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Jordan and Dolcefino

I have questions about this.

Judge Darrell Jordan

Darrell William Jordan, a Harris County misdemeanor court judge, on Monday was arrested and charged with of official oppression, according to court records.

Jordan is accused of using his office to unlawfully arrest and detain Wayne Dolcefino, a private media consultant and former TV journalist.

The charge stems from an incident on June 30, 2020, when Dolcefino was jailed in contempt of court by Jordan during a hearing in Harris County Court at Law No. 16.

Jordan accused Dolcefino of attempting to interrupt proceedings in the court by demanding to interview the judge. He jailed Dolcefino after giving him repeated warnings, according to court documents.

Dolcefino was found guilty and sentenced to three days in Harris County Jail, six months of probation and a $500 fine.

Monday’s indictment accuses Jordan of wrongfully holding Dolcefino in contempt or subjecting him to summary punishment and jail without a hearing.

In a 2020 video posted on the Dolcefino Consulting Facebook page after his arrest, Dolcefino revealed that he was wearing a hidden camera during the hearing.

The video shows Dolcefino attempting to ask Jordan about public corruption complaints and public records requests he made about multiple Houston and Harris County officials. In the video, Jordan, who was holding court hearings over Zoom, told Dolcefino that he couldn’t ask questions, told him to sit down and warned him to stop interrupting proceedings.

Court records indicate that the grand jury declined to hand down felony charges related to tampering with records and retaliation.

Jordan was arrested, formally charged and released on Monday evening, he said during a short phone interview with the Houston Chronicle. He directed other questions to his attorney.

Marc Carter, Jordan’s attorney, said the case was filed with Harris County DA’s Office, who recused themselves and asked Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton to investigate the allegation.

“Judge Jordan is absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing and looks forward to his day in court,” Carter said in a statement released on Monday.

“Contempt is a power given to judges so they can maintain decorum and control court proceedings. Without it the courtroom would be chaos. Litigants, officers of the court, and jurors want judges to be able to control proceedings and when necessary exercise their contempt power.

“This prosecution, if District Attorney Brian Middleton goes forward with it, will have an absurd result and a chilling affect on a judge’s ability to maintain order in their courts. It’s absurd to think anyone can walk into a court, disrupt the proceedings and the judge of the court ends up being prosecuted. That’s not a reasonable person’s idea of justice. The DA should exercise discretion and dismiss this case,” Carter said.

My head is spinning. You might want to read this companion story that gives some background on both Judge Jordan and Wayne Dolcefino, who’s probably a much better-known name among longer-time residents.

Now then. Three basic questions:

1. Contempt of court is a basic power that judges have. Any power can be corrupted, but I don’t see anything in this story that sounds like an extraordinary usage of that power. Maybe that hidden camera video is more damning than the story suggests, I don’t know. If I didn’t know anything else about this, I’d be wondering what exactly the beef was.

2. The incident in question took place two years ago. I know that investigations can take time, and I know that COVID has caused backlogs in the court system. But seriously, two years? What in the heck caused this to take so long to get to this point?

3. You may be wondering why Kim Ogg farmed this out to the Fort Bend County DA. My answer when I first read this is because Wayne Docefino worked for her campaign in both 2014 and 2016 – I saw him and talked to him at a couple of campaign events, and I have some press releases and other things that he sent out in my mailbox from that time. The second story indicates that Ogg and Dolcefino apparently had a falling out after that, which just makes this all messier. Whatever the merits of the case against Jordan, Ogg’s recusal was clearly the right thing to do.

At this point, I have no idea what else to say. I’m going to wait and see what happens. If you have some inside scoop on this, by all means please let me know.

DAs are not going to be able to avoid enforcing anti-abortion laws

I appreciate the sentiment, but that’s not how it works.

Even before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday, local prosecutors in several of the largest Texas counties vowed not to file criminal charges in abortion-related cases, seemingly offering hope for those seeking a way around the state’s impending abortion ban.

But those counties are unlikely to serve as abortion safe havens in post-Roe Texas, legal experts and abortion rights advocates say, largely because clinics still face the threat of legal retribution even in counties with sympathetic district attorneys. And the penalty for those who continue offering the procedure is steep — up to life in prison and at least $100,000 in fines under Texas’ so-called trigger law, which will soon outlaw nearly all abortions, starting at fertilization.

While Attorney General Ken Paxton cannot unilaterally prosecute criminal cases unless authorized by a local prosecutor, he is free to do so for civil matters anywhere in Texas. That means district attorneys may shield clinics and physicians from the trigger law’s criminal penalty of a first- or second-degree felony, but Paxton could still target them for six-figure civil fines, said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a law professor at the University of Houston.

She also noted that abortion providers could be found criminally liable if an incumbent district attorney reconsiders or is replaced by a successor who wants to pursue abortion-related charges.

The trigger law, which takes effect 30 days after a Supreme Court judgment overturning Roe v. Wade, makes no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, nor for severe fetal abnormalities. It carries narrow exemptions for abortion patients placed at risk of death or “substantial impairment of a major bodily function.”

Still, some prosecutors could begin pursuing criminal charges immediately based on Texas statutes that pre-dated Roe but were never repealed by the Legislature, Paxton said Friday. Those laws prohibit all abortions except “for the purpose of saving the life of the mother.”

In any case, it’s unlikely that abortion providers will take the risk. They are already bound by the state’s six-week abortion ban, which allows people anywhere in the country to sue providers or those who help someone access the procedure in Texas after fetal cardiac activity is detected. Successful litigants win damages of at least $10,000 under the law.

We’ve discussed this before. There are things that cities and individuals can do to hinder law enforcement or prosecutorial efforts to enforce anti-abortion laws, but one way or another they are going to be enforced, very likely via increasingly intrusive and draconian means. If somehow local DAs refuse to pursue cases, the Lege will change the law to go around them, either to the Attorney General or to neighboring counties – Briscoe Cain is already planning to file bills to that effect. We can’t succeed at this level. The only way to fight it is to have power at the state level, and that’s going to mean winning statewide races and/or winning enough seats in the Lege to take a majority in the House. Even that is at best a defensive position – we are not taking over the Senate, not even in the most wildly optimistic scenario I can imagine – but it’s the best we can do, and it would definitely reduce the harm that is otherwise coming.

One more thing:

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg also slammed the Supreme Court decision, arguing that the “criminalization of reproductive health will cause great harm to women in America.” While she added that “prosecutors and police have no role in matters between doctors and patients,” she stopped short of a blanket vow to not prosecute alleged violations of state abortion laws.

“As in every case, we will evaluate the facts and make decisions on a case-by-case basis,” said Ogg, a Democrat.

I’m including this because as far as I can tell it’s the first time Ogg has spoken publicly about the coming anti-abortion enforcement wave. I seriously doubt that Kim Ogg will want to pursue any cases that are filed with her office, but I also doubt that she’ll just ignore them. Maybe she’ll take a broad “prosecutorial discretion” stance, but again, if she does and if nothing changes with the November elections, that discretion will be taken away from her. There just isn’t much she or anyone in her position can do about this. We need to be clear about that.

Too much Deshaun Watson news

The lawsuit counter ticks up again.

The official number of lawsuits pending against Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson will indeed increase to 26.

Attorney Tony Buzbee tells Josh Voight of WEWS in Cleveland that two more women will be suing Watson.

Buzbee said that one of the plaintiffs came to him via a referral from a lawyer in Atlanta. The other plaintiff saw last month’s feature regarding the allegations on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.

So how many more will there be? Last week, Jenny Vrentas of the New York Times reported that Watson got massages from at least 66 women in a 17-month period. The 24th lawsuit against Watson, filed last week, contends that Watson received more than 100 massages from “random strangers” he found on Instagram.

Seems to me we can’t answer that question just yet. Not until we know what the total number of women who could plausibly sue him is. And that number, no one (except maybe Watson himself) has any idea what it is.

Speaking of which, Watson could certainly do more to make this all stop, if he wanted to.

“I just want to clear my name,” Watson said, explaining that he wants to let the facts come out in a court of law. This means that, for now, he intends to keep fighting these cases. All of them. The 24 already filed. The two more to come. And any others that may eventually be filed.

The process will take time. None of the cases will go to trial until after March 1, 2023. And, without settlements, 26 trials will take a lot of time. The cases likely will linger into 2024. Depending on the final number of cases filed, the trials might not end until 2025.

Watson also was asked about the contention (not a report, but a contention) from one of the lawsuits that he offered $100,000 to each of the plaintiffs last year.

“There was a process that was going on back in November with another organization,” Watson said, without specifically addressing whether settlement offers were made to resolve the cases so that he could be traded to Miami. However, his lawyer, Rusty Hardin, already has said publicly that the Dolphins wanted the cases to be resolved before a trade would happen, and that an effort was made to do so.

Watson was asked whether he stands by his statement from March that he has “no regrets” about what happened.

“I think that question kind of triggered a lot of people,” Watson said, explaining that he was saying he never assaulted, disrespected, or harassed anyone. He acknowledged that he does regret the impact of the existence of the various cases has had on “many” people.

And what of the report from the New York Times that Watson received massages from at least 66 women in a 17-month period? Is that number accurate?

“I don’t think so,” Watson said, before deferring to his lawyers.

I don’t know what happened between Deshaun Watson and all these women. I do know that it’s impossible to believe that nothing untoward happened.

At some point, the NFL needs to decide what it believes.

Last month, Deshaun Watson‘s lawyer said they expect to hear something from the NFL in June. As of tomorrow, June is already halfway over. And there’s no indication that the league is ready to do anything.

Then again, there rarely is any such indication of what the league will do, until the league does it. If the league will be trying to suspend Watson without pay to start the 2022 season, time is of the essence.

Remember, it’s a three-step process. First, the league office proposes discipline. Second, the Disciplinary Office (retired judge Sue L. Robinson) evaluates the case, conducts a hearing (if she deems it necessary), and makes a decision. Third, unless Judge Robinson decides to impose no discipline at all (which would end the process), the Commissioner handles the appeal. His decision is final.

It will take time for the second and third steps. At the latest, it needs to be resolved before Week One. Ideally, the Browns will have an answer before the start of training camp. (Then again, the Browns can’t complain about the current uncertainty; they made this bed.)

With two more lawsuits to be filed, pushing the total to 26, and with no indication as to what the final tally will be, it’s making more and more sense for the NFL to press pause on Watson’s career via paid leave, letting him focus on putting these 26 cases (and counting) behind him for good.

That is a thing the league could do. I’m sure the league would like to see these stories end.

I will say again: The longer this goes on, the worse it looks.

A Houston police detective testified this week that she believed Deshaun Watson committed crimes after investigating 10 criminal complaints against him, according to a pretrial deposition transcript obtained by USA TODAY Sports.

The detective, Kamesha Baker, said she expressed her opinion to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. But she wasn’t called to testify before the grand jury in Harris County, Texas, and doesn’t know why the grand jury didn’t indict the Cleveland Browns quarterback on criminal charges. She said she believed Watson committed criminal indecent assault, sexual assault and prostitution in cases where money was exchanged and there was consensual sex.

“Did you feel confident that you had the evidence needed to pursue those charges?” Baker was asked in the deposition.

“Yes,” Baker said.

“And was there any doubt in your mind as the investigating officer that a crime had occurred?”

“No,” Baker said.

Baker testified in a pretrial deposition for the civil litigation against Watson in Houston, where he has been sued by 24 women who have accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions in 2020 and early 2021. Eight of those women also filed complaints with Houston police about Watson’s conduct, in addition to two other women who filed police complaints who have not sued Watson in civil court.

That one of the detectives involved believed this is perhaps not surprising. It doesn’t mean it’s true. The point is, there is still a lot we the public don’t know about these cases. And like I said, the more we find out, the worse it all looks. Sean Pendergast has more.

How will abortion bans be enforced?

The good news is that anti-abortion zealots don’t yet know how they’re going to force women to give birth. The bad news is we cannot count on that to continue to be true.

Right there with them

It took next to zero effort for pandering Republican state legislators to obtain cut-and-paste, ALEC-generated laws banning and criminalizing all abortions in their states, then brag and fundraise after such laws were passed by a willing Republican governor. But now that the Supreme Court is apparently set on overruling Roe v. Wade, the much harder part—as Republicans are about to find out—is figuring out how such laws terrorizing pregnant people will actually work in practice.

How do you go about catching and punishing someone who violates these laws? What tools of law enforcement will be necessary? How do you collect the evidence necessary for a prosecutor to charge someone with “aiding and abetting” an illegal abortion, for example? Can you dangle a lesser sentence if they agree to confess or cooperate against the suspect? And once the unrepentant offender has been apprehended, what sort of forensic examination methods or interrogation techniques should be utilized to prove their “crime?” Under what conditions?

[…]

None of the states that provide “exceptions” in cases, for example, involving rape or incest, or to protect the health and life of the mother could provide any guidance as to how such determinations would be made. As Einbinder and Kaskins point out, nearly two-thirds of rapes go unreported, so what type of evidence would be required to apply such an exception? Idaho, Mississippi, and Utah require that the rape be reported to law enforcement before an abortion will be “permitted,” while other states do not. Do prosecutors expect the rapist to voluntarily confirm his behavior?

And what type of medical testimony would be sufficient to establish that a person’s life was actually threatened by their pregnancy? Would there exist a ready cottage industry of experts used by prosecutors to rebut such a claim? Would doctors in a state that provides no such exception be forced to simply sit and watch the pregnant person die?

As Einbinder and Kaskins observe, no one in any of these states so eager to criminalize reproductive choices seems to know the answers to any of these questions. Most of Insider’s requests yielded no records (one district attorney from Shelby County, Tennessee, called their inquiries “political grandstanding”), or were met with bland statements that the agency was not involved in “enforcement”.

It seems clear to me that a big part of the playbook is just having laws that criminalize abortion in whatever form on the books. As we know from the SB8 experience, that by itself serves to intimidate and scare many women away from exploring whatever options they may still have, and also incentivizes fellow zealots to rat out anyone they suspect of engaging in behavior they don’t like – remember, it was someone involved in Lizelle Herrera’s medical care that reported her to law enforcement. If that’s not enough, the next step will be to make it easier for law enforcement to investigate the women in question, which will necessarily mean invasive searches of medical records, Internet and phone records, and who knows what else. Just look at the DFPS investigations of the families of trans kids for a preview of what that might resemble.

It’s likely that at least at first, enforcement of new anti-abortion laws will be uneven, as prosecutors will exercise their discretion as they can. The current Bexar County DA has already said he won’t prosecute abortion cases, and he won’t be alone in that. But DAs can lose elections, and with Ken Paxton actively seeking to bulldoze over DAs who refuse to go along with his agenda, authorizing the AG to pick up these prosecutions will be on the agenda if the zealots deem it necessary. There are no norms or traditions or existing laws that will stop them.

There do remain some ways for blue cities and suburbs to put up resistance even with all that.

