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Kim Ogg

What to expect when you’re expecting a (larger) Democratic majority

I have three things to say about this.

Despite narrowly winning reelection against bruising campaigns by well-funded challengers, the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court has made clear it intends to continue its progressive remake of Harris County.

Though neither County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia or Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis invoked the word “mandate,” their public promises of four more years of what they have been doing leaves little doubt about their intentions.

Adding a fourth Democrat in Precinct 4, where former county court at law judge Lesley Briones ousted incumbent Commissioner Jack Cagle will only strengthen that resolve.

It also will prevent the lone Republican remaining on court, Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey from pulling off a quorum break as he did this year with Cagle to prevent the Democratic majority from passing its preferred property tax rate.

“Democrats will likely lean into a more progressive agenda now that they have uniform control of the court,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “They as much as campaigned on this promise.”

The question, Rottinghaus said, is how far Democrats should go in a progressive direction.

“Voters didn’t provide an overwhelming mandate for a major left shift and probably signaled some modest opposition to or, at least, different emphasis on priorities from the prior four years,” Rottinghaus said.

I’m old enough to remember the 2006 election, you know, the one where Rick Perry was elected with 39% of the vote. There was some Discourse at the time about how Perry should be humbled by his weak showing and should mend his ways and just somehow not be so Rick Perry-like. He did none of those things, was easily re-elected again in 2010, was briefly a Presidential candidate in 2012, and eventually became a Cabinet member. Mandates are what you make of them.

With the new stronger majority on the court, Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel said she is concerned Democrats will be punitive toward those who have challenged them, pointing to Hidalgo’s victory speech delivered the day after the election.

In those remarks, Hidalgo spoke about her critics who have accused Democrats on the court of defunding police, including what she called “unscrupulous politicians of both parties.” She called out Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, without naming her directly.

“That was sort of what was implied with her statement addressed to those people who didn’t support her. So, does that mean she’s not going to be supportive of the constables and the DA’s office?” Siegel said. “Because it’s one thing saying that you’re for funding and you want to make crime go down, but now it’s time to deliver. That’s what she told people.”

Oh, Cindy. Have you seen what Republicans are promising to do in Congress now that they have a slim majority? That’s what being punitive looks like. There are some significant policy differences between Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Court on the one hand and Kim Ogg and the Constables on the other. Judge Hidalgo has – I’m gonna say it – a mandate to use her office to implement the policies she and the Court campaigned on and think are best. If Ogg and the Constables, who are all up for election in 2024, disagree about that, they can make a campaign issue out of it and hope to get their own mandate at that time. If Hidalgo and the Court really do overstep, that can be ammunition in their fight.

Still, Rottinghaus said, the opposition Democrats faced during the election cycle reflected the difficulty they had messaging on crime issues.

“Governing a massive and ideologically diverse county like Harris means compromising,” he said. “So, despite a solid majority, the close election shows Democrats on the Court need to encourage Republicans to come back to the table.”

This is just your periodic reminder that Harris County Commissioners Court operated with a Republican majority for at least 40 years – I’m only able to verify the Court’s makeup via election results back to about 1974 – before Dems took it in 2019. We operated under Republican laws, rules, norms, and assumptions for a long, long time. Only so much of that can be changed to reflect the current political reality in four years’ time, especially when a Republican minority was still able to wield a budget veto. The fact is that this now-larger Democratic majority – which even with the benefit of redistricting was still hard won – will continue to modify, update, and undo some of the things that we had long done under Republican rule. Everyone needs to wrap their heads around that.

If Greg Abbott demands an investigation, Greg Abbott will get an investigation

This is all still so dumb.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is launching an investigation into “alleged irregularities” during last week’s election after receiving a referral from the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

Ogg sent a letter to Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw asking for the Texas Rangers’ assistance on Monday, the same day Gov. Greg Abbott called for an investigation and the Harris County Republican Party filed a lawsuit accusing Elections Administrator Cliff Tatum and the county of numerous violations of the Texas Election Code.

The allegations include paper shortages at 23 polling locations, releasing early voting results before polls closed at 8 p.m., the improper disposition of damaged ballots and inadequate instructions on how poll workers were to manage instances in which the two-page ballots were not completely or adequately scanned into machines.

Under Harris County’s countywide voting system, residents had 782 locations to cast their ballots on Election Day. The paper shortages affected a small number of polling places.

The GOP lawsuit, however, claims “countless” voters were turned away due to the paper shortages and did not go to a second location to vote.

See here for the background. Ogg, who was not exactly an asset to Democrats in this election, has taken some heat for this. I get that and I’m not here to defend any of her recent actions, but I’m not exercised about this. There was going to be an investigation of some kind once Abbott threw his tantrum, and given that it can’t be Ken Paxton unless he’s invited in, it may as well be the local DA. Having the Texas Rangers assist makes sense in that it’s best to have outside help for an internal political matter. If this turns out to be much ado about nothing, as I believe it is, then let the Rangers take the blame from the Republicans for not finding anything. I am not going to waste my energy sweating about this at this time.

In the meantime:

Harris County Elections Administrator Cliff Tatum, speaking at length publicly for the first time since Election Day, pledged a complete assessment of voting issues Tuesday but said the county is in “dire need” of improvements to the way it conducts elections.

“A full assessment is in order,” Tatum told Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday. “We have started that assessment, but I’d like to remind you and the public we are still counting votes.”

He said his office still was working its way through about 2,100 provisional ballots cast after 7 p.m. last Tuesday. A state district judge ordered the county to keep the polls open until 8 p.m. because some voting locations failed to open on time. Those provisional ballots are being kept separate from the unofficial count, pending a court ruling on the validity of those votes.

The deadline for the county to canvass the vote is Nov. 22.

[…]

Tatum told Commissioners Court his staff is contacting each election judge to gather feedback and assess challenges they faced, including any technical difficulties and the response they received.

At least one polling place had a late opening and certain locations ran out of paper, Tatum confirmed.

Tatum took over the job in August, just two months before early voting in the November election began. So far, he noted the county is in “dire need” of some critically needed improvements, including a better communication system, more maintenance and operations personnel and a tracking system for monitoring requests from the election workers running polling locations.

Tatum said he has spoken with election judges who requested technical help and did not receive it.

“Because I can’t track that technician within the system that I have, I can’t tell you what happened,” Tatum said.

I dunno, maybe wait until all the work is done and see what happens before storming the barricades? And yes, especially now that they have full control over the budget, the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court needs to ensure this office has sufficient resources. We need to do better. Reform Austin has more.

Judge Hidalgo celebrates her win

Winning is sweet. Victory laps are even sweeter.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Fresh off a narrow reelection that was anything but assured, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday held a news conference to praise colleagues, thank supporters and call out some members of her own party for not backing her campaign.

“There were some elected officials that weren’t there because they didn’t think it was convenient, those in my own party that wouldn’t do an ad for me, that wouldn’t have a fundraiser, that wouldn’t help when it got tough,” Hidalgo said. “And oh, I remember who they are.”

The Hidalgo campaign declined to specify which officials she was addressing.

Hidalgo also addressed critics during the election cycle who accused the Democrats on Commissioners Court of defunding police, including what she called “unscrupulous politicians of both parties.”

She called out Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, without naming her directly.

“This person who is supposed to represent justice in this county more than once said with a straight face ‘stop the defunding’ knowing full well that the budget had increased,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Despite being significantly out-funded by Republican newcomer Alexandra del Moral Mealer, Hidalgo emerged from early voting ahead of her opponent and narrowly maintained that lead throughout the night as votes were counted. The final unofficial tally, released just before 9 a.m. Wednesday, put Hidalgo in front of Mealer by slightly more than 17,000 votes, or 50.8 percent of the nearly 1.1 million votes cast. That was a narrower margin of victory than her surprise election in 2018, when the then-27-year-old ousted popular Republican Ed Emmett.

Mealer tweeted her concession around 9:30 a.m.

“While we did not accomplish our goal of changing leadership in Harris County, we were successful in elevating the profile of critical issues like the need to appropriately resource our law enforcement and criminal justice system as well as the desire to eliminate corruption and increase transparency in local government,” Mealer said in a statement. “This campaign was always about good government and I am hopeful that we have played a role encouraging that going forward.”

Hidalgo acknowledged her opponent’s hard-fought campaign, much of which centered on crime, blaming policies championed by Hidalgo for rising numbers of homicides the past two years, and accusing the first-term judge of corruption, mostly related to a controversial COVID vaccination outreach contract that resulted in indictments against three of her aides.

Since July 1, Mealer raised more than $8.5 million, much of it from large donors like Gallery Furniture owner Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, an early supporter of her campaign. Hidalgo, who has refused to accept campaign contributions from county vendors, raised $2.4 million in that period.

“She had almost $10 million in the bank and she had a U.S. senator and she had a furniture salesman,” Hidalgo said in her speech, taking a swipe at McIngvale who ran several campaign ads in support of Mealer.

