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John Whitmire

Endorsement watch: Labor for Thompson, the Mayor for Miles

From the inbox:

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

The Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO today announced their support of Senfronia Thompson for State Senator District 13.

“Our unions screened two candidates for Senate District 13 — Representatives Senfronia Thompson and Borris Miles,” said Zeph Capo, President of the Area Labor Federation. “Both candidates have been steadfast allies in our efforts to give workers a voice on the job, raise wages for all, adequately fund public services, and defend civil rights. Ultimately, Thompson’s deep experience and long record as a champion for working families led us to back her.”

“Over her twenty-two terms of public service, Senfronia Thompson has been an energetic and consistent advocate of initiatives to help better the lives of working families,” said John Patrick, President of the Texas AFL-CIO. “She is one of the most reliable, influential, and effective leaders with whom I have ever worked. Her knowledge of how state government works is what sets her apart from the other candidates.”

“Representative Thompson has the integrity, the vision, and the will to advocate for all of SD 13’s constituents. Labor will work hard to get her elected to office and help her achieve that goal,” added Hany Khalil, Executive Director of the Area Labor Federation.

The release, which came out on Thursday, is here. It was followed on Friday by this:

Rep. Borris Miles

Rep. Borris Miles

Dear Fellow Democrat,

Please join me in supporting Borris Miles for State Senate, District 13.

With the departure of Senator Rodney Ellis to join Commissioners Court, we need to make sure that we have an energetic warrior for the people representing us in the State Senate. That’s my friend and former House colleague, Borris Miles.

I’ve worked with Borris for years and watched his commitment and skill in moving our Democratic priorities forward.

From giving misguided kids a second chance at a better life, to doubling fines for outsiders who dump their trash in our neighborhoods, to increasing access to health care and expanding educational opportunities for us all – Borris gets the job done.

Believe me, it’s tough getting things done as a Democrat in a Republican-controlled legislature. But that’s exactly what our communities deserve.

I’m for Borris because Borris is a warrior for the people. That’s why I respectfully ask you to cast your vote for Borris as the Democratic Party’s nominee for State Senate, District 13.

Warm regards,

Mayor Sylvester Turner

But wait! There’s still more!

Thompson, who first was elected in 1972, has picked up a slew of endorsements from area Democratic congressmen and state legislators.

They include U.S. Reps. Al Green and Gene Green, as well as state Reps. Alma Allen, Garnet Coleman, Harold Dutton, Jessica Farrar, Ana Hernandez, Ron Reynolds, Hubert Vo, Armando Walle and Gene Wu.

Fort Bend County Commissioner Grady Prestage and the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation and the also have endorsed Thompson, among others.

[…]

Miles also touted Dutton’s support, in addition to that of former Mayor Annise Parker, state Sen. John Whitmire and state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, among others.

Dutton could not immediately be reached for comment to clarify which candidate he has in fact backed.

Asked if he has received any endorsements, Green said he is focused on earning precinct chairs’ support.

I’m a little surprised at how active Mayor Turner has been in intra-Democratic elections so far. Mayor Parker was a lot more circumspect, and Mayor White basically recused himself from party politics for his six years in office. I guess I’m not that surprised – the Lege was his bailiwick for a long time – and while these family fights often get nasty, I’m sure he’s fully aware of the pros and cons of getting involved. Whatever the case, this race just got a lot more interesting.

Shots fired at Sen. Whitmire’s office

Jesus.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

State Sen. John Whitmire said Thursday afternoon he believes the gun used in the predawn shooting of his Houston-area office was likely an AR-15 assault rifle.

The Houston Democrat’s office was fired on at about 12:30 a.m. Thursday. No one was injured in the shooting, which was first reported by KHOU.

“[The bullets] were .223” he said, referring to the caliber of the slugs found. A somber-sounding Whitmire said the situation is “serious” as investigators are still determining whether his office was the sole target.

“We’ll take precautions. But it’s part of the job, unfortunately, in this day and time,” he said. “They are checking in this general area to see if anyone else received any gunfire. We don’t know yet. I don’t know yet.”

[…]

Whitmire said that as a lawmaker he gets his fair share of threats, but no single person or group immediately came to mind as a possible suspect in the shooting.

He said his position as chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee opens him up to criticism.

“I deal with some controversial issues,” he said. “[People] have expectations that I can’t meet or don’t want to meet. But it’d be total speculation to say where it came from.”

More from the Chron.

The Houston Police Department and the Texas Rangers are investigating the incident.

“No one was injured and the building was unoccupied,” HPD Spokesman Kese Smith said.

Police are trying to determine whether any surveillance cameras recorded the incident, Smith said, adding that 9-1-1 call logs show a neighbor reported hearing a “loud banging sound or possible gun shots” at around 12:30 a.m.

Throughout the day, small clusters of curious neighbors gathered outside the office, a two-story house with white wood siding, watching watch police and Texas Rangers comb the scene.

One bullet had torn through a transom supporting the structure’s wrap-around porch, ricocheting into the front of the structure. Bullets had also smashed through a window above the front door, a shutter, and through the side wall of the house.

Thankfully, no one was in the office, which is a really nice historic two-story house, at the time. I sure hope this was something random and not targeted, but we’ll see what the investigation says. And while these shots were fired at an office, which one might reasonably expect to be unoccupied late at night, it’s in a residential area. A stray bullet could have easily gone into a neighboring yard or house. Let’s hope they find the asshole who did this.

Another way to achieve bail reform

From the Quorum Report:

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

The unnecessary death of Sandra Bland in the Waller County Jail last summer has now put the reform of bail bonds in focus as a key criminal justice issue ahead of the next legislative session.
Last month, a Waller County grand jury declined to indict those involved in [Sandra] Bland’s arrest and incarceration, either at the jail or in her widely publicized traffic stop near the Prairie View A&M University campus in July.

The Department of Public Safety trooper who arrested Bland subsequently was fired after being indicted for perjury in connection with the traffic stop.

Many put blame for Bland’s death on her inability to quickly find the $500 for her bond, extending her stay in the county jail into the following week, when she took her life. What Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, sees is a woman charged with a traffic stop who should have been in and out of the county jail within 18 hours of being booked.

“She was offered a bond. She needed $500 to get out,” Whitmire told an audience at a Texas Public Policy Foundation conference last week. “When she saw the magistrate, she was not able to come up with the $500. They could verify she had a new job at Prairie View A&M. They could verify she had a local address. It would have served them well to offer her a PR bond and let her go on with her life, and then all of our lives would have been different.”

A “PR” bond is a personal recognizance bond, one that bypasses bail and relies on a defendant’s signature as a promise to return to face charges on a court date. It is usually offered to low-level non-violent offenders who do not pose a flight risk.

In the case of Harris County, 60 percent of those in jail fall into that category, yet magistrates offer a fraction of defendants PR bonds as an option, Whitmire said. Such a decision can often be heartless for people who are living from paycheck to paycheck. The cost of bail ends up outweighing the price of the crime.

“Some people couldn’t raise $1,000 to save their lives,” Whitmire said of bail bonds. “We need to get them in and get them out and save the resources for the really bad people. I think that really should be our priority.”

More than half the people sitting in the Harris County Jail today are awaiting a trial, rather than completing a sentence, Whitmire said. The system would be better served if they were released in order to get back to work to pay court fines.

We are well familiar with the problem. Obstacles to making this happen are the bail bond industry, and judges in places like Harris County that refuse to use Pretrial Services and set rational bonds. If the first obstacle can be overcome in the Legislature, the second one will be reduced in scope, which ought to make a big difference. If Sen. Whitmire says this will be a priority for him, you can be sure there will be some action on it. Grits has more.

Endorsement watch: Latino electeds for Gene Green

Not a big surprise.

Rep. Gene Green

Rep. Gene Green

U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Houston Democrat, will pick up support from several Houston political players Tuesday.

The 12-term congressman faces what could be a formidable primary challenge in the form of former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia. According to a Green campaign press release, seven Houston Democrats are ready to back his re-election: state Sens. Sylvia R. Garcia and John Whitmire, state Reps. Ana Hernandez, Garnet F. Coleman, Armando Walle and Carol Alvarado, and Harris County Constable Chris Diaz.

The endorsements’ apparent aim is to give Green cover against Garcia’s argument that the mostly-Hispanic district would be better served with Hispanic congressional representation. With residual name identification from his unsuccessful run for Houston mayor, Garcia could pose a viable threat to Green’s re-election.

I received a copy of the press release as well as the pre-release on Friday that didn’t contain the officials’ names. The event will take place at 11 AM at the Vecino Health Center (Denver Harbor Family Clinic), 424 Hahlo St., in case anyone wants to attend. As I said before, I was looking to see who might be endorsing whom in this race. Whatever the effect is on the final result, this does affect the narrative of the race. Reps. Walle, Hernandez, and Alvarado all once worked for Green, so their solidarity with their former boss is to be expected, but Sylvia Garcia was one of the candidates for the seat back in 1992; she finished third, behind Green and Ben Reyes, whom Green then defeated in the runoff and again in the 1994 primary. She had previously been talked about as a potential opponent for Green in more recent years, before her election to the State Senate. Make of that what you will.

Going back through my archives, I came across this post from 2014 about Green representing a Latino district and when that might change. Here’s what Campos, who is now working on the Garcia campaign, said at the time:

Having a Dem Latino or Latina in Congress from the H-Town area would be empowering to the community. What is missing is an articulate voice for us in Congress like on a day when the immigration issue is front and center. Who is going to argue with that?

I don’t buy into the notion that just because the local Latino leaders aren’t for something, it won’t happen. I can still recall the spontaneous immigration marches a few years ago that local Latino leaders were scrambling to lead.

I can picture a scenario where an articulate bilingual Latino or Latina leader steps up, grabs an issue and captures the attention of the community. That is certainly not racist, that’s politics. This discussion isn’t going away.

And my comment on that:

Sure, that could happen, and I agree that if it were to happen it would likely be a talented newcomer who can inspire people to pose a serious threat to Rep. Green. The problem is that that’s not sufficient. Look at the recent history of Democratic primary challenges in Texas legislative races, and you’ll see that there are generally two paths to knocking off an incumbent that don’t rely on them getting hosed in redistricting. One is via the self-inflicted wounds of an incumbent with some kind of ethics problems – think Gabi Canales or Naomi Gonzales, for example – or an incumbent that has genuinely lost touch with the base. In the past decade in Texas that has mostly meant Craddick Democrats, though one could argue that Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s win over Silvestre Reyes had elements of that.

What I’m saying is simply that there has to be a reason to dump the current officeholder. Look no further than the other Anglo Texas Democrat in Congress for that. The GOP has marked Rep. Lloyd Doggett for extinction twice, each time drawing him into a heavily Latino district in the hope of seeing him get knocked off in a primary. He survived the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003, then he faced the same kind of challenge again in 2012. His opponent, Sylvia Romo, was an experienced officeholder running in a district that was drawn to elect a Hispanic candidate from Bexar County. Having interviewed her, I can attest that she’d have made a perfectly fine member of Congress. But she never identified a policy item on which she disagreed with Doggett, and she never could give an answer to the question why the voters should replace their existing perfectly good member of Congress and his boatload of seniority with a rookie, however promising.

That’s the question any theoretical opponent to Gene Green will have to answer as well.

I think both my statement and Marc’s would stand up today. I’d say we’re likely to hear some form of these arguments over the next two months. In the meantime, I wonder if Garcia will roll out his own list of supporters soon. Better still if that list is accompanied by reasons why Garcia is the superior choice, and where he differs in matters of policy. I know that’s what I’d want to hear about if I lived in that district.

Will Sandra Bland’s death help lead to bail reform?

That would be a fitting and just outcome if it does.

Sandra Bland

Harris County and the state should reform an unfair bond system that punishes the poor more harshly, according to civil rights leaders, legislative officials and criminal experts who gathered Wednesday in front of the county’s criminal justice center. Reform, they argued, could prevent another tragedy like that involving Sandra Bland, who was found dead in her Waller County jail cell in July after failing to make bail.

“The death of Sandra Bland was a travesty of justice,” said Johnny Mata of the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice. “Sandra Bland would probably be alive today if Texas would’ve had a system that is fair.”

[…]

Advocates familiar with the bail process and statutes like the Fair Defense Act said it never should have come to that.

“There’s still an investigation being done,” Mata said of Bland’s death, which an autopsy shows was a suicide by hanging. “We respect that. However, we feel that an injustice has been committed.”

His coalition reflects more than 25 organizations across the area. He was joined Wednesday by experts like law professor Sandra Guerra Thomspon, director of the University of Houston Law Center’s Criminal Justice Institute, who said the need for bail reform is a national concern but is especially needed in Houston.

