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Three North Texas officers indicted on felony assault charges for force used on anti-police brutality protesters

Two North Texas police officers and a former police officer were indicted Friday on felony charges accusing them of using excessive force against demonstrators protesting against police brutality in May 2020.

Dallas police officer Ryan Mabry and former Dallas officer Melvin Williams were indicted on multiple felony counts of aggravated assault by a public servant and deadly conduct for their involvement with the protests, according to a press release from the Dallas County district attorney’s office. Garland police officer Joe Privitt was indicted on one felony count of aggravated assault by a public servant. The indictments come after nearly two years of investigation, District Attorney John Creuzot said in the release.

Mabry is accused of firing or threatening to fire so-called less-lethal projectiles at three people, according to some of his indictments.

The projectiles are a crowd control measure meant to injure, not kill, but their colloquial name acknowledges their capability to kill depending on where a person is hit. They have also caused serious injuries.

“The full story hasn’t been told; you have to look at everything that went on downtown to understand the reasons that the officers had to eventually use force,” Mabry’s lawyer, Toby Shook, said Friday.

Shook said he is confident Mabry will be found not guilty based on “strong evidence” and “statutes that allow officers to use force [when] dispersing a riot.” He added that while many protesters were demonstrating peacefully, it was the “agitators” who were met with projectiles after they blockaded streets and tried to “whip up the crowd.”

“It was a riot,” he said. “There was looting. There were some people who started there, they were there protesting peacefully. Those people weren’t hurt. A lot of protesters, when asked to disperse, would. It’s the persons who didn’t that obviously caused the problem and the violence and the property damage.”

The indictments for Williams and Privitt were not available late Friday. The press release announcing the indictments did not detail the specific actions they allegedly took against protesters.

Arrest warrants were issued for Mabry and Williams in February. Each also faces three counts of official oppression. Williams is also alleged to have used so-called less-lethal projectiles.

Williams’ attorney did not respond to an immediate request for comment. It was not immediately known if Privitt is represented by an attorney.

Following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, protests against police departments’ excessive use of force and mistreatment of people of color erupted around the country and in several Texas cities, including Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Fort Worth, in addition to Dallas.

In Austin, 19 police officers face felony charges for excessive use of force during the May protests. Nine of them — including Texas House candidate Justin Berry — are accused of shooting lead-pellet beanbag rounds at the same woman, according to Travis County indictments.

Before facing the charges for his involvement in the 2020 protests, Williams was fired in late January for a separate incident in which he violated the department’s use-of-force policy during a July 2021 incident captured on video. The video shows Williams repeatedly punching a man in the face during a brawl in Deep Ellum. He was already under two use-of-force investigations, according to The Dallas Morning News.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/06/dallas-garland-texas-police-officers-george-floyd-protests/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Ken Paxton says he’s being sued by the state bar for misconduct over his lawsuit challenging the 2020 election

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state's top lawyer, said Friday the state bar was suing him for professional misconduct related to his lawsuit challenging the 2020 presidential election.

"I have recently learned that the Texas State Bar — which has been waging a months-long witch-hunt against me — now plans to sue me and my top deputy for filing Texas v. Penn: the historic challenge to the unconstitutional 2020 presidential election joined by nearly half of all the states and over a hundred members of Congress," Paxton said in a statement released on social media. "I stand by this lawsuit completely."

A few hours after saying he was being sued by the bar, Paxton’s office announced an investigation into the Texas Bar Foundation for "facilitating mass influx of illegal aliens" by donating money to groups that "encourage, participate in, and fund illegal immigration at the Texas-Mexico border." The foundation is made up of attorneys and raises money to provide legal education and services. It is separate from the State Bar of Texas, which is an administrative arm of the Texas Supreme Court.

Alistair Dawson, a Houston trial lawyer who is the chair-elect of the Texas Bar Foundation, said in a news release that the foundation was "disappointed to learn that AG Paxton has decided to use taxpayer dollars on a fruitless exercise." He said the foundation does not receive taxpayer funds and its grants are paid for by donations from Texas lawyers.

"Had AG Paxton taken the time to come and speak with us rather than issue a press release, I am confident that he would have found no wrongdoing on the part of the Foundation," Dawson said. "Nevertheless, the Foundation is happy to cooperate and provide the AG’s office with documents and information relevant to the investigation."

Paxton, an embattled Republican seeking a third term, said state bar investigators who now appear to be moving on a lawsuit against him are biased and said the decision to sue him, which comes a week before early voting in his GOP runoff for attorney general, was politically motivated. He is facing Land Commissioner George P. Bush in the May 24 election.

"Texas Bar: I’ll see you and the leftists that control you in court," he said. "I’ll never let you bully me, my staff or the Texans I represent into backing down or going soft on defending the Rule of Law — something for which you have little knowledge."

In fact, the investigation into Paxton has been pending for months. Last July, a group of 16 lawyers that included four former state bar presidents filed an ethics complaint against Paxton arguing that he demonstrated a pattern of professional misconduct, including his decision to file a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential elections in battleground states where former President Donald Trump, a Paxton ally, had lost. The attorneys said the lawsuit was "frivolous" and had been filed without evidence. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed it, saying Texas had no standing to sue.

In March, the investigation moved ahead and Paxton was given 20 days to decide whether he wanted a trial by jury or an administrative hearing to resolve the complaint.

Jim Harrington, a civil rights attorney and one of the lawyers who filed the ethics complaint, said he also had not been notified of a trial but that Paxton would have received notification.

"I was as surprised as you were to see that tweet this morning," Harrington said.

But the complaint filed by Harrington's group was one of multiple grievances filed to the state bar. Another filed by attorney Brynne VanHettinga accused Paxton's top deputy, Brent Webster, of professional misconduct for filing the lawsuit to overturn the 2020 election results. The state bar's Commission for Lawyer Discipline investigated that complaint and found that Webster's representations in that suit were "dishonest," according to a lawsuit filed in Williamson County court on Friday.

"His allegations were not supported by any charge, indictment, judicial finding and/or credible or admissible evidence, and failed to disclose to the Court that some of his representations and allegations had already been adjudicated and/or dismissed in a court of law," the complaint read.

The commission said Webster had violated the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

A filing for Paxton's case was still not available as of Friday afternoon.

Because Paxton appears to have chosen a trial over an administrative hearing, the case would be tried in Travis County, Harrington said. The case would not be overseen by a judge from the heavily Democratic county, however. Instead, it will be overseen by a judge from outside the county but within the Texas Judicial Branch’s administrative region, which stretches north to Hill County, west to San Saba County, east to Austin County and south to Lavaca County.

Sylvia Borunda Firth, the State Bar of Texas’ president, said in a statement that the group is "dedicated to fostering ethical conduct in the legal profession and protecting the public through the attorney discipline system" which provides procedural rules to process, investigate and prosecute complaints.

“The system is designed to ensure fairness to all parties," she said. "Partisan political considerations play no role in determining whether to pursue a grievance or how that grievance proceeds through the system. Any claims to the contrary are untrue."

Borunda Firth said the bar’s 12-person volunteer committee called the Commission for Lawyer Discipline provides oversight to the group’s disciplinary counsel, which administers the discipline system with help from volunteer grievance panels across the state. The committee members determine whether an attorney violated the state’s rules of professional conduct and what sanction is appropriate.

“These unpaid volunteers devote countless hours to hearing and considering cases to ensure attorneys are fulfilling their obligations to the public," she said. "Without them, the attorney discipline system could not function. We are grateful for their service.”

Separately, Paxton faces multiple other scandals. He continues to fight a seven-year-old securities fraud case and last year came under FBI investigation for abuse of office after eight of his former deputies accused him of bribery. He’s also asking the Texas Supreme Court to throw out a whistleblower case against him by four of those former employees, who allege they were fired after they reported Paxton to authorities. Paxton has denied all wrongdoing.

Problems remain for We Build The Wall group after founder’s guilty plea

Brian Kolfage arrived in Texas three years ago pledging to help fulfill President Donald Trump’s promise of a “big, beautiful” wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. After pleading guilty to federal fraud charges last month, Kolfage leaves behind two small stretches of fencing that are mired in legal, environmental and permitting fights.

Kolfage, a 40-year-old Air Force veteran, faces more than five years in prison after pleading guilty to defrauding donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to the wall effort. Despite the resolution of the criminal case, Kolfage and his We Build the Wall group still face a defamation suit brought by the National Butterfly Center, a nonprofit nature preserve in the Rio Grande Valley that he accused of promoting sex and human trafficking without evidence. In addition, the federal government has filed suit regarding one of his wall projects, alleging it was built in potential violation of an international treaty between the U.S. and Mexico.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune reported in 2020 on severe erosion at the base of the 3-mile fence outside of Mission — the subject of a federal lawsuit — that experts said could result in the structure toppling into the Rio Grande if not fixed. The outlets also reported on Kolfage’s long history of online harassment and intimidation, which escalated with his border wall projects.

Controversy continues to surround the two physical legacies of Kolfage’s We Build the Wall effort: the bollard fence on the shore of the Rio Grande and a half-mile stretch of fence outside of El Paso.

The federal government has confirmed in court filings that the Rio Grande barrier remains at risk of falling and that it could potentially shift the international boundary. Government lawyers are negotiating a settlement in a lawsuit filed against the project. Based on court hearings, it could require wall builders to modify the barriers, such as adding gates to help prevent flooding, but appears unlikely to result in the removal of the fence that opponents seek.

An attorney for the construction company, Fisher Industries, denied the government’s allegations in his response to the complaint, according to court documents, and did not respond to a request for comment.

Separately, three years after construction of the fence outside of El Paso, Kolfage’s group has failed to fulfill federal requirements, including providing an operation and maintenance plan and evidence of financial responsibility for damage or injuries that can be caused by the structure.

According to the indictment in the fraud case, Kolfage repeatedly claimed that he would “not take a penny in salary or compensation” and that 100% of the funds raised would be used to execute the group’s mission. That’s not what happened, federal prosecutors alleged. The government accused Kolfage of using fake invoices and sham vendor arrangements to siphon more than $350,000 for personal expenses, including home renovations, a boat and a luxury SUV.

In addition to pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud conspiracy, Kolfage also pleaded guilty to tax crimes for failing to report that income. “I knew what I was doing was wrong and a crime,” Kolfage told the judge, according to news accounts of the hearing. He is due to be sentenced in September.

We Build the Wall board member and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon was accused of receiving more than $1 million through the scheme, according to the indictment. Trump pardoned Bannon during his final hours at the White House, meaning the federal criminal case against him could not proceed.

As part of his plea, Kolfage agreed to forfeit $17 million from the nonprofit. We Build the Wall is also required to give up more than $1 million in donations in a bank account, according to the plea agreement. Kolfage’s attorney in the federal fraud case, César de Castro, declined to comment. An attorney listed for We Build the Wall did not respond to a request for comment.

In a 2020 interview with ProPublica and the Tribune, Kolfage denied the possibility of wrongdoing. “How is there corruption?” Kolfage said. “It’s privatized. It’s not federal money.”

We Build the Wall was an influential conservative nonprofit that grew out of a GoFundMe campaign started by Kolfage in 2018. The group pivoted to soliciting donations to build private barriers after learning it couldn’t donate directly to the federal government to help Trump build a wall along the southern border. By mid-2020, it had raised more than $25 million.

According to court filings, Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and general counsel for We Build the Wall, said in 2019 that the group was only a “passive” investor in the Mission fence, having provided about 5% of the total cost, and wasn’t involved in the planning or design. It was dropped from the lawsuit. Still, We Build the Wall continued to promote the project on its website as one of two completed projects supporters could even tour, at least as of Dec. 31, 2021.

“This project goes to show you how We Build The Wall’s movement to unite Americans who share a common belief in border security has grown into a larger movement of privatized wall builders,” it posted on its website next to pictures and a description of the project.

After ProPublica and the Tribune exposed erosion issues at the site, Trump tried to distance himself from the private effort, speculating on Twitter that it was built to make him look bad. Yet just a few months earlier his son Donald Trump Jr. had endorsed We Build the Wall, calling it “private enterprise at its finest.” Kolfage himself had bragged of having a direct connection to the White House through Bannon and Kobach.

Born in Michigan and raised in Hawaii, Kolfage joined the Air Force. In 2004, two weeks into his second deployment to Iraq, a rocket exploded a few feet from him, severing both of his legs and his right hand.

The Purple Heart recipient recovered after undergoing 16 surgeries in six months, and he often spoke publicly about his experience, becoming the face of resilience and perseverance.

He soon began running a number of right-wing websites and Facebook pages that he claimed earned him as much as $200,000 per month, according to text messages reviewed by ProPublica and the Tribune. The sites included sensationalized, photoshopped and in some cases fabricated content, and several were shut down by Facebook for “inauthentic activity” in 2018. Kolfage was accused of online bullying and personal attacks, and he formally apologized to a perceived online critic as part of a court settlement.

Upon his arrival in Texas, he targeted local opponents in the Rio Grande Valley, including a prominent Catholic priest and the National Butterfly Center. Both had previously opposed the federal government’s plan to build fencing through their property. On social media, Kolfage declared that the center “openly supports illegal immigration and sex trafficking of women and children.” Social media messages calling staffers “pigs,” “pathetic filth” and “traitors” poured in. “You will be made to pay,” one Facebook follower declared in a message.

The butterfly center filed a defamation lawsuit against Kolfage and We Build the Wall in 2019, as well as Fisher Industries and the property owner who provided land for the fence, claiming that their supporters had “begun to engage in targeted harassment.”

Kolfage, who has not been served with the suit, has not responded to the allegations. An attorney for Fisher Industries has denied the allegations in court filings.

Kolfage’s arrest in 2020 did little to quell the harassment, said the butterfly center’s executive director, Marianna Treviño-Wright, as the site became a rallying point for border wall supporters, including out-of-state political candidates.

In late January, a right-wing congressional candidate from Virginia, Kimberly Lowe, visited the nature preserve. Treviño-Wright said Lowe demanded the center give her and another woman access to the river “to see all the illegals crossing on the raft.” Treviño-Wright said Lowe or her companion tackled her when she asked Lowe to leave the premises, a physical altercation captured on audio. Treviño-Wright said she filed a complaint against Lowe with the Mission Police Department, which did not return calls for comment.

Lowe accused Treviño-Wright of filing a false police report and pushing a “false news story” and claimed she, not Treviño-Wright, was the one assaulted during the altercation in a statement to ProPublica and the Tribune.

Citing safety concerns, the center shuttered its doors for three months. It reopened last week after spending nearly $30,000 in security upgrades.

“I think we will all be on guard for a long time,” Treviño-Wright said. “I don’t know that it’s possible to experience what we have and not, you know, be changed by that.”

Kolfage’s guilty plea did not end his defiant social media posture on the right-wing microblogging site Gettr, where he has a verified account after having been banned from Facebook and deactivating his Twitter account. On the day after he entered his plea, he posted a screenshot of a Gateway Pundit story crediting him with building more border wall than Presidents Barack Obama or Joe Biden. His pinned post reads “They Michael Flynn’d me,” an apparent reference to the former Trump national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI over contacts with Russian officials. Flynn was subsequently pardoned by Trump.

In the comments section, supporters told Kolfage he deserved a “medal” and thanked him for “everything you’ve done.”

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/02/texas-border-wall-kolfage-plea/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Greg Abbott's border inspections found 'zero drugs, weapons, or any other type of contraband': report

State troopers ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott to inspect every commercial truck coming from Mexico earlier this month — which clogged international trade with Mexico — found zero drugs, weapons or any other type of contraband, according to data released by the Department of Public Safety to The Texas Tribune.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/21/greg-abbott-texas-border-inspections/.

Earlier this month, Abbott ordered troopers to thoroughly inspect every commercial truck coming from Mexico’s four border states in what he described as an effort to stop illegal drugs and migrants from being smuggled into Texas. His order for increased state inspections was part of his response to the Biden administration’s announcement that it will lift Title 42 — the pandemic-era health order used by federal immigration officials to expel migrants, including asylum-seekers, at the U.S.-Mexico border. The expiration of the order is expected to increase the number of migrants seeking entry to the U.S.

Over eight days, starting April 8, troopers conducted more than 4,100 inspections of trucks. Troopers didn’t find any contraband but took 850 trucks off the road for various violations related to their equipment. Other truckers were given warnings, and at least 345 were cited for things such as underinflated tires, broken turn signals and oil leaks.

DPS Director Steve McCraw said at a Friday news conference with Abbott that the reason troopers hadn’t found any drugs or migrants in commercial trucks is because drug cartels “don’t like troopers stopping them, certainly north of the border, and they certainly don’t like 100% inspections of commercial vehicles on the bridges. And once that started, we’ve seen a decreased amount of trafficking across bridges — common sense.”

But Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group for human rights in the Americas, said it’s not likely cartels stopped the smuggling of drugs because of the state’s inspections. He said many illegal drugs smuggled into the United States are hidden in small compartments or spare tires of people’s vehicles going through international bridges for tourists. He said if smugglers were trying to hide illegal drugs in a commercial truck, it’s most likely federal immigration officials found them before the trucks were directed to the DPS secondary inspections.

“It just seems odd to me that DPS would be that much of a deterrent for smugglers deciding whether to bring something after already passing through the gauntlet of CBP,” he said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection routinely inspects commercial cargo coming from Mexico for illegal drugs and people being smuggled as soon as truckers cross the international bridges. CBP called Texas’ inspections duplicative and “unnecessary.”

The state inspections created a backlog of 18-wheelers on both sides of the border, with truckers reporting delays of several hours up to a few days, when it usually takes between 20 minutes and a couple of hours for commercial trucks to cross after they’ve been inspected by CBP. The delays also resulted in rotten produce and lost business for grocers.

The state’s inspections at eight commercial bridges that connect Texas cities with Mexican cities in Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas ended Friday after Abbott signed agreements with the four Mexican governors that they would increase security measures to prevent the smuggling of drugs and migrants. Abbott has said he would bring back the secondary inspections if the governors’ security initiatives don’t decrease the number of migrants attempting to cross the border.

Abbott said the deals with the four governors were “historic,” calling them an example of how border states can work together on immigration. But three of the four Mexican governors said they will simply continue security measures they put in place before Abbott ordered the state inspections.

Mexico is among the United States’ largest trading partners. The total trade between the two countries amounted to $56.25 billion in February, according to recent government data. Texas’ biggest ports of entry — Port Laredo, Ysleta, Pharr International Bridge, Eagle Pass, El Paso, Brownsville International Bridge and Del Rio International Bridge — accounted for nearly 65% of the total trade between the U.S. and Mexico in 2021.

Reporters James Barragán and Mitchell Ferman contributed to this report.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

GOP mega donor charged after bogus election fraud scheme led a former cop to threaten a repairman

"GOP mega donor Steven Hotze charged after a bogus election fraud scheme led a former cop to threaten a repairman" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Conservative activist Steven Hotze on Wednesday was indicted on two felony charges related to his alleged involvement in an air conditioning repairman being held at gunpoint in 2020 during a bizarre search for fraudulent mail ballots that did not exist, according to his attorney, Gary Polland.

Hotze, 71, was indicted by a Harris County grand jury and faces one count of unlawful restraint and one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Court filings in the case were not available Wednesday evening. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg declined to comment.

The charges stem from Hotze’s hiring of more than a dozen private investigators to look for voter fraud in Harris County ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

One of the investigators, former Houston police captain Mark Aguirre, was arrested in December 2020 and charged with aggravated assault. Prosecutors said Aguirre used his vehicle to run an air conditioning repairman off the road before dawn on Oct. 19, 2020.

Aguirre then detained the repairman at gunpoint and ordered an associate to search his truck, according to court filings. When a Houston police officer happened upon the scene and stopped to investigate, Aguirre said the truck contained 750,000 fraudulent mail ballots prepared by Democrats.

The truck contained only air conditioning parts and equipment. Hotze’s investigators have not produced any credible evidence to support allegations that Democrats orchestrated a wide-ranging mail ballot scheme in Harris County during that election.

Polland said the charges against Hotze are “outrageous” and his client had no knowledge of the roadside incident until he read media reports of Aguirre’s arrest. He said Aguirre asked Hotze for funds to investigate alleged election fraud, Hotze agreed, and that was the extent of his involvement in Aguirre’s affairs.

“All I know is Hotze didn’t aid or abet this in any way,” Polland said. “The donation of funds was for a righteous activity of rooting out ballot fraud.”

Grand jury subpoenas in Aguirre’s case show that Hotze paid Aguirre $266,400. Most of that sum, $211,400, was paid to Aguirre on the day after the alleged holdup.

Aguirre remains free on bond awaiting trial. One of his conditions of release is that he no longer work for Hotze.

Hotze, however, plans to continue monitoring election activity in Houston. At a “Freedom Gala” fundraiser Hotze hosted on April 2 with Attorney General Ken Paxton, Hotze said donations would be used to investigate voter fraud in Texas.

Also attending the event was Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO who has promoted the baseless theory that former President Donald Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Polland said Hotze does not plan to alter his plans because of the indictments.

Hotze, a physician, has long advocated on behalf of conservative issues. He was instrumental in the 2015 defeat of Houston’s anti-discrimination ordinance, which he derided as “pro-homosexual.” He opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage spurred by a Supreme Court ruling earlier that year.

In 2020, he unsuccessfully sued Harris County in an attempt to have 127,000 ballots cast at drive-thru locations thrown out.

His far-right beliefs have sometimes led to disputes with other Republicans. In June 2020, during protests following the police killing of George Floyd, Hotze left a voicemail with Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief of staff urging the governor “to shoot to kill if any of these son-of-a-bitch people start rioting.” U.S. John Cornyn called the remarks “absolutely disgusting and reprehensible.”

