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Paxton seeks settlement with some of the whistleblower plaintiffs

Very interesting.

The only criminal involved

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s legal team is in settlement negotiation talks with three of the four former employees who filed a whistleblower lawsuit against him for firing them after they accused Paxton of criminal acts.

Paxton’s lawyers, in a joint filing last week with attorneys for Mark Penley, David Maxwell and Ryan Vassar — Paxton’s former deputies — asked the Texas Supreme Court to put the whistleblower case on hold to give the parties time to negotiate a settlement. The lawyers wrote they were “actively engaged in settlement discussions” with mediation set for Wednesday.

Lawyers for a fourth plaintiff, Blake Brickman, opposed the motion in their own filing and urged the court to move forward with its consideration. The news was first reported by The Dallas Morning News.

[…]

Paxton has argued in state court that he is exempt from the Texas Whistleblower Act because he is an elected official, not a public employee and that he fired them not in retaliation for their complaint, but because of personnel disagreements. An appeals court has ruled against him and allowed the case to move forward. But last January, Paxton appealed his case to the Texas Supreme Court.

The joint filing by Paxton’s lawyers and the three plaintiffs says the court should defer its review of the case until Feb. 9 to give the parties an opportunity to resolve the issue outside of the courtroom.

Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Brickman’s lawyers, Thomas Nesbitt and William T. Palmer, said in their filing that Paxton’s team has been delaying the case for two years and “there is no reason for abating this case.” They argued that the other plaintiffs sought the pause only because they intended to settle the case, but since Brickman was not involved in those negotiations, his claims still needed a quick resolution.

“Brickman respectfully requests that this Court deny the request for abatement,” they wrote. “It imposes further needless delay of the adjudication of Brickman’s claim.”

See here for my last update, in June. I am unabashedly rooting for Blake Brickman here. I respect that Messrs. Penley, Maxwell, and Vassar wish to settle. If they think that’s in their best interests, then godspeed and good luck. But if Brickman wants to pursue the case, there’s no reason to make him and SCOTx wait until they come to an agreement – if indeed they do. The question of whether Paxton as Attorney General can be sued at all in this context matters, and we deserve to get a ruling on that. (Yes, I may end up regretting this request, but such is life.) From a slightly more selfish perspective, the only way to ensure that the more sordid allegations from this complaint get an airing is if there’s a trial. Sure, if the FBI ever charges Paxton with a crime we may find out more, but given how long that has already taken and the amount of time Paxton has been able to evade trial for his state crimes, we may all be dead by the time that happens. So yeah, let this lawsuit continue. We all deserve some answers.

More on the collegiate TikTok bans

An interesting perspective from a professor in Texas.

The bans have come in states where governors, like Texas’s Greg Abbott, have blocked TikTok from state-issued computers and phones. Employers can generally exercise control over how employees use the equipment they issue to them. The move to block TikTok on public university networks, however, crosses a line. It represents a different type of government regulation, one that hinders these institutions’ missions.

The bans limit university researchers’ abilities to learn more about TikTok’s powerful algorithm and data-collection efforts, the very problems officials have cited. Professors will struggle to find ways to educate students about the app as well.

Many, as my students suggested, will simply shift from the campus Wi-Fi to their data plans and resume using TikTok on campus. In this regard, the network bans create inequality, allowing those who can afford better data plans more free expression protections, while failing to address the original problem.

Crucially, TikTok isn’t just a place to learn how to do the griddy. It has more than 200 million users in the U.S., and many of them are exercising free-speech rights to protest and communicate ideas about matters of public concern. When the government singles out one app and blocks it on public university networks, it is picking and choosing who can speak and how they do so. The esteem and perceived value of the speech tool should not factor into whether the government can limit access to it.

The Supreme Court has generally found these types of restrictions unconstitutional. Justices struck down a North Carolina law in 2017 that banned registered sex offenders from using social media. They reasoned, “The Court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.” Years earlier, the court struck down a law that criminalized digital child pornography. It reasoned lawmakers “may not suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech.”

Nearly a century ago, the first instance in which the Supreme Court struck down a law because it conflicted with the First Amendment came in a case that involved a blanket ban by government officials on a single newspaper. The newspaper was a scourge to its community. It printed falsehoods and damaged people’s reputations. Still, justices reasoned the First Amendment generally does not allow the government to block an information outlet because it threatens the “morals, peace, and good order” of the community.

Each of these laws, while put in place by well-meaning government officials, limited protected expression in their efforts to halt dangerous content. The First Amendment, however, generally doesn’t allow government officials to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Any limitation on expression must only address a clearly stated government interest and nothing else.

So, what is the government interest in blocking TikTok? Perhaps the most coherent statement of TikTok’s perceived national-security threat came from FBI Director Chris Wray in December. He emphasized, because of China’s practice of maintaining influence in the workings of private firms who do business in the country, Chinese officials might manipulate the app’s powerful recommendation algorithm in ways that distort the ideas Americans encounter. American TikTok users might see pro-China messages, for example, while negative information might be blocked. He also averred to TikTok’s ability to collect data on users and create access to information on users’ phones.

The University of Texas’s news release from earlier this week parroted these concerns, noting, “TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices—including when, where and how they conduct internet activity—and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”

These are valid concerns, but apps such as Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube also harvest vast amounts of data about users. Their algorithms do far more than simply supply information. Facebook’s and YouTube’s algorithms, for example, have both been found to encourage right-wing extremism. They are, as Wray and Texas’ news release lamented regarding TikTok, distorting the ideas Americans encounter. Why aren’t we blocking them, too? The obvious answer is that none of these companies are owned by a Chinese firm. But can’t firms such as Meta, Twitter, and Google execute the same harms officials have listed from within the U.S.?

See here and here for the background. The author didn’t say where he teaches, but Google suggests he’s a journalism prof at SMU, which has no compunction to follow suit as it’s a private school. The main thing I took away from this is the possibility that someone at one of these schools, or multiple someones aiming for a class action, could file a First Amendment lawsuit to overturn the bans. The distinction between enacting a workplace ban on (basically) company-owned devices and a more general ban at a university seems clear to me. Whether anyone will take this up or not I couldn’t say – filing a federal lawsuit is no small thing. But it could happen, so we’ll keep an eye out for that.

So is Henry Cuellar still being investigated by the FBI?

It’s been a year since his home was raided. Is there another shoe to drop?

Rep. Henry Cuellar

Last January, FBI agents raided U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s home and office in Laredo, emerging with a computer and plastic bins and bags containing personal items in a stunning spectacle that occurred just weeks before a tough primary election.

The raid cast a shadow over a competitive election year for the longtime Democratic congressman who defended his seat from a progressive in the March primary and then a well-funded and coordinated effort to flip his seat by Republicans in November. Cuellar emerged largely unscathed — soundly winning his November reelection for a 10th term in office.

One year later, there have been no arrests or charges filed related to the case. Cuellar maintains that he was never the target of the investigation and will ultimately be cleared of wrongdoing. And the public remains largely in the dark about what set off the investigation.

“There has been no wrongdoing on my part,” Cuellar said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “My focus remains the same from my very first day in office: delivering results for Texans across my district.”

Cuellar declined to be interviewed. The FBI declined comment for this story.

Legal experts say the lack of answers or information a year later by federal authorities shouldn’t be construed as either an exoneration or a reflection of guilt of anyone associated in the case.

Experts cited myriad reasons for the continued silence around the case: The FBI search may have yielded no evidence, indictments could be sealed, the case could still be developing or there may have been delays because law enforcement did not want to interfere with the recent November elections.

“The government moved forward at that point, but it’s not necessarily surprising that we haven’t seen any other announcements or any other information that’s gone public,” said Edward Loya Jr., a Dallas-based attorney and former federal prosecutor.

“It’s too early to draw any firm conclusions one way or another,” Loya said. “What we can glean from this is that the investigation appears to be ongoing, and the government hasn’t reached a resolution one way or another as to how it plans to proceed.”

John Bash, a defense attorney who previously worked at the U.S. Department of Justice and served as a U.S. attorney in Texas, said that the DOJ is under no obligation to publicly announce that a case is closed or that a subject related to the case is not a target.

“If they got new information that caused them to reopen the investigation, they wouldn’t want to convey to anybody that ‘No, we will never look at this again,’” Bash said. “But oftentimes, they’ll tell the defense they’ve been communicating with, ‘Hey, this is over.’”

I didn’t blog about the raid at the time, mostly because I prefer not to think too much about Henry Cuellar. Be that as it may, however one may choose to interpret the lack of news about this situation, I feel compelled to note that the FBI has been investigating Ken Paxton since November of 2020, and served subpoeanas to his office in December that year. A lot has happened since then, all related to the ongoing whistleblower lawsuit, but if we were expecting to see Paxton get frog-marched by the FBI one fine day, we’re still waiting. Make of that what you will.

UT bans TikTok on campus WiFi

This feels like a bit of an overreaction to me, but we’ll see if others follow suit.

The University of Texas at Austin has blocked access to the video-sharing app TikTok on its Wi-Fi and wired networks in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent directive requiring all state agencies to remove the app from government-issued devices, according to an email sent to students Tuesday.

“The university is taking these important steps to eliminate risks to information contained in the university’s network and to our critical infrastructure,” UT-Austin technology adviser Jeff Neyland wrote in the email. “As outlined in the governor’s directive, TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where and how they conduct internet activity — and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”

[…]

Abbott’s Dec. 7 directive stated that all state agencies must ban employees from downloading or using the app on government-issued devices, including cellphones, laptops and desktops, with exceptions for law enforcement agencies. He also directed the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Information Resources to create a plan to guide state agencies on how to handle the use of TikTok on personal devices, including those that have access to a state employee’s email account or connect to a state agency network. That plan was to be distributed to state agencies by Jan. 15.

Each state agency is expected to create its own policy regarding the use of TikTok on personal devices by Feb. 15.

The ban could have broad impacts particularly at universities serving college-age students, a key demographic that uses the app. University admissions departments have used it to connect with prospective students, and many athletics departments have used TikTok to promote sporting events and teams. It’s also unclear how the ban will impact faculty who research the app or professors who teach in areas such as communications or public relations, in which TikTok is a heavily used medium.

See here for the background. As the Chron notes, students will still be able to access TikTok off campus, but I’m sure this will cause a whole lot of complaining. It’s not clear to me that this is necessary to comply with Abbott’s previous directive, but I presume UT’s lawyers have given the matter some consideration and I’d take their conclusions over mine. Other big public universities have not yet announced anything, though on my earlier post a commenter who works at a Texas public university said that their school has done something similar. This will be very interesting to see.

There are a couple of big questions here. One is whether the TEA will weigh in on the matter for Texas public schools, or if it will be left up to individual districts. Far as I know, HISD has not taken any such action, and as it happens they have their own TikTok account. The other thing is how this might affect the ability of athletes to make NIL (name, image, likeness) money for themselves. NCAA athletes with a significant social media presence can earn a ton of money for themselves. If this starts to affect recruiting, you can be sure that people will hear about it. Even if the TEA takes action in the public schools, it’s not likely to have much effect since the UIL still bans athletes from making NIL money, but if this really does cause a ripple then anything can happen. Like I said, very much worth keeping an eye on this.

UPDATE: As of later in the day, Texas A&M and TSU have followed suit and implemented similar bans. That certainly lends credence to the “no it wasn’t an overreaction” thesis. UH had not taken any action as of this publication.

UPDATE: The University of North Texas joins in, as do all of the other schools in the UT system.

Abbott bans TikTok on state-issued devices

Honestly, I’m fine with this.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday a ban of the popular app TikTok from all government-issued devices.

In a news release, the Republican said the Chinese government could use the app to access critical U.S. infrastructure and information.

“TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where, and how they conduct internet activity — and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government,” Abbott told state agency heads in a letter Wednesday.

TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance.

On Wednesday, Abbott also sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan telling them “the Executive Branch will stand ready to assist in the codification and implementation of any cybersecurity reforms that may be deemed necessary.”

Abbott’s directive comes the same day as the state of Indiana filed a lawsuit against TikTok.

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, also a Republican, claimed the app exposes minors to mature content and that it has deceived its “users about China’s access to their data,” The New York Times reported Wednesday.

Indiana’s lawsuit is the first against the app filed by a U.S. state. But a growing list of Republican governors have banned the app from government-issued devices. This week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued his directive and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster blocked the app from government electronics. Late last month, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem did the same.

From a cybersecurity perspective, there are valid reasons to assess TikTok as a higher-risk application. Indeed, as the story notes, the FBI raised national security concerns about it. It is also not unreasonable to declare that TikTok has limited value in the workplace and thus does not belong on workplace phones and computers. I’d make an exception for people whose jobs make use of social media – if the state of Texas doesn’t have any employees with that kind of job description, they really should – but banning it for others makes sense. One could also reasonably assess it differently – there’s always judgment in these matters. Speaking as someone whose workplace also blocks TikTok, I don’t see this as outside the mainstream.

Of greater interest to me is the note about implementing cybersecurity reforms. Given the recent ransomware attacks on state networks, as well as on various municipal governments, I’d say it’s long overdue. As with anything Greg Abbott says, the devil is in the details and I’ll believe it when I see it, but if this is a serious effort and it comes with the proper allocation of resources, it’s all to the good. The Trib and the Chron have more.

A True the Vote twofer

An update on a different lawsuit they’re involved in.

A disgruntled supporter of the True the Vote campaign to find voter fraud in the 2020 election preserved a claim on appeal, at least temporarily, against the organization’s law firm.

While True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht remains in custody for contempt in a separate lawsuit, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals delivered its opinion in Eshelman v. True the Vote.

In this case, North Carolina millionaire Fredric N. Eshelman donated $2.5 million to Engelbrecht’s organization on the understanding the funds would support investigations, the production of whistleblowers and litigation concerning voter fraud in the 2020 election, according to court filings.

After True the Vote identified no whistleblowers and the four lawsuits in four states were filed without substantial evidence and then voluntarily dismissed, Eshelman demanded his money back.

The donor brought suit against all parties who received some of the funds, including True the Vote partner OPSEC Group, headed by Gregg Phillips, and the nonprofit’s general counsel, The Bopp Law Firm of Terre Haute, Indiana, and attorney James Bopp Jr.

The Bopp Law Firm‘s marketing material show it has played a role in GOP-led campaigns to stir doubt about the 2020 election, and about election administration integrity in general.

At trial court in Travis County, Engelbrecht and most of the defendants asserted Eshelman lacked standing. Their responses claimed the alleged oral agreement of the gift being conditioned on certain acts never occurred, and Eshelman couldn’t sue over a contribution to a charitable organization and its operations.

“These assertions were supported by Catherine Engelbrecht’s declaration that ‘there was no discussion or suggestion of any sort between Mr. Eshelman and myself, or his agents … and myself, that Eshelman’s gift was conditional in any way,’” the Fourteenth Court noted in its opinion.

Because those parties produced evidence that there were no conditions on Eshelman’s donation, the burden shifted to Eshelman and he failed to support his allegation with any evidence, the appeals court said.

The trial court dismissed Eshelman’s claims against all defendants, and the appeals court affirmed that decision in part.

Circumstances with the Bopp Law Firm and James Bopp were different, though, since they only challenged Eshelman’s pleading, not his allegation of a conditional use.

“This is a crucial distinction, because if the movant produces no controverting evidence, we assume the plaintiff’s factual allegations are true,” the appeals court found.

Eshelman’s causes of action against the Bopp defendants are for conversion, declaratory relief, and for money had and received.

“Eshelman has standing to assert his private interest in enforcing his agreed-upon right to recover damages for breach of the parties’ oral agreement,” the Fourteenth Court concluded.

See here for the background. This is actually a bit of good news for True the Vote, which could use it while Engelbrecht and Phillips sit in the pokey. I don’t know why attorney Bopp and his firm didn’t make the same arguments that succeeded for the other defendants – if that is spelled out in the opinion then please forgive me as I didn’t read it because it was too technical and my eyes glazed over – but I assume he can do so at trial. This is one of those situations where you root for everyone to lose, but you can’t always get what you want.

Meanwhile, the end of the story included this bit of information regarding our TTV protagonists:

Company founder Eugene Yu alleged that people working with True the Vote took possession of Konnech data concerning the identities of poll workers throughout the United States, that they are “engaged in an attack against Konnech,” claiming the company and its president are Chinese operatives working for the Chinese Communist Party to interfere with U.S. elections.

In a preliminary injunction order signed Monday by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt of the Southern District of Texas, the court recognized Yu and his family have been personally threatened, and statements of intent by True the Vote to release confidential data would destroy public trust in government entities and trust between those entities and Konnech.

The defendants were enjoined from making any use of data in their possession and ordered to return it.

This was happening on the same day that Engelbrecht and Phillips were tossed in jail for contempt of court. I’d like to specify exactly what they were ordered to do and not to do, as taken from the linked opinion:

Therefore, it is ORDERED that a preliminary Injunction issues, ENJOINING the defendants, their agents and assigns:

(i) from accessing or attempting to access Konnech’s protected computers;

(ii) from using, disclosing, or exploiting the property and data downloaded from Konnech’s protected computers; and further, they are;

(iii) ordered to identify each individual and/or organization involved in accessing Konnech’s protected computers;

(iv) ordered to return to Konnech all property and data obtained from Konnech’s protected computers, whether original, duplicated, computerized, handwritten, or any other form, whatsoever obtained from any source;

(v) ordered to preserve, and not to delete, destroy, conceal or otherwise alter, any files or other data obtained from Konnech’s protected computers;

(vi) ordered to confidentially disclose to Konnech how, when, and by whom Konnech’s protected computers were accessed; and

(vii) ordered to identify all persons and/or entities, in defendants’ knowledge, who have had possession, custody or control of any information or data from Konnech’s protected computers.

Yeah, that doesn’t look good for our, um, heroes. Maybe the longer they sit in their cells, the longer they can put off the seemingly inevitable butt-kicking that awaits them at the end of these proceedings. Doesn’t seem like a great plan, but it may be the best they can do. Poor babies.

More on hoax school shooter reports

I don’t know when this ends, but I continue to be worried that they will cause a major problem eventually.

This year has seen a significant number of hoax calls across the country. In the three weeks between mid-September and early October, according to an NPR analysis, local news reports documented 113 false calls across the country. Experts say this increase isn’t surprising given that most school shootings inspire copycats to call in false reports of shootings to law enforcement.

The source of these fake threats remains largely unknown. Law enforcement said some originated from local agitators, while others appeared to come from as far away as Ethiopia, NPR reported.

Regardless of the source, Texas law enforcement agencies say all threats are treated as credible until an investigation proves otherwise. But before threats are deemed hoaxes, law enforcement and parents must grapple with the very real fear that another mass shooting could be underway.

The families with children at Robb Elementary School, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers, also clashed with police outside the building on the day of the tragedy. Law enforcement took over an hour to confront the shooter, despite the fact that some officers knew children were calling 911 from the classrooms. Police outside the building prevented parents from entering the school, even putting some parents in handcuffs.

Prior to the shooting in Uvalde, the chaotic scene outside of Jefferson High School last month wasn’t the norm, said Deputy Chief David Hightower with the San Antonio Police Department.

“Now we see an increase in parents wanting to sort of take matters into their own hands in order to retrieve their children,” Hightower said.

He said the protocols for responding to active-shooter threats have not changed since the Uvalde shooting, but the heightened anxiety of parents and officers reflects the trauma still resonating across Texas. As a result of elevated fears, Hightower said there have been more officers assigned to communicating with parents.

One of the most recent examples of false active shooter threats in Texas was on Monday, when there was a false active-shooter call at Central Catholic High School in San Antonio. Police evacuated the roughly 500 students from the campus in response. After the lockdown was lifted, school officials said they would make counseling available for its students.

“Events like this shake everyone to the core,” said Kathy Martinez-Prather, the director of the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University. “It is definitely a situation that is at the top of mind of parents right now.”

Martinez-Prather added students are sharing in the anxiety, which she sees as an opportunity to teach schools about how to remain vigilant. Communicating with teachers and students about how to identify potential threats or concerning behavior is one area Martinez-Prather said schools can target to improve school safety. She also pointed to a guide for parents that details key components of school safety as another communication tool.

See here for some background. I couldn’t get all the ay through that story about the 911 calls from Robb Elementary, it was too upsetting. As I said before, when one of these happened at Heights High School, I think the first job is for law enforcement to make extra sure they not only know what their response procedures are but also that they know how they will operate with other agencies that arrive – at HHS, there was HPD, the Sheriff, various Constables, and I’m sure HISD’s police force in response – and who is in charge. And they very much need to communicate that to the parents, who have a justifiable fear following the tragedy at Robb that they can’t simply rely on law enforcement. That’s a problem in itself, and one of many other things that our state leadership has failed to address after this massacre. It’s on the locals in their absence, and I hope they realize that.

Taking seriously the threat of election violence

This is the reality we face.

U.S. security agencies have issued a heightened threat advisory, warning of a potential attacks on political candidates, election officials and others. The alert came Friday, the same day that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband was attacked in their San Francisco home.

NPR has obtained the bulletin issued by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the U.S. Capitol Police.

Attacks conducted by lone actors pose the most plausible threat to potential targets, the bulletin warned. The risk of violence is fueled by an increase in domestic violent extremism, and those carrying out the attacks would likely do so for ideological reasons.

Most individuals are likely to cite the 2020 presidential election, repeating the false narrative that the results were skewed, and that former-President Donald Trump was the rightful winner, according to the warning.

Since 2021, perceptions of a fraudulent election have contributed to several attacks or violent plots, and the bulletin added that new theories of fraud undermining the midterm elections have been emerging.

The advisory said that last month, domestic violent extremists were identified as claiming the electoral system of being “under attack” and threatened violence against politicians.

With less than two weeks before Election Day, President Biden on Friday called on political figures to “clearly and unambiguously” reject political violence, calling the attack on the Pelosi “despicable.”

The president, citing news reports, drew ties between what Friday’s attacker allegedly said — chanting, “Where’s Nancy?” — and what rioters said while storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“What makes us think that one party can talk about stolen elections, COVID being a hoax, it’s all a bunch of lies — and it not affect people who may not be so well-balanced? What makes us think that it’s not going to corrode the political climate?” he said.

In the bulletin, law enforcement officials warned that the threat of violence extends beyond just politicians, with religious minorities also listed as a potential target.

We have been living under this threat for awhile now, and though I appreciate the heightened attention to it, we could have gotten this months ago. That said, we also could have gotten the clear and unambiguous rejection of violence from a whole swath of Republican elected officials, and I find their failure to take a stand – indeed, in many cases, their deflections and whataboutisms and sometimes-coy sometimes-explicit approval of the violence – to be cowardly and reprehensible. There are plenty of things our Republican elected officials in Texas could be doing right now to actually enhance election security, but instead they’re making the problem worse. And as we know, nothing is going to change as long as they remain in office. This is the reality we face.

True the Vote leaders officially held in contempt

How long do you think they’ll be willing to sit in jail?

Federal marshals escorted two leaders of True the Vote out of a Houston courtroom on Monday morning and into a holding cell. Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips have been held in contempt of court for refusing to release the name of a person of interest in the defamation and computer hacking case against them, who they claim, without proof, is a confidential FBI informant.