By following pre-determined bail schedules, magistrates ignore their responsibility to take individual factors into consideration to ensure that the bond does not merely become a punishment for being poor, she and others argued. Instead it’s meant to reflect an individual’s flight risk and potential public safety concerns. Had a more nuanced risk assessment instrument been used in Bland’s case, she argued, “the question would not be, ‘Does she have $500?’ but, ‘Is she a risk to come to court?'”

[…]

In Texas, defendants are supposed to have the added protection of the Fair Defense Act passed in 2001. The act, authored by [Sen. Rodney] Ellis, addresses issues like indigent defense and the timely appointment of counsel. But it also contains language about when a defendant should be granted representation. According to some, that right extends to the bond hearing itself, though this is rarely ever the case. Hargrave said in her more than 20 years of working in Waller County, an individual never had a defense lawyer present during the bond hearing.

Advocates also question what they see as the low rate of personal bonds granted to individuals. If an individual is granted a personal bond, he or she is released on the promise to appear in court. Only 7 percent of bonds issued in Harris County are personal bonds, according to Randall Kallinen, a lawyer and the former head of the Houston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

With so few personal bonds issued, said Kallinen, “the person who has the money gets out.” In other words, “the Harris County jail is housing poor people,” he said.

I’ve written about this topic a number of times, usually in the context of jail overcrowding, but Sandra Bland’s death is a tragic reminder of another aspect of people not being able to post bail: A significant number of people die in jail every year. Grits puts a number to it: “183 have died in Sheriffs’ custody since January 2014, including 80 so far in 2015, a statistic which includes Sandra Bland and appears on pace to exceed last year’s number.” There are many different reasons why these deaths happen, and unfortunately the data we have doesn’t go into much detail about them, but the point is that some number of those people shouldn’t have been in jail at all, and wouldn’t have been there if they could have posted bail. This is not acceptable.

On a related note, the Texas Senate has convened a committee to study jail safety standards, which was another issue in Sandra Bland’s death. This is commendable, and I hope it produces some action items for the next Legislature, but 1) any such legislation is two years away from being enacted; 2) there’s no guarantee anything ever gets passed, and; 3) fixing how bail is set is something that can be done right now. Kudos to the Senate for addressing this, but let’s not lose sight of what’s right in front of us. More from Grits here.

Grand jury reform bill in trouble

Not good.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

Six weeks after sailing through the Texas Senate, efforts to reform the state’s controversial grand jury selection system have stalled in the House.

A closely watched bill to end the “pick-a-pal” system suffered an unexpected setback late Monday when the lawmaker carrying the bill in the House weakened it and then withdrew the measure altogether amid opposition from a Brazoria County judge.

The moves transformed the proposal from a political sure-shot to a long-shot.

“To say I’m totally disappointed at what happened in the House is an understatement,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the sponsor of the measure in the upper chamber. Whitmire vowed to redouble his push for what he called potentially the most important legislation in this year’s session. “This bill is clearly too important to let it not pass.”

[…]

On Monday, Republican Rep. Ed Thompson of Pearland rallied opposition to the measure on the House floor, citing the feelings of a judge in his district.

“He said, ‘we have this system, we know it and it’s working well,'” Thompson said in an interview.

Sensing the risk of defeat, bill sponsor Harold Dutton, D-Houston, put forward an amendment. The compromise would allow judges to continue to use the “pick-a-pal” system if they came up with a written justification.

The change also made sense, he said later in an interview, because of the importance of flexibility in some rare cases.

Still, Thompson moved to amend the bill to make it apply only to Harris and Dallas counties. On a 73-69 vote, he won.

While supporters managed to push through yet another amendment to make it apply to a few other large counties, Dutton at that point decided to voluntarily withdraw the bill, postponing debate.

“I just don’t think it makes good policy to apply different laws to different counties in the criminal justice system,” Dutton explained afterward.

Dutton chalked up the setback to a “unique set of circumstances,” with several amendments flying around and some members not understanding what they were voting on.

He said he soon would bring up the Senate version of the bill. Because it is cleaner, he said, he was optimistic he could find a few votes to get it through.

“I’ll twist some arms if I have to,” Dutton said.

See here for some background. I’ve got to say, I don’t understand the reluctance, and I’m more than a little boggled to see an unnamed judge in Brazoria County wielding that much influence. Maybe this was a matter of some members not understanding the issue, but geez, it’s not like this came out of nowhere. It’s been a hot topic for months. Can we pay a little more attention to issues that matter, please? Grits has more.

UPDATE: This version of the Chron story, plus Lisa Falkenberg’s column identify the judge in question as Patrick Sebesta.

Turner & Whitmire

No, not the latest buddy cop movie, just two old legislative friends helping each other out.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Texas’ most senior state senator turned to the crowd during a September fundraiser for state Rep. Sylvester Turner and ribbed his friend and would-be Houston mayor.

“My name is John Whitmire, and I’m Sylvester Turner’s state senator,” he said, a go-to laugh-line that landed in a sea of donors. “Everyone in my district is important, but Sylvester Turner kind of stands out.”

Kind words like those – exchanged again and again over the past 12 months in both directions – have gone a shade past the standard “good friend” lavished by nearly every politician on their predecessors at a dais. The alliance between Turner, a powerful Democratic state representative, and Whitmire, the most senior Democrat in the Senate, say people familiar with their ties, is genuine yet politically potent and already is sculpting the local Democratic landscape.

“The moon, the sun and all the planets have come together in the Sylvester-John orbit,” said Carl Whitmarsh, a longtime Democratic activist close to both men.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

[…]

Facing his first primary challenger since winning the seat in 1992 – and an African-American one at that, in a district that is only 28 percent Anglo – Whitmire called on Turner to introduce him to his Acres Home base. Other black legislators rallied behind Whitmire in the final months before his primary against Damien LaCroix. Turner hugged Whitmire tightest, introducing him to ministers and bringing him to black churches.

“I don’t think it was a race that John was in danger of losing,” said Mark Clark, who directs the police union’s political work. “But it seemed to me that Sylvester was investing as much as he possibly could to communicate with voters out there that Sen. Whitmire was the guy and still is the guy.”

Some point to that backing to explain Whitmire’s prominence in the mayoral race.

“They’ve been allies for a long time. It doesn’t surprise me that they support each other,” said Turner opponent Oliver Pennington, a city councilman who is critical of the pension deal struck by the Democratic pair.

I see this story as kind of a Rohrschach test. How you feel about Rep. Turner and/or Sen. Whitmire going in almost certainly correlates to how you feel about them teaming up like this. The main takeaway for me is that Turner isn’t going to leave the Anglo Dem bloc to the Bell/Costello/McVey/King/Garcia (*) crowd. He had very little traction with those voters in 2003, thanks in part to Bill White’s months-earlier entry into the race and heavy TV advertising. Things are different this time. We’ll see how much effect it has.

(*) Until he actually says he’s in, I’m giving Sheriff Garcia an asterisk.

Decriminalizing truancy

This is important.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

Senate Bill 106, filed by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, would make major overhauls to current truancy law, including referring students to a civil court that hears truancy cases rather than a criminal court.

Under current law, children as young as 12 who miss 10 or more days or parts of days in a 6-month period and their parents must appear in court, where they face a Class C misdemeanor charge and a fine up to $500. School districts can file truancy charges when a student misses at least three full or partial days in a four-week period.

Advocates told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that many truant students miss school because they are are pregnant, bullied or are the sole financial providers for their families. They said current law unfairly punishes them, labeling them a criminal at an early age.

“We have to find a way to encourage students and we’re finding that if you come through with a punitive manner it just doesn’t work,” said Yvonne Williams, a Travis County judge who deals with dozens of truancy cases a week.

Sen. Whitmire is acting on the tireless advocacy of Texas Appleseed, which has been banging the drum over the school-to-prison pipeline for several years. Decriminalizing truancy is at the top of their legislative agenda for this session. It’s great to see this move forward, especially (as Grits reported from the hearing) in the face of some heated but misleading opposition. Kudos to all for this, but let’s make sure it crosses the finish line.

Meanwhile, Sen. Whitmire has some other reforms on the burner as well.

Legislation that would take the biggest step in eight years to reform Texas’ juvenile-justice system by keeping more teen-aged offenders in community and regional treatment centers, rather than in a remote state lockup, was approved late Tuesday by a state Senate committee.

Under Senate Bill 1630, up to 80 percent of juvenile offenders who are now sent to state lockups could instead be held in local treatment programs – a move that could significantly downsize the state’s long-troubled youth corrections system and save taxpayers perhaps as much as $40 million.

“This is the next huge step to keep the youth closer to their communities in programs that work, instead of state programs that have not,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the author of the measure. “We’ll not only have better results, but this will save money.”

Officials and justice experts testified during a public hearing the plan, if approved, would mark the most significant change in Texas’ juvenile justice system in years – a change recommended seven years ago, when the number of youths in state lockups was cut by more than half in favor of local treatment and rehabilitation programs.

Under the bill, youths serving time for so-called indeterminate sentences – most held for less-serious crimes and who remain in the program until they successfully complete it – would be sent to regional facilities, many of them operated by counties, instead of the state’s five high-security lockups that more resemble prisons than rehabilitation centers.

Tom Brooks, chief juvenile probation officer of Harris County, and his counterpart in Bexar County, Lynne Wilkerson, were among a long list of witnesses voicing support for the legislation, which has also been endorsed by officials of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

[…]

Whitmire said Senate budget writers refocused the agency’s two-year budget to fund more local rehabilitation and treatment programs and to hire more parole officers.

“It currently costs about $140,000 a year to house a youth in a state facility, and it costs just $60,000 in a local or regional program – with much better outcomes,” Whitmire said.

I don’t see how anyone can argue with that. Again, I’m glad to see this moving, and I hope to see it go the distance.

There is one reform that won’t happen at this time, however.

Armed with research on the dangers 17-year-olds face in adult jails and prisons, children’s groups and criminal justice advocates have made the cause a top priority this session. Texans Care for Children convened a summit on the issue last fall, and a January report from a House committee has recommended changing the law.

Texas’ law, the committee notes, is out of step with both federal law and all but eight other states. The report notes research that says adolescent brains are still developing, which calls into question whether they should be held as culpable as adults, and suggests they might have a better chance at rehabilitation.

Sheriffs and jailers have supported the idea as well, in part because federal law already requires them to keep 17-year-olds out of “sight and sound” from older inmates, which is an expensive proposition. In practice, especially in smaller county facilities, 17-year-olds are confined alone instead. Juvenile court judges in Bexar and Harris counties have also signed on, editorial boards at the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News, Austin American-Statesman have all called for change this year.

With such a drumbeat of support, moving 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system seems like just the sort of research-based, bipartisan idea that a reform-minded Legislature would embrace. On Wednesday afternoon, a House committee will hear a handful of bills to do so.

But for now at least, the proposal is likely headed nowhere in the Senate, where the most visible opposition has come from an unlikely source: Whitmire.

“I personally, philosophically, believe that if a 17-year-old commits a violent act, I see no reason to change that they wouldn’t be [treated] as an adult. I just think that a 17-year-old knows right from wrong,” Whitmire told the Observer. “I just am not of the opinion that it’s a broken system, and I’m not prepared to change the law to assist the sheriffs in the management of their jails.”

Well, we’ll have to disagree on that. I think the wind is blowing in the direction of less incarceration, and we should take advantage of any opportunity we can to pursue that. Maybe next session for this part of it.

The pension deal

Not sure yet how I feel about this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker and Houston’s firefighter pension trustees have reached a deal that would lower the city’s payments for three years, a move that would mark an abrupt reversal for the mayor.

The announcement came late Thursday from the fire pension board, whose leaders for years have fought any mention of changes to benefits as Houston’s enormous pension burden has continued to grow. The pension fund estimates the city would pay $77 million less over the next three years.

In a memo Thursday to the City Council, Parker said the agreement is a “modified version” of a proposal the pension board pushed last fall.

“The terms will deliver significant budget relief to the city of Houston,” Parker wrote. “As with any true compromise, both sides have surrendered hard positions to realize a mutually beneficial outcome.”

Craig Mason is a pension consultant who represents the city on the police, fire and municipal pension boards. Mason, who followed the talks but had not seen the final deal, said the deal would see firefighters contribute more of their pay toward their retirement and have the city contribute less, for a term of three years.

Mason and other pension reformers have said, however, that without changing pension benefits the city will not be solving the problem long term.

“I’m opposed to people calling that a savings,” Mason said of the deal. “It’s a temporary reduction in contributions, but it’s going to increase contributions in the future. It’s a short-term focus, which is typical for city administrations.”

[…]

Parker’s support for the deal is curious, given that she said the pension trustees’ proposal from the fall “reflects no true pension reform” and repeated the same stance as recently as Wednesday, saying, “There’s no reform in that … we’re just putting more money into a system that I think needs help.”

