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Harris County Sheriff

Republican Commissioners abscond again

Cowards.

Republicans Tom Ramsey of Precinct 3 and Jack Cagle of Precinct 4 skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting as part of an ongoing battle of political wills that could extend until the deadline for approving a tax rate passes at the end of October.

The decision prompted the three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court to go into an executive session to discuss with the county attorney’s office whether they have legal options to compel the two missing commissioners to attend. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had little to report after the session but said the county attorney’s office is researching options.

The court will consider the tax rate again at its next meeting on Oct. 11, potentially forcing the two Republican commissioners to make a similar decision next month if they have not reached a compromise by then.

Hidalgo opened the meeting alternately lambasting Ramsey and Cagle’s absence and lamenting the potential impacts of the county’s inability to approve its proposed tax rate.

“Our hospital system will operate at a $45 million deficit,” Hidalgo said. “A cadet class will be at risk.”

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the property tax rate.

See here and here for the background. There’s apparently some talk of a compromise, which would need to happen soon, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Giving this much power to a governing minority is the problem here. I don’t know what legal options the majority has, but I do know that the Speaker of the House has the authority to call upon the Texas Rangers to round up legislative quorum-busters, which is why they always flee the state. Maybe Judge Hidalgo can call on the Sheriff to pick up the wayward Commissioners and haul them into the meeting room so that the legal requirement of at least four members being present can be met? I suppose if this happens the next thing we’ll hear about is Angela Paxton driving them away, probably as they hunch down in the back seat of her SUV, for the safety of the suburbs. Just for the comedy value, I’d like to see this scenario play out. I won’t hold my breath for it.

Republican Commissioners skip out again

Cowards.

Harris County’s two Republican commissioners skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, preventing county leaders from passing a property tax rate and proposed budget for the next fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1.

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the tax rate. With only the court’s three Democrats present, the county was forced to adopt what is known as the no new revenue rate, a levy that brings in the same amount of property tax revenue as last year.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the two Republican commissioners “don’t have a plan, they have a campaign ad.”

Hidalgo added that Ramsey and Cagle’s decision to skip the budget vote defunds law enforcement by millions of dollars.

[…]

With the adoption of the no new revenue rate instead of the proposed rate, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will lose out on $5.3 million in proposed increases. The Sheriff’s Office will lose $16.6 million for patrol and administration, plus another $23.6 million for detention.

In response to that funding difference, Dane Schiller, spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement: “It is crucial that our criminal-justice system be properly funded – the right number of deputies, courthouse staff and prosecutors – and it is up to our elected leaders to set funding priorities.”

Overall, the $2.1 billion budget will be $108 million less than the county had proposed.

The loss of the proposed increases for law enforcement comes after efforts by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar that briefly blocked the county from considering its $2.2 billion budget proposal.

The court had moved forward last week with the budgeting process after a lawyer for the state acknowledged in a Travis County courtroom that the comptroller had no authority to block the county from approving its budget. Hegar can take action only after the budget is approved and if it violates a new state law that bars local governments from reducing spending on law enforcement.

See here for the background. Yes, the Republican Commissioners have done this before. The Constitution allows for this form of minority rule. That doesn’t mean I have to respect it. The main thing I will say here is that I never want to hear any Republican whine about “defunding the police” again, not after the ridiculous bullshit we’ve had to endure from the Comptroller and now from these two clowns, who will be fully responsible for cutting the Sheriff and District Attorney’s budgets. Move on to something else, this has lost all meaning.

Comptroller caves on phony “defunding” claim

In the end, he folded like a lawn chair.

Harris County is moving through the process of passing a fiscal 2023 budget with a 1 percent dip in the property tax rate, after the specter of the state blocking its approval eased in a Travis County courtroom Tuesday.

Prospects for approval of that $2.2 billion budget and the new tax rate next week remain unknown, however, hinging on whether enough members of Commissioners Court show up.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, despite recently threatening to block Harris County’s proposed budget over its alleged defunding of law enforcement, has not formally determined that the county violated state law or otherwise taken action to prevent county leaders from adopting a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a state attorney said in court Tuesday.

The acknowledgment came as part of a county lawsuit challenging Hegar’s claims, including those from a letter last month in which the Republican comptroller told county officials they would need voter approval to pass their budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

Commissioners Court moved ahead with its budgeting process in the meantime, meeting Tuesday to consider the county’s property tax rate — a procedural step before the court can vote on next year’s budget. Officials first must propose the tax rate, the step taken Tuesday, then hold a public hearing, scheduled for Sept. 13. At that meeting, provided enough commissioners show up, the court can approve the rate and the budget.

On a 3-2 vote, the court on Tuesday proposed the overall tax rate for the county — comprising four rates covering county operations, the Harris Health system, the flood control district and the Port of Houston — at 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. That represents about a 1 percent decrease from the current rate of 58.1 cents per $100.

[…]

In an emergency hearing before Travis County state District Judge Lora Livingston, attorney Will Thompson of the Texas Attorney General’s Office — which is representing Hegar and Gov. Greg Abbott in the lawsuit by the county — said the dispute “may be a situation where there’s much ado about nothing and the parties are in more agreement than they realize.”

“The comptroller just has not made a final determination,” Thompson said. “He has not done anything that binds Harris County at this stage. Harris County remains free to adopt a budget, in its normal process, following its normal rules for having public meetings and things like that.”

Instead of ruling on Harris County’s request for a temporary order preventing Hegar from blocking Harris County’s budget, Livingston told attorneys for the county and state to, essentially, put Thompson’s comments in writing in a formal court filing. She gave the two sides until Wednesday afternoon to submit the document.

The statement from Thompson came a week after Harris County Administrator David Berry sent Hegar a letter asking him to clarify whether he had “made or issued a determination that Harris County’s proposed budget violates the law” or prevented the county from adopting a budget.

Hegar responded by encouraging Berry to resolve the issue with the Harris County constables who initially complained about their funding.

“I understand that you want assurances from my office, but only Harris County can resolve this issue and clear the path to adopt its budget,” Hegar wrote.

See here and here for the background. It’s very clear from the state’s response to the lawsuit is that they were bluffing the whole time and they knew it. This is why the lawsuit was the right response, despite the whining from Constables Heap and Herman. You don’t concede when you’re right. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, and County Attorney Menefee for properly fighting this.

The rest of the story is about whether the two Republican members of the Court will break quorum again in order to prevent the budget and property tax rate from being passed. I don’t feel like deciphering their eleven-dimensional chess strategy this time around, so let’s just wait and see what happens. If we get the election results we want, we won’t have to worry about these shenanigans again.

Harris County approves the option of suing Comptroller over baloney “defunding” claim

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Wednesday authorized a pair of private law firms to sue Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who accused the county of defunding law enforcement last week, forcing a halt to consideration of its $2.2 billion budget.

The move, approved by a 3-1 vote, came a week after Hegar sent a letter to county officials saying the court could not approve its proposed fiscal 2023 budget without approval of voters because of a change in policy that he said would result in the county funding two constable offices at a lower level in violation of a new state law.

The constables — Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap — had complained to Gov. Greg Abbott last year after the county changed its policy to do away with “rollover” budgeting that had allowed departments to keep unspent funds and use them in future budget cycles. Hegar’s letter said the change would result in the county, under its proposed budget, cutting funding to the two constable offices by $3 million.

[…]

In a letter to Hegar on Tuesday, County Administrator David Berry asked the Comptroller’s Office to clarify its investigation and whether it prevents the county from adopting a tax rate and budget.

The comptroller responded Wednesday by modifying his claim, alleging the proposed budget would result in a cut in law enforcement spending for a different reason — by comparing the proposed spending plan to this year’s 2022 short fiscal year budget, when broken down by month.

In addition to eliminating rollover budgeting, the county is changing its fiscal year to begin Oct. 1 rather than March 1. To accomplish that, Commissioners Court planned to pass two budgets this year. The first, a shortened budget, was approved in February and runs through September. The second, beginning Oct. 1, will span a full year.

Berry criticized the comptroller for using “fuzzy math,” saying the short fiscal year budget covered 16 pay periods.

“There’s no other reasonable way to do it,” he said. “When you properly annualize the budget, it’s clearly higher in FY23 (the proposed budget).”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Hegar’s second letter suggests the Comptroller’s Office is walking back its original defunding claim.

“They’re beginning to realize that the allegations they made make little sense,” Hidalgo said. “They’re moving away from talking about the rollover. They know that that’s absolutely nonsensical and are trying to take a different tack that also doesn’t make sense.”

Berry also took issue with the comptroller’s assertion the county should work the issue out with the constables.

“We believe we’ve complied with the law,” Berry said. “If the comptroller doesn’t, they have to explain. All we’ve gotten so far is some fuzzy math.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Commissioners Court hired two law firms to represent the county — Yetter Coleman LLP and Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP — in a split vote, with the court’s three Democrats in favor and Republican Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle opposed. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey was absent.

Hidalgo said she is willing to move forward through legal action or negotiation, but the county needs to be careful in how it responds to allegations of violating the new state law.

“I am pretty opposed to giving in to any kind of extortion,” Hidalgo said. “I don’t know what precedent that would set.”

See here for the background. This new explanation is even dumber and more insulting than the original one. Of course an eight-month budget is going to have less of pretty much everything in it than a 12-month budget. If the Comptroller had been at all serious about this, the matter could have been easily resolved. Instead, they charged ahead with this stupid allegation, which unfortunately comes with the power to prevent the county from passing a budget, a situation which as noted would result in an actual decrease in funding to the Sheriff and Constables. It’s like they looked around to make sure there was a rake in easy stepping distance before they moved forward.

The response from Harris County – minus Commissioner Cagle, of course – and Judge Hidalgo was entirely appropriate. The county cannot take lightly an accusation that it is violating the law. The fact that the accusation itself is completely specious is almost beside the point, but given that it is there are only two acceptable resolutions: The Comptroller retracts its claim and absolves Harris County of any alleged wrongdoing, so that it can pass its budget as planned, or we go to court and let them try to prove their foolish claims. No concessions, because there’s nothing to concede.