They will remain in jail until they release the name of the man.

It is the latest surprise development in the strange story, which concerns — depending on who’s describing it — a right-wing elections group allegedly defaming a small technology company, or a small technology company whose alleged security flaws were exposed by a right wing elections group.

Konnech, the election management software company at the center of those claims, filed a federal lawsuit in September alleging that True the Vote’s viral social media campaign targeting the company’s founder and CEO, Eugene Yu, led to personal threats to him and his family and damaged his company’s business.

In podcasts and interviews, Phillips described a dramatic night in early 2021 in a Dallas hotel, where a man he later identified as Mike Hasson revealed what True the Vote has said was hard evidence of Konnech’s alleged influence on the 2020 election.

The involvement of a third man was unknown until a Thursday hearing, when Konnech’s attorney’s pressed Phillips for additional information about what Phillips claimed was an hours-long Konnech research session in Dallas that night. On the stand, Phillips revealed that another “analyst” was present in the room when Hasson allegedly offered evidence he’d uncovered about Konnech, showing the company had stored American poll worker data on a server in China. Neither he nor Engelbrecht would release the third man’s name, saying he was in danger from “drug cartels.”

While True the Vote’s former attorney on the matter, Brock Akers, released Hasson’s name after U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt demanded he do so earlier in the month, True the Vote’s new legal team has chosen a different path. Akers has not  appeared in court since providing Hasson’s name. Last week, Engelbrecht and Phillips were represented by Michael Wynne, a different Houston attorney, who told the court Akers was on vacation “on the Mediterranean” and would be withdrawing from the case. Wynne said Akers remained away, on a cruise, on Monday morning.

[…]

Again on Monday, Wynne said that True the Vote never had access to the data in question in the case. “The information was too large — the number of terabytes — for him to physically have taken possession,” he said. “He did not and does not have access.”

“I don’t know that,” Hoyt responded. “And neither do you.”

Wynne entered more than two dozen pages of evidence onto the record late Friday night, including dozens of text messages between Engelbrecht and individuals True the Vote has claimed are FBI agents. They also included two affidavits from Phillips and Engelbrecht, and details of Yu’s arrest in Los Angeles.

Hoyt, a Ronald Reagan nominee, was unmoved by the submission, calling it irrelevant given its failure to identify the man at the center of Thursday’s hearing.

See here and here for the previous updates. The phrases “you can’t make this stuff up” and “truth is stranger than fiction” are often overused, but they absolutely apply in this saga. I’m riveted. I’m also torn between “these two chumps will fold quickly” and “these two are dumb enough to stay in the pokey indefinitely”. Could honestly go either way. We’ll see. Juanita has more.

Contempt of court in the True the Vote lawsuit

Wilder and wilder.

After a chaotic day of testimony on Thursday, a federal judge in Texas found Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips — known as leaders of the group True the Vote — in contempt of court. They are facing accusations of defamation and computer crimes from a company at the center of a viral right-wing social media campaign engineered by the conservative voting organization.

The judge informed the pair they would face jail time if they do not comply with the terms of a court order by Monday at 9 a.m.

“I expect both defendants to be present,” said U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt, a Ronald Reagan appointee, looking at their table. Marshals, he said, would be ready to arrest them.

Thursday’s finding of contempt was the latest in a string of twists in the civil suit filed in September by Konnech, a Michigan-based company that provides poll worker management software to elections offices.

In filings and testimony, the basic facts and plot lines have shifted from week to week, often producing unexplained contradictions. True the Vote’s telling involves a lengthy middle-of-the-night hotel rendezvous, double-crossing federal agents, confidential informants, and security threats on two continents.

Konnech’s lawsuit, on the other hand, alleges that True the Vote’s baseless and racist accusations against the company’s CEO, Eugene Yu, forced him and his family to flee their home in fear for their lives and damaged the company’s business. Meanwhile, Yu was arrested and charged by the Los Angeles district attorney on allegations of storing government data in China, in breach of its contract, that appear similar to at least some of the allegations True the Vote has made, and Los Angeles officials have said they received an initial tip from Phillips.

For years, Engelbrecht and Phillips have come under fire for promoting election conspiracy theories while offering scant evidence to support them. But their current campaign against Konnech is forcing them to back up what they’ve said since August on far-right social networks and platforms in the more skeptical setting of a federal courtroom.

See here for the previous update. It’s impossible to convey how chaotic this all was without excerpting huge portions of the story, so just click over and read the whole thing. I have no idea what happens next – as far as the near future goes, either Engelbrecht and Phillips will be spending some amount of time in the federal pokey or they will finally give up the evidence they’ve been required to present – but what is clear is that these people are not operating on the same plane of reality as the rest of us. There have always been people like that in the world, but they used to mostly inhabit the fringes. Now they’re much more mainstream, and there’s no obvious precedent for any of this. I suspect we have not reached the pinnacle of the craziness here yet. The Chron has more.

There’s a wave of hoax school shooting reports around the country

Weird and scary.

When Emmi Conley first heard in September about a rash of hoax calls reporting active shooters in schools, she dismissed it. Conley, an extremism researcher who studies groups and people behind public displays of violence, said she found no indication that these calls were connected to fringe online spaces where these pranks often originate.

But as the number of these reports swelled over time, Conley said she began to discern some very strange patterns — including the possibility that the calls may have come from overseas, and perhaps specifically from Africa.

“The scale and the timeline of the events is highly, highly unusual,” she said. “The calls are consistent. They are coordinated. They are grouped state-by-state and district-by-district, and they’re also sustained. So somebody is putting significant effort to keep these going.”

As Conley began digging further, more questions emerged. Elements of these calls were notably different than what she has typically seen in school-based threats. Nobody has taken credit for these calls, even as they stretched over several weeks, and the technological planning and research behind the calls betrayed a level of sophistication not typically seen.

In a statement, the FBI has said it is aware of the incidents, but has “no information to indicate a specific and credible threat.”

The agency said it is working with law enforcement at every level to investigate the cases. But some news reports, including in Minnesota and Louisiana, have cited local authorities who said the calls may be originating in Africa or, specifically, Ethiopia. The FBI would not comment on this detail.

For Conley, particulars around these calls suggest that the people or person behind them are, indeed, overseas.

“Our big questions now are whose attention are they after?” she said. “Is it the public? Law enforcement? Media? Something else? And why they’re after it?”

The story notes that schools in multiple states have been receiving bomb threat calls since March, and in five states there was more than one such call on the same day in April. This is a form of “swatting”, which is a term that refers to calls that falsely report an act of violence in progress or about to occur. Such calls have themselves sometimes resulted in violence as part of the police response. I’ve written about some recent local examples of similar hoax reports, and while Texas is not mentioned in that NPR story, there’s no reason to think whoever is behind this couldn’t target our state as well. As I said before, this is a grim reminder to school districts and police forces that they need to be thinking about this kind of situation and make sure they have plans in place to respond. Unfortunately, it looks like they need to have a plan in place for dealing with false alarms as well.

The True the Vote lawsuit continues to be wild

This is crazy.

Inside a nearly empty federal courtroom Thursday, a fiery argument broke out between a judge and the lawyers representing Texas-based nonprofit True the Vote in a defamation and computer fraud case filed by a Michigan-based election software company.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt warned Houston-based attorneys Brock Akers and Mike Brewer that they might be getting “played” by their conservative nonprofit client after the attorneys repeatedly argued against disclosing the source of the information central to the case, about sensitive poll worker data managed by Konnech Inc.

In podcasts and elsewhere, True the Vote has repeatedly claimed that their organization directed “analysts” to hack Konnech’s servers, which the group claims were located in China and thus proof of the company’s work on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. After Konnech sued True the Vote last month for defamation, Hoyt ordered True the Vote to turn over any Konnech data the organization still had, and disclose the name of the individuals who’d helped them obtain it.

The contentious tone in the courtroom demonstrated the precarious position the lawsuit has put True the Vote in. The group has spearheaded the spread of voter fraud conspiracy theories in Texas and beyond for years — most recently by producing the debunked voter-fraud documentary “2000 Mules” — and has faced very little accountability for it. Now True the Vote is trying to maintain its conspiratorial claims about Konnech while also denying accusations that it illegally hacked data or misled the public about the company and its CEO.

In their own legal filings, True the Vote said that contrary to their prior public statements, the group had never been in possession of Konnech’s data but had simply been shown it by a source.

Konnech’s lawyers, meanwhile, asked the judge to hold True the Vote’s founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, and a board member, Gregg Phillips, in contempt for failing to follow the judge’s order.

In court Thursday, Akers and Brewer were reluctant to release the source’s name in court, saying they feared for the man’s safety.

Hoyt, a judicial nominee of President Reagan, wasn’t having it.

The judge said he didn’t “have any confidence” in True the Vote’s version of events, in part because he said the group’s leaders haven’t submitted sworn affidavits under penalty of perjury to support them. True the Vote’s lawyers said they didn’t believe their clients needed to appear at the hearing.

“Do errors get made [in elections]? Yeah,” Hoyt said as he continued to question True the Vote’s trustworthiness. “Do people cheat? Perhaps. But all of this hustle and bustle about the integrity of the process? Is the way to fix the process to tear it apart? That’s not integrity.”

He demanded the lawyers release the name of the source.

See here for the previous update. Judge Hoyt eventually got the name, which Votebeat didn’t publish in their story from the weekend because they hadn’t been able to verify anything about that person. I mean, I dunno, it’s probably not a good sign for your side when the judge is telling your lawyers that you can’t be trusted. We’ll have to see how it goes from here.

In the meantime, this is also nuts.

The Los Angeles County district attorney announced on Tuesday the arrest of Eugene Yu, the CEO of a small company that makes software for scheduling poll workers and had a contract with LA County. District Attorney George Gascón said at a news conference that the contract with the county required the company, Konnech, to securely maintain election worker information on servers in the United States.

Gascón said that in the course of a separate investigation, his office “found probable cause to believe that Konnech allegedly violated this contract by storing critical information that the workers provided on servers in China.”

The district attorney did not provide further details of what evidence his investigators had uncovered so far. He said Yu’s arrest was made on “suspicion of theft of personal identifying information.”

Konnech is located in Michigan, and Gascón said his office had cooperated with local law enforcement to make the arrest. Robert Arcos, the chief of the DA’s Bureau of Investigation, said that investigators from the Public Integrity Unit and the Computer Forensics Unit helped serve the arrest warrant on Yu, and also seized hard drives.

“We intend to hold all those responsible for this breach accountable,” said Gascón, who added that his office is seeking the extradition of Yu from Michigan to California.

NPR obtained court documents filed against Yu in Ingham County, Michigan, which indicate that Yu is “charged in Los Angeles County, California with the extraditable crime of Embezzlement of Public Funds.” The documents state Michigan authorities charged Yu with “misdemeanor fugitive from justice,” and he has another court date on Oct. 25. NPR also sought court documents from the LA County D.A.’s office, but a spokesperson said in an email, “Because this is an ongoing investigation we will not be releasing any documents at this time.”

Gascón, a Democrat, said at the news conference that the information allegedly held on servers in China related to poll workers, and “is not — I repeat, it is not — related to election material or voter information.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Konnech said, “We are continuing to ascertain the details of what we believe to be Mr. Yu’s wrongful detention by L.A. County authorities.”

“Any L.A. County poll worker data that Konnech may have possessed was provided to it by L.A. County, and therefore could not have been ‘stolen’ as suggested,” said the spokesperson, Jon Goldberg.

As they say, you can’t make this stuff up. I didn’t see any more recent stories than the ones reporting the arrest, and those stories were all based on the LA County DA’s press release. Hard to know if we’ll learn anything more until the court date in two weeks. Unfortunately, I doubt that DA Gascón’s emphatic words about the nature of this case will persuade anyone on the True The Vote side. It’s likely to get crazier from here.