The announcement said that as part of the deal the city would drop two lawsuits against the fire pension, one that seeks more data to better predict future costs and another that challenges the constitutionality of the city being on the hook for payments over which it has no control; the pension and the city’s contributions are set by the Legislature. The city would agree not to lobby the Legislature for pension reforms for the three-year duration of the deal, Mason added.

The fire pension trustees’ plan from last fall that Mason said forms the basis of the deal would not touch current or future firefighters’ benefits, but would have them contribute 12 percent of their paychecks into the pension fund, up from 9 percent. In that proposal, the fire pension projected the city’s contribution rate would drop from 33 percent of firefighter payroll to 24 percent.

Before I say anything about this myself, let me quote from the reactions I received in my inbox to this, in the order I received them. First, from CM Stephen Costello:

“Our firefighters deserve to have their pensions covered in full and this deal, negotiated without City Council input or approval, not only leaves their pensions cut short but continues to put the city’s financial well-being at great risk over the long haul. This agreement simply continues the damaging cycle where the City of Houston fails to fund the pension, racking up tens of millions of dollars in new debt in the future. The ultimate solution in the long term is local control. Houstonians should have the authority to craft their own solution rather than continuing to leave our fate in the hands of politicians in Austin.”

From Bill King:

The proposed agreement regarding the Houston Fire Fighter pension plan announced yesterday represents a further abdication of fiscal responsibility. The parties to this deal owe taxpayers an explanation how borrowing $77 million at 8.5 percent is a good deal, or saves the City money. This deal does absolutely nothing to contain the costs to Houston taxpayers, but instead pushes off millions of dollars of pension obligations to the next administration.

I do not believe the City should incur this kind of additional liability without a full and open debate — and approval — by City Council especially when the City’s pension debt has soared by $1.2 billion over the last five years.

From Controller candidate Bill Frazer:

Once again, Houston’s taxpayers have been left holding the bag while its pension issues get kicked down the road for another 3 years. The City Controller stands idly by while the Mayor, a candidate for Mayor and a candidate for City Controller craft a backroom deal based purely on political expediency.

While kicking the can down the road, the Mayor has borrowed another $77 million at “credit card interest rates”, leaving the taxpayers with more debt and no solutions. Houston deserves a higher standard.

From HFRRF Chairman Todd Clark:

Today Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF) and Houston Mayor Annise Parker agreed on a set of legislative provisions that will save the City $77 million over three years while assuring soundness of the pension and putting a halt to the City’s lawsuits against the Fund. Mayor Parker supported the plan which increases firefighters’ contributions by 3% of their salaries and will reduce Houston’s General Fund expenses to the HFRRF by $21.4 million in Fiscal Year 2016 alone.

“The proposal protects Houston’s citizens by keeping and recruiting the best firefighters we can get,” said HFRRF President Todd Clark. “We are pleased the Mayor supports our proposal because it protects promises made to our firefighters and avoids reduction of benefits to new hires, which would be harmful to all parties.”

The Firefighters’ proposal, as accepted by the Mayor, provides a sustainable plan for the City while avoiding additional costly litigation and discontinuing current litigation while not impacting retirees at all.

And finally, from Mayor Parker:

Under the terms of the arrangement, which still needs legislative approval in Austin, firefighters will contribute three percent more to the pension system for the next three years. Correspondingly, the City’s payroll contribution to the fund will be locked in at 25.8% for Fiscal Year 2016, and 24% for both Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018. This represents a more than $70 million decrease from the amount the city would have to pay in the absence of this arrangement.

The HFRRF board proposed that the firefighters who benefit from the system should pay more. “This protects taxpayer interests and provides budget certainty for the next three years,” said Mayor Parker. “The agreement was achieved through good faith negotiations by both parties. While it is not the pension reform I have sought, it is a step forward. The work must not end here.”

The agreement is the result of informal discussions between the City and HFRRF over the last several months. State law gives the city the ability to meet and confer with the police and municipal pensions, but no such mechanism exists for HFRRF.

“Despite our differences, both of us came together to do what is best for the City,” said Parker. “This doesn’t change my position. I still strongly believe that those who fund our employee pensions should have a say in how we pay for them. These are decisions that must be made here at home, not in Austin.”

The Mayor’s full press release is here. Clearly, one’s view of this deal is dependent on how one views the overall pension situation. Also, if one is running for Mayor and one is not Sylvester Turner, who was credited by the firefighters for helping to broker this deal, one doesn’t like it. My view is that while this is clearly a kick-the-can-down-the-road proposal, the fact is that Houston is facing a (hopefully short term) fiscal crunch in the next few years, and will have to make cuts somewhere to cover those bills. Reducing the amount that the city will have to cut by $77 million over the next three years is nothing to sneeze at, especially if one is unwilling to try to lift the stupid revenue cap as a means of helping to mitigate those cuts. If this is a loan that needs to be paid back, or if there is a gap between what the city would have contributed and what the firefighters will wind up kicking in, then this deal doesn’t look as good. I’d like to see an analysis from a disinterested third party before I sign off on any interpretation, but the prospect of having to make $77 million less in cuts over the next three years counts for something to me. Campos and PDiddie have more.

Statewide non-discrimination ordinance filed

From the Inbox:

Sen. Jose Rodriguez

On the 179th anniversary of Texas Independence Day, Senator José Rodríguez (D-El Paso) filed Senate Bill 856, a bill that would prohibit discrimination in the areas of employment, public accommodation, housing, and state contracting based upon sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. The bill was joint-authored by Senators John Whitmire (D-Houston), Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), Kirk Watson (D-Austin), and Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston).

“Fair treatment for workers, families, and people who visit our state—including gay and transgender people—is a crucial factor in the ongoing strength of the Texas brand. An inclusive Texas is crucial to recruiting and retaining talent, attracting entrepreneurs and company relocations, and maintaining a strong travel and tourism industry. Moreover, discrimination of any kind runs counter to the values of opportunity, personal faith, and freedom from discrimination that all Texans hold dear,” Senator Rodríguez said.

“Discrimination of any form has no place in Texas. Not in our schools, our government, or our services. I am proud to co-author this legislation and proud to stand strong for the fair treatment of all Texans especially our friends in the LGBT community who for too long have been the target of discrimination,” stated Senator John Whitmire, Dean of the Texas Senate.

“I’m proud to coauthor legislation to prevent fellow Texans from being discriminated against due to who they love,” said Senator Ellis. “All hardworking Texans, including our LGBT neighbors, should have the chance to earn a living, provide for their families, and live like everyone else without fear of getting fired or evicted solely because of who they are. ”

“Every Texan deserves to be treated fairly, and this legislation will make our state stronger by protecting this important ideal,” Senator Watson said.

“All Texans should enjoy equal protection under the law. This important legislation would ensure that our LGBT brothers and sisters can express who they are without fear of discrimination. It would also send a message to the rest of the world that Texas welcomes anyone that wants to contribute to our great state, regardless of sexual orientation,” Senator Garcia said.

According to the 2012 FORTUNE 500 Non-Discrimination Project from the Equality Forum, 48 of 52 Fortune 500 companies in Texas already prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Many others also extend that protection to gender identity or expression. In 2012, the Center for American Progress reported that work environments hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) employees cost companies $1.4 billion in lost output every year.

Because Texas does not protect people who are gay or transgender from discrimination, many municipalities have already acted to extend discrimination protection to those residents. Currently 35.5% of Texans live in a city where discrimination against sexual orientation is prohibited. 33.9% live in a city where gender identity is protected.

“It is time—past time,” said Senator Rodríguez, “to make sure that all Texans have the independence our state claimed for itself almost 200 years ago. To be free of discrimination based on who you are, and to be treated fairly and equally is an environment Texas should be leading the way in creating, not being late to adopt. That’s what businesses want. But most importantly, all Texans deserve the right to provide for themselves and their families, secure a place to live, participate in the Texas economy, and contribute to the Texas economy, no matter what city they live in or visit and regardless of who they are or whom they love.”

Business leaders agree.

Catherine Morse, General Counsel and Director of Public Affairs at Samsung Austin Semiconductor: “Like so many other companies in Texas, Samsung is competing globally for the best talent. We believe that nondiscrimination measures will help us in that regard.”

Mellie Price, serial entrepreneur and Managing Director of Capital Factory: “For small and large businesses across Texas to compete for top talent, we must have workplaces and communities that are diverse and welcoming to all people.”

“I chose today—Texas Independence Day—to file this important legislation,” Senator Rodríguez concluded, “because Texas values—such as hard work, opportunity, and the Golden Rule—are the reason why Texas remains strong 179 years later. That is why we must act definitively to ensure everyone in the Lone Star State is treated fairly and equally.”

Here’s SB856. It’s not going to go anywhere – it’s going to be a hell of a fight to fend off legislation that would nullify local non-discrimination ordinances; yet another such bill was filed around the same time as Sen. Rordiguez’s bill – but that doesn’t matter. I’ll say again, if we don’t stand up for what we believe in, what are we even doing? I commend Sen. Rodriguez and his four co-authors for doing the right thing. I hope the rest of their colleagues follow their example. The full press release is here, and Equality Texas has more.

Reforming the grand jury system

Harris County DA Devon Anderson comes out in favor of changing how grand juries are selected.

DA Devon Anderson

I have been the Harris County district attorney for 17 months now. In that time, one of the most frequently recurring issues I have been asked to address has been the selection of grand jurors by jury commissioners.

Until now, my answer to those questions had been simple:

I don’t have the authority as district attorney to tell our elected district court judges how they should select their grand juries. They are each accountable to the voters for their own choices.

We work with the grand juries that the courts empanel, and we do our very best to avoid conflicts. If it’s a police shooting we are presenting, we try to find a grand jury that is diverse and that does not have law enforcement officers on the panel. We do this regardless of how the grand jury was selected.

If the way the district courts select grand juries engenders distrust but is still lawful, the solution is for the Texas Legislature to change the law.

The public is losing confidence in the grand jury system. I can no longer take a neutral position on this issue. The use of jury commissioners to select grand jurors unnecessarily gives critics of the grand jury system ammunition to challenge the jurors’ independence and integrity. The jurors deserve better. The public deserves better.

[…]

I support the efforts in the Texas Legislature to abolish the jury commissioner system. Whatever concerns the remaining district court judges have about using jury pools should have been assuaged long ago – other district courts have been using the jury pool system successfully for long enough that its viability cannot be questioned.

Good for her. As the accompanying Chron story notes, there’s already a vehicle to make this happen.

State Sen. John Whitmire, who authored the bill to abolish the “key man” system, said recent events and local reporting reinforced his concern about how grand juries are put together and convinced him it is time for a change.

“People of all colors have lost confidence in the system,” he said. “We don’t need a handpicked group of the judge’s friends making these decisions.”

Whitmire said he attended a town hall meeting where it was apparent that minority communities in Houston have lost faith in the current system.

“I’ve become convinced from personal observation and knowing people – judges, prosecutors – that it’s a flawed system,” he said. “It’s alarming when you hear the examples of what some judges are doing.”

Whitmire applauded Anderson’s decision to support the effort to create more diverse grand juries. He said he looked forward to partnering with her administration.

“She’s the district attorney of the largest DA’s office in Texas. I’m the Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee,” he said. “I’m a Democrat, she’s a Republican, so I’m sure we’ll be able to get some things done.”

Whitmire’s bill is SB135. From the story, it sounds like the main opposition to this idea is from the judges themselves. Doesn’t mean Whitmire’s bill will pass even with Anderson’s support, but that seems like a surmountable obstacle. Grand jury reform, like body cameras, is a high priority for criminal justice reformers. I look forward to the hearings on this, to see what else comes out. Grits and Campos, who notes Lisa Falkenberg’s advocacy on this issue, have more.

Expect to hear more about Perry vetos and no-bid contracts

Bring it on.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Democratic lawmakers and government watchdog groups on Saturday called for the reopening of an investigation into no-bid state contracts that ended in 2013 after Gov. Rick Perry vetoed funding for the team conducting it.

The critics decried the millions of dollars in Department of Public Safety contracts and another set of similar deals given by the state health commission under Perry, who will step down Tuesday after 14 years in office and is considering a 2016 presidential run. They said a thorough evaluation of contracting is needed to assure taxpayers that their money is being spent responsibly.

“Hell, yes, we need to review everything,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who has served in the upper chamber longer than any other member. “There seems to be an awful lot of no-bid this and no-bid that, and I just think we need to look at it all so we can tell where the problems are and what needs to be changed.”

[…]

Democratic state Reps. Garnet Coleman and Armando Walle of Houston were among those calling Saturday for the investigation of no-bid contracts to be reopened.

“Using state resources to bolster a political career by fomenting a non-existent border crisis, then giving no-bid contracts to a company that has limited experience in border security seems like an issue the Public Integrity Unit should be investigating,” Walle said.

