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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.)

Third Court rejects Paxton attempt to kill whistleblower lawsuit

Good.

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A state appeals court found Thursday that former deputies of Attorney General Ken Paxton who were fired after accusing the Republican official of abusing his office are protected under the state’s whistleblower law, allowing their lawsuit against Paxton to proceed.

Paxton’s lawyers had argued in court that he’s exempt from the Texas Whistleblower Act because he’s an elected official, not a public employee. But the court upheld a previous lower court decision that denied Paxton’s attempt to dismiss the case.

In its opinion, Texas’ 3rd Court of Appeals rejected the attorney general’s interpretation of the Texas Whistleblower Act, “which would have the effect of stripping whistleblower protections from employees who might report misconduct by the thousands of elected officials throughout the State — particularly by those who direct and lead the agencies of this State.”

[…]

In its opinion, the court wrote that the former employees “sufficiently alleged illegal conduct by their employing governmental entity as contemplated by the Act” and disagreed with Paxton’s characterization of the whistleblower law, writing that while “Texas is an employment-at-will state,” the act “provides an exception to that general rule.”

“Although loyalty and confident are important considerations in employment matters,” it wrote, “the Act provides that a State employer cannot fire an employee because he reports illegal conduct by the employer, even when it is that act of reporting that causes the employer to lose confidence or feel the employee lacks loyalty.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the ruling. The justices seemed pretty skeptical of Paxton’s argument at the hearing, so this is no surprise. Paxton could ask for an en banc hearing or he could appeal to the Supreme Court. The former means another couple of months that the lawsuit is on ice, but the odds of success are low. The latter is more likely to get a favorable ruling for Paxton, but if he loses he’s out of options and we move on to the next phase. I’m guessing he would rather avoid discovery, because it seems very likely that a weasel like Paxton has stuff to hide, so we’ll see if he decides to draw it out or not. Maybe, if we’re very lucky, we’re a step closer to Ken Paxton facing a bit of accountability for once in his life. The Chron has more.

Appeals court appears skeptical about Paxton’s whistleblower defense

As well they should be.

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A panel of Texas 3rd Court of Appeals justices expressed skepticism of an argument from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawyers on Wednesday that he is exempt from the state’s whistleblower act because he’s not a public employee and a case against him should be thrown out.

Former Paxton deputies in the Office of the Attorney General claim in a whistleblower lawsuit that they were fired for reporting alleged crimes by Paxton to law enforcement. Paxton’s lawyers are trying to get the case dismissed and asked the appeals court to throw out the case on the grounds that Paxton is not subject to the whistleblower law. A lower court denied Paxton’s motion to dismiss the case in March.

Barely a minute into oral arguments, Justice Chari L. Kelly began questioning Solicitor General Judd E. Stone II, who is representing Paxton in the suit.

“Isn’t the action of every employer at the OAG’s office an action by the employee governmental agency?” Kelly said.

Justice Gisela D. Triana questioned Stone’s argument that all elected officials are exempt from the whistleblower law and Chief Justice Darlene Byrne asked whether his interpretation would give Texas Supreme Court justices immunity from sexual harassment claims from their employees.

Stone said employees filing sexual harassment claims would have other avenues for relief outside the whistleblower law, but argued that the attorney general as an elected official cannot be sued under the law, which covers public employees, appointed officials and governmental entities.

[…]

Stone argued that barring the attorney general from firing employees when they disagree with legal positions or have lost his trust would be an infringement on the elected official’s power.

But Kelly questioned that argument and nodded to claims by the whistleblowers’ lawyers that Paxton is a public employee because he receives checks from the state and participates in its retirement system, and that he acts as the entity because he is its titular head.

“If he can go in and change any decision internally … If he truly has the power to have the last say on anything that comes out of the agency. How is he not the agency?” she asked.

Stone said the justices should interpret the law as it was written, which did not include elected officials in the text of those who can be sued on whistleblower claims.

But Joe Knight, who argued for the whistleblowers’ lawyers, blasted the idea that the Legislature wrote a statute meant to ensure public employees complied with the law and then exempted elected officials without explicitly saying so. He said the drafting of the law in such a way would be “strange and unlikely,” and said the “Legislature does not hide elephants in mouseholes.”