More on the lawsuit against True The Vote

NPR takes a deep dive.

Konnech, a small Michigan company that makes election logistics software, says a “smear campaign” whipped up by the controversial group True the Vote has led to death threats and forced the company’s CEO to leave home in fear for his and his family’s lives. The company believes a driving force behind the threats is xenophobia; Konnech’s CEO immigrated to the U.S. from China in the 1980s and became an American citizen in 1997.

In the past, the executive of a relatively unknown company might have chosen to ignore such claims to try to deprive them of attention.

But in the wake of the conspiracy-fueled Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and in the era of QAnon and Pizzagate — bizarre and baseless theories that have contributed to very real violence — that strategy may no longer be tenable. The experience of the election technology company Dominion Voting Systems, which became the target of widespread conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, also underscored how wild claims could significantly damage a company’s business.

Just a few weeks after accusations against the company first surfaced, Konnech turned to the federal courts and filed a lawsuit. Konnech was “not going to take any chances and felt very strongly that it needed to act and act quickly,” said Jon Goldberg, a company spokesperson.

Konnech, which makes scheduling software for poll workers, joined a growing number of election officials and companies that have used defamation law to try to fight back against election-related conspiracies.

[…]

At an event in August dubbed “The Pit,” Engelbrecht and Phillips unveiled what they called the “Tiger Project,” which focused on Konnech. In interviews with far-right podcasters, Phillips has spun a cloak-and-dagger story that he compared to a James Bond movie, in which he helped uncover a supposed Chinese plot to infiltrate American elections.

In Phillips’ telling, he first heard about the company from “my guys” — unnamed “colleagues and friends” who invited him to their room in the Hilton Anatole hotel in Dallas one late night in January 2021.

“I get there and they’re putting towels, rolled up towels, under the doors and you know, and all my guys are armed,” Phillips said on the podcast “1819 News.”

Phillips said his colleagues showed him personal information for 1.8 million American poll workers, including “name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, banking information,” which supposedly was held on a server in China.

Konnech maintains that this claim is entirely false, and that all of its data on American customers is stored solely in the U.S.

After seeing this presentation, Phillips claims that he and Engelbrecht brought Konnech’s data to the FBI, which he claims then worked with them for more than a year on a supposed “counterintelligence” operation looking into Konnech. At one point, Phillips said he had a “secret squirrels” meeting with the FBI in Milwaukee to share information. Eventually, however, the FBI “completely betrayed us,” Phillips said, and told True the Vote that they were themselves under scrutiny from law enforcement.

True the Vote has not publicly provided evidence to support the claim of a “counterintelligence” operation along those lines, nor has NPR found any corroboration. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.

See here for the background and be sure to read the rest. I love the idea that these clowns thought they were reporting a crime to the FBI when in fact they were telling on themselves. I just hope it leads to the conclusion that we all want to see.

Now we’re dealing with hoax shootings

A new thing we need to be prepared for.

Texas and other states have experienced hoax shootings, but experts say these threats shouldn’t be taken lightly. Research shows that if someone is going to commit a mass shooting there is a good chance they’ll drop hints beforehand.

Sometimes it’s just a student testing the system, said Julia Andrews, director of Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools, an organization that develops best practices for school security systems.

“Sometimes, it can mean getting out of school early, avoiding a test or just seeking attention,” Andrews said. “We are now seeing a lot of copycat threats, but we must take all threats seriously.”

However, schools need to be prepared when that isn’t the case, she said.

An analysis of 170 perpetrators of mass shootings found that nearly half leaked their intention to act violently, with 44 percent of them leaking specific details of their plans, according to a 2021 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, a peer-reviewed medical journal.

For decades, school’s have experienced bomb threats, but this many shooting threats — happening at the same time — is unusual, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“For false bomb threats we have those better figured out, but with a false active shooter situation we’re not there at all,”Canady said, “because we’re dealing with this new trend.”

[…]

In recent years, these threats have likely become more prevalent with the rise of social media, said Zachary Kaufman, the co-director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston.

“Social media and (cell) phones have enabled such hoaxes to be made easier, quicker,” Kaufman said, “and seemingly more genuine than ever.”

See here for the background. As the story and my Facebook commenters noted, there were other hoax reports that day (in Waco, Eanes, and Pflugerville) and the next day, in Klein ISD. That feels a lot more precarious and unsettling than a one off to me. I don’t know what to do about it, I’m just flagging it for your attention. I’m glad to see there are people in the field who do have expertise in this. I really hope they won’t be called on to use it very often.

The gaps in Texas’ background check law

From Pro Publica:

In the spring of 2009, Elliott Naishtat persuaded his colleagues in the Texas Legislature to pass a bill that he believed would require the state to report court-ordered mental health hospitalizations for Texans of all ages to the national firearms background check system.

Nearly two years had passed since a student with a history of serious mental illness had gone on a deadly shooting rampage that left 32 dead at Virginia Tech. And Naishtat, then a Democratic state representative from Austin, argued that Texas was as vulnerable as Virginia had been to such mass shootings because it didn’t require the reporting of involuntary mental health commitments to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS. Federally licensed dealers are required to check the system before they sell someone a firearm.

“This bill will ultimately save lives, and I hope you’ll give it your most serious consideration,” Naishtat said when he introduced the measure.

But 13 years after the legislation became law, following a string of mass shootings carried out by troubled young men, an investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune has uncovered a major gap in the law and its implementation.

Despite language in Naishtat’s bill that says local courts should report to the state’s top law enforcement agency any time a judge orders any person, regardless of age, to receive inpatient mental health treatment, the news organizations found that they are not reporting juvenile records because of problems with the way the law was written, vague guidance from the state and conflicts with other Texas laws.

[…]

When it comes to the reporting of adult mental health records, the Texas law has been highly effective. By the end of 2021, the state had sent more than 332,000 mental health records — the sixth-highest number in the country — to the national background check system, according to FBI data.

Unlike adult records, juvenile records are tightly controlled under state law, which includes criminal penalties for officials who release them unlawfully. That has likely contributed to widespread confusion about the reach of the 2009 law, which does not differentiate between adults and minors, said Dru Stevenson, a South Texas College of Law professor whose research focuses on gun violence and regulation.

“Anybody dealing with either health records or juveniles are super skittish about preserving privacy and confidentiality,” he said.

Mike Schneider, a former Harris County juvenile court judge, said the 2009 law fails to account for nuances in the juvenile code. For example, the law requires the reporting of all court-ordered mental health commitments. But Schneider and other juvenile officials say that in many cases juveniles end up in inpatient treatment not through a judge’s order, but via treatment plans agreed to by mental health professionals working on their cases. Additionally, Schneider said he interprets the law to directly address only the mental health commitments of juveniles already in lockup, not those first entering the system.

As a result, he estimated that some 99% of juvenile mental health commitments in the state are not the result of the kinds of judicial orders spelled out in the 2009 law.

“It’s just a really, really, really tiny sliver and would miss most of the people who are juveniles who have court-ordered mental health services,” he said.

The Office of Court Administration convened a task force of clerks, judges and various state officials more than a decade ago to figure out how to increase the number of all mental health records being sent to DPS.

The resulting report, published in 2012, found that “DPS lacks the resources to assist the district and county clerks with reporting mental health information.” It made a number of recommendations for ensuring better reporting across the state, including that OCA distribute a reporting manual to clerks detailing the law’s exact requirements. But neither the report nor the resulting manual addressed the reporting of juvenile records.

The agency has since moved to remedy that.

“Recently, because of increased questions, we decided to update the quick reference table to make it even more clear that juvenile records should be included under those provisions, and an updated FAQ section will be going in the manual,” spokesperson Megan LaVoie wrote in an email last month.

Amid a lack of clear direction, courts across the state aren’t following the law as Naishtat intended.

[…]

Schneider, the former Harris County juvenile judge, said the Legislature should address the narrowness and ambiguity that has resulted in the widespread failure to report juvenile mental health records, though he said such an effort will require lawmakers to answer difficult questions about how to handle sensitive records. In his mind, the law should cover young Texans with troubling histories of bullying, animal cruelty and sexual assault, behavior that foreshadows what experts call “future dangerousness.”

“What do you do with kids who have tortured a cat or a dog or done something really cruel, sexually or not, to another kid?” he said. “Those are, I think, the ones that people really worry about, because that seems to be so strongly correlated with really, really bad outcomes in the future.”

This is a long story with a lot of detail, so go read the rest for yourself. I think I’ve captured the main points in my excerpts, so the real question is whether the Lege is even interested in trying to address the gaps in that law. On that score, there was no comment from either Dan Patrick or Dade Phelan, so at the least there’s a lot of work to be done to even get it on the radar. And in keeping with what I’ve suggested before, this isn’t a whole solution but a part of one. Combining a fix to the Naishtat law with a ban on most types of gun purchases by anyone under the age of 21 would be a start. But first, the will to act has to be there. We can have a say in that this November.

William-Paul Thomas

This is bad. The question is how much worse might it be.

William-Paul Thomas, the mayor’s council liaison, was offered more than $13,000 by a local bar owner to help him pass a building inspection and fast-track a new permit to reopen a bar as a restaurant, newly unsealed court documents show.

Thomas contacted the “relevant” fire official to ensure the unnamed business owner passed the inspection in May 2020, prosecutors wrote, and then he used his position in the mayor’s office to “pressure other officials” to approve the permit in July, as well. He was paid an undisclosed amount of money for his efforts.

Thomas pleaded guilty on July 25 to one federal count of conspiracy to accept a bribe. He will appear for sentencing before U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen on Nov. 28. His lawyer, Monique Chantelle Sparks, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The documents were sealed until Wednesday morning at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s office. The Chronicle published an article about the allegations Tuesday night. Thomas’ plea deal, however, remains sealed.

It is unclear whether federal investigators are looking into the unnamed city officials Thomas allegedly worked with to get the certificate and permit approved, or if they are conducting a broader inquiry into City Hall affairs.

Sean Buckley, a legal expert on federal judicial procedures, said Thomas’ quick guilty plea and his willingness to forgo a probable cause hearing before a grand jury means he likely agreed they had strong information against him. It also suggests Thomas may be part of a wider investigation by the Justice Department.

Thomas abruptly resigned from his City Hall position last Wednesday, one day after pleading guilty. He told the mayor in an 11:30 p.m. email he was retiring due to health reasons.

[…]

City Attorney Arturo Michel said later Wednesday the office of the inspector general is opening its own investigation, based on the document’s charges that Thomas worked with officials in the fire department and permitting office to approve the requests.

Prosecutors say the bar owner — whom they did not name — needed to pass a city fire inspection to get a temporary certificate of occupancy in May 2020. He turned to Thomas for help.

“Thomas, in his official capacity, placed calls to the relevant Houston Fire Department official to ensure that COMPANY 1 would pass its fire inspection and be issued its TCO,” the charging document says. The owner then paid Thomas an undisclosed amount of money after he got the certificate.

It is not clear which fire department official Thomas contacted. Fire Chief Samuel Peña said it difficult to identify the person without the name of the business.

The business owner reached out again in June 2020, after his bar — a separate business — was shut down by the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission. COVID-19 restrictions around that time ordered bars to close but allowed restaurants to continue operating with limited capacity.

“On July 6, 2020, BUSINESSMAN 1 offered THOMAS up to $13,0000 to have the necessary permit issued quickly so that COMPANY 2 could reopen,” the document says. “THOMAS agreed to use his official position to pressure other officials to issue the permit quickly, all in exchange for money.”

