General Judd E. Stone had warned that Wu’s court order could have a domino effect.

“Without this court’s intervention, every truant member of the House will follow the lead of Representative Wu, file habeas petitions in trial courts throughout the state, disrupt the ability of the Legislature to obtain a quorum, and undercut this court’s ability to achieve an orderly and efficient resolution of identical issues presented,” Stone wrote.

[…]

Several Houston-area representatives, including Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Hubert Vo, were pre-emptively released from potential custody on Thursday as a result of the newest writs, attorney Romy Kaplan said.

Three hearings tomorrow concern non-Houston-area representatives, who will be appearing via Zoom to put themselves in Harris County’s jurisdiction, Kaplan said.

A hearing is also scheduled for next Thursday in district Judge Chris Morton’s court. He said his approval of Wu’s writ on Wednesday was conditional, and he will further explore his jurisdiction over the case and over the House of Representatives’ sergeant-at-arms in Austin.

See the same link for the background; I’m trying to conserve resources by combining some of these stories into single posts. The Trib adds some details.

Texas law enforcement was deputized Thursday to track down Texas House Democrats still missing from the chamber and bring them to the state Capitol in Austin, a process that Speaker Dade Phelan’s office said “will begin in earnest immediately.”

The news came as the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for their civil arrests after it temporarily blocked Harris County judges’ orders protecting 45 Democrats from such a move.

Law enforcement was tapped “to assist in the House’s efforts to compel a quorum,” Phelan spokesperson Enrique Marquez said in an emailed statement. Earlier this week, Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, signed warrants for those missing lawmakers, many of whom have refused to return to the chamber for weeks to block a GOP elections bill. Their absence has prevented the chamber from having a quorum, the number of present lawmakers needed to move legislation.

If lawmakers are arrested, they will not face criminal charges or fines and could only be brought to the House chamber.

[…]

After Wu was granted his request for temporary protection Wednesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton made clear he would fight that order in a similar manner to how the state fought a previous temporary restraining order by a state district judge in Travis County that also sought to block the arrest of the quorum-breaking Democrats.

In that case, the Supreme Court voided the order temporarily on Tuesday, though Democrats have said they plan to push forward in their request for a temporary injunction on Aug. 20. If granted, that injunction could again grant them protection from arrest.

I mean, the real question at this point is what exactly happens when a law enforcement officer finds a wayward lawmaker? Are they going to slap cuffs on them, throw them in a car and drive them to Austin? Call Speaker Phelan and tell him to, I don’t know, send an Uber? This may wind up being a lot of commotion over nothing, because I just can’t quite see how any of this brings a currently absent member to the House floor. Maybe we’ll find out – I hope we don’t, but we are in completely uncharted waters. I just have no idea what to expect.

In the meantime, as the Senate passed SB1, the House prepped HB3 to bring to the floor, with no public hearings because why would they want to do that. We know what will happen if there is a quorum again. Until then, I have no freaking idea.

Another lawsuit filed against Abbott’s migrant transport order

Bring them on.

Immigrant rights groups backed by the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against Texas Governor Greg Abbott over his executive order restricting the transportation of migrants, claiming it goes against federal law and amounts to racial profiling at the southern border.

The legal challenge was brought by the nonprofit Annunciation House, a migrant shelter provider in El Paso, along with immigrant advocacy groups Angry Tias & Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley and FIEL Houston,. They are represented by attorneys with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and the ACLU of Texas.

This lawsuit, filed late Wednesday in El Paso federal court, comes six days after the U.S. Department of Justice sued Abbott to block the order. On Tuesday, a federal judge in that case issued a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of the order until a hearing on an injunction can be held.

Echoing the DOJ’s claims, the ACLU and immigration groups allege that the order violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution by attempting to regulate the movement of migrants, which is for the federal government to decide. They also say the order unlawfully attempts to regulate the federal government.

[…]

In Wednesday’s lawsuit, the ACLU argues the order will directly impact people who have been released from the federal government’s custody into the country to await their immigration hearing. Those people will be unable to get any form of transportation after being released from CBP custody, according to the complaint, which points out that state law enforcement officials would be taking migrants back to CBP after the agency released them.

The groups also claim the order allows Texas police to racially profile travelers along the border region.

“It directs state officers to make their own determinations about passengers’ immigration status, wholly independent of the federal government, and to impose harsh penalties based on those unilateral immigration decisions,” the lawsuit states. “It opens the door to profiling, standardless detention, questioning, vehicle seizure, rerouting, and heavy fines. The executive order is already having a profound chilling effect on people’s movement in border communities and throughout the state.”

In addition, the immigrant advocacy organizations say they will be directly affected by the order if it is allowed to be enforced. Annunciation House transports migrants who have been released from federal immigration custody to its facility, which houses migrants in the El Paso area. Angry Tias funds numerous services for migrants, including a taxi service that is kept on retainer. Both groups say they would be unable to provide such services under the governor’s order, would face having their vehicles impounded and would be left with no way of assisting migrants.

See here and here for background on the suit filed by the Justice Department. As before, I don’t really know enough to say much of value – I’m not fully clear on the differences in the claims made by the two groups of plaintiffs. It may be that this suit winds up getting combined with the other one, as often happens. Whatever the case, I’m rooting for the plaintiffs. The Texas Signal and Daily Kos have more.

Judge halts Abbott’s “pull over migrants” executive order

For now, anyway.

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked Gov. Greg Abbott and the state of Texas from ordering state troopers to pull over drivers transporting migrants “who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19.”

U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone granted a temporary restraining order against Abbott’s move, meaning it will be blocked while the case continues to unfold. The U.S. Justice Department sued Abbott and Texas on Friday, a day after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland threatened to take legal action if Abbott didn’t rescind his order, calling it “dangerous and unlawful.”

In a statement later Tuesday, Abbott’s press secretary said the state looks forward to presenting evidence that supports his order.

“The Court’s recent order is temporary and based on limited evidence,” Press Secretary Renae Eze said in the statement.

Cardone still must decide whether Texas’ move is constitutional, and her temporary restraining order is set to last until the court’s next hearing on Aug. 13. Abbott has defended his order as necessary to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Texas, while advocates for migrants say it would disrupt federal immigration efforts and invite troopers to racially profile people.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the restraining order. This is all pretty technical and I don’t have the knowledge to say anything cogent, so I will give you a bunch of links at the end of the story for more reading, and we’ll go from there. This tweet made me think about what may come next:

It certainly won’t surprise me if Abbott takes another crack at this if he loses. He has every incentive to push at this until he can claim a victory of some kind. Buzzfeed, the Chron, Daily Kos, and TPM have more.

Final settlement in Motor Voter 2.0 lawsuit

From Democracy Docket:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Last Friday, individual Texan voters, the Texas Democratic Party, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) settled a five-year long lawsuit with Texas over its noncompliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The settlement outlines the state’s plans to permanently offer simultaneous voter registration when an eligible voter renews or updates his or her driver’s licenses or ID cards online — an option not offered before this litigation.

The lawsuit, filed in March 2016 by the Texas Civil Rights Project on behalf of individual Texas voters, challenged the state’s misleading practice of providing the option to register to vote when completing online transactions with the transportation agency. Notably, checking this option did not actually register someone to vote, which violated the NVRA’s requirement that states offer voter registration or the ability to update registrations when an eligible voter obtains, renews or updates his or her driver’s license. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas found that this practice violated the NVRA and 14th Amendment and struck the law down, but after the voters updated their registration, the court found that they no longer had standing to sue. The Texas Democratic Party, DSCC and DCCC successfully intervened in the case to expand this victory. The court ordered the state to comply with the NVRA in August 2020 and since then, over one million Texans have registered to vote while completing an online driver’s license transaction. The settlement makes the court-ordered compliance permanent throughout the state.

Read the key filings from the case here.

See here and here for some background; there are more links at that second post. This KUT story, referenced above, came out a day or so before the final settlement agreement.

After a lengthy court battle, the Texas Department of Safety has started allowing voters to update their voter information at the same time they update their driver’s license information online.

The Texas Civil Rights Project filed a federal lawsuit against the state on behalf of three voters in Texas who thought they had updated their addresses on their voter registration through the DPS website. They later found out that never happened because online voter registration is illegal in Texas.

The plaintiffs in the case were Jarrod Stringer, Nayeli Gomez and John Harms, as well as two organizations, MOVE Texas and the League of Women Voters of Texas.

The lawsuit claimed Texas was violating the National Voter Registration Act — which includes federal motor voter laws — and the U.S. Constitution. The Texas Civil Rights Project first sued the state five years ago, but the lawsuit was thrown out on a technicality. The group sued again shortly after.

A federal judge sided with the Texas Civil Rights Project and ordered the state to change its practices last year, forcing Texas to “create the first-ever opportunity for some Texans to register to vote online” starting in September, the group said in a press release.

Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, told KUT that DPS data shows that about a million voter registration transactions have occurred in the past ten months.

“That means that’s an average of a 100,000 Texans per month are now registering to vote — or updating their voter registration — with their online drivers’ transaction,” she said. “That’s a lot of people.”