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based government watchdog group whose complaint initiated the investigation that led to Perry’s indictment, agreed. He added that if the investigation had continued, it may have prevented some of the issues now surfacing with state health contracts.

Four high-ranking Texas Health and Human Services Commission officials have so far resigned as a result of those issues, stemming from no-bid Medicaid fraud detection contracts with Austin technology company 21CT that got tentative approval to balloon to $110 million before being canceled.

The deal is now being investigated by the Public Integrity Unit.

Unit director Gregg Cox on Saturday cited that investigation as a reason why it was unlikely that his office could reopen the probe into DPS contracts.

“I just don’t have the horsepower right now to open new investigations, with everything else we have going,” said Cox, who added that he would review the option next week. He added that for now, he “would prefer to see other agencies investigate this, and then we can work with them.”

See here for the background. If nothing else, one hopes this is the fulcrum by which the Public integrity Unit gets its funding restored, which is something the House budget would do but not what Dan Patrick wants. Regardless, this is a giant turd that Rick Perry is leaving in Greg Abbott’s punch bowl, and I plan to enjoy watching the fallout.

DA’s office to help buy body cams

Very good news.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson plans to purchase hundreds of body-worn cameras for Houston police officers and sheriff’s deputies, weeks after widespread protests erupted when a white Missouri police officer was not charged for fatally shooting an unarmed black teen.

In the aftermath of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., on Nov. 24, civil rights groups have called for increased accountability during police encounters, including the use of small cameras worn on officers’ uniforms. This month the Chicago police department, the nation’s second-biggest force, announced a pilot program for body cameras to begin in January. The Obama administration also recently asked Congress for approval to spend $263 million to help states acquire 50,000 body cameras.

A sheriff’s spokesman and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, confirmed the purchase of the body cameras locally.

[…]

Local officials with the NAACP called the camera initiative “good news.”

“That’s a very positive step,” said Carroll Robinson, treasurer-elect with the Houston Branch of the NAACP. “The body camera won’t solve every problem but the more we can see the less we have to rely on he-said, she-said.

“They will help improve community trust in the law enforcement system and bring confidence to those who want to make sure the criminal justice system is hearing their voice and their concerns.”

Carmen Roe, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said body cameras are “essential to provide transparency out on the streets, for the protection of law enforcement as well as citizens in the community.”

Roe and others said policies and guidelines for the cameras’ use are critical.

“I hope there will be some written policies in place to ensure the cameras are not used at the discretion of officers,” Roe said. “Any time there are officers out on the street, their cameras should be activated to record any interaction with citizens in the community.”

Agreed on all counts, and major kudos to DA Devon Anderson for taking this initiative. This also addresses something I’ve been thinking of since the push for body cameras for HPD began, which is what about Sheriff’s deputies? There’s a lot more cops than just HPD, after all. Of course, there’s more than HPD and the HCSO, too, but you have to start somewhere.

You also have to keep in mind that body cameras are a tool and one piece of a much larger puzzle. They’re not a solution in and of themselves.

Justin Ready, an assistant professor of criminology at Arizona State University who has conducted research on the use of body cameras in the Mesa, Ariz., and Phoenix police departments, said the technology may not be enough to prevent another Ferguson.

“Any interaction is complex. The cameras might show you five pieces of a 10-piece puzzle, and we tend to fill in those blind spots with our own biases,” he said.

Though body cameras can raise transparency and accountability on both sides of the lens, experts also urge caution about unrealistic expectations for the devices.

One study released in September, “Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program” – a joint report from the Police Executive Research Forum and the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services – examined how agencies were using the devices and offered recommendations for those considering outfitting officers with cameras.

“There’s a lot of public support for it right now and agencies are really wanting to jump on board, but what we say is: Do this cautiously and think about what your policies are going to be and how this is going to impact your community and how officers are going to do their jobs,” said Lindsay Miller, the report’s co-author and a senior research associate at the Police Executive Research Forum.

Most cameras cost $1,000 to $1,500 each, but deploying the units also requires a more expensive component: video storage and management.

“Every video, no matter how you store it, has to be uploaded, characterized, properly tagged and sometimes linked to a document system,” Miller said. “This program requires a considerable amount of money and manpower.”

Absolutely, and it also requires a lot of thought, and ideally a lot of engagement with the public, to do this effectively and appropriately. That we are going to start thinking about these things, and again getting the public involved in the process, is a positive step. I commend DA Devon Anderson, whose action will enable all Sheriff’s deputies to get body cameras, for doing her part to make this happen. Grits, who notes pushes for body cameras all over Texas, and Hair Balls have more.

On grand juries

Some folks are trying to change the makeup of grand juries in Harris County.

HarrisCounty

It was a largely black crowd with at least a third of the audience made up of white people and a few anarchists sprinkled in. They were there to share ideas, sign some petitions, and to vent about injustice in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner deaths.

Inside the packed El Dorado Ballroom in the Third Ward, the shirt on a lonely hipster said it best: Murder Beats Not People.

A group called the Houston Justice Coalition, made up largely of students from nearby Texas Southern University, organized the outing. They shared their platform, which calls for Houston to implement police body cameras (something already working its way through city council) and for raising awareness about grand juries.

“I’ve served four times, twice as a foreman,” Third Ward Councilman Dwight Boykins said. It’s a hard sell, but everyone was encouraged to help diversify grand juries, which are commonly racially and economically lopsided and are easily swayed by prosecutors. “You have to commit not only to the $28 per day two times a week, but three months out of the year. And some people don’t like to do that,” Boykins said.

The event was advertised on social media as an organizing call for millennials, the target audience for all the #CrimingWhileWhite and #AliveWhileBlack responses on Twitter. It’s an age group that’s historically been the foundation of rights movements. This might all be a test to see if today’s young activists can keep the energy going.

It’s a start. Changing the grand jury system here from the current “pick a pal” method, which is a big driver of the non-diversity of grand juries, to a random selection like what is used for regular juries, would also make a difference. Sen. John Whitmire has filed a bill to require just that for Harris County, but a better question might be why do we have grand juries at all?

The concept [of grand juries] comes from our colonial parent, England. “It goes back centuries here,” explains London-based legal writer Joshua Rozenberg. “In medieval times, it was drawn from the local neighborhood. And these were men who were expected to look around and report criminal behavior within the community. They’re people who actually knew the offenders, as we’d call them today, and could perhaps bring them to justice.”

By the 16th century, that morphed into the system we’d now recognize as a grand jury: A group of people listening to a prosecutor’s evidence and deciding whether to indict.

But the United Kingdom actually abolished its grand jury system in 1933. “We now send cases that are serious enough straight to jury trial,” Rozenberg says. That way, both sides are able to present evidence and make their arguments, which is definitely not the case with a grand jury.

In fact, the UK exported grand juries to most of their former colonies — Canada, Australia, New Zealand — and virtually all of them have stopped using them.

“They are said to be ‘putty in the hands of the prosecutor.’ In other words, the prosecutor really tells them what he or she wants and they will go along with it,” he says. “Or that’s what we are told, because we don’t really know. We can’t watch grand juries at work.”

That’s why former New York judge Sol Wachtler once famously said that a district attorney could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” But, Rozenberg points out, “it must be even easier to get the sandwich acquitted if that is what the district attorney may actually want.”

Link via Grits. Why shouldn’t we make District Attorneys be the ones that are accountable for these decisions? I’d be interested to hear from the attorneys out there what the down side to this might be.

Endorsement watch: State Senate

The Chron makes another curious choice.

District 17: Joan Huffman

In District 17, which includes parts of Harris County and counties to the east, Republican incumbent Joan Hoffman has a credible Democratic opponent in Rita Lucido, 58, a family law attorney and activist with such organizations as the Houston Area Women’s Center and Planned Parenthood.

Huffman, also 58, who initially won her seat in a 2008 special election, is vice chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and has built strong working relationships with members of both parties. She is a strong advocate for mental health issues, particularly as they intersect with criminal justice, and she’s gaining in seniority.

Although Lucido is a strong candidate with an impressive command of the issues, we endorse Huffman.

Perhaps they missed what Texas Monthly had to say about Sen. Huffman’s tenure on the Criminal Justice Committee.

Sen. Joan Huffman

Intransigence, thy name is Joan Huffman. Consider, if you will, the evidence. She initially opposed one of the session’s most celebrated bills, the Michael Morton Act, named for a Williamson County man who served nearly 25 years after being wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. Huffman’s concerns about the bill, which requires prosecutors to share evidence with a defendant’s legal team, endangered the bill’s prospects for passage. Then there was a measure to create an innocence commission to review the convictions of the 117 people who have been exonerated in Texas, which was supported by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and passed the House handily 115–28. What was Huffman’s opinion of the proposed legislation? “There’s nothing you can do to fix this bill for me,” she fumed as she closed out her ten-minute speech in a Criminal Justice Committee hearing. Huffman, the committee’s vice chair, had rattled off twenty pieces of legislation that, in her estimation, adequately reformed Texas’s criminal justice system, making the creation of the commission unnecessary. Cory Session, the brother of Tim Cole, the state’s first posthumous DNA exoneree, was especially incensed by Huffman’s remarks: “That’s your job—to figure out what went wrong in this state,” he said. “You don’t like it? Go find another.” (Session ultimately stormed out of the hearing room, calling Huffman a name for which he later apologized.)

Huffman’s monologue, which she began by saying, “ ’Cause I’m chair, I can take as much time as I want,” helped kill the bill in committee, making her guilty of Behavior Unbecoming a Senator. But the former prosecutor and district judge, who exerts a huge influence on her colleagues when it comes to criminal justice issues, received her own punishment for practicing such bad politics. The House sponsor of the innocence commission bill, Democrat Ruth Jones McClendon, talked to death several of Huffman’s bills on the local and consent calendar. Here’s a case where an eye for an eye made perfect sense.

Now Texas Monthly isn’t the final arbiter of things, and one could make a case that Huffman’s other contributions have outweighed this bit of petty bullying. But if you’re going to laud her for her ability to work with people, you might at least acknowledge that it isn’t always the case. My interview with Rita Lucido is here if you’d like to consider the alternative, and my interview with Sen. John Whitmire is here if you missed it back in January.

Complaint filed against Whitmire

I think this is more a political stunt than anything else, but we’ll see.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

A conservative group has filed a criminal complaint against state Sen. John Whitmire, accusing him of coercion in an exchange of text messages with University of Houston President Renu Khator that was published in the Houston Chronicle.

In the Aug. 16 conversation, Whitmire told Khator he would “stop dead and pass leg (legislation)” unless she killed a plan to require freshmen to live on campus. Khator agreed to withdraw the proposal and asked Whitmire to forgive her.

The complaint, filed Aug. 29 with Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit by the Conservative Action Fund, cites the exchange. Representatives of the unit, which investigates claims against elected officials, could not be reached for comment Monday.

“Senator Whitmire directly attempted to influence – and did in fact influence – a public servant (the UH President) ‘in a specific exercise of [her] official power,’ ” the complaint says. “He achieved such influence by means of ‘coercion,’ that is, by threatening to ‘take … action as a public servant’ in the Legislature if UH did not bow to his demand.”

Whitmire dismissed the complaint as “absolutely silly.”

“I haven’t even given it a second thought,” Whitmire said. “Obviously a group of lawyers have got too much time on their hands.”

The complaint seems intended, in part at least, as a defense of Gov. Rick Perry, who was indicted last month on similar charges. Perry threatened to, and later did, veto funding for the Travis County-based Public Integrity Unit, if Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg did not step down after being arrested for drunken driving.

Here’s the letter they sent. I’ll leave it to the lawyers in the audience to analyze. I agree with the story’s suggestion that this is more about Rick Perry than it is about John Whitmire, but if Rosemary Lehmberg thinks it merits the attention of a grand jury then so be it. I will just note again that we have only the barest of outlines of the case against Rick Perry. Assuming the indictments survive the motion to dismiss, we’ll finally start to see what the evidence against Perry looks like. I’m going to guess that it will add up to just a wee bit more than what is being cited against Whitmire, but I guess you never know. Campos and Hair Balls have more.

The Public Integrity Unit probably won’t have to worry about a veto next year

They’ll have bigger things to worry about.

Rosemary Lehmberg

With Republican partisans campaigning loudly to strip Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg of her control of the unit, chances of getting the funding restored under her by the GOP-dominated Legislature that convenes in January do not look good.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said Thursday she thinks the unit should be moved elsewhere if it is funded.

“I have never thought this unit should be placed as an attachment to the Travis County District Attorney’s Office,” Nelson said. “I am certain we will have extensive discussions during the next legislative session regarding where they should be placed, but we need to move them somewhere less partisan.”

In the past, lawmakers have filed bills to move the unit to the attorney general’s office or into a separate agency. Both proposals have faltered over questions about separation of powers, as it is a judicial branch agency and not an executive branch function. Even if its investigative powers were moved out of the district attorney’s office, cases still would be referred there for prosecution.