Thomas then used his position to “pressure other officials” to grant the necessary permit, and the owner was allowed to open as a restaurant. It is not clear which specific permit the owner was seeking from the city; the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission was responsible for classifying bars and restaurants based on the percentage of sales that came from alcohol.

Buckley, a federal defense lawyer who represented former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman and authored a book on federal criminal rules and codes used by trial attorneys across the country, reviewed the court documents at the request of the Houston Chronicle. He is not involved in the case.

“He’s obviously cooperating because no one who is a target in a federal investigation would ever agree to plea to a criminal information unless there have been extensive discussions between the target, his lawyer and the government leading up to that decision,” Buckley said.

“Either the government lawyers showed him what they had or he knew what they had. He knew he had everything to gain by cooperating and agreeing to plead guilty without forcing the government to get an indictment from the grand jury, and much to lose by not cooperating.”

Buckley said it also clear the investigation, by prosecutors from the public corruption unit, has been going on for months and there likely is a wider-ranging investigation underway involving multiple defendants.

“My read on this is that this person has something of value to the government,” Buckley said.

He said the documents also indicate “there is an environment in the city of Houston that allows this type of thing to take place.”

I will say up front that I am acquainted with William-Paul. As is the case in this kind of situation, I’m shocked to see the story. I don’t know him well enough to say more than that, but as I have met him and talked to him, I wanted to say so.

I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have no experience in these matters, but it seems to me unlikely that there would be only one such transgression like this. If nothing else, I would think the FBI wouldn’t prioritize a case with one crime of this nature. I’d expect that the bribe payer and whoever was involved with the Fire Department and permitting office will be implicated next. The big question is then whether it goes beyond that, and if so how far. There is certainly the potential for this to be big, but we won’t know until the FBI tells us, and as we know from other experiences that may take a long time. In the meantime, I wouldn’t want to be BUSINESSMAN 1 or anyone else who might be implicated. Don’t take or give bribes, y’all.

Where are we with the Paxton whistleblower lawsuit?

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

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abbott and Patrick ask SCOTx to take up Paxton’s whistleblower appeal

They sort of have a point, but they should still butt out.

Best mugshot ever

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Monday urged the Supreme Court of Texas to take up Attorney General Ken Paxton’s appeal to throw out a whistleblower lawsuit against him.

The appeal is Paxton’s latest attempt to avoid a trial after eight of his former top deputies accused him of bribery and abuse of office in late 2020. Within seven weeks of their complaint to authorities, all eight had either been fired or driven to leave the agency. Four of the fired employees later filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Paxton saying they were fired in retaliation for their complaint and have asked to be reinstated to their jobs. Paxton denies wrongdoing.

Paxton, a Republican, has fought that lawsuit, claiming that the state’s whistleblower law — which covers public employees, appointed officials and governmental entities — does not apply to him because he is an elected official. A district court and an appeals court have ruled against Paxton’s lawyers and said the lawsuit could move forward. But in January, Paxton’s lawyers asked the Texas Supreme Court to reconsider the matter and throw out the case.

Paxton’s lawyers argue that allowing whistleblowers to sue the attorney general for firing them could hamper the executive power that the state constitution gives him. It is the same argument two lower courts have already rejected after hearing from the whistleblowers’ lawyers, who argue that siding with Paxton would take away whistleblower protections for employees trying to report the misconduct of an elected official.

Lawyers for the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s offices did not indicate whether they agree with Paxton’s argument. The two Republican state officials filed friend of the court briefs asking that the high court take up the case because it is relevant to statewide governance and to the powers of an executive office under the Texas Constitution. Because of that, lawyers for the offices argued the case should be considered by a statewide court and not by the local courts that have already rejected Paxton’s argument.

The two lower courts were filled by Democrats. The Texas Supreme Court is made up of nine Republicans.

See here for the background. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that the state’s high court should weigh in on this question. They could, I suppose, simply issue an order denying the appeal request on the grounds that they’re fine with the lower courts’ rulings. Most cases never get close to the Supreme Court. Indeed, one of the themes I saw in the judicial Q&A responses I got from 1st and 14th Court of Appeals candidates in 2018 and 2020 was precisely that those courts are often the last word on a lot of consequential cases. SCOTx has no obligation to take this up. It’s easy to see why they might want to, but in the end it would be unremarkable if they didn’t.

It’s also easy to see that what Abbott and Patrick want is for a court full of Republicans to have the final word, since I’m sure they don’t consider the lower courts to be valid in the same way. One could perversely assert that only a rejection from the all-Republican Supreme Court will settle this matter in a way that might shut up Paxton and his sycophants, though perhaps the Court of Criminal Appeals would beg to differ.

One more thing:

An attorney whose firm represented Paul, the friend and campaign donor to Paxton, also urged the Supreme Court Monday to weigh in on the case, saying it “presents far reaching consequences for our state government.”

Statewide officials like Paxton need to be able to fire or retain employees based on whether they help advance their goals, wrote Kent Hance, founding partner of the Austin-based law firm Hance Scarborough.

“Inferior officers are carefully chosen by an elected official to provide competent policymaking advice in line with the policymaking goals as defined by the elected official,” Hance wrote. “This works well when the goals are in line with the advice, but what happens when they are at odds?”

A political action committee for Hance’s firm — the HS Law PAC — donated $25,000 to Paxton in June 2020, after he intervened in litigation involving Paul, as Hearst Newspapers reported.

Lawyers for one of the whistleblowers pointed to the donation this week.

“Only somebody as shameless as Ken Paxton would get a lobbyist whose firm donated $25,000 to Paxton while it was representing Nate Paul companies to ask the Texas Supreme Court to re-write the Texas Whistleblower Act,” lawyers TJ Turner and Tom Nesbitt said in a statement. They declined to comment on the briefs by Abbott and Patrick.

Hance did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but managing partner Jay Stewart, who is trustee of the PAC, has told Hearst it operates independent of the firm’s litigation section and that the donation had nothing to do with any cases.

Yeah, that’s a pretty good summary of Texas politics. Political donations never have anything to do with getting the political outcome we prefer. Who would ever think such a thing?

Deshaun Watson must disclose whether he had sex with 18 massage therapists

There’s a headline for you.

NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson now will have to answer whether he had sex with 18 additional therapists who came to his defense about his massage habits last year, according to a ruling Tuesday by a Texas judge.

Watson is being sued by 22 other women who accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions in 2020 and early 2021. As part of the pretrial discovery process in those lawsuits, their attorneys have sought to have Watson answer written “requests for admission” about whether he had sex with the 18 therapists who publicly supported him after the lawsuits against him started in March 2021.

Watson, who recently was traded to the Cleveland Browns, previously refused to answer these questions, saying it was harassing, private and not relevant, according to an objection filed by his attorneys in court.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys countered by saying it will help show Watson’s pattern and motives in seeking massages with dozens of different women, many of whom he met on social media. They asked the court to compel him to answer, leading to a hearing in court Tuesday between the two sides.

Harris County District Court Judge Rabeea Sultan Collier decided in favor of the plaintiffs, overruling the objection by Watson’s attorney, Leah Graham.

[…]

The plaintiffs’ attorneys also succeeded in their quest to compel Watson to produce certain other information about his history of massages since 2019, as well as any language about massages in his contract with the Houston Texans, Watson’s previous team. The judge gave Watson’s team 30 days to comply.

“We will continue to force Mr. Watson to answer our questions and reveal the full parameters of his conduct,” plaintiffs attorney Tony Buzbee said in an e-mail afterward.

[…]

In the case of the 18 therapists at issue, they did come out to support Watson publicly one year ago in statements released by his attorney, Rusty Hardin. They said Watson, 26, never made them feel uncomfortable during their interactions with him, unlike the other 22 women who are suing him. Hardin’s strategy with releasing such information at the time apparently was to take some heat off his client. A year later, Watson must answer more about his histories with those 18 women, if there were any, according to the judge’s ruling.

Graham called it a “fishing expedition” by the plaintiffs and not relevant to the specific allegations in individual lawsuits.

Plaintiffs attorney Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey disagreed, telling the judge Watson “went to massage therapy sessions intending to have sex, intending to do something else, not have a massage.”

“That is at the heart of this case,” she said.

She added “we’re not asking whether he had sex with anybody in the world” but instead with specific therapists, including the 18 who had “voluntarily publicly identified themselves.”

I probably have a post that noted the massage therapists who publicly supported Watson, but I didn’t go looking for it. I don’t think I have anything to add to this.

First “Trump Train” lawsuit to proceed

Good news.

Today, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas ruled in favor of plaintiffs in Cervini v. Cisneros, the “Texas Trump Train” lawsuit filed against individuals in a convoy of Trump supporters who conspired to mount a coordinated vehicular assault against a Biden-Harris campaign bus on October 30, 2020. The court denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss the case and allowed it to go forward on allegations that these individuals engaged in political violence that violated the federal Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and Texas state law.

The Texas Civil Rights Project, Protect Democracy, and Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP filed the suit last year on behalf of four plaintiffs—bus driver Tim Holloway, politician Wendy Davis, historian Eric Cervini, and former Biden campaign staffer David Gins. Holloway, Davis, and Gins were on the Biden-Harris campaign bus, and Cervini was in an accompanying vehicle, when the bus was ambushed on I-35 between San Antonio and Austin on the last day of early voting in Texas.

For more than an hour, dozens of trucks and cars encircled the campaign bus, having coordinated to threaten, harass, and intimidate those aboard. They live-streamed their attempts to run the bus off the road, and one of their vehicles ultimately collided with a campaign vehicle. With today’s decision, the case against participants in this caravan who conspired to ambush the bus and its passengers will continue with discovery, and the plaintiffs will have a chance to prove their case at trial.

“Today the court reaffirmed that political violence has no place in our democracy,” said Tim Holloway, who was driving the Biden-Harris bus during the incident. “And though the threats and intimidation we experienced are haunting, at least there is hope that our harassers will be held accountable.”

“While we were peacefully exercising our right to campaign, we were ambushed by individuals engaged in a conspiracy to threaten us with violence,” added Eric Cervini. “With this ruling, the court recognizes that what we experienced that day was exactly the sort of political intimidation the Ku Klux Klan Act was designed to address.”

With today’s decision, plaintiffs can continue to seek a jury verdict declaring the incident a violation of the Ku Klux Klan Act. Congress passed the Reconstruction statute to protect free and fair federal elections from widespread Klan violence against Black and Republican voters by making it illegal for individuals to join together to intimidate and injure Americans participating peacefully in the political process.

“Today’s ruling reaffirms that violations of the Klan Act need not invoke racial or other class-based animus, or state action,” said John Paredes, counsel at Protect Democracy. “Anyone who conspires to intimidate or attack a political campaign in a federal election — regardless of their motivations — is guilty of a Klan Act violation.”

“Free and fair elections depend on voters — no matter their color, party, or zip code — being protected from the threat of violence. The attack on our clients on the Biden-Harris campaign bus is part of a troubling pattern of increasing political violence in the U.S. in recent years — culminating in the insurrection at Congress on January 6, 2021,” added Emma Hilbert, senior attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Today’s decision serves to reaffirm the freedom of political expression, and serves as a warning that justice awaits those who may conspire to terrorize or menace voters.”

More information about this case is available here and here.

See here and here for the background, and here for the court order. There were two lawsuits filed over this debacle, one against individual drivers of the “Trump Train”, and one against the San Marcos police department, which was quite the hot mess. The ruling here is for the first lawsuit, though it seems likely to me that it would apply for the second as well. I don’t know at this time when the trial is going to happen, but of course I’ll be keeping an eye on it. KVUE has more.

“Due diligence”

I’m just gonna leave this right here.

The Browns said they did due diligence before agreeing to give Deshaun Watson a $230 million contract and complete a trade with the Texans.