Here’s a Twitter thread from the TCRP that breaks this down by month since last November. Note the qualification “or updating their voter registration”. That means that anyone who updated their drivers license information – name change, address change, etc – are counted in this total, as they were then able to update their voter registration information at the same time. That’s a big deal and a much-needed bit of convenience for Texans who now don’t have to do that same transaction twice, but it is not one million new voters registered. I don’t want to downplay this because it is a big deal, but I also don’t want to overstate it.

Marziani told KUT that this should prompt the state to expand online voter registration to all eligible Texans, not just those updating their drivers’ license information. Currently, 42 states and D.C. have online voter registration. Texas is among the small minority of states that doesn’t.

Marziani said Texas now has “absolutely no practical reason” not to expand and implement full online voter legislation.

“Now with the state implementing this online voter registration with driver’s license transactions, the state completely has the backend infrastructure to roll out online voter registration,” she said.

Absolutely, and it remains a disgrace that Texas doesn’t have online voter registration. But we all know why, and we know what is going to be needed to make it happen. This is a step in the right direction, but the rest of the way is up to us winning more elections.

Justice Department sues over Abbott’s anti-migrant executive order

Good.

The Biden administration sued Texas on Friday, asking a federal judge to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that state troopers pull over drivers transporting migrants who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19 as a way to prevent the spread of the virus.

The lawsuit comes a day after the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, in a letter to the governor, threatened to take legal action against Texas if Abbott didn’t rescind his order. Garland described the order as “dangerous and unlawful.”

The Department of Justice said in the lawsuit that Abbott’s order will contribute to the spread of COVID-19 and it will disrupt immigration officials’ network of contractors and non government organizations that help host recently arrived migrants as their legal cases are pending.

“In our constitutional system, a State has no right to regulate the federal government’s operations,” the DOJ argued in a motion asking the judge to block Abbott’s order, adding “this restriction on the transportation of noncitizens would severely disrupt federal immigration operations.”

[…]

The lawsuit says that if migrants are not allowed to be transported by volunteers or contractors they would have to be confined to immigration facilities where there would not be enough space for every migrant.

I’d not blogged about this before, so here’s the background for you:

Gov. Greg Abbott draws criticism for ordering state troopers to pull over vehicles with migrants, saying it will stem COVID-19 risk
U.S. attorney general blasts Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest border directive and threatens a legal battle
‘Dangerous and unlawful.’ AG Merrick Garland threatens to sue over Gov. Abbott’s latest border order

Yes, the same Governor who has banned mask mandates and vaccine mandates for local government employees somehow thinks this will have a positive effect on COVID, even though 90% of migrants are vaccinated, nearly double the rate of the Texas population as a whole. For more on the lawsuit, which is an emergency motion seeking an injunction or temporary restraining order, see here. For a copy of the lawsuit itself, see here. For an analysis of why the Abbott executive order is “*flagrantly* illegal and unconstitutional”, see here. For more in general, see Dos Centavos and the Chron.

Here are your new SB7s

We start with the House.

The Texas House is starting off on a new foot on the contentious elections proposal that blew up the regular legislative session.

As a special session reviving the Republican-priority bill got underway Thursday, there were ample signs that the lower chamber was taking a fresh approach to the legislation, at least procedurally. The bill has a new author who is moving early to get colleagues’ input, and it is going through a new committee that House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, says he created to bring more diverse perspectives to the issue.

[…]

The House’s revised approach to the voting legislation is in contrast to the Senate. In that chamber, Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican, is again carrying the omnibus election proposal, which for a second time will be considered before the upper chamber’s State Affairs Committee, which Hughes chairs. The committee is set to consider the legislation Saturday.

One of the starkest changes to the elections bill in the House for the special session was its author. Rep. Briscoe Cain, the Deer Park Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee, carried the bill in the regular session, but Phelan tapped Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, to take the lead on it during the special session. Murr currently chairs the House Corrections Committee.

On Wednesday, Murr sent a letter to House colleagues announcing he had filed House Bill 3 and was soliciting their feedback.

“Because this subject is important to all Members and their constituents, and given the compressed time frame of the special session, I welcome any questions, discussions or comments you may have,” Murr wrote, inviting members to call him or come by his office.

[…]

Phelan did not put Cain on the new panel, nor did he tap Rep. Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Elections Committee. But he did tap Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, a member of the Elections Committee who had helped Cain with the elections bill during the regular session.

On Thursday, the main elections bill for the special session — HB 3 — as well as other voting-related proposals were referred to the select committee instead of the Elections Committee. The election bill was set for a hearing set to start 8 a.m. Saturday.

During Democrats’ news conference Thursday, Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus, said that the legislation, despite any changes that may be made to it, “is inherently flawed.”

“The bottom line on HB 3 is, just like SB 7, it’s based on a lie,” Turner told reporters. “It’s based on a lie that there’s rampant problems in our elections and the big lie that Donald Trump actually won the last election.”

As noted, the Senate will also have a hearing on Saturday. Tomorrow will be a busy day.

This story covers the differences between the House and Senate bills, and how the differ from what had been done in the regular session. It’s nice that some of the more egregious things like the restriction on Sunday early voting hours and the lessening of legal standards to challenge an election were removed, but there are still some truly bad things in these bills, and they’re not getting enough attention. For example:

SB 1 strays from the House’s legislation by setting up monthly reviews of the state’s voter rolls to identify noncitizens — harkening back to the state’s botched 2019 voter rolls review. The bill would require the Texas secretary of state’s office to compare the massive statewide voter registration list with data from the Department of Public Safety to pinpoint individuals who told the department they were not citizens when they obtained or renewed their driver’s license or ID card.

That sort of review landed the state in federal court over concerns it targeted naturalized citizens who were classified as “possible non-U.S citizens” and set up to review notices from their local voter registrar demanding they prove their citizenship that their registrations are safe.

State election officials ultimately ended that effort as part of an agreement to settle three legal challenges and agreed to rework their methodology to only flag voters who provided DPS with documentation showing they were not citizens after they were registered to vote. But they do not appear to have ever taken up the effort after that debacle.

While the Senate bill does not reference that agreement, it indicates that the secretary of state’s office would be responsible for setting up rules to implement the review.

I guarantee you, the implementation of this will be a disaster. This provision is heavy-handed, the mandated frequency will make it error prone, and the end result will be many people thrown off the rolls incorrectly. I don’t care how the Secretary of State sets up the rules, there is no reason to trust this process.

Both bills include language to strengthen the autonomy of partisan poll watchers at polling places by granting them “free movement” within a polling place, except for being present at a voting station when a voter is filling out their ballot. Both chambers also want to make it a criminal offense to obstruct their view or distance the watcher “in a manner that would make observation not reasonably effective.”

Currently, poll watchers are entitled to sit or stand “conveniently near” election workers, and it is a criminal offense to prevent them from observing.

What this will lead to is some Republican knucklehead uploading a video of something he will claim is “proof” of “voter fraud”, when it will be nothing of the sort. But because he will have been there, at the scene, acting in an “official” capacity, people will believe him. Nothing good can come of this. We need more protection from partisan poll watchers, not protections for them.

Anyway. Watch the hearing if you can, register to leave written feedback if you can, and then work like hell to boot the people pushing this crap out of office in 2022. It’s all we can do.

ACLU warns counties to stay away from the Abbott wall

From the inbox:

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas sent letters today to 34 counties informing top officials that implementing Gov. Greg Abbott’s unlawful plan to engage in immigration enforcement would violate the U.S. Constitution.

The letters, sent to the counties targeted by Abbott, advise against local law enforcement participation in Abbott’s unilateral efforts to set federal immigration policy, arrest and detain immigrants, and deter people from seeking protection in the United States. Noncitizens in the U.S. have the legal right to seek asylum and other protections. Arresting and detaining immigrants due to their immigration status or as a result of enforcing or altering federal immigration law is unconstitutional.

“Gov. Abbott cannot seek to enforce his own version of immigration policy,” said Kate Huddleston, attorney at the ACLU of Texas. “County officials will be in violation of the law if they enforce the governor’s plan. The federal government, not states or local governments, sets immigration policy and enforces immigration law. Yet again, the governor is targeting immigrants and inciting fear and xenophobia in our state. These moves are a cruel distraction from the real problems facing the state, such as fixing the failing state electrical grid.”

The letters also request under the Texas Public Information Act information about guidance that local officials have received from the state, as well as local cooperation with state efforts to arrest immigrants to date, including any arrests or prosecutions by their locality.

In addition, the letters advise localities to train local law enforcement officers to ensure they do not violate the Constitution or federal law when interacting with immigrants. The ACLU of Texas is asking agencies to adopt policies that comply with constitutional policing and limitations on immigration enforcement, including training officers to refrain from making stops based on perceived immigration status, race, ethnicity, or language.