In briefings to the court, the whistleblowers’ lawyers said when lawmakers intend to exempt elected officials from being labeled as public employees, they do so in the text of the law. The Texas Whistleblower Act does not.

The whistleblowers’ lawyers said exempting the attorney general would rob the law of its purpose to protect public employees reporting wrongdoing by government entities.

Stone also argued in briefs that the former officials did not make the reports to law enforcement authorities required to invoke whistleblower protection, and that even if they had, they reported only potential crimes, not crimes that had actually happened.

The whistleblowers’ lawyers attacked that argument, saying their clients reported their concerns to the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, the FBI, the Texas Rangers and the attorney general’s human resources office.

The lawyers also said their clients believed Paxton had already abused his office, tampered with government records, taken bribes and obstructed justice through his interactions with Paul when they brought their concerns to law enforcement.

See here, here, and here for some background. It must be noted that all three appellate court justices are Democrats, so their opinions will carry limited weight before the Court of Criminal Appeals, no matter how ridiculous Paxton’s arguments are. That’s just how it is, I don’t make the rules. No indication when the court may rule, but the initial suit was filed last November, the motion to dismiss was denied in March, and the appeal to the Third Court was made in June, so as far as that goes, we’re moving at a decent pace.

More on the Paxton self-exoneration report

More and more ridiculous.

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office refuses to release the names of the authors or the taxpayer cost of the internal report published Tuesday that concluded that whistleblowers’ accusations that Paxton broke the law were unfounded.

Yet the body of the report indicates that a key author was Paxton’s top deputy, First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster, who was hired on Oct. 5 — the same day the internal investigation was initiated and just days after seven senior officials at the agency had notified Paxton that they had reported him to law enforcement.

Webster, whose annual salary was $265,000 as of July, was hired to replace Jeff Mateer, one of the whistleblowers, who resigned Oct. 2. Webster did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

[…]

An AG spokesman, Alejandro Garcia, said Tuesday that the report was written by a group of lawyers who “were not involved in the underlying matters that were the subject of the report.” He did not respond to questions about why the office was declining to provide their names.

In response to an open records request by Hearst Newspapers, the attorney general’s office said it cannot calculate the cost to taxpayers of the 10-month internal investigation because the authors belong to the executive administration and do not keep timesheets. Lauren Downey, the agency’s public information coordinator, would not name the authors, saying the office did not have a list.

Under the General Appropriations Act, the state’s biennial budget, the office is required to “continue an accounting and billing system by which the costs of legal services provided to each agency may be determined.”

The internal report contains multiple references to Webster, including one instance in which Webster told the Travis County District Attorney’s office attorneys that he was conducting an investigation in an Oct. 8 email.

“General Paxton recently appointed me to be his First Assistant Attorney General,” he wrote. “One of my tasks is to collect our agency documents and other evidence to determine what has transpired internally with our agency … If you have any documents or email communications you are willing to release to me that would assist me in understanding what has transpired, I would appreciate it.”

Webster’s name also appears in annotations on various documents included in the report, and he is described at least five times in the report as someone asking questions of others at the agency or collecting information about whistleblower-related issues.

See here for the background. We’re not going to tell you who wrote this thing, we’re not going to tell you how much it cost to write it, and you’re just going to have to take our word on everything because we’ve established such a long track record of truthfulness and reliability. I think that about covers it.

Stop investigating yourself, you’ll go blind

There’s not enough snark on the Internet for this.

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office on Tuesday released an internal report that found that Paxton did not accept bribes and did not misuse his office to benefit his friend and campaign donor Nate Paul, despite a continuing FBI investigation of the matter.

The office did not immediately respond to questions about who completed the unsigned report, or why the office handled the matter internally, rather than hiring outside investigators to avoid a possible conflict of interest.

The bribery and abuse of office accusations were made by eight of Paxton’s top aides last fall. Four of the whistleblowers have sued Paxton for retaliating against them for reporting him to law enforcement.