[…]

Throughout its history, the unit has faced repeated threats of funding cutoffs or transfer of its duties to the state attorney general’s office, often when it begins a high-profile investigation or brings an indictment against a prominent official.

Sherri Greenberg, who served in the Texas House from 1991 until 2001, and is now director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs, said the unit’s funding and location have been an issue off and on for years.

“That’s been looked at, but it’s never been moved, probably for a reason,” she said.

State Sen. John Whitmire, a veteran Houston Democrat who supported the PIU’s creation in 1982, has been investigated and cleared by the unit, and who has been one of its champions in recent years, said the unit was housed with local prosecutors to give it some independence from state government, which it may be investigating.

“Why would you want to fool with a unit that can investigate you? … If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t worry about the Public Integrity Unit,” he said. “I don’t know how to handicap (the chances of restored funding), but if I were working over there, I’d probably be looking for a job.”

Republicans have wanted to move the investigative function of the PIU to the Attorney General’s office for at least as long as they’ve held the AG’s office, which is to say since 1998. That’s a part of the backdrop of the Perry indictment saga, and however one feels about that I think Sen. Whitmire is reading the tea leaves accurately. One does wonder what the fallout will be if the next Attorney General gets indicted or otherwise sanctioned by the State Bar, but I rather doubt the Republicans that are pushing for the PIU to be reassigned are thinking about that very much. I also wonder if their ardor for moving the PIU’s investigative function into the AG’s office will get cooled if Sam Houston gets elected AG, but again I doubt they’re thinking about that. So just file it away for now and we’ll see if it matters later.

Charles Sebesta may finally have to face responsibility for his actions against Anthony Graves

Very good news.

Anthony Graves

It’s been eight years since the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the DA who prosecuted Anthony Graves for capital murder had done something unconscionable : withheld favorable evidence and used false testimony to secure a conviction—a conviction that sent Graves to death row.

Since that federal ruling came down in 2006, granting Graves a retrial, many good things have happened: Anthony was freed from prison in 2010, after all charges against him were dropped; he was formally exonerated by the State of Texas; and he received $1.4 million in compensation for the eighteen years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit. But the man who secured his 1994 conviction—former Burleson County DA Charles Sebesta— never faced any consequences. The state bar took no action against him. Even when he continued to impugn Graves’ character, telling Texas newspapers as recently as this January that Graves was guilty of murder, he did so with impunity.

Finally, last week—twenty years after Graves’ wrongful conviction—the bar took a small but significant step toward ensuring that Sebesta would have to answer for his actions. The bar’s chief disciplinary counsel determined that there was “just cause” to believe that the former prosecutor had engaged in misconduct in Graves’ case. This finding followed a lengthy investigation, which the bar conducted after Graves brought a grievance against Sebesta this January. (Graves was only able to do so because lawmakers recently passed Senate Bill 825, which changed the existing statute of limitations, allowing exonereees to file such grievances with the bar up to four years after their release from prison.)

A legal proceeding will now follow, in which the bar will decide whether or not to dismiss the grievance, or sanction Sebesta. If the bar decides to sanction him, he could receive a punishment as light as a reprimand—essentially a slap on the wrist—or as severe as disbarment.

Though Sebesta has always put great stock in trying people before the court of public opinion—to this day, he continues to insinuate on his website that Graves is a murderer —he has asked that the bar hear his case in a confidential proceeding, rather in than open court. (The bar allows attorneys who are the subject of such grievances to choose whether they will have their cases heard in a district court before a judge or jury, or privately, before a panel of lawyers who serve on the bar’s grievance committee.) “His conduct against Anthony Graves was in a public proceeding and he continues to make public attacks on Mr. Graves,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a non-profit organization that represents Graves, along with attorneys in the Houston law firm Susman Godfrey. “He should defend his conduct in a public proceeding, for all to see.”

See here and here for the background. I find it utterly risible that Sebesta wants a closed hearing given the way he has (and continues to) run off his mouth about Anthony Graves, but whatever. Have a fair hearing and then disbar the SOB. Anything less would be insufficient. The Trib, the AusChron, and Grits, who has statements from Graves, the Texas Defender Service, and Kathryn Kase (all of whom amusingly and appropriately reference the actions of “honest” prosecutors in getting to the truth of the matter), have more.

How much will science advance in the courts?

It’s up to the CCA to decide.

Texas’ highest criminal court will hear arguments Wednesday in a case that could affect how evolving scientific evidence is used in courtrooms across the state.

For Neal H. Robbins, the high court’s decision will determine whether he gets another shot at arguing his innocence.

In 1999, a jury convicted Robbins of killing his girlfriend’s 17-month-old infant. A key witness in the case was Patricia Moore, a Harris County medical examiner who ruled the child’s death was homicide by asphyxiation.

But in 2007, after a different medical examiner reviewed the original findings and disagreed, Moore recanted her trial testimony. In a letter to the district attorney, she wrote that while the infant’s death remained “suspicious,” she had come to believe that “a cause and manner of death of ‘undetermined’ is best for this case,” rather than homicide.

Robbins appealed, but in 2011, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, denied a new trial by a vote of 5-4. In the majority opinion, Justice Larry Meyers wrote that despite her recantation, Moore’s original trial testimony had not been “proven false.”

Now, Robbins is hoping a new law passed by the Legislature in 2013 will cause the court to change course and give him another shot to prove his innocence. The law, Senate Bill 344, by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, allows courts to grant post-conviction relief in cases where scientific testimony that was essential to a conviction has been contradicted. A lower court judge has recommended that Robbins be granted a new trial, but the CCA will make the final call.

Scott Henson, who was quoted in the story, adds some context.

[I]t was the CCA’s ruling in exactly this case that caused prosecutors to back off and agree to the bill’s passage. The court’s ruling in Ex Parte Robbins made clear the CCA would allow convictions based on junk science to stand if the Legislature didn’t change the law. After Robbins, the Harris County DA’s office (which had been the only significant opposition) acquiesced and helped negotiate the final language that’s now in the statute. It would be ironic if Robbins did not now prevail, since this particular case was the one that pushed the bill over the finish line at the Lege.

This is the same new statute under which the San Antonio Four and Fran and Dan Keller were released – they’re now out on bail though the CCA hasn’t given final approval in those cases yet. Those junk science cases are considered more likely to be easily approved, while the Robbins case – which involves an ME who gave erroneous testimony and changed her opinion after she learned more science – is considered the first test case that will provide an indication how the CCA will interpret the new writ.

He has more links and information in his post, so go read it. It’s clear what the CCA needs to do in this case, it’s just a matter of them doing it. I’m not sure what else the Legislature could do if they don’t do their job here. Hair Balls has more.

HPD crime lab update

The man who wrote the report detailing all of the HPD crime lab’s problems was back to give a progress report on how things look now.

Michael Bromwich

Houston police managers at the once-shuttered crime lab have failed to re-examine tests on DNA, blood and most other forensic evidence on a random basis to ensure the results are accurate, according to a follow-up report by the nationally known forensic expert hired to investigate the facility.

The crime lab, under Houston Police Department management, continues to outsource several integral testing services common for the lab, including a type of firearms testing that determines how far a gun was from a target when it was fired, Michael Bromwich’s report noted. That information is crucial in the investigation of officer-involved shootings.

But overall, Bromwich concluded, HPD has done a “responsible job” implementing many recommendations he made in 2007 following an extensive, two-year investigation after the lab was closed due to flawed testing procedures and practices.

“We were very encouraged with what we saw in our review of the crime lab,” Bromwich said this past week. “The most pronounced improvement was the quality of senior managers in the lab.”

Bromwich also said the city’s lab, at the police headquarters building at 1200 Travis, is not big enough for the current workload and needs a “significant” amount of additional space. City leaders said they have no plan to move the facility, although some on City Council favor merging operations with a new forensic center being built by Harris County.

[…]

Bromwich was hired by the board of the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corp. , with the help of a $75,000 grant from a Houston foundation, to determine if changes his team suggested in 2007 have been implemented.

“There is still room for improvement … we think with the right resources devoted to it, and the right leadership, the lab can improve still more,” Bromwich said.

The TL;DR version of this story is “Much better now. Some things still need to be done. More money is needed to get those things done.” The original report is still here, if you’ve never looked at it or want to refresh your memory. Merging the HPD lab with the new Harris County facility would likely help resolve a number of the remaining issues from the Bromwich report. Mayor Parker has been adamant that she wants the Harris County lab to be fully independent of the District Attorney’s office before she will let that happen. I continue to believe there’s room for a solution to be worked out. I’d love to see it happen before her term in office ends.

State Bar investigating Charles Sebesta

Good.

Anthony Graves

The State Bar of Texas has opened an investigation into Charles Sebesta, the former Burleson County District Attorney who prosecuted death row exoneree Anthony Graves.

The organization that oversees lawyers is investigating alleged professional misconduct by Sebesta, which, if proven, could result in his disbarment. The investigation was prompted by a complaint that Graves filed in January. Sebesta will have 30 days to file a response to the complaint.

“It sets a precedent for other state prosecutors that they have to act ethically,” said Ramota Otulana, a clerk at the law firm that represents Graves.

Graves spent 18 years behind bars — 12 of them on death row, where he twice neared execution — before the U.S. 5th Circuit of Appeals overturned his conviction in 2006, ruling that Sebesta had used false testimony and withheld favorable evidence in the case.

[…]

State Bar officials have said the previous complaint was dismissed because the statute of limitations on the alleged violations had expired. In 2013, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 825, which changed the statute of limitations, allowing a wrongfully imprisoned person to file a grievance up to four years after their release from prison in cases of alleged prosecutorial misconduct. Previously, the four-year statute began on the date the misconduct was discovered.

State Sens. Rodney Ellis and John Whitmire, and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, all Houston Democrats, joined Graves in calling for accountability for Sebesta at a Wednesday press conference.

“I’m asking prosecutors to cooperate with the highest of integrity,” Graves told reporters in January. “It took me 18 and a half years to get back home. Two execution dates. All because a man abused his position.”

See here for the background. I hope they nail him. Sen. Ellis has more on his Facebook page.

Primary results: Harris County

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

The big news here is that there were no surprises on the Democratic side, in particular no unpleasant surprises. By far the best news was that Kim Ogg easily bested Lloyd Oliver in the primary for DA, with over 70% of the vote. I doubt we’ve seen the last of this particular plague on our house, but I think it’s fair to say that this time, Oliver’s name recognition did not work for him. I hope by now there have been enough negative stories about him – that Observer piece got shared far and wide on Facebook – that now when people see his name, it’s not a good thing for him. In any event, we Dems managed to not make the same mistake we made in 2012, so we can have ourselves a real DA race this fall. Thank goodness for that.

The three incumbent legislators that had primary challengers all won without breaking a sweat. Sen. John Whitmire had 75%, Rep. Carol Alvarado had 85%, and Rep. Alma Allen was right at 90%. The other race of interest was in the 113th District Civil Court, where Steven Kirkland pulled out a close win. The thing I noticed was that while Kirkland won early voting with 51% (he trailed slightly in absentee ballots), he won Election Day with over 54%. I have to think that the late stories about serial sugar daddy George Fleming worked in Kirkland’s favor. If so, that makes me very happy. If Kirkland wins this November, it means it’ll be at least until 2018 before we have to deal with Fleming’s crap again. Maybe by then he’ll have gotten a grip and moved on with his life. I for one certainly hope so.

On the Republican side, Rep. Sarah Davis easily held off teabag challenger Bonnie Parker, clearing 70% with room to spare. Hard to believe now that this was seen as a hot race. Embattled Family Court Judge Denise Pratt led the field of five for her bench, but she had only 30% of the vote. That runoff will be interesting to watch. Most other incumbents won easily – Sen. Joan Huffman, Rep. Debbie Riddle, District Clerk Chris Daniel, and Treasurer Orlando Sanchez – while former Council member Al Hoang defeated Nghi Ho for the nomination in HD149. One other incumbent wasn’t so lucky, now-former Party Chair Jared Woodfill, who was ousted by Paul Simpson. I don’t know if County Judge Ed Emmett smokes cigars, but if he fired one up after these numbers started coming in, I for one would not blame him.

On turnout, Election Day wound up being roughly equal to early non-absentee voting on both sides. I’d say the weather plus maybe a bit of Mardi Gras had an effect. We got the results we wanted in Harris County, so I’m not too concerned about it.

UPDATE: I have to laugh at this:

Ogg, 54, said she spent $150,000 to get her message out for the primary. Her opponent, Lloyd Oliver, did not raise or spend a penny on his campaign.

“I guess the weather did me in,” Oliver said Tuesday.

Before the election, the 70-year-old said gray skies meant only the “party elite” would make it to the polls.