The 34 counties that received the letter are: Brewster, Brooks, Cameron, Crockett, Culberson, Dimmit, Duval, Edwards, El Paso, Goliad, Gonzales, Hidalgo, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis, Jim Hogg, Kenedy, Kinney, La Salle, Lavaca, Maverick, McMullen, Pecos, Presidio, Real, Reeves, Starr, Sutton, Terrell, Uvalde, Val Verde, Webb, Willacy, Zapata, and Zavala.

See here and here for the background. A copy of the letter is here. It seems clear that this is a precursor to a lawsuit, serving both as a warning to the counties that if they follow along with Abbott’s folly they will be named in the suit as well, plus an early effort to gather evidence. The Public Information Act request in this letter specifically asks for the following:

1. Any and all records regarding the May 31, 2021 disaster declaration and its implementation;

2. Any and all records regarding Operation Lone Star and its implementation;

3. Any and all records regarding your locality’s participation in or cooperation with Texas Department of Public Safety officials engaged in Operation Lone Star or any other immigration enforcement efforts; and

4. Any and all records regarding arrests and/or prosecutions pursuant to Operation Lone Star, the May 31 disaster declaration, or for immigration-related enforcement purposes by your locality from March 6, 2021, to the present, including but not limited to arrests and prosecutions for criminal trespass, smuggling, or human trafficking.

We’re unlikely to get any of that information from Greg Abbott, so no matter what else happens this should be valuable.

Abbott’s border wall

I have many questions about this, but for this post I will limit myself to three.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that Texas will build a border wall along the state’s boundary with Mexico — but provided no details on where or when.

Abbott declared his plans during a press conference in Del Rio. He said he would discuss the plans next week. The Biden administration issued a proclamation that stopped border wall construction on his first day of office.

Abbott announced the news while discussing a slew of border initiatives, such as a $1 billion allocation for border security in the state budget lawmakers just passed and a plan to establish a Governor’s Task Force on Border and Homeland Security with public safety and state government officials.

“It will help all of us to work on ways to stem the flow of unlawful immigration and to stem the flow of illegal contraband,” Abbott said, while seated next to officials from the National Guard, Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas Division of Emergency Management.

At the conference, Abbott also announced plans to increase arrests along the border — and increase space inside local jails.

“They don’t want to come to across the state of Texas anymore because it’s not what they were expecting,” Abbott said before being met with applause from those at the conference. “It’s not the red carpet that the federal administration rolled out to them.”

He also announced an interstate compact with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to resolve the border “crisis,” and called on other states to do the same.

1. How exactly is any of this going to be paid for? I know Abbott has promised more details next week, but we just had an entire legislative session, with a budget being passed, and I don’t remember “building a border wall” being part of it. Also, arresting however many people and putting them in jail – who will be paying for that? Even if one can claim that there is a line item in the budget for this, does anyone believe it’s enough?

2. How many lawsuits do you think this will generate? There’s federal-state issues, such as whether states can arrest migrants for trespassing, likely questions about how various funds may be spent on this ill-conceived idea, and who knows what else. Some number of lawyers are going to make a lot of bank on this.

3. We’re totally going to start seeing “Abbott for President 2024” speculation because of this, aren’t we? Time to find a nice Internet-free cabin in the woods, I suppose. More from the Trib here.

Cybersecurity insurance for TxDOT

Not an optional thing these days.

Pending final approval from the legislature, the Texas Department of Transportation plans to spend about $100,000 annually on cybersecurity insurance aimed at repaying the state should it incur expenses related to loss of business or recouping costs related to correcting a cyber attack. To buy the insurance, TxDOT needs some minor language changes to state law. HB 3390 by State Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, would make those adjustments, clearing the way for the transportation agency to buy a policy.

Thompson’s bill passed the Texas Senate on Wednesday and now goes to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.

State Sen. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, who sponsored an identical bill in the Senate, said the premium on the insurance would cost TxDOT about $100,000 annually.

The insurance comes about a year after the department was the victim of a ransomware attack on its systems that cost about $10 million to correct and prevent future invaders.

“It was pretty bad,” said State Sen. Robert Nichols, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

A number of state agencies, smaller public entities and major businesses in Texas have faced internet assaults, including school districts, the Houston RocketsTexas’ court system and Texas Children’s Hospital.

Neither TxDOT nor its insurance company paid a ransom, officials at the time said, but spent weeks working with consultants and companies, such as AT&T, to identify the issue and install new hardware related to stopping infiltrations. James Bass, TxDOT’s executive director, said analysts believe the breach happened when a contract employee clicked a link disguised as coming from an internal source.

[…]

Bass said the need for the insurance at this time is somewhat confusing, since last year’s attack was covered by insurance. To satisfy bond holders, who lent money for the state to build toll roads, TxDOT purchased cyberattack insurance on its tolling systems about a decade ago. At that time, the insurer allowed TxDOT to add all of its operations free of charge.

Now that the state has been attacked, however, Bass said it likely will need separate insurance, which requires the change in law so TxDOT can use state money — not toll revenue — to pay the premium.

TxDOT is an obvious candidate for needing this kind of insurance, since drivers license data is a lucrative target, but surely they’re not the only state agency that would need it. The Department of State Health Services comes to mind, for example. A better question is what are we doing as a state to better protect these agencies and their data from being ransomed in the first place? Putting my professional hat on for a minute, I can tell you this is a big problem, one that requires a significant and evergreen investment to mitigate against it, and a lot of places are woefully ill-equipped for the fight. And as we saw last year, it’s not just DPS and other state agencies we have to worry about, it’s also the firms they do business with. (It’s also not just hackers, but pure human incompetence that can be at fault as well.) I’m sure there’s plenty the Lege could have done this session to improve things, but they had other priorities.

The Trib adds on to the updated date rape drug story

I was a little surprised when there wasn’t a Texas Tribune story about the revelation that the date rape drug allegation levied against a lobbyist turned out to have been fabricated. They’re usually pretty quick on stuff like that, even when it wasn’t their scoop. With the publication of this story, I can see why. It focuses on the lobbyist in question, and it’s a deep dive.

Although it had not been officially released, the investigative report began ricocheting around computers and cellphones at the Texas Capitol early Tuesday evening, and it made one thing unambiguously clear: Rick Dennis, a lobbyist with one of Austin’s most prominent firms, was not guilty of using a date rape drug on two female legislative staffers during a night out in Austin.

Rumors that Dennis had been accused of doing so rocked the Capitol in late April, prompting outraged reactions from legislative leaders and state lawmakers. But a Texas Department of Public Safety investigation found the allegation baseless. Authorities soon after said they would not seek charges.

The DPS report, a copy of which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, concluded that the false allegation was fueled by two female legislative staffers, one of whom was trying to cover up behavior of her own that had nothing to do with Dennis.

Still, the incident laid bare larger questions about a Capitol culture that many female staffers say often leads to allegations of misconduct and harassment being brushed under the rug by those with the power to act.

Dennis has faced multiple accusations of inappropriate behavior with women as both a legislative staffer and lobbyist — and in at least two instances has been banned from visiting certain Capitol offices because of them, according to current and former staffers and documentation reviewed by the Tribune.

Those past allegations include offering graphic descriptions of sex acts inside a House member’s office, openly speculating about the sex lives of female and male employees, and creating “an office contest” in which Dennis demanded that he, as winner, would be able to “shoot white yogurt” onto the face of the loser, a female subordinate.

Those complaints, though, appeared to have little effect on his stature at the Capitol.

Dennis, through his attorneys, largely denied previous allegations to the Tribune. He did express regret about his time in state Rep. Tan Parker’s office during the 2015 legislative session, which he characterized as a stretch that “had too much of a locker room environment.”

Dennis’ history does not include accusations involving physical behavior or sexual violence, according to current and former staffers interviewed for this story. But his reputation for inappropriate comments, in part, explains why the date rape drug allegation took hold fiercely when it surfaced.

While lawmakers appropriately expressed outrage over fears that a staffer had been drugged, Capitol workers say, they’re bothered that years of documented complaints about sexual harassment didn’t meet the same threshold for those in power.

The latest incident has sent a message about what isn’t acceptable in the culture of state government. And what apparently is.

[…]

Dennis has been a presence at the Capitol for years. He worked for Parker — a Republican House member whose office declined to respond to a list of emailed questions for this story — from 2007-15, according to Dennis’ LinkedIn profile. Dennis also held a role as a strategist for the House Republican Caucus, his LinkedIn shows.

As the 2015 legislative session wrapped up, Julie Young, who at the time was working in Parker’s office, said she endured or witnessed multiple instances of harassment from Dennis, the lawmaker’s chief of staff. Young wrote a letter to Parker detailing incidents involving Dennis in the office and shared it with other staff members. Young said she brought a hard copy of the letter to discuss with Parker at a June 2015 meeting the two had scheduled.

The letter, a copy of which was shared with the Tribune, said the instances listed “made [the office] all extremely uncomfortable” and made Parker’s “office an unbearably hostile work environment.”

“We are under direction to discuss these issues with you first,” the letter said, “and then if the situation is not handled internally, we are told to go straight to House Personnel who will take the issue to [then-House Administration Chair] Charlie Geren.”