“The takeaway from this internal report is that, although Ken Paxton remains under active federal investigation, the people who still work for Paxton say he did nothing wrong,” the whistleblowers’ attorneys said in a joint statement. “Of course, the one-sided internal report is full of half-truths, outright lies, and glaring omissions.”

The attorneys added that it was notable that “whoever in Paxton’s office wrote this report was not willing to put their name on it.”

The “report”, if you can even call it that, is here. The only appropriate response to this is guffaws and mockery, so I’ll start with my own.

OK, fine, a little sober skepticism is all right, too.

You can read the rest yourself. Honestly, this is one of those situations where the headline to the story tells you all you need to know. Save the self-serving BS for the appellate court and quit insulting our intelligence, please. The Trib, which has quite a few details, has more.

FBI involved in Deshaun Watson case

Never a good sign, though there might be a wrinkle in this one.

The FBI is looking into sexual assault allegations against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, according to opposing legal parties in the player’s civil court cases.

The extent of those probes remains unclear. Defense attorney Rusty Hardin on Wednesday declined to call any federal interest in the sexual assault allegations part of an “investigation,” but he said he knows definitively that one FBI investigation is underway into claims that a woman extorted Watson for money.

The high-profile defense attorney held a 20-minute news conference in direct response to recent statements by his opponent, Tony Buzbee, who said that he spoke to representatives of the federal agency.

Buzbee told the website League of Justice that the FBI appeared interested in Watson’s alleged use of the internet and interstate travel to solicit sessions from massage therapists.

Hardin said he learned Tuesday that the FBI was checking into some claims presented in the 22 civil suits filed earlier this year against Watson. He said he welcomes those federal investigations, but he simultaneously denounced Buzbee for bringing them to the media.

“He wants to leverage his civil lawsuits,” Hardin said. “He knows those lawsuits have no future in the long run. But he wants to be out there and promote himself and the lawsuits and try to get Deshaun to settle them and pay him money so he can ride into the sunset.”

Buzbee, who is representing the women suing the 25-year-old for sexual assault and harassment, denied that any of his clients were being investigated.

“I think Rusty is reaching for straws and that’s kind of silly,” Buzbee said. “God bless him, the FBI, is, not as far as I know, is not investigating the women who have been victimized. They’re investigating Deshaun Watson.”

Buzbee later clarified that he does not know whether there is an official “investigation” into Watson, but that he did speak with federal agents.

[…]

Hardin on Wednesday focused on claims that one of those women extorted Watson for money before filing a lawsuit alleging he forced oral sex. He read text messages that appeared to show the woman apologizing for her own behavior during a session.

The attorney said the FBI approached his team in April about those allegations, and Watson later spoke to the bureau about them.

Buzbee said he detected irony in Hardin’s statements about his client.

“He’s doing the best he can do, but it’s kind of sad that he’s turning it around on the women,” he said.

Hard to know what to make of this. I’m loathe to believe any claim Tony Buzbee makes, but I’d say he’s more likely to be right about what the FBI is doing than Rusty Hardin is in this case. But who knows? The FBI said nothing as per their usual policy, and whatever it is they may be doing, they’ll be done when they’re done. So we wait.

FBI looking into Constable “bachelor party sting” mess

Never a good sign.

Constable Alan Rosen

Federal investigators are probing the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office after several current and former female employees accused superiors of sexually exploiting them during undercover anti-human trafficking operations, a lawyer for the women confirmed Thursday.

Attorney Cordt Akers, who is representing several of the women, confirmed Thursday that federal investigators had subpoenaed his clients to learn more about their allegations.

“Our clients have been in full cooperation with the federal authorities in their investigation into the horrible misconduct in the Precinct 1 Human Trafficking Unit,” he said, in response to questions from the Chronicle. “The serious nature of these crimes deserves serious attention, and we are happy that this conduct will no longer go unchecked.”

FBI Spokeswoman Christina Garza declined to comment on the case.

“Per Department of Justice policy, the FBI does not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation,” she said.

[…]

In an emailed statement, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was “aware” of the allegations and “obviously concerned,” but said the lawsuit prevented her from saying anything more.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia — who has previously clashed with the constables over questions about efficiency or redundant or wasteful law enforcement operations — said the FBI “must have the opportunity to thoroughly investigate these allegations.”