Data. Immigration sanctuary cities responded to shifts in federal law during the Trump administration with a data management strategy. Do you need someone’s immigration status? If not, don’t write it down or put it in a database. Local hospitals, whether in red or blue states, should carefully consider what kind of records they must keep about people accessing care related to abortion or miscarriage, along with other kinds of soon-to-be-banned care. County hospitals can also commit to objecting to subpoenas requesting medical records, and instead force courts to compel their cooperation. They can choose not to question a patient’s narrative; they can decline to allow police to question a hospitalized patient.

Nonprosecution. Progressive district attorneys have won election in cities across the country in recent years, including in red states. Some in red states have already said they will refuse to prosecute criminal cases involving abortion. We need to demand that progressive prosecutors nationwide use their broad discretion to decline to prosecute doctors and patients for accessing abortion, for “suspicious” miscarriages, and for using types of birth control outlawed by state abortion laws that mistake pregnancy prevention for pregnancy termination. Even in states like Texas and Florida, it is often local elected prosecutors who will be making those determinations, at least for now.

On the flip side, advocates should be partnering with civil liberties organizations to scrutinize local police departments’ use of big data technologies, which could be used to identify and locate those who have accessed abortion care. Some cities, such as Oakland, California, have privacy task forces that must approve any new technology used for surveillance purposes. Such government bodies could, for example, refuse to approve any technology that makes use of data from period- or fertility-tracking apps. Cities might also consider directing their own police departments not to run searches of residents’ internet searches related to health care.

With the right resources, public libraries could also provide a space for residents to search for information related to self-managed abortion without leaving a search history on their personal devices. Blue cities in red states could provide funds to advertise the availability of library computers, purchase more devices if needed, and even set up the physical space in a way that affords computer users some degree of privacy.

Advice. Another important role cities play is giving advice to their agencies and hospitals and to the public at large. Cities can advise OB-GYNs concerned about their own vulnerabilities, particularly given laws that seek to criminalize routine care even when performed out of state and to deputize citizens to sue health care providers. These localities should develop a clear channel for providers to ask questions about how best to protect themselves while still providing care. Many local governments already have systems in place for disseminating information. During the pandemic, cities have used websites, automated texts, central phone lines, and more to make rapidly changing information and guidance available about COVID-19. Drawing on these strategies, local librarians and public health departments can play an important role in providing information about self-managed abortions. Cities need to think about how their employees might provide guidance, such as by handing out informational pamphlets or via websites and transit ads, and explore strategies for protecting employees and residents alike from liability.

These are all good ideas, but we’ve already seen in Texas that the Republican legislature and state leadership will not let cities stand in their way of anything. As long as they have the power to pass laws that overrule local ordinances or compel cities to do things, they will. It always comes back to the same truth that until we change who’s in charge of the state, we’re not going to be safe from this kind of abuse. We can brainstorm and strategize all we want, and we will have to for at least the short term, but in the long term that’s a losing battle. Winning more elections is the only way forward.

Grand jury indicts three Hidalgo aides

Not great.

Three Harris County staffers at the center of a mounting investigation into a since-canceled vaccine outreach contract have been indicted with misuse of official information and tampering, according to district clerk records.

Aaron Dunn, Wallis Nader and Alex Triantaphyllis face one felony count on each of the charges. Warrants for their arrest have been issued. Documents elaborating on the charges were not yet available on the district clerk’s website.

Lawyers for at least two of the defendants professed their innocence Monday as the charges were made public.

“Aaron Dunn is innocent — he has been an honest public servant,” attorney Dane Ball said.

A lawyer for Triantaphyllis said she believes upcoming court proceedings will “shine a light” on the lack of wrongdoing.

“These charges against my client are unsupported by a full and objective review of the facts and the voluminous evidence in this case,” lawyer Marla Poirot said in a statement. “In his service to Harris County, Alex has made the people the top priority and worked to ensure that taxpayer resources are utilized as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

Nader’s lawyer could not be reached for comment. The three defendants are expected Tuesday in the 351st District Court.

In the months leading up to the indictments — the Texas Rangers, at the request of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, identified the three staffers in search warrants as having a role in potentially steering a vaccine outreach contract in 2021 to a vendor by giving them early access.

The three worked under County Judge Lina Hidalgo at the time of the $11 million contract, which she canceled in September amid accusations that her office manipulated the procurement process.

Dunn has since left the office, while Triantaphyllis is the judge’s chief of staff and Nader is her policy director. According to lawyers for Hidalgo and the aides, the three did not view Elevate Strategies, owned by Democratic political consultant Felicity Pererya, as a potential vendor while planning the contract, their lawyers have said. Pererya’s company ultimately won the bid.

The lawyers have argued that one of the documents outlining the outreach contract’s scope of work were sent by mistake. Another was sent as part of an unrelated project.

There are reasons to be dubious of the evidence, but once there’s a headline like this, it’s hard to shake no matter what happens next. I certainly have my doubts about these indictments. We’ll know more soon enough. That’s all I’ve got to say at this time.

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 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.

We don’t really need more prosecutors on the bench

Ugh.

Kim Ogg

On a winter afternoon nine months into the pandemic, Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg held a Zoom meeting with felony judges and prosecutors to discuss the backlog of cases caused by COVID-19 shutdowns at the downtown Houston courthouse. But the backlog wasn’t the only issue to come up that day. For years, the Democratic DA had been publicly criticizing local judges who set what she deemed insufficiently high bonds for defendants accused of violent crimes. Now her office would deliver a direct warning. First assistant district attorney David Mitcham, Ogg’s top lieutenant, informed the judges that there would be a “reckoning” if they didn’t start setting higher bonds.

“My reaction was like, ‘Wow, that was bold,’ ” said Joe Vinas, the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, who was on the call representing the criminal defense bar. “One of the judges asked if Mitcham was threatening him.”

Many in Houston’s legal community have thought back to that moment, now that fourteen Harris County prosecutors and one DA investigator have filed to run for criminal court judgeships this year—eight in Democratic primaries, seven in Republican primaries. It’s not unusual for prosecutors to run for judgeships, but the high number in this election cycle has raised eyebrows. In 2020 not a single Harris County prosecutor ran in any of the nine local criminal court races; in 2018, which featured 31 races, just one prosecutor ran. But with Ogg linking a sharp rise in homicides to the bail practices of reform-minded judges elected in recent years, perhaps it’s no surprise that so many of her prosecutors are challenging the 29 Democratic incumbents up for reelection this year.

[…]

In 2019 Harris County agreed to a sweeping set of reforms, including the elimination of cash bail for the vast majority of misdemeanor defendants. Instead, defendants would be released before trial on so-called “personal bonds,” which require no up-front payment. The landmark settlement, the first of its kind in the U.S., was endorsed by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and every other major county-wide Democratic officeholder—with the exception of Ogg, who warned that letting defendants out on personal bonds would threaten the public by giving judges “unfettered and unreviewable discretion” to delay trials or excuse defendants from ever appearing in court.

In the wake of Harris County’s settlement, Travis County also eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanor offenses. Two recent academic studies have found that this reform has been effective. Fewer defendants are now incarcerated before trial and those released on personal bonds have proven unlikely to be rearrested. But that hasn’t stopped some politicians from arguing that more lenient bail policies are endangering public safety. And Republicans, who have not won a county-wide race in Harris County since 2014, hope to capitalize on the issue to regain some judgeships and other offices in 2022.

The concerns about bail reform have been exacerbated by local and national spikes in violent crime over the past two years. Between 2019 and 2020, murders jumped by nearly 30 percent across the country—the largest year-over-year increase in at least six decades—and homicides rose again in 2021 (although the FBI hasn’t released its final data). That trend has held true for Houston: there were an estimated 469 homicides in the city last year, an increase of 71 percent from 2019. That’s still well below the 701 killings in 1981, the city’s deadliest year, when the population was nearly one million less.

Violent crimes such as assault have also increased since 2019, both nationally and in Harris County, although nonviolent crime is down. While the national homicide rate remains below its historic peak in the early nineties, the rapid increase has received intense attention in local media, with crime stories frequently leading television news. Houston’s Fox 26 features a recurring segment called “Breaking Bond”—created in collaboration with nonprofit group Crime Stoppers of Houston—about felony defendants who are rearrested while out on bail. The series regularly features prominent local Republicans blasting Democratic judges for their bail practices.

Criminologists disagree on the reason for the rising crime, but most agree that pandemic-induced frustrations, the surge in gun sales during the coronavirus outbreak, and a general police pullback in reaction to protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd have something to do with it. There’s little evidence to connect bail reform with the surge in homicides, but one notorious case last September added fuel to the argument. After judge Greg Glass set bonds of $10,000 and $20,000 for two drug charges against thirty-year-old Deon Ledet, the Harris County man went free and allegedly killed one police officer and injured another. Prosecutors had asked Glass to hold Ledet without bond because he had twice been convicted of a felony. In March, Glass (who did not respond to an interview request) faces two primary challengers, one of them a Polk County assistant district attorney; if he prevails, he’ll face one of Ogg’s Republican prosecutors in the fall general election.

There’s a lot in here to annoy me, starting with the conflation of the reforms to misdemeanor bail reform and complaints about the amounts of bail being set by felony court judges. The simple fact of the matter is that if your system allows for any possibility of bail, sooner or later someone, whether out on ten dollars bail or ten million dollars bail, is going to commit a crime. You could have a system that’s right 99.9% of the time, but given the thousands of people that go through the courts each year, that means multiple times each year when that happens. Unless your solution is to lock everyone up from the time they’re arrested until the time their case is completed in whatever fashion, no matter what the charge or their circumstances or anything else, then you need to accept this basic fact of life.

(Such a solution would be blatantly unconstitutional, of course. So is simply charging everyone more for bail, since that makes bail only accessible to the wealthy, and punishes others for being poor. Which is what the misdemeanor bail lawsuit was all about. That does introduce some risk as noted, but we’re trying to balance it against the enormous wrong of locking up people who have not been convicted of any crime. Sometimes these things don’t have simple answers.)

Look, you can read the various judicial Q&A responses I’ve published from incumbents and candidates. I’ll have run over 40 of them by the time all is said and done. I’ve no doubt some of these assistant DAs would be fine judges. But this isn’t a good look, and I’m not at all inclined to view their time in that office as a positive because of it. And speaking as someone who has voted for Kim Ogg in each of the past two primaries, I’ll be looking very carefully at my other options in 2024.

Abbott admits he can’t enforce his mask mandate ban

So what are we even doing here? Just make your mandate and move on.

Gov. Greg Abbott has been embroiled in court battles with Texas cities, counties and public schools that have defied his ban on local mask mandates. But in the urban areas where those battles are being waged, the local officials Abbott needs to enforce his ban aren’t playing ball.

Even as Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton vow to punish local government and school district officials who flout the governor’s executive order, they conceded in court documents that they actually have no power to enforce the ban.

“Neither Governor Abbott nor Attorney General Paxton will be enforcing” the order, Paxton argued in a Monday court filing in Dallas.

Since the pandemic began, Abbott has issued a flurry of executive orders, the most prominent of which have limited cities and counties from enacting measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, like mask mandates and occupancy restrictions on businesses like restaurants and retailers.

Cities, counties and school districts in the state’s major urban areas have responded with a flood of lawsuits challenging Abbott’s executive order prohibiting them from enacting mask mandates amid a surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

In a bid to convince judges to toss out those legal challenges, Abbott and Paxton claim in recent court filings that they’re not the right target because it’s up to local prosecutors to enforce Abbott’s orders.

“The Governor’s executive orders, having the full force and effect of law, are enforceable by state and local law enforcement,” spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement.

But in the state’s urban counties, those district attorneys are mostly Democrats who are unlikely to sue fellow local officials for violating Abbott’s order banning mask mandates.

“[Abbott is] saying, ‘Well, it’s not enforceable, only the DA can do it,” said Randall Erben, an adjunct law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Well, the DAs in Travis, Harris and Dallas are not going to prosecute anybody for violation of the executive order.”

In the state’s most populous county, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg doesn’t anticipate enforcing Abbott’s executive order because it’s not a criminal matter, a spokesperson said.

Abbott’s legal argument — tucked into court documents in at least five lawsuits challenging his order — has prompted some lawyers representing local governments and public schools to call out the governor and Paxton for saying one thing in public and another in the courtroom.

Yeah, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee was one of those people. This is, as the article notes later on, one hundred percent Abbott and Paxton beating their chests for the rubes. Again, never believe a word Ken Paxton says.

Two points to consider. One is that while those of us fortunate enough to live in a sufficiently enlightened county can now put whatever pressure we want on our mayors and county judges and school boards to move forward with their mask mandates, since there won’t be any criminal consequences for them and in that sense all of the ongoing litigation doesn’t really matter. But if your city or school district is not in such a place, then you really do care about what the Supreme Court will ultimately say, because your Mayor or Superintendent will be in the crosshairs otherwise. Even with a favorable SCOTx ruling, Abbott has ratcheted up the political pressure enough that it may not be worth it to them regardless. The harm they’re doing for the sake of winning the support of a depraved bunch of Republican primary voters is incalculable.

And two, this is now another example of Abbott and Paxton making “you can’t sue me” a key point of their governance. The “heartbeat” abortion ban atrocity is perhaps the highest-profile example, but Paxton’s claims that he’s exempt from the state’s whistleblower laws because he’s not a “public employee” are another, and it’s just as pernicious. It’s all about wielding power without responsibility or constraint. If trends hold to form, look for bills introduced by Republicans in the next Lege to include clauses about why the state can’t be sued by anyone who claims to have been harmed. At least, that will be the case until we have Democrats in the executive offices. At that point, it will be game on for limiting what they can do. But for now, we’re not supposed to sue them for anything because…well, just because.

No charges files in Capitol date rape drug incident

A not very satisfying resolution.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and Travis County District Attorney’s Office said Thursday “that there is not enough evidence to support” an allegation that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer and that “no crime occurred in this instance.”

“DPS has conducted a thorough investigation following allegations of drugging of a Capitol staffer by a lobbyist,” the joint statement said. “Together, we have concluded that … criminal charges are not appropriate.”

The statement did not name the lobbyist, and officials have not offered further details — including the names of anyone allegedly involved — since DPS confirmed it was investigating the allegation, as first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

Earlier this week though, after DPS confirmed it was investigating the allegation, Bill Miller, a co-founder of the prominent Austin-based HillCo Partners, told The Texas Tribune that one of its employees was “a person of interest” in the investigation.

In a statement after Thursday’s news, Miller said that neither the firm nor the employee “had absolutely anything to do with the” allegation and said “DPS found we are completely clear of any and all wrongdoing.”

“The announcement today confirms our own internal investigation into the issue,” Miller said. “We commend law enforcement for a forceful and swift investigation into this serious matter.

After news of the investigation surfaced Saturday, state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers expressed outrage, with many House members declaring that they planned to ban from their offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation. By Sunday, Buddy Jones, another co-founder of HillCo told state lawmakers in an email that the group had hired outside legal counsel and “a respected former law enforcement official” to launch an investigation into the matter.

Meanwhile, Austin lawyers David and Perry Minton, who said earlier this week they were representing a person” purportedly being looked into” for the investigation, said in a statement Thursday that the allegation was “100% false.”