The letter described Dennis speculating about the sex lives of female and male employees in front of other members of the office. The letter said he repeatedly told two staffers they would “sleep together before session is over.” Dennis also “repeatedly said to multiple people” that Young has “Fuck me eyes,” the letter said.

The letter also described “an office contest” Dennis held “in which he demanded that the winner be able to ‘shoot white yogurt onto the loser’s face.’” A female staffer lost “and had white yogurt thrown in her face by Rick, in the office,” the letter said.

In the two weeks after receiving the letter, Parker met individually with staff members and confirmed with each of them the incidents detailed in that letter, Young told the Tribune. Soon after that, she said, Parker held a meeting with staff in his office and apologized, saying they wouldn’t have to come in contact with Dennis moving forward.

Parker, though, continued to pay Dennis and did not sign paperwork terminating his employment until five months later, in November 2015, according to House personnel and payroll records reviewed by the Tribune.

Dennis, in response to an emailed list of questions for this story, largely denied the allegations and said he felt the letter was “unfair.” But he did say that, “during that period of time,” Parker’s office “had too much of a locker room environment.”

“I admit that and regret it on behalf of all of us,” Dennis said. “However, it is absolutely false that I engaged in any of this activity that wasn’t being engaged in by all of us, male and female. The very same kind of banter was pointed at me as well.”

In response to the yogurt-throwing allegation, Dennis said it “was not a contest, but rather an agreement” with a friend and office colleague who had a birthday close to his.

“Instead of exchanging birthday gifts, we agreed that on her birthday she could throw a spoon of yogurt at me and I could do the same to her on my birthday,” he said. “Neither the instance where one spoonful of yogurt was tossed at me or at my colleague was done in a demeaning manner.”

Dennis said the idea came from the TV show “Modern Family” “and the fact that my colleague loved eating yogurt in the afternoons.” Staff members from other offices were present, as was his wife, he said.

“It was a joke in which we all engaged in willingly,” Dennis said.

See here for the background. That’s a long excerpt, but there’s a lot more where that came from, and you should read it. Richard Dennis was absolutely damaged by the false allegations made against him, and he has suffered for that. Based on this story, in which not one but two legislators called HillCo to tell them to keep him out of their offices, he didn’t have a great reputation among legislative staffers. You can make of that what you will.

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.

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.

State Capitol closed again

At least through Inauguration Day, which is to say Wednesday.

The Texas Department of Public Safety abruptly announced the closure of the state Capitol Friday evening after uncovering new intelligence that intensified security concerns and prompted the agency to ramp up security further.

The closure affects the building and the Capitol grounds, which only reopened to the public this month after being closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and damage that officials said protestors did to state property during protests in May and June.

The closure begins Saturday and continues through Wednesday.

In a statement, DPS Director Col. Steve McCraw said that “the Texas Department of Public Safety is aware of armed protests planned at the Texas State Capitol and violent extremists who may seek to exploit constitutionally protected events. As a result, DPS has deployed additional personnel and resources to the Capitol and are working closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Austin Police Department to monitor events and to enforce the rule of law.”

Authorities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia were bracing Friday for what law enforcement said could be violent protests this weekend through Wednesday’s inauguration of Joe Biden. The caution stems from intelligence gained after the deadly pro-Donald Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Earlier this week, McCraw told state senators that authorities are monitoring multiple sects that could threaten Capitol security in coming days but stressed that the agency stood ready to neutralize any possible attack.

He said the groups have different political ideologies with 200 to 600 members each, according to three senators who attended the briefings. The senators did not want to comment publicly because DPS deemed the information confidential and said that releasing it could jeopardize safety.

McCraw said officials have ample troopers and other officers to respond should one of the groups travel to Austin to protest or riot. Their bigger concern, however, is that if the groups consolidate and mobilize together, that would pose a greater risk and prompt officials to call in reinforcements, the senators said.

We all know what this is about. I just hope it turns out to be a lot more talk than action. But whatever happens or doesn’t happen between now and January 20, the long-term threat isn’t going away and needs to be taken very seriously. The Chron has more.

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.

More on DPS and data protection

A followup from the DMN about that data breach involving every drivers license number you’ve ever had.

Some other states do not sell [drivers’ license] data, but Texas does. State lawmakers could change the law in their 2021 session.

I first reported this in 2015 when I learned that several state government departments sell information to outsiders. In an open records request that year, I learned that in 2014 the Department of Motor Vehicles earned $2.4 million in sales.

This year, CBS 11/KTVT reporter Brian New updated those numbers. DMV made more than $3 million in 2019 selling drivers’ names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and VIN information, he reported.

[…]

The buyers are data-mining companies, insurance companies, banks, police departments, car dealers, toll companies, school districts, corporations, private investigators, tax-collecting law firms, tow truck companies and electricity companies, to name a few.

Follow this — the biggest loophole. In Texas, it’s against the law for companies who buy the information to use it to sell to us. So to get around that some companies sell the lists to other marketing companies, which go ahead and use the information to sell — and annoy us.

Because our information isn’t sold directly to marketers, the state doesn’t have to give us a privacy statement when we buy a car or apply for a driver’s license. We don’t get to opt out, as residents of California are now allowed to do.

State lawmakers could fix this, giving us privacy statements and allowing us to opt out of the information sold. Or they could go one better and prohibit the sale of the databases entirely. Other states do.

If you bring this up, state departments other than DMV complain loudly about how these are open records that often can help consumers. (For example, your car is towed, and the towing company can figure out who it belongs to). Besides, selling our data makes a lot of money for the general fund.

One way to see how loosey-goosey Texas is with our information is on the paid subscription lookup site, PublicData.com.

Years ago, there were multiple states listed where you could quickly look up a person’s driver’s license information. Now there’s only Florida and Texas. The other 48 now have higher standards of privacy.

Same goes for vehicle information. Only five states are listed for searching, but four are marked “[OLD].” The fifth is up to date and active. That’s us.

If you get unwanted spam email, postal mail or phone calls and wonder how they got your information, often enough it’s because of our state’s lax laws. Thank you state leaders.

When it comes to cheap and easy data distribution that violates our privacy, we’re number one. Hoo-ray for Texas.

See here for the background. California has a data privacy law that is modeled on the European GDPR scheme. I work with GDPR quite a bit, and it gives people a lot of control over their data while putting some real teeth into enforcement. One of the main ways that GDPR works is that it requires notifications to affected individuals when their personal data is stolen, deleted, or otherwise inappropriately accessed. That’s a lot better than what we have now.

There’s some federal data privacy legislation out there, which largely has the support of the big players like Facebook and Google, which on the one hand means it has a chance to pass but on the other hand means it’s not anything those companies consider to be bad for their business models. I’d rather see something more stringent than that – to me, GDPR is a starting point. We’re not going to get anything like that in Texas, I feel confident saying that. But feel free to call your State Rep and State Senator and tell them that you would like to have the ability to opt out of having your drivers license data sold by DPS. The amount the state takes in for these sales is pennies compared to the state budget. We can very easily do with less of that.

UPDATE: This Slate story about the need for a federal data privacy law is a good read, and addresses the ways we can learn from GDPR for an American version of that law.

DPS needs to do better with data protection

Oops.

You’ve been hacked. We’ve all been hacked.

No one else has said it, but The Watchdog will. This is likely the largest and one of the more significant data breaches ever to hit Texans.

About 27.7 million Texas driver’s license holders are affected.

If you haven’t heard about this, that’s part of the problem. It’s almost like no one wants you to know.

Why 27.7 million affected licenses when Texas’ total population is around 28 million? Because the number includes former state residents and dead people who were issued licenses before February 2019. So, it includes just about everybody who held a Texas license going back an unknown amount of years. It doesn’t include children.

The Watchdog has the story.

Yes, the information involved here is already available on a paid data site such as PublicData.com, although that site is not always current. But there you have to look up each individual. With this breach, all the information is already bundled and in one place.

What do the crooks have? Your license information (name, address, DL number), the color, model, year and VIN of your vehicle and the lender to whom you make car payments.

I’ll show you how this happened, what crooks can do with the information and how you can be prepared.

The culprit here is a company you probably never heard of — Vertafore of Denver, which, like many companies, buys data from state governments. Vertafore works with the insurance industry to concoct ratings that help agents, brokers and others.

“As a result of human error,” Vertafore says in a news release, “three data files were inadvertently stored in an unsecured external storage service that appears to have been accessed without authorization.”

Someone found the information and grabbed the files before Vertafore realized it, the company says.

The FBI and state law enforcement are investigating.

It appears to The Watchdog that although this data breach began in March and continued to August, our Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, which stores vehicle information, and the Texas Department of Public Safety, which handles licenses, probably didn’t know about the hack until recently because their own databases were not compromised.

There’s more and you should read the rest, including the bit about some likely ways that the attacker could use this information. It could have been worse – no Social Security numbers were stolen, apparently – but it’s still not great, and the complete ignorance about the theft by DPS and DMV is not great at all. Putting my cybersecurity hat on for a moment, DPS and DMV need to do a thorough audit of the security policies and processes used by everyone that has access to their data, because those are clear points of vulnerability. It doesn’t matter how sound DPS and DMV’s own security practices are if their business partners are lax.