“Without knowledge of specific facts, this is not a time to speculate on what may have transpired,” he said. “That being said the allegations that have been made public are extremely disturbing and these women deserve to have their allegations thoroughly investigated.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I did call for an outside investigation into this case. Not what I had in mind, but it counts. Unless something leaks, we’re not going to know any more about this until such time as the FBI finishes its business. So sit back and wait patiently, and be glad you’re not Alan Rosen right now. The Press has more.

Suing the “Trump Train”

Good.

A group of people traveling on a President Joe Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway last fall when it was surrounded and followed by former President Donald Trump’s supporters have filed a lawsuit against at least seven people who allegedly were following the bus, claiming the group violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and Texas law by organizing a “politically-motivated conspiracy to disrupt the campaign and intimidate its supporters.”

The Klan Act prevents groups from joining together to obstruct free and fair federal elections by intimidating and injuring voters, or denying them the ability to engage in political speech.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court Thursday, claims the defendants violated that law when they followed the bus, yelling death threats and streaming their activities on social media.

The plaintiffs include former state Sen. Wendy Davis, David Gins, a then-campaign staffer who now serves as deputy director for operations for Vice President Kamala Harris, Eric Cervini, another campaign volunteer, and the bus driver, Timothy Holloway. The lawsuit also states that the plaintiffs continue to suffer psychological and emotional injury from the event. The bus driver, Holloway, has been unable to drive a bus following the experience. They are asking for compensatory and punitive damages and for legal fees to be covered.

“What Defendants cannot do under the law is use force, intimidation, or threats against those with whom they disagree politically. Yet that is precisely what Defendants did by conspiring to use their vehicles as weapons to interfere with the constitutional rights of those who supported the Biden-Harris Campaign,” the lawsuit reads. “The Constitution’s guarantee of free speech, association, and assembly is empty if those rights cannot be freely exercised. And where groups are permitted to terrorize those with whom they disagree into forgoing their constitutional rights, the functioning of our democracy demands accountability.”

[…]

In an exclusive interview with the Tribune in January, Davis said she didn’t think law enforcement had taken the situation seriously enough. She said in San Antonio, police responded to a request for assistance, pushing the trucks with Trump flags back. But once they left San Antonio, the caravan once again surrounded the bus. Davis said they called 911 again in San Marcos but they could not get an officer to respond.

“They just kept saying, ‘Where are you now? Where are you now,’” Davis said in January. “We kept giving them landmark after landmark, mile marker after mile marker. … Never were we able to get anyone to come out. It was unbelievable.”

I didn’t blog about that incident at the time because there was a lot going on and there wasn’t much to add to it except inchoate anger. The Texas Civil Rights Project has a landing page for this – it appears there are two complaints, both of which have some unnamed defendants – with a one page explanation of the lawsuit and the law it has been filed under. The one pager says that the Klan Act has been “mostly unused” over the past hundred years, so who knows how a judge will view it. There is apparently still an FBI investigation of the incident, so perhaps we’ll be able to hear about what they have learned.

The Chron provides some details about the two suits.

The first of two lawsuits filed Thursday targets at least seven individuals who were driving the vehicles that surrounded the bus. The second addresses local law enforcement officers, whom the plaintiffs contend did not properly respond to the incident.

[…]

The first lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that the individuals involved in surrounding the bus violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which prohibits people from conspiring to inhibit individuals’ political speech via force, intimidation or threats.

“Plaintiffs feared the Trump Train might run the bus off the road, or that they might crash into a vehicle, wall barrier, sign, pillar, or other obstacle on or by the highway,” the lawsuit states. “They feared what the Trump Train might do if they succeeded in stopping the bus or forcing the bus off the road. Plaintiffs were terrified that someone on the bus, or someone else driving on the interstate, would be injured or killed.”

The second lawsuit claims that, as Biden staffers solicited aid from the San Marcos Police Department, they “were failed by the very officials charged with upholding both their safety and their foundational democratic rights.” The plaintiffs allege that they contacted San Marcos police with safety concerns a day in advance of their travels, and that officers declined to provide help when the bus was surrounded on the highway.