“It is our opinion that the individual or individuals involved in this outrages and immoral scheme [of making the allegation] should be held accountable by their employers and then prosecuted by our new district attorney,” the two said.

See here and here for the background. You can see the full statement here. Saying there’s not enough evidence to support the allegations is not the same as saying that nothing bad happened – to say “no crime occurred” is a tautology, since that is exactly what it means to not bring charges. We have due process for a reason, and this is the result. Maybe nothing did happen, or at least nothing that was ill-intentioned. Maybe it was too late for a drug test to render a judgment, since rohypnol metabolizes quickly. Maybe this was just another powerful guy getting away with it. We’ll never know for sure. If the lobbyist in question, whose name has been released by one right wing website, is innocent then this really sucks for him, since this incident will always follow him around. It’s going to suck even more for the woman who made the allegation, especially if it was true.

Putting all that aside, and putting aside the bills that have been filed to try to do something about sexual harassment and sexual assault at the Capitol, the one thing that seems clear is that little to nothing will change from a cultural perspective. Women aren’t going to be any more respected or valued at the Capitol, and the men who have been at the forefront of creating the hostile environment they work in – as well as the men and women who enable that environment – will not be held accountable. It’s aggravating, and I say that as a dude who has never been in a remotely similar position. My thoughts are with the woman who made the report, and with everyone who has ever gone through something like that. The Chron has more.

Do not give Ken Paxton any more power

Seriously, WTF?

Best mugshot ever

A new bill would give Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton greater prosecutorial authority over abuse-of-office charges — the very crime for which the FBI is reportedly investigating the state’s top attorney.

The bill, proposed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would allow Paxton’s office to prosecute the charges without consent from local prosecutors, as is required now.

Paxton, a Republican who has been awaiting trial in a separate, unrelated felony securities fraud case for five years, has also been also under investigation by federal law enforcement after seven former aides accused him of using the powers of his office to help campaign donor, Nate Paul, an Austin-based real estate developer. Paxton has maintained his innocence in all cases.

His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Bettencourt’s bill was inspired by an unusual case in Harris County, in which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat, was found to have stored more than 1,200 privately owned pieces of African artwork, free of charge, at a county warehouse for more than three years.

Ellis pushed the Commissioners Court to sign a 2018 deal for 14 pieces for display in county buildings, but that agreement lapsed in January. His precinct later accepted more than 1,400, few of which have ever been shown publicly. The cost of storage over those three years is estimated at between $432,000 and $576,000, according to quotes from Houston art storage facilities.

A new contract has yet to be approved, and Ellis has not been charged with any crimes, though political foes allege that it constitutes an illegal abuse of office.

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is investigating the matter. The FBI is also reportedly investigating, according to KPRC 2, which broke the initial story.

[…]

Josh Reno, deputy attorney general for criminal justice, testified Monday that the office works with local prosecutors when requested if there is a potential conflict of interest.

“Local county and district attorneys want to be elected, and they are at a disadvantage in some of these cases when they may be prosecuting a very popular individual in their community,” said Reno, a former assistant district attorney tapped by Paxton in November. “I think SB 252 gives another tool in the tool belt for prosecutors who may not have the ability or may not have the political acumen to stand up to these folks.”

That would give the office “incredible power” over local prosecution decisions, said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

“My concern is — it’s obvious in this case, probably somebody should do something — but in our history, in our state’s history, occasionally we get some renegade attorney generals who if they really didn’t like you could harass the individual official,” Nichols said.

Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who was a prosecutor with the Travis County Attorney’s office for eight years, said it was “folly” to presume the state’s top attorney would be any less political than a local prosecutor.

“We’re dealing with an attorney general’s office, for which the elected attorney general’s been under indictment for five years, so if you think you’re going to get less political prosecutions out of the current attorney general’s office, I think that’s highly unlikely,” Eckhardt said.

You can say that again. I’m old enough to remember when some people thought that having a Public Integrity Unit in the office of the Travis County DA, which had jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed by state officials, was ripe for partisan overreach. As with so many other Republican-filed bills this session, there’s no obvious need for this kind of approach. There are ongoing investigations of the allegations, which may or may not lead to a case being brought if the evidence warrants. Bettencourt claims handing the power to investigate and prosecute over to the AG would somehow restore trust in the system, but all he’s doing here is attacking the system before it even has a chance to work. And that’s without taking the deep and flagrant concerns any decent person would have with Ken Paxton.

(Has it occurred to Bettencourt that Paxton could lose next year? He came close to losing in 2018, and he’s now got the FBI dogging him, among other things. There’s no way Bettencourt files this bill if Justin Nelson were the AG. Surely that highlights the clear problem with it.)

The bill did not get a vote in committee, which is not unusual. It may get voted on later, and one of the Senators who will have a vote on it is none other than Angela Paxton. How convenient. Most likely, it dies a quiet death. But add this to the long list of particulars against Paul Bettencourt, who needs to be voted out as much as Ken Paxton does.

Precinct analysis: District Attorney 2020 and 2016

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities

We move on now to the county executive office races for Harris County in 2020, which will be the end of the line for Harris County precinct analyses. I do have a copy of the Fort Bend canvass, though they do theirs in an annoyingly weird way, and will try to put something together for them after I’m done with this batch. With the four executive offices that were on the ballot for their regular election in 2020 – District Attorney, County Attorney, Sheriff, and Tax Assessor – we can not only view the data for this year, but do a nice comparison to 2016, since three of the four Democrats were running for re-election. We begin with the office of District Attorney:


Dist   Huffman      Ogg   Huffman%    Ogg%
==========================================
CD02   181,395  153,831     54.11%  45.89%
CD07   151,171  152,168     49.84%  50.16%
CD08    26,099   14,788     63.83%  36.17%
CD09    38,774  118,363     24.68%  75.32%
CD10   104,070   58,639     63.96%  36.04%
CD18    61,750  177,517     25.81%  74.19%
CD22    21,915   20,050     52.22%  47.78%
CD29    51,805   98,693     34.42%  65.58%
CD36    83,428   47,862     63.54%  36.46%
				
SBOE4  112,135  329,155     25.41%  74.59%
SBOE6  386,230  351,903     52.33%  47.67%
SBOE8  222,042  160,854     57.99%  42.01%
				
SD04    56,181   22,546     71.36%  28.64%
SD06    60,192  114,828     34.39%  65.61%
SD07   238,787  169,996     58.41%  41.59%
SD11    77,642   46,770     62.41%  37.59%
SD13    39,376  157,461     20.00%  80.00%
SD15   116,146  192,255     37.66%  62.34%
SD17   116,482  126,617     47.92%  52.08%
SD18    15,601   11,441     57.69%  42.31%
				
HD126   39,478   33,020     54.45%  45.55%
HD127   55,071   34,468     61.51%  38.49%
HD128   48,573   21,680     69.14%  30.86%
HD129   48,042   35,285     57.65%  42.35%
HD130   70,936   31,731     69.09%  30.91%
HD131   10,680   43,720     19.63%  80.37%
HD132   51,619   47,325     52.17%  47.83%
HD133   50,014   37,668     57.04%  42.96%
HD134   47,324   59,450     44.32%  55.68%
HD135   37,256   36,324     50.63%  49.37%
HD137   10,453   20,788     33.46%  66.54%
HD138   31,908   30,922     50.78%  49.22%
HD139   16,318   44,125     27.00%  73.00%
HD140    9,831   21,145     31.74%  68.26%
HD141    7,624   35,399     17.72%  82.28%
HD142   14,736   40,758     26.55%  73.45%
HD143   12,636   23,549     34.92%  65.08%
HD144   14,258   16,030     47.07%  52.93%
HD145   15,480   26,476     36.90%  63.10%
HD146   11,608   43,070     21.23%  78.77%
HD147   15,669   52,711     22.91%  77.09%
HD148   22,652   36,721     38.15%  61.85%
HD149   21,576   30,596     41.36%  58.64%
HD150   56,664   38,952     59.26%  40.74%
				
CC1     95,557  277,035     25.65%  74.35%
CC2    153,715  141,830     52.01%  47.99%
CC3    227,974  210,631     51.98%  48.02%
CC4    243,161  212,418     53.37%  46.63%
				
JP1     93,091  164,781     36.10%  63.90%
JP2     35,099   47,838     42.32%  57.68%
JP3     53,148   66,595     44.39%  55.61%
JP4    238,031  181,915     56.68%  43.32%
JP5    204,724  214,657     48.82%  51.18%
JP6      8,739   26,466     24.82%  75.18%
JP7     19,549   99,068     16.48%  83.52%
JP8     68,026   40,594     62.63%  37.37%

Here’s the same data from 2016. I’m going to reprint the table below and then do some comparisons, but at a macro level, Kim Ogg was the second-most successful candidate in Harris County in 2016. Her 696,955 votes and her 108,491-vote margin of victory were second only to Hillary Clinton. Ogg received 54.22% of the vote in 2016. She fell a little short of that percentage in 2020, garnering 53.89% of the vote this year, while increasing her margin to 121,507 votes. She was more middle of the pack this year, as the overall Democratic performance was up from 2016. She trailed all of the statewide candidates in total votes except for Gisela Triana, who was less than 300 votes behind her, though her percentage was higher than all of them except Joe Biden and the three Court of Criminal Appeals candidates. She had fewer votes than three of the four appellate court candidates (she was exactly nine votes behind Jane Robinson), but had a higher percentage than three of the four. Among the district and county court candidates, Ogg had more votes and a higher percentage than seven, more votes but a lower percentage than two, and fewer votes and a lower percentage than six.

(Writing all that out makes me think it was Republicans who were skipping judicial races more than Democrats. In the race immediately above DA, Democrat Julia Maldonado got 3,354 more votes than Ogg, but Republican Alyssa Lemkuil got 17,325 fewer votes than Mary Nan Huffman. In the race immediately after DA, Democrat Lesley Briones got 14,940 more votes than Ogg, but Republican Clyde Leuchtag got 30,357 fewer votes than Huffman. That sure looks like less Republican participation to me.)

Here’s the district breakdown for the DA race from 2016. It’s not as comprehensive as this year’s, but it’s good enough for these purposes.


Dist  Anderson      Ogg  Anderson%    Ogg%
==========================================
CD02   156,027  117,810     56.98%  43.02%
CD07   135,065  118,837     53.20%  46.80%
CD09    26,881  106,334     20.18%  79.82%
CD10    78,602   38,896     66.90%  33.10%
CD18    47,408  154,503     23.48%  76.52%
CD29    36,581   93,437     28.14%  71.86%
				
SBOE6  328,802  277,271     54.25%  45.75%
				
HD126   34,499   26,495     56.56%  43.44%
HD127   46,819   26,260     64.07%  35.93%
HD128   39,995   18,730     68.11%  31.89%
HD129   40,707   27,844     59.38%  40.62%
HD130   57,073   23,239     71.06%  28.94%
HD131    7,301   38,651     15.89%  84.11%
HD132   36,674   31,478     53.81%  46.19%
HD133   46,242   29,195     61.30%  38.70%
HD134   43,962   45,142     49.34%  50.66%
HD135   31,190   28,312     52.42%  47.58%
HD137    8,728   18,040     32.61%  67.39%
HD138   26,576   24,189     52.35%  47.65%
HD139   12,379   39,537     23.84%  76.16%
HD140    6,613   20,621     24.28%  75.72%
HD141    5,305   32,677     13.97%  86.03%
HD142   10,428   34,242     23.34%  76.66%
HD143    9,100   23,434     27.97%  72.03%
HD144   10,758   16,100     40.06%  59.94%
HD145   11,145   22,949     32.69%  67.31%
HD146   10,090   38,147     20.92%  79.08%
HD147   12,156   45,221     21.19%  78.81%
HD148   17,538   29,848     37.01%  62.99%
HD149   15,352   27,535     35.80%  64.20%
HD150   47,268   28,160     62.67%  37.33%
				
CC1     73,521  240,194     23.44%  76.56%
CC2    123,178  126,996     49.24%  50.76%
CC3    187,095  164,487     53.22%  46.78%
CC4    204,103  164,355     55.39%  44.61%

The shifts within districts are perhaps more subtle than you might think. A few stand out – CD07 goes from a 6.4 point win for Devon Anderson in 2016 to a narrow Ogg win in 2020, powered in large part by a ten-point shift in Ogg’s favor in HD134. On the flip side, Ogg carried CC2 by a point and a half in 2016 but lost it by four points in 2020, as her lead in CD29 went from 43 points to 31 points. Overall, Ogg saw modest gains in Republican turf – CD02, HD126, HD133, HD150, CC3, CC4 – and some Democratic turf – CD18, HD146, HD147, HD148, CC1 – and some modest losses in each – CD10, CD29, HD128, HD140, HD143, HD144, HD145, CC2.

In a lot of places, the percentages went one way or the other, but the gap in total votes didn’t change. CD09 is a good example of this – Ogg won it by 80K votes in each year, but with about 24K more votes cast in 2020, split evenly between her and Huffman, that lowered her percentage by four points. Same thing in HD127, which Ogg lost by 20,559 in 2016 and 20,603 in 2020, but added three percentage points because 16K more votes were cast. In the three Latino State Rep districts cited above, Ogg had more votes in 2020 in HD140, HD143, and HD145 than she did in 2016 – she had 70 fewer votes in HD144 – but her improvements in the first two districts were in the hundreds, while Huffman outperformed Anderson by 2,300 in HD140, by 3,500 in HD143, and by 3,500 in HD144; Huffman improved by 4,300 in HD145 while Ogg added 3,500 votes. As we’ve discussed before, it will be interesting to see how these districts perform going forward, and in lower-turnout scenarios.

So we see some changes in where the vote was, with Ogg building a bit on 2016, in the same way that Joe Biden built a bit on what Hillary Clinton did in 2016. As I write this, I haven’t actually taken this close a look at the district changes in the other county races, so we’ll learn and discover together. I think we can expect that some of this behavior is mirrored elsewhere, but this is the only race with an incumbent running for re-election who did basically as well as they had done before, so the patterns may be a little harder to discern. But that’s what makes this exercise so interesting each cycle. Let me know what you think.

The Harris County Election Security Task Force

I hadn’t realized that this was a thing, but it was and I’m glad it was.

A task force formed to ensure the security of the November election in Texas’ biggest county has found no evidence of wrongdoing after finishing its work.

The Harris County Election Security Task Force was made up of the Harris County Precinct 1 constable’s office, the district attorney’s office, the county attorney’s office and the county clerk’s office. In a report published Friday, the task force said it “received approximately 20 allegations of wrongdoing that needed to be elevated to the level of a formal investigation.”

“Despite claims, our thorough investigations found no proof of any election tampering, ballot harvesting, voter suppression, intimidation or any other type of foul play that might have impacted the legitimate cast or count of a ballot,” the report says.

[…]

The task force operated from Oct. 13 through Nov. 3, which was Election Day, according to the report. Undercover officers made 6,311 visits to 122 early voting and 806 Election Day polling sites. The task force responded to 77 calls for service. And it used four explosive-detecting K-9 units to to make 323 sweeps of polling locations, as well as “continual sweeps” while voters dropped off ballots at NRG Stadium on Election Day. (The task force found no explosives.)