“I want to thank Alex Mealer for running a hard fought campaign,” Hidalgo said. “I want to thank her for her concession. And I want to thank her again for her service to our country.”

Surrounded by union leaders and Democratic party elected officials, Hidalgo thanked her supporters for helping her block walk, raise money and host campaign events.

Much of her speech was of a celebratory nature, citing past accomplishments with current Commissioner Court colleagues Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia.

“We have done so much from the very first meeting,” Hidalgo said, citing countywide voting as one example of successes while she has been in office. “We did that at the first meeting in 2019.”

In re: the margin of victory, they are referring to the raw vote differential. In 2018, Judge Hidalgo won by 19,277 votes, while in 2022 it was 17,397 votes. Of course, there were more total votes cast in 2018 than in 2022, which has an effect. As it happens Judge Hidalgo’s margin of victory as a percentage of the vote is greater now than it was then: In 2018 she won 49.76% to 48.18% (there was a Libertarian candidate that took the rest). In 2022, it was 50.79% to 49.19%, with a write-in candidate getting the other 0.02%. That means she won this year by 1.60 percentage points, compared to 1.58 in 2018. Pick your preferred measure of expression.

As for what may be on the agenda for 2023, I’m not the first person to suggest this, but don’t be surprised if Commissioners Court looks at redrawing the Constable/JP precincts. Most counties just have the Constable and JP precincts be the same as the Commissioners Court precincts. Harris has its own weird precincts for them that don’t match up in population and (as I understand it haven’t been updated since the 70s. There’s also no shortage of bad blood between (at least some) Constables and the Court, so a bit of payback may be in order. I suspect this would be a complex matter and would surely invite litigation so I don’t think it will be undertaken lightly, but I will be surprised if it doesn’t at least come up.

Beyond that, I expect the Court to do more of what it’s been doing, with the freedom of knowing that their next budget can’t be busted by no-shows. The main obstacle will continue to be interference from the state and whatever new BS legislation may come down. This is where I remind you that Harris County was under a Republican majority on Commissioners Court going back to at least the mid-70s, which is as far back as I’ve been able to verify, up until 2019 when Dems finally achieved a 3-2 advantage. We’ve done things a certain way for a long damn time. Making changes to make things better will take time, too. For now, we can celebrate a bit as we look forward. Let it out, Judge Hidalgo. You’ve earned it. The Press has more.

State and county election result relationships, part 3: Other county races

Part One
Part Two

Last time we looked at judicial races, which for all of the complaints about not knowing the candidates and just going by partisan labels have produced a consistent range of outcomes over the years. Some people are picking and choosing among judicial candidates – it’s not a huge number, and there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to it, but it’s happening. With candidates for county offices, especially higher profile ones like County Judge, District Attorney, and Sheriff, there’s even more of a range of outcomes, as these candidates are better known and the reasons for crossing over are clearer. Let’s get to the data.


2006          2008          2010          2012	
CJ      N/A   DA    49.79   CJ    39.40   DA    47.66
DC    46.09   CJ    46.85   DC    46.15   CA    51.48
CC    44.69   CA    51.39   CC    44.58   Sh    52.95
CT    48.34   DC    51.06   TA    45.27   TA    48.73
HCDE  48.63   TA    46.18   CT    43.01   HCDE  51.34
              Sh    56.28							
              HCDE  52.51								
              HCDE  52.58								

2014          2016          2018          2020	
DA    46.78   DA    54.22   CJ    49.78   DA    53.89
CJ      N/A   CA    53.72   DC    55.09   CA    54.66
DC    44.82   Sh    52.84   CC    54.60   Sh    57.46
CC    45.71   TA    50.31   CT    54.21   TA    53.07
CT    44.95	            HCDE  56.71   CC    53.76
HCDE  46.85                               HCDE  55.64
HCDE  46.79                               HCDE  54.65

Abbreviations:

CJ = County Judge
DC = District Clerk
CC = County Clerk
CT = County Treasurer
DA = District Attorney
CA = County Attorney
TA = Tax Assessor
Sh = Sheriff
HCDE = At Large HCDE Trustee

Note that in some years, like 2008 for County Judge, 2010 for Tax Assessor, and 2014 for District Attorney, there were special elections due to the death or resignation of a previously-elected official. There are three At Large HCDE Trustees, they all serve 6-year terms, and in a given election there may be zero, one, or two of them on the ballot. All of the numbers are the percentages achieved by the Democratic candidate for that office. In 2006 and 2014, there was no Democrat running for County Judge.

The first thing to note is that in all but two years, the Dem disaster year of 2014 and the Dem sweep year of 2020, the range of outcomes was at least four points. In four of the eight years, the range was at least five points. Beverly Kaufmann was a trusted long-serving name brand in 2006, the last year she ran for re-election. Adrian Garcia destroyed scandal-plagued incumbent Sheriff Tommy Thomas in 2008, while Ed Emmett rode his performance during Hurricane Ike to a chart-topping Republican vote total. (There was a Libertarian candidate in the Tax Assessor race that year, so the percentages for Paul Bettencourt and Diane Trautman were lower than they would have been otherwise.) Emmett continued to overperform in subsequent years, though it wasn’t quite enough for him in the 2018 blue landslide. The late Mike Anderson got to run against the idiot Lloyd Oliver in the 2012 DA race; four years later Kim Ogg won in a second try against Devon Anderson after her office imploded. Candidates and circumstances do matter in these races in a way that they don’t quite do in judicial races.

I find it fascinating that the At Large HCDE Trustees are consistent top performers for Dems, year in and year out. Note that this remained the case in 2020, following the abolition of straight ticket voting. The Republicans have run some lousy candidates in those races – their precinct HCDE trustee candidates have generally been stronger – but I doubt that accounts for too much. Honestly, I’d probably chalk that up to the Democratic brand, especially given that it says “Education” right there in the position’s name.

Minus the outliers, and I will have one more post in this series to take a closer look at them, the ranges for the county executive office candidates are basically in line with those of the judicial candidates, and as such are usually ahead of the statewides. As with the judicial candidates, there were mixed results in the close years of 2008 and 2012, and sweeps one way or the other otherwise. While the potential is there for an exceptional result – which in the context of statewide candidates still carrying Harris County means “a Democrat unexpectedly losing” – the conditions to avoid that are clear. If Beto is getting to 54% or better, I’ll be surprised if it’s not another Dem sweep.

Investigating abortions is Houston’s “lowest priority”

So says Mayor Turner, and I’m glad to hear it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday that investigating abortions under the state’s near-total ban is the city’s “lowest priority” when it comes to crime.

Turner said the city would continue to marshal its limited law enforcement resources toward driving down violent crime. While the city cannot ignore the law, Turner said, he wanted to assure medical professionals and pregnant Houstonians that police here will not seek to interfere in sensitive health care decisions.

“I want women to get the best health care that we can offer in this city, and I don’t want doctors or health care providers or practitioners to second-guess themselves in providing the best health care,” Turner said at a City Hall news conference. “We cannot undo the law, it is on the books. It is what it is. We cannot supersede it, but we certainly can prioritize how our resources will be used in this city.”

[…]

Matt Slinkard, the city’s executive assistant police chief, acknowledged the city is duty-bound to enforce the law, but said Houston Police Department officers would remain “laser-focused” on violent crime. Police officials told City Council this week that violent crime is down 10 percent year-over-year, though it remains above pre-pandemic levels.

Slinkard said he was not aware of any complaints filed with the department since the law took effect last week. The mayor also sent a letter to District Attorney Kim Ogg outlining those priorities.

Turner spoke at City Hall along with members of the city’s women’s commission and council members, a majority of whom are women.

Like I said, good to hear. As you know, multiple other Texas cities have taken similar action, via the passage of an ordinance called the GRACE Act. Those have spelled out the things that the city and its law enforcement agency intend to de-emphasize to the extent that they can. One thing those cities have in common is that they all operate under the weak mayor/city manager form of government. I feel pretty confident that’s why they passed these ordinances via their city councils – their mayors don’t have the executive authority to set those policies on their own. It’s possible there could still be a Council vote of some kind on this, but for the most part I’d expect this to cover it. I really hope it’s all an academic exercise, that in a few months we’ll have a Congress and a Senate that can pass a national abortion rights law. Until then, every bit of local action is appreciated.

Buzbee blames the NFL for Watson’s short suspension

Surely you expected that Tony Buzbee would have something to say about all this.

For the first woman to sue former Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson —and nearly all those who followed suit — the legal process is over.

They settled their cases alleging sexual assault and harassment. An NFL-hired arbitrator gave the football player a six-week suspension. And two grand juries declined to pursue criminal charges.

Through it all, the NFL and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg failed those women, Houston attorney Tony Buzbee said Thursday.