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Correction, April 20, 2022: Due to an editing error, Steven Hotze's name was previously misspelled in the headline. It's Steven, not Stephen.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/20/steve-hotze-houston-indicted-voter-fraud/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Analysis: Abbott’s border initiative is expensive, ineffective and not as tough as it sounds

Gov. Greg Abbott wants to bus undocumented immigrants to Washington, D.C., to display his opposition to the Biden administration’s immigration policies, to win some attention in an election year and to turn conversation away from the thin results of the state’s expensive border security efforts.

Abbott’s proposal for caravans to the U.S. Capitol won’t do anything for the migrants or remedy the mess on the border, but they’re just collateral in a debate where too many people in power are trying harder to get political points than to get solutions. The migrants are getting a foot in the back from the state’s top politicians, who have also targeted transgender kids in public schools, college professors and public school leaders.

They’re vilifying and bullying people instead of solving problems.

This week’s announcement got Abbott some attention on TV — especially before his staff clarified that only migrants who “volunteer” would be transported. In his blustery announcement on Wednesday, Abbott made it sound like he was announcing a bold poke at the feds, planning to ship thousands of migrants on as many as 900 buses.

The Texas Tribune’s James Barragán reported that the stern proposal was weakened considerably in the fine print, which said that only “volunteers” who had been processed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would be sent to Washington.
Abbott is grabbing headlines in an election year, and this performance momentarily raised an issue Abbott wants to talk about and to put his name in the same sentence with President Joe Biden’s.

The governor had a political purpose, too: diverting voters’ eyes from the disappointing results of the state’s showy $3 billion border security efforts. Those results were detailed by Lomi Kriel and Perla Trevizo of The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, and Andrew Rodriguez Calderón and Keri Blakinger of The Marshall Project.

The operation has also produced piles of ticky-tacky misdemeanor trespassing charges against thousands of undocumented immigrants and few of the kinds of smuggling and drug trafficking arrests touted as the reason for the spending, as reported by The Texas Tribune’s Jolie McCullough.

Within hours after announcing the government plan, Abbott’s campaign was using it in a fundraising appeal to supporters.
“Governor Greg Abbott JUST ANNOUNCED that Texas is going to use charter buses to DROP OFF BIDEN’S ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS in Washington, DC,” read the appeal on Abbott’s campaign website. “We want to MAKE SURE that Biden knows JUST HOW REAL this crisis is.”

While Abbott’s border program is already costing the state billions of dollars, Texas Military Department officials told legislators this week they need another $531 million to keep operating past May. National Guard troops deployed on the border by the governor have complained about their living and work conditions and pay.

What began as a broad attack on the Biden administration’s border policies and immigration enforcement won favor last year with Texas lawmakers, who approved billions in spending when Abbott asked. Months later, the troops and the state police were at the border, along with some wall builders, but the results have been meager. More importantly, the state’s work doesn’t seem to have much effect on the numbers of people crossing or trying to cross into the U.S.

The administration now wants to end “Title 42,” which started during the pandemic and allows immigration officials to turn people away at the border. Abbott’s proposals to ship migrants to the nation’s capital, to step up inspections of commercial vehicles coming into Texas, and to put boat blockades and concertina wire at some cross points on the Rio Grande are all responses to ending Title 42.

How does all of that add up?

What sounded in the governor’s words like a forced transport of migrants from Texas to Washington will be “voluntary.”
The National Guard troops on the Texas-Mexico border are running out of money and asking the state for more.
The governor’s Operation Lone Star isn’t producing the kinds of law enforcement results that would burnish the governor’s reputation — or anyone else’s.

The politics of Operation Lone Star might turn out better than the actual endeavor. The elections are in November.
And Texas legislators will be back in January to look at all of it, to write a new state budget and to decide whether Abbott’s $3 billion border adventure deserves any more of the taxpayers’ money.

Some landlords got a piece of Texas’ $2 billion in rent relief money — and evicted their struggling tenants anyway

When Cherice Scott received a notice last September that she, her husband and their four children would soon be kicked out of their Katy apartment, she said employees at the complex told her not to worry about it.

Scott and her husband had fallen behind on rent in June after Scott stopped working to take care of her youngest daughter, who has Down syndrome, and the medical bills piled up.

The next month, their landlord started the eviction process, even though Scott, 37, had taken the rental office staff’s advice and requested help from Texas’ $2 billion, federally backed rental assistance fund. Scott said she spoke to the office staff and walked away believing she didn’t need to worry about eviction as they waited for the relief money — or to bother showing up to court.

When the state sent the rent relief check to the wrong address, Scott said the staff assured her they were working to get the money re-sent.

“I trusted them,” Scott said. “I shouldn’t have.”

Scott had landed a new job as a dietician at a local hospital when she returned from work one afternoon in early October to find most of her belongings spread out on the lawn and the locks changed. Thieves had walked off with their electronics.

Jeff Williams, a Harris County justice of the peace, had approved the eviction without Scott present in court — a typical outcome in eviction cases when tenants don’t show up to their hearings.

Scott wanted to know: What happened to the rent relief money?

After weeks of phone calls, a Texas Rent Relief program staffer told Scott that her former landlord had indeed received the rent relief money in mid-November — more than $11,000, enough to cover the six months’ back rent they owed.

Six-year-old Teegan McKinney plays at a park in Houston on March 14, 2022.

Cherice Scott’s son, 6-year-old Teegan McKinney, plays at a park in Houston. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

“They were very well informed that that money was there and it was coming to them,” said Scott, who’s now living in a short-term rental in Missouri City with her four kids. “Yet they still pushed us out.”

Scott’s former landlord — Blazer Real Estate Services, a Houston property management company — did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment. An employee at Blazer’s office who answered the phone declined to answer questions.

The federal government and the state of Texas both had people like Scott and her family in mind when they hurriedly created a safety net for struggling renters amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Texas received more than $2 billion out of the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package President Joe Biden signed into law last year, to set up the Texas Rent Relief program, designed to help such families stay in their homes as the pandemic triggered a tsunami of business closures and hundreds of thousands of layoffs.

But The Texas Tribune interviewed tenants from across the state who were approved for federal rental assistance and were evicted anyway.

Two landlords, like Scott’s, evicted their tenants in the period between the initial rent relief application and when the government money arrived and then kept it — an apparent violation of the program’s requirements for landlords. In those cases, the check was initially sent to the wrong property — and only arrived after the tenant was kicked out.

One landlord received federal money through the Texas Rent Relief program and later chose not to renew their tenant’s lease — which was legal in that case.

In order to receive federal rent relief funds through the state, landlords had to sign an agreement that forbids them from evicting tenants for nonpayment during the time period covered by the assistance.

But housing advocates and lawyers who represent tenants facing eviction say they routinely see cases of Texas landlords accepting thousands of dollars from the government and evicting the tenants the money was intended to help.

The Tribune contacted government agencies involved in the program and found that none of them — including the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which runs the state rent relief program — track how often this happens.

And it’s not just happening in Texas.

According to the National Housing Law Project, 86% of the 119 lawyers across the country who responded to a survey gauging how the end of a federal moratorium on evictions was affecting tenants said they had seen cases where landlords either declined to apply for assistance from rent relief programs or took the money and proceeded to kick out their tenants.

“The industry standard here is fraud,” said Stuart Campbell, managing attorney at Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center, speaking generally about instances in which landlords receive rent relief funds and evict tenants. “These landlords are the prime beneficiary of these rental assistance programs and just en masse have been violating the provisions of the programs and on top of that consistently misleading judges and securing judgments and evictions, even when they’re receiving funds.”

Many landlords have tried to work with their tenants to try to avoid evictions for back rent during the pandemic, said David Mintz, vice president of government affairs for Texas Apartment Association, a trade group of rental property owners.

But receiving rent relief dollars wasn’t guaranteed, so some landlords filed for eviction in case the money didn’t come through and as a last resort after months of going without rent, Mintz said. Under the program rules, landlords are allowed to evict only in specific situations, such as lease violations related to criminal activity, property damage or “physical harm” to others, Mintz pointed out.

If tenants feel they have been unjustly evicted, they can appeal the eviction, Mintz said. Any allegations that “either a renter or a rental property owner isn’t following the program rules” should be reported to the program to be investigated, he said.

“We believe owners have done their best to try to understand the intricacies of the program and comply with its requirements,” Mintz said.

When Congress set aside more than $46 billion for emergency rental assistance, they intended for that money to keep people in their homes, said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat from Houston. The idea of landlords taking rent relief dollars and still evicting tenants is “outrageous,” she said, and could warrant investigation.

Cherice Scott McKinney at a park in Houston on March 14, 2022. McKinney moved her four children to a rental property over 30 miles from her Katy home after being evicted.

Since being evicted from their home in Katy, Cherice Scott and her four children have lived in hotels and other temporary settings, most recently a short-term rental in Missouri City. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

“I think any landlord that accepted money or got money directly for rent absolutely should not have evicted anyone,” Garcia said. “And if they did, it should be audited and reviewed by [government investigators] so that we can recoup our funds for the misuse of the dollars.”

Texas closed the rent relief program to new applicants in November, citing overwhelming demand for rental assistance dollars. The state received another $47 million in March, which TDHCA said would go toward helping tenants who applied before the November cutoff. As of Wednesday, the program has assisted more than 300,000 households.

The money was considered crucial to prevent a wave of tenants losing their homes as eviction bans expired; in recent months, three Texas metro areas — Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth — have seen some of the highest eviction case filings in the country among the 31 cities tracked by Eviction Lab, a research center based at Princeton University that tracks eviction filings.

To qualify for rental assistance from the Texas program, tenants had to fall below a certain income level, prove they experienced some kind of financial hardship during the pandemic and make the case that they would be at risk of losing their home if they didn’t receive rent relief.

A collection of state and federal agencies — including the TDHCA — are tasked with looking into allegations of fraud, waste and abuse in rent relief programs. But none of the agencies contacted by the Tribune would say whether any landlord has been credibly accused of taking rent relief money and improperly ousting their tenants, or whether they have imposed penalties on landlords for doing so.

Some tenants who spoke to the Tribune about their cases said they called a hotline used to report fraud, waste and abuse in the state rent relief program and never heard back about their complaints.

Scott said she complained to a program staffer in October about her landlord’s conduct, and the staffer referred the complaint to the program’s anti-fraud division. Two months later, Scott received an email acknowledging her complaint — but said she hasn’t heard back since.

Stephanie Gates was evicted in January after applying for rent relief at the property manager's urging. The property owner cashed the check after she had been kicked out. March 16, 2022.

Stephanie Gates’ rental assistance check initially went to the wrong address — and reached her landlord less than two weeks after she was evicted from her Round Rock home in January. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

“I was a good tenant”

Stephanie Gates also thought the state rent relief program would save her from an eviction. In her case, the check arrived in time — but went to the wrong place.

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, Gates, a 42-year-old Round Rock resident, saw her hours as a temp working in guest services at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport cut in half, and by January 2021 she was behind on rent for her two-bedroom apartment. In June, Gates said she lost her job after she missed a week of work because of a medical problem.

But in September, Gates received good news: Not only did she qualify for help paying back rent, but the program would cover her rent through November — 11 months all together, totaling $12,740.

“I’m sitting thinking, ‘My rent’s paid, OK, all I have to worry about is December and January,’’’ Gates said.

Then in December, the property owner filed an eviction case against Gates and gave her a notice to vacate.

It turns out the state program had sent the check in September — to the wrong address.

At a Jan. 10 eviction hearing, Gates said she told Williamson County Justice of the Peace KT Musselman she had been approved for rent relief and explained that the check went to the wrong address — facts she said the property manager, who represented the landlord in court, backed up.

Despite that, the property manager told Musselman they wanted to proceed with the case, Gates said. Musselman sided with Gates’ landlord and granted the eviction.

In a phone interview, Musselman declined to say why he ruled in favor of Gates’ landlord. But Musselman expressed sympathy for the landlord, noting that they had gone 11 months without rent from Gates. Even if the rent relief check was in hand, it wouldn’t have covered the amount sought by the landlord, Musselman said.

“I can understand an apartment complex coming at this point in the process and saying, ‘It's time to figure out what's going to happen here or move forward,’” Musselman said.

Alexander Stamm, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid who is representing Gates, said Musselman shouldn’t have let the trial take place at all because of a Texas Supreme Court order requiring judges to postpone eviction cases if a landlord confirms they have joined a tenant’s application for rent relief.

“In our view, the judge made a mistake letting the trial proceed as soon as [the property manager] confirmed that the owner had a pending application for rental assistance,” Stamm said in an email.

On Jan. 27, Williamson County constables came to execute the eviction. Newly homeless, Gates stood on the curb in the cold guarding her belongings until a friend could get off work to help her move them.

“I did everything right, and to still have my stuff thrown down the street … it’s just something that I’m still trying to process,” Gates said.

Less than two weeks after Gates’ eviction, she spotted something in her online account with the rent relief program: A pair of checks totaling $12,650 had cleared the property owner’s bank account. Her former landlord had taken the rent relief funds after they evicted her.

Attempts to reach the property owner — RDRH Holdings Inc., an Austin-based corporation — and its president were unsuccessful. Lee Reznicek, a property manager who oversees Gates’ former home for Austin-based Hill Country Property Management, declined to comment when reached by email.

Stamm alleges that RDRH Holdings violated six requirements set out by the program in a contract landlords must sign in order to receive funds.

For example, the program bars landlords from accepting rent relief payments after they evict a tenant. The rent relief checks cleared RDRH’s bank account on Feb. 4 — less than two weeks after Gates was evicted.

Landlords who received rent relief dollars can’t evict tenants “for any reason related to rent or fees during the time period covered by the funds,” according to the program requirements. But those are the exact grounds that RDRH Holdings cited when it sued to evict Gates, Stamm said.

According to the program rules laid out in the agreement Gates’ landlord signed July 13 to receive the funds, if a landlord receives rent relief money after evicting the tenant, they’re supposed to send the money back to TDHCA within 10 days. As of Feb. 17, Gates’ former landlord hadn’t done so, Stamm said.

“You can’t have it both ways with Texas Rent Relief,” Stamm said. “You can’t get paid directly, and also break the promises you made that were designed to keep someone in their home.”

At the moment, Gates is bouncing back and forth between her father’s house and a friend’s while she appeals her eviction in an attempt to strike it from her record and make it easier for her to find a new place.

“I was a good tenant,” Gates said. “You know, we just had the problems from [the pandemic] last year, which everybody did.”

“Tenants are still the ones holding the bag”

Both the federal and state government added enforcement provisions when they created the rent relief programs. In Texas, two state agencies — the TDHCA, which oversees the statewide rent relief program, and the State Auditor’s Office — have the authority to look into allegations of waste, fraud or abuse within the program. At the federal level, that job falls to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General.

TDHCA operates the state hotline where complaints originate. If the agency finds the allegations are credible, it can refer the cases to the state auditor’s office, the Treasury’s inspector general or local law enforcement agencies.

TDHCA says it has received more than 7,500 complaints through the hotline — not all of them related to fraud, waste or abuse — but the agency won’t say how many times it has referred cases to outside agencies for investigation. The State Auditor’s Office declined to say whether it has launched any investigations into potential fraud, waste and abuse of the program.

As of last week, $20.1 million in rent relief has been recaptured, TDHCA spokesperson Kristina Tirloni said, adding that not all of that was connected to allegations of fraud, waste or abuse.

Tirloni said the agency doesn’t track what portion of those clawed-back funds came from landlords found to have improperly evicted their tenants after receiving assistance — or categorize what scenarios would result in recapturing the money.

“TDHCA has taken very seriously the responsibility of helping Texas renters and landlords overcome the financial burden brought on by the pandemic,” Tirloni said.

But none of that recovered money is helping tenants ousted from their homes, said Julia Orduña, Southeast Texas regional director for Texas Housers, a nonprofit low-income housing advocacy group.

“Maybe the money will be returned to Treasury and the wrong will be righted for the government,” Orduña said. “But the tenants are still the ones holding the bag.”

That happens even when tenants win their eviction cases in court.

Diana Johnson, 35, was waiting on rent relief in January when her landlord tried to evict her and her seven children from their three-bedroom apartment in Southeast Dallas.

Johnson, a manager of a hair salon and certified nursing assistant, had asked the program in October for help covering rent while she recovered from giving birth to her son and couldn’t work. Texas Rent Relief approved her for a little over $3,100 — about three months’ worth of rent.

Johnson’s landlord — a partnership owned by Mark Musemeche, a Houston developer — had already accepted more than $4,200 in federal money in August to pay four months of rent, according to a copy of Johnson’s rent ledger she provided to the Tribune. Around that time, Johnson said she caught COVID-19 and had to miss a month of work.

Johnson had asked the office manager whether they had received the latest check, she said. They told her there was no way to see if they had received it, she said.

The morning of her March 18 eviction hearing, a Texas Rent Relief staffer told Johnson that her landlord had cashed the check two days earlier and gave her the check number. Johnson’s lawyer recorded the call.

When Dallas County Justice of the Peace Juan Jasso heard about the check and phone call, he asked the property manager whether they had received the check, Johnson said. The property manager quickly confirmed that they had — and Jasso tossed the eviction.

But Johnson’s victory was short-lived. The same day, her landlord told Johnson her lease wouldn’t be renewed when it expired the following week, she said.

Johnson’s trying not to dwell on the saga. She’s focused on finding a new place for her and her seven children to live. Her landlord gave her until the end of May to do so.

“The more I sit here and think about it, I just know to just go ahead and do what I need to do,” Johnson said.

Calls to Musemeche were not returned. An employee at the apartment complex, Crestshire Village Apartments, declined to comment.

“It takes away your pride”

Since their October eviction from their Katy apartment, Scott and her four children have lived in hotels and other temporary settings.

She said the past few months have been hard. Around the time of the eviction, Scott and her husband separated. He took the car, which made it difficult for Scott to hunt for work and shelter. Then she gave up her job at the Katy hospital to care once more for her youngest daughter.

Weeks after her eviction, Scott received an email from Texas Rent Relief on Nov. 9 acknowledging that it had initially sent the check to the wrong address. But the program had fixed that error, the email said.

“As the tenant was evicted from the unit associated with this application, pursuant to program policies, rental arrears are only approved for the time period the tenant was in the unit,” the email reads.

In other words, Scott had already been evicted, but Texas Rent Relief was letting the landlord keep the money — more than $11,000 — in apparent contradiction of its own policy.

Tirloni, the TDHCA spokesperson, declined to discuss individual tenants’ cases, including Scott’s, citing state law that prevents TDHCA from disclosing information about people who receive benefits from programs administered by the agency. But she said the program doesn’t allow landlords to receive back rent if they’ve evicted a tenant — the opposite of what the email to Scott said.

“We strive to always do better,” Tirloni said in an email. “As much as we work to mitigate human error, the potential for application errors exists. If issues are discovered or brought to our attention, like payments sent to an incorrect address, or payments sent to a landlord who has evicted the tenant, we will take corrective measures, like recapture or other necessary steps.”

Meanwhile, Scott is trying to rebuild her life. In late March she started a new job teaching at an early learning center. But she still hasn’t found a place to live. She said she has spent thousands of dollars on application fees to at least 10 homes and apartment complexes — and all of them have denied her because she now has an eviction on her record.

“It's embarrassing,” Scott said. “It takes away your pride and makes me feel like I failed as a parent. It hurts, that really hurts. But I don’t want to give up.”

Disclosure: The Texas Apartment Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/08/texas-landlords-rent-relief-evictions/.

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Legal records reveal that Texas is jailing migrants without due process

As court fights continue over the constitutionality of Gov. Greg Abbott’s mass arrests of migrants at the Texas-Mexico border, new legal filings describe an ongoing and consistent pattern of men being illegally detained for a month or more as their cases stagnate in overwhelmed courts.

Nearly eight months after the state began arresting migrants and prosecuting them on trespassing charges under Abbott’s order, a group of defense attorneys told the state’s highest criminal court that some men are still locked up for months before the courts give them an attorney or prosecutors file misdemeanor charges against them, in violation of state laws.

Texas laws require that criminal defendants be assigned an attorney within three days of asking for one, and misdemeanor defendants be released from jail pending trial if prosecutors do not file charges within 30 days after arrest.

Those deadlines are regularly surpassed, according to the legal briefing from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which represents hundreds of migrant men accused of trespassing on private property. Two men were detained in a state prison for nearly five months, unable to post bonds of $1,500, without being assigned lawyers or having any charges filed against them, defense lawyers said.

And efforts to fix the due-process violations and get the men out of prison, attorneys say, have been met with further delay by court officials in rural Kinney County, where the majority of Abbott’s trespassing arrests have occurred.

“Those unlawfully incarcerated in Kinney County have become pawns in the larger political debate about whether the Biden administration is adequately addressing border crossings,” defense attorney E.G. Morris wrote to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this week.

The claims were raised in a legal fight now before the Court of Criminal Appeals, in which Kinney County is seeking to prevent a Travis County judge from ruling on the legality of hundreds of migrants’ trespassing arrests.

The same judge in January found one migrant’s arrest under Abbott’s Operation Lone Star border initiative unconstitutional, and defense attorneys are hoping to leverage that ruling to help more than 400 other men. Kinney County is asking the high court to find that Travis County courts have no jurisdiction over Kinney County cases.

“It is apparent that these, and other, applicants are foregoing the functioning courts of Kinney County and seeking more agreeable counties and/or courts for their complaints,” David Schulman, acting assistant Kinney County attorney, wrote to the high court.

In legal briefings, Kinney County representatives did not respond to the allegations of unlawfully detained migrants and instead focused on the jurisdiction challenge. Neither the Kinney County judge nor the county attorney, who prosecutes misdemeanor crimes, responded to questions about the defense attorneys’ filings.

In July, Abbott ordered state troopers along parts of the border to arrest men suspected of crossing into the country illegally on state charges, most often trespassing on private property. The aggressive law enforcement tactic was the governor’s latest response to a rise in illegal border crossings.