A spokesperson said last fall that the San Marcos Police Department had received a request for a police escort, but they couldn’t catch up with the vehicle before it left the city.

The lawsuit contradicts that claim, asserting that officers said they wouldn’t respond unless the campaign was “reporting a crime.”

OK then. Assuming they survive a motion to dismiss, I will be very interested to see what comes out of the discovery process, because the potential is there for this to connect to some public figures. I mean, it sure seems likely to me that what happened didn’t come as a complete surprise to various Republican campaigns and the state and county parties. I will also be interested to see if some fancy high-priced attorneys materialize for the defense. It’s surely best to keep one’s expectations low on this, but the potential is there for some accountability to be had. Here’s hoping.

Whistleblowers respond to Paxton’s appeal brief

That title is a dry way of saying that they basically accused him of lying in his filing to the 3rd Court of Appeals.

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A group of former top aides to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton reiterated in a court filing this week that they believe Paxton committed crimes while in office, and suggested that Paxton is intentionally mischaracterizing witness testimony in their whistleblower case against him for political reasons.

The aides are taking issue with a brief and a press release issued on June 2 where Paxton’s lawyers asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to throw out the case four aides filed against the state’s top lawyer in which they allege he fired them for reporting his alleged illegal behavior to federal and state authorities. Paxton, who has denied the charges, said he fired aides last year because they had gone “rogue” and made “unsubstantiated claims” against him.

Paxton’s lawyer said in June that in a trial court hearing on March 1, former First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer would not say he specifically saw Paxton commit a crime, but only that he had “potential concerns” about Paxton’s dealings with real estate developer Nate Paul. Paul is a political donor and friend of Paxton who the whistleblowers allege Paxton helped with his legal issues in exchange for personal favors.

Paxton’s lawyers argued that the appeals court should overturn a trial court decision denying the Office of the Attorney General’s plea to dismiss because the court doesn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the case.

But in a new brief filed on Monday by the whistleblowers’ lawyers, they argue Paxton’s lawyers took the exchange they cited out of context to argue Mateer never saw Paxton commit a crime. They said Mateer’s comment was in response to a specific question about whether any employees raised concerns about Paxton’s behavior in June 2020, three months before former employees reported Paxton’s behavior to law enforcement.

“This claim distorts Mateer’s testimony,” the brief states. “In fact, Mateer testified unequivocally that he believed at the time of Appellees’ FBI report—and still believes today—that Paxton committed crimes, including abuse of office and bribery.” They also point out that Mateer signed a letter on Oct. 1, 2020 that alerted the attorney general’s office that the whistleblowers had reported Paxton’s behavior to the FBI, further proving Mateer believed Paxton had violated the law.

[…]

The whistleblowers’ attorneys say the AG’s office did not accurately explain to the appeals court that Mateer’s potential concerns were specifically in response to a question about Paxton and Paul’s relationship in June 2020.

“OAG took even greater license in its [June] press release, predicting victory because its brief shows that Mateer “swore under oath that Paxton committed no actual crimes,” the lawyers wrote in a footnote in the brief. “Given the … OAG’s mischaracterization of what Mateer ‘swore under oath,’ perhaps this portion of OAG’s brief was written for an audience other than the justices of this Court.”

A lawyer in the case told The Texas Tribune they believed the press release was written for Paxton’s supporters and Texas voters, rather than to make a legal argument.

See here for the previous update. That last paragraph is both shocking and completely on brand. A press release is of course not the same thing as a legal filing, but in general judges tend to take a dim view of lawyers misrepresenting the facts. If what the plaintiffs are saying here is accurate, I would think that the Third Court justices might have some sharp words for Team Paxton. And yes, as noted in the story, that press release came out just before P Bush officially launched his challenge against Paxton. Totally coincidental, I’m sure.

The lawyers asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to consider this appeal without hearing oral arguments. If the court decides to hear arguments, the aides requested it happen as quickly as possible.

The four former aides also laid out in detail in the filing the specific instances where they believe Paxton broke the law.