“They control the establishment side, and for some reason, I don’t see me ever making it on the establishment side,” he said. “You can either be establishment or a loose cannon, but you can’t be in-between.”

Yes, the weather did you in, Lloyd. Which is why Kim Ogg was leading with over 70% in early voting. Please feel free to go away and never come back now, Lloyd.

Endorsement watch: Belatedly for Whitmire

The Chronicle makes its recommendations for the State Senate.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

Senate District 15 (D)

In 1973, a 23-year-old college dropout named John Whitmire hopped aboard a wave of voter disgust with ethically challenged incumbents and won a seat in the Texas House.

More than four decades later, that same Houston lawmaker is still in the Legislature, as his young opponent pointedly noted when the two men met with the Chronicle editorial board.

Houston attorney Damian LaCroix, 39, insists that four decades is enough, that Whitmire has lost touch with his constituents and that it’s time for a change. In theory, we favor frequent turnover, as well, but not this time. Whitmire, 64, still has much to contribute to residents of Senate District 15 and to Texas as a whole.

Serving as chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Whitmire is an expert on criminal justice issues and has played a key role in bringing about reform to both the adult and juvenile justice systems.

LaCroix, a graduate of Texas A&M University and SMU Law School, is a fresh face on the local political scene. We hope he chooses to stay involved, but at this point he lacks both the knowledge and the experience to replace “the dean of the Senate.” We wholeheartedly recommend Whitmire’s renomination as the Democratic candidate in District 15, comprised of north Houston and parts of Harris County.

The Chron had included Sen. Whitmire – along with Paul Bettencourt and Sen. Joan Huffman, their choices in SDs 07 and 17, respectively – in their comprehensive list of endorsements that was published Tuesday, leading me and Campos to wonder when they’d actually made those endorsements. Now we know, I guess. Even weirder is that this isn’t included on their Recommendations page. I happened to see that link above, called simply “The Texas Senate”, on the chron.com homepage under the Local header, and clicked it out of curiosity. Lo and behold, there were the missing endorsements. The Chron works in mysterious ways, y’all. Anyway, I agree with what they say here. I like Damian LaCroix and think he’d be a good candidate for something, but not for SD15 at this time. My interview with Sen. Whitmire, easily the most listened-to and downloaded interview I did this cycle according to Soundcloud, is here, and my interview with Damian LaCroix, the runnerup in those categories, is here.

We still need to reduce inmate headcount

The Harris County jail’s population is down from historic highs, but with the usual summer uptick coming, Sheriff Adrian Garcia has asked for a waiver to make some more beds available.

go_to_jail

State officials have rejected a request from Sheriff Adrian Garcia to increase the capacity of the Harris County Jail and said local leaders have not done enough in recent years to reduce the inmate population.

The inmate population at the state’s largest lockup has fallen in recent months after exceeding building capacity for the first time in two years last September, but the Sheriff’s Office says it is too close for comfort. The population is known to swell in the summer months by as much as 1,000 inmates, said spokesman Alan Bernstein, noting that Garcia’s request was intended to create some “flexibility” as county leaders work to reduce the jail population.

The building capacity of the county jail system is 9,434; the population on Monday was 8,814.

Garcia last week asked the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for permission to increase the number of supplemental beds used when the population swells, replacing 680 hard plastic cots with 1,064 metal bunk beds. He also asked that the jail still be able to use up to 100 mobile cots known as “boats” or “low-riders.”

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards agreed only to let Garcia replace the 680 cots with bunk beds to save 5,000 square feet of floor space, keeping the inmate capacity the same.

[…]

[Sen. John] Whitmire said one thing the county – its judges, in particular – is not doing that frustrates him the most is refusing to grant no-cost personal bonds to nonviolent offenders with relatively stable lives, something other large metropolitan areas in Texas are doing with increasing frequency.

Last month, 69 percent of the county’s 8,559 prisoners were pretrial detainees rather than convicted criminals serving sentences, according to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which the county created in 2009 improve the justice system and help reduce jail overcrowding.

“There’s no basis not to allow a charged person that has a job, a family and a permanent residence, who is nonviolent, but can’t come up with $1,000, to go back to work and agree to show up next month,” Whitmire said.

Caprice Cosper, director of the coordinating council, said the pretrial detainees are “not necessarily the easy population people might want it to be,” noting that two preliminary analyses have shown that about 90 percent of those detainees who are there for longer than five days have higher-than-standard bond amounts, indicating they are not first-time offenders.

There should be no need to draw inferences about the offense history of these more-than-five-day detainees. We should have hard data available about them. And even if they are mostly repeat offenders, it doesn’t follow that they’re necessarily the kind of dangerous offenders that need to be kept off the streets before their hearings. Sen. Whitmire is correct about the lack of personal recognizance bonds, and about the reluctance by judges to find alternatives to incarceration for arrestees awaiting trial. It may be that we’re doing more than we might think, as Caprice Cosper suggests, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more – a lot more, even – that we could be doing.

If we must have voter ID, let’s make sure people know about it

The Democratic Senators from Harris County write a letter to County Clerk Stan Stanart.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Three Houston state senators are asking Harris County officials to emulate Dallas County’s voter outreach efforts tied to Texas’ new voter identification law.

State Sens. Rodney Ellis, Sylvia Garcia and John Whitmire — all Democrats — wrote a letter on Monday to Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, asking him to reach out to voters to “minimize any issues voters may encounter at the polls” because of the ID law.

The senators offered an example by pointing to Dallas County, which last month sent 195,000 notices to voters to alert them about the law’s provision that a voter’s name on a valid photo ID must exactly match the name listed in the voter registration database.

“With a county as large as Harris County, there is no reason why we should not be able to take the same proactive measures to ensure that our constituents’ constitutional right to vote is adequately protected,” wrote the senators, who made a similar request last year.

[…]

In Dallas County, it has taken elections officials several months to comb through databases and flag voters who might have problems. And it’s going to take officials a few more months to complete the additional outreach approved by county commissioners.

But in Harris County, the senators said they were hopeful something still could be done there before the March primary.

“Time is of the essence as the March primaries are fast approaching and high voter turnout is anticipated,” the senators wrote.

You can see the letter at the link above. Dallas County has already spent a bunch of money on voter outreach. I don’t know how much Harris County has spent, but I’ll bet it’s nowhere near that much. We already know that Harris County has had issues with how the law has been enforced, and that was in a low turnout odd year election. Surely we’d like to improve that experience and minimize inconvenience and wait times for voters, right? Houston Politics has more.

January campaign finance reports for Harris County legislative candidates

BagOfMoney

This could take awhile, and that’s with me limiting myself to contested races. First, the Senate.

SD04
Brandon Creighton
Steven Toth

SD07
Paul Bettencourt
James Wilson
Jim Davis

SD15
John Whitmire
Damian LaCroix
Ron Hale

SD17
Joan Huffman
Derek Anthony
Rita Lucido

Here’s a summary chart. For the record, Davis, Whitmire, LaCroix, and Lucido are all Dems, the rest are Rs.

Candidate Office Raised Spent Cash on hand =================================================== Creighton SD04 296,267 205,591 1,002,464 Toth SD04 107,752 48,048 123,116 Bettencourt SD07 140,100 55,873 103,041 Wilson SD07 7,675 5,129 3,224 Davis SD07 1,250 1,250 0 Whitmire SD15 298,874 148,973 6,978,885 LaCroix SD15 16,329 33,866 0 Hale SD15 123 1,441 123 Huffman SD17 136,600 91,142 701,583 Anthony SD17 0 0 0 Lucido SD17 41,625 10,489 29,829

Technically, SD04 is not on the ballot. It’s now a vacant seat due to the resignation in October of Tommy Williams, and the special election to fill it has not been set yet; I presume it will be in May. Reps. Creighton and Toth aren’t the only announced candidates, but they both have the right amount of crazy, and at least in Creighton’s case plenty of money as well. It’s a statement on how far our politics have gone that I find myself sorry to see Tommy Williams depart. He was awful in many ways, but as the last session demonstrated, when push came to shove he was fairly well grounded in reality, and he did a more than creditable job as Senate Finance Chair. I have no real hope for either Creighton or Toth to meet that standard, and the Senate will get that much stupider in 2015.

Paul Bettencourt can go ahead and start measuring the drapes in Dan Patrick’s office. I honestly hadn’t even realized he had a primary opponent till I started doing this post. The only questions is in what ways will he be different than Patrick as Senator. Every once in awhile, Patrick landed on the right side of an issue, and as his tenure as Public Ed chair demonstrated, he was capable of playing well with others and doing collaborative work when he put his mind to it. Doesn’t come remotely close to balancing the scales on him, but one takes what one can. Bettencourt is a smart guy, and based on my own encounters with him he’s personable enough to fit in well in the Senate, likely better than Patrick ever did. If he has it in mind to serve the public and not just a seething little slice of it, he could do some good. The bar I’m setting is basically lying on the ground, and there’s a good chance he’ll fail to clear it. But there is some potential there. It’s all up to him.

I don’t have anything new to add to the SD15 Democratic primary race. I just don’t see anything to suggest that the dynamic of the race has changed.

I hadn’t realized Joan Huffman had a primary challenger until I started this post. Doesn’t look like she has much to worry about. I’m very interested to see how Rita Lucido does with fundraising. Senators don’t usually draw serious November challengers. The district is drawn to be solidly Republican, but Lucido is the first opponent Huffman has had since the 2008 special election runoff. I’m very curious to see if Lucido can at least begin to close the gap.

On to the House:

HD129
Sheryl Berg
Briscoe Cain
Mary Huls
Jeffrey Larson
Chuck Maricle
Dennis Paul
Brent Perry
John Gay

HD131
Alma Allen
Azuwuike Okorafor

HD132
Michael Franks
Ann Hodge
Justin Perryman
Mike Schofield
Luis Lopez

HD133
Jim Murphy
Laura Nicol

HD134
Sarah Davis
Bonnie Parker
Alison Ruff

HD135
Gary Elkins
Moiz Abbas

HD137
Gene Wu
Morad Fiki

HD138
Dwayne Bohac
Fred Vernon

HD144
Mary Ann Perez
Gilbert Pena

HD145
Carol Alvarado
Susan Delgado

HD148
Jessica Farrar
Chris Carmona

HD149
Hubert Vo
Al Hoang
Nghi Ho

HD150
Debbie Riddle
Tony Noun
Amy Perez

HDs 129 and 132 are open. Each has multiple Republicans, all listed first in alphabetical order; the Dem in each race is listed at the end. In all other districts the incumbent is first, followed by any primary opponents, then any November opponents. I will note at this point that the last time I mentioned HD129, I wrote that Democratic candidate John Gay appeared to me to be the same person that had run in CD14 in 2012 as a Republican, based on what I could and could not find on the Internet. Two Democrats in HD129 contacted me after that was published to assure me that I had gotten it wrong, that there were two completely different individuals named John Gay, and that the one running as a Dem in HD129 was truly a Democrat. While I was never able to speak to this John Gay myself to ascertain that with him – I left him two phone messages and never got a call back – other information I found based on what these folks told me convinced me they were right and I was mistaken. That post was corrected, but I’m pointing this out here for those of you who might not have seen that correction.

With that out of the way, here’s the summary:

Candidate Office Raised Spent Cash on hand =================================================== Berg - R HD129 28,101 13,597 29,530 Cain - R HD129 17,246 9,614 4,131 Huls - R HD129 1,254 3,784 1,969 Larson - R HD129 325 1,130 4,226 Maricle - R HD129 3,520 30,207 879 Paul - R HD129 14,495 19,436 95,058 Perry - R HD129 51,297 19,100 52,687 Gay - D HD129 0 1,221 778 Allen - D HD131 8,877 13,662 21,573 Okorafor - D HD131 0 1,689 0 Franks - R HD132 0 4,604 43,396 Hodge - R HD132 51,330 19,741 41,925 Perryman - R HD132 26,550 7,178 30,788 Schofield - R HD132 43,665 15,449 45.454 Lopez - D HD132 Murphy - R HD133 102,828 44,004 184,174 Nicol - D HD133 2,380 750 1,640 Davis - R HD134 171,990 70,369 145,561 Parker - R HD134 0 10,213 10,161 Ruff - D HD134 0 750 0 Elkins - R HD135 28,150 17,136 331,672 Abbas - D HD135 0 0 0 Wu - D HD137 15,390 20,439 11,641 Fiki - R HD137 2,320 167 2,320 Bohac - R HD138 35,975 45,797 14,168 Vernon - D HD138 500 0 500 Perez - D HD144 18,400 23,705 34,386 Pena - R HD144 0 750 0 Alvarado - D HD145 51,915 6,585 54,035 Delgado - D HD145 0 750 0 Farrar - D HD148 37,771 6,739 75,861 Carmona - R HD148 325 883 2,442 Vo - D HD149 7,739 9,129 20,935 Hoang - R HD149 4,550 17,550 4,222 Ho - R HD149 4,198 1,211 3,736 Riddle - R HD150 23,200 15,327 61,809 Noun - R HD150 16,879 83,388 43,490 Perez - D HD150 3,139 452 116

I’m not going to go into much detail here. Several candidates, especially in the GOP primary in HD129, have loaned themselves money or are spending personal funds on campaign expenses. If you see a big disparity between cash on hand and the other totals, that’s usually why. I’m impressed by the amount Debbie Riddle’s primary challenger is spending, though I have no idea whether it will have an effect or not. I’m as impressed in the opposite direction by Bonnie Parker in HD134. Maybe she’s just getting warmed up, I don’t know. I figure her 8 day report will tell a more interesting story. What catches your eye among these names and numbers?