Which brings me to this:

Herman and Heap said the court’s action on Wednesday took them by surprise. The two Republican constables said they had met with county officials late last week and Monday and thought they had come up with a solution.

The pair, Herman said, had agreed to write letters saying their concerns had been resolved. Hegar would have to write his own letter rescinding his previous communications with the county.

“Both sides were agreeing,” Herman said. “We agreed to put this thing to rest.”

Then, he said, he learned that Hidalgo had put an item on the agenda for Wednesday’s special meeting to pursue possible legal action against Hegar.

“It’s almost like a slap in the face,” he said. “We’re kind of disappointed. We’ll see what happens.”

Herman said if the county continues forward with a strategy of suing Hegar, he and Heap would request their own legal counsel to represent their interests in the broadening fight.

In a brief text message, Heap confirmed he had met with county officials in recent days and echoed Herman’s frustration.

“We have been in negotiations with the office of budget management for several days and I was very encouraged with the progress,” he texted. “However, the actions of Commissioners court today as well as some of their post on social media platforms disappoint me.”

You dudes started this fight. If you don’t like the way the Court is finishing it, that’s tough. Maybe don’t be such crybabies next time.

Harris County looks to sue over Comptroller’s BS “defunding” claim

Tell it to the judge.

Harris County Commissioners Court this week is expected to hire an outside law firm to take legal action against the state and Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who accused the county of defunding law enforcement in violation of state law.

The accusation by Hegar, delivered in a letter to county Judge Lina Hidalgo last week, blocks Harris County from approving its proposed $2.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The court will hold a special meeting Wednesday to consider hiring the law firm of Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP to pursue legal action against Hegar and other state officials.

Hegar threw the curveball just before county officials presented their proposed spending plan last tuesday, saying the county should reconsider its budget plan or gain voter approval for it. The letter, however, was sent on Monday, the last day the county could get a measure onto the November ballot.

Senate Bill 23, passed by the Texas Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott last year, bars counties with a population of more than 1 million from cutting law enforcement spending without the approval of voters.

The defunding accusation was sparked by two Republican Harris County constables — Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap — who had complained to Gov. Greg Abbott after the county changed its policy last year to do away with “rollover” budgeting that had allowed departments to save unspent funds and use them in future budget cycles.

Herman and Heap did not respond to requests for comment.

In his letter, Hegar said doing away with the rollover funds resulted in a loss of $3 million previously dedicated to the constables office in fiscal 2021. However, by preventing the county from adopting its proposed budget, the letter could cost the sheriff, constables and district attorney’s office an additional $100 million in funding included in the new spending plan, county officials said.

On Wednesday, Commissioners Court could vote to authorize two outside law firms to file a lawsuit against the comptroller. If the county does pursue legal action, other state officials could be named, as well.

See here for the background on this completely ridiculous claim. The vote in Commissioners Court is today; I’ll be interested to see if it’s unanimous or not. I also have no idea what to expect from the courts, but I sure hope they get it right, because this is a terrible precedent to set otherwise. Finally, a special shoutout to Constables Herman and Heap for going radio silent after leaving this bag of poop on the Court’s front porch. Mighty courageous of you two there.

The Constables’ and Comptroller’s ridiculous complaint

This is transparent bullshit.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar this week accused Harris County commissioners of defunding local constables and threatened to prevent the county from implementing its proposed 2023 budget if the county does not reverse course.

In a letter sent late Monday, Hegar said the county’s move to do away with “rollover” budgeting led to more than $3 million dedicated to the constables last year being returned to the general fund.

“If the county proceeds with the Constable budget as proposed without obtaining voter approval, the county may not adopt an ad valorem tax rate that exceeds the county’s no-new-revenue tax rate,” Hegar wrote.

Harris County Administrator David Berry on Tuesday afternoon said Hegar’s position would prevent the county from adopting a budget that increases funding to Harris County Constables’ and Sheriff’s offices by “millions of dollars.”

“The Comptroller’s position would keep us from making these new investments,” he said, “which is contrary to the intent of SB 23. … I hope the Comptroller’s position does not prevent us from achieving our goal, and we look forward to working with the state to resolve this matter.

Berry said that in the past, county departments could “roll over” their unspent budget from one year to the next “with no questions asked.”

“This practice was unique to Harris County and is not the practice of other local governments,” he said. “Under the current policy, departments, including the Constable’s Offices, can request the use of unspent funds on vehicles, equipment, and other one-time expenses. The County has continued to support these investments.”

Paradoxically, by preventing Harris County from adopting the new tax rate, Hegar’s actions would prevent the county from implementing $96.7 million in increases to the sheriff and constable offices, and a proposed $10 million increase to the District Attorney’s Office.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman — one of the two constables who first raised the issue with Abbott — said he was “thankful” to the governor and to Hegar for looking into the matter.

“We look forward to a resolution one way or another,” he said, explaining that he and other constables had used their rollover funds to purchase new patrol cars and safety equipment, and in some cases, to pay employees’ salaries.

“All that’s been taken away from us,” he said. “What it’s come to is an elected official has no say in his own department, basically, and it’s jeopardized public safety and officer safety.”

[…]

Hegar said his investigation began after Harris County Precinct 4 and Precinct 5 Constables Mark Herman and Ted Heap wrote to the governor complaining about losing their “rollover” funds last year. Prior to County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s election in 2018, county commissioners had allowed county agencies to keep unspent funds, which “rolled over” into the following year’s budget. Constables used the money for a variety of projects and other issues — including paying for some staff.

Eva DeLuna Castro, who oversees budget and fiscal policy analysis for Every Texan, said that within state agencies, rolling over unspent money from one budget cycle to the next was permitted only in a very limited number of circumstances, and generally required the specific approval of the legislature.

After Hidalgo’s election, the county did away with the unusual budgeting technique and adopted more traditional budgeting practices — similar to what the state requires of its own agencies and their funding.

Hegar sent the letter to commissioners late last night — the deadline for when the county would potentially be able to add any voter initiatives to the ballot.

County officials disputed Hegar’s claims, noting that the decision to do away with rollover funds took place before SB23 went into effect. They also disputed Hegar’s numbers.

A review of county records show that the county allocated $205,290,000 to its constables in 2020. This year, its proposed budget includes a 13 percent increase to the constables budget, for a total of $231,491,249.

The two constables who first complained to Gov. Greg Abbott about losing their rollover funds have also seen increases to their budget. In 2020, Precinct 4 received about $57 million in funding; Precinct 5 received $44 million. This year, county commissioners have proposed giving Pct. 4 $65 million, while Pct. 5 is slated to receive more than $48 million.

I mean, come on:

1. Harris County is increasing its spending on public safety across the board.

2. The two Constables in question are each getting more money in this budget than in the previous one. The Constables overall are getting more money.

3. “Rollover budget” means unspent funds from the previous cycle. These two Constables didn’t even spend all the money they had been allocated before!

4. The practice of not rolling over funds is exactly how the state does its own budgeting, including for DPS.

From every angle this is ridiculous, and clearly driven by partisan motives – the two Constables in question are Republicans. I don’t expect to get better arguments about public policy from these clowns, but I am insulted that they can’t come up with a better pretext for their crap than this. Shame on everyone involved. The Trib has more.

HISD buys stuff for its police

Okay, but I hope the plan to deal with an active shooter has more than this in it.

Houston ISD trustees Thursday evening approved a measure to buy 200 rifles, ammunition and 200 ballistic shields for the district’s police department, which Superintendent Millard House II said last week was not prepared with its current equipment to stop an active shooter.

Trustees voted 6-3 on the purchase after spending roughly an hour in closed executive session discussing the item and about 20 minutes of intense discussion from the dais. Trustee Dani Hernandez proposed postponing the measure by a week because she was “not willing” to proceed without more specific information. That effort, however, failed with a 3-6 vote.

Earlier in the meeting, about a dozen speakers urged the board to delay the vote or to vote no.

“I need more information about the broader safety plan for the district in general. At this time, I don’t believe I have all the information I need,” Hernandez said before the vote. “I don’t think that we have explored all options at this point — safety is essential for HISD.”

HISD Police Chief Pete Lopez told the board last week he was confident in the training the police department had received but he did “not have a lot of confidence in preparing our officers to encounter a suspect without the proper equipment.” The equipment to be purchased would be used to help with scenario-based training to learn how to respond to such a threat.

“My officers are dedicated to our students and to our staff and regardless if we have the equipment or not, we are still going to respond,” Lopez said after the vote. “This act tonight will allow us to respond in a safer manner.”

The police gear will be for specific situations, not items that police will walk around with, House said.

“The bigger issue here is ensuring that they have all the tools possible so that they can be as safe as possible,” House said, “and provide the kind of safety that we want to provide on campuses.”

See here for the background. While in general I tend to think that most police departments have (and spend money on) too much stuff, I don’t have an opinion on this particular purchase. I’ll accept that they need it in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. I will just say again that all the manpower and equipment added up to diddly squat in Uvalde, so what I want – what I would think we would all want – is to know that there’s a plan in place for this kind of horrific scenario, and training in place to back it up. I still haven’t seen any talk about that, and that concerns me. Buying stuff is the easy part. Please reassure all of us that you’re at least working on the hard part, HISD.

How would HISD’s police respond to an active shooter incident?

It’s a question we would all rather not have to think about, but this is the world we live in. And at this time, the answer that Superintendent Millard House gave to that question was not reassuring.

Houston ISD’s police department would not be prepared should Texas’ largest school district be targeted by active shooter, Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday night.

“I don’t know that this has garnered community insight but what I do know is that, if there was an active shooter in HISD, our police department is not prepared,” House said during an agenda review meeting.

His remarks were in response to questioning from Trustee Dani Hernandez regarding an item the board is expected to vote on during next week’s meeting for purchase of items worth more than $100,000. The specific agenda item includes various purchases for the school district’s police department.