We’re familiar with the outline of the charges the plaintiffs have made against Paxton, but go ahead and read on if you want to remind yourself. The reasons behind Paxton’s bizarre, corrupt actions are still unclear – one assumes that financial reward was part of it, and if the allegations about Paxton’s affair are true that likely was a factor as well – but there’s no good way to spin them if they happened as alleged. It’s hardly bold to say that Ken Paxton has no integrity, but it’s still appalling to see the things he is said to have done. And if the Third Court agrees that oral arguments aren’t needed, that would be pretty amazing as well.

Paxton appeals to 3rd Court to dismiss whistleblower lawsuit

Next stop on the train.

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In an 85-page brief filed Tuesday with the 3rd Court of Appeals, Paxton’s lawyers argue that under state law, a whistleblower must believe someone has broken the law, but the aides only reported that “they expected laws might be violated.” As a result, they argue, the court should overturn a trial court decision denying the Office of the Attorney General’s plea to dismiss because the court doesn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the case. The lawyers have repeatedly argued Paxton cannot be sued under the Whistleblower Act because he is not a public employee.

This appellate brief was made public hours before Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush is expected to announce at an event that he will run against Paxton for attorney general. Bush has made the allegations of Paxton’s former aides and separate felony securities fraud charges against Paxton a line of attack as he prepares to announce his run.

In particular, the brief states that at a March 1 hearing on the case, one of the whistleblowers who is not a plaintiff in the suit, former First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer, would not specifically state that he saw Paxton commit a crime.

“Instead, he explained he ‘had potential concerns,’ and that he and his colleagues concluded that ‘had they gone down this path, would be in a position to assist and/or cover up with what … would be a crime,’” the brief states.

“… Speculative concerns about potential future illegal activity do not fall within the [Whistleblower] Act’s narrow scope,” it states.

Mateer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement, Carlos Soltero, the attorney representing appellee David Maxwell, said the four aides are “far from ‘rogue.'”

“They did exactly what Texans would hope their public servants would do,” Soltero said. “They reported corruption to the FBI and the Texas Rangers. Now, after Paxton lost his first appeal, lost at the trial court again, he brings yet another appeal to avoid testifying like he has something to hide.”

[…]

The brief argues the plaintiffs have not provided specific proof of a bribe by Paxton or Paul, but only speculated they “might” have had business dealings.

“None of these allegations of perfectly lawful conduct come close to making out a claim for bribery,” the brief states.

See here for the update. What Paxton is claiming is that these attorneys, his former top assistants, that he fired do not have any grounds to sue him under the Whistleblower Act because they didn’t have proof that he was committing a crime at the time. They only had serious concerns that he was committing a crime, and that’s not good enough. I guess the average news consumer doesn’t have the wherewithal to understand the finer points of the legal arguments being made – in the end, if he wins he’s just going to claim he was being railroaded by a bunch of whiny liberal losers anyway – but if one tries to parse the lawyerese, it sure doesn’t paint him in the most flattering light. This isn’t a full-throated assertion of innocence, it’s a “well, actually, you can’t prove any of that, so I win”. You play the hand you’re dealt, I suppose. We’ll see what the Third Court makes of it.

What is Ken Paxton hiding?

I was almost tempted to start this post with the rhetorical “Just when you think Ken Paxton couldn’t sink any lower” gambit, but then I realized I have never thought Ken Paxton couldn’t sink any lower. Even with that, this is amazing.

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The Texas attorney general’s office is attempting to withhold all messages Ken Paxton sent or received while in Washington for the pro-Donald Trump rally that devolved into a riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Several news organizations in Texas have requested copies of the attorney general’s work-related communications. The Texas Public Information Act guarantees the public’s right to government records — even if those records are stored on personal devices or online accounts of public officials.

After Paxton’s office refused to release copies of his emails and text messages, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, The Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle, and The San Antonio Express-News are working together in an effort to obtain the documents and review Paxton’s open-records practices.

The news outlets discovered that Paxton’s office, which is supposed to enforce the state’s open records laws, has no policy governing the release of work-related messages stored on Paxton’s personal devices. It is unclear whether the office reviews Paxton’s email accounts and phones to look for requested records, or whether the attorney general himself determines what to turn over without any outside checks.