But the new arrests quickly resulted in a flurry of legal missteps as Kinney County officials failed to keep up with the flood of defendants. By September, a local state district judge had ordered the release of nearly 250 men after they sat in prison for more than a month without having any criminal charges filed against them. Dozens had not been assigned a lawyer.

“There wasn’t the prosecutorial capacity to keep up with the number of arrests that DPS was making, plain and simple,” Department of Public Safety director Steve McCraw said at a legislative hearing on the operation last week. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh yeah, we can handle that.’ It’s another thing all of a sudden when you’ve got large numbers being booked into jail.”

The state brought in judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to help with the caseload, and court hearings soon picked up speed. From October to February, Kinney County reported holding nearly 1,700 court hearings for the trespassing cases, resulting in nearly 500 men pleading guilty.

But the problem, the defense attorneys say, is far from over. DPS has reported more than 3,000 criminal trespassing arrests, the large majority of which have occurred in Kinney County.

Those who can’t afford to post bond still typically linger in prison between three and four months before they are able to go before a judge, the legal aid group said. At this first court hearing, men are offered immediate release from prison in exchange for a guilty plea. If they plead not guilty, they remain in jail indefinitely. The county has yet to schedule a trial for a trespassing arrest.

And getting courts to release men who have been detained beyond legal deadlines is hard to do in the conservative border county, the lawyers said. Such delays have only worsened, they said, after Kinney County Judge Tully Shahan dismissed state-assigned judges who had been hearing such cases and releasing unlawfully imprisoned men, swapping them out with five judges of his own choosing.

The legal group said the new judges either “simply refuse” to hear the cases now “or do so with lengthy delay.” The lawyers said after filing for the release of men held too long in late February at the local district court, the paperwork had still not been accepted by the clerk’s office this week. Attorneys were told it would be late April before a hearing was held.

The delays, defense attorneys argue, are what prompted the men to seek relief from their due-process violations outside of Kinney County, the focus of the lawsuit before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

County representatives call the move “forum shopping,” as the defense groups sought out more liberal counties to rule against arrests ordered by the Republican governor, and asked the high court to halt other counties from ruling on their arrests. The migrants’ lawyers counter that the move was necessary to follow Texas laws on due process, a constitutional right that applies to migrants as well as U.S. citizens.

“Once they start watering down these protections, they’re watered down for all of us,” Kristin Etter, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, told The Texas Tribune. “It’s designed to safeguard individual freedoms over overreaching government power, and it’s a sacred pillar of jurisprudence.”

O’Rourke calls Abbott a 'thug' and an 'authoritarian' who’s 'got his own oligarch here in the state of Texas'

"O’Rourke calls Abbott a “thug” and an “authoritarian” who’s “got his own oligarch here in the state of Texas”" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic nominee for Texas governor, called the Republican incumbent, Greg Abbott, a “a thug” and an “authoritarian” on Saturday and compared Texas energy executives to Russian oligarchs in a blistering critique that presages an election that is about eight months away.

“I just had a chance to meet with the ambassador from the EU,” O’Rourke told Evan Smith, the CEO and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, in a crowded hall at the South by Southwest festival. “We talked about the fact that you’re seeing the continued rise of authoritarians and thugs across the world. And we have our own, right here, in the state of Texas.”

Smith asked, “Greg Abbott is a thug in your mind?”

O’Rourke replied, "He’s a thug, he’s an authoritarian.

“Let me make the case. Not only could this guy, through his own incompetence, not keep the lights on in the energy capital of the planet last February, but when people like Kelcy Warren and other energy company CEOs made than $11 billion in profit over five days — selling gas for 200 times the going rate; not only did he not claw back those illegal profits; not only was there no justice for more than 700 people who were killed, who literally froze to deaths in their homes, outside, in their cars, people who are paying now tens of billions of dollars cumulatively to pay for the property damage that the flooding that ensued caused in their homes, but he’s taking millions of dollars in payoffs from these same people. I mean, he’s got his own oligarch here in the state of Texas.”

Abbott’s campaign said in a statement, “It’s unfortunate Beto O’Rourke continues to run a campaign based on fear mongering and tearing down Texas.”

Warren is the billionaire CEO of Dallas-based Energy Transfer, a pipeline giant that made an estimated $2.4 billion from skyrocketing natural gas prices during the February 2021 snowstorms, which knocked out electricity across much of the state.

Last month, Warren sued O’Bourke for defamation, which the candidate described as an effort to silence him. (Warren’s lawyers and spokespeople did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

The state estimates that at least 246 people died in the snowstorms, though a BuzzFeed analysis found that the toll could be as high as 702. Last month, the state’s power grid manager testified in court that upon Abbott’s request, he kept wholesale electricity prices high in the latter days of the storm in an effort to prevent more rolling blackouts. That was done to incentivize companies to keep producing power. A spokesperson for Abbott said that was needed to “prevent the loss of life.”

Drawing the Russia analogy further, O’Rourke linked new restrictions on voting access in Texas to President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian crackdown in Russia.

“You think this stuff only exists in Russia or in other parts of the world? It’s happening right here,” O’Rourke said. “You think they rig elections in other parts of the planet? It is the toughest state in the nation in which to vote, right here.”

It is difficult to assess which state makes voting most difficult, but Texas requires a photo ID, requires registration 30 days before an election, does not make online registration available and does not allow no-excuse early voting. It does allow two weeks of in-person early voting for all registered voters.

In the March 1 primary, which recorded fairly anemic turnout, more than 18,000 mail-ballots were rejected in 16 of the state’s largest counties for failing to meet the new law’s ID requirements.

O’Rourke, 49, represented El Paso for three terms in the U.S. House. He challenged U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, losing by less than 3 percentage points, a remarkable showing in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide since 1994. In 2019, O’Rourke entered the race for Democratic nominee for president. He struggled to raise much money or get much attention and dropped out later that year.

When confronted with an audience question about why he “bomb[ed] out in 2020,” O’Rourke responded, “I think that’s a pretty accurate description.”

Smith, the moderator, drew attention to a line O’Rourke used in a Democratic presidential debate in September 2019, when he vowed, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”

O’Rourke on Saturday dialed back somewhat from his earlier comments, saying that he still didn’t think ordinary citizens should own military-style weapons designed “to kill people on a battlefield,” but acknowledged that if elected he would face a stiff fight from the Legislature over gun rights. He vowed to “find common ground with Republicans on things like universal background checks, safe-storage laws, extreme-risk protection laws,” which allow judges to temporarily remove firearms from people who are at an elevated risk of harming themselves or others.

He added, “If I can find the consensus within the Legislature to have a law within the state of Texas that allows us to buy back the AR-15s and AK-47s, we will.” Texas last year began allowing people to carry a handgun without a license or training — even though most voters did not support such permitless carry. The prospects for a large-scale gun buyback would seem slim.

After the talk, Mark Miner, Abbott’s communications director, issued a statement pointing out discrepancies between O'Rourke’s comments on Saturday regarding gun buybacks, the “remain in Mexico” policy for asylum-seekers, and President Joe Biden and previous statements he’s made. (O'Rourke recently said he did not want any campaign assistance from Biden, but on Saturday insisted that “he is not a drag on anyone.”)

“It appears if you want Beto to tell the truth, you need to put him in front of out-of-state liberal elitists, not the people of Texas,” Miner said.

Asked whether Biden’s unpopularity in Texas might be a drag on Abbott’s prospects, O’Rourke said that he had been crisscrossing the state and hearing nothing from voters about Biden or his predecessor, President Donald Trump. Voters, he said, wanted to talk about higher utility bills, lack of broadband access in rural areas, the closings of rural hospitals, the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid and diminished spending on public education. He insisted that he would manage to activate first-time voters and energize young voters, two groups that helped propel his surprisingly close race in 2018.

O’Rourke, a supporter of abortion rights, condemned Texas’ near-total ban on abortions as well as recent legislation blocking transgender teenagers from participating in youth sports. He also condemned Abbott’s directive to start child-abuse investigations of families who seek gender-affirming care for their children.

Such controversies were a distraction, O’Rourke said, from a maternal mortality crisis; a shortage of preventive care for women, including cervical cancer screenings; and high rates of teen pregnancy and repeat teen pregnancy. People who see themselves as “pro-life,” he said, should pay attention to the state of the foster care system in Texas, citing a state-contracted facility in Bastrop where girls who had already been victims of sex trafficking were allegedly sexually abused yet again by staff. The shelter was ordered closed Friday.

An audience member asked O’Rourke for his views on marjiuana legalization. Abbott has suggested he would support decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana. Texas remains a far cry from states like California where the sale and use of marijuana are fully legal.

O’Rourke drew laughter and applause when he said that bipartisan consensus might not be hard to coalesce on this issue, given that Republicans, too, like to get high.

Disclosure: South by Southwest and Energy Transfer have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/03/12/orourke-abbott-thug/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texans brace for an eight-month-long gubernatorial slogfest

Eight more months.

The candidates who survived Tuesday’s primary elections — and won’t face runoff elections in May — now start all over again, raising money, researching their opponents and trying to build up the organizations and support that will get them through the November general election.

The race at the top of the ticket was all but a foregone conclusion, with well-known and well-financed candidates on both the Republican side, in Gov. Greg Abbott, and the Democratic side, in Beto O’Rourke.

Abbott and O’Rourke have had their eyes on November from the start, attacking and critiquing each other and ignoring their primary opponents throughout this first round.

Both won their primaries easily, in the process previewing some of the themes other candidates in their parties will probably adopt for the general election: immigration/border security, the electric grid, gun laws, abortion, environmental regulations and a handful of cultural issues including how race and history should be taught in schools and the rights of transgender children and their parents.

Voters and the media aren’t the only Texans fixated on that. The outcome in that top contest could send a wave down the ballot. Even though Texas no longer has one-punch, straight-ticket voting that allows voters to select all of the candidates in one party at once, a hard-fought top race can draw voters who keep their party hats on as they go down the ballot.

Republicans have swept statewide races in Texas since the mid-1990s. But in years when the top contest was close, the rest of the statewide races tended to be close, too. A large margin at the top can provide an umbrella for the winning party’s down-ballot candidates; a small one can leave them exposed.

Candidates in runoff races start another sprint to May, when they’ll find out whether they are going to be their party’s nominees.

Some of those runoffs are going to be hard races. It’s never good news for an incumbent to get dragged into a second round; it means a majority of the voters in that incumbent’s own party voted for someone else. Attorney General Ken Paxton faces that problem: He and Land Commissioner George P. Bush are on their way to a runoff.

Tuesday’s winners won’t be back in public campaign mode, for the most part, until August or September. But they’ll be raising money in anticipation of that, traveling the state to get their organizations and supporters in place, and digging to find out whatever there is to know about the opposition.

In some ways, it’s easier to run in a general election. Voters can see one big difference between candidates right on the ballot, where each contestant’s political party is listed. In many races, even that doesn’t matter; the new political maps drawn after the 2020 census predetermine which party is likely to win in a general election. Republicans have the majority of the “safe” districts on the Texas maps, but many Democrats are also drawn into safe seats.

The result, for those candidates, is that they can coast through the rest of the election season. For others, the hardest part is still ahead. Some statewide candidates and contestants for a handful of seats in the state’s delegation to Congress, the Texas House and Senate will face expensive and competitive races next fall.

They’ll be joined in May by the winners of the runoff, settling into a summer and early autumn of fundraising and planning. That long break in the state’s overstretched election calendar reaches from the nation’s earliest primary to the general elections in November.

The issues will change with the news. The candidates will be exposed to political chatter and chicanery for a longer period than their counterparts in states where the primary and general elections are closer together. The voters might be in a brand-new frame of mind when the next elections roll around.

Eight more months. In politics, that’s a lifetime.

GOP Gerrymandering in Texas is crippling democracy

In a perfect version of our democracy, all of the eligible adults would be registered to vote and then would vote. Any candidate with the support of more voters would take office and represent everybody who voted, including the people who voted for another candidate.

By Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune

It’s not perfect, though, is it?

Not all of the adults who are eligible to vote are registered. Not all of the registered voters vote, and fewer of them vote in party primaries than in November general elections.

What that means is that a few people pick the nominees of the two major parties. And in a state with Texas’ combination of political maps drawn by partisans and a Republican Party that hasn’t lost a statewide election in more than a quarter of a century, those primary voters are choosing most of our officeholders in state government and in the Texas congressional delegation.

The political maps rig most of the districts in the congressional delegation, state House and Senate and State Board of Education so that only a Democrat or only a Republican can win. Few are competitive. Republicans, who draw the maps, draw more districts to Republican advantage. And the result is that a Republican primary election winner is probably going to win in November. Though they have fewer seats to win, the same goes for Democrats.

The numbers are sobering.

According to the Texas secretary of state, 17.1 million Texans are registered to vote. The U.S. Census Bureau says there are 29.1 million people in Texas and that 21.7 million of them are 18 years old or older.

Even if all of the adults in the state were eligible to vote, and voted, about a quarter of the population is too young to cast ballots. They have no alternative but to live with the elected officials chosen by their elders.

But a lot of those elders choose to be governed like the kids.

Even a “big” primary turnout in Texas is feeble. In 2020, a year when voters were motivated by a hard-fought presidential race, only a quarter of the registered voters showed up for either the Democratic or Republican primary. Most of us — 74.5% — didn’t vote.

The election before that one was noisy and competitive, too, but it didn’t have a national race to juice voter interest. It did have U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz trying to win reelection in the face of a challenge from then-U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and turnout wasn’t bad — by Texas standards — for an off-year election.

Texas standards are anemic. In the 2018 primaries, 82.8% of voters stayed home. In the Republican primary that year, 1.5 million people voted in the U.S. Senate races, and it took only 774,787 to secure the nomination. Cruz got more than that, but that’s all he needed.

Each of those Republican voters had more power than they would have had with a higher turnout. The idea here is simple: If only one person votes, that vote chooses a candidate. But if 100 people vote, it takes 51 people to pick a candidate.

Fewer voters equals more clout.

Fast forward to this year, a classic setup for a low-turnout primary. Several of the races have more than one candidate. Races at the top of the ticket tend to get more attention. The candidates can raise more money, run more ads, go to more events and attract more interest from voters.

But the governor’s races in the two major parties this year are dominated by the best-known candidates. National and international political news is competing for that attention. Election day is next Tuesday, and early voting isn’t over yet. But through Wednesday, Feb. 23, a reported 93.5% of Texas voters had not voted.

In the Republican primary, turnout was at 4%; on the Democratic side, it was a weak 2.4%. On that day, a candidate could have won a Republican nomination with support from a measly 2.1% of voters; a Democrat would’ve needed just 1.5%.

The rest of us would be governed by the winners of that meager civic engagement. Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since 1994. Until they break that streak, winning a GOP primary is tantamount to winning statewide office. And the congressional, legislative, and SBOE candidates can count on those political maps to ensure wins for most candidates in November general elections. Winning the primary is almost everything.

On the other hand, those few voters who do turn out do pretty well for themselves, choosing our representatives while the rest of us snooze.

Disclosure: Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

'I hate it here': National Guard members sound off on Texas border mission in leaked morale survey

Feb. 24, 2022

"“I hate it here”: National Guard members sound off on Texas border mission in leaked morale survey" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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This article is co-published and co-reported with Military Times, an independent news organization reporting on issues important to the U.S. military. Sign up for its daily Early Bird Brief newsletter here.

When asked in January what they liked about their deployment to the Texas-Mexico border, members of the Texas Air National Guard had few nice things to say.

“I hate it here,” one respondent said in an anonymous survey about the involuntary mission with no set end date that has taken as many as 10,000 troops away from their civilian lives and families.

Another, asked for general feedback, simply posted four middle- finger emojis.

Frustration, anxiety and anger prevailed in the survey responses obtained by the The Texas Tribune and the Military Times. The survey includes responses from nearly 250 members of Task Force South, one of six units that fall under the umbrella of Operation Lone Star — Gov. Greg Abbott’s unprecedentedly large attempt to secure the border with Guard members and state troopers.

“I’m wasting time watching the grass grow at my [observation] point [along the border], while my civilian job is dying on the vine,” one Guardsman wrote in response to another question. “IF my job still exists when I return, I will have a giant hole to dig out of.”

Another member, whose husband travels for work, said they’ve had to pay an extra $2,000 each month for a nanny to watch their kids. Yet another worried about the future of a strained marriage after having to leave his wife and new baby behind.

The survey responses provide the clearest insights yet into the simmering dissatisfaction among troops stationed at the border. The survey was distributed before the Tribune and Military Times published an investigation earlier this month detailing problems with the mission that included hasty mobilization, alarming morale issues, meager living conditions, delays in payment and the perception by troops that the mission was politically motivated to score reelection points for Abbott. Those findings have been consistently denied or downplayed by Texas officials.

Nearly 250 members of the unit — around half its troop strength — completed the survey between Jan. 5-10, according to the source who provided the survey results. The source is not being named because they were not authorized to share the survey.

Task Force South largely consists of Texas Air National Guard members under the 432nd Air Expeditionary Group. Those troops work in the Brownsville area of southernmost Texas and most are living in hotels during the deployment — the best living conditions among the thousands of Texas troops at the border.

The obtained data is from five free-response questions that asked airmen to list positives and negatives about the mission, offer feedback on benefits and off-duty restrictions and weigh in on Operation Lone Star in general. An analysis of the responses by the Tribune and Military Times found:

  • More than half expressed skepticism or frustration with Operation Lone Star and how senior leaders planned, executed and communicated about the mission.
  • Nearly 30% vented about the mobilization's length, haste or involuntary nature in their answers.
  • About 30% said the most difficult part of Operation Lone Star was the deployment’s impact on their civilian lives, including lost wages, disrupted families and interrupted careers and educations.
  • More than 1 in 5 either offered no substantive feedback on what they “like most” about Operation Lone Star or said they disliked everything about the mission.
  • Almost 3 out of 4 airmen said they wanted better state benefits. Troops on state active-duty missions like Operation Lone Star don’t get benefits common to federal deployments like tax exemptions, retirement credit, Veterans Affairs disability coverage for injuries or education benefits like GI Bill credit or the Hazlewood Act, which is a Texas education benefit that gives free tuition to veterans who served on active-duty missions.

It wasn’t all bad though. While the feedback was overwhelmingly negative, there were a few members who said they were happy with the pay (“when it comes on time,” some specified) and around 2 in 5 said they appreciated the camaraderie among the troops.

When reached for comment, Texas Military Department spokesperson Col. Rita Holton said the agency “consistently seek[s] opportunities to recognize service members, instill esprit de corps, and solicit feedback in order to continue improving morale across the board.”

“Surveys are an important, yet confidential, method in doing so,” Holton said. She also said the benefits disparity is an unavoidable consequence of the mission being done under state active-duty authority.

Holton said the surveys “[allow] leadership teams to proactively address” problems, but the source who provided the survey results said task force leadership initially didn’t respond to the results or communicate a plan to address the complaints troops made. Internal leadership meetings “focused on the positives that people seem to like their [colleagues], Mexican food in the area, etc.,” the source said.

But seven hours after the Tribune and Military Times submitted questions to the agency asking what it had done to address the troops’ concerns, Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis, the operation’s commander, signed a policy memo relaxing the off-duty curfew, alcohol restrictions and distance limits on off-duty travel. Leaders communicating the changes to the troops said they were the result of members’ feedback in surveys — despite the surveys being completed more than a month ago.

The agency refused to provide the results of a similar survey sent to all Operation Lone Star troops on Jan. 3. State military officials are trying to block a public information request from Military Times and the Tribune for that information, claiming that releasing the results would put troops at risk and “have a chilling effect” on future survey participation.

Lives left behind

The responses illustrate the personal consequences of the short-notice, involuntary activation.

Most state active-duty missions are short-term emergency responses, such as the Texas Guard’s response to the 2021 winter storm or hurricanes in recent years. But Operation Lone Star is different — thousands of troops have been there involuntarily since last fall, and they’re likely to be there until they’re replaced with a fresh wave of troops this fall, according to planning documents.

“What strategic or tactical thought has there been toward the impact of [Operation Lone Star] on the morale and retention of the Guard?” one member asked. “I had [nine days’] notice to leave my wife and baby during an immensely stressful point in our marriage.”

Another echoed his concerns.

“[I had] 10 days to try and find a substitute who could manage my classes at work, make plans to keep my house in shape, prepare my family mentally and emotionally, and of course, pack myself,” the airman said. Troops who don’t report for the involuntary mission could be arrested, Texas officials have acknowledged.

Many of the troops on the mission arrived immediately following federal deployments and a separate state mobilization to help with hurricane relief in Texas and Louisiana, one airman said. Now, major life milestones are still on hold.

“Myself and others have been gone for what will be a year and a half … with mere days in between,” another airman said. “Weddings, home builds and starting [a] family have been put off for the time being, and [this mission] is grinding down what little resolve we have left.”

The mission has halted schooling and day jobs as well. One airman said they were taking a pay cut from their civilian job, and the Texas Guard’s hardship bonus pay wasn’t enough to make up their salary.

“We were rushed down here from our homes and families just to sit around for a month waiting on training [and] equipment (most of which we are still waiting on), without the proper infrastructure to support such a [massive] mobilization,” the airman said.

A college student bemoaned that the mission had delayed their graduation — and worried they “may have to restart my nursing program all over again even [though] I was supposed to graduate in December 2022.”

And one health care worker, exasperated that the Guard had indefinitely “plucked” them from their job amid the coronavirus pandemic, argued they were “lied to about the duration.”

“Whether or not you agree with the politics and morals of [Operation Lone Star], the best thing you could do to improve morale would be to shorten [deployments],” the member said. “I’ve spoken to very few people who plan on continuing their service in the Texas [National Guard], much less staying on [the border] any longer than they have to. Send people home.”