Charles Sebesta needs to be held accountable

Amen to this.

Anthony Graves

Former Texas death row inmate Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years behind bars before he was exonerated in the bloody 1992 slaying of a Somerville grandmother, her daughter and four grandchildren, is seeking justice against the man who put him there.

In 2006, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Graves’ capital murder conviction when a three-judge panel said he deserved a new trial after ruling that Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta elicited false statements from two witnesses and withheld two statements that could have changed the minds of jurors.

Graves, who was released from prison in October 2010, is taking advantage of a new state law that allows a grievance against a prosecutor to be filed within four years of a wrongfully imprisoned person’s release.

State Sens. Rodney Ellis, John Whitmire and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, all Houston Democrats, stood behind Graves on the campus of Texas Southern University on Monday as he and his attorneys urged the Texas State Bar to investigate and discipline Sebesta.

“I am asking prosecutors who operate with the highest integrity to support me,” Graves, 48, told reporters. “I am seeking justice for the man who wrongfully prosecuted me.”

[…]

Graves and his attorney, Bob Bennett, said the new law remedies the statute of limitations rule.

“There’s been no final order,” Bennett said. “Even if it was dismissed, you still have the option of coming back because there’s been no final order.”

Whitmire and Thompson sponsored the bill that was one of several that passed last year as details of Michael Morton’s wrongful murder conviction and exoneration came to light.

Anthony Graves deserves justice in the same way and for the same reasons as Michael Morton. In many ways, the injustice done to Graves was worse. If you’re not familiar with Anthony Graves, read this report by Texas Monthly writer Pamela Colloff, who is the authoritative source on Graves and Morton. That article was published on the day that Graves was freed after the charges against him were dropped.

Not until yesterday morning did Burleson County district attorney Bill Parham and special prosecutor Kelly Siegler explain why they had made such a dramatic about-face. At a press conference at the D.A.’s office in Brenham—just across the street from the courthouse where Graves’s retrial was to have taken place early next year—Parham told reporters that he was “absolutely convinced” of Graves’s innocence after his office conducted a thorough examination of his case. Parham was clear that this was not a matter of having insufficient evidence to take to trial; charges were not dropped because too many witnesses had died over the years or because the evidence had become degraded. “There’s not a single thing that says Anthony Graves was involved in this case,” he said. “There is nothing.”

Former Harris County assistant district attorney Kelly Siegler, who has sent nineteen men to death row in her career, went even further in her statements. Siegler laid the blame for Graves’s wrongful conviction squarely at the feet of former Burleson County D.A. Charles Sebesta. “Charles Sebesta handled this case in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare,” Siegler said. Over the past month, she explained, she and her investigator, retired Texas Ranger Otto Hanak, reviewed what had happened at Graves’s trial. After talking to witnesses and studying documents, they were appalled by what they found. “It’s a prosecutor’s responsibility to never fabricate evidence or manipulate witnesses or take advantage of victims,” she said. “And unfortunately, what happened in this case is all of these things.” Graves’s trial, she said, was “a travesty.”

So yeah, this is a big deal. You need to read Colloff’s two feature stories to get the full measure of outrage at this horror. Sebesta avoided any repercussions for his abhorrent actions initially because Texas’ law at the time started the clock on the statute of limitations way too soon. Here’s Colloff again with the details.

At first glance, the bar’s lack of action against Sebesta is confounding. Why would the statute of limitations prohibit the agency from taking action against Sebesta, who prosecuted Graves in 1994, but not against Anderson, who prosecuted Morton seven years earlier, in 1987? The answer lies in one simple detail: the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the facts of the offense—such as withholding evidence favorable to the accused—are discovered (or, in legalese, “become discoverable”). In the recent proceedings against Anderson, the bar persuasively argued that the statute of limitations did not begin running until 2011, when the transcript describing Morton’s son’s account of the killer was found in Anderson’s files. Such a strategy was not possible with Sebesta, Acevedo told me, because “the information at issue”—i.e., that he withheld favorable evidence—“was known more than four years before the grievance was filed.”

Bennett, who filed the grievance, takes issue with that, arguing that the Fifth Circuit’s ruling “was the official notice of what had taken place.” And Graves’s attorney, Cásarez, believes that’s key. While it’s true that Graves’s lawyers learned in 1998 that Carter had repeatedly told Sebesta of Graves’s innocence, when they took a deposition from Carter at that time, it was simply a defendant’s word against that of a sitting district attorney. It was not until 2006 that the Fifth Circuit made an official finding that Sebesta had withheld evidence. “Now, how can someone file a grievance and expect to get anywhere until a court finds that the prosecutor engaged in misconduct?” Cásarez wondered.

Thankfully, SB825 took care of that loophole last year. Now maybe Charles Sebesta will finally be held to account for his actions. The Trib and Colloff again have more.

How Greg Abbott enabled the payday lenders

The Lone Star Project kicks it off:

Abbott’s Green Light to Predatory Lenders

Key AG document provided payday lenders a loophole to bilk Texans

Greg Abbott’s office issued the key document that has allowed payday lenders to operate outside of Texas usury laws and exploit Texans across our state. A letter issued from the office of the Attorney General carefully lays out that payday lenders in Texas can take advantage of a loophole used by credit service organizations to avoid Texas laws preventing unscrupulous lending. It is essentially a “how-to guide” for payday lenders to expand and grow their predatory lending businesses.

Payday lenders had been nervous about expanding their operations in Texas, but Abbott’s letter gave them the go-ahead they needed. The respected financial industry publicationAmerican Banker reported how payday lender Ace reacted to the Abbott letter:

“The Irving, Tex., company originally saw too much legal risk in the CSO setup, in which payday specialists can collect as much as 20% in fees for arranging a short-term loan from a third-party lender. But this month Texas’ attorney general, Greg Abbott, sent a letter to the state’s Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner saying that CSOs are permissible. So on an earnings conference call last week Ace said it will begin brokering loans as a credit service organization sometime in the next two quarters.” (American Banker, February 1, 2006)

Attorneys general in many states act aggressively to reign in abuse by predatory lenders like Cash America and ACE, but not Greg Abbott. In fact, Greg Abbott has been the payday lender industry’s facilitator and protector.

Abbott gave the green light, and pay day lenders hit the gas. Payday lender outlets have proliferated all across Texas during the Perry/Abbott era. In 2004, there were approximately 300 payday lenders in Texas. By 2011, there were over 3,000. Right now, there are more payday lending establishments in Texas than there are McDonald’s and Whataburger locations combined.

So, don’t look for Greg Abbott to jump on the bandwagon to get rid of William J. White or impose any more restrictions on predatory lenders, unless of course the payday lenders themselves or other Austin insiders give him the green light.

Background

Recent news reports have detailed that William J. White, the chairman of the Texas Finance Commission – the state agency intended to protect Texas consumers – attacked Texas consumers and defended predatory lenders over outrageous payday loans that result in borrowers being saddled with loan costs of sometimes more than 500 percent of the principal. White’s bottom line is that any Texan gouged by an unscrupulous payday lender is on their own and should blame themselves for their predicament.

State Senator Wendy Davis quickly and decisively called for White’s resignation.

Who is William J. White?

White is not just the chairman of the Texas Finance Commission, he is also vice president of Cash America, one of the largest and most notorious predatory lenders in the country. Cash America has hundreds of payday lending storefronts all across Texas, many of them right outside military bases where military families, who are often under financial pressure, are exploited. Earlier this year, Cash America was fined for abusive lending, and exploitation of military personnel was cited specifically. During the last legislative session, Cash America and other payday lenders spent over $4 million dollars lobbying the GOP-controlled Texas legislature.

Soaking Soldiers

A key target for predatory lenders is active-duty military personnel. It is no coincidence that payday lender storefronts proliferate around active-duty military bases and other installations. Holly Petraeus, head of the Office of Servicemembers Affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, recently said that payday lenders congregate outside bases “like bears on a trout stream.” Current federal law is not sufficient to protect against predatory lenders, especially when state AGs like Abbott are predatory lender allies.

The El Paso Times fielded the ball:

Abbott’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Monday. It also has not responded when asked for more than a week whether Abbott believes the Texas payday lending industry needs to be reformed.

The El Paso City Council [debated on Tuesday] whether to enforce local limits on payday and auto-title lenders that in some cases charge annual interest at rates greater than 700 percent.

It and most other major Texas cities have passed ordinances in the face of unwillingness by the Legislature to place stricter limits on the industry.

Religious and charitable groups also have called for reforms of an industry they say traps poor people in a cycle of debt.

[…]

The concept of usury — unconscionably high interest rates — goes at least as far back as the Old Testament.

It’s also part of the Texas Constitution, which says that in the absence of legislation, interest rates in the state are limited to 10 percent a year.

Lenders that are licensed and regulated under Texas law face caps of their own. Commercial loans in most instances can’t exceed 18 percent except when the loan is greater than $250,000, when they can’t exceed 28 percent.

Auto loans can’t exceed 27 percent. Short-term loans by licensed lenders can’t exceed 150 percent and pawn loans can’t exceed 240 percent.

But the letter by the attorney general that was released Monday said fees associated with payday and title loans have no limits.

Emphasis mine. As PDiddie notes, the El Paso Times has led the way on this story. He also notes that recent Peggy Fikac column about Davis’ “oops” moment, in which her campaign got some campaign contribution figures confused. Abbott attacked her for that, and also for her vote to confirm William White in 2009. The difference between Davis and Abbott, as epitomized by Abbott’s snivelly refusal to answer a simple question, is that Davis recognizes that her initial action was in error, and is now willing to do something concrete about it. Abbott is just hiding behind a wall of “no comments”. That’s some kind of bold leadership right there. Meanwhile, also in the “let’s do something to fix what’s obviously broken” camp are Sens. John Whitmire, Rodney Ellis, and Sylvia Garcia, who joined the call for White to resign. Which won’t happen until Abbott and/or Rick Perry see that he’s a problem, too. Anyone want to bet on when that might happen?

Interview with Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

There’s never much of an offseason for campaigns. The city elections are finally behind us, and believe it or not we’re six weeks out from the start of early voting for the 2014 primary elections in Texas. I was busy over the holidays getting started with interviews for various contested primaries, and while I don’t know how many I’ll wind up doing when all is said and done, there are some races that I definitely plan to target. None are bigger or more closely connected to me than the primary in my Senate district, SD15, which pits longtime Sen. John Whitmire against challenger Damian LaCroix. I trust everyone is familiar with Sen. Whitmire, who has served in the Legislature since 1973, served in the Senate since 1983, and who has chaired the Criminal Justice committee since 1993. Sen. Whitmire had a lot to say in the interview, so much so that I hardly had to ask any questions. He just got on a roll and went places that I wouldn’t have known to ask about if I’d been directing things. The interview was long enough – 68 minutes all told – that the resultant MP3 file was too large to upload to my webhost. Rather than do surgery on it and risk messing it up, I went and created an account on SoundCloud and uploaded it there. Here’s the interview:

Greg had pointed me to SoundCloud after the last web-based audio player I used went extinct, but this is the first time I’ve tried it. Let me know what you think, if you like this better than what I’d been doing I’ll keep using it. If not, then I’ll just save it for future extra-long interviews.

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2014 Election page.

Who are these people on our ballot?

The filing deadline is long past, and campaigning for the primary and general election is well underway. Democrats in Harris County have a fairly full complement of legislative candidates this fall, some of whom are better known than others. I thought I’d take a moment to look over the primary ballot list and see what I can find about the candidates who are challenging incumbents of either party. In particular, I’m looking to see if I can find a campaign webpage and/or Facebook page, plus whatever Google can tell me. I’m limiting this to Harris County and to legislative races not counting the US Senate. I may do more of these later if I have the time and the inclination. For now, let’s get started.

Congress

CD02 – Niko Letsos: No webpage or Facebook page that I can find so far. Google tells me nothing.

CD07 – James Cargas and Lissa Squiers – Both ran for this office in 2012. Their links from that year still work.

CD10 – Tawana Cadien: Another repeat candidate from 2012. Her old website and Facebook page are still available. Interviews for all three of these candidates can be found on my 2012 Primary Election – Harris County page.