[…]

Amid a massive FBI investigation into the Capitol riot, the public has been eager to understand why and how their elected officials attended the rally. Paxton has refused to release his communications about the event, which could illuminate his real-time reaction to the riot, who booked him as a speaker for the rally and who covered his travel expenses.

As Texas attorney general, Paxton oversees an office of lawyers who determine which records are public or confidential under the law. Any government body in Texas, from police departments to the governor’s office, must seek the agency’s approval to withhold records from the public.

The Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News have requested all of Paxton’s messages from Jan. 5 to Jan. 11. Lauren Downey, the public information coordinator at the Office of the Attorney General, said she didn’t need to release the records because they are confidential attorney-client communications.

Downey sought confirmation from the agency’s open records division, arguing the messages included communications between the attorney general’s executive leadership and its criminal prosecution division to discuss litigation, as well as texts between Paxton and a lawyer in the attorney general’s office regarding “legal services to the state.”

The open records division has 45 business days to issue a ruling on whether the communications should be open to the public. That decision is pending.

James Hemphill, a lawyer and open records expert who serves as a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the records described by Downey appear to fall under confidential communications. But it’s odd, he added, that Paxton would have no other routine emails or texts during that six-day time frame that could be released.

“It would seem unusual for every single communication made by any kind of lawyer to be subject to attorney-client privilege,” Hemphill said, cautioning he hasn’t seen the records himself.

Downey also told the Chronicle that the attorney general’s office does not have any written policy or procedures for releasing public documents stored on Paxton’s personal devices or accounts.

It’s a long story involving multiple news outlets, as well as Paxton’s Utah trip during the freeze, which he appears to have been lying about. Part of the problem here is Ken Paxton’s utter contempt for the rule of law, and part of it is that there’s no obvious mechanism for holding him accountable. Filing a lawsuit may eventually result in some of this information turning up – assuming Paxton doesn’t just delete it all, while citing a data retention policy to back his actions up – but who knows how long that could take. For sure, the Republican legislature isn’t going to do anything. The voters get the ultimate say, but that’s a long way off as well, and as long as this communication is being withheld, they don’t have the full story. I know that you already know this, but Ken Paxton is the worst. See Lauren McGaughy’s Twitter thread for more.

Paxton whistleblower lawsuit can proceed

First step in a long road.

Best mugshot ever

The 3rd Court of Appeals on Friday denied a petition from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office to stop a trial court hearing in a suit filed by whistleblowers who claim they were wrongfully terminated after reporting Paxton to law enforcement for alleged bribery and other public corruption.

Attorneys for the office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but they are likely to appeal the decision to the Texas Supreme Court.

“We were pleased, but not surprised, by the 3rd Court’s ruling,” said Carlos Soltero, who represents David Maxwell, the agency’s former director of law enforcement who was fired in November. “This brings us closer to being able to move forward and present our case on the merits, which we are looking forward to doing.”

[…]

A Travis County trial court on March 1 heard a motion by Paxton’s attorneys to dismiss the case. When the judge left the issue under advisement and continued on to entertain an injunction hearing in the case, Paxton’s attorneys appealed, arguing she needed to first rule on the motion to dismiss before proceeding. The appellate court temporarily stayed all further action in the case; the stay was lifted with Friday’s order.

We know about the whistleblower lawsuit. Paxton’s response to the charges against him are that the Office of the Attorney General is not subject to the state’s whistleblower laws and thus this lawsuit is moot and should be dismissed. Travis County judge Amy Clark Meachum denied the motion to dismiss the lawsuit on March 1, and when she attempted to proceed to the next phase of the suit, which involved hearing from the plaintiffs, Paxton’s lawyers objected:

Bill Helfand, an outside lawyer hired to represent the agency in the whistleblower case, argued that the motion to dismiss raised questions about the appropriateness of the lawsuit that needed to be addressed before any other matters could be considered.

Meachum noted that she had made no ruling that could be appealed, but Helfand insisted that “diving into the substantive issues” of the case was no different from issuing a ruling denying the motion to dismiss, allowing him to file an appeal that should have ended matters until the 3rd Court of Appeals could rule.