“We are here today with a message to the NFL,” the lawyer said during a news conference. “Every victim of sexual assault is watching (Commissioner) Roger Goodell and the NFL right now. And this idea that Mr. Goodell is going to hand it off to someone independent, we don’t buy it.”

“Mr. Goodell, what will you do?”

[…]

Despite the disappointing decision with the District Attorney’s Office and the league, [Ashley] Solis said she finally feels like she has power.

She described the past two-and-a-half years as “emotionally and mentally tasking.” As the first person to file a lawsuit and the first to speak publicly, she received countless threats from Watson fans. That vitriol sent her into a depression, but letters she received from numerous victims rejuvenated her, she said.

Solis learned that victims have the ability to speak up. They can make changes happen, she said.

“If anyone has ever tried to abuse their status, and overpower you, remind them that they picked the wrong one to try that with,” she said. “That’s exactly what I am – the wrong one.”

Solis was one of 10 women to speak with NFL investigators, Buzbee said. He added that he would’ve made more of his clients available, but he said the NFL “wasn’t really interested in talking to them.”

“It really makes you want to scratch your head and wonder, ‘What the devil is going on?'” Buzbee said.

Arbitrator Sue L. Robinson made note of the NFL’s failure to interview all 24 women in her 16-page report, distancing her decision by saying, “My credibility determinations are based largely on the credibility of the NFL investigators.”

NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy disputed Buzbee’s claims. He provided a statement that said the league interviewed 49 total people and attempted to interview all of the 24 women who filed suit but the remaining 12 “were not made available by their attorney or did not feel comfortable being interviewed.”

The investigation’s outcome made some of the victims to feel invisible, or as if they had been slapped, Buzbee said.

See here for the previous update. Goodell has already delegated the appeal to someone else, as allowed by the collective bargaining agreement. I think that was the correct thing for him to do, but I can see how Buzbee sees it differently. As for the dispute over how many of the women were available to talk with the NFL as part of the process, I’ll wait and see if there’s evidence to support one side’s claims or the other’s.

In the meantime, now we wait on the appeal.

The NFL Players Association announced Friday that it replied to the NFL’s appeal of Deshaun Watson’s six-game suspension by NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.

“We have filed our reply brief to the NFL’s appeal regarding the Deshaun Watson matter,’’ the NFLPA said in a statement posted on Twitter.

The union, which had two business days to reply, had no further comment.

The matter is now in the hands of appeals officer Peter C. Harvey, the former New Jersey attorney general who was appointed Thursday by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. There’s no set timeframe for a decision, but it must be processed on an expedited basis. The two sides — the NFL and NFLPA — can also try to negotiate a settlement before the ruling.

But the NFLPA is still poised to sue in federal court, possibly pending the outcome of the appeal.

“If the new arbitrator increases Watson’s punishment – once again this sets up a legal battle between the union and league challenging the fairness of the penalties and (Roger) Goodell’s authority to penalize the players for their alleged roles,’’ said attorney Daniel Moskowitz, a sports law litigator in Dallas, who has represented several NFL players in NFL investigations involving the personal conduct policy, violation of league substance abuse and other code of conduct policies.

The NFLPA and Watson’s legal team can also file before the decision by Harvey, who helped develop and implement the league’s personal conduct policy.

So we wait. I don’t think this will take very long for the simple reason that it makes sense for there to be a resolution, at least as far as this process goes, before the season begins. After that, who knows. Sean Pendergast has more.

Charges against Judge Jordan dropped

That was quick.

Judge Darrell Jordan

Just four days after being indicted and arrested, Harris County misdemeanor court Judge Darrell Jordan saw an official oppression charge against him dropped.

Fort Bend County prosecutors on Friday announced they were dropping the misdemeanor charge against the judge.

Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton said that while Jordan was indicted by a grand jury, he didn’t believe his office could prove a crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt.

“It is important to present cases implicating public integrity to the grand jury, particularly when there is some evidence to support the allegation, because they are representatives of the public,” Middleton said in a statement released after 6 p.m. Friday. “Moreover, it provides due process to the accused and transparency to the public.”

[…]

Middleton said prosecutors need to meet a higher standard when moving a case forward.

“If we believe we cannot prove a charge beyond a reasonable doubt, we have an ethical obligation to dismiss the prosecution,” Middleton said.

His office filed a motion to dismiss the case in Harris County on Friday, he said.

Jordan’s attorney, Marc Carter called Middleton an “honorable man” and said he had believed the district attorney would dismiss the case all along. Jordan is currently deployed with the Texas National Guard, Carter said.

Carter said this week’s incident should remind people about how to behave in a courtroom.

“Contempt is an inherent power judges have to maintain order and decorum in the court,” Carter said “I would advise citizens and officers of the court to abide by the rules of court and maintain decorum to avoid being held in contempt.”

See here and here for the background. Dolcefino was not happy with the decision, which, too bad. I still don’t know any more about this than I did when the news first hit, but it is plausible that the case could have been not very solid, certainly not solid enough to feel confident about getting a guilty verdict. The defense was clear enough, for sure. I hope this is the last we hear of this. I have enough stories to follow.

More on Jordan and Dolcefino

Dolcefino speaks.

Former TV reporter Wayne Dolcefino has called for the resignation of Harris County misdemeanor Judge Darrell Jordan, alleging a personal vendetta led the jurist to wrongly hold him in contempt of court in 2020.

Dolcefino’s demand came after Jordan was arrested Monday and charged with official oppression related to the confrontation. Jordan is accused of using his office to unlawfully arrest and detain the private media consultant, who had arrived at the judge’s court to request public records on one of Jordan’s political allies.

“This guy has no business on the bench,” Dolcefino said. “He doesn’t have the temperament.”

Jordan’s attorney, Marc Carter, denied that the holding in contempt had anything to do with Dolcefino’s investigative efforts. Dolcefino set a confrontational tone in his prior dealings with the judge, and he sought him out in court with a disruptive result, Carter said.

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

See here for the background. Let’s just pause for a moment and note that Wayne Dolcefino is denigrating someone’s temperament. Okay, moving on.

Video from the incident shows Dolcefino in a mostly empty courtroom, first chatting with court administrators and receiving a hello from the judge. Then he attempted to ask for the status of public corruption complaints he made about multiple Houston and Harris County officials – including Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a friend of Jordan’s.

In the video, Jordan told Dolcefino that he couldn’t ask questions, told him to sit down and warned him to stop interrupting proceedings. Dolcefino later shared photos of his arresting restraints.

The case against Jordan was filed with Harris County DA’s Office, which recused itself and asked Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton to investigate the allegation.

Fort Bend District Attorney spokesperson Wesley Wittig said he couldn’t discuss the facts of the case, or what distinguished oppression from Jordan’s right to hold someone in direct contempt of the court.

“That would require a real detailed explanation in this case, and that’s the exact thing we can’t talk about,” he said.

Jordan contends that Dolcefino was disrupting his court proceedings on Zoom, but the media personality and an appeals court disagreed. The hidden video also made it seem questionable that Jordan had a hearing underway at all – a legal necessity for a contempt finding, said Amanda Peters, professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. Carter disputed that, adding contempt can occur as long as court is in session.

Dolcefino added that his years in journalism taught him proper courtroom etiquette.

“I would have never interrupted a hearing,” he said. “I may be wild and crazy, but I’ve never done that.”

Wrongful contempt cases do occur, but they usually don’t result in legal action against judges, Peters said. A grand jury might have found probable cause in Jordan’s case, however, if they learned of any personal conflict between the judge and former reporter, she said.

“These kind of charges for a judge in Harris County are incredibly rare,” she said.

If there was video of me writing this post, you would have seen my eyebrows nearly exit my forehead as I perused those statements from Dolcefino. At some point, more people will see the video he has, and we’ll go from there.

In the meantime:

Harris County misdemeanor court Judge Darrell Jordan on Thursday was suspended from his bench by the state’s commission on judicial conduct.

The suspension came just days after Jordan was indicted on a misdemeanor charge of official oppression and then arrested.

In a three-paragraph letter addressed to Jordan, the commission said that Jordan would be suspended without pay from his office as Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judge No. 16. The suspension will remain in place until Jordan is either acquitted or the charges are dismissed, according to the letter.

The letter was signed at 4 p.m. Thursday by David Schenk, the chairman of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Jordan’s attorney, Marc Carter, on Thursday evening confirmed the suspension.

[…]

Carter said the judicial commission was compelled to act because of the indictment. State law require judges to be suspended if they’re indicted on official misconduct charges, he said. The commission itself had received a complaint about Jordan’s contempt charges against Dolcefino and dismissed them, Carter said.

That last sentence suggests one possible reason why it took so long between the incident in question and the indictment. It’s certainly possible that if the Judicial Conduct Commission had sanctioned Judge Jordan for this, then perhaps there would not have been charges filed. Once the commission declined to sanction him, the complaint went to the grand jury. I don’t know if this is how it went, but it is plausible.