“We all worked together to ensure our elections, which are the lifeblood of democracy, were free and fair and that any and all allegations were thoroughly investigated,” Ogg said.

The report is here, and it’s an easy read. This is good from a pragmatic perspective, in that it was good for the various law enforcement agencies to work together and coordinate efforts, and it was good from a transparency perspective, as each incident is detailed along with the response and resolution. You should read through the incident reports, which begin on page 8 and are the bulk of the document. Incident #2 was the subject of some fever-swamp “reporting” on right wing websites – a fellow Democrat who had come across one of those stories emailed me about it early on, and I noted in my reply to them the various ways in which it sounded like BS – while incident #22 was the Aguirre situation, which the report noted was referred to the DA’s office. The fact that in addition to responding to calls from the public, the task force made regular proactive checks on voting locations to ensure their safety was retroactively reassuring to me. It also had an actual, positive effect, unlike the fear-mongering and snipe hunting our state leaders engaged in. Put this down as another innovation from 2020 that we should keep on doing in the future.

A closer look at the Aguirre/Hotze debacle

This WaPo story was pointed out in the comments here, and it’s worth your time to read. I should note that while the Houston Chronicle has not (at least so far) identified the air conditioning repairman that Aguirre attacked, this story did identify and talk to him. For now, I’m going to stick to the Chron’s style guide, so where the WaPo story includes his name, I’m going to put “[the ACRM]” in my excerpt, to stand for “the air conditioning repairman”.

The episode illustrates the extreme and sometimes dangerous tactics that a set of conservative groups have employed in an effort to substantiate President Trump’s unproven allegations of widespread voting fraud in the election. Theories about truckloads of missing mail-in ballots, manipulated voting machines and illegal mail-in ballot collections have abounded in far-right circles, despite a lack of credible evidence, leading to threats of violence against election workers and officials.

Many of the fraud allegations have come in the form of lawsuits that have been rejected by state and federal judges across the country.

The overall effort in Houston stands out because it relied on an expensive, around-the-clock surveillance operation that, for reasons so far unknown publicly, targeted a civilian — authorities called him “an innocent and ordinary air conditioner repairman” — with no apparent role in government or election administration. The operation was also financed by a newly formed nonprofit group run by a well-known GOP donor in Texas and prominent former party officials in Harris County, the state’s most populous county, corporation records show.

The nonprofit group, the Liberty Center for God and Country, paid 20 private investigators close to $300,000 to conduct a six-week probe of alleged illegal ballot retrievals in Houston leading up to the election, the group has said. None of its allegations of fraud have been substantiated.

The group’s president, Steven F. Hotze, did not respond to an interview request.

Aguirre declined to say why the operation focused on [the ACRM].

“I’m not trying my case in the paper,” Aguirre, who was released on $30,000 bail, told The Post in a brief phone interview on Dec. 16. “I don’t care about public opinion. I’m trying my case against these corrupt sons of [expletives].”

The origins of Aguirre’s election fraud investigation date to the formation of the Liberty Center for God and Country in late August.

[…]

Hotze’s nonprofit group was created “for the purpose of ensuring election integrity primarily,” said Jared Woodfill, Hotze’s personal lawyer and the former executive director of the Harris County Republican Party, the county that includes Houston. Woodfill is listed on state incorporation records as a director of the nonprofit group, along with Jeffrey Yates, the former longtime chairman of the county’s Republican Party. Yates did not respond to phone messages.

“The socialist Democrat leadership in Harris County has developed a massive ballot by mail vote harvesting scheme to steal the general election,” a now-deleted fundraising page for the group alleged. “We are working with a group of private investigators who have uncovered this massive election fraud scheme.”

The group raised nearly $70,000 through a GoFundMe page from Oct. 10 through last week. Hotze has said publicly that he donated $75,000 to the probe and that an unnamed individual had donated another $125,000.

Hotze turned to Aguirre to assemble a team of 20 private investigators, according to Aguirre’s attorney, Terry Yates, who is not related to Jeffrey Yates.

“Mark would say he’s the guy who was in charge,” Terry Yates told The Post.

I’m not going to try to guess what might be going on in Steven Hotze’s whack-a-mole brain, but I do want to understand why these jokers came to focus on this one poor guy. There had to be some reason for it, however irrational and ultimately wrong-headed. If nothing else, the attorney that eventually files a massive lawsuit against Hotze for the pain and suffering our ACRM endured will want to know the full story.

In September, Aguirre wrote an affidavit for a lawsuit brought by Hotze and the Harris County GOP before the Texas Supreme Court seeking to curtail early and mail-in voting. The affidavit alleged Democrats had devised a scheme to submit as many as 700,000 fraudulent ballots in Harris County. The Texas Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit on Oct. 7.

Nevertheless, law enforcement officials in Harris County began looking into the claims in the affidavit. The affidavit did not mention [the ACRM], but described what it contended was a broader ballot-harvesting effort directed by local Democratic officials.

Four investigators from the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office, which is responsible for investigating voter integrity issues, were assigned to the investigation, an official said.

“We looked into the allegations,” said Constable Alan Rosen, who said investigators conducted interviews with various people but got no cooperation from Aguirre and other private investigators. “We wanted to investigate their side of the story and they wouldn’t talk to us.”

“No proof was ever substantiated,” according to Rosen.

As the Nov. 3 Election Day neared, Aguirre and other unidentified private investigators began to monitor [the ACRM] more closely, court records show. By mid-October, they had devised a plan to carry out extensive monitoring that kept eyes on the air conditioning repairman day and night, court records show.

Beginning around Oct. 15, the investigators started “24 hour surveillance” on [the ACRM]’s mobile home, a police affidavit states. They set up a “command post” nearby, renting two hotel rooms for four days in a Marriott hotel, according to the affidavit. As they watched [the ACRM], Aguirre unsuccessfully tried to convince law enforcement authorities at the state level that he was on to something big, according to several law enforcement agencies and court records.

On Oct. 16, Aguirre called a member of the state attorney general’s election task force, Lt. Wayne Rubio, to request that Rubio order a traffic stop of [the ACRM]’s vehicle, court records show. Rubio declined. Aguirre “seemed upset that the Department of Public Safety could not stop and detain an individual based solely on [Aguirre]’s uncorroborated accusations,” Rubio later told police, according to the affidavit.

Aguirre told Rubio that he would make the traffic stop and execute a “citizen’s arrest,” the affidavit states. Rubio did not respond to interview requests, and the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

Aguirre also contacted Jason Taylor, a regional director at a separate statewide law enforcement agency — the Texas Department of Public Safety — the agency said in a statement to The Post. That contact came a day before Aguirre is accused of ramming [the ACRM].

“Mr. Aguirre brought up the allegations of election fraud during a phone call on Oct. 18, 2020, with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Regional Director,” a spokesman wrote. “Based on that call, the matter was then discussed with the (DPS) Texas Ranger Division. The decision was then made to refer Mr. Aguirre to the Office of the Texas Attorney General.”

Aguirre later told police he was frustrated that he had “not received any help” from law enforcement agencies, according to the police affidavit.

So many questions here. What evidence did Aguirre present to DPS and the AG task force? Clearly, it was pitiful, because had there been anything at all to the juicy allegation of Democrats engaging in massive fraud, these guys would have been all over it, but that’s not the whole picture. The bigger question is, should Aguirre’s delusions have given these guys cause to worry about his actions and the potential danger to the ACRM? Did they take his threat of a “citizen’s arrest” seriously, and if not why not? Imagine for a minute if our ACRM had had a concealed carry license, and had made the determination when he saw Aguirre approach him that his life was in danger (which, as it happens, it was) and he needed to defend himself. Or instead imagine if Aguirre had gotten jumpy and made the same decision for himself. This “citizen’s arrest” could very well have had a body count, which is why I ask, should the law enforcement officers that Aguirre complained were unwilling to help him have taken action against him instead? It’s more grist for our ACRM’s future attorney, I suppose.

Police later reviewed grand jury subpoena records from Aguirre’s bank, the police affidavit states, and saw wire transfers of nearly $270,000 to his account from the Liberty Center for God and Country with payments of $25,000 each wired on Sept. 22 and Oct. 9, and $211,400 deposited the day after the alleged assault.

Houston police declined an interview request and said they would not answer specific questions about the case because the department’s investigation is ongoing.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which charged Aguirre after a grand jury indictment, also declined to answer questions. “This is an active, ongoing investigation,” spokesman Michael Kolenc wrote in an email.

As I said before, I really hope that this ongoing investigation includes Hotze and the malevolent organization he spawned to finance this travesty. I sure won’t be surprised to learn that they were not scrupulous in following the law prior to Aguirre’s attack on the ACRM. Don’t be afraid to go where the evidence leads.

Why can’t we get our jail population down?

I found this story from Thanksgiving weekend frustrating.

Harris County’s efforts to reduce its jail population have flatlined, despite more than $7.5 million aimed at alleviating systemic burdens so that the county could attempt to reduce its inmates by a targeted 21 percent.

Even after creating programs to lessen the population and reduce racial disparities in jail, criminal caseloads mounted and the facility returned nearly to capacity, county officials said. When Harris County in 2016 joined the nationwide Safety and Justice Challenge – meant to help retool the use of lockups – more than 8,789 people were in jail. On Nov. 23, that number was 8,724 — a decrease of less than 1 percent. To meet the program’s goal, the population would need to have fallen under 7,000.

County leaders next week will reapply for a final round of funding from the MacArthur Foundation to sustain progress made in the challenge overseen by the nonprofit Justice Management Institute. It remains to be seen whether how much the county will receive given the struggle to reduce the jail population.

Even if the county receives the full amount, achieving its goal remains distant, said Thomas Eberly, Harris County’s site coordinator for the challenge and program director of the Justice Management Institute, which works with localities to improve justice systems.

“I do think that the odds are not in Harris County’s favor because of past performance,” said Eberly. “We’re five years into this and the change that was expected hasn’t been achieved, and it’s quite honestly not even close.”

Some county leaders remain positive, however, citing implementation of a series of programs as part of the challenge. They include hiring a “fairness administrator” to address racial inequities and a community engagement outreach coordinator, as well as creating a cite-and-release program and a Reintegration Impact Court to divert those who have low-level cases from jail.

The MacArthur Foundation could award up to $660,000 for one year of sustainability and $500,000 for a second year.

The foundation has already provided $4.25 million to the county since 2015, and county commissioners in 2016 allocated more than $3.3 million from general fund reserves to help pay for reforms.

“We remain optimistic that we’re going to have some breakthroughs,” said Jim Bethke, Harris County’s director of justice administration.

It’s a long story that goes in a number of directions, so go read the whole thing. The main explanations cited are the damage to the courts caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, as both have contributed to long delays in resolving cases. The changeover in the courts due to the 2018 election plus the effort put into the bail reform program was also cited, though it’s not clear to me why that would contribute to the problem – the whole point of bail reform was to have fewer people rotting in jail while they wait for their trials. I needed more information to understand what that had to do with it.

Later in the story, the HPD cite and release program was listed as a potential mitigating factor going forward. It’s only been in effect since September – the Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February. Diversion programs by the DA’s Office were also cited. I would have liked to know more about how much these could help, or more to the point could have helped if they had been in place longer. Not to put too fine a point on it, but one simple way to have fewer people in jail is to out fewer of them in jail in the first place. It’s very much in our power to arrest fewer people for minor non-violent offenses, with marijuana possession being at the top of that list. Circumstance can explain some of this problem, but our choices are a big part of it as well. There’s plenty we can do to change that.

Overview of Harris County Sheriff’s race

The explanation for why Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is a big favorite to be re-elected is quite simple, really.

County veterans wondered if former Houston police officer-turned politician Ed Gonzalez would be up to the job of sheriff in 2016 after he came out on top of a contested Democratic primary and then defeated veteran lawman Ron Hickman.

Four years later, Gonzalez has emerged the heavily favored incumbent against Republican challenger Joe Danna. Experts say Gonzalez’s chances are buoyed by wide name recognition, his performance in office, a rapid Democratic shift in Harris County’s demographics, and a contingent of Latino voters energized by the recent election of other Hispanics to county offices, including Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“It’s going to be more complicated (for Danna) to win,” said Jeronimo Cortina, an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston.

[…]

He stumbled initially, after the sheriff’s office ran afoul of state standards in the county jail. Texas Commission on Jail Standards Executive Director Brandon Wood said the sheriff’s office received several notices of noncompliance regarding jail operations — including one for a failed annual inspection — early on. After a meeting with Gonzalez and county judge Lina Hidalgo in early last year, he said state jail regulators noticed a “marked improvement” in the department’s jail operations.

“They passed their most recent annual inspection and we have not issued a notice of non-compliance since,” he said.

Gonzalez argues that he reined in the department’s troubled budget, expanded critical intervention training, ended practices outsourcing inmates to far-flung jails in other counties, and led the department through Hurricane Harvey and a still-ongoing pandemic — at a time when police departments across the country have come under renewed scrutiny for how they treat civilians.

He gained national attention when — as a defendant in a lawsuit over the county’s bail practices — he came out as a vocal supporter for misdemeanor bail reform.

[…]

Texas Southern University Professor Michael Adams said Danna appears to be a “law-and-order” candidate more common in past elections, one who will likely face significant hurdles given the county’s blue tilt.

“In the midst of not having any scar tissue in this particular race, and what we’ve seen in Harris County going back to 2018, in terms of a blue wave, if you will, I don’t see much of a threat,” he said.

First and foremost, Harris County is Democratic. That may change over time, and we may encounter conditions where base Democratic turnout is likely to be depressed while Republican turnout is not, but in this election we can safely assume there will be more Democrats voting, likely by a wide margin. Sheriff Gonzalez has done a good job, and was on the right side of the bail reform issue, which is one reason why the Dem base likes him. Those two factors alone put him in a very comfortable spot.

Given the Dem advantage, there are two scenarios where a qualified Republican could hope t get the significant number of crossover voters they’d need to win. One is where the Democratic nominee is manifestly unqualified and a vote for that nominee would be a disaster for the office in question. The 2012 DA race, where Lloyd Oliver managed to beat a much better candidate in the primary, is the canonincal example. (It helped that the Republican candidate in that race was Mike Anderson, whose chops for the job were obvious. Joe Danna is not Mike Anderson.) The other is where the Dem incumbent is fatally tainted by scandal. The best examples here actually involve the last two Republican Sheriffs, Ron Hickman and Tommy Thomas. Sheriff Gonzalez has a clean record, so that’s a non-starter.

So, putting it all together, Sheriff Gonzalez is a solid favorite to win re-election. As well he should be.

Paxton accuses his accusers

Well, that’s one way to do it.

Best mugshot ever

In Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton’s first interview since seven of top aides accused him of accepting bribes and abusing his office, he said Tuesday that he was about to put one of them, first assistant attorney general Jeff Mateer, on administrative leave when Mateer made those accusations and resigned instead.

“I think he found out about it and decided he wanted to leave and set the narrative,” Paxton told the Southeast Texas Record.