Watson is facing 22 civil suits for sexual harassment or assault but a Harris County grand jury recently declined to indict the quarterback on nine cases. The NFL said its investigation is ongoing.

“We spent a tremendous amount of time exploring and investigating the opportunity to trade for Deshaun Watson,“ Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said in a team news release on Sunday. “We are acutely aware and empathetic to the highly personal sentiments expressed about this decision. Our team’s comprehensive evaluation process was of utmost importance due to the sensitive nature of his situation and the complex factors involved.

“We also understand there are still some legal proceedings that are ongoing and we will respect due process.”

Last week, the Haslams flew to Houston with general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski and met with Watson.

“He was humble, sincere and candid,” the Haslams said. “In our conversations, Deshaun detailed his commitment to leading our team; he understands and embraces the hard work needed to build his name both in the community and on the field. … We are confident in Deshaun and excited about moving forward with him as our quarterback and supporting his genuine and determined efforts.”

The civil litigation involving Watson remains ongoing. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, said Tuesday “there’s no discussion” about settling any of the cases. Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who filed lawsuits, has been deposing Watson in four-to-six hour blocks and said it could be well beyond April before the cases are potentially brought before a jury in civil court.

The Browns have not reached out to Buzbee or his clients, the attorney said Friday.

Emphasis mine. Yeah, I don’t think that’s how “due diligence” works. But thanks for taking full responsibility for whatever happens next. The Hang Up and Listen podcast (segment three, fast forward to about the 48 minute mark if you don’t want to listen to the whole thing), which notes that no other team did any more “due diligence” than Cleveland did, has more.

First round of Deshaun Watson depositions

He hasn’t had much to say so far.

Four days after a Harris County grand jury chose not to indict Deshaun Watson, the Texans quarterback answered questions for the first time while under oath in connection to 22 civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and harassment during various massage appointments.

Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who filed suit, began deposing Watson on Friday. But Watson asserted his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself while the criminal investigation was still ongoing. Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, said his client would no longer decline to answer questions since the criminal case has concluded.

Buzbee said he spent Tuesday’s deposition questioning Watson about two of his accusers for close to four hours. A judge allotted Buzbee 48 hours to question Watson under oath, and with the next deposition scheduled for March 22, the civil litigation could stretch beyond April before it is potentially resolved in court.

[…]

Tuesday revealed a potential pattern for future depositions. Buzbee said he questioned Watson in reference to the massage therapy sessions involving the two women. Buzbee said Watson told him “he did everything right” and didn’t offer lengthy answers about specific incidents because he said he couldn’t remember one session from another.

Buzbee requested texts and Instagram exchanges between Watson and the women. Buzbee said his clients provided the information, but Watson had deleted all of his Instagram messages and none of the “six or seven” phone numbers he provided had been involved in text exchanges.

Hardin said it was “a normal process” for Watson to delete his Instagram messages. Watson has 1.4 million followers on the social media platform, and Hardin said Watson regularly deleted messages “when he no longer was having contact with somebody,” but did not delete any messages once the lawsuits were filed.

Watson changed his phone number frequently because of his celebrity status, Hardin said. With such a high rate of public exposure, people would “start calling him and texting him” once they got a hold of his contact information.

See here for the previous update. I actually drafted this before the trade; life comes at you fast. Lots of people delete various things on social media as a matter of policy, and I’m sure plenty of famous people change phone numbers often, for the reasons stated above. I might not be able to remember an individual massage session on a given date, if nothing out of the ordinary happened during it. That doesn’t mean we can’t look askance at Watson’s answers to these questions. Tony Buzbee says later in the article that when this all goes before a jury – Rusty Hardin confirms in the story that they are not looking to settle – it’s going to come down to who the jurors find to be more credible. I completely agree.

Deshaun Watson traded to Cleveland

He’s someone else’s problem now.

The Texans have traded Deshaun Watson to the Browns. The quarterback waived his no-trade clause for Cleveland after initially eliminating the franchise, a person with knowledge of the negotiation said, but Watson reversed his decision Friday after the Browns offered a five-year contract worth $230 million.

The new contract, which is fully guaranteed, preceded the terms of the trade. The Texans will receive Cleveland’s first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and 2024, the Browns’ 2023 third-round pick and 2024 fourth-round pick.

Once finalized, the trade will end one of the longest and messiest divorces in Houston sports history. The 14 month-long saga began with the former franchise quarterback’s trade demand and ended after a Harris County grand jury declined to indict Watson following a criminal investigation that was triggered by 22 women who filed civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and harassment during various massage therapy sessions.

The blockbuster trade did not yield the second-round picks that were part of the returns second-year general manager Nick Caserio solidly requested for almost a year, but it remains enough capital to reinforce the new regime’s efforts to sculpt the franchise in their own image.

The rebuilding franchise also cleared Watson’s previous four-year, $156 million contract extension off the books, which immediately boosts Houston’s roster budget as the free agency period begins. Caserio has made frugal signings so far by re-signing 15 players and acquiring nine other veteran players, but the executive now has the financial freedom to become more aggressive.

Meanwhile, the civil litigation involving Watson remains ongoing. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, said Tuesday “there’s no discussion” about settling any of the cases. Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who filed lawsuits, has been deposing Watson in four-to-six hour blocks and said it could be well beyond April before the cases are potentially brought before a jury in civil court.

The NFL has yet to render a decision from its own investigation into Watson. The league could potentially suspend for an unknown number of future games, although it’s possible a punishment won’t be handed down until the civil litigation ends.

Not really much to say here. Once there were no charges filed against Watson, everything fell into place for him to be traded, as teams were willing to live with whatever civil action (and likely league suspension) would happen, just not criminal penalties. Watson himself basically dictated the terms thanks to his no trade clause. And now he’s gone, and whatever one might have once felt about him and his abilities on the field, that’s gone as well. I’ll keep an eye on those civil cases because they do matter even if they no longer truly affect his football career, but I’m happy to not think about Deshaun Watson otherwise. Good riddance. Rivers McCown and Sean Pendergast have more.

No charges against Deshaun Watson

Good for him, I guess.

A Harris County grand jury on Friday declined to indict Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, choosing not to criminally charge him in nine alleged instances of sexual assault or harassment during various private massage appointments, according to Johna Stallings of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

The decision came down the same day Watson was deposed in connection with two of the 22 civil lawsuits against him, which are separate legal matters. Watson declined to answer questions under oath, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself during that proceeding, attorney Rusty Hardin said.

Neither of those cases in the deposition involved women who filed criminal cases against the quarterback, however. Tony Buzbee, who is representing the women who filed suit, said Friday he asked Watson several hundred questions over about three hours of depositions.

Watson, 26, has denied any wrongdoing.

After the grand jury’s decision was announced, Hardin said he is ready to move forward.

“We are delighted that the grand jury has looked at the matter thoroughly and reached the same conclusion we did,” Hardin said in a statement. “Deshaun Watson did not commit any crimes and is not guilty of any offenses.”

See here for the previous entry. I don’t know what I expected from this, but getting no-billed was certainly on my list of possible outcomes. As for the depositions:

While a Harris County grand jury eight blocks away met to decide whether to criminally indict Deshaun Watson, the Texans quarterback spent Friday morning at his attorney’s downtown office building where he declined to answer questions while under oath for the first time in connection to 22 civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and harassment during various massage appointments.

Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who filed suit, said he asked Watson several hundred questions over about three hours of depostions. In each, Watson asserted his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

Buzbee said there was no connection between Friday’s two legal proceedings. A judge allotted Buzbee 48 total hours to depose Watson, and, on Friday, Buzbee said he asked Watson about facts and circumstances in reference to two women who did not file criminal complaints and believes his clients are “entitled” to hear Watson’s version of events.

“There should be no incrimination involved at all,” Buzbee said. “If you didn’t do anything wrong, if you didn’t do anything illegal, answer the question. It would be one thing if we were asking questions about the women that have filed criminal complaints. We’re not doing that.”

Days before the deposition, Buzbee said he received written testimony from Watson that he had no communication with either woman. Buzbee also requested Watson to provide any phone number that he may have used to communicate with the women. Watson provided seven or eight phone numbers, Buzbee said. Buzbee claimed to have a combined 50 pages of communication between Watson and the women, and he said none of the phone numbers Watson provided had been used in those communications.

Hardin said Watson is “more than willing to talk” in the civil depositions but was following his advice not to incriminate himself while the criminal case was ongoing. When asked how the answers from a deposition with women who were not involved in the criminal investigation would be used against Watson, Hardin said “I have no idea.”

“But you would never take that chance,” Hardin said. “That’s the point. The issue is, is the lawyer going to allow his client to give a civil deposition on the same subject matter that is currently being considered by a grand jury and you won’t find a lawyer who will.”

Hardin said Wastson will waive his silence and answer questions in the civil case after the criminal investigation is resolved, and he said Buzbee has wanted Watson to plead the fifth all along because it gives him an advantage in the civil cases.

Again, I guess I’m not surprised. I’m certainly not in any position to question either Hardin or Buzbee’s legal strategy. The one thing everyone seems to agree on at this time is that this clears the path for the Texans to trade him, as other teams had been waiting to see what happened with the criminal charges. The civil cases, which will continue on in court, didn’t scare them. Make of that what you will. Sean Pendergast has more.

Deshaun Watson will face some depositions

A long-awaited update on this case.

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson must undergo depositions in connection to at least some of the 22 misconduct allegations made against him before April, a judge on Monday ordered.

Lawyers involved in civil litigation against the athlete on Monday argued whether Watson should wait until after April 1 to take questions on the allegations. His attorney, Rusty Hardin, expressed concern that depositions could provide evidence in a separate criminal investigation being conducted by the Houston Police Department.

“We know that the police have forwarded to the (Harris County) district attorney’s office their findings and their conclusions,” Hardin said in the 113th District Court.

From that point, a grand jury will decide whether criminal charges against Watson are merited. When that could happen is uncertain — but Hardin appears to believe his client’s fate in the criminal matter may be known by April 1.

Watson is accused of sexual misconduct during several massage therapy sessions, the bulk of which are said to have happened in 2020. Eight of the 22 accusers have filed police reports.

Hardin argued that his client should hold off on sitting down for a deposition — while lawyer Tony Buzbee, representing the accusers, argued that Hardin should stick to the schedule they agreed upon at the suit’s beginning. The ongoing HPD investigation should not make a difference in the civil case either, he said.

Buzbee said delaying Watson’s deposition further is unfair to the plaintiffs who have already endured 75 hours of questions as part of their lawsuit against him. Depositions are a procedure that allows lawyers in the case to question those involved about the allegations. Watson is accused of sexual misconduct during several massage therapy sessions, the bulk of which are said to have happened in 2020.

[…]

Judge Rabeea Collier ruled, partially, in Hardin’s favor.

Six women have yet to undergo depositions, lawyers said. Of those women, Buzbee can depose Watson on their allegation ahead of April 1 — as long as the accuser is not among those who filed a police report, Collier ruled.

“I’m allowing you to take Mr. Watson’s deposition on case specific details for those who have not filed a criminal complaint,” Collier said in court.

The police investigation was among the reasons why Hardin asked Collier last week to postpone Watson’s deposition until April 1.

“I don’t know what’s gonna happen on April 1,” the judge said, adding that Hardin can seek a stay if he wants.

See here and here for the most recent updates. The court had signed an agreement in May that said Watson could not be deposed before February 22, which is to say this past Tuesday, and that some of the women who accused him of sexual misconduct would be deposed beginning in September. As Sean Pendergast notes, this likely means that the criminal case that HPD has investigated will come to some sort of resolution in the next month or so, as the case is now in the hands of the DA’s office. Though if he’s indicted on one or more charges, that just moves things to another stage, one that may also take a long time to work through. There’s also that FBI investigation, and who knows what that may mean.