House said the district would be buying 200 rifles, 200 ballistic plate shields and rifle ammunition.

“As we study the Uvalde scenario and looked at what … proper preparation that needs to be in place, officers would not have been prepared for what that looks like,” House said.

[…]

Hernandez asked what research was guiding HISD, instead of feelings. House asked HISD police Chief Pete Lopez to share information in response to her question.

Lopez said research showed police who were better prepared helped in stopping a shooter faster. He was confident about training the district’s police force — estimated to be more than 200 employees — had received. But he did “not have a lot of confidence in preparing our officers to encounter a suspect without the proper equipment.” He said they needed scenario-based training to learn how to respond to such a threat.

The school district has about 195,000 students.

“The equipment that I’ve requested is to provide additional training to teach the officers how to breach the doors, how to use those shields and also quickly enter that room and neutralize the suspect,” Lopez said. “And of course save our students and our staff.”

Like I said, nobody wants to have to think about this. Given that we have to, there are two things that I want to know up front, based on what we have witnessed from Uvalde. One is that there is always a clear definition of who is in command at such a scene. While it’s unlikely that DPS and Border Patrol would show up at an HISD school wit an active shooter, HPD and the Sheriff’s office will almost certainly have officers on the scene. Make sure that there is a written policy that says who is the leader, so that we don’t have a nightmare situation where dozens of cops are waiting around for someone to tell them what to do. And two, the policy must also state that the top priority is going after the shooter, again to avoid a repeat of what happened at Robb Elementary. Everything else, from best practices to training to equipment to whatever else can be provided for. First and foremost, we have to make sure that there’s a commitment to stop the person or persons responsible for the shooting. You wouldn’t think this is a thing that needs to be said, and to be clearly spelled out in an official document for which there would be severe consequences for now following it, but it is and we do. So let’s make sure we have one. Campos has more.

More on finding Baby Holly

Everything about this story continues to fascinate me.

How did investigators find Holly Marie Clouse?

It all came down to a question about spelling — and a birth certificate.

In January, genealogists identified the bodies of Harold Dean Clouse and Tina Gail Linn, a young couple murdered and whose bodies were dumped in the woods east of Houston back in early 1981.

It was a significant break in a decades-old cold case. But that discovery led to a question — what had happened to the couple’s infant daughter?

The answer would come much more quickly. Last week, six months after the identities of the couple were made public, officials from the Texas Attorney General’s Office announced they’d found Holly, safe and well, living in Oklahoma.

During a brief news conference on June 9, First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster provided some of the information officials had about what had happened to Holly, saying that two women who identified themselves as “members of a nomadic religious group” left Holly at a church in Arizona.

That meant the child hadn’t been killed alongside her parents and was probably still alive.

Making the connection between the meeting at the church and Holly’s present-day whereabouts in Oklahoma came down to a question about spelling, people familiar with the case said.

After two genealogists identified the remains found in east Harris County as belonging to Dean and Tina, authorities in Lewisville opened up a missing person’s case related to Holly. It would eventually include investigators in Houston, Florida and Arizona.

As investigators and genealogists continued digging back into the case, they weren’t sure of how to spell Holly’s name: relatives had spelled it both as “Hollie” and “Holly.”

That confusion prompted genealogist Allison Peacock and one of Holly’s aunts to request the (now-grown) woman’s birth certificate from the Florida Department of Vital Records.

[…]

Holly — whose last name has changed — has not yet spoken publicly about her experiences. Her adoptive parents are not suspects in her birth parents’ killings, authorities have said.

Peacock, one of the two genealogists who investigated the mystery of Dean and Tina’s identity, said the saga showed the importance of seeking out documents and reviewing the record.

“In our wildest dreams we couldn’t have had any idea Holly’s birth certificate was attached to a legal adoption,” she said. “And certainly that a quest for the proper spelling of Holly’s name — and being a stickler for details — would end up leading to her being found alive and well.”

While two mysteries related to the murders of Tina and Dean have been solved, significant questions remain unanswered: who killed them and what did the killers have to do with the baby being left at a church in Arizona? Or did other people rescue the child and take her to safety?

One significant avenue of investigation that cold case detectives are examining is the group whose members gave Holly up at the church and other contacts the slain couple might have had with a cult or religious group.

See here, here, and here for the background. It took awhile and some political muscle to wrest the birth certificate from Florida because it had an adoption record attached to it. That’s a subject that will deserve a longer examination in the future prestige podcast or HBOMax series that I seriously hope comes out of this. As to tracking down the murder suspects and the weird religious people that dropped Holly off at the church, I have no idea what the prospects are for that. But we’ve come this far, so who knows. I’ll be ready to read about it when the next chapter drops.

Sheriff Gonzales withdraws from consideration for ICE

Not a big surprise at this point.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has withdrawn from consideration to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he confirmed Monday afternoon.

Gonzalez’s withdrawal comes 14 months after President Joe Biden first nominated him to lead ICE.

“It’s taken far too long,” Gonzalez said Monday. “It’s in best interest of myself, my family, the country and the residents of Harris County that elected me to serve as sheriff to remove myself from further consideration and remain in place as sheriff.”

Gonzalez’ nomination surprised some, in part because in 2017 he’d ended a controversial partnership with ICE that had allowed sheriff’s deputies to screen jailed suspects to find those in the country without legal permission — and later declined to cooperate with an ICE operation in 2019 to arrest large numbers of immigrant families living without legal permission in Houston and other large cities.

Biden first nominated Gonzalez in April 2021. He faced a tense reception from Senate Republicans later that year, ultimately promising not to abolish the partnership he’d scrapped in Harris County in which local law enforcement agencies screen jailed suspects to identify people unauthorized to be in the country.

[…]

The struggle to confirm Gonzalez reflects shifting norms in the Senate and the growing difficulty of confirming political appointees in recent years, said Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes effective government.

“Everything is becoming harder and slower, and you have even fewer people actually being confirmed for very important positions,” Stier said.

The exit of Gonzalez from the process this week marks the latest setback for the Biden administration, which has struggled to win Senate confirmation for high-profile appointments for other contentious posts — and for ICE itself, which has been without a Senate-confirmed leader for more than five years.

See here for the previous update. Not a whole lot to add, but if Dems can pull off maintaining the Senate, especially if they can pick up Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, then maybe the next ICE nominee will have an easier time. Maybe. In any event, please return any speculation you may have engaged in regarding who would be selected to replace Gonzales as Sheriff back to the shelf.

Long lost daughter of Tina Linn and Dean Clouse found

Incredible. Absolutely incredible.

Donna Casasanta got the call this week, a call she’s spent half of her life praying for.

A call about Holly Marie.

More than 40 years ago, her son, Harold Dean Clouse, moved to Texas from New Smyrna, Fla., with his wife, Tina Linn, and their young daughter. Then, all three abruptly vanished.

Finally, in October 2021, genealogists called Casasanta and her relatives with painful news: Police had discovered the couple’s bodies, back in 1981, in a copse of trees in east Harris County, but only had recently identified them using modern technology.

Dean was beaten to death. Tina had been strangled.

There was no sign of their baby, Holly Marie.

This week that changed. Holly Marie is alive and well and living in Oklahoma, after a family adopted her as a baby.

Investigators from the Texas Attorney General’s office walked into Holly’s workplace on Tuesday and told her who she was.

Hours later, Holly and her grandmother and aunts and uncles met, in a raucous Zoom call.

It was June 7, the day that her father would have turned 63.

“Finding Holly is a birthday present from heaven since we found her on Junior’s birthday,” Casasanta said, in a statement released by a family spokeswoman. “I prayed for more than 40 years for answers and the Lord has revealed some of it.”

See here and here for the background. This whole story richly deserves a prestige true-crime miniseries on HBO, and there are still some huge questions that may never be answered. Read the rest, and read the previous stories of how Linn and Clouse were identified if you haven’t yet. The Observer has more.

Missing In Harris County Day 2022

From the inbox:

For those with missing loved ones and those who would advocate for them, an annual event May 14th in Houston is the place to be for resources, awareness, and more.

May 14, 2022, is Missing in Harris County Day (MIHCD).  To celebrate and commemorate this occasion, local, state and national agencies with a mission to find missing persons ask you to attend Missing in Harris County Day on Saturday, May 14, from 10 AM to 3 PM at The Children’s Assessment Center, 2500 Bolsover Street, Houston, TX 77005. MIHCD’s mission is to help those with missing loved ones make connections that can help bring the missing home.

Families and friends of missing persons as well as interested members of the community are encouraged to attend the event to learn how to navigate the missing persons system. Agencies at the event to assist families and friends of missing persons include social service agencies and various missing persons networks, such as Texas Center for the Missing.

The event will feature:

  • Local law enforcement agencies accepting missing persons reports and updates from families of the missing
  • Trained DNA collection specialists collecting voluntary family reference DNA cheek swabs to upload into a national missing persons database
  • Bilingual guides assisting all attendees in the completion of a missing persons report or directing attendees to resources
  • Private roundtable discussion for family members with a missing loved one
  • Panel discussions addressing missing persons issues and more!

Families or friends should plan to bring information to the event for data entry or information updates in the national missing persons database, including:

  • Photos of the missing with identifying features (e.g., tattoos or birthmarks) or personal items (e.g., favorite earrings or shirt)
  • X-rays, dental or medical records
  • Police reports or other identifying documents that can be scanned and placed on file
  • Two biological relatives from the mother’s side of the missing loved one to voluntarily submit DNA samples, if desired

More information is available at: http://centerforthemissing.org/missing-in-harris-county-day/.

Attendees are welcome to wear memorial t-shirts and bring posters, photos, or literature to display to commemorate their missing loved ones on the “Wall of the Missing.” The “Wall of the Missing” is a centralized location at the event for all attendees to view missing persons information. Documents placed on the board will not be returned after the event.