(This would a fine opportunity for a member of the Legislature to file a bill that mandates minimum standards for third parties that handle personal data, and for the state agencies that do business with them to proactively ensure they are doing it right.)

The other thing DPS and DMV – and any other state agency that handles personal data – need to do is to subscribe to a service that scans the Internet for data of theirs that may have been stolen. (Experian either does this themselves or subscribes to someone who does, which is how they knew about it before it was officially announced.) It’s an article of faith in the cybersecurity world that security incidents and data breaches are going to happen, so a top priority has to be to detect them as quickly as possible so the loss can be minimized and the damage can be remediated. The history of most large scale cyber incidents is that the attackers had been operating inside the victimized firm for months, sometimes more than a year, before their activities were discovered.

There’s not a whole lot more info about this out there – ZDNet and Insurance Journal add a little more, but that’s really about it. I do hope the state demands a full report from Vertafore, and learns lessons from it. Next time it could be more serious than this.

Hey, look, it’s online voter registration!

And they said it couldn’t be done.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

When Jarrod Stringer updated his driver’s license address in 2014, the Texas Department of Public Safety website asked if he wanted to register to vote. He clicked yes and thought he was registered. That fall, when he went to vote in San Antonio, he was denied. According to the system, he had never registered. It was past the registration deadline, so he couldn’t vote.

That kicked off a six-year legal battle that included two lawsuits for the right for Texans to register to vote online while updating their licenses.

“It’s traumatic when you can’t vote,” Stringer said. “It’s implicitly saying, ‘You don’t have a voice. You can’t participate in change.’”

On Wednesday, Stringer won that “mind-boggling” fight with the state of Texas two weeks before the deadline to register to vote in 2020. Acting on a federal judge’s orders, the state updated its online systems to allow people to add their names to the voter rolls when they update their licenses.

While it’s a limited step — the online option is still only available to people updating their licenses — the change marks the first time Texans have been able to register to vote online, which advocates say could significantly increase turnout both this year and for future elections.

Mimi Marziani, the president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which brought forward the lawsuits, said the change specifically helps marginalized Texans, who most often move.

“This is absolutely a victory for voting rights for all Texans,” Marziani said. “It’s a particular victory for younger Texans, poorer Texans and Texans of color.”

[…]

Previously, Texans like Stringer who tried to register while using the state’s online license portal were directed to a blank registration form they had to fill out, print and send to their county registrar. The state was forced to change that system after U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled last month that DPS is “legally obligated” to allow voters to simultaneously register to vote with every license renewal or change-of-address application. Garcia had ordered the state to set up a “fully operable” online system by Wednesday.

“The Secretary of State and Texas Department of Public Safety are in compliance with the court’s order,” said Kayleigh Date, a spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General, in a statement.

See here for the background. My guess is that the total number of people who will register for this election via this method will be countable on one’s fingers, but that’s not the point. The point, as Marziani rightly says, is that this shows how easily the state of Texas could have done this, and how easily it could be adapted for general purposes as soon as the law allows it. Given the challenges that voter registrars have faced in these COVID times, that’s a big deal. It’s still going to take a Democratic trifecta to happen, but once we get there the rest will be easy. The Chron has more.

Plaintiffs prevail again in Motor Voter Lawsuit 2.0

Same result as before, this time without the technicality that got the first try thrown out on appeal.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A persistent Texas voter, twice thwarted when he tried registering to vote while renewing his driver’s license online, has for the second time convinced a federal judge that the state is violating federal law.

In a 68-page ruling Friday, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio found that Texas continues to violate the federal National Voter Registration Act by not allowing residents to register to vote when they update their driver’s license information online.

Garcia found that DPS is “legally obligated” to allow voters to simultaneously register to vote with every license renewal or change-of-address application, and ordered the state to set up a “fully operable” online system by Sept. 23. The Texas attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the state is likely to appeal the ruling.

It’s the second time Garcia has sided with the voter, former English professor Jarrod Stringer. Garcia’s first ruling was overturned on appeal on a technicality.

The National Voter Registration Act requires states to let residents complete their voter registration applications when they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses. But Texas officials have staunchly opposed any form of online registration.

The Texas Department of Public Safety follows federal law when residents visit a driver’s license office in person. But Texans who try to register while using the state’s online portal are instead directed to a blank registration form they must fill out, print and send to their county registrar.

“DPS encourages Texans to use its online services to renew their driver’s license and change their address because it is easier and more convenient,” Garcia wrote. “It cannot, at the same time, deny simultaneous voter registration applications when those online services are used.”

Garcia has said this before. In 2018, he ordered the state to implement what would be its first system for online voter registration. A federal appeals court overturned that order in late 2019 because Stringer and his two co-plaintiffs had ultimately reregistered to vote, and the court decided the case was moot because they were no longer being harmed.

[…]

On Friday, Garcia found that Texas had “offered no factual or legal argument that would justify denying the simultaneous voter registration to which Mr. Stringer is legally entitled.”

“As Defendants have admitted, there are no technological barriers to compliance and corrective measures would not be costly,” Garcia wrote. “Uncontested expert testimony shows that a compliant DPS system would very likely lead to great efficiency, less human error, a massive saving in costs, and increased voter registration.

See here, here, and here for the background. This is another Democracy Docket case, and you can see their case files here. This will of course be appealed, and it will be interesting to see if the Fifth Circuit finds another reason to overturn or not. This ruling has basically no effect on 2020, as no one other than the plaintiffs in this lawsuit are going to get registered because of it, but longer term it could be quite large, as this would represent an entry point for online voter registration in Texas. You know and I know that it is unbelievably ridiculous that in the year 2020, when literally everything is done online, that the state of Texas requires a piece of paper to register to vote, but here we are. Obviously, a full solution needs to come from the Legislature, but if one has not arrived by the time this case is fully resolved (assuming this ruling is upheld), the state is going to have to explain why this special case of online voter registration is acceptable while all others are not. Good luck with that. Anyway, it’s a small step forward, and a welcome one. The Chron has more.

Abbott imposes travel restrictions

Where we are now.

Now please pull over

Gov. Greg Abbott is tightening travel to Texas by ordering some motorists from Louisiana to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The new travel restrictions come as Louisiana’s status as a novel coronavirus hotspot grew Sunday to more than 3,500 positive cases statewide. Abbott said drivers with commercial, medical, emergency response, military or critical infrastructure purposes for entering Texas would be exempted.

State troopers will enforce the order at checkpoints at major roadways along the border. Those asked to quarantine will be asked to provide an address for where they plan to hold up in Texas, either for two weeks or until their return to Louisiana, whichever is comes first.

A provision in the order allows for DPS special agents to check on those under quarantine to make sure they’re complying. Violators could be subject to either a $1,000 find or 180 days in jail, according to the four-page document. Another rule states that if a driver is showing symptoms associated with COVID-19, such as fever, coughing or shortness of breath, a trooper will follow them to their destination.

The Texas order follows suit from Florida, whose governor on Friday required drivers from Louisiana to also quarantine upon entering their state. Motorists from Louisiana would have to cross both Alabama and Mississippi to make it to Florida.

The Louisiana border is 113 miles from Houston along I-10.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he urged travelers returning to Texas to do the same more than three weeks ago, regardless of where they had been.

“If you leave Texas and come back to Texas, you should self-quarantine,” Turner said at a news conference. “Nobody should be traveling unless you absolutely have to.”

I get it, it’s a rational move to make, though there’s not much in the way of enforcement behind this, so it’s more suggestion than requirement. A perfectly reasonable suggestion, as long as we keep in mind that that’s what it is.

It’s even harder to prosecute pot cases now

Such a shame.

What if lawmakers writing one of the most consequential laws to come out of last year’s legislative session, legalizing hemp in Texas, forgot to include a small, but crucial detail that could get your marijuana possession charges dropped?

That’s what happened last week, after a Brazos County court judge concluded the new law omitted a date typically included in state crime legislation. As a result, misdemeanor charges against a Texas A&M University student arrested on the day of his 2018 college graduation were summarily tossed.

The decision is the latest stumbling block that Texas’s nine-month-old hemp law has presented for police and prosecutors committed to pursuing low-level marijuana possession cases. Although the decision does not bind other judges, attorneys said the successful tactic had the potential to change the course of hundreds of pending cases across the state.

[…]

New state crime laws always include a clear dividing line, typically written as a date, said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for Texas District and County Attorneys Association. Before the date, the old law applies; after, the new law does.

Yet the hemp bill, which was passed through the Agriculture and Livestock Committee instead of the regular criminal justice panels, neglected to specify when the new pot definition started. A little-known provision of Texas law says that without clear transition instructions, if a new law lowers the penalty for a crime it can be applied retroactively.

The district and county attorneys association noted the missing language early on. “The law went into effect on June 10, 2019, but it is unclear whether it applies to previously-filed marijuana cases pending on that date,” it warned In a June letter to member prosecutors.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, did not return a call to his office seeking comment on the AWOL date.