Meanwhile, problems stemming from the mission’s rapid expansion are alienating even the troops who support Abbott’s approach to securing the border.

One Guard member who reported enjoying “working in the field” to catch migrants also decried leadership’s “lack of answers [and an] unknown date to return to family and civilian career.”

“People [quit] school, [their] jobs, [their] relationships all because of the stress of not knowing when they can pick it back up or plan to start again,” the airman explained. “It’s unrealistic for the younger [airmen].”

Another service member, who thinks the operation isn’t tough enough on migrants, also demanded that senior leaders also “pay us correctly and give us actual [health] insurance.”

Other troops resented feeling like a number or a political pawn in Abbott’s 2022 reelection campaign. Abbott is facing multiple challengers from his right in the Republican primary on March 1 who have criticized him for not being tough enough on the border. Many of the mission’s critics have condemned its scale as a political ploy, despite record migration at the border.

“Members feel like political [pawns] and do not feel like their [issues] are being heard,” said one airman.

Another decried how the mission “feels like being used for a political agenda.”

“Most of us signed up to help Texas in times of need like hurricanes,” the Guard member said. “This doesn’t feel like we are helping any Texans besides the governor and his ability to say he has activated the [Guard] to the border.”

Flagging morale

The mission’s shortcomings could exacerbate a deepening morale crisis in the Texas Guard.

“I support the mission and overall am glad to be part of it,” one Guard member said. “But morale issues are becoming critical and will get worse unless dramatic action is taken to get ahead of it.”

Following a string of suicides linked to the mission, there’s fear of future self-harm by members.

“I’m concerned with having members drinking without limits, knowing they have personal firearms [with them] and mental health struggles,” one airman explained. “With limited … access to mental health providers, and the rise in suicides on the Army side [of the mission], I feel we are doing nothing to prevent suicides coming to the 432nd.”

That airman called Operation Lone Star a “huge disappointment.”

“I never imagined members of the military would be treated so poorly[,] and I plan to leave the Air Guard after this because of how myself and others around me have been treated,” the member said.

Some respondents praised the effort and said they’d stay on as long as they could, despite the murky timeline and living with roommates or without a full kitchen. But more airmen indicated in the survey that Operation Lone Star will be their final mission in the Texas National Guard.

Military Times and the Tribune previously reported a recent trend of low retention numbers for the state’s Army Guard, while more troops leave critical fields like cyber warfare for the Air Guard as well.

Some are burnt out by the onslaught of missions and activations in recent years, from pandemic response to assistance in severe weather. Others worry their civilian lives have suffered too much.

According to one service member, multiple airmen had just returned from basic or technical training or a deployment, only to be pointed to the Mexico border during their first Guard drill back home.

“We’re going to lose a lot of good [airmen],” they said. “Why are we doing that to our members?!?!?!?”

Multiple people are bracing themselves to rebuild progress they’ve lost at their regular jobs when they return from the border. One airman, who called Operation Lone Star a “political mess between the federal and state government” now plans to separate from the Guard when their contract expires in 2023 after losing most of their clients from their civilian job.

“[Operation Lone Star] cares more about numbers than the impact on individuals and their families,” said one. “It does greater harm to our members than good by putting their families and own lives at risk for an unclear mission.”

Another said they hope other states learn from the mission’s troubles.

“We are disposable in the eyes of top leaders, from the governor on down,” declared the service member. “The leadership failures of this mission will be a case study for military leaders for years to come.”

José Luis Martínez contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/24/national-guard-Texas-border-morale-survey/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Whistleblowers accuse embattled Texas attorney general of misleading the public about corruption scandals

Authored by James Barragán

The whistleblowers who sued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton after he fired them for accusing him of bribery and abuse of office are speaking out against him publicly for the first time since filing their lawsuit, in response to what they say are Paxton’s “numerous false and misleading public statements” on the campaign trail.

The four whistleblowers – former deputy attorneys general James Blake Brickman, Mark Penley, and Ryan Vassar, as well as the office’s former director of law enforcement David Maxwell – said they previously intended to stay silent about their case while it played out in the judicial system.

“Our preference was to remain silent while the wheels of justice turned, and our civil case progressed in the courts,” they said in a joint statement Monday. “However, in recent weeks, Paxton has made numerous false and misleading public statements that we feel obligated to correct.”

The whistleblowers also said they had remained quiet to respect the “ongoing FBI investigation,” indicating that a federal criminal probe into Paxton continues. The FBI has declined to comment on the matter in the past.

“The most basic qualifications of an attorney general are respect for truth and respect for the law. Ken Paxton has neither,” the whistleblowers said in their statement. “The day will come when Ken Paxton must testify under oath about his and his agency’s actions. Until then, we call on Ken Paxton to start telling the truth to the people of Texas.”

Paxton, a two-term incumbent, is in a heated four-way primary for reelection and is campaigning throughout the state ahead of Election Day on March 1. The criminal allegations by his former top deputies have weighed down the attorney general this election cycle.

His office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The whistleblowers’ allegations were first made public in late 2020, when eight former top deputies accused Paxton of abusing his office, accepting bribes, and tampering with government documents to tip the scales at the attorney general’s office in favor of one of his political donors, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.

The whistleblowers told authorities Paxton had tried to intervene in legal matters related to Paul, who had donated money to the attorney general’s campaign, helped him remodel his home, and gave a job to a woman with whom Paxton allegedly had an extramarital affair. Paxton has denied wrongdoing.

All of the employees who reported Paxton were either fired or left the office under pressure after the complaint. The four who filed the whistleblower complaint contend they were fired for reporting Paxton’s alleged criminal behavior to local and federal authorities and are seeking to be reinstated.

Many of what the whistleblowers call Paxton’s “misleading public statements” came during a Jan. 31 interview with conservative radio host Mark Davis about the attorney general’s race. In the interview, Paxton claimed the whistleblowers “didn’t come to him” and “didn’t explain” the issues they had with the behavior that led to their complaints. In a separate interview with conservative outlet Texas Scorecard this month, Paxton claimed the FBI had “infiltrated” his office to investigate him before the whistleblowers made their complaint.

But the whistleblowers said in their statement they approached Paxton multiple times about their concerns with his push to get involved in Paul’s affairs before reporting him to the FBI. Their whistleblower lawsuit details specific dates when the whistleblowers individually and as a group warned Paxton that his actions in legal matters related to Paul were unlawful.

They said they first reported their concerns to the FBI on Sept. 30, 2020, after they could not convince Paxton to follow the law.

“We had no previous contact with the FBI before that date and believe this was the first time the FBI became involved with the investigation of Paxton and his office,” they wrote in their statement released Monday.

The whistleblowers also took issue with Paxton’s comment on Davis’ show that “no one has ever disputed” an unsigned 374-page report generated by his office in August that exonerated him of the whistleblower’s allegations.

“This is false. Paxton’s self-exonerating report is directly disputed by the detailed allegations in the whistleblower lawsuit,” the statement read. “Unsurprisingly, Paxton’s report selectively ignored some of the most troubling allegations we reported to the FBI, like Paxton providing blatant political favors to a campaign donor – the same campaign donor who has admitted in sworn testimony to hiring a woman at Paxton’s behest, a woman with whom media reports reveal Paxton had an extramarital affair.”

The whistleblowers also blasted Paxton for accusing them of committing crimes in the Davis interview, calling his accusations “ridiculous.”

“We confronted Ken Paxton about his and his agency’s corrupt and criminal conduct, and, when he would not abide by the law, we reported him to the FBI,” they said in their statement. “Paxton is under criminal investigation, not the whistleblowers.”

Paxton also told Texas Scorecard that he still does not know the specific allegations against him. The whistleblowers said the allegations against him are clearly spelled out in their lawsuit and include: bribery, tampering with government records, obstruction of justice, harassment, and abuse of office.

Paxton has tried to convince judges in the whistleblower lawsuit to throw out the case, arguing that he is not subject to the whistleblower law as an elected official. A district judge and a three-judge appellate court have rejected that argument and allowed the case to move forward.

Paxton has now appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which will likely delay the case’s progress for several months, well beyond Election Day for the Republican primary.

“Ken Paxton’s cynical, baseless argument has won for him what he most wanted, a

delay in the truth coming out so that he can travel the state misleading Texans,” the whistleblowers said.

But Paxton is still in the toughest fight of his political career in perhaps the most-watched primary race of the cycle. His challengers include Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and congressman Louie Gohmert. Polling has consistently shown Paxton leading the race, but does not show him garnering the simple majority of votes needed to avoid a runoff in May, though Paxton remains confident he can win outright.

Paxton is still facing charges of securities fraud in a separate legal case stemming back to 2015. He has denied wrongdoing.

An Austin cop has been charged with police misconduct. That might actually help his Texas House campaign

Feb. 19, 2022

"An Austin cop has been charged with police misconduct. That might actually help his Texas House campaign." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Republican Justin Berry’s Texas House campaign has centered largely on his 14-year tenure as an Austin police officer. He vows on his website to use that professional experience to “protect our neighborhoods, schools and private property.”

But less than two weeks before the March 1 GOP primary, Berry was among 19 Austin law enforcement officers indicted and accused of using excessive force on anti-police brutality protesters in 2020. Berry and law enforcement groups quickly pushed back on the development, which they portrayed as a political stunt from a Democratic district attorney who won office after promising to hold law enforcement accountable.

“The question is not how the prosecution will turn out,” Berry said in a statement late Friday. “We will be acquitted. The question is: When police are treated like this, who will want to become police officers?”

That messaging — and the indictments themselves — could spur Republican voters in the predominantly white and mostly Republican Central Texas district to back Berry, political experts and local Republicans say.

“It's rocket fuel to his campaign,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “There's not a lot of sleep lost or concern over excessive use of force against demonstrators in Austin.”

A 2020 University of Texas / Texas Tribune poll conducted after that year’s protests against police brutality found a stark partisan and racial divide in whether voters had a favorable or unfavorable view of law enforcement. In that poll, 84% of Republicans had a favorable opinion of law enforcement, while only 30% of Democrats did. Among white voters, 69% had a favorable opinion, but only 33% of Black voters and 43% of Hispanic voters did.

Central Texas’ House District 19 largely covers suburbs and Hill Country towns west of Austin where 82% of eligible voters are white. The mostly Republican district was redrawn during last year’s redistricting process. Former President Donald Trump would have carried the district in 2020 by nearly 40 percentage points. That means the Republican nominee will likely beat the lone Democrat seeking the seat in the November general election.

"Republican primary voters are very pro-law enforcement,” said Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak. “And I think a lot of Republican primary voters are going to view these indictments as an outrage. So it could be the kind of thing that raises his profile, that gives him a cause to cite on the campaign trail to galvanize supporters. "

Protesters across the state and country flooded the streets for weeks in 2020 after a Minneaopolis police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man. The protests divided Americans along partisan lines. Black Lives Matter supporters say the demonstrations were an outcry against police officers’ use of force on Black people, who are killed at disproportionately higher rates in police custody. But critics, including Republican officials across all levels of government, depicted the protests as violent and destructive uprisings.

In a statement late Friday, Berry echoed those GOP portrayals of the demonstrations as violent when he criticized Travis County District Attorney José Garza for pursuing the indictments.

“DA Garza promised in his campaign to go after law enforcement officials even when they are risking their lives protecting Austin from being burnt to the ground,” Berry said. “He is keeping that deadly promise.”

Garza announced the indictments at a press conference Thursday, but said his office was not disclosing details about the charges until individual officers are arrested and booked into jail. That means it’s not yet publicly known what crime or crimes Berry is accused of committing during the 2020 protests. A police union official said the officers face accusations of excessive force. Berry’s lawyer declined to comment until the indictment against his client is made public.

Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon defended his officers this week. He and City Manager Spencer Cronk said they did not think officers should face criminal charges.

In announcing the indictments, Garza said many of the protesters injured were innocent bystanders. But Berry said Garza “demonizes police” and “demands that police abandon their oaths.”

Police said demonstrators threw bottles and rocks at officers, sometimes injuring them, damaging police cars and breaking into stores. But advocates and protesters expressed outrage over police officers turning to violent crowd-control measures, including bean bag rounds.

Cities and communities in Texas continue to grapple with the aggressive tactics that police waged against protesters that year. Police officers all over Texas and the nation have faced charges for how they dealt with protesters. Last week, the Dallas County district attorney's office issued warrants for two Dallas police officers’ arrest for their alleged use of force during the 2020 racial justice protests in that city.

The Austin indictments are among the highest tied to a single city’s police force in connection with the 2020 protests so far, according to the Associated Press.

Earlier Thursday, the Austin City Council unanimously approved a settlement with two demonstrators who suffered severe head injuries in 2020. Justin Howell will receive $8 million — the highest amount ever awarded in an excessive force case involving an Austin police officer, the Austin American-Statesman reported. Anthony Evans, another protester, will get $2 million.

Craig Murphy, a spokesperson for Berry’s campaign, said the Texas House candidate and the other officers followed orders, and expects the jury to find them not guilty.

“They did exactly what they were told to do with the tools they were given and with the training they were given,” Murphy said.

In the primary, Berry faces former Austin City Council member Ellen Troxclair, former legislative staffer Nubia Devine and military veteran Perla Hopkins. Devine declined to comment on the indictment. Hopkins and Troxclair did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the candidates’ Jan. 31 campaign finance reports, Troxclair had the financial edge heading into the primary’s homestretch. She had more than $412,000 cash on hand in January. Berry had more than $36,000, Devine had nearly $23,000, while Hopkins trailed behind with almost $2,300.

Democratic candidate Pam Baggett, whom the Republican nominee will face in November, said there is not enough information to determine how Berry was involved.

“We're going to have to wait and see what actually is the charge. We don't know yet,” Baggett said.

With the March 1 primary election less than two weeks away, The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas executive director Charley Wilkison said the timing of the indictment was intended to drive voter turnout for “anti-police candidates.” The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas has previously endorsed Berry.

The proceedings against Berry and the 18 other police officers could take months or years to resolve. Mackowiak said that creates uncertainty among voters, and could take Berry’s attention away from the campaign.

The scheduling of indictment proceedings against Berry was unusual, Mackowiak, the Travis County GOP chair, added.

“We don’t see candidates get indicted days before an election,” Mackowiak said. “In fact, generally, law enforcement, whether it's federal, state or local, bends over backwards not to indicate candidates around the time of an election because they want to appear apolitical.”

Reese Oxner and Joshua Fechter contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/19/austin-police-indictments-justin-berry-election/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas House candidate among Austin officers indicted on excessive force charges

Feb. 17, 2022

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Republican Texas House candidate Justin Berry was among 19 Austin police officers indicted Thursday and accused of using excessive force during 2020 protests, Austin Police Association president Kenneth Casaday told The Texas Tribune.

The indictments, which have not yet been made publicly available, stem from the 2020 protests in Austin after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. In Austin, protesters were also spurred by the local police killing of Michael Ramos, an unarmed Black and Hispanic man, which took place a month before Floyd’s murder. The officer, Christopher Taylor, has been charged with murder.

Berry’s attorney declined to confirm or deny his indictment Thursday, and it is unknown what specifically prompted his indictment. The cases against the Austin officers could take months or years to resolve. The Austin American-Statesman first reported that Berry was among those indicted.

Berry is one of four Republicans seeking the GOP nomination in the March 1 primary election for Texas House District 19, a district west of Austin that includes Fredericksburg, Boerne and Burnet. It was not immediately clear how the indictment would affect his campaign.

The district’s boundaries were redrawn during the redistricting process last year. The seat is currently held by state Rep. James White, a Hillister Republican, who isn’t seeking reelection because he is challenging Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller next month.

During the summer of 2020, thousands of people flooded Austin streets and highways during Black Lives Matter protests, leading to clashes with police officers that turned violent. Videos from protests showed protesters lobbing water bottles at police, and officers firing bean bag rounds into large crowds. Police reported rocks were thrown at them, and patrol cars were damaged.

While Berry’s role in the police response is unclear, Austin officers grievously wounded at least several people after shooting them with the “less lethal” ammunition in the head, including a 20-year-old Black man police said was not their intended target after a nearby man tossed a water bottle and backpack up toward steps where police were in formation. Video showed a 16-year-old Hispanic boy collapsing to the ground after police fired a bean bag bullet at him while he was standing alone near the freeway.

The violent police tactics during the protests against police violence were heavily criticized. Also on Thursday, the city of Austin agreed to a $10 million settlement with two men shot by police with bean bag rounds, including the 20-year-old.

The number of officers indicted is among the highest tied to a single city’s police force in connection with the 2020 protests so far, according to the Associated Press.

Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon defended the actions of his officers in a press conference following the indictments Thursday. Chacon said his officers were overwhelmed by crowds that were often “riotous and violent.”

In his own press conference Thursday, Travis County District Attorney José Garza said that he believed many people injured during the protests were innocent bystanders and that some people who suffered serious injuries will never recover.

In 2020, Garza won his election as DA on a platform that included holding law enforcement officials accountable.

Casaday, who said he is a friend of Berry and was present with the indicted officers Thursday, joined Chacon and police backers in decrying the move.

Casaday accused Garza of trying to score political points, and the union is asking him to pause the indictments until after the March 1 primary.

“These officers did what they were told to do by their supervisors, and the DA indicted them for it,” Casaday said.

Jolie McCullough and Reese Oxner contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/17/austin-police-indictments-justin-berry/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Partisan tactic by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s campaign delays thousands of requests for mail-in ballots

"Partisan tactic by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s campaign delays thousands of requests for mail-in ballots from Texas voters" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Thousands of applications for mail-in ballots submitted by Texas voters have been delayed — and some voters may ultimately not receive ballots — because Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's campaign instructed eligible voters to send requests for absentee ballots to the Texas secretary of state’s office instead of their local elections offices.

A mass mailing by Patrick went out to Republican voters across the state in January, ahead of the March primary, and included a two-page letter emblazoned with the seal of his office encouraging voters to submit the requests following “three easy steps.” The problem was the third step, which instructed voters to return the applications in an enclosed reply envelope that was addressed to the state.

The lieutenant governor’s campaign said it used the secretary of state's address because “many Republican voters are rightly suspicious of Blue County election officials.”

“The decision to direct return mail to the Secretary of State (SOS), someone who is trusted and respected, gave voters an added layer of comfort,” Allen Blakemore, a campaign consultant for Patrick, wrote in an email.

But the campaign’s approach forced the secretary of state, which had a stated policy of rejecting applications erroneously sent its way, to sort and forward the Patrick-inspired forms to the counties where they should have been sent originally.

The delayed delivery could put voters’ requests for mail-in ballots at risk as counties continue to see higher-than-normal rejection rates of applications under new ID requirements enacted by Republicans last year. Any issues with defective applications must be resolved by Friday so voters can receive a mail-in ballot.

State workers have been forwarding the waylaid applications to respective counties, which this week were still receiving packages containing hundreds of misdirected applications.

The fiasco has further muddled the first election held since Patrick, as head of the state Senate, presided over last year's passage of new laws tightening voting processes, including a measure making it a crime for local election officials to send out applications for mail-in ballots to people who did not request them.

“Everyone age 65 and older has earned the right to vote early by mail. As Republicans, we have fought to make it easier to vote while protecting election integrity, so we need to make sure we increase our turnout by taking full advantage of this convenient and secure voting option,” Patrick wrote in a letter dated Jan. 20 that was attached with the applications.

Though the letter contains the official state seal for the lieutenant governor, as allowed by law, the materials were labeled as being sent out by Patrick’s campaign and not at taxpayer expense.

The mailing went out to voters in Harris County and central Texas, with Patrick endorsing area Republican candidates in different versions of his letter obtained by The Texas Tribune. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram recently reported the mailer also reached Tarrant County residents.

Unsolicited mailing campaigns from candidates and political parties are not uncommon. But Republicans’ penchant for encouraging voting by mail for their voters has come under scrutiny as they've worked to limit expansions of mail-in voting during the pandemic and criminalized the mailing of applications by county election administrators to voters who did not request them.

Republican lawmakers last year made it a state jail felony for local election officials to send out unsolicited applications for mail-in ballots, even to voters 65 and older who automatically qualify under the state’s strict eligibility requirements. They also prohibited local officials from even encouraging people to vote by mail.

The full scale of Patrick’s mailing efforts is unclear; his campaign did not answer a question about the reach of the mailings. But the secretary of state’s office previously told some county officials that it had received at least two pallets of applications, and some local election officials have indicated they were receiving hundreds of delayed applications.

“The SOS has always accepted ABBMs and quickly and efficiently routed them to the proper local offices,” Blakemore said, referring to applications for a ballot by mail. “We believe that this will ensure that Blue County election officials are more likely to properly handle our ABBMs when they know they are being watched and monitored by the SOS.”

In an email responding to questions about the misdirected applications, a spokesperson for the Texas secretary of state did not address the mailing campaign by the lieutenant governor.

“Generally speaking, we request that voters do not mail, fax, or email completed applications for Ballot by Mail to the Secretary of State Office,” wrote Sam Taylor, the spokesperson, noting that the office would forward applications to early voting clerks “as a courtesy to help the voter.”

“It is not the voter’s fault if a third party put the incorrect return address on an ABBM, so we want to ensure voters are not adversely affected by that,” Taylor said.

This appears to be a departure from the office’s previous stance on applications wrongly sent to its office. The secretary of state’s website previously warned voters against sending applications to its office, noting that “all applications received by this office will be rejected.” That language was removed from the website at the beginning of the month, according to a screenshot of the same page archived by the Wayback Machine.

County election officials receiving the waylaid applications this week are now under a time crunch to process them and reach out to voters if their applications are defective. Hundreds of applications to vote by mail in the primary have been initially rejected in recent weeks after voters did not fill out new ID rules that require them to provide a driver’s license number or partial Social Security number.

Voters can correct the issue but must do so by the Friday deadline for counties to receive applications for the primary election. Otherwise, their application will be finally rejected.