Paxton also told the paper that he has placed two remaining executive employees — David Maxwell, director of law enforcement, and Mark Penley, deputy AG for criminal justice, who were among his seven accusers — on administrative leave while he investigates their actions.

Paxton’s statements on Tuesday provide the public’s first glimpse into how he is handling the matter inside the office of the Attorney General, where more than half of the executive staff has accused him of committing crimes.

[…]

In his interview Tuesday, Paxton reiterated his counterclaims against the whistleblowers, saying that they were trying to impede a legitimate investigation of the law enforcement agencies.

“It seems like my office did everything possible to stop an investigation of some law enforcement agencies,” Paxton said. “I can only come to the conclusion that there was an effort to cover up the reality of what really happened. This wasn’t supposed to be a complicated investigation.”

[…]

Paxton also backed accusations by Paul’s attorney, Michael Wynne, who said in a letter released late Sunday that Maxwell, a former Texas Ranger, berated Paul for even bringing the complaint. Paxton said he watched a video of the meeting between Maxwell and Paul.

“It was not a good interview — it was pretty harsh,” he said. “It was clear he had no interest in doing an investigation.”

In the interview, Paxton said Mateer also insisted that the attorney general did not have the authority to sign contracts and that only he, as first assistant, did. Paxton said he reviewed support documentation provided by Mateer and found it to be false.

“I don’t know why there’s so much turmoil over this investigation. I’m not impugning every law enforcement agent,” Paxton said. “We all should be held accountable. We all have to follow the law.”

Well, he was going to defend himself one way or another, and given what the accusations were, a defense of “no, they’re the real criminals” seems like the best option. That would then lead to the question of how it is Paxton managed to hire so many bad actors for high-ranking positions in his office, but that’s a problem for another day. For now, keeping his own ass out of trouble is the main goal.

Here we must pause and note that so far all we know is there were a bunch of accusations leveled against Paxton. We don’t know if there’s an investigation into the actions he’s alleged to have taken, much less if he did do the things he’s accused of. We do know that his accusers are fellow travelers in conservative circles, and that former Paxton lieutenant Chip Roy sided with them. We know that folks like Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and John Cornyn have been in full “wait and see” mode, which may suggest that they genuinely don’t know what to make of all this, or that they’ve heard enough scuttlebutt to think there’s something to it, but they’re either not ready to throw Paxton overboard, or they’re seeking a more graceful way out of this mess. A lot of information has come out so far, none of which looks great for Paxton, but nothing yet that would force him to resign. That may be what this is like for awhile, and then either the feds do something to make it clear they’re going after him, or we get a press release saying he’s in the clear. Until then, this is what we have to sustain ourselves.

Well, there’s also this.

[Brandon] Cammack declined to answer questions about his work for the agency or speculate as to why Paxton called him about the job. But said he “rose to the occasion” in accepting a major assignment from the state’s top lawyer and that the fallout has been “unexpected.”

“When one of the highest elected officials in the state reached out to me to go conduct this investigation, knowing what my background and knowing what my experience was, with regards to state law claims… I took it seriously,” Cammack told The Texas Tribune Tuesday.

“I don’t know anything about office politics… I don’t know anything about [the relationship] between people. I was called to duty. I showed up for duty,” he said.

Cammack’s work for the attorney general’s office has ended, though he said it was “beyond” him to know if the review would go forward in someone else’s hands.

[…]

Legal experts have questioned the precise nature of Cammack’s job — Paxton described him as both an “outside independent prosecutor” and as “independent counsel” — and asked how he was able to issue subpoenas that aides said “related to private business concerns of Nate Paul.”

They also raised concerns that Cammack — who is connected to [Nate Paul’s attorney Michael] Wynne through their involvement in the Downtown Rotary Club of Houston and the Houston Bar Association — lacked the experience for such a high-profile assignment.

Cammack said the subpoenas were issued by a Travis County judge and that he never went before a grand jury. He submitted an application for subpoenas to the Travis County district attorney’s office and they assisted in getting them issued, he said. He declined to answer other questions about the subpoenas, including which judge issued them, and his role.

Cammack also disputed the notion that he lacked experience, saying he’d had a “successful practice” in Houston for about two and a half years, handling primarily criminal defense work. His investigation for the attorney general’s office centered on violations of the Texas penal code — “something I’m very well versed in having handled hundreds of cases for hundreds of families here in Harris County and contiguous counties.”

He said he was “not friends” with Wynne, but declined to say why Wynne was present when at least one subpoena was delivered. He also would not specify Paxton’s involvement in his work or provide specifics about his investigation.

Cammack said he was interviewed for the outside counsel position on Aug. 26 by Paxton and Mateer. He declined to provide specifics about the conversation, but said he understood there were a few other candidates for the job, and that Paxton asked about his educational and professional history.

A few days later, Cammack received a call from Ryan Vassar, deputy attorney general for legal counsel, about his contract, he said. Signed in early September, the agreement says Cammack would be paid $300 an hour to investigate a complaint and compile a report about any potential criminal charges. It did not give him the authority to indict or prosecute, and said he could work only as directed by the office of the Attorney General.

Cammack’s work on the case largely ended in late September when he received a cease and desist letter from Penley, the deputy attorney general for criminal justice, and then Mateer.

I mean, we still don’t know much, but what we do know just looks sketchy. And so we wait for more.

Why did Ken Paxton hire a newbie attorney to be a “special prosecutor” or whatever he meant to call him?

The Trib has some questions.

Best mugshot ever

It was a baffling, perilous, perhaps unprecedented task.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton hired an outside lawyer last month to look into a complaint of misconduct by a host of state and federal officials, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a U.S. attorney’s office. The claim had been made by a Paxton donor whose home and office were reportedly raided by federal agents last year.

Some legal experts say the investigation should never have been in the hands of the attorney general’s office at all. But if it was, longtime Texas attorneys say, it’s a job for a seasoned prosecutor, perhaps someone with years of experience as a U.S. attorney or district attorney, someone who’d already established a reputation, someone who’d taken dozens of cases all the way from investigation to sentencing.

Instead, Paxton personally signed off on a $300 hourly rate for Brandon Cammack, a 34-year-old Houston defense attorney with ties to the donor’s attorney and five years of experience whose docket, court records show, largely comprises cases involving driving while intoxicated, low-level theft or assault.

Paxton’s office abruptly ended that investigation Friday after political backlash from both parties and criminal allegations from his own top aides. But questions about Cammack’s role — and the process of his selection — persist.

“That’s the $64,000 question: How did Paxton come to hire this particular lawyer?” said Tim Johnson, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas. “You’d expect, for something that would have the possibility for serious consequences, that you’d want to have somebody that had a great deal of experience in the criminal justice system. And it doesn’t appear that they did that.”

Equally inscrutable is the precise job Cammack was hired to perform for the attorney general’s office. Paxton has described him both as an “outside independent prosecutor” and as “independent counsel,” and one subpoena obtained by The Texas Tribune refers to Cammack as a “special prosecutor.”

But Cammack’s contract, which Paxton released this week, shows that Cammack was never independent, nor was he a prosecutor. Cammack can investigate “only as directed by the [Office of the Attorney General],” and his contract specifies that he will not be involved in any indictment or prosecution born out of his investigation. He’s submitted an invoice for more than $14,000 of work, according to media reports.

I’ll get back to this article in a second, but I should note that it’s a pretty good overview of the story so far, and includes a lot of new details. Because this is a sprawling story that’s being told in multiple places, it also covers some stuff we’ve already talked about. No one is going to be able to write a short article for anything related to this just because recapping the backstory will take at least six paragraphs.

Legal experts and lawyers who’ve worked with Cammack, including his estranged father, questioned whether he has the experience needed to take on such a high-profile assignment.

As recently as 2018, a judge appointed a more senior attorney to assist Cammack when he was working as a defense attorney on a felony manslaughter case.

Mark Hochglaube, the longtime prosecutor and defense attorney who was brought in, said it wasn’t clear whether the judge or Cammack himself considered the young lawyer too inexperienced to handle the case alone — but that both were on board with getting Cammack some help.

Their client, who was found guilty of manslaughter, was sentenced to 50 years.

He praised Cammack’s effort on the case but questioned his selection for the high-profile appointment.

“If I were the attorney general, and I was in this predicament, would the name Brandon Cammack be the first name that popped into my mind? No, it wouldn’t,” Hochglaube said.

Young attorneys can often punch above their weight and rise quickly through the ranks, Hochglaube said, but he added, “I have a hard time saying, based on my experience with Brandon, that I would’ve thought this was suitable for him.”

[…]

Beyond questions about Brandon Cammack’s qualifications, the scope of his role is murky, too.

Why, some legal experts wondered, would a state attorney general be investigating claims against federal authorities at all? Some called the situation unprecedented.

“I guess every politician is limited only by his imagination,” said longtime Houston defense attorney Rusty Hardin, “but that’s a pretty unique event.”

Edward Loya, a Dallas attorney and former federal prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice, said FBI agents are not above the law, and, in principle, there is nothing wrong with the state attorney general looking into FBI misconduct for violations of Texas law.

But he added that it is unusual — and raises serious ethical questions — for a state attorney general to take on an investigation of FBI misconduct in a case involving alleged criminal activity of one of the attorney general’s donors. The prudent course, he said, would have been to refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, an independent division within DOJ that probes such claims made against DOJ employees.

“I can’t imagine that’s ever happened before,” said Johnson, the former U.S. attorney, adding that if he had been asked to fill Cammack’s role, “I would’ve stayed as far away as I could.”

“Anybody with half a brain would’ve gotten as far away from this as they possibly could,” Johnson said. But Cammack “may not have had enough experience to realize this is something he really shouldn’t want to get involved with.”

Lawyers interviewed by The Texas Tribune said Cammack’s official role as outside counsel raises questions about whether he had the authority to issue subpoenas, a power limited to prosecutors and assistant attorneys general. His actions in the case could open him up to legal liability if he usurped his authority, and Phelps, the former official in the attorney general’s office, questioned whether the issuance of the subpoenas amounted to a criminal offense.

“An outside counsel is not a ‘special prosecutor’ and has no authority to issue subpoenas, appear in front of a grand jury, or prosecute a criminal case,” said Phelps, who also worked for a decade as first assistant district attorney in Brazos County, and head of a special prosecutions division under Morales.

“I wish someone would pull that Brandon Cammack aside because I think he’s being used, because of his inexperience,” Phelps said.

I skipped over a couple of paragraphs that describe Brandom Cammack’s relationship with his father, who is also an attorney and who comes across as an abusive. It’s icky stuff.

After several days and a whole lot of reading, I’ve been thinking about how to summarize what we know so far, so if we get into a conversation with someone who knows nothing about this other than a vague recollection of some headlines or Facebook posts, we can help them understand. The basic gist of it is that a real estate hotshot in Austin named Nate Paul had been the target of an FBI investigation into his finances, which involved raids on his offices. Paul filed a complaint about the investigation and searches of his properties with the office of Attorney General Ken Paxton, to whom he had contributed $25K in the last election. Paxton did open an investigation, going through the Travis County DA’s office first with a somewhat shady legal pretext to get the investigation handled by his office instead of the DA. He then hired Brandom Cammack, an inexperienced attorney, in a role that is not clearly defined but is something like a special prosecutor, except that Cammack was not independent of Paxton, and no one thinks he had the qualifications or experience for the job. All of this looked like Paxton doing some legal work on behalf of Nate Paul but with the official seal of the AG’s office. That caused a revolt among Paxton’s senior assistants, who told him all of this was highly inappropriate at the least. In the end, seven top assistants to Paxton asked for a federal investigation of Paxton’s involvement in the Nate Paul situation, accusing him of being paid off by Paul to help Paul defend himself against the feds in their investigation of him. Whew!

That’s where things stand now, and there are various subplots and unanswered questions and who knows what else. You can see what I mean when I say that it will be impossible any time soon to write a short article relating to this. I feel like there are still some big shoes to drop, but I couldn’t even guess at what that might mean. It’s becoming quite the political hot potato, as US Rep. Chip Roy – a former top lieutenant to Paxton – has called on him to resign (as have a couple of newspaper editorial boards), and Sen. John Cornyn, himself a former AG, has expressed his disappointment in Paxton’s handling of this. I have to believe that this will be an issue in 2022, in a bigger way than the existing Servergy indictments of Paxton ever were.

One more thing, just to expand on an item noted in the story above: Paxton has officially closed the Nate Paul investigation that started all this, shortly after Travis County DA Margaret Moore told him her office was not going to be involved any more in any way.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said his office is closing its investigation into a complaint made by one of his donors, hours after the Travis County District Attorney formally distanced itself.

Also on Friday, the Texas Department of Public Safety said it was not investigating allegations by aides in Paxton’s office that he committed bribery and other corruption crimes but instead the matter had been referred to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. A DPS spokesman said the Texas Rangers are available to assist.

Paxton had argued that he only pursued an investigation urged by the donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul, after getting a referral from Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore’s office. Moore already told the Houston Chronicle that it was Paxton who first brought Paul’s request for an investigation to her and not the other way around.

A letter she sent Paxton Friday upped the ante and made clear her office is cutting all ties to the probe. Moore noted all the revelations that have come out in recent days — revelations that demonstrate Paxton has more than gone out of his way to assist Paul and his troubled real estate dealings.

“Any action you have already taken or will take pursuing this investigation is done solely on your own authority as provided by Texas law,” Moore said. “The newly surfaced information raises serious concerns about the integrity of your investigation and the propriety of your conducting it.”

She said the referral of the Paul matter from her office to his — until now in the hands of an outside Houston lawyer Paxton hired — “cannot be used as any indication of a need for an investigation …or an endorsement of your acceptance of the referral.” She also said she had instructed her employees “to have no further contact with you or your office regarding this matter.”

Paxton said in a statement Friday that he closed the investigation because his office “can only investigate in response to a request for assistance from the District Attorney’s office.”

I wonder if we’ll hear some more about this from the perspective of someone in Moore’s office, now that they are free of any constraint. We’re almost a week into this story and it’s still a total firehose of new information. The Statesman has more.

Paxton’s first line of defense

Settle in, folks, this is going to be a long one. We’ll start with the Dallas Morning News.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is defending his decision to bring on an outside lawyer to look into a complaint from real estate developer and campaign donor Nate Paul.

In an unusual step Wednesday, Paxton’s office released documents to beat back accusations by his own top deputies that the outside attorney, Brandon Cammack, is acting without authority. The records show Cammack is billing the state $300 an hour and that Paxton personally signed his hiring document.

The records — released through the agency’s Twitter account — signal Paxton is digging in for a fight after seven of his most senior employees accused him of bribery and abuse of office. The staff have raised concerns over Paxton’s relationship with Paul, whose home and businesses were raided last summer by the FBI.

Multiple senior officials in the agency told The Dallas Morning News late Wednesday they believed Paul was attempting to use the power of the office of the attorney general for personal and financial gain. And in a document obtained Wednesday by The News, Paxton’s deputy warned Cammack his employment agreement was invalid and may have been signed by Paxton “under duress.”