Criminal defense attorneys noticed it, too, and began seeking cases to test if the new law could also be used to challenge older possession charges.

Long story short, they found a defendant in College Station who wanted to have his day in court, and their argument that the new law applied resulted in the dismissal of the case because the cops hadn’t tested the pot they said they found. Testing is another problem for prosecutors, and the DPS has said they don’t have enough money to handle the demand from the locals, leaving them in limbo. Which is fine by me. Let’s keep this natural experiment going and see for ourselves once and for all how little there is to fear from not being hardasses about weed.

How should we police the police?

This article raises a number of interesting questions.

Kim Ogg

A quarter of the 60-plus law enforcement agencies operating in Harris County have refused to sign agreements to help local prosecutors track problem cops.

Under those agreements, all signed since District Attorney Kim Ogg took office three years ago, 46 agencies have promised to voluntarily turn over information about potentially untrustworthy or unreliable officers. But 17 other agencies declined to sign, a move that forces prosecutors to spend time getting the information through subpoenas and can potentially drag out the resolution of cases.

The Houston Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and Metro Transit Police are among those that signed memoranda of understanding, but all of the county agencies — including all eight constable precincts and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office — declined to sign.

“Based on the County Attorney’s advice, the sheriff’s office has joined with other Harris County law enforcement agencies that are unable to sign the district attorney’s proposed memorandum of understanding at this time,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle, adding that his agency still “fully cooperates” with prosecutors by “providing all legally required information concerning all pending cases being prosecuted.”

A county attorney’s office spokesman declined to explain why lawyers told agencies not to sign the agreement, saying the office was “not comfortable” commenting on legal advice given to clients.

To Ogg, that’s all far from ideal: Without an agreement in place, her office must send out subpoena orders to make sure agencies turn over everything.

“It’s a great deal of added work,” Ogg said. “I just don’t think this (agreement) is anything that law enforcement agencies should fear.”

Long-time local defense lawyer Patrick McCann agreed that it was a “pretty fair point” that issuing added subpoenas could be a significant burden for prosecutors, and raised concerns about some agencies’ refusal to enter an agreement.

“It is absolutely indicative of the culture of hiding the ball,” he said.

[…]

The three-page agreement asks agencies to tell the DA’s office whenever a potential police witness is charged with or investigated for a crime, relieved of duty or suspended for misconduct allegations, taken off casework, determined to be untruthful through an administrative investigation, or found guilty of misconduct that could call into question their integrity. Getting agencies to sign the agreement, Ogg said, would reduce work time for prosecutors and ensure that they get all the information they need to turn over to the defense.

“We rely upon the agencies to give us the information that we would need to comply with disclosure (requirements),” Ogg said, “and instead of just blindly relying, we’ve asked them to sign written memorandums of agreement.”

To defense lawyers like McCann, the efforts to create a database and get law enforcement on board seem “laudable,” but he pointed out that ultimately it’s up to the DA’s office as to whether or when to turn that material over. “They’re still trying to keep a stranglehold on the information,” he said, “and they’re terrible about timeliness.”

So first and foremost, why is it that the County Attorney advised the Sheriff and the Constables not to sign this MOU? I would definitely have asked this question when I was doing County Attorney interviews if I had known about this. This arrangement has been in place for five years, though it started with just an informal agreement with HPD. Similar formal agreements exist around the country. It’s certainly possible there have been problems with these things in other places, but what about this particular MOU is troubling to the County Attorney? Surely there’s a way to resolve this. I’d like to understand more about this.

The information gathered via this agreement is compiled into a database, which is not publicly disclosed by Ogg. I can understand that – there are privacy concerns, the unions would surely put up a fight, and the possibility exists that a cop could get on this list as a form of retaliation by their department. One might also argue that a cop should be eligible to come off that list after a certain period of good behavior, and that a cop might have some process to challenge their placement on that list. I also understand the argument for making it public. There’s an awful lot of secrecy that surrounds law enforcement agencies, and if we’ve learned one thing in recent years it’s that such secrecy is toxic. I got an email from a person at The Justice Collaborative a little while ago, sending me their documentation about where Kim Ogg and the two main challengers stand on a variety of issues. They had all been sent a questionnaire, and I was given the responses sent by Audia Jones and Carvana Cloud; Ogg did not respond but where her position was known via public statement or her past record, it was noted. The issue of maintaining a disclosure database and making it public was included in the questionnaire – Jones supported having a public list, Cloud said she would not make it public, matching Ogg’s position. I don’t know enough right now to know how I feel about this, but I wanted to share that much with you.

Anyway. Having this arrangement is a good thing. Getting all 63 law enforcement agencies for Harris County on board should be a priority, with the non-participating agencies made known. Whatever is preventing the HCSO and the Constables from joining needs to be resolved. That can and should be a job for all of the relevant elected officials.

The next round in the Motor Voter 2.0 lawsuit

Score one for the plaintiffs.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Finding Texas in violation of federal law, a U.S. judge gave civil rights lawyers a small win Thursday — fueling hopes of a wider victory in a continuing fight over the state’s online voter registration practices.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia said the 1993 National Voter Registration Act requires that Texans be able to register to vote at the same time they go online to renew or update a driver’s license.

Visitors to the Department of Public Safety website, however, must click through to another website, download a form, print it out, fill it in and mail it to their county registrar — extra steps that violate the federal law’s “motor voter” provision designed to encourage voter participation, Garcia said in a written order.

“Congress lifted these burdens to make voter registration easier, not more confusing and difficult,” he wrote.

Noting that Monday is the deadline to register to vote in the March 3 primaries, Garcia limited the scope of his order. He required state officials to update the voter registrations of three Texans who sued over the motor voter law, using the information already provided to DPS when they renewed their driver’s licenses.

Longer-term solutions remain under consideration and will be ruled on in the future, the judge said.

See here for the background. An earlier storylaid out the arguments.

Pressing for speedy action with a key voting deadline only days away, civil rights lawyers returned to federal court Tuesday to argue that Texas continues to violate a U.S. law designed to make voter registration easier.

Under the “motor voter” provision of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, Texans who renew their driver’s license online must be allowed to simultaneously register to vote or update their registration with a new address, Beth Stevens with the Texas Civil Rights Project argued.

For years, however, Texas has required potential voters to take extra steps in violation of the law, Stevens said, urging U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia to take action against the state.

“It will refuse to comply with federal law until it is forced to do so, Texas voters be damned,” Stevens said during a 2½-hour hearing in Garcia’s San Antonio courtroom.

Under the state system, Stevens estimated, more than 735 Texans lost the right to vote in 2018.

[…]

The Texas Civil Rights Project recently filed a new lawsuit with three voters who had moved, renewed their driver’s license online but are still registered to vote at their old address. Two nonprofits, MOVE Texas and the League of Women Voters of Texas, also joined the newest lawsuit, arguing that they have standing because they are forced to spend time and money signing up voters who should have been able to update their registrations on the DPS website.

Stevens said the new lawsuit still seeks to require simultaneous voter registration, but she asked Garcia to issue an order no later than Friday to require state officials to let the three plaintiffs register to vote using the information already provided to DPS to renew their driver’s licenses.

Monday is the last day to register to vote in the March 3 Texas primaries, she noted.

The state argues that nothing is stopping these three people from registering by other means. That’s true, but also not the point. The point is that the law says that they are supposed to be registered this way. In the initial lawsuit, the Fifth Circuit said the plaintiffs didn’t have standing because by the time the lawsuit was filed they had been registered and thus there was no injury claim to remediate. If that’s the case, then the state is arguing that the plaintiffs should invalidate their own case. As we now see, that didn’t work. I would expect the court to rule in the plaintiffs’ favor on the larger question at some future date, and from there we’ll see if the Fifth Circuit admits that they fixed the problem with the first lawsuit or finds some other pretext to throw out this one. In the meantime, kudos to all for a job well done. A press release from the Texas Civil Rights Project is here, and from the TDP is here.

“Motor voter” lawsuit 2.0

Try, try again, this time hopefully addressing the cause of the Fifth Court of Appeals’ rejection of the first lawsuit.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The first time former English professor Jarrod Stringer was told he couldn’t vote in a Texas election, he sued. A federal appeals court tossed his case on a technicality, but one of the judges ended up admonishing state officials to not let it happen again.

Yet it did, and now Stringer and other frustrated Texans are taking the state back to federal court.

In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Antonio, they are arguing anew that the state continues to disenfranchise an unknown number of voters by violating the motor voter law, a federal requirement that people be allowed to complete voter registration when they get a driver’s license. Stringer is the lead plaintiff in the second legal chapter of a fight over Texas’ resistance to online voter registration.

The state allows driver’s licenses applicants to complete their voter registration when they physically appear at a Texas Department of Public Safety office, but does not allow the same result when residents update or renew licenses online. At least 1.5 million Texans use the state’s online driver’s license portal a year, according to Stringer’s lawyers, though it’s unclear how many also attempt to re-register.