Taylor said the secretary of state’s office had been working to “expedite” the forwarding of applications it received and planned to label those that came to them before the deadline to request mail-in ballots.

The unsolicited mailings come as the Texas attorney general argues in federal court that the restrictions on county election officials in regard to voting by mail are intended to limit “official encouragement” of voting by mail. In a hearing for a related case, a lawyer for the attorney general indicated to a federal judge last week that the state preferred people vote in person even if they qualify to vote by mail.

On Thursday, Blakemore defended the new prohibitions as “guard rails” established by the Legislature following Harris County’s unsuccessful attempt to send applications for mail-in ballots to all of its registered voters in 2020.

“It was that overreach, as well as drive-thru-voting, that brought about SB1,” Blakemore said.

In 2020, Patrick referred to vote-by-mail expansion efforts as a “scam by Democrats to steal the election,” saying there was no reason anyone under 65 should be “able to say I am afraid to go vote” during the pandemic. Patrick himself has used the voting option, opting to vote by mail in a 2007 Houston municipal election and an ensuing runoff.

Disclosure: The Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/17/texas-voting-by-mail-2022-dan-patrick/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Hundreds of mail-in ballots are being returned to Texas voters because they don’t comply with new voting law

"Stricter voting rules enacted by Republican lawmakers last year continue to foil Texans trying to vote by mail in the upcoming primary, with hundreds of completed ballots being initially rejected for not meeting the state’s new identification requirements.

The bulk of mail-in ballots have yet to arrive at elections offices, but local officials are already reporting that a significant number are coming in without the newly required ID information. As of Wednesday, election officials in Harris County alone had flagged 1,360 mail-in ballots to be sent back to voters — 40% of the mail-in ballots returned up to that point — because they lacked an ID number.

Under the state’s new rules, officials cannot accept ballots without the ID information on the return envelopes containing the ballot and must mail them back if there’s enough time for the voter to send back a corrected envelope.

“We’ll see how many we get back,” said Isabel Longoria, the Harris County elections administrator. “That’s our big question mark right now: Are voters going to go through the extra step to correct it?”

The new ID requirements are the earliest rule changes to kick in under the law that Republican lawmakers enacted last year to further tighten voting procedures in the state. The law, known as SB 1, ratchets up the state’s already strict rules for voting by mail by requiring absentee voters to include a state identification number like a driver’s license number, or — if they don’t have a driver’s license — a partial Social Security number, both when requesting a mail-in ballot and when returning a completed ballot.

Those numbers must match information in a voter’s record for ballot requests to be accepted and votes to be counted.

The new ID rules have already prompted hundreds of rejected ballot requests, often because voters did not provide any ID numbers at all. But even counties that saw few request rejections are now grappling with high rates of faulty ballots.

That includes Hays County, where about 30% of the voters who had already returned their mail-in ballots had not filled out the ID requirement. Those are early figures, as ballots are only starting to trickle in, so Jennifer Anderson, the county’s elections administrator, is hoping voter outreach efforts will help curb more errors.

“We usually have a very low rejection rate so it’s not something we want to see in Hays County,” Anderson said.

Other suburban counties are seeing similar rates. Election officials in Williamson County said about 30% of completed ballots were missing ID numbers.

The ID requirements forced a redesign of the carrier envelopes used to return mail-in ballots, allowing them to be sealed in a way that protects a voter’s sensitive information while traveling through the mail. The ID field was placed under the envelope flap. But based on early figures, local election officials this week said they feared voters were missing it altogether.

The voting law allows for a correction process, but local election officials and voters are facing a time crunch.

Defective ballots must be sent back to voters if they arrive early enough to be sent back and corrected. If officials determine there’s not enough time, they must notify the voter by phone or email. Voters must then visit the elections office in person to correct the issue, or use the state’s new online ballot tracker to verify the missing information.

Those determinations are made by panels of election workers responsible for qualifying mail-in ballots. The Texas secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections, has advised counties to convene those panels as early as possible to give voters the maximum amount of time to make a correction.

“Obviously the main concern, I think, with most election officials is that people that receive ballots by mail may not have the ability to come to the clerk’s office,” said Heather Hawthorne, the county clerk of Chambers County.

The smaller county east of Houston hasn’t seen ID issues “in extremely high numbers,” but Hawthorne knows the importance of giving absentee voters enough time to safeguard their votes.

In Texas, only a sliver of the electorate is allowed to vote by mail, but absentee voting is often used by people for whom voting in person can be a challenge, including Texans with disabilities.

Only voters who are 65 or older automatically qualify for a mail-in ballot. Otherwise, voters must qualify under a limited set of reasons, including absence from the county during the election period or a disability or illness that would keep them from voting in person without needing help or that makes a trip to the polls risky to their health.

But the deluge of mail-in ballots won’t come in until closer to deadline. Voters have until election day — March 1 for the primary — to return their ballots.

Officials in larger counties are staffing up ahead of the rush — and a possible spike in defective ballots under the new rules.

Harris County, home to Houston, has doubled the number of workers managing its voter call center, and it’s scrambling to add more workers to its mail ballot team. It has increased the size of the panel of election workers who are qualifying mail-in ballots by 30%, and Longoria expects they’ll have to work double the number of days when the crush of ballots comes in.

As of Tuesday, Harris County had received only about 10% of the more than 27,000 mail-in ballots it had sent out to voters who requested them. (That number is expected to grow further because voters can request mail-in ballots up until Feb. 18.)

El Paso County’s elections administrator Lisa Wise said the county is almost doubling the size of its review panel, which may have to add hours or days to its working schedule. The county had not yet started processing completed mail-in ballots as of Wednesday.

Elections workers were still working through hundreds of applications for mail-in ballots that were missing ID numbers.

Disclosure: The Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/10/texas-mail-voting-rejections/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Capitol Police dismiss Texas GOP congressman’s accusation that he’s being illegally investigated

By Andrew Zhang and Abby Livingston, The Texas Tribune

"Capitol Police dismiss Texas Congressman Troy Nehls’ accusation that he’s being illegally investigated" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Capitol Police said Tuesday they were conducting a routine security check of U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls’ office three months ago, rejecting an accusation from the congressman that officers were using illegal tactics to investigate him as political retribution.

Nehls, a Republican from Richmond, claimed without evidence on Twitter on Tuesday morning that U.S. Capitol Police intelligence officers illegally entered his office in November and photographed legislative documents. He speculated that the actions came because of his criticism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection. While Nehls, the former Fort Bend sheriff, helped defend the Capitol on the day of the attack, helping police barricade the doors, he has since labeled investigations into the events as a Democrat-led attack on former President Donald Trump.

Nehls said in his tweets that the police first entered his office on Nov. 20 and then later attempted to enter his office on Nov. 22, where they encountered one of Nehls’ staff members.

“Upon discovering a member of my staff, special agents dressed like construction workers began to question him as to the contents of a photograph taken illegally two days earlier,” Nehls tweeted.

Capitol police later issued a public statement that said Nehls is not under investigation and the search was routine procedure because his office was found open.

“If a Member’s office is left open and unsecured, without anyone inside the office, USCP officers are directed to document that and secure the office to ensure nobody can wander in and steal or do anything else nefarious,” Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger said in a statement.

“No case investigation was ever initiated or conducted into the Representative or his staff,” Manger said.

In a statement, Nehls said the issue was not whether the office was entered legally, but whether the officer took a picture of private congressional material protected under law.

“Somebody in the Capitol Police took a picture of the whiteboard, shared it with the command center, who shared it with a special agent, who shared it with another supervisor who then had three guys show up at my office,” Nehls told reporters outside the House floor before a vote. “All I’m asking is let’s see the photo that they took.”

Manger said in his statement that police personnel were following up with the staff after they initially secured his empty office.

In a separate statement released Tuesday evening, Nehls said Manger mischaracterized the events and omitted details, and that he looked forward to an Office of Inspector General investigation into the matter.

“In what world does Capitol Police leadership encourage officers to enter a Member’s private office, take photographs, collect evidence, dispatch intelligence agents to question staff — and then say that’s not an investigation?” Nehls said in the statement.

Nehls, a freshman congressman and former police officer, made headlines the day of the riot for helping secure the House chamber from the influx of supporters of Trump who were trying to stop certification of Joe Biden’s election. But afterward, on the evening of Jan. 6, 2021, he joined the Republican effort to oppose certification of votes in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

He ran for Congress in 2020, touting more than 20 years of experience in law enforcement, including being elected as Fort Bend County sheriff in 2012 and reelected in 2016. But his record in law enforcement was criticized during his campaign.

In 1998, he was fired from the Richmond Police Department after committing 19 violations — ranging from improper arrests to destruction of evidence — in one year. While he was sheriff, he faced a warning from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards that his department jail needed to take corrective action after two inmate deaths in less than two months.

Since the riot, Nehls has toed the Republican line of opposing the investigation into the attack. He has condemned the rioters for infiltrating the Capitol but declines to blame Trump for the event.

In June, House Democrats voted to establish a House Select Committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack, with all Republicans besides Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois voting against the move. Afterwards, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recommended Nehls as one of five Republicans to sit on the committee. However, Pelosi rejected two of McCarthy’s recommendations, and the minority leader pulled all of his picks from the committee in protest.

Since then, Nehls told Forbes that he and the other four Republicans originally recommended for the Jan. 6 committee have established their own probe.

On the one-year anniversary of the riot, Nehls released a statement calling Pelosi’s select committee a “weapon against President Trump” and accusing her of failing “to protect the Capitol grounds.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/08/troy-nehls-investigation-capitol-police/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas National Guard troops call Abbott’s rushed border operation a disaster

By Davis Winkie, Military Times, and James Barragán, The Texas Tribune

Feb. 1, 2022

"Deplorable conditions, unclear mission: Texas National Guard troops call Abbott’s rushed border operation a disaster" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

This article is co-published and co-reported with Military Times, an independent news organization reporting on issues important to the U.S. military. Sign up for its daily Early Bird Brief newsletter here.

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In October, amid a historic surge of Texas National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, one soldier’s leader told him “not to worry” about getting sent there. He could sit this one out.

The part-time senior noncommissioned officer said he still feared an unanticipated call-up — he owns a small business and he has a son with a disability.

Usually, long-term Guard deployments come from the federal government, with nearly a year’s notice — the NCO had several months to settle his affairs before two previous deployments. But Operation Lone Star is different.

Faced with a humanitarian crisis along the Rio Grande, pressured by conservative rivals and chided by right-wing cable pundits, Gov. Greg Abbott decided last fall to move thousands of troops to the border as quickly as possible. And the Texas Military Department, which oversees the state’s National and State Guard branches, did all it could to comply — with haste.

Never before has Texas — or any other state — involuntarily activated so many troops under state active duty authority for such a long-term mission. Nor has it been done so quickly.

A few days after being told he’d likely sit the deployment out, the NCO was ordered to report within 72 hours, he said. If he didn’t, his commanders told him, the state would issue an arrest warrant.

“I had to cancel $60,000 worth of business contracts,” the NCO, who requested anonymity because he feared retaliation from Guard leaders, said in a text to Army Times and The Texas Tribune. His employees all quit.

After “three weeks of sitting on my ass with zero task or purpose,” he was sent home. But it may be too late to save his business. He says he still hasn’t found a new project and had to sell his company’s van to pay his mortgage, car payments and business loans.

“I didn’t want to get out of bed for a week,” the soldier said. “I was unemployed … and [I] felt exactly as if [the Texas Military Department] put me there because of their … lack of planning and leadership.”

His story is just one of many hardships service members say have resulted from Abbott’s unprecedented border security push, called Operation Lone Star.

During a two-month period beginning in September, Operation Lone Star ballooned from a lean 1,000-volunteer outfit to a mandatory mobilization of up to 10,000 members of the Texas Military Department. According to a senior Guard leader’s leaked comments during a virtual town hall for unit leaders, they’re expecting the current wave of troops to be there for a year, and they’re preparing for yet another wave of deployments.

The troops there say they faced a deluge of problems when they were mobilized — some of which have been slowly improving in recent weeks:

  • As many as 1 in 5 troops in the 6,500-strong “operational force” who have been sent to the border have reported problems with their pay, including being paid late, too little or not at all for months.
  • Service members say they have struggled with shortages of critical equipment, including cold weather gear, medical equipment and plates for their ballistic vests.
  • Many are living in cramped trailers with dozens of troops.
  • Some say they feel underutilized and rarely see migrants while working isolated observation posts that in some cases lacked portable toilets for months.

Interviews with 33 verified current and five former Texas National Guard troops and documents obtained by Army Times and The Texas Tribune show that these problems were predictable — some of them also happened during the Guard’s 2017 response to Hurricane Harvey.

But Abbott’s haste in rolling out the deployment made similar problems inevitable. The active and former soldiers say that Abbott’s order left Guard officials scrambling to execute a mobilization that would have normally taken several months to adequately plan.

“If we had known from day one that the goal was [10,000 troops], we could’ve planned,” said one soldier directly familiar with the operation’s mobilization process. “We pride ourselves on … the number of [federal] deployments Texas supports. But this? This is not something to be proud of.”

A National Guard general from another state added, “There’s no conceivable way that could have gone smoothly. There’s no way.”

The general, like the other currently serving troops who spoke with Army Times and the Tribune, requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media about Operation Lone Star. Most said they feared retaliation.

The former top enlisted soldier in the Texas Army National Guard, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, blamed the state’s top general for the failures and accused the state of “hoping they would go away.” Featherston went on retirement leave in mid-August, before the border mission’s rapid expansion, and officially retired on Nov. 30.

“Based on the lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey, [Maj. Gen. Tracy] Norris should have known better than to think that standing up thousands of troops on this timeline would go smoothly,” said Featherston, who was the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of operations during the Harvey mobilization.

Texas National Guard leadership, meanwhile, rejects that assertion. Army Times and the Tribune sent a summary of this investigation and an exhaustive list of questions to the Texas Military Department on Jan. 20. Col. Rita Holton provided answers and declined to respond to detailed follow-up questions. Holton instead posted a release to the Texas Military Department website on Jan. 21 that gave the department’s rebuttal to media reports detailing problems with Operation Lone Star.

“It is clear that reporters have gleaned information from anonymous sources and unverified documents, which have then been skewed to push an agenda,” Holton said in the release.

Featherston, the former sergeant major, said Holton’s statement reflects the department’s misplaced priorities.

“Instead of solving [pay, lack of equipment, and family or employer hardships], more energy was spent on hiding or covering up problems rather than fixing them,” Featherston argued. “Families [have been] impacted forever.”

A group migrants waits at a gate near the U.S. and Mexico border in Del Rio on July 22, 2021. The group turned themselves over to the National Guard and Customs and Border Protection officials.

Migrants waited at a gate last summer near the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio. The group surrendered to the National Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Hurried deployment plagued by pay problems

The National Guard is primarily staffed by part-time troops who have civilian jobs, lives and families. Sometimes they’re called to full-time duty by the federal government. Those deployments are often yearlong missions, but Guard members are alerted months ahead of time so they can get their affairs in order — and troops alerted less than 120 days prior to deployment usually can’t be forced to go.

The Guard can also be deployed by governors for what’s known as state active duty. Typically those are short stints to respond to natural disasters or civil disturbances.

Operation Lone Star is a distortion of what state active duty is designed to do, according to the Guard general from another state, who is in charge of nearly 10,000 people.

“A lot of [Operation Lone Star’s problem] is just the nature of the fact that you’re doing [it] on state active duty,” the general said.

Like a federal call-up, the mission is expected to last at least a year, but many troops received only days' notice, and they face a high bar to get a hardship exemption to avoid deploying. For example, service members said, Border Patrol agents, police and other first responders who serve in the Guard are typically exempt from state missions, but only Border Patrol agents are automatically exempt from Lone Star.

Before Operation Lone Star, the most significant state active-duty mission in Texas history was during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when Abbott mobilized more than 17,400 Guard troops for less than a month before some went home and others transitioned to a federally funded mission.

The state call-up was plagued with payroll problems that retired 1st Sgt. Lachelle Robinson saw firsthand when she was the top personnel NCO for Joint Task Force Harvey.

In a phone interview, Robinson estimated that around 15% of Texas troops who were activated for Hurricane Harvey — roughly 2,500 — didn’t receive their state active duty paychecks on time.

She attributed the pay problems to the “immediate emergency” that didn’t leave enough time to make sure that troops’ addresses and other administrative information were correct.

At the mission’s end, Robinson said, she and other officials submitted feedback warning that state missions should incorporate a longer planning process to ensure service members’ records are correct to avoid similar pay problems. Army Times and the Tribune obtained a copy of the Harvey review, which included a slide saying the state should “improve” state pay system reports.

Five years after the Harvey experience, at least 1,330 Operation Lone Star troops have received incorrect pay at some point, Holton, the TMD spokesperson, told the San Antonio Express-News. That’s a similar rate to the Hurricane Harvey response.

An NCO deployed near Del Rio said some of his soldiers had to take out personal loans due to the missing pay. One soldier missed debt payments, “screwing his credit score,” the NCO said. Some troops haven’t received supplemental pay they were promised, added another soldier.

“Can we not learn from this?” said a source familiar with the Texas Military Department’s state active-duty procedures. “Do we have to keep making the same mistakes over and over again?”

Holton said that 75% of reported pay issues have been resolved. She attributed the problems to a new payroll system implemented after Hurricane Harvey and said adding such a large number of soldiers under Operation Lone Star has revealed “gaps” in the system. All personnel on the mission have received at least some pay, she added.

Abbott downplayed the scope of the pay issues in a Jan. 11 press conference, claiming that “all paycheck issues have been addressed.” But service members say that’s not true.

One soldier’s wife told Army Times and the Tribune last week that her husband has received only three paychecks since October. Soldiers are paid every two weeks.

Multiple sources who spoke to Army Times and the Tribune said the new pay system is prone to error because unit-level operators must manually input pay information for each soldier every day.

Holton said the state deployed “pay strike teams” to the border on Jan. 16 to resolve outstanding pay complaints, but she did not respond to a follow-up question from Army Times and the Tribune asking why the teams didn’t deploy months ago. Since then, she sent a tweet asking troops with pay issues to email her.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks with Steve McCraw, Director of Department of Public Safety, before holding a press conference with nine other governors at Anzalduas Park in Mission on Oct. 6, 2021.

Flanked by National Guard members, Gov. Greg Abbott spoke with Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw before an October press conference in Mission. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Abbott's expansion under a political microscope

Border security is mainly a federal responsibility, but the Texas National Guard has long had a state-controlled presence there, especially when Democrats have held the White House.

In 2014, two years before former Gov. Rick Perry ran for president, he sent 1,000 troops there and blasted President Barack Obama for failing to secure the border. When Abbott took office in 2015, hundreds were serving there alongside Border Patrol. He kept them on after an increasing number of unaccompanied children arrived at the border.

After Donald Trump became president, the federal government began funding the Texas state border mission, expanded it and added active-duty troops. That effort continues to this day with less than 3,000 federally funded and controlled Guard troops along the border.

As President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, he ended federal reimbursement for state-controlled troops on the border, and the number of migrants illegally crossing the southwest border began to soar. In March, the federal government reported that it apprehended 173,000 migrants at the border — some 70,000 more than in March 2019.

That month, Abbott announced he would begin a new state-run border mission and again send troops to the border to assist the Texas Department of Public Safety and other agencies with stemming human and drug trafficking.

The effort began with 500 Guard members who volunteered for the deployment. Nan Tolson, an Abbott spokesperson reached via email for this story, said the mission’s size was initially dictated by available funding.

The deployment came at a politically fraught moment for a governor whose popularity was sagging as he took fire over his handling of two crises — the COVID-19 pandemic and a February 2021 winter storm that caused the state’s power grid to collapse, leaving millions without electricity or heat for days.

In May, Abbott faced his first major challenge from his right flank after former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, a millionaire with money to spend, announced his entry in the 2022 gubernatorial primary. Two months later, Huffines was joined by Allen West, the former U.S. representative from Florida and chair of the Republican Party of Texas. Both blasted Abbott for failing to secure the border.

As the weather and the political rhetoric heated up, Abbott accelerated his border security push and increased his criticism of Biden. “The Biden administration has abandoned its responsibility to apply federal law to secure the border and to enforce the immigration laws, and Texans are suffering as a consequence of that neglect,” he said in a June press conference announcing a $250 million “down payment” to build a state-funded border wall.

In August, Abbott activated more troops — many of them tasked with helping build border barriers — bringing the total to 1,000 volunteers.

Then, in September, the Texas Military Department began quietly preparing to put even more troops on the border, according to a source familiar with the mobilization and documents obtained by Army Times and the Tribune. On Sept. 7, the headquarters issued a “2021 South Texas Border Surge” warning order — a formal heads up that an expansion of the border mission was imminent. A Sept. 9 order confirmed that the mission would expand to brigade-sized later that month.

Gov. Greg Abbott looks at crane lifting a section of the border wall in place after giving a press conference at Rio Grande City on Dec. 18, 2021.

Gov. Greg Abbott watches a crane lifting a section of the border wall into place after a press conference in Rio Grande City on Dec. 18, 2021. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

A portion of the newly-erected border fence that is being constructed by the state on private property in Del Rio on July 23, 2021.

The state erected border fencing on private property in Del Rio last summer. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

First: Gov. Greg Abbott watched a crane lifting a section of the border wall into place in December in Rio Grande City. Last: The state erected border fencing on private property in Del Rio last summer. Credit: Jason Garza and Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for The Texas Tribune

Beginning the week of Sept. 12, a humanitarian crisis in Del Rio caught the world’s attention when an estimated 12,000 mostly Haitian asylum-seekers crossed the Rio Grande and encamped under the city’s international bridge, where they awaited processing by Customs and Border Protection officials. Prominent Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson covered the issue, initially focusing on what he characterized as the federal government’s lackluster response.