“The document appears to be signed by Attorney General Ken Paxton. To be clear this office has no record authorizing such a retention under our agency’s operating policies and procedures,” then-First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer wrote in a letter dated Oct. 1.

“We believe this purported agreement is unlawful, invalid, unenforceable, against public policy, and may have been executed by the Attorney General under duress,” Mateer wrote, without elaborating.

“Under duress”? UNDER DURESS? Holy mother of Ann Richards. What does this even mean?

Cammack, 34, told The News on Tuesday that Paxton reached out to him in August to gauge his interest in working as outside counsel. He was asked to look into a complaint from Paul alleging misconduct by state and federal employees that was referred to Paxton’s agency by the Travis County District Attorney in June.

On Thursday, Travis County DA Margaret Moore said Paxton personally asked her to look into the complaint. After her office held a meeting with Paxton, Paul and Paul’s attorney, Moore referred the complaint to the Office of the Attorney General.

“The scope and nature of the complaints comprised matters that the D.A.’s Office would normally refer to a law enforcement agency with the resources necessary to conduct the investigation,” Moore said in a statement. “The entities complained against included the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety, so the only appropriate agency left to whom we would typically make the referral was the Office of the Attorney General.”

But the agency’s investigation into Paul’s complaint stalled. Multiple senior officials told The News on Wednesday they recommended not proceeding further with the probe because they found that the agency had no authority to investigate the claims in the complaint or that they lacked merit. They believed that Paul was attempting to use the office for personal and financial gain.

Paxton reached out reached to Cammack, the lawyer told The News, to pick up the investigation. On Wednesday, the statement from Paxton’s office said he decided to hire Cammack as outside counsel because his own employees impeded the investigation and “because the Attorney General knew Nate Paul.”

But multiple senior officials who would have needed to sign off on outside counsel told The News on Wednesday that they vigorously opposed Cammack’s hiring.

We should note that as some other outlets reported, Paxton made it sound like Travis County DA Margaret Moore approached his office to handle this complaint. Moore has released a statement making it clear that Paxton approached her, and the referral back to his office was because it was legally the only appropriate way to proceed. Once again, my jaw is hanging open.

The way Cammack was brought on is highly unusual, according to a person familiar with the agency’s policies and procedures, who said all contracts must be approved by several divisions and senior officials. It’s unclear whether that occurred in this case.

While Paxton has said he decided to bring on outside counsel because he knows Paul, the agreement released Wednesday does not give Cammack independence from Paxton and requires him to conduct an investigation only as directed by the Office of the Attorney General.

The hiring documents Paxton released Wednesday include an employment agreement and job description, which Paxton said “legally authorized [Cammack] to act.”

Paxton’s office also released emails between Cammack and one staff member, in which the two discussed a draft of a hiring agreement. That staff member, Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Ryan Vassar, is one of the seven employees who lobbed criminal allegations against Paxton.

Cammack has said that his work is still going on. Who even knows what that means.

All that is a lot, but there’s still more. The Chron finds some more oddities about Brandon Cammack and how he came into the picture.

While a contract released by the attorney general’s office explains how outside counsel Brandon Cammack came to be hired, it leaves questions unanswered about how the arrangement allows Cammack to be independent of Paxton, who is at the helm of the agency and signed the contract.

“They may very well be allowed to do it,” said Larry McDougal, president of the Texas Bar and a former prosecutor. “I’ve just never actually seen it … Thirty years of being a lawyer, and I’ve never had that come up.”

We’re off to a great start. Now we look at the meeting with Travis County DA Margaret Moore again, and the way that Paxton’s office came to be involved in this investigation that he wanted.

Some lawyers interviewed said Paxton could also have declined the case or referred it to another law enforcement agency. All said it’s unclear what part of the law Paxton leaned on when bringing on Cammack.

Paxton’s office has described Cammack as “outside independent counsel,” but in at least on subpoena, obtained by Hearst Newspapers, he is called a “special prosecutor.”

“I was very surprised to hear that he was appointed as a special prosecutor only because I, candidly, don’t know that the Attorney General’s office has the authority to do so,” said Chris Downey, a Houston-based criminal defense attorney who has been an attorney pro tem three times before. “I think that’s a point of concern and potential exposure.”

The contract released Wednesday by Paxton’s office shows that Cammack was hired to investigate but not prosecute. That differentiation could mean legal consequences for Cammack if a court later finds that he was acting without authority.

In July 2020, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prosecutors aren’t shielded with immunity from lawsuits when they are performing investigative functions.

Attorneys interviewed also raised questions about the choice of Cammack, who graduated from University of Houston law school in May 2015, was licensed in November of that year and has been in private practice for about five years. He’s also the chair-elect of the Houston Bar Association.

“Normally, when you do bring on someone as a special prosecutor, you do so because you’re trying to tap into that person’s unique skill set,” Downey said. “I would be surprised given that he’s been a lawyer for five years that he has a defined skillset that they couldn’t find within the attorney general’s office.”

Everywhere you turn, more and more questions. Many more questions than answers, that’s for sure.

My previous blogging on this topic can be found here, here, and here. I’ll have a separate post on the Nate Paul side of things, because this is all Just Too Much.

The Trib also covered this topic, but the DMN had the most comprehensive story, while the Chron has been running down other angles as well. One more detail in all this is that Paxton’s contract with Cammack pays him $300 and hour. You know who else is supposed to get paid that much? The special prosecutors against Paxton in the Servergy case. The same guys who have been fighting Paxton, his army of cronies and minions from Collin County, and the Republican-dominated courts to actually get that pay, which Team Paxton et al have claimed is extravagant. I expect the rotting corpse of Irony to turn up any day now.

UPDATE: Damn, there’s a lot happening with this story.

Five senior officials in the Texas Attorney General’s Office accused their boss, Ken Paxton, on Wednesday of subverting his office to serve the financial interests of a political donor, according to an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The aides are doubling down on accusations they made last week to law enforcement — that Paxton had committed crimes including bribery and abuse of office — even as the second-term Republican says he’ll forge ahead as the state’s top lawyer under a fresh cloud of criminal allegations and as some in his party call on him to resign.

“It would be a violation of our own public responsibilities and ethical obligations to stand by while the significant power and resources of the Texas Attorney General’s Office are used to serve the interests of a private citizen bent on impeding a federal investigation into his own alleged wrongdoing and advancing his own financial interests,” the aides aides wrote in the email. “We urge you to end this course of conduct immediately.”

[…]

The damning Oct. 7 email was addressed to Paxton and his new First Assistant Brent Webster and sent by five of the same senior aides and whistleblowers — Ryan Bangert, Blake Brickman, Lacey Mase, Darren McCarty and Ryan Vassar— who reported allegations of criminal activity to law enforcement last week. Two of Paxton’s aides, including former First Assistant Jeff Mateer who reported him to law enforcement have since resigned.

Their concerns stem from Paxton’s hiring of a special prosecutor to investigate claims made by Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and donor, of alleged impropriety by federal and state authorities. But several subpoenas served by the prosecutor, the aides said in the email, were “related to private business concerns of Nate Paul” — and were not the subject of the “narrow criminal referral” he was appointed to investigate.

“This office’s continued use of the criminal process, in a matter already determined to be without merit, to benefit the personal interests of Nate Paul, is unconscionable,” they wrote.

They’re bringing the heat, I have to say. It really is mind-boggling what these top assistants are saying about their boss, and sharing with the press. It’s also easy to imagine that there’s more coming. In the meantime, John Cornyn gets on the Concern Train, on which he will Wait And See before drawing any conclusions. Better buckle in, John.

Endorsement watch: Ed and Kim

This is an easy call.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Anyone who has been led by personal experience or the events of the past year to conclude that cops are callous and jaded hasn’t meant Ed Gonzalez.

The compassionate approach of this 51-year-old homicide detective-turned-city councilman-turned-sheriff might even win over some in the “defund the police” crowd.

Gonzalez doesn’t just give lip service to criminal justice reform or decriminalizing mental illness health, drug addiction and homelessness. He is enacting policies within the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

“The word defund is not effective,” he says. “We need right-sized policing.”

To him, that means more focus on fighting violent crime and forming a regional task force to reduce drunken-driving deaths.

Elected in 2016, the Democrat brought the long-troubled Harris County Jail into state compliance and later made it the first in the state to address the opioid crisis by offering a drug that helps curb cravings and prevent relapses. He was among the first local officials to support reform of a misdemeanor bail system a federal court deemed unconstitutional.

The sheriff led the way in implementing cite-and-release, a program seeking to reduce the jail population by treating some misdemeanor charges like speeding tickets — that is, with citations rather than arrests.

Gonzalez says conversations are underway about how health providers could respond first to lower-risk calls that don’t require armed deputies. Other programs connect domestic violence survivors with social services and another improves interactions with people with autism.

Basically, Sheriff Gonzalez is doing it right. He’s as clear a choice as there is.

This could have been a more difficult choice.

Kim Ogg

To determine if Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is doing a good job, consider the claims of the opposition she has drawn this election year.

In the Democratic primary, she faced a challenge from the left, with opponents who believed her support for bail and other reforms has been too tepid. In the general election, her Republican opponent complains she’s too soft on law and order.

Neither claim hits the mark. For Ogg, 60, has approached the job of district attorney as she should: making it her priority to ensure a fair process that engenders trust in the system, supporting both reform and law enforcement with eyes open to their potential flaws and pushing back accordingly.

“I believe reform and public safety can mutually exist,” Ogg told the editorial board. “I believe Harris County is safer today because they have an independent district attorney.”

We agree.

There’s certainly room to criticize Ogg on criminal justice reform – Audia Jones and Carvana Cloud tried but didn’t succeed. A similar criticism from the right, based on cost savings and prioritizing violent crime over nonviolent crime – something Ogg herself highlighted in 2016 – would surely have been received favorably by the Chron editorial board. It might even be a general election winner. That’s not the argument that Ogg’s opponent was making, and the board wasn’t buying what she was selling. We’ve seen plenty of crossover votes in the DA race in previous elections – for Ogg in 2016, for Mike Anderson in 2012 – but I don’t expect much of it this year.

July 2020 campaign finance reports: Harris County

You can always count on January and July for campaign finance reports. This roundup is going to be a little funky, because all of the candidates filed eight-day reports for the March primary, and a few also filed 30-day and eight-day reports for the July runoff. I’ll note those folks, because it means that some of the comparisons are not really apples-to-apples. But this is what we have. The July 2019 reports are here, and the January 2020 reports are here.

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Mary Nan Huffman, District Attorney

Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Joe Danna, Sheriff

Christian Menefee, Harris County Attorney
John Nation, Harris County Attorney

Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor
Chris Daniel (SPAC), Tax Assessor

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Michael Moore, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Ogg           64,109   223,775   68,489      29,698
Huffman       30,455    58,215        0      11,385

Gonzalez      37,352    28,320        0      73,959
Danna         56,446    26,240        0       8,490

Menefee       24,236    32,768        0      11,680
Nation             0         0        0           0

Bennett       
Daniel         1,302        51   25,000       1,705

Ellis         53,835   575,804        0   3,029,506

Moore        156,790   245,110        0      96,832
Ramsey       346,150    49,829        0     308,942

Both Ogg ($385K) and Gonzales ($317K) had plenty of cash on hand as of January, but they both spent a bunch of money in their contested primaries; Ogg needed to do so more than Gonzalez took the wise approach of not taking his little-known opponents lightly. I expect they’ll raise enough to run their campaigns, but as they’ll benefit from the Democratic nature of the county, I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be big moneybags. I haven’t seen much of a campaign from Huffman as yet, and Joe Danna is a perennial candidate who gets most of his contributions as in-kind. What I’m saying is, don’t expect a whole lot from these races.

The same is largely true for the County Attorney and Tax Assessor races. Christian Menefeee had a decent amount raised for his January report, so he’ll probably take in a few bucks. I know absolutely nothing about his opponent, who doesn’t appear to be doing much. I don’t know why Ann Harris Bennett hasn’t filed a report yet, but he’s never been a big fundraiser. Chris Daniel has always used that PAC for his campaigns, and he had a few bucks in it as District Clerk but not that much.

Rodney Ellis brought a lot of money with him from his time as State Senator when he moved to the County Commissioner spot, and he will continue to raise and spend a significant amount. If previous patterns hold, he’ll put some money towards a coordinated campaign, and support some other Dems running for office directly. The race that will see the most money is the Commissioner race in Precinct 3. Michael Moore was in the Dem primary runoff, and the report you see is from July 6, which is to say it’s his eight-day report. That means the money raised and spent is from a 22-day period, which should give a bit of perspective. Both he and Tom Ramsey will have all the resources they need.

The progressives and the runoffs

May as well check in on this.

Sara Stapleton Barrera

Judging from March, the ideological left wing of the Democratic Party in Texas should be inconsolable.

After months of high hopes, the faction ran into a centrist buzz saw in the March 3 primary. Joe Biden practically locked up the Democratic presidential nomination, and progressive candidates experienced electoral drubbings.

Among the fallen: presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros, U.S. Senate hopeful Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, and Audia Jones, a candidate for Harris County District attorney endorsed by Sanders.

But rather than licking their political wounds, leading progressive candidates still in the fight say they’re invigorated — and eager to use the coronavirus pandemic, fights over voting by mail and calls for police reform to score some late victories in the July runoffs.

“Every time we have a progressive run, we get a little bit closer,” said Sara Stapleton-Barrera, who is in a runoff against state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville. “I feel like we’re slowly winning the war, but we have to get through some of these battles first.”

Perhaps the most energy is coming from Austin, where two runoffs have the attention of progressives. José Garza is competing in the nationally watched Democratic primary runoff for Travis County district attorney. Mike Siegel is vying for his party’s nomination in the 10th Congressional District’s Democratic primary runoff.

Garza’s race is where the focus on police reform is arguably the clearest. Even before the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police prompted protests nationwide, Garza was challenging incumbent Margaret Moore from the left, arguing she was too harsh in her prosecution of nonviolent offenders. He earned the most votes in March and has promised to bring all police shootings and more police misconduct cases before a grand jury. He has also pledged not to accept campaign contributions from police unions.

Moore, meanwhile, has accused him of being inexperienced with the local criminal justice system and running a campaign focused on national issues instead of local ones.

In the 10th Congressional District, Siegel is running on a platform that includes supporting “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal. Siegel will face Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, who has cited his medical experience while pitching Medicare Extra, a proposal that does not go as far as Medicare for All and leaves some private insurance in place.

“I think this is the exact moment in history when progressives are in a place to lead, and it’s because the times have caught up the policies we’re fighting for,” Siegel said. “This is the time to run as a progressive. I feel really good not just about my chances, but the movement overall.”

[…]

Another runoff that has drawn the attention of some national progressives is the one for the 24th Congressional District, where Kim Olson and Candace Valenzuela are competing to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell. The seat is a national Democratic target.

Valenzuela has endorsements like the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Warren, but the runoff has not as sharply split along ideological lines as much as it has on issues of experience and racial identity. Valenzuela, a former Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board member, and her allies are hammering Olson over her time as human resources director for the Dallas Independent School District. Valenzuela and her supporters are also touting that she would be the first Afro-Latina to serve in Congress. Olson is white.