Jordan and Dolcefino

I have questions about this.

Judge Darrell Jordan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now then. Three basic questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

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

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

What is going on at CrimeStoppers?

Whatever it is, I’m not sure how to stop it.

“Anyone with information is urged to call Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS.” That message, along with the promise of a reward, has appeared for decades at the end of news reports about shootings, stabbings or criminal mayhem in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

But recently, Crime Stoppers of Houston has been blasting out a different, more political message: Activist judges are letting “dangerous criminals” out of jail to threaten the safety of law-abiding residents. On television, Twitter and videos, the traditionally nonpartisan nonprofit organization has been condemning more than a dozen elected judges — all Democrats, four of whom lost primaries last month — while praising the crime policies of Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican.

“What we’re seeing is an assault against the community” by the judges, Rania Mankarious, the organization’s chief executive, said this year on a national Fox News broadcast.

The group’s aggressive posture on the issue followed shifts in Houston’s approach to prosecuting low-level crimes and setting bail. The changes helped prompt a political backlash fed in part by the Crime Stoppers campaign and a rising murder rate.

But an investigation by The New York Times and The Marshall Project found that the stance embraced by Crime Stoppers also intersects with the organization’s financial interests.

  • Financial documents and government records, along with dozens of interviews, show that the organization, with an annual budget of about $2.4 million, has in recent years become reliant on state grants backed by Mr. Abbott. Those grants included $4 million in 2017 that was never publicized by Mr. Abbott or Crime Stoppers, which had previously trumpeted smaller donations from other government entities. In the past five years, the Texas government under Mr. Abbott has given the group more than $6 million, state records show.

  • The organization received $500,000 last year from the local district attorney — money allocated from a pool of funds seized in asset forfeiture. The district attorney, a conservative Democrat, used to run Crime Stoppers, is generally in sync with the group on bail issues and has not been publicly criticized by it.

  • Many of the Democratic judges Crime Stoppers is slamming have cut into the organization’s revenue by curbing a common practice requiring many people sentenced to probation to pay a $50 fee that goes to Crime Stoppers. The nonprofit’s revenue from those fees has fallen by half since Democrats swept the county’s judicial races in 2018.

  • The drop in court revenue and the growing reliance on funding from elected officials came as Crime Stoppers went into debt and ran growing annual deficits.

The evolution of Crime Stoppers of Houston underscores the potential conflicts of interest that can arise when charities become dependent on financial support from politicians.

And it illustrates how nonprofit organizations technically barred from participating in political campaigns can nonetheless exert outsize influence, especially when they wade into a potent issue like violent crime.

And there’s this.

Exchanging money for anonymous tips is still Crime Stoppers’ calling card. Yet as the organization approaches its 50th birthday, for many chapters the heavily promoted rewards have become almost a financial afterthought, with far heftier sums being spent on education, celebrating police, purchasing equipment or supporting their own administrative scaffolding.

Midland Crime Stoppers in 2020 reported $145,000 in expenses, including a director’s salary and $60,000 for advertising, office, banquet and travel costs, for $6,000 in paid rewards. Charity Navigator, a national evaluator of nonprofits, recently gave the North Texas Crime Commission, which includes the Dallas-area Crime Stoppers, a “zero” score for spending more on administrative costs than programs.

Sustained by a steady flow of court fees from criminal defendants ordered to pay local Crime Stoppers as punishment, some chapters have quietly amassed bulging bank accounts. Williamson County Crime Stoppers has long collected more than it paid for tips, said Chairman Sam Jordan. Documents show it distributed about $17,000 in rewards over the past two years while receiving nearly $100,000 in court fees. Its bank account is approaching $700,000, records show.

By the end of 2020 the Dallas chapter, which has seen its reward payments plummet in recent years, had a nest-egg of cash and investments approaching $5 million, records show.

[…]

Crime Stoppers nonetheless continues to boast eye-catching accomplishments. The live tally on the national website stands at more than 800,000 crimes solved and $4 billion-worth of property and drugs recovered thanks to tips.

[Loyola University Chicago Professor Arthur] Lurigio acknowledged it was nearly impossible to fact-check such numbers. It is difficult to know which crimes would have been solved without a paid tip. Shrouded by anonymity – legally protected in Texas – Crime Stoppers stats derive exclusively from police, who have an incentive to report high arrest rates.

Several organization officials also acknowledged that while solving violent crimes garner attention and advance public safety, offenses commonly solved by Crime Stopper tipsters are much more mundane. Mike Pappas, who heads up the North Texas program, said most tips referenced probation violations or drug possession. Midland’s school program pays $20 rewards for information on kids smoking vape pens, Valenzuela said.

“It doesn’t do anything to add to public safety,” said Scott Henson, a long-time Texas criminal justice reform advocate. “It’s a PR ploy that promotes a culture of law enforcement fetishism.”

Lurigio concluded that even a highly successful chapter well-supported by the community was unlikely to have a meaningful impact on local crime rates. “While numerous crimes are solved through Crime Stoppers,” he wrote, “these successes amount to only a small fraction of the total volume of serious crimes committed in a given community each year.”

And this.

Under the leadership of Mankarious, the organization shifted even more aggressively toward crime prevention, rather than focusing exclusively on helping police solve crimes. While the organization says it has helped solve 35,767 cases since 1980, the organization’s annual reports show a sizeable drop in cases in recent years. In 2020 Crime Stoppers issued payments to 248 tipsters totaling $310,800. That same year, the organization paid Mankarious — who supervises just over a dozen employees — about $280,000.

That’s about $8,000 less than that of Houston Police Chief Troy Finner’s (who supervises more than 5,000 officers) salary.

That’s also a lot of cash not being spent on those rewards. There’s a lot more to all of these stories, so go read them in full. I don’t know who decided that this was the week to write about Crime Stoppers, but I approve. I also don’t know what can be done about this bloated and now-partisan organization, but showing it for what it is seems like a decent start. I’m open to suggestion beyond that.

Some DAs refuse to enforce Abbott’s anti-trans order

More like this, please.

District attorneys in five of the largest counties in Texas on Thursday announced that they will not comply with Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) and state attorney general Ken Paxton’s (R) directive that state agencies begin investigating gender-affirming medical care for transgender youths.

The district attorneys of Dallas, Travis, Bexar, Nueces and Fort Bend counties condemned the directive in a statement issued Thursday. The group, which is comprised of five Democratic district attorneys, slammed Abbott and Paxton’s characterization of gender-affirming care for minors as “child abuse.” They declared Abbott and Paxton’s recent rhetoric is an “onslaught on personal freedoms” that is on its face “un-American.”

“We also want to be clear: we will enforce the Constitution and will not irrationally and unjustifiably interfere with medical decisions made between children, their parents, and their medical physicians,” the district attorneys wrote. “We trust the judgment of our state’s medical professionals, who dedicate themselves to providing the highest degree of care not only for our transgender youth, but for all youth in our communities.”

The group of district attorneys also assured parents that they are “safe” to continue seeking gender-affirming care for their children.

“We will not allow the Governor and Attorney General to disregard Texan children’s lives in order to score political points,” they wrote.

See here for the background. A copy of the DAs’ letter is embedded in the story. Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee has issued a similar statement, but his is a civil law office, not a criminal law office. I’d very much like to know where Harris County DA Kim Ogg – and every other Democratic DA in this state – is on this. As others have noted, AG opinions are non-binding, and it’s not at all clear that Abbott’s order is enforceable – remember how he himself admitted that his no-mask-mandate executive order could not be enforced? This is entirely discretionary, so take a stand. Someone in power needs to be standing up for these kids and their families.

We don’t really need more prosecutors on the bench

Ugh.

Kim Ogg

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aguirre indicted

Gotta admit, I had thought this happened long ago.

A Harris County grand jury on Tuesday indicted former Houston police captain Mark Aguirre on an assault charge after he was accused of running a man off the road and pointing to a gun to his head because he thought he was committing voter fraud in the run-up to the 2020 election.

Aguirre will face a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The trial currently is scheduled to begin in February.

Prosecutors allege Aguirre slammed into the back of an air conditioning repairman’s truck at about 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 19 of last year. He pulled a gun, forced the repairman to the ground and put a knee on his back. He ordered another person to search the truck. A police officer happened upon the scene shortly after.

Aguirre, who was fired by the police department in 2003, would later tell investigators he was conducting a “citizens investigation” into an alleged ballot harvesting scheme he thought was orchestrated by local Democrats. He told police they would find hundreds of thousands of ballots in the repairman’s truck.

They found only air conditioning parts and tools. Aguirre said he had been following the repairman for four days.

Aguirre, a licensed private investigator at the time, was hired to investigate fraud claims and paid about $266,400 by the Liberty Center for God and Country around the time of the incident. That group is led by Steven Hotze, the local conservative activist, and Jared Woodfill, the former Harris County Republican Party chairman.