About Missing in Harris County Day

Partners in the Missing in Harris County Day event include the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, Texas Center for the Missing, and The Children’s Assessment Center. Other collaborators and in-kind sponsors of the event include: Alexandria Lowitzer Recovery Fund, Alzheimer’s Association, CODIS, Consulate General of Mexico in Houston, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Doe Network, Galveston County Medical Examiner's Office, Harris County Community Services Department, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, NamUs – National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, Pasadena Police Department, Project Guardian, Project Lifesaver, Texas Equusearch, and TEXSAR Gulf Coast Division. Law enforcement connected to the event will not be checking for citizenship documentation or for arrest warrants.

See here for more. The event takes place on Saturday, May 14, at the The last MIHCD was in 2019; I’m sure you can guess what caused the interruption. The Harris County Institute for Forensic Sciences sent me all of the press information on this. There’s free parking available at the location, so drop by and learn something. Maybe you’ll have some information to impart, who knows.

Along those lines, the IFS also sent me this list of people who have died and are in the county morgue but have not been claimed by their next of kin. It may well be that their families don’t know what has happened to them, which is another way to be missing. If you know anything about any of these folks, call the IFS with what you know at 832-927-5000 – there’s a case number for each.

State task force recommendations on AstroWorld

Interesting.

To avoid a repeat of the mayhem at last year’s deadly Astroworld Festival, Texas needs to standardize its event permitting process, establish “clearly outlined triggers” for stopping shows and ensure local public safety agencies are organized in a clear chain of command during large events, a state task force recommended Tuesday.

The event permitting process currently is “inconsistent across the state, which can lead to forum shopping by event promoters,” according to the task force that recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

The group, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott after 10 people died from injuries sustained during rapper Travis Scott’s show last November, also advised event promoters to develop “unique contingency plans” for venues including NRG Park — formed by a series of parking lots — that fans can easily stampede. The venue perimeter was breached at least eight times leading up to Scott’s 2021 performance.

Presenting its findings in a nine-page report, the Texas Task Force on Concert Safety said its recommendations are “narrowly tailored to address gaps that were identified as contributing to safety failures at the Astroworld event.” Members of the task force who met over the last five months included law enforcement officials, public safety experts, state agency employees and music industry representatives.

“While some level of risk is inherent in any mass gathering, it is the opinion of the [task force] that proper planning will allow Texans to enjoy safe performances, concerts, and other culturally significant events,” the report reads.

More uniform permitting regulations would also help mitigate confusion that can arise at venues located under the jurisdiction of multiple government entities and public safety agencies, the report found.

The Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within the city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Still, the task force found “there was no occupancy load issued for the event, which is typically determined by the Fire Department.”

“A consistent permitting process could have helped establish jurisdiction and authority over ultimate event shutdown in the face of a life-threatening incident,” the report reads.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said there was no occupancy permit for the Astroworld Festival because such permits do not exist for outdoor areas. The event organizers did secure permits required under the city fire code for pyrotechnics, tents and propane. The city released those and other permits in November.

“The event was a county-sanctioned event on county property,” Peña said Tuesday night, adding that he had not yet fully reviewed the task force’s report.

The task force report is here. It’s pretty straightforward, I don’t see anything unexpected or eye-catching about it. I must have missed the announcement of this particular task force, I don’t have a previous post about it. Whatever, this is fine.

That doesn’t mean that it is without some controversy.

Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie L. Christensen on Wednesday rejected findings issued by a state task force which laid some of the blame for the Astroworld tragedy on the county’s handing of the incident.

[…]

The task force recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

But the findings again raise one of the central issues related to the Astroworld tragedy: Ever since it occurred, city and county officials have sought to avoid blame for the fiasco by pointing fingers at each other.

The task force pointed to two laws that have permitting requirements — one related to mass gatherings, and one related to outdoor music festivals. Both refer to county events, because incorporated municipalities can create their own ordinances.

The situation is complicated by the fact the Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within Houston city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Echoing other county officials who spoke to the Chronicle, Christensen said she had reviewed the task force’s findings, but that the task force cited statutes that “simply do not apply” to the Astroworld event. The laws, she said, apply “only to performances outside the boundaries of a municipality.”

“The fact the Astroworld event occurred within the City of Houston along with the (memorandum of understanding) between Harris County and the City of Houston clearly shows Harris County lacked any jurisdiction for permitting the Astroworld event,” she said. “Our office will continue reviewing the recommendations over the next several weeks.”

City officials, including Fire Chief Sam Peña, have argued that the event was “a county-sanctioned event on county property.”

I’m not particularly interesting in a pissing contest between the city and the county, but it is fair to point out that the laws cited by the report didn’t apply here because of the county-property-within-city-limits aspect of NRG Stadium. That doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders and move on, but if it is more complicated than the report suggests, then we need to wrestle with the complexity. This is the point at which I’m officially out of my depth, so let me just say that we’re not off the hook and we shouldn’t act like it.

I should note further that there is a local task force working on its own report, and that first story gave us an update on it.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, another task force – this one selected by city and county officials – continued to meet to review communication, protocols and permitting requirements locally. City officials had more to say about that task force’s work than the one in Austin. Mary Benton, spokeswoman for Mayor Sylvester Turner, said the mayor has not yet reviewed the state task force’s report but would do so soon. She said the local group continues to meet and will write its own report for Turner and Precinct 2 Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“The task force will incorporate nationally agreed principles and draw from national and international strategies, policies, guidelines, standards, and doctrine,” Benton said. “The work is multidisciplinary and will cover issues presented by crowded places and mass gatherings in general. The task force has already begun this work, met earlier today and has meetings planned in the future.”

County Fire Marshal Christianson is among the local task force members. I look forward to reading that report as well. And now that the state has done the local task force the favor of publishing first, we here can respond to it as needed. Just get moving and get it done.

More on Tina Linn and Harold Clouse

Very moving stuff.

Donna Casasanta picked through the brush in an overgrown patch of woods in northeast Harris County, looking.

The 80-year-old mother had spent 40 years wondering. She had traveled 980 miles, driven with her grown children for three days from her home in Florida, to be here.

Casasanta is not as sturdy as she once was. Navigating through the brush and brambles wouldn’t have been difficult 40 years ago, but now she walks with a cane.

But she needed to reach the spot where police finally found her son’s body, a small piece of land next to Wallisville Road in northeast Harris County. The spot was sprinkled with palmettos, fallen trees, and a bed of leaves that crunched and rustled at every step.

She needed to see it.

Forty-two years ago, her son, Harold “Dean” Clouse and his young wife, Tina Gail Linn, moved to Texas from New Smyrna, Fla.

He’d been promised a job building houses, a job that would help him provide for Tina and their infant daughter, Hollie Marie.

They exchanged letters all throughout 1980, but that October, Dean stopped writing.

As the months passed, Casasanta became more and more worried. What had happened to her son?

As we now know, her son and his wife had been murdered. Their bodies were found in 1981, but weren’t identified until last year, thanks to DNA, geneaolgy, and a couple of amateur sleuths. It’s a fascinating story, and you should go back and read the first one if you haven’t already. But there was another mystery to go along with what happened to Tina and Harold. What happened to their baby daughter Holly?

Weeks after those IDs, more questions have emerged: Who will investigate the 1981 murder of Dean and Tina Clouse? Did the Jesus Freaks have something to do with it? And what became of Holly? Was her tiny body carried away by predators or overlooked?

With help from relatives, Peacock, who no longer works with Identigene, has already begun exploring another possibility: Was Holly kidnapped by her parents’ killers? If so, she’d be a woman of about 42 with no memory of them at all.

The Clouse homicide case is considered active in Harris County, according to Deputy Thomas Gilliland, a Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman. But recently, that department, which has jurisdiction over a county of 4 million—a population larger than most states—essentially defunded their cold case unit. The two detectives who once oversaw unsolved murder cases like this one have been reassigned, leaving the unit with only one part-time investigator. Gilliland told the Observer via email that the department has “no active suspects or any information on the missing daughter. This case may be transferred to the Texas Attorney General’s Missing Person & Cold Case Unit so that they can utilize more manpower/resources than we can.”

Unfortunately, the cold case task force formed last year by the Texas Attorney General’s office has only just begun to take its first cases. The group’s blue-ribbon advisory board has met, but its progress has been frustratingly slow, members say. Potential leads in the 1981 murder of Tina and Dean Clouse—and the disappearance of their baby Holly—are scarce. It’s unclear if any of the physical evidence from the murder scene is still around.

And it’s not the only high-profile cold murder case in Texas that seems to need urgent attention. Most genetic genealogy groups, like Identigene, rely on small grants or even crowdfunding to work cold cases. But even with limited funding, relatives of several other Texas homicide victims have already been identified through genetic genealogy.

In April 2019, genetic genealogists had identified two out of four women murdered and dumped at different times in a lonely patch of woods in League City, Texas. But the serial murder case called “the Killing Fields” remains unsolved more than 30 years later.

Then, in August 2019, other genealogists working with the non-profit DNA Doe Project helped identify Debra Jackson, a teen found on Halloween 1979 off I-35 north of Austin. Jackson’s murder was initially blamed on Henry Lee Lucas, Texas’ notorious lying “Confession Killer.” But Lucas’ death sentence was commuted after his lies were exposed, and Jackson’s murder also remains unsolved.

The state’s huge backlog of unidentified murder victims should not exist at all, argues Kristen Mittelman, whose husband and business partner David is a member of the AG Cold Case and Missing Persons Unit Advisory Committee. She and David Mittelman, who together run a genetics lab in Houston called Othram, both told the Observer that the state should move more quickly. “We’re super excited with the task force. But unfortunately, we haven’t worked any cases,” she said. “What’s going to change the world is creating a way to solve these cases at scale—and to be able to clear 1,000 of cases at a time and be able to clear these backlogs.”

More money is the obvious answer to that. I can see a bill to make it happen getting through the Legislature – it’s the kind of thing that would have little to no opposition, and would be an easy cause to champion – but someone has to do it. It might take more than one try, as these things often do. But it can be done, if someone makes the effort.