Around Sept. 20, Abbott formally ordered 1,500 more soldiers to the border in a major expansion of Operation Lone Star. Tolson, Abbott’s spokesperson, pointed to the Del Rio incident as a motivating factor for the surge, as well as its haste.

“Multiple reports suggested that additional caravans were headed to the U.S., with the Texas border as the primary target,” she said. “As those caravans made their way toward Mexico City, where they typically make the decision to head to Texas or some other state, Texas needed to surge all possible resources. … Additional Guard was needed at the border before caravans decided which direction to go.”

A few days before formally beginning the surge, Abbott had signed another border security bill that provided an additional $1.88 billion to the effort — including $750 million for the state-funded border wall and $311 million to scale up the Texas Military Department’s response.

But those actions didn’t halt the political pressure on Abbott.

Carlson, whose widely watched Fox News opinion show influences conservative policy, attacked Abbott on Sept. 22, saying he needed “to come on this show to explain to us why he hasn’t called the National Guard to seal the Texas border and protect us from this invasion.” It’s not clear if Carlson was aware of Abbott’s Sept. 20 order.

In early October, Abbott ordered the Texas Military Department to activate 2,500 more Guard members and send them to the border. By the end of November, the number sent to the border would reach at least 6,500, with thousands more supporting the mission from elsewhere.

Holton, the state public affairs officer, said this deployment timeline was “inaccurate,” but she declined to elaborate. Army Times and the Tribune reconstructed the activation’s timeline through more than 40 pages of official documents and spreadsheets obtained from verified sources.

The activation’s speed became a preoccupation of Texas Guard officials, the soldier directly familiar with the mobilization process explained.

“The ‘whys’ were never addressed,” the soldier said. “It was just a constantly increasing weekly [mobilization quota] requirement.”

West called out the hurried mobilization in a campaign event earlier this month, calling it a “rush to failure.” He’s called for Norris, the state’s top general, to resign.

As the state scrambled to source troops for the surge, it began to involuntarily activate thousands of service members for a mission with no clear end date. The state has also threatened to issue arrest warrants for troops who do not show up. Army Times and the Tribune obtained filled-out warrants and charge sheets for four soldiers, but Holton said no troops had been arrested.

Of the more than 20 involuntarily activated troops who spoke with Army Times and the Tribune, none reported having more than two weeks’ notice of their deployment. Some reported having as little as two days to drop their civilian lives as police officers, college students, small-business owners and cyber security professionals; make arrangements for child care; notify their employers; and say goodbye to friends and family.

One junior paratrooper shared his frustration over being set back in college again after having to withdraw from his fall semester classes.

“I’m like a fifth-year junior [now],” he said. “My school took away my financial aid for not making satisfactory academic progress.”

Another soldier, who works in civilian law enforcement, said the mobilization is diminishing his small town’s police department, which includes four Guard members. Other departments are facing similar issues after the Guard refused to grant blanket hardship waivers to police officers.

“It … makes it very difficult for the remaining officers to compensate,” he said. “Supervisors have to pick up the slack, and the [department] pays more in overtime.”

National Guard and law enforcement vehicles near the U.S. and Mexico border in Del Rio on July 22, 2021.

Some National Guard members said they’ve been working without all the equipment and facilities they need. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Inadequate planning time led to logistics problems

Once the Guard members arrived at the border, many reported encountering substandard living conditions and shortages of equipment to protect them while they patrol the Rio Grande, sit at observation posts or work on sections of border barrier.

Many of the troops are housed in hastily constructed base camps in remote parts of the border. Several soldiers describe communal trailers crammed with built-in bunk beds stacked three high.

In a town hall that Maj. Gen. Charles Aris, the commander of the 36th Infantry Division, held for his subordinate commanders early this month, one small-unit commander complained that there was no gear storage for his troops in the trailers. Instead, they had to store thousands of dollars’ worth of military-issued equipment like helmets and ballistic vests in their personal vehicles.

“You have to go out to your vehicle a lot to change your clothes because you don’t have enough room to keep your stuff in there,” said one 19-year veteran in an interview. “There’s just no room. … The conditions [here] are crazy.”

Some service members said they were moved into unfinished camps. A senior engineer NCO said his unit moved in before the camp had any kitchen facilities, leaving the troops to fend for themselves at local restaurants and stores.

Three Guard troops told Army Times and the Tribune that they purchased food or groceries for subordinates who were unpaid or underpaid, including one who said he purchased peanut butter, jelly and bread to feed a handful of troops in an unfinished base camp that had no kitchen yet.

Members of the Texas National Guard, seen here on Dec. 8, work 12- to 13-hour shifts guarding the Texas border wall, construction crews and materials near Del Rio. Thousands of National Guard troops were deployed to Del Rio after an increase in migration at the southern border.

Texas National Guard members watched over construction crews building fencing along the border near Del Rio in December. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis, commander of Joint Task Force-Lone Star, acknowledged in a letter to the force this month that the scale and speed of the deployment resulted in “austere conditions.”

Holton, the Texas Military Department spokesperson, said commanders in the field “have identified areas of improvement [for housing] and are actively working with vendors to execute those solutions.” She did not respond to a question about when the improvements will be complete.

Ulis shared floor plans for planned housing improvements with troops last week, noting that one base camp would receive the improvements beginning in February. The new “dorm-style lodging” will have a 116-person capacity and include wall lockers.

Some Guard members said that when they’re on duty along the border, they face a lack of toilet facilities at their work sites and lookout posts.

One Guard member responsible for logistics said female Guard members at those lookout posts “either [have] to go in the bush, which is degrading, or get [a superior] to come pick them up [to drive to a gas station], and then that leaves only one person in the checkpoint until they get back.”

Holton said the issue “is not widespread,” but she declined to specify how many positions lacked toilet facilities. She attributed the problem to “a miscommunication with the portable toilet vendor and we have rectified this issue.” A junior officer confirmed that more toilets were delivered to observation posts between Roma and McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley late last month.

Other troops said they lacked critical equipment, including cold-weather and wet-weather gear for the winter months.

Army Times previously reported that troops in some areas have to swap bulletproof plates for their ballistic vests between shifts because they didn’t have enough. One medical NCO who said he had to withdraw from college to go to the border told Army Times and the Tribune that his unit had trouble securing enough medical kits, which include gauze and tourniquets, for soldiers as well.

Holton said the state has shipped more protective equipment to service members on the border.

Asylum seekers who have just crossed the border are led by a National Guard troop to be apprehended by Customs and Border Protection in Roma on Aug. 3, 2021.

Asylum-seekers who had just crossed the border in August followed a National Guard member to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in Roma. Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune

"All we're doing is staring into nothing"

Texas officials stated during the mobilization that Guard troops would arrest migrants for trespassing as part of the mission's partnership with private landowners and local law enforcement. Holton said Operation Lone Star troops have apprehended 100,000 migrants or referred them to Border Patrol, DPS or other law enforcement agencies.

Many of the apprehensions are migrants surrendering to the first person in uniform they see in order to begin the asylum request process.

One Guard member, a civilian law enforcement officer by trade, told Army Times and the Tribune that there is a special unit of around 25 troops — all of them police officers in their civilian lives — who are arresting migrants for trespassing in Kinney County, the only border county actively coordinating with Operation Lone Star.

Due to equipment shortages, those troops are also using their “own gear or [home] department-issued gear like handcuffs, duty belts and holsters,” the service member said.

But several other Guard members said not all units are seeing large numbers of migrants, and fewer are conducting arrests. They said many Guard observation posts simply watch the border through binoculars and call Border Patrol on the radio when they see people crossing the Rio Grande.

In the Brownsville area, some of the state’s most elite troops — its Air National Guard cyber operations forces — are “sitting at a watch point for hours on end with their thumbs up their ass doing nothing,” a member of the cyber unit said.

A junior soldier assigned to a post along Falcon Lake near Zapata said he and his peers spend their days “staring” at the lake.

Does he ever see migrants? “Nope, not even once,” he said. “Just people fishing.”

“Send [us] to critical areas where there is a major need for assistance,” he said. “I will do my job as a soldier and Guardsman, but I just want to be used effectively.”

Another soldier said he supports the “intent of the mission,” but not “its poor execution and the rush to failure.”

“A lot of these issues could have been mitigated had leadership taken a step back and thought of the soldiers for a minute,” he said. “They made this huge deal and rushed everybody out here, and all we're doing is staring into nothing.”

The operation’s leaders insist that there are signs of success. Aris, the division commander, said in his town hall with subordinates that an increase of migrant apprehensions in Arizona’s Yuma border sector proves Operation Lone Star’s success in Texas. Border Patrol data shows that apprehensions from October through December rose by nearly 2,400% in the Yuma Sector compared with the same period in 2020. But apprehensions still more than doubled along the Texas border compared with 2020.

Experts question that conclusion, too. César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an immigration attorney and law professor at Ohio State University, said more activity in another part of the border doesn’t necessarily mean the operation is working.

“I don’t think it’s that simple to point to what’s happening two states away,” he said. “But if it is displacing a situation from one place to another, then it does absolutely nothing for the nation as a whole.”

Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., who worked for the U.S. Border Patrol for 22 years and retired as the Tucson Sector chief in 2011, said claims that Operation Lone Star is deterring migrants and drug smugglers ignore the reality of how smuggling organizations react to pressure from law enforcement.

“It's not that easy for drug organizations to call up the neighboring cartel and say, ‘Hey, you know, we're having a hard time here, can we run our drugs through there?’” said Manjarrez, who is now the associate director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Efforts like Operation Lone Star provide temporary deterrence, he said, but smuggling organizations typically go back to trafficking drugs or people through their usual routes once enforcement begins to dwindle.

National Guard soldiers stand guard near the U.S. and Mexico border in Del Rio on July 22, 2021.

National Guard members stood guard last summer near the Texas-Mexico border in Del Rio. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Will Operation Lone Star gut the Texas Guard?

Many Guard members told Army Times and the Tribune that doubts about their mission’s effectiveness have compounded their dissatisfaction with its hardships, and some of them are beginning to plan their departure from the service.

Retention is typically a lagging indicator of service member frustrations. Many troops are bound by service obligations that keep them from simply quitting. But that hasn’t stopped some from heading to the exit.

For example, many of the cyber airmen deployed near Brownsville — whose civilian paychecks can more than quadruple their base military pay — are either quitting after their contracts’ end or requesting other assignments away from the Texas Guard, the unit member said.

“[They] signed up for cyber warfare,” the unit member said. “If [they] wanted to do border patrol, [they] would’ve applied with Border Patrol.”

They make up one of the Air Guard’s cyber protection teams, a recent U.S. Cyber Command and National Guard Bureau initiative meant to protect against cyber threats in their home regions. In Texas, their missions include a 2019 response to a ransomware attack that incapacitated 22 Texas counties.

The departures harm the region’s ability to respond to cyber threats, the unit member said.

“If asked to mobilize our unit as a [Cyber Protection Team] today, we couldn’t do it,” he said. “Too many have left already.”

The hard-to-replace cyber troops aren’t the only ones leaving.

Another Texas Air National Guard unit on the border, the 432nd Air Expeditionary Group, reported looming retention problems after a recent survey. Out of 73 respondents who reported their contracts would expire before the end of their Operation Lone Star deployment, 45 said they were “not likely” to reenlist or extend their contracts. That’s a sharp contrast with the Air National Guard’s national rates: The service retained 92% of airmen with expiring contracts during the year ending on Sept. 31, 2021.

Army Times and the Tribune also obtained retention data for the Texas Army National Guard, TMD’s largest branch — and a branch that usually has higher attrition rates than the Air National Guard.

The Army National Guard received a goal of 505 reenlistments between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31. It secured only 327 reenlistments, or roughly 65% of the target set by the National Guard Bureau, a national headquarters that coordinates resources among states but doesn’t run operations.

During the same period in 2020, the state convinced 368 soldiers to re-up against a target of 484 — a 76% rate. During the first three months of 2021 it did even better, exceeding its target with a 105% rate.

Soldiers’ decisions to leave or stay in the Guard are personal and complex, but falling retention numbers amid Operation Lone Star’s massive, involuntary troop surge could signal a troubling trend, members said.

A senior full-time NCO assigned to the border said none of his company’s troops plan to reenlist — and nothing short of a fundamental shift in leadership will convince them to stay.

“They’re soldiers, and they have to soldier right now,” he said. “But if they extend, they don’t want life to be this way. None of them joined active duty — they join the Guard [part time], and they understand they can deploy, but goddamn, man, we’re deployed all the time.

“They’re not staying, because what’s gonna happen next?” the NCO added. “They want their life back.”

Texas Tribune reporter Uriel J. García contributed to this story.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/01/texas-national-guard-border-operation-lone-star-abbott/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Ted Cruz calls Biden’s vow to nominate first Black woman to US Supreme Court 'offensive'

By Andrew Zhang, The Texas Tribune

Feb. 1, 2022

"Ted Cruz calls Biden’s vow to nominate first Black woman to U.S. Supreme Court “offensive”" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called President Joe Biden’s promise to nominate a Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court insulting to Americans and the eventual nominee — a comment that sparked anger from those who say Cruz is missing the larger goal of Biden’s overarching pursuit to diversify federal courts.

The announcement of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement last week quickly prompted calls for Biden to fulfill his longstanding campaign promise to nominate a Black woman to the high court. Cruz, known for his fiery comments against his rivals and Democrats, has been quick to criticize Biden over his promise, which the president has since reaffirmed.

No Black woman has served on the Supreme Court before, and only five women have served on the high court.

“The fact that he’s willing to make a promise at the outset that it must be a Black woman — I gotta say, that’s offensive,” Cruz said on the Saturday edition of his podcast, “Verdict.” “Black women are, what, 6% of the U.S. population? He’s saying to 94% of Americans: ‘I don’t give a damn about you. You are ineligible.’”

“It’s actually an insult to Black women,” Cruz continued. “If he came and said ‘I’m going to put the best jurist on the court’ and he looked at a number of people and he ended up nominating a Black woman, he could credibly say ‘OK, I’m nominating the person who’s most qualified.’ He’s not even pretending to say that.”

Cruz, whose office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story, said Biden's promise to pick a Black woman is affirmative action, which he called a “pernicious” practice.

Texas’ other representative in the upper chamber of Congress, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, has not gone as far as Cruz in calling Biden’s promise offensive, but stated that he thinks the president is limiting the candidate pool and should consider other factors beyond race.

Cornyn and Cruz — both Republicans — sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will play a key role in overseeing and processing the nomination process of Biden’s eventual pick.

Lena Zwarensteyn, senior director of the Fair Courts Program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, refuted Cruz’s statement that Biden’s promise was offensive and would exclude the best candidates. Zwarensteyn highlighted that the list of Black women being seriously considered for the role was filled with candidates who have the legal qualifications and experiences to fill the role.

“We know that they are the most qualified, they have a real depth of intelligence, they have the qualifications, they have the experience,” Zwarensteyn said. “To think that there is one ultimate best pick is wrong.”

Zwarensteyn said Biden’s promise to nominate a Black woman affirms a decadeslong push to diversify federal courts — a trend that makes judicial rulings more fair as the justices making them will have a better understanding of how the law is lived and its impact on different people. She said an unrepresentative court makeup diminishes public trust in the judiciary.

“As many know, our courts aren’t working for all of us. They seem to benefit — because they often do — the wealthy and powerful and not all of us ...” Zwarensteyn said. “For many, many, many presidential administrations, the calculus of who would be nominated for the Supreme Court unfortunately often excluded Black women and others.”

In the first year of his presidency, Biden placed more judges on federal courts than any president did in their first year since Ronald Reagan, and his choices have been notably diverse.

Two Republican presidents have made promises to nominate justices based on their gender in the past. After the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020, former President Donald Trump pledged at a rally to nominate a woman to replace her, eventually choosing Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who now sits on the high court. In 1980, Reagan, in an effort to court the support of women, also promised to pick a woman and nominated Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Democrats will need to uniformly support Biden’s nominee to confirm them in the evenly divided Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris ready to cast a tiebreaking vote in the case of a 50-50 party line vote.

Cruz said he thinks there’s a chance that Biden could nominate Harris to the court — a comment that the White House has not provided any supporting evidence for — reasoning that Democrats dislike her and don’t want her to be a successor to Biden as a leader of the party.

On the Senate floor Monday, Cornyn cautioned Biden against nominating a “judicial activist” and said he valued diversity beyond race.

In comments to reporters later that day, Cornyn acknowledged Reagan’s past promise to nominate a woman and said he wants the judiciary to look like the rest of the country, but Biden reduced the potential pool of qualified judges by making his promise.

“The president promised during his campaign to nominate an African American woman to the Supreme Court — making that a historic first,” Cornyn said on the floor. “As the president weighs his decision, I want to remind him and our Senate colleagues that diversity extends far beyond just gender and skin color. We need a diversity of education, background and experience.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/01/ted-cruz-biden-supreme-court/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas law barring state contractors from boycotting Israel violates firm’s free speech: federal judge

Jan. 31, 2022

"Texas law barring state contractors from boycotting Israel violates firm’s free speech, federal judge rules" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas can’t forbid an engineering firm from boycotting Israel as part of its contract with Houston City Hall, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen on Friday stopped short of fully blocking a state law that prohibits government agencies from doing business with certain companies that boycott Israel. But his ruling said the free speech rights of A & R Engineering and Testing Inc. would be violated if its contract with the city included a clause saying the company will refrain from such a boycott. Hanen also said that Texas could not enforce its law against the company or the city.

A & R Engineering and Testing Inc. is being represented by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. In a news conference Monday, the organization lauded Hanen’s decision but still pushed for the state’s anti-boycott law to be overturned.

“He acknowledged that that pro-Palestinian view is protected by the First Amendment,” said CAIR attorney Gadeir Abbas. “That may sound like little crumbs, but that’s a controversial take, and it’s a blessing.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict stem from disputes over occupancy and control of land both Israelis and Palestinians have laid claim to. Conservative Texas lawmakers have largely taken a pro-Israel stance.

Texas is one of more than two dozen states with laws that seek to limit boycotts, divestments and sanctions of Israel over its treatment of Palestine, actions often referred to as the pro-Palestinain BDS movement.

The Texas attorney’s general office did not respond to a request for comment, but Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed Friday’s ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, known as one of the most conservative appeals courts in the nation.

According to the lawsuit, in October, A & R was entering into a renewal contract with Houston when it was required to certify that it wouldn’t boycott Israel during the length of the contract. The company asked the city to take the stipulation out of the contract, but the city refused, citing state law.

In court documents, the city of Houston had said it would follow the state law, but that it took no position on its constitutionality.

Texas passed an anti-BDS law in 2017. In 2019, it was rewritten to exclude individual contractors and only pertain to businesses with 10 or more full-time employees and when the contract is for $100,000 or more.

Before the law was rewritten, a federal court temporarily blocked the original law statewide in a lawsuit involving a speech pathologist who worked in the Pflugerville Independent School District. In that case, the U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman ruled that the statute suppressed “unpopular ideas” and manipulated “the public debate through coercion rather than persuasion.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/01/31/texas-boycott-israel-lawsuit/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas Republicans pressure court to reverse decision blocking attorney general from prosecuting election cases

Jan. 26, 2022

"Texas Republicans pressure court to reverse decision blocking attorney general from prosecuting election cases" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Texas' highest criminal court is facing intense pressure from fellow Republican elected officials to revisit a recent ruling that gutted the attorney general's ability to unilaterally prosecute election cases.

In recent days, the state's top GOP leaders — including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — have weighed in on the matter and sided with those imploring the Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider the decision. The all-GOP court issued an 8-1 opinion last month that struck down the attorney general's power to go after election cases without the permission of local prosecutors, saying it violates the separation-of-powers clause in the Texas Constitution.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has been vocal in his criticism of the decision and has filed a motion for rehearing. And in recent interviews with conservative media, he has called on supporters to pressure the court to reverse the ruling.

"Call them out by name," Paxton said in an interview on the show of Mike Lindell, the My Pillow CEO and prominent Donald Trump supporter. "I mean, you can look them up. There's eight of them that voted the wrong way. Call them, send mail, send email."

Comments like those from Paxton were cited in a Wednesday story by the Austin American-Statesman that raised ethical issues about the pressure campaign. The newspaper said such comments put "Paxton in an ethical gray area, if not in outright violation of the state's rules of conduct for lawyers."

The Court of Criminal Appeals has yet to address the GOP pleas for reconsideration — and it may never do so.

Randall Kelso, a professor at South Texas College of Law, said courts like the Court of Criminal Appeals tend to be reluctant to reverse to their decisions unless at least one of three conditions are met: There is a change in the facts at the core of the case, the ruling proves to be "unworkable in practice" or judges are persuaded that the decision was "substantially wrong." Kelso said he did not see how the first two conditions apply to the current situation, and as for proving that the ruling was "substantially wrong," he added, there is usually a "pretty high burden."

"Just because the various Texas lawmakers are petitioning, I wouldn't predict they'd just cave to them and say, 'We've gotta change our minds,'" Kelso said. "It'd be unusual to do it unless" any of those conditions are met.

The controversy comes at a time when Texas Republicans are doing all they can to show they are committed to securing elections, even as there continues to be no evidence of widespread malfeasance. And it comes after legislators passed a hard-fought bill last year to tighten voting rules in Texas that expands the attorney general's purview over elections.

Abbott's office pointed to that law Tuesday as it indicated support for reinstating the authority that the court stripped.

"Texas’ highest law enforcement officer has constitutional authority to enforce that election-integrity law," Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement. "The Court of Criminal Appeals needs to uphold Texas law and the Attorney General’s responsibility to defend it."

Earlier Tuesday, Patrick and 14 state senators filed an amicus brief supporting the push to convince the court to reconsider the ruling.