See here, here, and here for some background. Aguirre was arraigned almost exactly a year ago – I genuinely have no idea why it took so long for there to be a grand jury and an indictment. I mean, sure, COVID likely didn’t help, but he was arraigned in peak COVID times, so I don’t know what the effect would be. With the trial scheduled for February, maybe things will move a little faster now, but if you want to explain to me why this all just happened now, please feel free. In the meantime, at least the lawsuit against Steven Hotze is proceeding apace.

Abbott admits he can’t enforce his mask mandate ban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Alvarado filibuster

Wear comfortable shoes, Senator.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

The GOP voting restrictions push that left the Texas House scrambling to round up absent Democrats also shut down work in the Texas Senate on Wednesday evening as state Sen. Carol Alvarado launched into a filibuster against the GOP’s priority voting bill.

“I rise today to speak against Senate Bill 1,” Alvarado said, beginning her filibuster just before 5:50 p.m. as the chamber approached a final vote on the target of the Houston Democrat’s efforts.

Though Democrats are outnumbered in the chamber, they are occasionally able to foil legislation by speaking on it indefinitely — usually ahead of a key deadline or the end of the legislative session. Alvarado’s filibuster, however, likely will end up being more of a symbolic gesture than a credible attempt to block passage of the bill. The Legislature is on just the fifth day of a 30-day special session, called as Democrats have left the House without enough members present for the Republican majority in that chamber to pass legislation.

“Senate Bill 1 slowly but surely chips away at our democracy. It adds rather than removes barriers for Texas seniors, persons with disabilities, African Americans, Asian and Latino voters from the political process,” Alvarado said at the start of her filibuster. “[President Lyndon B. Johnson] said the Voting Rights Act struck away the last major shackle of the fierce and ancient bond of slavery. Senate Bill 1 is a regressive step back in the direction of that dark and painful history.”

Ahead of her filibuster, Alvarado told The Texas Tribune she would be using a “tool in our box that is a Senate tradition” just as House Democrats were using their quorum break to block the bill and vowed to keep going “as long as I have the energy.”

“I’m using what I have at my disposal in the Senate,” Alvarado said, acknowledging the bill would eventually pass in the Senate. “The filibuster isn’t going to stop it, but a filibuster is also used to put the brakes on an issue — to call attention to what is at stake — and that is what I am doing.”

To sustain the filibuster, Alvarado must stand on the Senate floor, without leaning on her desk or chair, and speak continuously. If she strays off topic, her effort can be shut down after a series of points of order.

I trust we all remember that from the Wendy Davis filibuster of 2013. As the Chron story reminds us, Davis talked for 11 hours, which wound up being just enough. Of course, the omnibus anti-abortion bill she stalled out wound up passing in a subsequent special session, so “victory” in these matters is somewhat ephemeral. The longest filibuster, according to that same story, was 43 hours. Maybe we could get a few more Senators to follow her in doing this? I don’t know what the rules allow. In any event, I wish Sen. Alvarado all the best with this, I appreciate what she is doing, and I hope her fellow Democrats are there to support her.

Meanwhile, over in the House:

State Rep. Gene Wu is expected to temporarily avoid arrest after he legally challenged a warrant for his apprehension, also issued to 51 other House Democrats absent from the special session in protest of voting restrictions legislation.

The rare action over a civil warrant led to some head-scratching Wednesday in the 230th Criminal District Court, including from presiding Judge Chris Morton. After a brief recess, he determined that he did have jurisdiction to grant a “writ of habeas corpus” in the case, essentially trumping the state’s civil warrant for Wu and releasing him from potential custody until the court determines the legality of the warrant.

Wu’s attorneys added that they are part of a group of lawyers across the state who came together to fight for the right to vote. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg surmised that she also expects to see more cases like Wu’s appear in local courts.

“This is a reminder to Gov. Abbott that we still live in a democracy,” Wu said after his court appearance. “We will do everything we can to make sure the right to vote is protected for all Texans.”

When asked whether he has any plans to return to Austin, Wu responded, “Hell no.”

[…]

Morton on Wednesday acknowleged the unusuality of the case before him. He questioned whether he has jurisdiction in a criminal court, and whether his court had jurisdiction over the sergeant-at-arms who distributed the arrest warrants to the 52 Democrats’ offices Wednesday at the Capitol.

He also told Wu’s attorneys that they should have contacted the Texas Attorney General’s Office, and his decision could change depending on their response.

“This is a novel issue to say the least,” Morton said.

Ogg on Wednesday represented her office at the hearing, where she said she didn’t oppose any sort of bond or continuance in the case. But, she made clear that she doesn’t believe this is a criminal issue.

“We don’t believe that the courts, the criminal courts, should be a place where political differences are litigated,” she said.

She added later that she personally supports what the Democrats have done related to the voting legislation.

Attorneys Stan Schneider, Romy Kaplan and Brent Mayr additionally asked for a personal bond to be issued for Wu in the event he was arrested. Morton did not grant a personal bond because he said Wu hasn’t been charged with a crime.

The trio hoped that eventually Morton would take up the issue of the warrant’s constitutionality. The Republicans’ actions on Tuesday were illegal, they said, because they did not have a quorum.

“We have an oppressive order from a tyrannical king,” Mayr said to the judge. “And we are asking you to say no.”

Schneider added Wednesday that Wu’s case should be in criminal court because “an arrest is an arrest,” even if it’s labeled as a civil one.

I don’t know what to make of all this, but unprecedented situations can and do lead to weird questions arising. Also, Rep. Wu was an assistant DA before he was elected to the Lege, so he has some insight into this, and I’m sure filed this writ with some strategy in mind. But we’ll see what comes of it.

Republicans take aim at bail reform

Lots of bad ideas in here.

Sen. Joan Huffman

Members of the Texas Senate Committee on Jurisprudence held their first hearing this week over Senate Bill 21, a controversial bail reform bill backed by Republicans.

The purpose of the bill according to its author Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) is to prevent repeat violent offenders from committing new crimes after being released on personal bond. A personal bond is an agreement to appear in court that allows a defendant to be released without any financial obligation, unlike a cash bond or a surety bond with a bail company.

Opponents who testified against the legislation Thursday warned that language of the bill goes much further than simply attempting to keep violent criminals locked up.

“This is a work in progress, I know this bill is not perfect, I know it’s not ready to be passed,” Huffman, who chairs the committee said at the beginning of the hearing.

Under the text of the bill, a person charged with a crime would not be eligible for release if they have recently failed to appear in court for another offense, if they have been charged with any other crime after being released on bond, or if they have been recently convicted of a felony, Class A or B misdemeanor. That includes charges for resisting arrest, possession of marijuana, prostitution and many other non-violent offenses.

To be clear, so-called violent repeat offenders would still be able to be bailed out of jail, just not on personal bond, which waives the financial obligation meant to incentive someone to appear in court.

[…]

Mike Fields, a former Republican judge in Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 14, testified against the bill calling it an “overreach” and a return to the bad old days.

Fields said he was an original defendant in the O’Donnell lawsuit, the major lawsuit that was filed against the county’s wealth-based bail detention system and which ended in a settlement that allowed for the release of a majority of misdemeanor defendants.

“I switched from my position of opposition to the O’Donnell lawsuit to agreeing with it, I was only one of two judges who did,” Fields said.

He said that the 72 homicides in Harris County committed by people out on bond in 2020 — a figure cited by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg earlier in her testimony in support of the bill — were largely done by defendants with surety bond, or bonds posted by a bail bond company.

“I learned after 20 years of being a Republican judge in Harris County, that money does not make us safer,” Fields said. “Conditions make us safer. Assessment makes us safer. Using smarter strategies to keep people who need to be incarcerated, incarcerated, and those who don’t out. That’s what makes us safer.”

Fields said the conflation with misdemeanor and felony cases had led to legislation like SB 21 that would cast a broad net hurting taxpayers and slowing the work of criminal courts.

Emily Garrick, an attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project, a criminal justice nonprofit and one of the groups involved in the O’Donnell v. Harris County lawsuit, said SB 21 would allow people who don’t have money to stay in jail and those who do to be released from jail despite having similar charges — a violation of the decision by federal judges that ruled Harris County’s wealth-based pre-trial detention system to be unconstitutional for that very reason.

Another aspect of SB 21 grilled during the hearing was the bill’s restrictions on charitable bail organizations, or groups (often churches or advocacy groups) that organize bail funds to help defendants who could otherwise not pay for their release. Among other things, the bill would only allow charitable bail organizations to pay bail bonds for defendants charged with misdemeanors and would restrict them from paying no more than $2,000 for each defendant they want to help.

This Trib story from earlier in March covered a lot of this ground already, while Grits has noted that much of this bill is or will be in conflict with federal court rulings. This is a classic “solution in search of a problem” situation, with a side order of retaliation against Harris County and its Democratic judiciary. It’s very likely that this bill will evolve before it comes to a vote, but it’s much less likely that it will transform into something productive.