Here comes that AstroWorld task force

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Sheriff Gonzalez re-nominated for ICE

Take two.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is still President Joe Biden’s pick to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even after the Senate failed to confirm him last year.

Biden renominated Gonzalez for the ICE director on Tuesday. His initial nomination, from April, expired earlier this week.

Gonzalez still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, which is evenly split and has been moving through Biden’s nominees at a glacial pace amid Republican opposition. ICE — a particularly polarizing agency — has been without a permanent director for five years.

“He’s likely to face the same result in 2022 that he has in 2021,” said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones. “He’s received quite a bit of flak from the left and the right. The right has attacked him because of his because of his past criticism of ICE, but the left has attacked him because of his support for border security and the rule of law at the border.”

Gonzalez is one of many Biden nominees who Democrats have struggled to get confirmed, reflecting shifting norms in the Senate and the growing difficulty of confirming political appointees in recent years, said Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that promotes effective government.

See here for the background. With all due respect to Professor Jones, if Gonzalez lacked support from even one Democratic Senator, he’d be toast. There are progressive critics of his, though I’d say that criticism is more about ICE as an agency, but if that had been enough to sway any votes in the Senate, someone else would be getting nominated. As both this story and the previous one note, the main issue here is the extreme slowness in getting presidential nominees approved by the Senate, for a variety of reasons in that profoundly broken institution. Either Leader Schumer is able to get a floor vote for him on the calendar, without negatively affecting any higher priorities, or we face the same situation next year, possibly with a Republican-controlled Senate that will make the matter entirely moot. Good luck.

Sheriff Gonzalez’s status

Two words: In limbo.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Senate has yet to confirm Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez as director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, meaning he will likely need to be nominated again and will face an uphill battle to be confirmed in that role.

The Senate must agree unanimously before Jan. 3 to hold over the nomination of Gonzalez or nominate him during the 2022 legislative session.

Even if Gonzalez is held over — or nominated a second time — a number of political obstacles remain in the way of confirmation.

“The prospects for the confirmation of Sheriff Gonzalez in 2022 would not be very auspicious were Biden to nominate him again,” said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones, who noted the confirmation process would essentially start over from scratch in that case.

“The fact that there was a hold that remained now suggests that if Biden nominates Gonzalez again, he’s likely to face the same result in 2022 that he has in 2021,” Jones said.

The struggle to confirm Gonzalez reflects shifting norms in the Senate and increasing difficulty to confirm political appointees in recent years, aid Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes more effective government.

“Everything is becoming harder and slower, and you have even fewer people actually being confirmed for very important positions,” said Stier.

As of Dec. 30, just 266 of Biden’s political appointees had been confirmed, according to the Partnership for Public Service and the Washington Post, compared to 383 during the Obama administration.

The position of ICE director is especially challenging to confirm, considering the polarizing beliefs on immigration law enforcement and the 50-50 split of party control in the Senate.

“The position itself in this instance, ICE director, is one that’s become a bigger lightning rod, a more controversial position,” said Stier.

Trump failed to secure someone in that role during his entire term.

Mark Jones said he doesn’t believe the Senate’s failure to confirm Gonzalez has much to do with his ability to lead the agency, but much more to do with how Republicans are likely to utilize the hot-button issue of immigration during the 2022 midterm elections.

Gonzalez “still has a long track record of criticizing ICE, which means that during a time when Republicans realize that immigration policy is an advantageous one for them, they’re unlikely to support his confirmation. Even though from a policy perspective, his position is not nearly as far from their position,” Jones said.

Republicans have questioned the Democratic sheriff’s commitment to immigration enforcement since he was tapped for the role in April.

As a reminder, Sheriff Gonzalez was nominated in late April, and was approved by the Senate committee in early August. It’s not clear what the actual holdup is here, as Gonzalez would get through if he has full Democratic support. It may be that one or more Democratic Senators are not on board with him, or just don’t want to confirm anyone to this position without some action on immigration in general or ICE in particular, or it may be that this was just another thing moved to the back burner while everyone was chasing Joe Manchin to get his vote on Build Back Better. If it’s the latter, then I think there’s a decent chance Sheriff Gonzalez eventually gets confirmed next year. If not, then we’ll know when he eventually withdraws his name from consideration.

Plaintiff in Constable Precinct 1 lawsuit responds

She’s not having it with the dismissal of Constable Alan Rosen as a defendant from the lawsuit.

Constable Alan Rosen

The booze-fueled undercover hotel operations were bad. Felecia McKinney’s worst moment at the Precinct 1 Constable’s Office, however, came two years ago, during an undercover sting at a Massage Heights near the Texas Medical Center.

Another Precinct 1 employee had been assaulted at the business. Her bosses wanted her to pose as a customer, wait to see if he acted again, and then give a signal to bust him and take him down.

When she emerged from the spa, a superior told her to drive herself to the hospital to get a sexual assault examination while Constable Alan Rosen held a celebratory news conference in the business’ parking lot, she said at a press conference Friday.

[…]

After the spa sting, McKinney and Erica Davis — the Precinct 1 employee whose assault led to the investigation of Massage Heights — sued the establishment, saying the budget spa chain, its employee, owner and franchisor were negligent in training and supervision. Davis agreed to a monetary settlement in the case but McKinney’s complaint is still pending. Criminal charges against Wenjin Zhu, the massage therapist accused of sexually assaulting Davis and McKinney on the massage table two days apart, are also still pending. Zhu is detained in the county jail.

Though her lawyers have described her experience in court filings, McKinney had never addressed the public about her sexual assault in August 2019 until her brief remarks to reporters at her attorney’s office Friday morning.

“He knows what happened to me,” McKinney said of Rosen. “He intended it. He ordered it. And to hear him claim victory — and that he wouldn’t be held personally accountable for something he’s admitted to doing makes me feel attacked, unheard, and very alone.”

What angered her the most, she said, was reading comments from Rosen’s defenders that the constable should never have been included in the lawsuit in the first place.

“This case was never about money for me. It was about exposing the truth and holding people accountable,” she said, her voice catching. “When I read his comments and his attorney’s comments, I felt really victimized in ways I never expected. …When I saw the claim that he never should have been in the lawsuit, after ordering an operation that I go in to be sexually assaulted, I broke down.”

See here for the previous entry. I don’t know if the decision to remove Rosen as a defendant was a good one or not – I presume it can be appealed, but regardless of that the lawsuit itself if still ongoing. The allegations still refer to things that happened under Constable Rosen’s watch. I’m still far from convinced that any of the undercover actions were a good use of law enforcement resources, whether or not the deputies in question were put in needless danger. I don’t know what will come of this case, but we need to hear what Ms. McKinney and her fellow plaintiffs have to say.

Constable Rosen removed from sexual harassment lawsuit

Good news for him, but the suit continues.

Constable Alan Rosen

Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen has prevailed in a legal effort to be removed from a lawsuit accusing department supervisors of sexual misconduct against female subordinates in an undercover anti-prostitution unit.

In a five-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt on Monday ruled Rosen could not be personally sued for the misconduct allegations that several current and former deputies and another employee had made about conduct within the unit. Plaintiffs can continue to pursue their lawsuit against Harris County and Assistant Chief Deputy Chris Gore and Lt. Shane Rigdon, the judge ruled.

Hoyt explained his ruling by saying he’d concluded that the plaintiffs’ allegations against Gore and Rigdon were “enough to raise a right to relief” but that the plaintiffs had not made any claims that would support Rosen’s individual liability under civil rights law.

Rosen touted the ruling in a news release in which he said he had “full faith in the Court’s review” of the motion.

“I thank the court for its considered review of the law as it pertains the motion to dismiss me from this matter,” he said, “and for granting that dismissal such that my full focus can remain on the needs of the residents of Precinct 1.”

Lawyers for the female deputies said they were undeterred, pointing to Hoyt’s decision to allow the suit to proceed against Harris County and against Gore and Rigdon.

“While Alan Rosen has been able to protect his personal financial interests, his conduct is still very much a part of the lawsuit,” attorneys Cordt Akers and Bill Ogden said, in a written statement.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. You can see a copy of the ruling in the story. While this is good news for Constable Rosen personally, the lawsuit is still active – this was a motion to dismiss, and it was denied for the other two defendants. For that reason, ignore this:

Rosen attorney Ben Hall said Wednesday that his client “should never have been in the lawsuit in the first place.”

He said believed Rosen was added to the lawsuit to tarnish his political viability.

“I think the fact the judge dispensed (with this matter) so quickly will at least remove this stain,” Hall said, “So he can move down the road. And if it is his fate to be sheriff, I think he’d be a fabulous sheriff.”

Sorry, but this still happened on his watch. He may not be legally liable for damages, but he’s still responsible. Maybe if the remaining defendants are cleared we can talk about his future ambitions, but until then let’s cool our jets. This is far from over.

Sheriff Gonzalez approved by Senate committee

We are one step closer to needing a new Sheriff.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday advanced the nominations of two Texans tapped by President Joe Biden to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Census Bureau.

While San Antonio native Rob Santos, Biden’s nominee to lead the Census, advanced easily on a 10-3 vote, Republicans on the committee unanimously opposed Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s nomination to lead ICE — a sign Democrats may need to bring in Vice President Kamala Harris to break a tie in the Senate and get him confirmed.

Republicans said Gonzalez’s past criticism of the agency and moves to end a partnership with it as sheriff were “deeply concerning.”

“On numerous occasions during his time as sheriff, he criticized ICE and stated that he only worked with them because he was compelled to do so under a Texas law — a law that he openly and vocally opposed while it was being debated in the Texas Legislature,” said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, the top Republican on the committee.

“The law enforcement agents of ICE need strong leadership now more than ever given what’s happening on the border and what’s happening in the interior,” Portman said. “The leader of ICE needs to believe in the importance of the agency’s mission. And for purposes of morale, I think it’s very important that the leader be one who supports ICE strongly.”