CD22 – Frank Briscoe and Mark Gibson: Neither appears to have a webpage or a Facebook page yet. Briscoe is a candidate with some pedigree. He ran for CD22 in 2002, losing by a hair in the primary to Tim Riley. He’s the son of the late District Attorney and two-time Houston Mayoral candidate Frank Briscoe, Senior, and apparently a relative in some fashion of former Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe. Here’s an interesting Q&A with him in Architectural Record, which isn’t dated but based on context appears to be from not too long after his unsuccessful run in 2002. As for Mark Gibson, Google tells me there’s a Mark Gibson that was an independent candidate for Congress in Virginia in 2012. I rather doubt this is the same Mark Gibson – it’s not that unusual a name – but that’s what I could find in Google.

CD36 – Michael Cole. Cole was the Libertarian candidate for CD36 in 2012 before announcing in August that he would run again as a Democrat. Here’s an interview he did with a Daily Kos member shortly thereafter, which includes links to all his relevant web and social media pages.

State Senate

SD07 – Jim Davis: Google tells me nothing.

SD15 – Sen. John Whitmire and Damian LaCroix: Sen. Whitmire has served in the Senate for many years, but is new to the internets; his Facebook page was created on November 19. I’ve written about LaCroix before and will have an interview with him, and one with Sen. Whitmire, soon.

SD17 – Rita Lucido: Lucido is a longtime activist and volunteer, and is the highest-profile challenger to a Republican incumbent among the legislative candidates. Her campaign Facebook page is quite active.

State House

HD129 – John Gay: No webpage or Facebook presence yet, but Google tells me that John Gay ran for CD14 as a Republican in 2012; he finished seventh in the field of nine. His campaign webpage domain (johngay.org) has expired, but via here I found his personal Facebook page, and while I consider myself to be open and welcoming to party-switchers, it’s safe to say that this guy is a problem. Here’s a screenshot from his Facebook page, so you can see what I mean. Barring a major and convincing change of heart from this guy, my advice is to not waste any time or effort on him. There’s plenty of other good candidates to support.

UPDATE: Upon further investigation, it appears there are two John Gays, the one who ran as an R in 2012 in CD14, and the one who is running in HD129 as a Dem. The latter one does not have any web presence that I found at a cursory search, hence the confusion. I’ve got a business phone number for the HD129 John Gay and will try to reach him tomorrow to discuss. My apologies for the confusion.

HD131 – Rep. Alma Allen and Azuwuike Okorafor: Rep. Allen has a primary challenge for the second straight cycle. Okorafor is a newcomer on the scene but looks like a good candidate. I intend to interview them both for the primary.

HD132 – Luis Lopez: No web presence yet, and the name is too common for Google to be reliable. This may be his personal Facebook page.

HD133 – Laura Nicol: No campaign webpage yet, but her campaign Facebook page is active. She and I have been Facebook friends for awhile, and I met her in person at an HCDP event a couple of weeks ago.

HD134 – Alison Ruff: No web presence as yet. I’ve mentioned her on my blog a couple of times, and met her at HCDP headquarters a couple of weeks back. This is her personal Facebook page.

HD135 – Moiz Abbas: I got nothing.

HD138 – Fred Vernon: Another blank, though this may be him.

HD145 – Rep. Carol Alvarado and Susan Delgado: Rep. Alvarado is my State Rep, and I consider her a friend. Delgado is a realtor, a multiple-time candidate, and the former mistress of the late Sen. Mario Gallegos. Based on comments she has left here and on her personal Facebook page, I think it’s fair to say mud will be flung in this race. For the record, I’ll be voting for Rep. Alvarado.

HD150 – Amy Perez: The full complement – webpage, Facebook page, and Twitter account. Well done.

That’s it for now. I may do a similar exercise for judicial candidates if I find myself with a few spare hours. You can also check out my new 2014 Election page, where I’ll be tracking contested primaries mostly but not exclusively in Harris County. If you think I’ve misrepresented anyone here, or if I’ve missed anything relevant, please let me know. Thanks.

LaCroix files in SD15

Damian LaCroix

As of the Monday candidate filing update from the HCDP, Damian LaCroix has made official his primary challenge to Sen. John Whitmire in SD15. He announced his challenge in August, and what I said at that time still holds true for me as a voter in SD15 – I’m not interested in making a change unless it’s a clear upgrade, and so far I don’t see any evidence of that. I intend to interview both candidates for the primary, so we’ll all get a chance to learn more at that time.

Other than the District Attorney race and a rerun in CD07, this is the only other local Democratic primary action of which I am aware. There are of course several statewide primaries – Wendy Davis has an opponent, Kinky Friedman will square off against some guy named Jim Hogan for Ag Commissioner, and there are now four candidates for US Senate with the entries of David Alameel and a dentist from Odessa named HyeTae “Harry” Kim – but not that much in the legislative primary department. There are two open seats, HD50, where Celia Israel appears to have a clear path in March to try to succeed Mark Strama – she’s in a runoff for the special election right now – and HD23, where I have no idea who has filed to try to succeed Rep. Craig Eiland. Seriously, does anyone know anything about this one? There are several potential candidates, I just haven’t heard if any of them has actually filed or even announced. State Rep. Marisa Marquez of El Paso, who caught some (deserved) flak for backing Republican Dee Margo in his failed re-election bid against Rep. Joe Moody, has an opponent. She’s the only House incumbent I’m aware of who’s been challenged.

There are also two new Democratic House challengers on the scene – Laura Nicol in HD133, and Amy Perez in HD150. These are obviously two tough districts, but it’s good to see new faces and it’s especially good to see more Democratic women running for office.

There are still plenty of offices for which no one has filed as a Democrat. Texpatriate bemoans the lack of candidates in Tarrant County, despite its higher profile this year. In Harris County, there are three races to watch. One is County Judge, where Ed Emmett so far appears to be getting a free ride. I’m a believer in running everywhere, but it’s hard to get too worked up about that. Emmett does a good job, he has a ton of goodwill still from his performance during Hurricane Ike, and he’d be tough to beat. Given that this may be his last term, I’m fine with concentrating on other races, like DA and County Clerk. County Commissioner Precinct 2 is harder to swallow. Glorice McPherson has said she’s running against first term Commissioner Jack Morman, but she hasn’t filed yet and she’s unlikely to raise the kind of money needed to mount a serious challenge. Precinct 2 was very competitive in 2012, but that was under the old map, and we don’t know how it will perform in an off year, even one with as much promise as this one. Still, giving Morman a free ride, or just an easy ride, would be a big disappointment. Finally, as BOR notes, Rep. Harold Dutton still hasn’t filed in HD142. He’s the last holdout among Democratic legislative incumbents, and a last-minute retirement announcement is not out of the question. The deadline is December 9, and that’s sure to be a busy day. What are you hearing out there?

Who watches the private police departments?

Not good.

A veteran state lawmaker said Monday he is outraged by televised images of Rice University police officers striking a suspected bicycle thief with batons and appalled the university can refuse to release details because it is a private institution.

“We need to make certain we stop police officers from being able to hide behind their private institution status,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “Does stuff like this happen every day and they’re able to withhold it?”

Whitmire saw portions of a video, shot during an August arrest, when the excerpt was televised last week by KPRC-TV. The Houston Chronicle also has seen only the televised excerpt.

Whitmire said the Texas Rangers are investigating the university’s police department at his request and said he intends to seek to strengthen open records laws for more transparency.

[…]

The Rice police agency is under fire after officers hit 37-year-old Ivan Waller with batons while arresting him for stealing a “bait bike” that officers put out as part of a sting. Rice officials said in a statement that an internal review concluded the force was justified, but they did not release the full video or other information related to the arrest.

Texas law requires any government institution to release public information, such as salaries, mug shots of criminal suspects and personnel files. Because Rice is a private university, the police department is not required to release information such as the arrest video.

“Of course it was a beating,” said Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “If (Rice administrators) don’t have zero tolerance for what I saw with my own eyes, I will deal with them in Austin.” He said he wants the officers seen in the video fired.

The KPRC report is here, with a followup here that includes reactions from Sen. Whitmire and State Rep. Garnet Coleman. There are many law enforcement agencies in Texas, including some highly specialized ones, and some that are under the auspices of private entities like Rice University. It should be clear that all law enforcement agencies should be subject to the same level of disclosure and transparency, but they’re not, and as usual we don’t think about it until something like this happens. The same rules should apply to anyone that has the authority to arrest someone and to use force to subdue them. I look forward to the bills Sen. Whitmire will file as a result of this, and I recommend Rice take him at his word.

Probation and drug testing update

Sounds like good news.

Late last summer, the director of the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department resigned, and the Harris County District Attorney’s office said it would stop using the agency’s drug tests as evidence after revelations that its overburdened drug-testing program had led to the wrongful jailing of some probationers and people awaiting trial based on false positives.

Director Teresa May, appointed in February, is being praised for addressing those missteps and bringing a pioneering and transparent approach to the once embattled agency.

“She’s very open and I’m satisfied that, at least for right now, that those problems have been corrected,” said longtime state District Court Judge Denise Collins, who called for the department’s previous chief to step down last year.

Collins, a member of the committee that vetted and recommended May, said she “is so innovative and has such great perspective on the entire department because there are some changes that need to be made, and she has kept her word with what she said she was going to do.”

Since March, the department has cut its drug testing volume in half after May hired a consultant who found that many probationers had for years tested negative on hundreds of tests. The abnormally high test volume was a big part of the problems revealed last year, May said.

May, 52, came from Dallas County’s probation department, where she helped implement a model that significantly reduced the number of offenders who ended up behind bars after their probations were revoked. The result was a lower jail population and a savings of millions of dollars.

See here for the background. The model May helped implement in Dallas is basically a risk assessment model that differentiates between probationers that need close supervision and drug testing, and those that will do better with minimal disruption to their daily lives. The idea is to design it for success and not failure, as Sen. John Whitmire characterizes it, with “success” meaning fewer people being put in jail for probation violations. One of the reasons why we had such problems with jail overcrowding in the past is that it made more sense to pick jail time over probation because the terms of probation were so onerous, and so likely to wind up with you in the slammer anyway for a violation of those terms. Needless to say, this is something we want to avoid going forward. One key to this is getting the judges to buy into this, and that seems to be happening as well. Kudos to Ms. May for her work so far.

We need a Conviction Integrity Unit in Harris County

From the DMN:

Craig Watkins

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has gained a national reputation for spearheading prisoner exonerations.

As he prepares to seek a third term, Watkins said Thursday he wants to expand on that role and add a few others. …

Watkins, a Democrat who was first elected in 2006, gained attention for using DNA tests to overturn convictions, and he said his office has a few more such cases pending.

When prosecutors finish with those next year, Watkins said, he wants his team to take another look at people convicted of arson and those accused of shaking their babies to death. Watkins said he has concerns about the science used in the prosecution of both types of cases.

“The science has changed. We need to revisit it,” Watkins said without elaborating.

That was via Grits for Breakfast, who adds the following:

With the passage of SB 344 by Whitmire/Turner, people convicted based on junk science now have a clear path to pursue habeas corpus writs to challenge their convictions, with old arson and shaken-baby cases high on the list of bad science likely to be challenged. It will be welcome news if Watkins takes leadership and gets out in front of those issues the way he did on DNA testing. The main difference will be that, until the Legislature changed the law in 2011 (SB 122 by Ellis), DAs could prevent DNA testing in old cases if they chose, just as Williamson County DA John Bradley thwarted testing in the Michael Morton case for many years simply by objecting. By contrast, the passage of SB 344 means junk science cases can now get back into court via habeas writs on their own, so Watkins and other District Attorneys will be forced to revisit them whether they want to or not.

Craig Watkins has done groundbreaking work in Dallas reviewing old convictions for which DNA evidence was available to allow for it. This was possible in part because Dallas County obsessively kept all their old case evidence, but it was Watkins who had the vision to look at old cases where the potential existed for a conviction that had been based on potentially shaky evidence and for which a more definitive answer could be established. Dozens of wrongly convicted men were freed as a result. DNA evidence only exists in a small percentage of cases, but there are other kinds of cases that can and should be reviewed, beginning with the “junk science” cases highlighted in SB344. It’s way past time for Harris County to conduct a systematic review of its own of old cases to see which of them deserve a closer look. We will be under the mandate of SB344 for some of these cases, but there’s no reason to limit ourselves, or to wait till the last minute. It’s beyond question that there are people currently in jail after being convicted in Harris County that are provably innocent of the crimes they were convicted for. In some cases, as with the just-released “San Antonio Four”, the crime in question never actually occurred. We already have to take action for some of these. Let’s commit to doing a thorough and exhaustive job of it. I look forward to hearing what Devon Anderson and Kim Ogg have to say about this.