Do not give Ken Paxton any more power

Seriously, WTF?

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

His office did not respond to a request for comment.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Precinct analysis: Sheriff 2020 and 2016

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Precinct analysis: County Attorney 2020 and 2016

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

The office of County Attorney gets less attention than District Attorney, but as we have seen it’s vitally important. Vince Ryan held the office for three terms before being ousted in the primary by Christian Menefee. Menefee’s overall performance was similar to Ryan’s in 2016 – I’ll get to that in a minute – but as we saw in the previous post that doesn’t mean there can’t be a fair bit of variance. Let’s see where that takes us. Here’s the 2020 breakdown:


Dist     Nation  Menefee  Nation% Menefee%
==========================================
CD02    178,265  154,520   53.57%   46.43%
CD07    149,139  151,213   49.65%   50.35%
CD08     25,809   14,986   63.27%   36.73%
CD09     37,016  119,594   23.64%   76.36%
CD10    102,438   59,410   63.29%   36.71%
CD18     58,121  179,867   24.42%   75.58%
CD22     21,591   20,074   51.82%   48.18%
CD29     48,935  100,744   32.69%   67.31%
CD36     82,457   48,040   63.19%   36.81%
				
SBOE4   104,688  334,552   23.83%   76.17%
SBOE6   380,793  351,322   52.01%   47.99%
SBOE8   218,290  162,575   57.31%   42.69%
				
SD04     55,522   22,733   70.95%   29.05%
SD06     56,939  117,097   32.72%   67.28%
SD07    235,108  171,376   57.84%   42.16%
SD11     76,866   46,710   62.20%   37.80%
SD13     36,807  159,259   18.77%   81.23%
SD15    112,115  194,216   36.60%   63.40%
SD17    115,210  125,384   47.89%   52.11%
SD18     15,204   11,676   56.56%   43.44%
				
HD126    38,751   33,320   53.77%   46.23%
HD127    53,950   35,101   60.58%   39.42%
HD128    48,046   21,796   68.79%   31.21%
HD129    47,571   35,152   57.51%   42.49%
HD130    69,976   32,109   68.55%   31.45%
HD131     9,822   44,446   18.10%   81.90%
HD132    50,540   47,980   51.30%   48.70%
HD133    49,624   36,901   57.35%   42.65%
HD134    46,775   58,410   44.47%   55.53%
HD135    36,489   36,696   49.86%   50.14%
HD137    10,191   20,871   32.81%   67.19%
HD138    31,535   30,924   50.49%   49.51%
HD139    15,325   44,753   25.51%   74.49%
HD140     9,241   21,586   29.98%   70.02%
HD141     6,943	  35,992   16.17%   83.83%
HD142    13,733   41,540   24.85%   75.15%
HD143    11,934   24,039   33.17%   66.83%
HD144    13,762   16,387   45.65%   54.35%
HD145    14,777   26,896   35.46%   64.54%
HD146    11,016   43,379   20.25%   79.75%
HD147    14,738   53,266   21.67%   78.33%
HD148    21,758   36,937   37.07%   62.93%
HD149    21,400   30,636   41.13%   58.87%
HD150    55,873   39,332   58.69%   41.31%
				
CC1      90,530  280,069   24.43%   75.57%
CC2     149,810  143,859   51.01%   48.99%
CC3     224,601  210,646   51.60%   48.40%
CC4     238,830  213,877   52.76%   47.24%
				
JP1      90,035  165,193   35.28%   64.72%
JP2      33,965   48,473   41.20%   58.80%
JP3      51,412   67,741   43.15%   56.85%
JP4     233,642  184,203   55.92%   44.08%
JP5     201,673  214,852   48.42%   51.58%
JP6       7,971   26,993   22.80%   77.20%
JP7      17,824  100,329   15.09%   84.91%
JP8      67,249   40,667   62.32%   37.68%

Menefee scored 54.66% of the vote, better than Ogg by almost a point, and better than Ryan’s 53.72% in 2016 by slightly more. Ryan was consistently an upper echelon performer in his three elections, and that was true in 2016 as well, as only Ogg, Hillary Clinton, and judicial candidate Kelly Johnson had more votes than his 685,075, with those three and Mike Engelhart being the only ones with a larger margin of victory than Ryan’s 95K. Menefee, who collected 848,451 total votes and won by a margin of 145K, was also top tier. His vote total trailed all of the statewide candidates except Chrysta Castaneda and Gisela Triana (one better than Kim Ogg), though his percentage was better than everyone except Joe Biden and Tina Clinton. He outpaced three of the four appellate court candidates (he trailed Veronica Rivas-Molloy) and all but four of the local judicial candidates. His margin of victory was eighth best, behind Biden, Castaneda, two statewide judicials, and three local judicials. (And Ed Gonzalez, but we’ll get to him next.)

Here’s my 2016 precinct analysis post for the County Attorney race, and here’s the relevant data from that year:


Dist    Leitner     Ryan  Leitner%   Ryan%
==========================================
CD02    158,149  113,363    58.25%  41.75%
CD07    135,129  116,091    53.79%  46.21%
CD09     25,714  106,728    19.42%  80.58%
CD10     80,244   36,703    68.62%  31.38%
CD18     46,062  154,354    22.98%  77.02%
CD29     35,312   93,732    27.36%  72.64%
				
SBOE6   331,484  269,022    55.20%  44.80%
				
HD126    34,999   25,571    57.78%  42.22%
HD127    47,719   24,876    65.73%  34.27%
HD128    40,809   17,464    70.03%  29.97%
HD129    41,206   26,677    60.70%  39.30%
HD130    58,268   21,630    72.93%  27.07%
HD131     6,719   39,011    14.69%  85.31%
HD132    37,294   30,571    54.95%  45.05%
HD133    46,509   28,002    62.42%  37.58%
HD134    42,937   44,634    49.03%  50.97%
HD135    31,651   27,468    53.54%  46.46%
HD137     8,661   17,869    32.65%  67.35%
HD138    26,893   23,486    53.38%  46.62%
HD139    11,874   39,721    23.01%  76.99%
HD140     6,316   20,762    23.33%  76.67%
HD141     4,969   32,887    13.13%  86.87%
HD142    10,179   34,249    22.91%  77.09%
HD143     8,745   23,486    27.13%  72.87%
HD144    10,725   16,024    40.09%  59.91%
HD145    10,858   22,921    32.14%  67.86%
HD146     9,532   38,323    19.92%  80.08%
HD147    11,719   45,087    20.63%  79.37%
HD148    17,529   29,206    37.51%  62.49%
HD149    15,405   27,290    36.08%  63.92%
HD150    48,085   26,950    64.08%  35.92%
				
CC1      70,740  240,579    22.72%  77.28%
CC2     123,739  124,368    49.87%  50.13%
CC3     188,415  160,213    54.04%  45.96%
CC4     206,707  158,990    56.52%  43.48%

Kim Ogg did slightly better in the districts in 2016 than Vince Ryan did (most notably in CD02, though Ryan outdid her in HD134), which is what you’d expect given her overall better performance. In a similar fashion, Menefee did slightly better in the districts than Ogg did, as expected given his superior totals. He won CD07 by a thousand more votes than Ogg did, and carried HD135 where Ogg did not. He lost CC2 by two points and 6K votes, while Ogg lost it by four points and 12K votes. His lead in CD29 was 6K smaller than Ryan’s was, while Ogg lost 10K off of her lead in CD29 from 2016.

Overall, Menefee improved on Ryan’s 2016 totals, and made larger gains than Ogg did over her 2016 numbers. Like Ogg, he lost ground in the Latino districts – CD29, HD140, HD143, HD144, CC2 – but not by as much. He had higher vote totals in the Latino State Rep districts, though by small amounts in HDs 140, 143, and 144, and increased the lead over what Ryan had achieved in HDs 145 and 148. Like Ogg, he also lost ground in HD149, going from a 12K lead to a 9K lead, and in HD128, going from a 23K deficit to a 27K deficit (Ogg went from down 21K to down 27K). He gained ground in HD127 (from down 23K to down 19K; Ogg stayed roughly the same) and lost only about a thousand net votes in HD130 as Ogg went from down 34K to down 39K. He posted strong gains in HD126 (down 9K to down 5K), HD133 (down 18K to down 13K), and HD150 (down 21K to down 16K).

On the whole, a very strong initial performance by Menefee. As I said, County Attorney is generally a lower-profile job than District Attorney and Sheriff, but between bail reform, the multiple election lawsuits, and the forthcoming Republican legislative assault on local control, there should be many chances for Menefee to make statements about what he does and can do. He’ll have a solid chance to build on what he did this year when he’s next up for election.

Precinct analysis: District Attorney 2020 and 2016

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Harris County Election Security Task Force

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

A closer look at the Aguirre/Hotze debacle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aguirre’s arraignment

The latest update on the Aguirre/Hotze fever-dream “vote fraud” case.