During his confirmation hearing last month, Gonzalez said that if confirmed, he would not end the controversial ICE program in which local law enforcement agencies screen jailed suspects to identify those who are in the country illegally. He said he believes in the agency’s mission and would be “aggressive” in going after people who pose a threat to public safety.

It wasn’t enough to sway any Republicans as the committee voted 7-6 to advance his nomination.

“Sheriff Gonzalez is a proven leader and dedicated law enforcement professional,” said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the committee. “At his confirmation hearing, he demonstrated his deep commitment to the rule of law and his understanding of the complex mission and challenges that ICE faces.”

See here and here for the background. I have no idea how the Senate’s calendar is likely to work, and I don’t know if a vote to confirm will come up before or after the August recess, which may wind up being shortened because of the infrastructure bill. So maybe he’s confirmed in the next week or so, and maybe it doesn’t happen till mid-September or later. Either way, I assume that Commissioners Court is thinking about who will be the next Sheriff. We’ll find out soon enough.

Sheriff Gonzalez gets a confirmation hearing date

Mark your calendars.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Senate Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s nomination to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on July 15, the committee announced Wednesday.

President Joe Biden nominated Gonzalez to lead the agency in May, potentially positioning Gonzalez as a key player in the administration’s effort to build what Biden has called a more “humane” immigration system.

Gonzalez will appear before the Democrat-led committee, which does not include either Texas senator, as the administration is working to handle a record numbers of encounters with migrants crossing the border. Republicans have hammered Biden for months over the influx, which they say he created by moving away from former President Donald Trump’s stricter immigration policies, even though encounters began rising when Trump was still in office.

ICE was in many ways the face of Trump’s hard-line approach to immigration, which Biden has sought to move away from. If confirmed, Gonzalez would be instrumental in setting its course under Biden, a difficult task as ICE has become one of the most politicized agencies in the federal government.

See here for the background. This is just the committee hearing. Once the committee advances his nomination, which should be a formality, then the full Senate will vote on him. Barring anything weird, he’ll be confirmed, though I have no idea how much longer it may take from here. But at least we’re on the way. Once he is confirmed, he will formally resign as Sheriff, and Commissioners Court will pick someone to fill his spot. I’ll talk about that more as we get closer, but for now I’ll just say that Constable Alan Rosen is highly unlikely to be on the short list.

Again with the existential Constable question

Here’s a long and detailed story in the Chron about the history and purpose of the Constable office in Harris County, where they are bigger and do more than anywhere else in the state.

Constable Alan Rosen

The lawsuit’s allegations were stunning: Harris County Precinct 1 deputy constables assigned to fight human trafficking had been exploited and molested by their superiors during undercover “bachelor party” stings. Undercover deputies pretended to be partying, with the hope of convincing escorts to agree to sex for cash — so they could try to build cases against the women’s pimps. But female deputies said they received little training before being thrown into “booze-fueled playgrounds” in which their bosses groped them.

Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen defended his agency, saying internal investigators hadn’t found any violations of policy or law, but for many, the accusations against high-ranking officials of the department reignited a debate that has simmered in Houston for the last half century: What is the appropriate role of the constables? And why were deputy constables running undercover prostitution stings — far afield from their traditional roles of policing rural counties or working as process servers and protecting local justice of the peace courts?

Many constables’ offices elsewhere in Texas have just a few employees. But not in Harris County. For a half century, Houston-area constables have steadily accrued more power and more responsibility. Now, they occupy a position unlike any other in Texas. According to records from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, Harris County’s largest constable jurisdictions far outnumber any other constables’ offices elsewhere in the state. Harris County’s largest constable’s office, Precinct 4, mans 567 deputies and dispatchers and has a budget of $60 million, according to county records. The largest department outside of Harris County, the Montgomery County Precinct 3 Constable’s Office, has 65 employees, state records show, and a budget of about $6 million, according to Montgomery County records.

Critics say the offices are bloated and out of control, duplicating other law enforcement agencies and creating a two-tier system where wealthy neighborhoods pay for what amounts to a private security force. Defenders say constables provide badly needed backup to the region’s larger departments, while constables themselves say that because they are elected, they are more responsive to their constituents.

“Constables are first line on community policing,” said Matt Wylie, newly elected president of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association and Constable of the Johnson County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office. “We are elected by smaller percentage of county, more accountable to people we serve.”

The story is based on the scandal in the Constable Precinct 1 office that we are still waiting to learn more about. It’s a long story and there’s way too much to excerpt, but let me address a couple of points. I do think there’s a lot of duplication of effort in what the Constables do versus what the Sheriff and HPD do, and I don’t think there’s any good way to address that. Ideally, there would be better communication and coordination between these organizations, but there isn’t the incentive for that to happen and no way to enforce it. We could of course just limit what the Constables do, so that they’re more like Constables in other counties, but given where we are now that would be a heavy lift.

I know that we have had this discussion before, probably circa 2012 when two different Constables got arrested for various bad acts. In poking around a bit, I see that there was a report by then-County Attorney Vince Ryan on the practices of the various Constable offices. Maybe an update to that report, which is now almost a decade old and was criticized for not being comprehensive enough, is in order. How much duplication of services is there? How much do the Constables fill in gaps in other law enforcement services? What return are we getting on those fancy task forces that several of them have set up? An outside view of all that might shed some light on things.

In the meantime, I just want to know more about what is going on with the Precinct 1 situation. I recognize that there’s only so much that can be said while there is pending litigation, but this is still a public office and we need to know what the scope and purpose of that “human trafficking” division is, and what they have actually accomplished. We needed to know that before all this crap hit the fan.

Bring in an outside investigator

That’s the Chron editorial board’s advice for Constable Alan Rosen.

Constable Alan Rosen

Rosen’s office declined to comment to the editorial board Thursday, but in an earlier statement, he said that when he was made aware of the allegations, he “proactively” ordered an internal affairs investigation months ago and “immediately” replaced the supervisor of the human trafficking unit. The investigation, he said, found no violations of law or policy. The constable, whose name has been floated as a replacement for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez if he joins the Biden Administration, suggested the allegations were being brought to impugn his department’s reputation.

“I have a zero-tolerance stance against sexual assault and sexual harassment and would never allow a hostile work environment as alleged,” he said.

If Rosen means that, he shouldn’t hesitate to call for an independent investigation by the FBI’s public integrity unit or the Texas Rangers to get to the bottom of the disturbing claims. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and others on the commissioners’ court should be seeking the same probe and certainly not consider Rosen for the sheriff’s post until they get to the bottom of what happened.

We don’t encourage public officials to cast early blame without all the facts. And indeed, people other than Rosen have pushed back on the lawsuit’s claims, including that the implication that Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg wasn’t willing to get involved.

“The allegation that our office failed to take action is completely false. It’s offensive,” said DA spokesman Dane Schiller. “There was no cover-up, no laziness, no lack of caring by our prosecutors.”

Still, somebody must investigate — other than the department accused. If the allegations don’t pan out, Rosen’s name is cleared. If they are true, the officers’ actions suggest far more than workplace harassment but deeper corruption, potentially criminal wrongdoing and a toxic culture in urgent need of reform.

See here and here for the background. I basically agree with all of this, and I agree that it’s what Constable Rosen himself should want. It’s the best way to get at the truth and have it accepted as such. If Constable Rosen resists this idea, then Commissioners Court should give him a push, or take the decision out of his hands. Let’s not waste time on this, we the voters in Precinct 1 deserve to know what’s going on.

Another deputy constable files suit

More bad.

Constable Alan Rosen

When Precinct 1 Constable deputies accused their bosses of sexually exploiting them during undercover vice operations last week, their attorney vowed there would likely be more allegations in the near future.

On Wednesday, Cordt Akers returned to the podium in the foyer of his Montrose firm, and introduced Pct. 1 Deputy Constable Jasmine Huff. And Huff, he said, had also been sexually exploited during so-called “bachelor party stings” while working on the department’s human trafficking task force.

“She is not hiding behind the anonymity of Jane Doe lawsuit, as is her right to do,” Akers said.

Huff is the fourth current or former deputy of the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office to say she was sexually mistreated while working on the the agency’s Human Trafficking Task Force. A fifth employee —Jacquelyn Aluotto, who worked for the agency as an advocate for victims of human trafficking — has also sued Precinct 1, saying she was ignored and then fired when she conveyed concerns about the department’s vice operations to superiors.

The suit, initially filed last month, names Rosen, Assistant Chief Deputy Chris Gore, and Lt. Shane Rigdon. The alleged incidents occurred in the department’s human trafficking task force in 2019 and 2020. In response to the initial lawsuit, which raised similar allegations of sexual misconduct and other improprieties, Rosen released a statement late last month saying his office had previously investigated the alleged incident, but found no violations of law or department policy.

In response to the latest accusations, Rosen on Wednesday issued a statement declining to comment on the case because “there is a legal matter pending” and privacy issues.

In an amended 45-page complaint filed in federal court Wednesday morning, Huff’s attorneys alleged that she was a young deputy when her bosses assigned her to the HCCO-1 Human Trafficking Unit.

See here for the background. I’m skipping over the details of the allegations for the same reason as before, it’s disturbing stuff and you can read it in the story. I have the same reaction as before, that this is bad on every level, and even if you believe that Rosen had no direct involvement, this happened on his watch. He’s responsible for that.

Brock Akers, another attorney on the case (and Cordt Akers’ father) also rejected accusations that the lawsuit was an attempt to hamstring Rosen’s political ambitions. Prior to the lawsuit’s filing, Rosen had been widely rumored to be interested in seeking appointment to replace Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, or to run for sheriff in 2024.

Akers called such speculation “flat out wrong.”

“These things happened,” he said.

County commissioners have yet to address the allegations against Precinct 1, or Rosen, a fellow elected official. In response to questions, a spokesman for Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was “aware of these allegations and obviously concerned,” before declining to comment further because of the ongoing court fight.