But the divide might be clearest in South Texas, where the winner of the state Senate runoff between Lucio and Barrera will be the overwhelming favorite to win the seat in November.

I’ve said repeatedly that beating Eddie Lucio in SD27 will do more for progressives than beating Henry Cuellar in CD28 ever could have done, because of the relative sizes of the two legislative bodies and the outsized influence Lucio has in the 12-member (for now) Dem Senate caucus. Lucio is terrible, and I’m delighted that that particular race has finally gotten the attention it needs. I think one reason why maybe it didn’t get as much attention earlier is because Sara Stapleton Barrera isn’t necessarily “the” progressive candidate in that race. If Ruben Cortez had finished second, people would be rallying behind him now. This race is much more about Eddie Lucio, and I’d say it’s only now that we’re down to one candidate against him that the race has been viewed through that lens.

As for CD10, I mostly shrug my shoulders. I think Medicare For All is a fine goal to work towards, but Medicare For Those Who Want To Buy Into It is much more easily achieved in the short term, with far less disruption to the existing system and far less resistance from people whose employer-based (possibly collectively-bargained) plan is just fine for them. If we’re lucky enough to have a Democratic Senate in 2021, I think what can get passed by that Senate is what we’re going to get. Will having more pro-Medicare For All members of Congress affect that outcome? Maybe. It’s hard to say. I like Mike Siegel and would vote to give him a second chance to topple Mike McCaul if I lived in CD10, but I think either Siegel or Pritesh Gandhi will be a fine addition to Congress and a major upgrade over the incumbent. Same in CD24, with Kim Olson and Candace Valenzuela, each a good candidate with different strengths and appeals but no major differences on policy.

The race that definitely has the potential to have a big effect is the Travis County DA race, where the ideological lines are clear and the ability for the upstart to make a difference if they win is great, though not unbound. Please feel free to set a good example for the rest of us, Travis County.

As for whether this is another step in a long march towards more liberal candidates and officeholders, I’d say yes, and that we’ve already been on that march for a long time. Ideological sorting is a thing that has been happening for a few decades now. You can see the effect just in recent years – the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008 included a lot of candidates whose politics included “fiscal responsibility”, support from the NRA, opposition to same-sex marriage, immigration restrictionism, and a host of other views that were very much not shared with the class of 2018. The Democratic Party is a big tent, which means there will always be room for vicious family fights over various issues. Having some number of Never Trumpers inside that tent will just make it all more exciting. It’s fine, and I’d rather be dynamic than stagnant. And every primary and primary runoff, the main emotion many of us will feel will be “thank prime that’s over, now let’s please get on to the general election”. Same as it ever was.

Kaylynn Williford

Goodbye, and good riddance.

The head prosecutor for Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s trial division resigned Monday after posting a meme on Facebook last week that equated protesters who remove Confederate statutes with Nazis.

The meme posted by the veteran prosecutor last week shows a black-and-white photograph of hands holding an overflowing bin of rings.

It says, “Wedding bands that were removed from Holocaust victims prior to being executed, 1945. Each ring represents a destroyed family. Never forget, Nazis tore down statues. Banned free speech. Blamed economic hardships on one group of people. Instituted gun control. Sound Familiar?”

Assistant District Attorney Kaylynn Williford said in a statement that she took down the post after a friend’s daughter and later a Jewish lawyer told her they found it offensive to compare the two groups. Williford, a 28-year-veteran of the office who has tried major capital cases, said this was never her intent.

She posted it, she said, because she thought it was “thought provoking and promoted tolerance.”

You can see what she posted in that earlier story, which came out over the weekend. I held off on posting about this mostly because I wanted to see what the reaction from the DA’s office was going to be first. A group of Democratic State Reps had called for her resignation earlier in the day, and eventually got what they asked for. All I can say is that if Kaylynn Williford really truly had no idea that her stupid image was offensive and why it was offensive, then she should have been fired years ago and should never get on Facebook again. Even if you were to somehow grant her some kind of Sleeping Beauty-level exemption for deeply childlike innocent ignorance, the controlling principle of “don’t post political shit to Facebook if you don’t understand it” should apply. You know the old saying about how it’s better to keep silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt? It was for situations like this that it was first uttered. Keri Blakinger has more.

Runoff reminder: County races

Previously: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House.

There were a ton of contested county race primaries in Harris County, with all of the countywide offices except one HCDE position featuring at least three candidates. When the dust settled, however, there wree only a few races still ongoing, with one on Commissioners Court and one Constable race being the ones of greatest interest. Fort Bend County saw a lot of action as well, with two countywide races plus one Commissioners Court race going into overtime. Here’s a review of the races of interest.

Harris County – Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

This is the open seat left by long-tenured Steve Radack, which has always been a Republican stronghold but which has trended Democratic in recent years. Beto of course carried Precinct 3, by four points, after Hillary Clinton came close to winning it in 2016. Other statewide candidates (Mike Collier, Justin Nelson, Kim Olson) also won Precinct 3, though the Democratic countywide candidates from 2018 all fell short. It’s there for the taking, but it can’t be taken for granted. The top candidates to emerge from the large field of Democratic hopefuls were Diana Martinez Alexander and Michael Moore. Moore was the bigger fundraiser as of January – we’ll see soon how the current finance period has gone; Alexander’s January filing came in later, after I had published that post. Alexander is a grassroots favorite who has been super busy on Facebook, while Moore has the endorsements of incumbent Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, as well as the endorsement of the Chronicle. You can see other Democratic group endorsements on the invaluable Erik Manning spreadsheet. They participated in the first 2020 Democratic Candidates Facebook Debates here. My interview with Diana Alexander is here, and my interview with Michael Moore is here.

Harris County – Constable, Precinct 2

This is the race with the problematic incumbent and Not That Jerry Garcia. The thing you need to know is that in the end, the incumbent, Chris Diaz, was forced into a runoff against the good Jerry Garcia, who was listed on the primary ballot as “Jerry Garca (Harris County Lieutenant)”. Garcia led the way with 39% to Diaz’s 33%. If you live in Constable Precinct 2, please vote for Jerry Garcia in the runoff.

Harris County – Other runoffs

Justice of the Peace, Precinct 5, Place 1: Israel Garcia (48.1%) versus Roel Garcia (30.5%)

Constable, Precinct 3: Sherman Eagleton (incumbent, 47.5%) versus Ken Jones (16.1%)

Constable, Precinct 5: Randy Newman, who doesn’t appear to have a Facebook page (43.4%) versus Mark Alan Harrison (34.3%).

I confess, I know little about these race. Look at the Erik Manning spreadsheet to see who got what endorsements. Based on available information, I’d lean towards Eagleton, Israel Garcia, and Harrison, but please do your own research as well.

Those of you with keen eyes may have noticed there are two other unsettled Harris County races to discuss. Both of these will be decided by the precinct chairs in August. I’ll discuss them in a separate post.

Fort Bend County

County Attorney: Bridgette Smith-Lawson (45.2%) versus Sonia Rash (37.8%)
Sheriff: Geneane Hughes (35.2%) versus Eric Fagan (35.1%)
Commissioners Court, Precinct 1: Jennifer Cantu (41.8%) versus Lynette Reddix (25.6%)

The Sheriff candidates are seeking to replace incumbent Troy Nehls, currently in a nasty runoff for CD22. Nehls has not resigned from his position for reasons unknown to me. I presume he’ll do so if he clinches that nomination, but who knows what he’ll do if he doesn’t. Nehls is awful, either of these candidates would be a big upgrade. County Attorney (and also Tax Assessor) is an open seat whose incumbent has in fact announced his retirement. Commissioners Court Precinct 1 is a race against a first-term incumbent who had ousted Democrat Richard Morrison in 2016. I wrote about all the Fort Bend County races here, and unfortunately don’t have anything to add to that. I’d love to hear from someone who has a strong opinion in these races.

Travis County – District Attorney

Jose Garza (44.3%) versus Margaret Moore (incumbent, 41.1%)

As a bonus, this is the highest profile county race runoff. First term incumbent Margaret Moore faces former public defender Jose Garza in a race that will have national attention for its focus on police reform, with a side order of how sexual assault cases are handled thrown in. Garza has an impressive list of national endorsements, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and more recently Julian Castro. Austin has been one of the hotter spots for police violence, so this is a race that could have a big effect on how the reform movement moves forward.

Hope this has been useful for you. I’ll have a brief look at the judicial runoffs next to wrap this up.

Steps towards more transparency

Step One:

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Friday he is reviewing an internal audit of the Houston Police Department’s embattled narcotics division and will send the results of the probe to state lawmakers who have called for its public release.

Turner revealed the news days after state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, authored a letter signed by seven other House members that called on Police Chief Art Acevedo to publicly release the audit’s findings.

Acevedo ordered the internal probe after the deadly 2019 raid at 7815 Harding St., which ended with the deaths of the home’s two residents and left four police officers shot. Investigators subsequently said that the officer who orchestrated the raid lied to get the warrant used in the operation. That officer, Gerald Goines, has been charged with murder and faces federal civil rights charges.

Twice in the last two weeks, Turner has declined to say whether the audit should be released, and he had not admitted to reviewing it himself until Friday. He said he is giving lawmakers access to the audit as long as they promise not to reveal it to the public.

“As I go through the audit — and I’m going through it now — you don’t want to disclose the identity of officers who have been acting undercover and expose them to risk,” Turner said after a roundtable on police reform at City Hall. “But I do understand the importance of making it available to our legislative colleagues, so that they can see it for themselves.”

[…]

Wu on Friday said it was not enough to release the audit only to lawmakers.

“This is an investigation of a public agency, of public servants’ wrongdoing,” he said. “It’s absolutely 100 percent in the public interest and right to know what public servants are doing. I cannot imagine we would tolerate this from any other city or state agency where we suspected rogue employees or individuals. The public not only has a right to know, it needs to know.”

Rosenthal echoed Wu in calling for the report to go directly to the public, not House members.

“Taxpayers paid for that report, they pay for that department, it belongs to the people,” Rosenthal said. “I’m disappointed they would ask us to not send it to the people. Our ask was that it be made public.”

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he “appreciates” Turner’s decision to allow lawmakers to review the audit.

“I think it’s important in this time that transparency is there. In a strong mayor form of government, that is a call the mayor can make,” he said. “I still think it should be public, that hasn’t changed.”

I say again, release the audit. If there are some people named in it who are not under any suspicion or who have no connection to the underlying problems, then go ahead and redact them out of it. Otherwise, I agree completely with what the representatives are saying. This is information for the public.

Step Two:

A group of 20 marched through drizzling rain on the downtown Houston streets Friday where thousands had just gathered for George Floyd, now demanding justice for a Hispanic man killed by police in April.

The rally ended in front of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, where about a dozen more supporters joined and called for Houston police to release body camera footage of the incident in which 27-year-old Nicolas Chavez was fatally shot by lawmen while, according to a cell-phone video of the encounter, on his knees.

“I know that they’re going to make him look bad and they’re going to try to justify what they did,” said his mother, Leantha Chavez. “In the end, it doesn’t matter what he did. He was on his knees when they shot him and he was unarmed.”

Chavez’s family and friends emphasized that he seemed to be undergoing a mental crisis. His 5-year-old son stood nearby during the gathering outside of the courthouse, holding a sign that read, “Abolish the police!”

Houston Police Department spokesman Kese Smith said while the family viewed their footage, the agency needs to consult with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office before releasing video to the public.

“The family’s wishes are obviously a very important part of it, but we have to have conversations with the District Attorney’s Office as well,” Smith said.

“We are certainly available to police if they want to discuss concerns about body cam videos or any other evidence,” said Dane Schiller, spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “We independently review all officer-involved shootings and we present all the evidence in every instance to a grand jurors, regardless of whether it has previously been made public, so they can determine whether a criminal charge is warranted.”

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has asked the FBI to review the April 21 death of Chavez. He called the cell phone video “difficult” to watch but has yet to make public any of the police department’s roughly 70 videos that captured the shooting.

The whole point of body cameras, and the reason why there was such a demand for them in recent years, is precisely because they can shed light on contentious and disputed interactions between the police and the public. If the DA needs some time to review the footage to determine whether or not to bring charges, that’s fine, but let’s not draw this out any longer than necessary. This is, again, information for the public. Let’s act accordingly.

Meanwhile, the jail is filling up again

We really need to do something about this.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Harris County Jail population has been steadily rising since late April and is now approaching its pre-pandemic capacity despite early efforts to curb crowding, according to the sheriff’s office.

With an influx of inmates anticipated during the summer months, the jail is facing a “serious crisis,” according to a report Tuesday that a sheriff’s representative classified as “sobering.”

The update about the jail population came in a study the county commissioned from the Justice Management Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit that works with government agencies to make their courts and jails more efficient.

“The justice system has been struggling since Hurricane Harvey,” Tom Eberly, the organization’s program director announced in video testimony before Harris County Commissioner’s Court. “Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, the justice system is on the verge of collapse in your county.”

If the anticipated pace of bookings follows previous patterns, the county could reach 10,000 inmates by Labor Day, according to the nonprofit group’s calculations. And the courts were already backed up before the virus, officials said.

[…]

The lawyers challenging the county’s bail system, who lost a bid for an injunction to order coronavirus releases, said thousands of felony defendants are stuck at the jail awaiting trial simply because they can’t pay cash bail. The vast majority of the population is made up of up pretrial felony detainees.

“Their constitutional rights are being violated, and their health and safety are being jeopardized by COVID-19, which is rampant at the jail,” said Neal Manne, of Susman Godfrey, who works pro bono on the bail cases. “Though Sheriff Gonzales wants to solve the problem, he can’t solve it by himself. No one else is doing anything other than talking about it, week after week, month after month, as COVID-19 surges.”

In the meantime, coronavirus infections have continued to increase, with 993 inmates testing positive since the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic has cramped the jail’s holding capacity, which changes day to day depending upon how many people are quarantined and how much the jail staff must space them out on the cell blocks to help prevent the spread of the virus. For example, 835 inmates who have had the virus and remain in custody have now recovered. But 778 are being kept in observational quarantine, meaning they are not showing symptoms, but they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Another 600-plus people are housed in what the jail calls “buffer quarantine” because they are new to the jail, according to the sheriff’s office. And nearly 300 convicted inmates are ready to be transferred to state prison but Texas Department of Criminal Justice is not accepting them during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the jail population is increasing by 115 inmates per week and as of May 1, the county had more than 36,000 pending felony cases, Eberly said. If no new felony arrests were made in the coming months, it would still take 13 months to dispose of the backlog, he said.

However, if the system keeps shuffling along as is, it will take 4½ years to catch up, the study found.

Statewide, jail populations also decreased in the first months of the pandemic and have begun rising going into the summer, a normal trend outside of the unusual circumstances this year, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Population spikes at county jails largely stem from backlogs in the courts, he said.

“It’s going to be incumbent on Harris County to manage its jail population properly,” Wood said.