Stringer first encountered the prohibition after moving back to his hometown of San Antonio in 2014. He updated his driver’s license and mistakenly thought he had re-registered to vote at the same time. But after standing in line at an early voting polling place set up on the University of Texas at San Antonio campus, he discovered he was not on the voter roll.

“Having the option to vote was something that I have taken seriously,” Stringer said in an interview. “Voting is just a fundamental act of expression of citizenship.”

[…]

In their new lawsuit, Stringer, two other voters, along with two nonprofits that work to register Texans to vote, have revived the arguments from the first lawsuit, pressing virtually the same legal claims that prompted Garcia’s initial favorable ruling.

This time, to avoid the legal pitfall over standing to sue, Stringer and the other voters in the case are filing their legal challenge while remaining off the voter rolls in the counties where they now live, and Stringer has noted that he has plans to move in 2020 — a point at which he will again run into the limitations of the online DPS system.

But while they’re working to address the issues found by the 5th Circuit last year, the Texas Civil Rights Project doesn’t plan to ask the plaintiffs to sit out the upcoming election. With the three individual voters in the case expected to reregister before the Feb. 3 deadline for the March primaries, the lawsuit could ultimately serve as a test case of what sacrifices a voter must make at the ballot box to challenge a system that they see as impeding their access to it.

In the interest of not quoting the whole story I cut out a bunch in the middle that recapped the first lawsuit and why it was dismissed – you can read this post for my own link-filled “previously on…” segment. This story reminded me that the Fifth Circuit wasn’t necessarily hostile to the first lawsuit, perhaps just overly pedantic. If that’s the case, and this isn’t a “Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football” situation, then maybe we can get a different result. There’s every reason to believe that the district court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs again. The question is what happens after that. With any luck, we’ll find out soon.

Another voter registration lawsuit filed

This time, the point of contention is electronic signatures.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a federal lawsuit filed Monday in San Antonio, the Texas Democratic Party and the campaign arms for Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate allege that Texas is violating the U.S. Constitution and federal and state law by rejecting voter registration applications without an original signature.

The legal challenge springs from a 2018 electoral kerfuffle over the Texas secretary of state’s rejection of more than 2,400 registration applications filled out by voters using Vote.org, a website run by a California nonprofit. That online application asked Texans to provide personal information and a picture of their signature to auto-populate a paper voter registration form that was then mailed to county registrars.

Days before a registration deadline that year, the secretary of state’s office indicated that applications submitted through the website should be considered invalid because they included electronic signatures, not physical ones.

In the lawsuit, the Democrats argue the secretary of state’s signature requirements are unconstitutional and impose “an arbitrary requirement that limits access to the franchise.” While the state allows eligible Texans to submit registration applications in person, by mail or by fax, Texas law “makes no reference” to requiring an original signature, they argue in the legal challenge.

[…]

In suing the state, the Democrats pointed out that the secretary of state does allow for one kind of electronic signatures — those submitted on voter registration applications received through the Texas Department of Public Safety. That agency allows Texans obtaining or renewing a driver’s license in person to enter their signatures on electronic keypads, which then may be used to populate voter registration applications. (Texas has been wrapped up in separate litigation for more than a year over claims it is violating federal law by not allowing voters who deal with their driver’s licenses online to reregister to vote.)

Bolstered by Republicans’ narrowing margins of victory and polls showing that Texas might be at least slipping from the GOP, Democrats have signaled they see voting rights litigation — and the voters that might be helped through it — as part of their long-term strategy in the state.

See here for more on that “motor voter” lawsuit, which like all good things went to the Fifth Circuit to die. This same Democratic coalition has also filed a lawsuit over the law banning temporary voting locations, one of two such suits in the courts. You know my feeling about pursuing voting rights litigation in this climate, with the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS standing in the way, but I do agree that pursuing these cases anyway sends a strong signal to voters about who stands for making it easier for them to vote. And honestly, who has not electronically signed dozens of documents by now? One of the original (and silly) arguments for voter ID was that if you have to show a drivers license to rent a movie from Blockbuster (this is a truly old-school argument), there’s nothing wrong with having to show your drivers license to vote. Well, I’ve electronically signed documents at bounce house and indoor skydiving places affirming that I forsake my right to sue them if me or my kids wind up getting maimed by their services. If that’s legally binding, then an electronic signature on a voter registration form should be plenty good enough for the Texas Secretary of State. See the TDP press release for more.

Marijuana arrests stay down

We really should view this as the new normal, and not a problem to be “fixed”.

It’s been more than six months since Texas lawmakers legalized hemp and unintentionally disrupted marijuana prosecution across the state.

Since then, the number of low-level pot cases filed by prosecutors has plummeted. Some law enforcement agencies that still pursue charges are spending significantly more money at private labs to ensure that substances they suspect are illegal marijuana aren’t actually hemp.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and local government crime labs expect to roll out a long-awaited testing method to distinguish between the two in the next month or so. But that’s only for seized plant material. There’s still no timeline for when they will be able to tell if vape pen liquid or edible products contain marijuana or hemp. And DPS said even when its testing is ready, it doesn’t have the resources to analyze substances in the tens of thousands of misdemeanor marijuana arrests made each year — testing it didn’t have to do before hemp was legalized.

“If law enforcement agencies and prosecutors asked for all of those to be tested when these new procedures become available … DPS would start with such a huge backlog that it would likely never get caught up,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “One decision for prosecutors and law enforcement agencies and the labs is: How do they triage these cases to focus on the most important ones?”

[…]

In 2018, Texas prosecutors filed about 5,900 new misdemeanor marijuana possession cases a month, according to data from the Texas Office of Court Administration. The first five months of 2019 saw an average of more than 5,600 new cases filed a month. But since June, when the hemp law was enacted, the number of cases has been slashed by more than half. In November, less than 2,000 new cases were filed, according to the court data.

For those who support marijuana legalization, that change is welcome, adding to an already growing effort in some of the state’s most populated counties to divert pot smokers from criminal prosecution or not arrest them at all.

“It means that there are fewer Texans that are getting slapped with a criminal record for marijuana possession, something that is already legal in other states,” said Katharine Harris, a drug policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

See here for the background. There’s no serious argument to be made that the drop in marijuana arrests has had any negative effect on public safety, but it has had the positive effect of keeping thousands of basically harmless people out of the criminal justice system. The main problem with the new status quo is that the reduction in prosecutions is completely ad hoc and not systemic. Whether one gets arrested and jailed or warned and released is entirely a function of where you are and which law enforcement agency is dealing with you. The Lege in 2021 needs to look at what has happened since this inadvertent loosening of marijuana laws and make it a real, permanent thing. We’ve already seem that nothing bad will come of it. Grits and the Current have more.

Fifth Circuit overturns “motor voter” lawsuit verdict

Bummer. Totally expected and completely on brand for the Fifth Circuit, but a bummer nonetheless.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal appeals court has overturned a previous ruling that could have opened the door to online voter registration in Texas.

In a Wednesday court order, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal district judge’s ruling that Texas was violating federal law by failing to register residents to vote when they updated their driver’s licenses online. The panel of three federal judges that considered the case did not clear the state of wrongdoing but instead determined that the three Texas voters who had brought the lawsuit did not have standing to sue.

The case revolved around a portion of federal law, often called the motor voter law, that was designed to ease the voter registration process by requiring states to give residents the opportunity to register to vote at the same time they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

The legal dispute came after three Texas voters who moved from one county to another were unable to reregister to vote when they updated their driver’s licenses through the state’s online portal. Although the state follows the law for individuals who renew their driver’s licenses in person, Texas does not allow for online voter registration.

[…]

Two of the voters who sued the state believed they had registered and didn’t discover they were not on the voter rolls until they tried to vote in 2014. They were allowed to cast provisional ballots, but their votes were not counted. The third voter also believed he was registered to vote and only discovered he wasn’t when he sought help from county officials to determine his polling location for a 2015 election.

But the 5th Circuit sided with the state’s argument that the voters could not take the issue on in court because they had since successfully registered to vote and were no longer harmed by the state’s practice.

The federal appeals court found that [District Court Judge Orlando] Garcia erred when he reasoned that court-ordered compliance with federal law was needed to “prevent repetition of the same injury” to the three voters and others because the state’s challengers had not sufficiently proved the online system would continue to be a problem for them in the future.

I have a lot of links for this. The lawsuit in question was filed in 2016, and the initial ruling came two years later. Judge Garcia ordered the state to come up with a fix, which could have led to a partial implementation of online voter registration to comply. (Note how the main opposition to this, in mid-2018, came from the Harris County Clerk’s office. Elections matter, y’all.) The state said “nah, we’re good, no fixes needed or offered”, appealed the ruling, asked for an emergency stay of the order, which they received, thus putting everything on ice. And now here we are.