An ex-Houston police officer on Friday swore he is “done” with private investigations after being arrested and charged with assaulting an air conditioning repairman he claimed was involved in a massive ballot fraud scheme.

Mark Aguirre, a former Houston Police Department captain who is now a licensed private investigator, called in to state District Judge Greg Glass’ courtroom for his first court appearance in the case. His setting originally was scheduled for Thursday but was postponed because he has COVID-19, his attorney said.

As conditions of his release on bond, Aguirre is barred from contacting the repairman, possessing firearms, or continuing to work with the Liberty Center for God and Country, which hired him to investigate voter fraud leading up to the Nov. 3 general election.

When prosecutors requested Aguirre no longer work with the right-wing group, he volunteered not to do any more investigations, period.

“No. I’m done,” he said.

Aguirre frequently works with law firms around Houston, defense attorney Terry Yates said.

Glass denied prosecutors’ requests that Aguirre be monitored by a GPS tracking device. He has one firearm that he said he would turn over to his attorney.

Aguirre was charged Tuesday with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a felony, and was released after posting bond on a $30,000 bail.

[…]

Yates gave a different account of what happened in an interview Friday, alleging that the incident took place after Aguirre and the repairman were involved in a “fender bender.” Yates said the repairman got out of his truck and rushed at Aguirre, prompting the confrontation.

“(The police) came out and investigated, and after they took quite a bit of time out there interviewing everybody, they gave (Aguirre) his gun back and told everybody to go their separate ways,” Yates said.

See here and here for the background. My first thought is that I’m going to need to come up with a pithy name for this saga, because the description I used in the opening of this post just won’t do. My second thought is that if Aguirre goes and does something stupid before his trial, at least he met the criteria of being able to pay a bail bondsman for his ability to be out on the street. My third thought is that defense attorney Terry Yates, and by extension Hotze, is going long on the defense here by claiming a completely alternative reality, one in which the victim in the alleged crime is actually the instigator and the defendant is the real victim. I presume there will be a heaping helping of conspiracy as part of this defense, since there was a few weeks between the event in question and the arrest of Aguirre. I wonder if Yates will have any evidence to present to back his claims about the van driver, or if he’s just going to spray a lot of countercharges and hope to confuse the jury. I have previously speculated that there may be further investigation into the payments that Hotze made to Aguirre, and so I wonder if we will see further charges down the line. Or maybe this is all there is and it will fizzle out, perhaps into a misdemeanor plea. It’s something to look forward to in 2021, at least.

Hotze spews some BS

That could be a perennial headline, like a pinned tweet, but here it’s for a specific purpose.

Conservative activist Steven Hotze said Wednesday he does not know if the former Houston police captain he hired to investigate voter fraud really did detain an air conditioning repairman at gunpoint and direct his associates to search the man’s truck for stolen ballots, as prosecutors alleged a day earlier.

He did not witness the predawn Oct. 19 confrontation with his own eyes, so he chalked up the felony charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon against Mark A. Aguirre as “one man’s word against another man’s word.” The repairman’s truck contained only parts and tools, authorities said.

Hotze did not, however, apply that same skepticism in urging the public to take seriously his claims of a large-scale ballot harvesting operation perpetrated by powerful Houston Democrats that he said Aguirre and around 20 other investigators in his employ had uncovered and then foiled leading up to the Nov. 3 general election.

During a bizarre news conference that began with Hotze accusing Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg of a politically motivated prosecution and concluded with him recommending an unproven drug to ward off COVID-19, the activist alleged that Democrats had attempted to forge hundreds of thousands of mail ballots without providing evidence to support his claims.

Hotze confirmed that he paid Aguirre $266,400 to investigate voter fraud allegations through his group, Liberty Center for God and Country, including more than $211,000 the day after the Oct. 19 incident. And he called the assault charge “bogus,” questioning why Aguirre was not arrested earlier.

“Two months later? Really? … Something smells,” Hotze said.

Hotze said he would not condone Aguirre’s actions if they were proven true, but he called the inquiry from a reporter a “hypothetical.” And he said he was not worried about being legally implicated as the one funding Aguirre’s investigative work.

See here for the background, and here for an update on defendant Mark Aguirre. Challenge accepted, I hope. Nothing would please me more than to see someone slap handcuffs on Steven Hotze. An acceptable consolation prize would be for one of Houston’s fine trial attorneys to sue the bejeezus out of him on behalf of the air conditioning repairman who was threatened and terrorized by Aguirre and whatever other thugs were involved. A multi-million dollar judgment, along the lines of the cases that the SPLC won against various domestic terrorists in the past, would be a fine coda to this story.

The real danger of unhinged conspiracy theories

Because sometimes malevolent people act them out, with potentially deadly consequences for others.

An air conditioning repairman was driving in south Houston around 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 19 when a black SUV rammed the back of his truck. When he pulled over in the darkness and got out to check if the other driver was OK, the man in the SUV drew a pistol and ordered him to the ground.

He complied. As the other driver drove a knee into his back, the repairman saw two other vehicles pull up, and feared he would be killed in what he believed was a predawn carjacking.

Instead, according to an indictment announced Tuesday by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, the incident was a brazen attempt by a former Houston police captain to secure evidence to support a far-fetched claim that prominent local Democrats had orchestrated a scheme to harvest more than 700,000 ballots leading up to the Nov. 3 election. The ex-lawman, Mark A. Aguirre, 63, faces a felony charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon stemming from the Oct. 19 confrontation.

“He crossed the line from dirty politics to commission of a violent crime and we are lucky no one was killed,” District Attorney Kim Ogg said. “His alleged investigation was backward from the start — first alleging a crime had occurred and then trying to prove it happened.”

Aguirre told police they would find hundreds of thousands of ballots in the repairman’s truck. Instead they found only air conditioner parts and tools.

The Chronicle is not identifying the repairman.

Court records chronicling Aguirre’s arrest also reveal new details of an extensive investigation of alleged voter fraud funded through an organization run by conservative activist Steven Hotze and former Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill. Affidavits by Aguirre and others were used as evidence in several lawsuits the Republicans filed this fall challenging Texas and Harris County’s election plans.

The charging documents reveal that beyond pushing a conspiracy theory that Democrats had collected hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots, the “citizens investigation” by Aguirre and others put at least one resident in danger.

The repairman said as the man later identified as Aguirre held him at gunpoint, additional vehicles arrived at the scene. Aguirre ordered a second person to search the victim’s truck, court documents state. Other people then drove the truck to a different location.

A Houston police officer happened upon the scene, stopped and ordered Aguirre to release the repairman. After police confiscated two handguns Aguirre was carrying, he told Detective John Varela that he and others were part of a group called the Liberty Center, an affidavit by Varela states.

According to the affidavit, Aguirre said his team had been surveilling the repairman for four days, convinced he was involved in a ballot harvesting conspiracy at his mobile home. The repairman, Aguirre alleged, had about 750,000 fraudulent mail ballots which he was “using Hispanic children to sign” because the youths’ fingerprints would not appear in databases.

Varela said the victim let police search his home and truck, where Aguirre said the ballots were stored. Officers found the home was “appropriately furnished” and the truck had air conditioning tools and equipment, but neither contained any evidence of a ballot harvesting operation.

[…]

Affidavits by Aguirre and former FBI employee Charles Marler were part of a lawsuit filed this fall by conservative Houston activist Steven Hotze, who sought to prohibit voters from dropping off mail ballots in person before Election Day.

Aguirre and Marler provided sworn statements included in the lawsuit alleging that powerful Democrats in Harris County had devised a scheme to submit as many as 700,000 fraudulent mail ballots, representing nearly a third of the entire voter roll.

Citing secondhand sources and videotaped interviews, the pair alleged that several African-American businessmen and elected officials were involved, including Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, State Sen. Borris Miles and Biden campaign Texas political director Dallas Jones.

All three denied the claims. Aguirre in October hung up on a reporter seeking evidence of the allegations. Aguirre and Marler did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

There’s more, so keep reading. If the name Mark Aguirre is familiar, it’s because he was a captain with HPD who was fired for his role in the infamous bust of dozens of teenagers for alleged street racing – see here for a brief highlight of Aguirre’s role in that debacle. According to the story, Aguirre was paid over a quarter million bucks from the Hotze and Woodfill-run outfit Liberty Center for God and Country, most of which came right after the alleged assault. Hotze is of course out there in front of the media lying his ass off, because that’s who he is and what he does. I can’t help but feel the financial aspect of this, and the “I’m so shocked such a man might be accused of such things” reaction that Woodfill gave in the Chron story, means there will be more to this as the case progresses. We saw all of the lawsuits that Hotze filed against voting this election, there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t go farther than that in pursuit of his electoral fantasies. You can be sure I’ll be keeping an eye on this. TPM, the Trib, the Texas Signal, Daily Kos, and Juanita have more.