I have not seen any names floated as possible replacements for Sheriff Gonzalez as yet – I daresay that will wait at least until his confirmation hearing is on the Senate calendar. Rosen would normally be an obvious possibility, and he is known to have bigger ambitions, but again, this happened on his watch. I don’t know how this turns out, but it sure seems like a bad time to be seeking a promotion.

Harris County approves its budget

Good priorities.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved a $3.3 billion general fund budget that includes new investments in pollution control, public health and attorneys for indigent criminal defendants.

The $64 million in new spending represents a 2 percent increase over the current budget.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia praised the spending plan, which he said is based on a new model that seeks to fund needs rather than departments, as a more sensible approach to meeting the needs of residents.

“With a metrics-based budget … this is another new day in county government,” Garcia said.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the new budget process is more transparent and said the county has made key improvements after events in the past two years, including the 2019 series of chemical fires and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“This budget isn’t perfect, but we’re light years ahead of where we were in terms of ensuring we’re using every dollar wisely to help tear down barriers no individual can take on alone,” Hidalgo said in a statement.

[…]

By streamlining services and spending less on debt service, the new budget includes $132 million in new investments. Those line items include increases for the fire marshal and Pollution Control Services, totaling $1.3 million, to improve the county’s response to chemical incidents, and $5 million to launch a non-law enforcement 911 system to handle incidents including mental health crises.

The budget also includes $18 million for several justice and safety initiatives, including the hiring of visiting judges to help clear a backlog in criminal cases, expanding the Public Defender’s Office and studying racial and ethnic disparities in policing, non-punitive responses to social problems and strategies to prevent violence.

Berry proposed holding back $19 million in reserve to potentially allocate when Commissioners Court does its mid-year budget review in September, and members agreed.

An additional round of federal stimulus aid for local governments would help in the future, Berry’s budget summary states, though the county is not counting on another influx of cash.

Most of the money that the county had to spend on COVID-related expenses has been reimbursed via the CARES act. We’re probably in good enough shape that we don’t need much more from the current COVID relief bill, but I’ll be happy for us to get something anyway. There’s plenty more we can invest in if the funds are there for it.

Since the subject has come up and will no doubt continue to come up, we can discuss how Judge Hidalgo goes about her business and what it might mean for 2022 all we want. What I know is that she’s done excellent work, the county is in solid shape, and we’ve got good priorities. I’ll play that hand in a re-election campaign any day of the week.

Precinct analysis: Sheriff 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
District Attorney
County Attorney

Behold your 2020 vote champion in Harris County: Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, running for his second term in office. I’ll get into the details of Gonzalez’s domination in a minute. Here are the numbers for 2020:


Dist     Danna  Gonzalez    Danna%  Gonzalez%
=============================================
CD02   170,422   166,902    50.52%     49.48%
CD07   141,856   162,417    46.62%     53.38%
CD08    24,788    16,406    60.17%     39.83%
CD09    35,308   122,871    22.32%     77.68%
CD10    98,458    65,239    60.15%     39.85%
CD18    54,869   186,236    22.76%     77.24%
CD22    20,466    21,710    48.53%     51.47%
CD29    43,503   109,304    28.47%     71.53%
CD36    79,327    52,648    60.11%     39.89%
				
SBOE4   96,435   349,282    21.64%     78.36%
SBOE6  363,916   378,161    49.04%     50.96%
SBOE8  208,646   176,291    54.20%     45.80%
				
SD04    53,758    25,277    68.02%     31.98%
SD06    50,944   126,617    28.69%     71.31%
SD07   224,433   186,884    54.56%     45.44%
SD11    74,078    50,852    59.30%     40.70%
SD13    35,054   162,823    17.72%     82.28%
SD15   106,009   204,899    34.10%     65.90%
SD17   110,189   133,749    45.17%     54.83%
SD18    14,532    12,635    53.49%     46.51%
				
HD126   36,979    36,165    50.56%     49.44%
HD127   51,960    38,105    57.69%     42.31%
HD128   46,345    24,235    65.66%     34.34%
HD129   45,743    37,938    54.66%     45.34%
HD130   67,658    35,780    65.41%     34.59%
HD131    9,271    45,531    16.92%     83.08%
HD132   47,705    51,772    47.96%     52.04%
HD133   47,629    39,951    54.38%     45.62%
HD134   44,590    62,513    41.63%     58.37%
HD135   34,389    39,591    46.48%     53.52%
HD137    9,680    21,648    30.90%     69.10%
HD138   30,004    33,385    47.33%     52.67%
HD139   14,623    46,351    23.98%     76.02%
HD140    8,109    23,412    25.73%     74.27%
HD141    6,449    36,900    14.88%     85.12%
HD142   12,684    43,278    22.67%     77.33%
HD143   10,463    26,455    28.34%     71.66%
HD144   12,685    17,965    41.39%     58.61%
HD145   13,322    29,035    31.45%     68.55%
HD146   10,562    44,351    19.23%     80.77%
HD147   13,955    54,824    20.29%     79.71%
HD148   20,375    39,637    33.95%     66.05%
HD149   20,574    32,068    39.08%     60.92%
HD150   53,242    42,844    55.41%     44.59%
				
CC1     85,139   289,925    22.70%     77.30%
CC2    141,416   156,934    47.40%     52.60%
CC3    214,450   226,063    48.68%     51.32%
CC4    227,992   230,814    49.69%     50.31%
				
JP1     84,929   174,954    32.68%     67.32%
JP2     31,274    52,644    37.27%     62.73%
JP3     48,485    72,207    40.17%     59.83%
JP4    223,758   199,021    52.93%     47.07%
JP5    191,671   229,696    45.49%     54.51%
JP6      6,846    28,930    19.14%     80.86%
JP7     17,135   102,122    14.37%     85.63%
JP8     64,899    44,162    59.51%     40.49%

Only Joe Biden (918,193) got more votes than Sheriff Ed (903,736) among Dems that had a Republican opponent; District Court Judge Michael Gomez (868,327) was next in line. Gonzalez’s 235K margin of victory, and his 57.46% of the vote were easily the highest. He carried SBOE6, HD132, HD138, and all four Commissioners Court precincts, while coming close in CD02 and HD126. He even made SD07, HD133, and JP4 look competitive.

How dominant was Ed Gonzalez in 2020? He got more votes in their district than the following Democratic incumbents:

CD07: Gonzalez 162,417, Lizzie Fletcher 159,529
CD18: Gonzalez 186,236, Sheila Jackson Lee 180,952
SD13: Gonzalez 162,823, Borris Miles 159,936
HD135: Gonzalez 39,591, Jon Rosenthal 36,760
HD142: Gonzalez 43,278, Harold Dutton 42,127
HD144: Gonzalez 17,965, Mary Ann Perez 17,516
HD145: Gonzalez 29,035, Christina Morales 27,415
HD149: Gonzalez 32,068, Hubert Vo 31,919
JP1: Gonzalez 174,954, Eric Carter 166,759

That’s pretty damn impressive. Gonzalez is the incumbent, he’s in law enforcement and may be the most visible county official after Judge Hidalgo, he had a solid term with basically no major screwups, he’s well liked by the Democratic base, and he ran against a frequent flyer who had no apparent base of support. At least in 2020, this is as good as it gets.

Obviously, Gonzalez did better than he did in 2016, but let’s have a quick look at the numbers anyway.


Dist   Hickman  Gonzalez  Hickman%  Gonzalez%
=============================================
CD02   162,915   111,689    59.33%     40.67%
CD07   139,292   113,853    55.02%     44.98%
CD09    26,869   106,301    20.18%     79.82%
CD10    81,824    36,293    69.27%     30.73%
CD18    48,766   153,342    24.13%     75.87%
CD29    35,526    95,138    27.19%     72.81%
				
SBOE6  341,003   265,358    56.24%     43.76%
				
HD126   36,539    24,813    59.56%     40.44%
HD127   48,891    24,516    66.60%     33.40%
HD128   41,694    17,117    70.89%     29.11%
HD129   41,899    26,686    61.09%     38.91%
HD130   59,556    21,256    73.70%     26.30%
HD131    7,054    38,887    15.35%     84.65%
HD132   38,026    30,397    55.57%     44.43%
HD133   47,648    27,378    63.51%     36.49%
HD134   44,717    43,480    50.70%     49.30%
HD135   32,586    27,180    54.52%     45.48%
HD137    8,893    17,800    33.32%     66.68%
HD138   27,480    23,366    54.05%     45.95%
HD139   12,746    39,223    24.53%     75.47%
HD140    6,376    20,972    23.31%     76.69%
HD141    5,485    32,573    14.41%     85.59%
HD142   10,801    33,924    24.15%     75.85%
HD143    9,078    23,689    27.70%     72.30%
HD144   10,765    16,194    39.93%     60.07%
HD145   10,785    23,462    31.49%     68.51%
HD146   10,144    37,991    21.07%     78.93%
HD147   12,100    45,136    21.14%     78.86%
HD148   17,701    29,776    37.28%     62.72%
HD149   15,702    27,266    36.54%     63.46%
HD150   49,904    26,142    65.62%     34.38%
				
CC1     74,178   239,211    23.67%     76.33%
CC2    125,659   125,416    50.05%     49.95%
CC3    193,214   158,164    54.99%     45.01%
CC4    213,519   156,417    57.72%     42.28%

Gonzalez ran against Ron Hickman, former Constable in Precinct 4, who was appointed following Adrian Garcia’s resignation to run for Mayor of Houston in 2015. Hickman had been well respected as Constable and wasn’t a controversial selection, but he was quickly dogged with a scandal involving lost and destroyed evidence from his Constable days, as well as the usual bugaboo of jail overcrowding; his opposition to misdemeanor bail reform did not help with that. With all that, Gonzalez got “only” 52.84% of the vote in 2016, which was ahead of most judicial candidates but behind both Kim Ogg and Vince Ryan. My thought at the time was that Gonzalez maxed out the Democratic vote, but didn’t get many crossovers. Clearly, he knocked that second item out of the park this year. I’m not going to go into a more detailed comparison – I’ll leave that to you this time – but it should be obvious that Gonzalez built on his performance from 2016. We’ll see what he can do with the next four years.