So we’re getting closer to something, whatever it may be. As for Watson’s football fate, go read Pro Football Network and Rivers McCown for more. There’s a chance that could get resolved as well in the next couple of months, but it seems that a lot of things would have to happen for that.

I regret to inform you that Ken Paxton may not be an honest broker

You should maybe be sitting down for this.

Best mugshot ever

The whistleblowers who sued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton after he fired them for accusing him of bribery and abuse of office are speaking out against him publicly for the first time since filing their lawsuit, in response to what they say are Paxton’s “numerous false and misleading public statements” on the campaign trail.

The four whistleblowers – former deputy attorneys general James Blake Brickman, Mark Penley, and Ryan Vassar, as well as the office’s former director of law enforcement David Maxwell – said they previously intended to stay silent about their case while it played out in the judicial system.

“Our preference was to remain silent while the wheels of justice turned, and our civil case progressed in the courts,” they said in a joint statement Monday. “However, in recent weeks, Paxton has made numerous false and misleading public statements that we feel obligated to correct.”

The whistleblowers also said they had remained quiet to respect the “ongoing FBI investigation,” indicating that a federal criminal probe into Paxton continues. The FBI has declined to comment on the matter in the past.

“The most basic qualifications of an attorney general are respect for truth and respect for the law. Ken Paxton has neither,” the whistleblowers said in their statement. “The day will come when Ken Paxton must testify under oath about his and his agency’s actions. Until then, we call on Ken Paxton to start telling the truth to the people of Texas.”

[…]

Many of what the whistleblowers call Paxton’s “misleading public statements” came during a Jan. 31 interview with conservative radio host Mark Davis about the attorney general’s race. In the interview, Paxton claimed the whistleblowers “didn’t come to him” and “didn’t explain” the issues they had with the behavior that led to their complaints. In a separate interview with conservative outlet Texas Scorecard this month, Paxton claimed the FBI had “infiltrated” his office to investigate him before the whistleblowers made their complaint.

But the whistleblowers said in their statement they approached Paxton multiple times about their concerns with his push to get involved in Paul’s affairs before reporting him to the FBI. Their whistleblower lawsuit details specific dates when the whistleblowers individually and as a group warned Paxton that his actions in legal matters related to Paul were unlawful.

They said they first reported their concerns to the FBI on Sept. 30, 2020 after they could not convince Paxton to follow the law.

“We had no previous contact with the FBI before that date and believe this was the first time the FBI became involved with the investigation of Paxton and his office,” they wrote in their statement released Monday.

The whistleblowers also took issue with Paxton’s comment on Davis’ show that “no one has ever disputed” an unsigned 374-page report generated by his office in August that exonerated him of the whistleblower’s allegations.

“This is false. Paxton’s self-exonerating report is directly disputed by the detailed allegations in the whistleblower lawsuit,” the statement read. “Unsurprisingly, Paxton’s report selectively ignored some of the most troubling allegations we reported to the FBI, like Paxton providing blatant political favors to a campaign donor – the same campaign donor who has admitted in sworn testimony to hiring a woman at Paxton’s behest, a woman with whom media reports reveal Paxton had an extramarital affair.”

The whistleblowers also blasted Paxton for accusing them of committing crimes in the Davis interview, calling his accusations “ridiculous.”

“We confronted Ken Paxton about his and his agency’s corrupt and criminal conduct, and, when he would not abide by the law, we reported him to the FBI,” they said in their statement. “Paxton is under criminal investigation, not the whistleblowers.”

Paxton also told Texas Scorecard that he still does not know the specific allegations against him. The whistleblowers said the allegations against him are clearly spelled out in their lawsuit and include: bribery, tampering with government records, obstruction of justice, harassment and abuse of office.

See here for the latest installation of the Paxton whistleblower lawsuit saga, in which he tries to get the Supreme Court to wipe the slate clean, and here and here for the incredible self-exoneration report. If only the world worked this way for all of us! (“I conducted a thorough investigation into the allegations against me, honey, and I can confirm that I did in fact take the garbage out last night.”) I realize that I am a bitter, shriveled husk of a man, but nothing on this earth will give me more joy right now than seeing the FBI perp-walk Paxton out of his office. We all do what we need to do to get through the day. The Chron has more.

Here comes that AstroWorld task force

Got to admit, I had thought this had already happened.

Three months after 10 people were killed at the Astroworld Festival at NRG Park, Houston and Harris County have named a 10-person task force to review procedures, permitting and guidelines for special events in the region.

The task force, made up mostly of city and county officials, will seek changes to ensure the city and county collaborate better on events that draw large crowds. The group plans to meet monthly, but members said Wednesday they do not know when they will release recommendations.

The officials left Astroworld unmentioned in their initial remarks, but later acknowledged the concert tragedy directly inspired the task force’s formation. Still, they insisted the group would look forward, not backward at any one event, and would not spend considerable time trying to determine what went wrong at the concert festival.

“I think anyone of us would be dishonest if we say it didn’t precipitate it. Certainly, it did,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, adding later: “This task force is going to be futuristic. The investigation into the Astroworld event continues, so we certainly do not want to impede in that investigation.”

[…]

The task force will be chaired by Susan Christian, the director of the mayor’s office of special events, and Perrye K. Turner, Sr., the deputy county administrator and the former FBI special agent in charge of the Houston division.

It will also include Houston Police Chief Troy Finner, Fire Chief Sam Peña, and Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen, as well as Steven Adelman, vice president of Event Safety Alliance; Rob McKinley, president of LD Systems, a production services company; Major Rolf Nelson of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office; Ryan Walsh, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp; and Mike DeMarco, chief show operations officer for the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

As noted in the story, Commissioners Court decided against launching an independent investigation into the disaster, opting instead to let the law enforcement investigations do that work and to conduct an internal review. It’s not totally clear to me if this task force is the fulfillment of that “internal review” item, but I suspect it is as there’s no other mention of it that I can find, in this story or via Chronicle archive search. The task force, which was put together by Mayor Turner and Commissioner Adrian Garcia, looks fine, it’s just a matter of what their scope is and when they intend to produce a report. We’ll see.

It’s not like there aren’t a bunch of other things going on that will tell us more about the tragedy and things we could or should have done differently. In addition to the law enforcement investigation and all of the lawsuits, which should produce a lot of info when and if they get to the discovery phase, there’s also a Congressional probe and an FBI website seeking input from witnesses. This task force has a different and more focused mission, and if they do their job well it should produce something worthwhile. We’ll know soon enough.

FBI seeks Astroworld info

Spill ’em if you got ’em.

The FBI has created a website that seeks information on the deadly Astroworld Festival, the Houston Police Department said Friday.

Members of the public can upload photos and video from the Nov. 5 event at NRG Park. Police said in a statement that they’re specifically looking for media from between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. “of the main venue area,” which can be uploaded at fbi.gov/astroworld.

“HPD continues to lead this investigation and we appreciate the assistance from our federal partners at the FBI,” the statement read. The federal agency has previously offered to help with the investigation.

I genuinely have no idea how likely this is to result in usable, actionable information. For that matter, it’s not really clear to me what HPD might uncover in its investigation. I think we’re more likely to learn things from the county’s internal investigation and from the various lawsuits – whichever one gets to discovery first will probably be the main source of new information. But you never know.

Paxton asks Supreme Court to toss that pesky whistleblower lawsuit

Same argument, different court. Either Ken Paxton can be held accountable, or he gets a free pass to do whatever he wants.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked the Texas Supreme Court to toss out a whistleblower lawsuit by four former officials who say they were improperly fired after accusing Paxton of accepting bribes and taking other improper acts.

Paxton told the court that his agency “enjoys … the right to fire its employees — especially employees whose political appointments require they act on behalf of the duly elected Attorney General — at will.”

Paxton also argued that he can’t be sued because the Texas Whistleblower Act was intended to protect government employees from on-the-job retaliation by another public employee.

“The Attorney General is not a ‘public employee,'” said the appeal, filed Wednesday and made public Thursday. “Like the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, and members of this Court, he is an elected officer, chosen by the people of Texas to exercise sovereign authority on their behalf.”

Paxton made similar arguments before the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, but that court allowed the lawsuit to continue, ruling in October that the whistleblower act protects government workers from being fired for making “a good-faith report of illegal conduct … by the employer.”

Interpreting the act to exclude elected officials as employers would create a substantial loophole that runs counter to the law’s purpose of improving transparency and accountability, the 3rd Court ruled.

[…]

In his appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, Paxton characterized the complaints as matters involving policy disagreements — not a good-faith report of potential crimes as required by the whistleblower act.

“Plaintiffs were political appointees of the Attorney General who were dismissed from their posts following several policy disagreements. These disagreements each regarded duties well within the Attorney General’s authority, such as whether to retain outside counsel, issue a legal opinion, investigate potentially criminal acts and intervene in pending litigation,” the appeal said.

Paxton urged the all-Republican Supreme Court to reject the whistleblowers’ “vague, conclusory and speculative allegations,” saying they do not constitute a good-faith report of wrongdoing.

Lawyers for the whistleblowers will have the opportunity to respond to Paxton’s appeal in the coming weeks.

See here for the previous update. Paxton made the same argument to the Third Court, while also arguing that none of the whistleblowers had actually accused him of a crime, which meant they weren’t really blowing the whistle. I’m sure the plaintiffs will mostly repeat their earlier arguments as well. As for what the Supreme Court will do, or when they might do it – I for one will not be shocked if they wait until after the election – your guess is as good as mine. Reform Austin and KVUE have more.

It would seem that the San Marcos Police Department has some major problems

Geez.

The city of San Marcos admits in new court documents to text exchanges among its police officers about the Joe Biden bus incident in October 2020.

But it denies what it calls a “characterization” of the exchanges by the original complainants.

In documents filed in federal court Dec. 30, attorneys for the defendants denied almost all of the 173 allegations laid out in the original complaint. The defendants include the city’s public safety director, Chase Stapp; an assistant police chief, Brandon Winkenwerder; a police corporal, Matthew Daenzer; and the City of San Marcos.

In the lawsuit, which originally was filed in June 2021 by campaign staffers and volunteers for then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, the plaintiffs say the Police Department refused to provide a police escort or assistance for their campaign bus after it was surrounded by a pro-Trump caravan on Interstate 35 in October 2020.

The lawsuit alleges that Biden staffers called 911 and “begged” for help from police, but the police “privately laughed and joked about the victims and their distress, including by calling them ‘tards,’ making fun of a campaign staffer’s ‘hard’ breathing, and retorting that they should just ‘drive defensively’ or ‘leave the train.’”

Attorneys for the campaign staffers and volunteers obtained text messages via a public records request between Stapp, Winkenwerder, Daenzer and other police officers that they said showed the officials mocking and laughing at the bus occupants.

In the defendants’ response to the complaint filed last week, attorneys for Stapp, Winkenwerder, Daenzer and the city denied almost all the allegations in the lawsuit or said that they did not have enough “knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief” about them.

They did admit that the text exchanges occurred, but they denied the “characterization of the communication” contained in the complaint.

In one text exchange, an officer asked “did Kamala show?” — a reference to Biden’s vice presidential running mate, Kamala Harris — and another officer answered, “no, just a couple other yards,” which the plaintiffs’ lawyers claim was a misspelling of his intended word, “tards.” Lawyers for the city denied that characterization.

In another text, Stapp said: “from what I gather, the Biden bus never even exited I-35 thanks to the Trump escort.” Lawyers for Stapp and the city admitted that text was factual.

See here and here for the background. I have nothing against the city of San Marcos, but they have a real problem on their hands, and they need to do something about it. The trial is scheduled for November. I’ll be rooting very hard for the plaintiffs. The Current has more.