“Natasha Ruiz” indicted

At long last, an update to the weirdest local election story of the year.

Rep. Harold Dutton

A grand jury has indicted two Houston residents on election fraud charges, accusing them of orchestrating a phony candidacy of a woman that forced longtime state Rep. Harold Dutton into a runoff in this year’s Democratic primary, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced Friday.

Richard Bonton, one of Dutton’s other primary opponents, is accused of conspiring with Natasha Demming to register her on the ballot as Natasha Ruiz, an alias that garnered enough support to force Dutton into a runoff with another challenger that he later won.

Dutton and Houston Councilman Jerry Davis, who lost to Dutton in the runoff, both said they never saw Ruiz during the primary or found any evidence she was running a campaign.

Bonton and Demming face felony charges of tampering with government records, which carries a maximum sentence of two years. They also are charged with election fraud and conspiring to tamper with government records, both of which are Class A misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail. Demming also is charged with perjury, a misdemeanor.

“Richard Bonton filed numerous election documents on behalf of Natasha Ruiz, intentionally circumventing laws designed to ensure that voters have legitimate candidates to choose from and intentionally obscuring his own involvement in putting up a straw candidate,” Ogg said, holding up a copy of Ruiz’s campaign treasurer’s report that she said contained false information.

See here, here, and here for the background. As a reminder, someone showed up at HCDP headquarters with a drivers license that said she was Natasha Ruiz and lived in HD142. Later, Natasha Demming claimed in an interview that she’d had her identity stolen. I infer from this story that Demming was the person who showed up as Ruiz – if someone else had done it, one presumes that person would also now be under indictment – and the perjury charge is for claiming under oath that it wasn’t her. As for Bonton, who had run unsuccessfully against Dutton in the 2018 primary as well, well:

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle two days after the primary, Bonton said he had never encountered Ruiz during the primary and was conducting an investigation of his own. He said he was upset about her candidacy, contending that she may have cost him a spot in the runoff against Dutton.

“It seems odd to me that somebody that’s never been seen on the campaign trail all of a sudden mysteriously pops up,” Bonton said in the March 5 interview. “Not a yard sign, not a speech, not an event, a forum, nothing. A campaign of nothingness has resulted in 21 percent.”

Whoops. I wonder how much assistance Dutton’s private eye was in this investigation. The ironic thing is that if Bonton wanted a Latina to run against Dutton and maybe siphon some support away from him, he could have just found a real person to run as a stealth candidate. That’s not even a novel strategy, and it involves forging fewer documents. Lesson for the future, y’all.

There was another indictment as well.

Meanwhile, Damien Jones, a Democratic political consultant, was also indicted Friday on an allegation of sending an anonymous text threatening Calanni in an effort to get her to resign from office instead of running for reelection, according to the news release. The threat, Ogg said, was sent to Calanni in December 2019 just ahead of the 2020 election filing deadline. Calanni reported the threat to the Texas Rangers, which investigated the complaint with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Public Corruption Division.

Jones, who was indicted for two Class A misdemeanors — coercion of a public servant and false caller identification information display — could face up to a year in Harris County Jail and up to a $4,000 fine, if convicted.

There’s a bit more on this indictment in the Chron story and in the Press. It’s the first I’ve heard of this, and don’t have any idea about it beyond what’s in those articles. Jones has released a statement via his attorney, denying all the charges. We’ll see how it goes.

Endorsement watch: Ed and Kim

This is an easy call.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This could have been a more difficult choice.

Kim Ogg

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

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

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

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

We agree.

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

Poll: Michael Moore claims large lead in Commissioners Court race

From Keir Murray:

There’s an image of the polling memo at the tweet, and you can see the whole thing here. To sum up:

– About one fifth of voters had no preference initially, not surprising since Commissioners Court is a lower-profile race. Moore led Republican Tom Ramsey 42-39 in the initial ask, likely a recapitulation of the partisan mix, with Moore having slightly higher name recognition, perhaps due to having to compete in the primary runoff.

– After a positive message about both candidates, Moore led 53-39. After a negative message about both candidates, Moore led 50-35. Joe Biden led 53-39 in the precinct.

– This is of course an internal campaign poll, and the sample appears to be likely voters, sample size 508, margin of error 4.4%.

– While the notion of “shy Trump voters” has been discredited multiple times by various investigators, I can believe that Trump might get the bulk of the non-responsive respondents here. To put it another way, I believe Moore is winning. I don’t believe he’s really winning by fourteen points. It’s not impossible by any means, but it’s very much on the high end of my expected range of outcomes.

– For comparison, Beto carried CC3 by four points in 2018. The stronger statewide Dems in 2018 carried it by a bit less, while the weaker Dems were losing it by five to seven points. Hillary Clinton lost CC3 by less than a point in 2016, but she ran well ahead of the partisan baseline, as the average Dem judicial candidate was losing it by ten points. Kim Ogg and Ed Gonzalez, the next two strongest Dems in 2016, were losing CC3 by eight or nine points. You want to talk suburban shift? This here is your suburban shift. Not too surprisingly, there’s a fair bit of CD07 overlapping CC3.

– The larger point here is that if Dems have improved on Beto’s performance in CC3, that’s another data point to suggest that Biden is doing better than Beto, and a lot better than Clinton, in 2020. You can figure out what that means at the statewide level.

Again, internal poll, insert all the caveats here. I give you data points because I care.

July 2020 campaign finance reports: Harris County

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

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Mary Nan Huffman, District Attorney

Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Joe Danna, Sheriff

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

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

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More and better police data, please

Like this.

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement will ask nearly 2,000 Texas law enforcement agencies to resubmit information legislators intended be used to analyze whether police were treating minority motorists differently — but which turned out to be worthless because TCOLE neglected to ask departments to include the race of the drivers in some of the data.

The change comes days after Hearst Newspapers published a story detailing how the information, required by the 2017 Sandra Bland Act, was impossible to use.

“I’m trying to jump on it pretty fast,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, a sponsor of the bill, who said he spoke Monday morning with TCOLE and they had agreed to correct the problem.

Coleman said he also has asked the agency to work with academic experts to ensure the information it is asking of Texas law enforcement agencies can be used to actually conduct racial bias analyses. Alex del Carmen, a criminal justice professor at Tarleton State University who helps train police executives, said he worked Sunday to create a survey that would produce the necessary information.

Coleman said the new list of questions will be used to gather the information for 2020. But he added the agency said it would also contact police departments to ask them to redo their 2019 surveys, originally submitted in March.

I mean, I’m glad this is happening now, but it’s more than a little embarrassing that the initial data collection was this lacking. Whose job was it to do quality assurance? Kudos to the Chron for bringing this to light.

And let me just add, while it is quite fashionable now to dunk on the idea of “running government like a business”, as someone who has worked for a Large Corporation for many years, this kind of data collection is absolutely the sort of things successful businesses do. It’s critical, to know if what you’re doing is working, to identify and learn from errors, to spot trends and respond to them, and so on and so forth. And really, it’s not that hard to do. Shame on TCOLE for such a shoddy first effort.

And also like this.

Two state lawmakers who reviewed a copy of the Houston Police Department’s audit of its narcotics division are calling on Chief Art Acevedo to release the document to the public.

“The reality is, there’s nothing in this the public should not be aware of,” Texas Sen. Paul Bettancourt said. “The real question is, what are they going to do about it?”

The police department performed the audit after last year’s disastrous Harding Street raid. Two homeowners died in the raid, and investigators later accused former officer Gerald Goines of lying to obtain the warrant on which he based the raid. He is now charged with murder.

In the wake of the incident, the police department launched an internal criminal probe, along with an administrative audit of the Narcotics Division.

[…]

In February, after questions from the Chronicle, Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, and a coalition of other Houston-area state representatives called on Acevedo to make the document public. The chief balked, saying he did not want to endanger the county’s criminal case against Goines and said the document included the names of undercover officers and could reveal information about confidential informants.

Because of the nondisclosure agreement, Wu said he could not comment on the specifics of the document. But he said that reviewing it only confirmed his belief that it should be public.

“Even without the redactions, there is little that can be gleaned from it that is not already public knowledge or could in any sense jeopardize an ongoing investigation or prosecution,” he said.

Yes, release the audit. The public needs to know. The criminal case will be fine – Kim Ogg is filing a bunch more charges now, in part because everyone involved seems to have a problem with telling the truth – but even if that were a problem, this is HPD’s mess. They need to come clean. The Chron editorial board and Odus Evbagharu, Chief of Staff to State Rep. Jon Rosenthal, have more.

UPDATE: And just like that, a draft of the audit was released on Twitter. Here’s a Chron story about it. Now let’s see some followup on this, because audits are all about actions.

Kaylynn Williford

Goodbye, and good riddance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, the jail is filling up again

We really need to do something about this.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DA dismisses charges against most protesters

Good.

Kim Ogg

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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