"If the court's decision stands, certain rogue county and district attorneys will be allowed to turn a blind eye to election fraud, and they will have the final say on whether election fraud is prosecuted at all," Patrick said in a statement. "To me, this is completely unacceptable."

Dozens of other Republican state lawmakers, candidates and activists have weighed in, telling the court to grant the motion for rehearing. They even include one of Paxton's challengers in the March primary, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler.

At the same time, the little-known judges on the court are receiving a deluge of calls and emails. Houston conservative activist Steve Hotze has used his group, Conservative Republicans of Texas, to send out a robocall urging people to call the judges, telling them that if the ruling stands, "Democrats will steal the elections in November and turn Texas blue." The group sent out 228,000 calls statewide, according to a spokesperson for Hotze, Jared Woodfill.

The robocall was first reported by the Houston Chronicle.

The court's general counsel told the newspaper that one email was referred to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which is responsible for probing threats against state employees. The general counsel, Sian Schilhab, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The court is made up of a presiding judge and eight other judges who all serve six-year terms and appear on the ballot in staggered election years. Three of them are up for reelection in the March primary, and one of those three, Scott Walker, faces a challenger in Clint Morgan, a Harris County prosecutor. Morgan's endorsers include Hotze's Conservative Republicans of Texas.

Paxton is facing his own hotly contested primary, which includes Gohmert, Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman. During a recent campaign stop in Round Rock, Bush criticized Paxton over the ruling from the Court of Criminal Appeals, saying Texas needs an attorney general who can "confront county DAs that aren't doing their jobs."

"We've sadly seen Ken Paxton's last remaining authority in criminal law, which is voter fraud ... was stripped," Bush said, adding that the decision was "not by liberal activist judges" but by an all-Republican court. "[Paxton's office] has run amok because of the lack of accountability at the top of the chain of command."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/01/26/texas-ken-paxton-court-election-prosecution/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Ken Paxton still hasn’t disclosed donors who fueled most of his $2.8 million campaign haul

Jan. 25, 2022

"Ken Paxton still hasn’t disclosed donors who fueled most of his $2.8 million campaign haul" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Attorney General Ken Paxton has not disclosed a large chunk of his campaign donors from the past six months, a week after he was required to report them to the Texas Ethics Commission.

Paxton, who is in a hotly contested Republican primary, had until Jan. 18 to submit his latest campaign finance report, which covers July 1 through Dec. 31, 2021. His campaign filed it a day late, citing technical issues, and left $2.1 million in donations unitemized out of the $2.8 million total that he raised. Campaigns are required to itemize — or provide donor names and other identifying information — for any donations they receive online or any that exceed $90.

Paxton’s campaign said on the report that it would file an amended report to fix the issue, but it had not done so as of Tuesday, according to the TEC website. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Paxton faces primary challenges from Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler. All are saying he does not have the integrity to be the state’s top law enforcement official due to his own legal problems, which include a securities fraud indictment and an FBI investigation into claims he abused his office to aid a wealthy donor. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases.

“Ken Paxton has a track record of not following the rules and missing standard deadlines with the Texas Ethics Commission that every other candidate has adhered to,” Guzman’s consultant, Justin Dudley, said in a statement. “Paxton continues to prove to the citizens of Texas he is unfit to be Attorney General.”

It is not unheard of for a candidate to file a TEC report late by a number of days or make a mistake in reporting contributions that needs to be corrected by an amended report. But it is unusual for a candidate, a week after a deadline, to still not have disclosed information for such a large portion of their donors.

While not all of the $2.1 million in donations may have required itemization, it is likely that many did. The period included a fundraiser with former President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida where admission started at $1,000 per person.

Paxton’s $2.8 million haul was less than that of Guzman, who raised $3.7 million over the six-month period. Bush took in $1.9 million, while Gohmert, who did not enter the race until November, collected $1 million. Paxton still easily led the field in cash on hand, with a $7.5 million balance.

Paxton is not the only statewide candidate who ran into trouble with disclosing donors on the latest report. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke filed an amended report Monday, saying it was corrected to “report itemized contributions that were previously reported as unitemized.”

O’Rourke’s amended report followed two TEC complaints over it that were filed by the campaign of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. One of them alleged that O’Rourke had failed to itemize at least $322,528.34 in online donations.

In a statement on the first complaint, Abbott spokesperson Mark Miner said it was “one more example on a long list of credibility issues plaguing [O’Rourke’s] campaign.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/01/25/ken-paxton-texas-campaign-donations-2022/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Attorney General Ken Paxton defies county official’s order to release records related to Jan. 6 Trump rally

By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune

"Attorney General Ken Paxton defies county official’s order to release records related to Jan. 6 Trump rally" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Attorney General Ken Paxton said the Travis County district attorney's determination that Paxton violated open records laws by withholding information related to his trip to Washington, D.C., on the day of the Capitol insurrection was "meritless" and that his office had fulfilled its obligation under the law.

Last week, the district attorney's office gave Paxton four business days to turn over communications requested by the state's leading newspapers relating to his trip or face a lawsuit.

On Friday, Austin Kinghorn, a lawyer for the attorney general's office, dismissed the district attorney's findings, saying that office had provided no provisions under the state's open records law that had been violated and implied that the newspapers had made the requests to publish stories about them.

Reference

Read the Attorney General's response to Travis County DA here.

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"In each instance, complainants' allegations rely on unsupported assumptions and fundamental misunderstandings of the PIA [Public Information Act] and its requirements," Kinghorn wrote. "Frustrated that they have failed to uncover anything worth reporting following 'numerous open records requests to AG Paxton office for various documents,' complainant newspaper editors have sought to leverage your office's authority to further their fishing expedition, or worse, manufacture a conflict between our respective offices that will give rise to publishable content for the complainants' media outlets."

Ismael Martinez, a spokesperson for that Travis County district attorney's office, confirmed the office received the letter but couldn't comment further.

The Travis County district attorney's office action stems from a complaint by editors from five of the state's top newspapers — the Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News — alleging that the state's top law enforcement official had violated Texas' open records law by withholding communications related to Paxton's trip to Washington, D.C., last year that they argue are subject to disclosure.

In a joint statement, the editors of the newspapers wrote, "We’re disappointed in the attorney general’s response. We believe these records are public and should be released. We hope the Travis County district attorney continues to hold the attorney general accountable for following our state’s open records laws and continues to advocate for the public’s right to know in this case."

The newspapers want records related to Paxton's communications in the days surrounding the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. On that day, Paxton spoke at a pro-Trump rally that preceded the storming of the Capitol. His wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, also attended the rally.

In the letter, the attorney general's office said the newspaper editors base their complaint on an "awareness of a small number of inconsequential documents they believe should have been produced" in public records requests and "baselessly speculate" that Paxton is failing to comply with the open records law.

Kinghorn said the "inconsequential documents" include a text message sent to Paxton's personal cellphone by a Dallas Morning News reporter and two "spam" emails and an internal email that announced the temporary closure of an office parking garage.

The Texas Public Information Act grants the public the right to government records, even those kept on personal devices or on a public official's online accounts.

Normally, the Texas attorney general's office enforces the state open records law. But when an open records complaint is filed against a state agency, the law says the Travis County district attorney or the attorney general must handle them. In this case, the newspapers filed their complaint with the Travis County district attorney.

Paxton's office has dismissed the district attorney's actions as a "fake controversy drummed up by hard-left local officials because they want to reignite hysteria about the attorney general’s political speech on January 6 ... which was not an official state activity."

José Garza, the Travis County district attorney, is a Democrat. Paxton is a Republican and an acolyte of former President Donald Trump. He has been endorsed by Trump in his reelection bid, in which he faces three Republican challengers and several Democratic challengers.

In their complaint, the newspapers said Paxton was using attorney-client privilege to withhold every single email and text message around the time of the Jan. 6 rally.

The newspapers also complained that the attorney general's office had no policy for handling work-related records kept on personal devices or accounts, like the text message sent by the Dallas Morning News reporter to Paxton's personal phone.

The journalists further complained that Paxton had responded to a request for his text messages about a trip to Utah during last year's February freeze by providing the communications of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, but not his own. When a reporter for The Dallas Morning News asked why the office had not provided Paxton's text messages, a lawyer for the attorney general's office responded, "General Paxton provided the messages."

Paxton is in the midst of his most difficult reelection cycle yet.

The two-term Republican is seeking reelection this year but is facing stiff competition from three GOP challengers: Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert.

The three have blasted the incumbent for multiple legal issues he is facing, including a 6-year-old securities fraud case that has dogged him since his first year in office. He overcame that to win reelection in 2018. But in October 2020, eight of his former top deputies accused him of bribery and misuse of office. Weeks later, all eight deputies had either been fired or resigned from the attorney general's office.

Four of those whistleblowers are now suing Paxton under the state's whistleblower law. They are seeking compensation for lost wages and other damages, and some are seeking reinstatement to their former positions.

Paxton is also reportedly under FBI investigation for the allegations registered by the whistleblowers.

He has denied wrongdoing in all of these cases.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/01/21/ken-paxton-travis-county-jan-6-texas/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas' Ken Paxton violated law and must release records related to Jan. 6 Trump rally: DA

"Ken Paxton violated law and must release records related to Jan. 6 Trump rally, district attorney says" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

The Travis County district attorney on Thursday found that Attorney General Ken Paxton violated the state's open records law by not turning over his communications from last January when he visited Washington, D.C., for a pro-Trump rally that preceded the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The district attorney's office gave Paxton four days to turn over the documents or face a lawsuit. The action was prompted by a Jan. 4, 2022, complaint by the top editors at five of the state's largest newspapers: the Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. The journalists argued that Paxton was withholding communications from the days surrounding Paxton's trip to Washington last year that are subject to public release under the state's open records law.

The Texas Public Information Act grants the public the right to government records, even those kept on personal devices or on a public official's online accounts.

Jackie Wood, director of public integrity and complex crimes at the Travis County District Attorney's Office, agreed with the journalists and hand-delivered her ruling in a letter to Paxton's office on Thursday. The letter said Paxton's office had broken Texas open records laws by withholding or failing to keep communications that would be releasable under the law.

Paxton did not respond to requests for comment late Thursday night by phone and email. On Friday, an office spokesperson denied that the state's open records law was violated.

"This is a fake controversy drummed up by hard-left local officials because they want to reignite hysteria about the attorney general’s political speech on January 6, 2020, which was not an official state activity," Alejandro Garcia said in a statement. "Our agency has complied and will continue to comply with all state and federal law regarding public transparency. Travis County officials are wasting everyone’s time and money with this non-issue."

Paxton led a failed attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election, joining with other GOP attorneys general in a lawsuit seeking to invalidate swing state victories by Democrat Joe Biden. He and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, appeared at a pro-Trump rally on Jan. 6. Members of the crowd, stirred up by false claims of voter fraud, later stormed the Capitol, fought with riot police and threatened lawmakers as they disrupted Congress' certification of Biden's win over former President Donald Trump.

Normally, the Texas attorney general's office enforces the state open records law. But when an open records complaint is filed against a state agency, the law says the Travis County district attorney or the attorney general must handle them.

In this case, the newspapers went to Travis County District Attorney José Garza, a Democrat. Paxton is a Republican.

The complaints stem from decisions by Paxton's office to claim attorney-client privilege to prevent the disclosure of every single email and text sent by the attorney general in the days surrounding the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Separately, the U.S. House committee investigating the events of Jan. 6 requested communications between Trump and Paxton in August. That request was part of a series of letters seeking materials from the National Archives and Records Administration, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other executive agencies.

In their complaint to the Travis County district attorney, the newspaper editors said Paxton was failing to retain and turn over government communications that he had made on his personal cellphone. They also complained that Paxton was turning over other people's communications in response to requests for his text messages.

The determination by the Travis County district attorney adds to Paxton's political woes. The two-term Republican is seeking reelection this year but is facing stiff competition from three other GOP challengers: Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert.

The three have blasted the incumbent for multiple legal issues he is facing, including a six-year-old securities fraud case that has dogged him since his first year in office. He overcame that to win reelection in 2018. But in October 2020, eight of his former top deputies accused him of bribery and misuse of office. Weeks later, all eight deputies had either been fired or resigned from the attorney general's office.

Four of those whistleblowers are now suing Paxton under the state's whistleblower law. They are seeking compensation for lost wages and other damages, and some are seeking reinstatement to their former positions.

Paxton is also reportedly under FBI investigation for the allegations registered by the whistleblowers.

He has denied wrongdoing in all of these cases.

Jolie McCullough contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/01/13/texas-attorney-general-ken-paxton-january-6-records/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas GOP Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick tested positive for COVID-19 last week — but didn’t tell Texas right away

By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune

"Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick tested positive last week for COVID-19 but didn’t tell Texas right away" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19 last week, his campaign said Monday.

In a short news release, Patrick senior adviser Allen Blakemore said the lieutenant governor experienced mild symptoms and tested positive for the virus last week but has subsequently tested negative and is completing his quarantine period.

"His symptoms were mild and no one else in the household was infected," Blakemore said. "He continues working from home and will return to a public schedule by the end of the week."

The release did not say what day Patrick received the positive test or why it was not disclosed earlier.

When Gov. Greg Abbott tested positive for COVID-19 in August, his office disclosed that information the same day. Abbott isolated at the Governor's Mansion and received Regeneron's monoclonal antibody treatment. His office notified everyone he'd been in close contact with. Abbott had attended a "standing room only" campaign event in Collin County the night before his positive test.

Four days after later, Abbott tested negative and credited his vaccination for keeping the infection "brief and mild."

Patrick tweeted in November that he was vaccinated and encouraged "others to do their own research." Like Abbott, his public statements have been more focused on fighting mandates than promoting immunization.

Patrick's infection came as the state was running out sotrovimab, the only monoclonal antibody treatment known to be effective against the omicron variant, and Abbott called on federal authorities to send more doses of the treatment to the state and open up new COVID-19 testing sites.

Texas is in the midst of an omicron surge that began last month. As of Wednesday, the state's positivity rate was 26.5%. During the height of the pandemic, state officials had said a positivity rate of more than 10% was cause for concern.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/01/03/texas-dan-patrick-covid-19/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas gov asks Biden for help with COVID

By Allyson Waller, The Texas Tribune

Dec. 31, 2021

"Gov. Greg Abbott calls on Biden administration to open more COVID-19 testing sites, send more monoclonal antibody treatments" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

As more people test positive for COVID-19 and hospitalizations climb amid a new wave of coronavirus cases fueled by the omicron variant, Gov. Greg Abbott asked the federal government Friday to open additional testing sites in some of the state’s most populous counties and send new shipments of monoclonal antibody treatments.

Abbott requested testing sites for Bexar, Cameron, Dallas, Harris, Hidalgo and Tarrant counties, which the governor said were selected because of their positivity rates and hospitalization levels.

As of Wednesday the state’s positivity rate — or the percentage of COVID-19 tests that return positive for the virus — was 26.5%, and hospitalizations had climbed to more than 5,500.

The Biden administration announced this month that new federal COVID-19 testing sites will be opened across the country. It’s unclear when or how many testing sites will be in Texas.

Lara Anton, a Texas Department of State Health Services spokesperson, said the agency did not know when the federal government would respond to the state’s request.

A request for comment to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was not returned Friday evening. A spokesperson with the Federal Emergency Management Agency referred questions about pending COVID-19 requests to the state.

Abbott is also asking for more shipments of monoclonal antibody treatments, saying that “the Biden administration has cut supplies of monoclonal antibody treatments and testing kits when they are needed most.”

DSHS said this week the state was running out of the only antibody treatment deemed effective against the omicron variant. Regional infusion centers in Austin, El Paso, Fort Worth, San Antonio and The Woodlands have exhausted their supply of the monoclonal antibody sotrovimab, according to DSHS. The state is asking the federal government to send more shipments of sotrovimab, as well as Regeneron Pharmaceuticals’ REGN-COV2 and bamlanivimab, antibody treatments that have proved effective against other COVID-19 variants.

“The State of Texas is urging the federal government to step up in this fight and provide the resources necessary to help protect Texans,” Abbott said in a written statement.

DSHS has deployed thousands of additional medical workers across the state to help fight the pandemic. Texas has spent almost $7 billion in federal disaster funds and coronavirus relief funds so far on medical personnel.

Seven federally funded COVID-19 community-based testing sites operated in El Paso, Dallas and Harris counties last year, but they closed down in June 2020 despite a bipartisan push for them to remain open longer. At the time, Abbott said the state was prepared to transition away from federal testing sites.

DSHS has also requested medical personnel to be sent to urban areas across Texas that do not have state-contracted staff. With the omicron variant’s arrival and an already strained workforce, hospitals have expressed worries that they might not have the staffing needed to address another winter COVID-19 surge.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/12/31/texas-covid-19-federal-testing-sites/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

How Gov. Greg Abbott intervened to put a positive spin on Texas' power grid

Dec. 28, 2021

"Gov. Greg Abbott intervened to put a positive spin on Texas' power grid" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

The two most powerful people overseeing Texas’ electric grid sat next to each other in a quickly arranged Austin news conference in early December to try to assure Texans that the state’s electricity supply was prepared for winter.

“The lights are going to stay on this winter,” said Peter Lake, chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, echoing recent public remarks by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Two weeks earlier, Abbott had told Austin’s Fox 7 News that he “can guarantee the lights will stay on.” The press conference that followed from Lake and the chief of the state’s independent grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, came at the governor’s request, according to two state officials and one other person familiar with the planning, who were not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“It was 150% Abbott’s idea,” said one of the people familiar with the communication from Abbott’s team. “The governor wanted a press conference to give people confidence in the grid.”

A source close to Lake said the idea for the press conference was Lake's, and the governor supported it when Lake brought up the idea during a meeting.

Abbott has for months been heavily involved in the public messaging surrounding the power grid’s winter readiness. In addition to the press conference, he has asked a major electric industry trade group to put out a “positive” public statement about the grid and has taken control of public messaging from ERCOT, according to interviews with current and former power grid officials, energy industry trade group representatives and energy company directors and executives.

But the messaging has projected a level of confidence about the grid that isn’t reflected in data released by ERCOT or echoed by some power company executives and energy experts who say they’re worried that another massive winter storm could trigger widespread grid failures like those that left millions of Texans without power in February, when hundreds of people died.

Abbott has also met one-on-one with energy industry CEOs to ask about their winter readiness — but those meetings happened weeks after Abbott made his public guarantee about the grid.

“You’d think he would have asked to meet with us before saying that,” one person involved in the energy company meetings, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said of Abbott’s guarantee.

Ten months after the power grid failures caused hundreds of deaths and became national news, an election year is approaching and Abbott’s two top primary challengers and his top Democratic challenger have already been harshly criticizing the governor over his handling of the power grid.

“It might be a good political move, but it’s just a political move,” Peter Cramton, an energy markets expert and former ERCOT board member who resigned after the storm, said of Abbott’s promise. “It’s not surprising. His fate is on the line. So this is a sensitive political issue now.”

For many Texas energy officials and experts, the line has blurred between Abbott’s executive leadership on the power grid and his 2022 reelection campaign. By promising the lights will stay on, Abbott has wagered that Texas doesn’t experience widespread extreme weather this winter — and that the grid will work the next time freezing weather hits the state.

“The Governor is deeply engaged with the new commissioners at the PUC and the new leadership at ERCOT as they work to improve the Texas electric grid,” Renae Eze, Abbott’s spokesperson, said in a statement. “The House and Senate passed substantial reforms this year, and Governor Abbott is working to ensure those reforms are properly implemented so that the grid provides stable and reliable power for the state.”

Lake, who was appointed by Abbott and whose agency oversees ERCOT, said he has met frequently with Abbott since the summer.

“He’s super focused on it and wants to know what’s going on,” Lake said in an interview.

A majority of power companies have spent money since February preparing their equipment for extreme winter weather, but some say the grid won’t be ready if another storm as powerful as February’s strikes this winter because lawmakers didn’t require gas companies — which supply fuel to more than half of the state’s power plants — to be weatherized immediately.

“What I'm uncertain about is the gas supply,” Cramton said. “That’s the big question.”

2022 opponents use grid failures to attack Abbott

While a warming earth has brought milder winters, Abbott’s bet could be complicated by emerging science that suggests extreme cold spells in Texas could also result from climate change messing with complex weather processes.

But even though Abbott’s promise in late November was a gamble on the weather this winter, his guarantee was more likely an effort to boost his reelection campaign in 2022, Texas political communication experts said.

“I don’t think it's a coincidence he's responding with a guarantee about the power grid almost immediately in the aftermath of Beto O'Rourke's entry into the race because that's been O'Rourke's frontline attack,” said Stephanie Martin, a scholar of political communication at Southern Methodist University.

Abbott has faced criticism over the power grid from O’Rourke and both of his best-known Republicans primary opponents, Allen West and Don Huffines.

“Greg Abbott said we did everything we needed to do to fix ERCOT,” Huffines, a former state senator, said in November. “Obviously that is not the case. Texans deserve a governor who can keep the lights on.”

“This ‘promise’ is dangerous, potentially deadly,” O’Rourke said. “Experts continue to warn that Texas could face another grid failure the next time we experience an extreme weather event. Abbott and his appointees shouldn’t be betting our lives on the weather.”

The issue has animated voters, too. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll of 1,200 registered voters in October, respondents expressed major disapproval for the state’s handling of the reliability of the grid after February’s catastrophe. Only 18% of voters approved of how state leaders handled the issue, while 60% of voters disapproved. Even state lawmakers have shown frustration that the new laws they passed earlier this year to prepare the grid for extreme weather haven’t led to enough preparations ahead of this winter.

When Abbott has been asked in recent months about criticism of the state’s handling of the winter storm crisis, he has responded that he “signed almost a dozen laws that make the power grid more effective” and he’s praised regulators for working to implement new rules following guidance from lawmakers and from Abbott.