Indictments and guilty pleas in FBI investigation of former HISD officials

Woof.

A former top Houston ISD official and vendor were indicted Thursday in connection with an alleged bribery scheme over the last decade that federal prosecutors estimate cost the district millions of dollars and resulted in plea agreements with at least five other former district officials, including a former president of the district’s Board of Education.

Federal authorities arrested former Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby, 43, and contract vendor Anthony Hutchison, 60, both of Houston, on Thursday, hours before their initial court appearance. Both men pleaded not guilty to all counts and were expected to be released under conditions that include no contact with current and former HISD employees with the exception of Busby’s wife, who prosecutors said has filed for divorce.

Prosecutors accused Busby of helping award HISD construction and grounds maintenance contracts to Hutchison in return for cash bribes and hundreds of thousands of dollars in home remodeling, according to a 26-count indictment unsealed Thursday.

“This investigation and resulting indictments reflect my office’s commitment to rooting out public corruption,” Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery said in a statement. “We will not stand idly by when there are people in positions of trust who are suspected of such wrongdoing.”

Dick DeGuerin, Busby’s lawyer, denied any wrongdoing by his client.

“For most of his adult life, Brian Busby has been a loyal employee of HISD, rising from the lowest employment to chief operating officer,” DeGuerin said. “He has never taken a penny from any contractors or any illegal money — ever. I am sure that a fair jury will find him innocent.”

[…]

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who served two terms as HISD trustee between 2012 and 2019, and as board president in 2015 and 2018, was among the former officials charged in connection with the alleged bribery scheme and pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. She currently serves as a Houston Community College Trustee. It was not clear Thursday whether she would have to resign or be fired. A spokesman for the college did not respond to a request for comment.

She also worked for Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ community and government affairs team until Thursday.

“The news today came as a shock to us, and we never had any indication of such inexcusable wrongdoing during her time at Precinct One,” Ellis’ office said in a statement. “Upon learning of this news today, her employment was immediately ended.”

Attempts by the Chronicle to contact Skillern-Jones, as well as the other former officials who entered plea agreements, were unsuccessful Thursday.

Those other former employees were identified by prosecutors as Derrick Sanders, 50, Missouri City, officer of construction services; Alfred Hoskins, 58, Missouri City, general manager of facilities, maintenance and operations; Gerron Hall, 47, Missouri City, area manager for maintenance; and Luis Tovar, 39, Huffman, area manager for maintenance.

Sanders had joined Aldine ISD in September 2020 and voluntarily resigned Oct. 22, school officials there said.

Saying he was “extremely outraged,” HISD Superintendent Millard House II, who began leading the largest public school district in Texas in July, told the Chronicle he had ordered a review of the internal team and systems for contracting and vendors, as well as an external review of the district’s procurement procedures before he was even made aware of the charges. He said he had made changes “to make sure everyone on my staff knows it is a new day inside HISD.

“I am outraged. Outraged that we’re talking about this. Outraged how adults who are supposed to be working for the public trust may have taken money from children,” House said. “In my 26 years as an educator — in Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee — I have never seen such a failure. As a parent, as a teacher, as a taxpayer, I promise you – HISD will do everything in its power to never be vulnerable to this kind of alleged misconduct again.”

He added: “I will not be deterred by 10 years of corruption, waste, and fraud that came before me. My team did not create this problem, but we will solve it. Permanently.”

See here for the background. The Chron’s editorial board ripped into Skillern-Jones for her role in this debacle. I wish Superintendent House all the best in cleaning up whatever remains of this mess. And a note to the other HCC Board members: You should probably try to get Trustee Skillern-Jones to resign from that position.

On a completely tangential note, the story that the FBI raided Brian Busby’s house was in late February of 2021, so about 21 months ago. There’s another FBI probe of interest happening in this state, and it began in November/December of last year, or about 12-13 months ago. Just offering that data point as some perspective on how long it can take for these things to go from beginning to indictment, in case your mind works like mine does.

UPDATE: Rhonda Skillern-Jones has resigned as HCC Trustee. Good. The HCC Board will name a replacement for her, with that person having to run again in 2023.

Deshaun Watson not traded

He’s still with the Texans at least though the end of the year.

If quarterback Deshaun Watson had been able to settle the 22 civil lawsuits before the NFL’s trade deadline on Tuesday, he would be leaving Houston for Miami, his preferred destination.

Because Watson was unable to reach settlements, he’ll still be on the Texans’ roster rather than playing for the Dolphins. The next time teams can make trades is when the new league year begins in March.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, general manager Chris Grier and coach Brian Flores have coveted Watson for months. The Texans thought they had a deal almost two weeks ago, but Ross insisted that Watson settle the civil suits accusing him of sexual assault and misconduct, according to sources familiar with the trade negotiations.

Watson, who has a no-trade clause in the four-year, $156 million contract he signed in September of 2020, told the Texans months ago he would not accept a trade to any team other than Miami. It’s known that he rejected a possible trade to Philadelphia.

Sources said Watson didn’t want to reach financial agreements with his accusers because he thought it would be an admission of guilt, but as the deadline approached and Miami’s interest intensified, he relented.

The sources said when Watson agreed to settlement discussions late last week, there wasn’t enough time for his attorney, Rustin Hardin, and Tony Buzbee, who represents the plaintiffs, to reach agreements with all 22 accusers.

See here for the background. I don’t care much about that, but I am interested in this.

The most recognizable of 22 women who accused Watson of unwanted sexual contact, [Ashley] Solis said she has endured death threats, an unexplained break-in and a stream of fake epithet-ridden web reviews of her business since she sued earlier this year.

Solis, 28, is the only plaintiff who agreed to be photographed and named publicly. She is also among 10 women who spoke with NFL investigators, answering every question they posed, said Tony Buzbee, the lawyer who represents the women in civil suits against the Texans quarterback.

Solis recalled that her NFL interview several months ago seemed brief — about an hour — and included questions that surprised her, including one about what clothing she was wearing. She hasn’t heard back.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has said he still can’t make the call on Watson’s culpability. He told NFL owners last week, “We don’t think we have the necessary information to place him on the exempt list.”

[…]

Solis said she met with a woman from the sexual assault division at the NFL sometime before June.

“It just overall wasn’t a great experience,” Solis said. “She said, ‘Tell me how he assaulted you. What did he do? What did it feel like?’”

Solis said she didn’t feel there was empathy in the encounter.

“She asked me what I was wearing.”

They said they’d get back to her. She hasn’t heard anything since.

Her family and friends support her, but she said she’s had minimal support from the public. She likened herself to a piñata that keeps getting beaten and beaten at a party.

“It’s been very, very stressful.”

“I’ve had a series of events take place from people creating fake accounts to slander my business, writing fake Google reviews, to finding me on my business social media and giving me death threats and wishing terrible, terrible things on me,” she said. “I’ve had a break-in at my studio a few days after I went public. I’ve had strangers approach me telling me to stop lying.”

Solis has no qualms about seeking compensation because the Watson incident has decreased the number of clients she can see and she is now undergoing therapy.

Solis said she has no choice but to continue with body work, she said, noting, “I don’t have (a) degree in anything else.”

She no longer accepts new male clients unless someone can vouch for them.

I don’t know what will happen here. Maybe Ashley Solis will accept a settlement offer, and maybe that will help her get at least the financial part of her life back on track. Maybe people will think Deshaun Watson is guilty if his alleged victims agree to settlements, and maybe we’ll all have forgotten about it the next time he does something cool on the football field. I find I care much more about Ashley Solis’ future than I do Deshaun Watson’s.

Trump Train lawsuit update

San Marcos Police Department, wyd?

As supporters of then-President Donald Trump surrounded and harassed a Joe Biden campaign bus on a Central Texas highway last year, San Marcos police officials and 911 dispatchers fielded multiple requests for assistance from Democratic campaigners and bus passengers who said they feared for their safety from a pack of motorists, known as a “Trump Train,” allegedly driving in dangerously aggressive ways.

“San Marcos refused to help,” an amended federal lawsuit over the 2020 freeway skirmish claims.

Transcribed 911 audio recordings and documents that reveal behind-the-scenes communications among law enforcement and dispatchers were included in the amended lawsuit, filed late Friday.

The transcribed recordings were filed in an attempt to show that San Marcos law enforcement leaders chose not to provide the bus with a police escort multiple times, even though police departments in other nearby cities did. In one transcribed recording, Matthew Daenzer, a San Marcos police corporal on duty the day of the incident, refused to provide an escort when recommended by another jurisdiction.

“No, we’re not going to do it,” Daenzer told a 911 dispatcher, according to the amended filing. “We will ‘close patrol’ that, but we’re not going to escort a bus.”

The amended filing also states that in those audio recordings, law enforcement officers “privately laughed” and “joked about the victims and their distress.”

Former state Sen. Wendy Davis, who was running for Congress at the time, is among the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The new complaint also expands the number of people and entities being sued to include Daenzer, San Marcos assistant police chief Brandon Winkenwerder and the city itself.

See here for the background. The whole story is infuriating, ridiculous, and scary – I mean, it’s political violence that at least one law enforcement agency chose to just shrug off. It’s the sort of thing that Republicans spent the 80s warning us was happening in countries that the Soviet Union was trying to influence. There’s been very little accountability of any kind for this type of activity, and maybe the civil courts aren’t the best venue for exacting any, but it’s what we’ve got right now. I sure hope the plaintiffs can make it happen.

A brief meditation on the Deshaun Watson situation

Let us pause for a moment and contemplate this John McClain column about the likely football fate for the Texans’ soon-to-be-former star quarterback.

Deadlines have a way of initiating action, and if the Texans are going to ship quarterback Deshaun Watson to Miami or another team, they better do it by the NFL’s trade deadline on Nov. 2 at 3 p.m.

If Watson is still on the roster after the deadline passes, the Texans will have to wait until the start of the new league year in March to reopen negotiations on a trade that probably wouldn’t happen until close to the draft that begins April 28.

[…]

Dolphins’ owner Stephen Ross has approved a Watson trade, but he wants his legal issues resolved. The only way for Watson to do that before the trade deadline would be to settle the 22 civil suits. League sources say Watson doesn’t want to settle his cases because he believes it would be an admission of guilt.

Before a deal can be completed, Ross would have to find out from commissioner Roger Goodell if Watson would be suspended under the personal conduct policy, and if so, how many games he would miss.

[…]

At the league meetings on Tuesday, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, Troy Vincent, told reporters that, in the event of a trade, it would be up to Goodell to decide if Watson would be available to play for his new team right away.

“We don’t think we have the necessary information to place him on the exempt list,” Goodell said. “We don’t have all the access to that information and (we) pride ourselves on not interfering with it. That process is ongoing.”

Watson could be suspended, or he could be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list. Watson is being paid his $10.54 million base salary to report to the Texans each day and be inactive on game days. The exempt list is a paid vacation for the player, who can’t be part of the team and has to work out on his own.

If Goodell didn’t place Watson on the exempt list at the start of the Texans’ training camp, it’s unlikely he would do it after a trade.

Emphasis mine. The main takeaway here, for those who don’t care about the football angle, is that we may get a sudden and almost certainly confidential resolution to this whole sordid mess. There are some criminal complaints and an FBI investigation as well, but the former at least could be dropped as part of a settlement agreement. There will be some loud protest in Miami or Charlotte or wherever Watson gets traded, if that does happen, and it will fade away over time as we get distracted by more pressing matters. And then that will probably be that. I don’t know exactly how I feel about all this, but it’s not a good feeling. The Ringer and Rivers McCown have more.

(The fact that the Texans will undoubtedly screw up the draft picks they’ll get in the trade because they’re a terrible organization with a shitheel owner is a side matter.)