Meachum disagreed and opened the second hearing, where for the first time a court heard from two of those who accused Paxton of misconduct.

The first was Jeff Mateer, the former second-ranking executive at the attorney general’s office who resigned Oct. 2, two days after joining six other top executives in telling FBI agents that he believed Paxton was misusing the powers of his office to help Austin businessman Nate Paul.

Mateer, a lawyer, said he stood by his accusations against Paxton, but when he was asked to discuss them, he was interrupted by repeated objections from Helfand, who said providing details would violate attorney-client privilege and get into internal office deliberations that could not be discussed in court.

Mateer also testified that the two executives who want to be reinstated to their jobs — David Maxwell, former director of the agency’s Law Enforcement Division, and Ryan Vassar, former deputy attorney general for legal counsel — had performed their jobs well when he ran the office.

The court also heard from Vassar, who was fired in November and testified that he had received no criticism of his job performance or reprimands before speaking to FBI agents last year. Vassar was in the early stages of his testimony and was set to resume Tuesday morning.

The Third Court of Appeals initially ruled for Paxton and halted any further testimony until it issued a decision. This was the decision, which will now be appealed to the Supreme Court. Remember how every little thing in the securities fraud case against Paxton got appealed all the way up to the Court of Criminal Appeals before anything could be done, which is why that case is more than five years old now? Yeah, that’s the likely situation here as well. The FBI can’t arrest his ass fast enough.

Please don’t ask us about Ken Paxton

A real profile in courage here.

Best mugshot ever

As President Joe Biden’s agenda is dealt an early blow in Texas, the embattled Republican attorney general promising more fights ahead with the new administration is getting little public support from members of his party, even as they cheer the results.

Nearly all of the more than 100 GOP lawmakers in the Texas Legislature did not respond when asked by The Associated Press if they had confidence in Attorney General Ken Paxton, who for months has been beset by an FBI investigation over bribery and abuse-of-office accusations.

At the same time, Republicans are showing no intention of using their overwhelming majority and legislative powers to confront Paxton over the coming months in the state Capitol, where lawmakers are back at work for the first time since eight top deputies for the attorney general leveled accusations against him. All eight have resigned or were fired since October.

Since then, Paxton has baselessly challenged Biden’s victory, including asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the election. And on Tuesday, he won a court order halting Biden’s 100-day moratorium on deportations, in a lawsuit filed just two days after the president was sworn in.

Now, with America’s biggest red state ready to resume the role of foil to a Democratic administration, the atmosphere surrounding Paxton in some ways resembles the peace that privately weary Republicans made with Donald Trump’s bombastic presidency — applauding the work while mostly staying silent about the surrounding turmoil.

“That’s the real measurement. That’s the real litmus test,” said Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pointed toward the deportation lawsuit and challenges last year to mail-in ballot applications around his Houston district. “Because I already know, in my case, in my county, the AG’s office made a major difference.”

The AP contacted the offices of every GOP lawmaker in the Legislature, asking if they had confidence in Paxton and whether the Legislature should act on his deputies’ accusations. Only two, Bettencourt and Rep. John Smithee, responded, both saying they had no reason to question the attorney general’s job performance and that they were waiting for the results of outside investigations.

Paxton’s budget requests may yet force Republican lawmakers to consider the exodus from his office. But so far, members of his party — who control of every lever of state government — haven’t rushed to put one of their top elected officials under a microscope.

That last paragraph is a reference to the $43 million Paxton has requested to pay outside attorneys in his lawsuit against Google. The reason he needs to pay outside attorneys is because all of the experienced senior litigators had jumped ship over the Nate Paul affair and resulting FBI investigation. It’s possible, I suppose, that Republicans in the Lege will hesitate to write that check for him, but at least they’ll have to answer questions about it and take a vote if they choose to support him. As for the rest and the shameless running and hiding that they’re all doing, this suggests to me that while they have no real intention of holding Paxton accountable for any of his actions, they want to leave themselves the wiggle room to become all righteous and shocked to discover the degree of his offenses in the event the FBI and federal prosecutors nail him with a laundry list of criminal indictments. Just remember, if and when that happens, they didn’t want to talk about it beforehand.