Sheriff Gonzalez hires jail administrator

Interesting.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

A former state jail inspector will oversee Harris County’s jail, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez announced Wednesday.

Shannon Herklotz, who worked for the Texas Commision on Jail Standards for more than 20 years, began serving as the jail’s chief of detentions on Monday, according to a statement from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Harris County commissioners have for years tried to install a civilian administrator to oversee the county’s sprawling jail, which houses some 9,000 inmates at any given time and in recent years has been the site of several inmate suicides, assaults, or other violent incidents.

Herklotz was deputy director for the regulatory agency, which ensures all 239 Texas jails meet state standards.

“Our search for a Chief of Detentions targeted someone with the experience, values and vision to achieve our goal of cementing the Harris County Jail’s reputation for safety, innovation and professionalism,” stated Gonzalez. “These are qualities that our team displayed while managing the ongoing pandemic, and I am excited to see the continued transformation of the Harris County Jail under Shannon Herklotz’s leadership.”

Herklotz said he takes his duty seriously to ensure “care, custody and control of every person living inside our jail.”

“Keeping every person in the jail – including our staff and those entrusted into our care – safe and healthy is our first priority,” he said. “But more than that, we are committed to making sure people leave our jail better prepared to make a positive contribution to our community by connecting them with the resources and support they need to do so.”

The Harris County Jail is the largest jail in Texas, and the third-largest in the nation, with a current population of just over 9,000. Harris County officials have flirted with the idea of a civilian administrator several times over the last 30 years.

Commissioners considered trying to appoint a civilian administrator at least as far back as 1991, according to Chronicle archives. The move was driven by the soaring cost of the jail, and the increase in the sheriff’s budget, and as the sheriff’s office had struggled to control overcrowding in its facility.

As the story notes, this idea most recently surfaced in 2015, with the administrator being hired by and answering to Commissioners Court. That was shelved when a study concluded that a change in state law would be required for that. Existing law allows for the Sheriff to make such an appointment, however, and that’s what has happened here. I was skeptical at the time, mostly because I don’t trust Steve Radack, who was the original advocate for the idea, but then-Commissioner Gene Locke made what I thought were some decent arguments, so I was willing to listen. Locke’s main argument was that Sheriffs want to put their budget into patrol, which takes money away from jail administration, so having a jail administrator with a seat at the table can be a counterweight for that. We’ll see how that works when the administrator reports to the Sheriff. If Shannon Herklotz can help the jail consistently meet state standards – a problem it has had for some time now – and maybe also help figure out how to reduce its population, that will be a huge win.

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.

Felony bail reform lawsuit moves forward

Pending the next appeal, anyway.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the case challenging Harris County’s felony bail system should proceed to trial. Nineteen felony judges represented by state Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately gave notice they planned to appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit

[…]

The defendants include Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who does not oppose the litigation, and 23 Harris County felony district judges, who have split into a larger group represented by Paxton, who opposes the lawsuit, and a smaller faction represented by attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represented the judges in the misdemeanor bail case.

In a 65-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal denied the state and felony judges’ motions to dismiss the case, finding that the evidence involved “vigorously disputed factual allegations that must be developed further to resolve the legal issues the parties present.”

Lawyers for Abbott and 19 Democratic district judges argued in October the judges were protected by immunity, the federal courts do not have jurisdiction and the indigent arrestees do not have standing to sue.

Rosenthal found the court had standing and thousands of indigent arrestees, even though the individuals changed over time, had grounds, as a group, to sue.

See here, here, and here for the background. This was a motion to dismiss on largely procedural grounds, so there’s plenty of room for the Fifth Circuit to step in and throw this out without the merits of the case ever getting litigated. Obviously, I hope that does not happen.

This is the first I’d heard of the judicial plaintiffs being in two different groups; I need to understand what that means going forward. You know where I stand on this, and I plan to make a Big Deal out of which judges are on the right side of this issue, and which are actively obstructing it. So far, that standard hasn’t been met, but if the Fifth Circuit upholds this ruling then I will look very sideways at further appeals.

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.

More on the motion to dismiss the felony bail lawsuit

Should get a ruling soon.

The bulk of Harris County’s felony judges sought Monday to get the federal case against them dismissed, saying they should not be party to the challenge on how bail is determined for thousands of poor people accused of crime.

Lawyers for Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and 19 Democratic district judges argued at a packed online hearing that the judges are protected by immunity, the federal courts don’t have jurisdiction and the indigent arrestees behind the case no longer have standing to sue.

The 2019 civil rights case challenges the county’s policy of setting bond that results in the jailing of people who can’t afford cash bail. Nearly 80 percent of the current jail population are people awaiting trial, mostly on felonies.

Although the group of judges asked for the entire case to be dismissed, or alternatively, their removal as parties to the case, the bail challenge is likely proceed regardless of the court’s ruling, since the remaining defendants — the county, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and four felony judges who hired their own lawyers — are not seeking dismissal.

[…]

The state Attorney General’s Office, arguing on behalf of the majority of the felony judges, said the bail process is constitutional because it adheres to ODonnell v. Harris County, the county’s landmark misdemeanor bond case that was resolved through a seven-year consent decree.

But the plaintiffs say the felony bail case, Russell v. Harris County, raises new constitutional issues that the court never had a chance to address in ODonnell.

See here and here for the most recent updates. I will reiterate what I said in that last link: I want this system to be reformed in a manner similar to the misdemeanor case, I want the Democratic judges to be part of the solution and not an obstacle to it, and I will remember who is who and who does what. We’ll see what happens next.

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.

HPD adopts cite-and-release

Took them long enough.

The Houston Police Department plans to join Harris County’s cite-and-release program, fulfilling advocates’ long-running request to implement the policy they say keeps low-level offenders out of jail and saves law enforcement resources for more serious threats.

In a presentation to the city council’s Public Safety Committee, two assistant chiefs on Thursday laid out the program they would use for a set of six misdemeanors offenses. The strategy mirrors that already used by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other local departments in the county, using a program set up by Harris County court-at-law judges.

In those cases, officers now would be required to give people a citation with the time and date they must appear in court, instead of hauling them to jail, unless they meet certain exceptions. Like the sheriff’s office, HPD officers who use their discretion to disqualify an eligible offender from the program would have to get supervisor approval and list the reason in their report, according to the presentation.

“I believe cite-and-release programs are critical, not just as it relates to police reform, but addressing the prison pipeline and, quite frankly, racism in our criminal justice system,” said City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs the committee. “I reiterate that this is just one aspect of improving and making sure our city is safe for all Houstonians. We can’t be finished after cite and release.”

Assistant Chief Wendy Baimbridge said the department plans to adopt the program internally, as it is allowed to do under state law. It was not clear when that will be done.

[…]

Darrell Jordan, a Harris County court-at-law judge who helped design the cite-and-release program, which launched in February, said the city should not win plaudits for dragging its feet and finally succumbing to pressure.

He said the roll-out and presentation of the program was “all for show” and wasted time. The city could have opted into the program without an ordinance days, weeks, or months ago, if it wanted. The county’s cite-and-release court has processed 113 cases since the program’s launch in February. About half of those, 60, came from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, that agency reported.

“I don’t believe in applauding people for waiting six months to fix a problem,” he said. “That’s six months Houstonians had less officers on the streets. How many victims have suffered waiting for police officers to respond? How many alleged criminals have gotten away?”

See here and here for the background. I largely agree with Judge Jordan here, with two caveats. One, late is still better than never, so I do credit the city for eventually coming around. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but at least in the end they did make the right decision. And two, I do want City Council to vote on making this an ordinance, to make it harder for future police chiefs to tinker around the edges of this system if for whatever the reason they don’t like some part of it. It would also ensure that HPD doesn’t take too much time getting around to implementing this. This can, and ideally should, be part of a larger ordinance that includes other reforms. It’s a first step, not the end of the journey.

Cite and release for Houston

Good.

Houston is preparing a cite-and-release policy that could let people accused of certain misdemeanors off with a ticket instead of an arrest, perhaps the city’s most significant bid at criminal justice reform since the killing of George Floyd ignited a renewed national reckoning over policing.

Mayor Sylvester Turner previously has alluded to the effort, and the proposal is scheduled for discussion at the Public Safety Committee on Thursday. City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs that committee, said she has helped work on the policy.

“I’m thankful to community groups for advocating for this, and to HPD and Mayor Turner for bringing this forward so quickly,” Kamin said.

The details of the measure, which remain in the works, were not immediately available Monday, including which offenses would be included and whether tickets would be required — or merely preferred — instead of arrests. It also is unclear whether the measure would be an ordinance passed by the city council or an administration policy.

Since 2007, state law has allowed citations for all Class C misdemeanors and some others. Among them: possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana; criminal mischief (damage up to $750); graffiti; theft of up to $750; providing contraband in a correctional facility; and driving with an invalid license. In those cases, officers can give offenders a written citation with a date and time to appear in court, allowing them to await the hearing without going to jail.

Advocates and elected officials in Houston have been calling for a cite-and-release policy for years. The “Justice Can’t Wait” report, released in July by a broad coalition of Houston-area criminal justice advocacy groups, renewed calls for the policy, and five city council members echoed that in a letter released late last month.

The mayor’s own transition team recommended such a policy in a 2016 report after Turner first was elected.

See here for some background. I know some people can’t sleep at night unless everyone who has ever encountered a police officer is in a jail cell, but would you rather have those officers spend their time hauling graffiti artists and people with expired licenses off to jail, or patrolling the streets after writing them a ticket? The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February, and as far as I can tell the region has not fallen into anarchy and chaos. Keep people out of jail and keep cops on the streets. And maybe that Task Force report (due by the end of the month) will have more.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the story, with some back-and-forth about whether the city should implement this now as a matter of policy, or draft an ordinance to mandate cite-and-release and implement it that way.