You have to wonder how much worse this would be if there were a bunch of misdemeanor inmates awaiting trial because they couldn’t make bail as well. There’s basically three things we can do here. One is to release a bunch of the low-risk inmates who couldn’t come up with the cash for bail. That’s on the judges and the District Attorney, and while there’s been some movement on that, there could be a lot more. Two is to get the courts to the point where they can make a dent in that backlog, which is going to be a hell of a challenge given the fact that the court buildings are still suffering from Harvey, and oh yeah, that global pandemic. Maybe just consider dropping a bunch of low-level charges, divert as many drug charges as possible, and offer as many deferred adjudication deals as possible. There’s some risk to this approach, but what we’re doing right now is not sustainable. And three, maybe now is a good time to just stop arresting people on low-level drug possession charges. Turn down the incoming spigot, and stop adding to the problem. I don’t know where this ends, but the direction we’re going right now doesn’t lead anywhere good.

DA dismisses charges against most protesters

Good.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday dismissed almost 800 cases filed against protesters arrested during the George Floyd demonstrations last week in Houston.

In total, prosecutors dropped 796 charges filed against 654 protesters, District Attorney Kim Ogg said. Many of those cases were cited in court filings as being dismissed “in the interest of justice.”

Charges still remain against 51 adults and one juvenile accused of 35 misdemeanors and 19 felonies, Ogg said. Those include weapons offenses and charges of aggravated assault of a peace officer.

Prosecutors made their decisions by looking at “people who sought to do harm (to) others and property vs. those arrested for simple civil disobedience,” according to a news release.

“The job of the prosecutor is to seek individualized justice in every case,” Ogg said. “While probable cause existed for the arrests of those people who refused to disperse after being ordered to do so by police, our young prosecutors worked hard to identify the few offenders who came to inflict harm on others and intentional damage to property.”

The dismissed cases were nonviolent misdemeanors, mostly obstructing a highway and trespassing.

[…]

Monique Sparks, of the Houston Protestors’ Defense Team, commended the DA’s office for dismissing some charges. She said her group, which is representing protesters for free, is now focused on expunging charges from their clients’ records.

“What it shows is that our DA’s office is on board with what the Constitution says,” Sparks said. “We think this is a good start.”

The protesters will be informed of avenues to take if they want to file civil lawsuits, Sparks said. The district attorney’s office will work to help expunge the cases from the protesters’ records, although they might need representation to do so, Ogg said.

They might also need cash to do that. As Sarah Wood, policy director at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, noted in the story, an expunction can cost hundreds of dollars in fees, including attorney’s fees. It would have been much better all around if these folks had been not arrested in the first place. Which, again, is a big part of the point that the protesters have been trying to make – far too much police activity is geared towards behavior that doesn’t actually threaten public safety, but does put a lot of ordinary people into the criminal justice system, and all of the harm that brings with it. Consider how many of these protesters might be in jail right now and for who knows how much longer if the DA had been willing to press charges and if Harris County was still requiring cash bail for even the most low-level offenses. And then consider the risk they would be in from COVID-19 in that scenario. We made significant progress on bail, but most of the problem is upstream from there. We can, we should, we must change this.

Dutton’s colleagues ask for investigation of Natasha Ruiz

Hey, look, it’s actual election news!

Rep. Harold Dutton

Nearly the entire Harris County Democratic legislative delegation has asked the county attorney and district attorney to open a criminal investigation into the candidacy of a Texas House candidate whose existence was called into question after this year’s March election.

The candidate, one of four in the primary race for state Rep. Harold Dutton’s seat, received enough votes to help force Dutton, a longtime Houston Democrat, into a runoff this year.

“We are concerned that more than 2500 Harris County voters may have been duped into voting for a non-existent candidate, a serious theft of those voters’ most important right, and three legitimate candidates were harmed by the crimes committed,” reads the March 18 letter, which was signed by every delegation member except Dutton and released to a Tribune reporter on Thursday. “We request that your offices coordinate an immediate investigation into the events documented in the attached memo and take appropriate prosecutorial action at the earliest possible time.”

Dutton was the only Democrat from Houston not to sign the letter.

[…]

Dutton, who had previously said he had hired a private investigator to look into the matter, told the Tribune on Thursday that he was not involved with the delegation’s letter to Ogg and Ryan and was focused on winning the runoff election, which is now slated for mid-July instead of May.

“I hope someone takes a look at the system that allows this to happen and cleans it up so that it can’t happen again,” he said. “If there are people who have engaged in a conspiracy, I hope that law enforcement will deal with them in the proper context.”

The delegation’s letter also included an attached “Indices of Election Fraud,” which detailed the background of the long-winding drama and “known facts indicating election fraud.”

See here and here for the background. The letter sent by the delegation is here, and the “Indices of Fraud” attachment is here. The latter is the more interesting, and contains the most new information. It suggests strongly that the person originally identified as “Natasha Demming” is not the person who filed for a spot on the ballot, but was perhaps a victim of identity theft. What I had considered to be the wilder option, that someone impersonated this person when they filed for this seat, appears to be the more likely explanation based on what the delegation claims.

So yeah, this should be investigated. Start by talking to the private eye that Dutton hired, and talk to all the political insiders to see what crazy things they might have heard about this. The big question here isn’t who did this (if it really was a deliberate attempt to put a sham candidate on the ballot) but why they did it. If the intent was to hurt Dutton’s re-election chances, it seems to me that there are more straightforward ways to do that than putting an impostor on the ballot in the hope of forcing Dutton into a runoff that maybe he’d lose. (What do you think might have happened if Dutton’s runoff opponent had been Natasha Ruiz, for example?) For sure, if there is someone behind this, maybe that person isn’t the most clear-headed thinker you’ve ever known. Whatever the case, getting a handle on the motivation might at least point you in the direction of a suspect. There doesn’t appear to be much physical evidence (unless maybe someone managed to take a picture of “Natasha Ruiz”), so if this gets cracked it’ll be because someone talked. Find out who that might be, and the rest may follow.

UPDATE: And indeed, there will be an investigation.

The Harris County Attorney’s office told the Houston Chronicle on Thursday that it was looking into the matter.

The county’s District Attorney Kim Ogg responded to the delegation in late March by saying that she had forwarded the case to the public corruption division but could not confirm or deny whether it was under investigation.

“Please be assured that the protection of our democratic election process, along with enforcement of all related laws, is a top priority for my administration and that your complaint will be addressed by this office,” Ogg wrote.

Not exactly sure why it’s the County Attorney jumping in on this, but whatever. I very much look forward to seeing the results.

RIP, Ronnie Earle

The iconic former Travis County District Attorney has passed away.

Ronnie Earle

Ronnie Earle, who served as Travis County district attorney for more than 30 years and was best known for prosecuting some of Texas’ top politicians and for championing the community justice system, died Sunday after a long illness. He was 78.

“He was a great guy,” said friend and former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd. “He always wanted to get things right and he had a good sense of what was right for community. That was what he always wanted to be the goal and objective.”

Todd said Earle’s health has been declining for some time.

Through the county’s Public Integrity Unit, which he founded, Earle prosecuted some of the state’s top politicians — including then-Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox, then-U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay — with mixed success.

A jury acquitted Mattox and the case against Hutchison became a high-profile failure when charges were dismissed. DeLay was convicted of a money laundering charge, but that conviction was later overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

But closest to Earle’s heart were his efforts at the forefront of community justice, a catchall name for programs that had caught on in prosecutors’ offices nationwide that aim to attack crime by, in his words, “engaging the community in its own protection.”

Earle established programs for crime prevention, alternative sentencing and the reintegration of former offenders into society. He also brought officials from a range of fields together.

He also ran for Lt. Governor in 2010 but lost in the primary. The late and lamented Public Integrity Unit was a weird way of prosecuting crimes committed by state officials, but it worked pretty well, and we have seen quite clearly since the Republicans killed it off that we didn’t have any better alternatives at hand. If the PIU were still a thing, we would get some kind of resolution to the Ken Paxton saga, not this ridiculously drawn-out process that has been at the mercy of Paxton’s cronies in Collin County and may yet end up in a forfeit. Whatever you think of the case against him, that ain’t no way to do justice. Ronnie Earle would have handled it better. Rest in peace, sir.

2020 primary results: Harris County

Let’s start with this.

Long lines combined with a lack of voting machines turned into frustration for voters at several election sites in Harris County on Super Tuesday.

Margaret Hollie arrived at the Multi Service Center on Griggs Road at 11 a.m. She finished just after 2:45 p.m.

“It was horrible,” she said. “The worst since I’ve been voting. And I’ve been voting for 60 years.”

She decided to stick around and vote at the location in the city’s South Union area. Others did not, opting to find polling sites that were less busy. Under recent changes implemented by county leaders, voters can now cast their ballot at any precinct.

In Kashmere Gardens, at another Multi Service Center, the line of voters stretched from the entrance of the voting room to the exit of the facility.

Bettie Adami was one of about 100 people in the line about 4 p.m. Healthcare, higher paying jobs and raising the minimum wage top the list of her concerns this election season.

She isn’t letting the line prevent her from voting. “I’ll stand as long as I have to to cast my vote,” she said.

[…]

The county’s political parties are in charge of deciding which polling places will be open for primary elections, said [Rosio Torres, a spokesperson for the Harris County] Clerk’s office.

DJ Ybarra, Executive Director of the Harris County Democratic Party , said the decision was made to not include some polling locations in negotiations with Republicans to keep countywide voting in the primary. The parties agreed on the final map of polling locations in January, said Ybarra.

“In that negotiation, we had to come up with what locations we wanted,” said Ybarra. “We wish we could have had more locations, but we had to negotiate and we had to keep countywide voting.

“In the future, we’re going to try our best to get all our polling locations we want earlier in the process, so we’re not put in a position where we don’t have all the locations we want,” Ybarra said.

To sum that up in a couple of tweets:

In other words, there were about twice as many Dems voting yesterday as there were Republicans, but there were an equal number of Dem and Rep voting machines, which is the way it works for separate primaries. Had this been a joint primary as Trautman’s office originally proposed and which the HCDP accepted, each voting machine at each site could have been used for either primary. Oh well.

I had asked if the judicial races were basically random in a high-turnout election like this. The answer is No, because in every single judicial election where there was a male candidate and a female candidate, the female candidate won, often by a large margin. That means the end for several incumbents, including Larry Weiman, Darryl Moore, Randy Roll, Steven Kirkland, and George Powell, some of which I mourn more than others. Alex Smoots-Thomas, who had a male challenger and a female challenger, trails Cheryl Elliott Thornton going into a runoff. I saw a lot of mourning on Twitter last night of Elizabeth Warren’s underperformance and the seeming reluctance many people had to vote for a woman for President. Well, at least in Harris County, many many people were happy to vote for women for judge.

Three of the four countywide incumbents were headed to victory. In order of vote share, they are Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett, and DA Kim Ogg. In the County Attorney race, challenger Christian Menefee was just above fifty percent, and thus on his way to defeating three-term incumbent Vince Ryan without a runoff. I thought Menefee would do well, but that was a very strong performance. Even if I have to correct this today and say that he fell just short of a clear majority, it’s still quite impressive.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis easily won, with over 70%. Michael Moore and Diana Martinez Alexander were neck and neck in Precinct 3, with Kristi Thibaut a few points behind in third place.

Unfortunately, as I write this, Democrats were on their way towards an own goal in HCDE Position 7, At Large. Andrea Duhon, who is already on the Board now, was leading with just over 50%. If that holds, she’ll have to withdraw and the Republican – none other than Don Freaking Sumners – will be elected in November. If we’re lucky, by the time all the votes have been counted, she’ll drop below fifty percent and will be able to withdraw from the runoff, thus allowing David Brown, currently in second place, to be the nominee. If not, this was the single lousiest result of the day.

Got a lot of other ground to cover, so let’s move on. I’ll circle back to some other county stuff tomorrow.

Endorsement watch: Ogg and Moore

Two (*) big endorsements on Sunday, in the races for District Attorney and Commissioners Court, Precinct 3. Let’s do the thing.

Kim Ogg for District Attorney:

Kim Ogg

“We are in the midst of righting a lot of wrongs,” Ogg told the Editorial Board during a meeting with all four candidates in the race. “What needs to be done is the prosecution of the officers involved, the reform of the way we prosecute and, eventually, the reform of the way drug cases are investigated.”

That’s a lot of talk of change for an incumbent who has left herself open to attack over her apparent tepidness on bail reform, most notably her last-minute objection last year to the settlement in the lawsuit over misdemeanor cash bail. Two of her opponents — senior prosecutors who left the district attorney’s office last year — have centered their campaigns on arguments that she’s failed to live up to her own reform pledges.

It’s true — Ogg has expressed concerns about the way the bail reform agreement has been implemented. But voters shouldn’t mistake her calls to tap the breaks — even if her foot is sometimes a little heavy — as a disavowal of her record, which is overwhelmingly for change.

During her first term, she has supported bail reform, expanded jail diversion for low-level misdemeanor offenders with mental health issues, and implemented a diversion program for people caught with small amounts of marijuana, cutting pot arrests by more than half and saving the county millions. She was years ahead of other reform-minded district attorneys in America’s big cities, from Dallas to Philadelphia.

I would encourage you to go listen to the interviews I did with the three main DA candidates (Todd Overstreet isn’t running a visible campaign) if you haven’t done so already: Kim Ogg, Carvana Cloud, Audia Jones. The Chron endorsement does a good job of capturing what this race is about, however you feel about the candidates. Kim Ogg has made real progress, not as much as people might have liked or expected and not without some missteps and backsliding, in an office and a culture that was long overdue for that kind of change. Whether you think she can and should have done more, and whether you think she can and should be doing it at a more rapid pace, will inform your vote in the primary.

Michael Moore for County Commissioner, Precinct 3:

Michael Moore

Moore’s attention to detail and practical focus on flood mitigation, infrastructure, traffic, an underfunded hospital district and other challenges in a growing region are why we recommend him for Precinct 3 Commissioner in the Democratic primary.

Moore, 57, whose private sector work includes communications for BP and regional vice president for Texas Central Partners’ high-speed rail, is well-versed in the intricacies of issues and policies that face county government. Thanks to his communications background, he can also explain the stuff in plain English.

White, his former boss, vouches for Moore’s “servant’s heart and personal integrity.” And Moore is trying to prove that White’s brand of bipartisan pragmatism isn’t passé in this increasingly polarized political climate. His pledge to “work with anyone, anywhere to get results” may not charm partisans, but it’s a more productive mentality than sometimes prevails among Democrats on the court these days.

While Moore has insider cred, he pledges to govern with transparency and efficiency. Based on his six-year track record with White, we believe him.

Let me tout my interviews here as well: Diana Alexander, Michael Moore, Morris Overstreet, Kristi Thibaut. The Chron didn’t think Overstreet or Alexander had sufficient relevant experience, and didn’t think Thibaut articulated a good case for herself. You can listen to the interviews and judge that for yourself.

The endorsements we are still waiting for: US Senate, Congress (all races), Railroad Commissioner, Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals, SD13, Tax Assessor, HCDE, and County Commissioner, Precinct 1.

(*) – They also endorsed Brenda Stardig on the Republican side for Precinct 3, and Amy Klobuchar for President, which shocks me not at all.