The fact that this was overturned on grounds of standing rather than on the merits suggests that maybe another go at this might be successful, if the right plaintiffs can be found. Which is still kind of ridiculous, since the claim wasn’t that people couldn’t get registered at all but that the state wasn’t following federal law and thus made it more of a pain to register and more likely that people would honestly think they had had their registration updated when they hadn’t. One of the plaintiffs was denied the opportunity to vote in the 2014 election, which sure seems to me to be a legitimate harm for a court to address. I’m not sure what a “correct” plaintiff looks like in this context. Be that as it may, it took over three years to get from the original filing to this ruling, and with no guarantee that a second try would work, or would succeed at SCOTUS even if it got past the Fifth Circuit, this is once again something that’s just gonna have to be solved by winning elections and passing laws, and in this case maybe also installing a DPS director that cares about complying with federal law. I wish it didn’t have to be this hard to secure basic rights and services from our state government, but it is, and we’re the only ones who are going to be able to do something about it. The Texas Signal has more.

State Rep. Poncho Nevarez busted for cocaine possession

It’s been a week, hasn’t it? I have three things to say about this.

Rep. Poncho Nevarez

Authorities issued a warrant Thursday for the arrest of state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, an Eagle Pass Democrat, on felony drug possession charges. A state special investigator claims in the warrant, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, that Nevárez was caught on surveillance footage in September dropping an envelope with cocaine as he was leaving the Austin airport.

A magistrate judge in Travis County signed the warrant Thursday afternoon. Nevárez faces a charge of third-degree felony possession of a controlled substance, which carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.

Neither Nevárez’s office nor the Travis County District Attorney’s Office immediately responded to a request for comment.

Thursday’s news came hours after an affidavit detailing the allegations, filed Oct. 29 in Travis County court by the Texas Department of Public Safety, was revealed and later obtained by the Tribune and other news outlets. The affidavit was attached to a warrant seeking to conduct a test to determine whether Nevárez’s DNA was on the envelope. The document says that the envelope had Nevárez’s official House seal and held “four small clear baggies” containing a substance found to include cocaine.

Nevárez, who chairs the House Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee, announced last week he was retiring from the lower chamber. And in a statement to the Tribune Thursday morning before the warrant was issued, Nevárez confirmed that the “news is true” — and that the events detailed in the affidavit prompted his decision to not seek reelection.

“I do not have anyone to blame but myself,” he said, noting that he plans to seek treatment. “I accept this because it is true and it will help me get better.”

1. Nevarez had previously announced he was not running for re-election, which I think we can all agree is for the best. Sometimes, regardless of other considerations, stepping back in order to get one’s life together is the stronger course of action.

2. And I really do hope he gets his life back together. Addiction is a terrible thing, and it has real costs not just on the addict but on the addict’s family and friends. Even if I am grossly overstating the issue here – I am making some big assumptions – I stand by the main point about the personal cost to all involved.

3. I hope we take this as an opportunity to further reflect on how the criminal justice system handles drug usage and possession. I would not advocate for decriminalization of cocaine, but I would hope we would all by now recognize that a ten-year jail sentence for possessing a small amount of it is ridiculous and serves no worthwhile purpose. It’s needlessly punitive, exorbitantly expensive, and surely does not have a positive effect on addiction and drug abuse. And we should reflect on the fact that while someone like Rep. Nevarez is unlikely to spend much if any time in jail, many many people in Texas and around the country are not so fortunate. Our drug laws are harmful and woefully out of date. We really should do something about that. If Rep. Nevarez’s situation helps even one legislator realize that, then at least one good thing will come out of this.

Harris County’s gun surrender program

Just common sense.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County officials on Tuesday announced four measures aimed at curbing gun violence, which County Judge Lina Hidalgo said are necessary because the state and federal governments have missed opportunities to prevent shootings.

Hidalgo secured unanimous approval from Commissioners Court to expand a gun surrender program to all 22 of the county’s felony courts.

Additionally, county officials unveiled a streamlined system of reporting criminal convictions to the Texas Department of Public Safety, a new health department task force focused on violence prevention and a free gun lock program.

“We know the vast majority of Americans want common-sense gun reforms, and it’s an issue where we’re not just going to roll over,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve spent the last few months scouring what we can do within the framework that exists.”

[…]

The surrender program, which debuted in the 280th family court in December 2018, requires defendants charged with domestic violence offenses to give up their weapons to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office until their legal cases are resolved. To date, deputies have seized 25 guns under 10 protective orders.

Speeding up the reporting of convictions is one of the gun violence mitigation ideas Greg Abbott had in the wake of the El Paso murders. The surrender program for domestic violence offenders is just a recognition of the correlation between gun violence and domestic violence. Anyone who opposes these simple, broadly-supported, sensible solutions – a group that apparently includes one of the Republican candidates in HD148 – has no interest in reducing gun violence. Anyone who doesn’t support these proposals is part of the problem.

No charges against Bonnen

No surprise.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen will not be criminally prosecuted for the things he said during a secretly recorded June meeting with a hardline conservative activist, the district attorney in his hometown announced Thursday.

“As repugnant as Speaker Bonnen’s actions and statements are,” Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said in a statement, “I do not believe there is sufficient evidence from the June 12, 2019 meeting to warrant a criminal prosecution of Speaker Bonnen for Bribery or Solicitation of a Gift by a Public Servant, therefore no criminal charges will be brought.”

[…]

A spokesperson for Bonnen said Yenne’s decision “deflates Michael Quinn Sullivan’s entire reason for going public three months ago — that, according to him, the Speaker solicited a bribe and broke the law.”

“Unfortunately, we now live in a political climate where one is guilty until proven innocent, and not only has that thrown the ability of Republicans to hold onto our House majority into jeopardy, it sets a dangerous precedent moving forward,” Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary, said in a statement. “While justice prevailed today, unfortunately, the damage has been done.”

See here, here, and here for the background. This was the conclusion of the Texas Rangers investigation – their report was submitted to DA Yenne earlier this week, according to the story. There wasn’t anything in the tape to suggest criminal activity, just deep stupidity, for which Bonnen will leave the Legislature and Yenne chewed him out. All things considered, I’ve got no gripes about how this turned out.

So are there any legal consequences to the Bonnen tape?

Probably not, but maybe a little. Does that help?

It was, according to his critics, “hurtful,” “vindictive” and “unbefitting of the high office he holds.” But was House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s June 12 meeting with conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan illegal?

In June, when Bonnen met with the hard-charging Tea Party activist, he asked Sullivan to stay out of, and get into, certain electoral battles — “help us out, and maybe kill off one or two or three [moderate Republican House lawmakers] that are never going to help” — and in return offered Sullivan media credentials for the news arm of his organization — “If we can make this work, I’ll put your guys on the floor next session.”

During that meeting — a recording of which was released to the public Tuesday — Bonnen seemed to blur the line between the official and the political. It prompted the Texas House General Investigating Committee, which has subpoena power, to request a probe by the state’s elite investigative unit, the Texas Rangers.

With that investigation ongoing and little word from Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne, who is expected to make the decision on whether to bring a criminal charge, there’s been ample room for speculation — which only escalated after the secret recording was made public Tuesday morning. In Capitol circles, the rule is generally: Don’t offer official tit for political tat. But whether the smudging of those boundaries constitutes criminal activity is a case-by-case consideration, a decision ultimately made by a prosecutor and, if it gets that far, a jury.

“With just the information we know at this time, it’s not clear that a crime was committed,” said Buck Wood, an Austin ethics lawyer who helped rewrite the state’s restrictions in the 1970s after a major political scandal. “But it’s also not clear that a crime wasn’t committed.”

See here for the background. Long story short, while the DPS is still doing its investigation, it seems unlikely that any criminal charges will ever result. The law in question is narrowly tailored to be about personal financial gain, and it would take a pretty broad reading of it to try to get an indictment. Unless there’s new evidence to uncover, I don’t see any danger for the Speaker here.

What about a civil case, though?

Democrats were in court in Travis County Tuesday pressing forward with their lawsuit arguing that Sullivan’s recording revealed serious violations of Texas campaign finance law. The party, along with state Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson, sued Sullivan in August, demanding the release of the full recording of the meeting.

The lawsuit was also filed against an “unknown political committee” that the lawsuit said includes Bonnen and Burrows. But the two lawmakers are not named defendants. At the hearing, attorney Chad Dunn argued for the Democratic Party that the newly released recording confirms there was discussion in the Capitol about political spending and requested the release of more documents about the meeting.

He said if the judge orders the information released, the party will use those documents to decide if Bonnen and Burrows should also be named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Under Texas election law, a political contribution can’t be made or authorized inside the Capitol. A violation of the law could result in up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. In civil court, it could mean having to pay back targeted candidates or opposing PACs. Dunn said the recording contains “a whole lot of authorizing.”

“If we live in a state of laws, there’s not going to be private conversations with the Speaker in the people’s Capitol authorizing illegal political contributions and expenditures,” he said.

Roark said in the August memo to the Texas Rangers that there was no political contribution authorized at the June meeting, so the law was not applicable in this case.

See here for the background. I don’t have enough information to make a reasoned guess about this one. I will say, one thing the next Lege could do is review the existing laws on what constitutes bribery and political contributions, to see if they could be improved. That would never get through Dan Patrick’s Senate, but as was the case with ethics-related bills last session, it would still be worth the effort. Would be more likely to happen with a different Speaker, that much is for sure.