“In politics, when you’re explaining, you're losing, and to try to talk about what happened last February in a way that doesn't just accept the abysmal failure of the Abbott administration means he has to try to explain something that's almost impossible to explain,” Martin said. “The only way out of that is to not acknowledge it — by promising it will never happen again.”

Dictating the message

When Brad Jones took over as ERCOT’s interim CEO in the spring — after the previous CEO and many board members resigned after the grid catastrophe — he began by promising that ERCOT would be more transparent with the public and state leaders.

“My guarantee to you is that we intend to communicate more clearly than we’ve done in the past,” Jones said during his first public hearing with lawmakers. “To remove industry jargon, to speak to you in ways that all of us can understand.”

In recent months, however, ERCOT has been nearly silent on social media and its leaders have barely spoken publicly. People familiar with ERCOT’s operations say the organization has needed to receive approval from the governor’s office for most of its public communications, a stark contrast to how the grid operator did business in the past.

Every spring and fall, ERCOT releases its report assessing potential scenarios for the grid during more extreme weather. And the organization’s technical experts typically brief reporters on the assessment to help translate complex electricity jargon into plain language that the general public can understand.

This fall, that briefing never happened. Instead, ERCOT simply posted its assessment for this winter to its website on a Friday afternoon in November. The report concluded that the Texas grid is still vulnerable to blackouts during severe winter weather, even with new preparations.

“We just made a mistake on that,” Jones said about not holding the briefing, adding that rather than big press conference calls, he’s been focusing on touring the state, listening to Texans and doing interviews with local media.

“First piece of it is, I need to listen,” Jones said. “I need to hear them tell me what they went through. That’s an important part of the healing process.”

Another biannual report, called the Capacity, Demand and Reserves report, contains a multiyear forecast of peak electricity demand and the expected generation resources available. The assessment is released every May and in early December. The report has not yet been released this month because the governor’s office is still reviewing it, according to people familiar with the delay. A recent ERCOT email said the report is now scheduled to be released on Dec. 29.

It’s not uncommon for elected officials to become much more hands-on in the aftermath of disasters, said Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy expert and advisor who worked in Texas for more than two decades: “There’s an element of ‘the buck stops here.’”

But Myers Jaffe said decision-making at ERCOT, an organization that Abbott immediately blasted after the storm in February, should be left alone by politicians who don’t have electricity expertise.

“An independent, nonprofit technical organization should be making its decisions based on fulfilling its mission, and its communications should be about the actions it’s taking to fulfill that,” said Myers Jaffe, who now runs Tufts University’s Climate Policy Lab. “It shouldn't be politicized.”

But much of the public messaging this year from the grid operator has had to be approved by a governor who’s running for reelection, according to people familiar with the matter.

“I think the challenge is now that it would be very hard for the ERCOT communications office to do something that isn't viewed as political,” Cramton said.

As November turned to December, Abbott’s team asked the Association of Electric Companies of Texas to put out a “positive” statement about the power grid’s readiness for winter, according to four people in the energy industry familiar with the request. AECT, a major industry trade group, was its public face in the aftermath of the storm, testifying before lawmakers and lobbying on behalf of major power companies.

On Dec. 8, the same day as Lake and Jones’ news conference, AECT released its statement. The message stopped short of making definitive claims about the lights staying on this winter but did go into detail about preparations power plants and transmission and distribution facilities have made. It also thanked “Texas leaders and the Legislature for their efforts during the past session to strengthen the resilience of the grid, as well as AECT’s member companies for their efforts to prepare for this winter for the benefit of Texas consumers.”

After public promise, Abbott met with energy CEOs

Nearly three weeks after promising the lights wouldn’t go out this winter — and after Lake echoed him in the December press conference — Abbott’s team arranged for several energy companies to meet with the governor in Austin. Energy companies and executives meeting with the Texas governor is not uncommon, but the timing was curious to some companies involved, as well as to power grid officials and political scientists.

The mid-December meetings included large energy companies Calpine, Kinder Morgan, NRG, Vistra and Energy Transfer Partners — whose CEO, Kelcy Warren, gave $1.1 million to Abbott immediately after this year’s regular legislative session.

The executives and others involved in the meetings told the Tribune that the opportunity to sit down with the governor was important as the energy industry and state leaders try to assure Texans wary of winter that the power will stay on this year.

Abbott asked the energy CEOs detailed questions about their expectations for the coming months, their companies’ readiness for winter and whether the CEOs feel ready for another severe winter storm, according to people in the meetings.

“It was literally, like: ‘If we have another (Winter Storm) Uri, are y’all going to be ready?’” said a person involved in one of the meetings, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “We said, ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Tell me why, what is different?’”

The person added: “He was really in fact-finding mode. He didn't say: ‘You guys better be ready.’ It was: ‘I want to know if your company is ready and, if so, I want to know why.’”

Companies that spoke to the Tribune said they laid out to the governor how they had been preparing their facilities for winter.

Calpine CEO Thad Hill said in a written statement that the governor “was doing his direct due diligence ensuring the grid would be reliable this winter.” NRG CEO Mauricio Gutierrez welcomed the opportunity “to highlight our companywide winter-readiness efforts to meet the energy needs of our growing state,” NRG said in a statement.

Vistra CEO Curt Morgan, who has criticized the state’s natural gas producers for not adequately preparing for extreme winter weather, told Abbott that Vistra “has invested more than $50 million to further harden its power generation fleet in Texas, focused on learnings from Winter Storm Uri,” Vistra said in a statement.

Still, some wondered why Abbott didn’t gather information from the energy CEOs before promising the lights would stay on during the next winter storm.

“If it were truly about executive leadership and government transparency, then you wouldn't get what almost amounts to a slogan: ‘I guarantee,’” Martin said. “You’d get a meaningful articulation of what's behind the guarantee.”

Disclosure: The Association of Electric Companies of Texas (AECT), Calpine and Southern Methodist University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/12/28/texas-greg-abbott-power-grid/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

After governor’s veto, parents now must opt-in for students to learn about dating violence, child abuse

School districts in Texas are now required to teach students about dating violence, family violence, child abuse and sex trafficking after a new law went into effect in early December.

But advocates are concerned that a last-minute change to the law’s language means the children who need the information the most, will be the least likely to get it.

In June, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the original version of the bill over concerns that it didn’t allow parental involvement. During the second special session, legislators passed a revamped version of the law that included Abbott’s input.

Parents are now required to sign a permission slip for their students to be educated on these subjects, raising concerns that children who may be experiencing abuse at the hands of a parent will be excluded from receiving information that could help them.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, helped craft both versions of the bill. He said he thought a lot about the impact this new provision might have.

“But the reality is that I can't pass the bill without having that opt-in,” he said. “And so I think the greater good is served by passing the compromise bill with the governor to make sure we touch as many lives as possible.”

From all-in to opt-in

The law, known as the “Christine Blubaugh Act”, is named after a 16-year-old who was killed by her ex-boyfriend in Grand Prairie, Texas in 2000. The original legislation, which didn’t require parental permission, had bipartisan support and passed the Senate on a 29-2 vote. The bill’s sponsors said they were shocked when the governor vetoed it.

“At least when Governor [Rick] Perry had objections about things, his legislative staff would work with your team to deal with the objection,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas. “But that doesn't seem to be the same course of action as Governor Abbott.”

In a statement to The Texas Tribune, a spokesperson for Abbott said the governor said he cares deeply for the rights of parents, as well as the safety of children.

"There were good intentions in [the original bill] but the bill failed to recognize the right of parents to opt their children out of the instruction," said press secretary Renae Eze. "Having been signed into law by the Governor, middle school and high school students will now receive instruction on the prevention of child abuse, family violence, and dating violence, while ensuring the rights of parents in their child’s education.”

West and Anchía worked with Abbott’s office to draft the new legislation, which says districts must obtain written consent from a student’s parent before offering them education on dating violence, family violence and child abuse.

As a parent of two high school students himself, Anchía said he’s encouraging all parents to sign the paperwork to enroll their students in the course.

“As a parent, I'm not trained in these interventions or these tools,” he said. “So I really want somebody who understands them, who knows what they're doing, to be able to communicate this information to my child.”

Advocates encourage parents to enroll

Advocates say there’s been an increased focus in recent years on helping students identify and prevent family and dating violence — but there’s still more work to be done.

Roy Rios, prevention manager for the Texas Council on Family Violence, said there are plenty of evidence-based, age-appropriate curriculums on family and dating violence being used in school districts around the state.

These classes teach students about healthy relationships, give them a vocabulary to understand abuse and point them to resources and places to seek help. But Rios said a lot of the training is about helping students to embrace their leadership skills to be a good bystander and member of the community.

“They take those lessons with them into college, or however they spend their adult lives,” said Rios. “What we're seeing through the research is that these types of programs equip young people on how to avoid victimization, and how not to perpetrate violence in their lives.”

He hopes the new law will give every student access to this education. But he and other advocates worry that requiring parents to sign up will diminish the reach.

Some students may simply fall through the cracks, especially those who don’t live with their parents or forget to get the paperwork signed. Some parents may not want their children educated about child abuse, particularly if they are the perpetrators of the abuse. Others may not want to admit that their child could fall victim to dating violence.

“It’s not great to hear that we as adults are often not privy to all of the dynamics of a young person's life,” said Rios. “But what we do know is that young people talk to each other. Often it takes the support of peer networks to understand how to intervene, how to offer support to a young survivor.”

Heather Bellino is the executive director at the Texas Advocacy Project, a domestic violence legal advocacy group. She is also a parent, and said she appreciates the need for parental input in what their children are taught.

“Being a parent, that's your heart walking around outside of your body and you want to protect it in every way you can,” she said. “But sometimes protecting in every way you can means stretching a little bit outside of your comfort zone.”

She’s imploring parents to get educated on these issues themselves — and sign their students up for the curriculum.

“Opting out of this training,” she said, “won’t stop your child from being abused.”

Ted Cruz has never recouped more than $500,000 he loaned his first campaign. He’s working to overturn the law that’s blocked him

"Ted Cruz has never recouped more than $500,000 he loaned his first campaign. He’s working to overturn the law that’s blocked him." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Locked in an expensive Republican primary for U.S. senator against a wealthy, better-known opponent, Ted Cruz loaned his campaign over $1 million in 2012.

The cash helped him defeat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a runoff that essentially secured Cruz a seat in the Senate. But it came at a personal financial cost: Cruz has never been able to recoup $545,000 of that loan, according to a Federal Election Commission report.

A 2002 law bans victorious federal candidates from using more than $250,000 raised after an election to pay back loans they gave their own campaigns prior to Election Day. Congress passed it to help prevent the appearance of quid pro quo corruption. The idea behind the limit is that money collected after an election is no longer helping a candidate win office. Instead, the funds go to the electee’s pocket.

Cruz recouped a good chunk of that 2012 loan from money received before Election Day. But when Cruz’s campaign determined that the loans could not be fully repaid due to the regulations, it began exploring ways to challenge the law, according to a May 2020 deposition of Cabell Hobbs, Ted Cruz Victory Committee treasurer.

Next month, his campaign’s lawsuit against the FEC will reach the Supreme Court. Cruz’s campaign lawyers are expected to argue the limit is unconstitutional, arbitrarily limits political speech and deters candidates from loaning money to their campaigns.

“The federal government’s restrictions on a candidate’s ability to loan his own money to his own campaign violate the First Amendment,” a Cruz spokesperson told The Texas Tribune in an email. “Senator Cruz seeks to vindicate his rights under the First Amendment and the rights of all those who would seek election to federal office.”

It’s unclear whether Cruz will ever get his money back, even if he wins his case. In 2015, after his campaign was audited by the FEC, Cruz’s campaign converted the existing unpaid loans into a contribution, as required by law. But he still lists the loans as an asset in his most recent Senate financial disclosure, which could be a sign he hopes to eventually get the money back. Cruz’s office did not respond to questions about his plans for the loan.

The lawsuit now pending before the Supreme Court is actually about a separate loan. One day before he won reelection in 2018, Cruz loaned his campaign $260,000 — intentionally establishing the groundwork to sue to overturn the rule and raise money to recover the $10,000 that goes over the cap of $250,000.

“The money they contribute is literally going into Ted Cruz’s bank account,” said Seth Nesin, the FEC’s former lead attorney on this case who left the agency in August after 13 years. “That’s what really makes it seem, to at least me and some other people, quite sketchy.”

Cruz’s legal fight is a new front in a longtime effort by conservatives to peel back federal campaign finance rules they argue are antithetical to free speech. If the Supreme Court affirms lower courts’ rulings in Cruz’s favor, the case would mark another blow to federal campaign finance laws under Chief Justice John Roberts.

In 2010’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court effectively allowed unions and corporations to spend as much as they like on independent political broadcasts in candidate elections. Campaign spending by outside groups more than doubled in the decision’s wake, according to a 2015 analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice. In 2014’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that the government can’t cap the amount of money people donate to federal candidates in the aggregate every two years.

But this case goes a step further, according to some critics of Cruz’s lawsuit, because the money raised after the election would replenish politicians’ personal funds — not their campaigns.

If the Supreme Court struck down the limit, Tara Malloy, senior director for appellate litigation and strategy at the Campaign Legal Center, said the effect would be bad but “fairly narrow.”

“It’s just common sense that when an election is over, a contributor is not giving money to fund election speech anymore. At most, they are trying to associate themselves to the candidate,” said Malloy, whose group filed an amicus curiae brief supporting the FEC in the Supreme Court case. “That money that’s being raised will directly enrich the candidate in a way that almost no other campaign contribution will.”

In a motion filed in July, the FEC pointed to a recent study of U.S. congressional campaigns from 1983-2018 by two finance professors at universities in France and Switzerland. The study found that nearly half of all political campaigns rely on debt in some form. Officeholders in debt are more likely to change their votes to benefit PACs making post-election campaign contributions, according to the study.

But conservatives have long argued in court that campaign contributions amount to political speech, which shouldn’t be restricted.
In an amicus curiae brief filed in August, the nonprofit Institute for Free Speech argued that the limit hinders political speech by disincentivizing candidates from loaning money to their campaigns.

“Contributions to a political campaign promote more expenditures by that campaign, which results in more political speech,” wrote Donald A. Daugherty for the Institute for Free Speech.

FEC lawyers also argue that striking down the limit would allow candidates to engage further in “debt stacking,” a loophole where donors avoid contribution limits by giving money to previous campaigns with existing debts.

“If there were no Loan Repayment Limit now, a contributor that had not previously given to Senator Cruz could donate $16,000 today: the maximum $5,000 to his 2012 primary and general campaigns… an additional $5,400 to his 2018 campaigns… and another $5,600 to his 2024 campaigns. And Senator Cruz would be able to make yet another loan to his 2024 campaign to keep the cycle going,” the FEC wrote.

But Judge Neomi Rao — appointed by former President Donald Trump to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals — wrote in June that because the government did not sufficiently prove how the law prevents corruption, the limit “runs afoul of the First Amendment.”
Lawyers representing Ted Cruz for Senate have until Dec. 15 to file their brief in the case. Oral arguments are Jan. 19. If the limit is considered unconstitutional, future candidates could theoretically repay loans of infinite amounts with post-election contributions.
Nesin fears that the “very hostile court to campaign finance laws” may strike down the limit.

“I think it’s very unlikely that the Supreme Court will find the FEC on the merits of the case,” Nesin said. “Just because of who is on the Supreme Court, the FEC doesn’t win anything.”

Texas cities weren’t ready for a massive winter storm in February. Has that changed?

By Joshua Fechter, The Texas Tribune

Dec. 6, 2021

"Texas cities weren’t ready for a massive winter storm in February. Has that changed?" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Officials in major Texas cities say they are in a better position to handle a severe crisis like February’s winter storm than they were before — but big gaps in their preparation remain and won’t be closed until after the upcoming winter.

Texas cities drastically underestimated the severity of this year’s freeze, which left hundreds dead and millions of Texans without heat, water and electricity for days.

The catastrophe exposed shortfalls in local governments’ ability to respond to frigid weather. As the storm blanketed Texas in snow, city officials found they lacked supplies like power generators and water trucks necessary to handle the winter emergency, and they struggled to communicate crucial information to residents. Icy roads and blackouts stranded city workers who otherwise would have been responding to the crisis. Even some of the cities’ best-laid plans were thwarted by statewide power outages.

Now, cities know massive winter storms are not only possible but also capable of great devastation.

“If nothing else, they now know it can happen,” said Reed Williams, a former San Antonio City Council member who helmed a committee to investigate the city’s response to the storm. “So they ought to be paying better attention.”

In the aftermath, local governments looked to zero in on what went wrong with their emergency responses and better prepare for similar disasters in the future. Probes in Austin and San Antonio produced dozens of recommendations like stocking up on emergency supplies and revising outdated emergency planning documents that had downplayed the risk and severity of a winter storm.

Ten months after the freeze, Texas cities have made some headway on storm preparedness, an oft-neglected area of local government. They have bolstered reserves of bottled water for residents in case of water outages, bought tire chains for city emergency vehicles, and implemented measures intended to shorten potential power outages for residents and keep electricity flowing to critical facilities.

But as winter approaches and the electrical grid remains vulnerable to blackouts, cities are still short on two key fronts: making sure their most vulnerable residents have the information they need to survive a similar calamity and that the water stays on. Many preparations cities are undertaking to protect residents against future disasters will take months, if not years, to put in place, city officials have said.

And worries abound that officials didn’t learn the lesson and will neglect to adopt new readiness measures — as they have after past disasters.

Austin officials failed to make emergency preparations before February that may have helped during the winter storm, despite past recommendations to do so, according to a recent report conducted by city auditors. Austin has adopted only a sliver of the recommendations made in the wake of other recent calamities, the report says.

“It’s extremely frustrating, and we need systems in place that don’t let that happen again,” Austin City Council member Alison Alter said during a meeting on the report’s findings last month.

Emergency officials say part of the reason those calls haven’t been entirely heeded is that large-scale disasters are becoming increasingly common as climate change worsens, making it more difficult to learn from the last one before the next one hits. On top of that, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched emergency responders thin.

“There hasn’t been enough time in between them to look at all those corrective actions,” Juan Ortiz, who heads Austin’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told a council committee in November. “That really has caused the congestion in work that needed to be done.”

Communication breakdown

As the storm hit and knocked out utility services, many Texans huddled in the dark for warmth and waited for authorities to inform them when the lights and water would return. A key point of frustration for many Texans during the storm: When they needed information about what was going on, local governments weren’t there.

In Austin, residents had little heads-up from city officials about how to prepare for the storm before the power and water went out, according to a November audit of the city’s storm response.

“The city did not communicate effectively with Austin residents in the days leading up to or during Winter Storm Uri, so residents were left without critical information that may have helped them stay safe,” the audit said.

For Austinites who speak languages other than English, the delay was even worse. It took Austin officials an extra day to translate information about boil-water notices and emergency shelters into languages like Spanish that they had already shared in English, the audit shows.

Many staffers typically in charge of getting city communications translated suffered power and internet outages during the storm, which made it hard to share key information in other languages in real time, Jessica King, the city’s chief communications officer, told Austin council members last month.

But there’s no reason the city couldn’t have some emergency communications translated and ready to send ahead of the storm, Austin City Council member Kathie Tovo said.

“Some of this work is definitely happening,” Tovo said. “I think there are legitimate questions about why some of it didn’t happen before.”

Austin emergency officials are hammering out a plan intended to make sure emergency messages go out to the public in several languages during a disaster. But the plan isn’t slated to be finished until September.

In San Antonio, city and utility officials are scheduled to deliver a joint emergency communications plan at the end of the month. An important question they are expected to address is how to communicate ahead of and during a storm with residents who don’t have internet access to begin with — like many residents on the city’s South Side.

Those residents can’t be left out in the cold, said council member Adriana Rocha Garcia.

“A preparation checklist should be on a door hanger for every vulnerable community to be able to just literally go out and get it from their doors so that they know exactly what to do, exactly who to call in case of an emergency during a winter storm,” Rocha Garcia said.

Keeping the lights and water on

Officials in Texas cities didn’t count on the possibility of widespread and prolonged power outages in February.

In Dallas, the outages knocked out power in facilities like libraries and recreation centers that had been set up as hubs for people to warm up, forcing officials to pay for a fleet of charter buses to act as warming shelters.

As a short-term measure to get through this winter, Dallas officials are trying to acquire small-scale generators that can power and heat those facilities in case another blast of severe cold weather leads to more power outages, said Rocky Vaz, the city’s emergency management director. Dallas won’t have permanent backup generators for some of those facilities until next year, he said.

“It’s a long process,” Vaz said. “No. 1, we have supply chain issues. No. 2, it’s not as simple as just going and plopping a generator at a rec center.”

Power outages in February knocked out San Antonio Water System’s water pumping stations, leading to widespread outages across the city and prompting a boil-water notice from the city-owned utility, though not everyone had electricity to heat it.

Before the storm, the city’s water pumping stations weren’t on circuits that would protect them from outages. Now, they are — but that’s not enough to guarantee they won’t lose power.

The stations don’t have backup generators to help water continue flowing to nearly 2 million people should Texas’ electrical grid fail, despite a 2015 recommendation by outside disaster planning experts urging the utility to purchase them.

Utility officials have said equipping each of the pumping stations with generators would be too expensive, citing a $200 million cost estimate; they also worry that generators will fail in cold weather, as they did in Houston. Instead, the utility has pinpointed a number of stations that could serve as backup and maintain water service in the city even if several others go down.

The problem now for San Antonio utility officials is figuring out how to install generators cheaply, particularly ones not powered by natural gas.

“Natural gas failed the state of Texas,” said the water utility’s CEO, Robert Puente. “So if you’re going to rely on that for your backup, for your emergency, you may run into the same problem.”

Disclosure: San Antonio Water System has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/12/06/texas-cities-winter-storm/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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