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National Democratic super PAC says it will double its spending to $12 million in battle for the Texas House

"National Democratic super PAC says it will double its spending to $12 million in battle for the Texas House" 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.

The national Democratic super PAC Forward Majority is doubling its spending to flip the Texas House, bringing its commitment to over $12 million.

The political action committee said in early September that it would drop $6.2 million to help Democrats capture the majority. But in an announcement first shared with The Texas Tribune, Forward Majority said it is now surging its spending to keep up with Republicans in the homestretch of the fight to control the lower chamber ahead of the 2021 redistricting process.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, the chief national GOP group focused on state legislative races, had vowed to top Forward Majority's initial $6.2 million investment, and it raised $5.3 million into a Texas-based account between July 1 and late September. Of that haul, $4.5 million came via GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam.

"The RSLC and Karl Rove aren't going to call the shots in Texas in this election," Forward Majority spokesperson Ben Wexler-Waite said in a statement, alluding to both the national GOP outfit and a state-level PAC with which Rove, the famous party strategist, is working. "Republicans are hemorrhaging millions on Texas state house races because they know their majority is in grave jeopardy and that this is the most important state in the country for redistricting."

Democrats are nine seats away from the majority, and they also have to defend the 12 seats they picked up in 2018. Forward Majority has been exclusively on offense, targeting its original $6.2 million effort at 18 Republican-held seats.

Forward Majority said its spending surge was prompted by millions of dollars in TV ad buys by Republicans in some of the most competitive districts, such as those of Republican Reps. Jeff Leach of Plano, Angie Chen Button of Richardson, Morgan Meyer of Dallas and Sarah Davis of Houston. In two of those districts — Meyer's and Davis' — Forward Majority is teaming up with Everytown for Gun Safety, the national anti-gun violence group, to try to counter increased GOP ad spending.

The ramped-up spending plan by Forward Majority reflects just how fiercely competitive the fight for the majority has become. While Democrats had plenty to boast about on the latest campaign finance reports, Republicans in general had more money to spend heading into late September, and they are getting seven-figure aid in the final weeks from not just the RSLC but also Gov. Greg Abbott's campaign.

"We've long seen several paths to flipping the Texas House and we will continue to do everything we can to ensure Democratic legislative candidates aren't drowned out by millions in special interest money," Wexler-Waite said.

Disclosure: Everytown for Gun Safety 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/2020/10/20/texas-house-super-pac/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

This is the hardest state to vote in: analysis

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It's harder than in 49 other states, according to a “cost-of-voting index" compiled by political scientists at Northern Illinois University, Jacksonville University and Wuhan University in China.

Obviously, it's not impossible to vote in Texas; more than 10% of the state's registered voters — about 2 million citizens — had already cast their ballots, either in person or by mail, by Thursday night. That's certainly a sign of enthusiasm, and could either be a signal of a bigger-than-normal turnout or that a lot of Texas were itching to vote and did so as soon as they could.

But the state has erected obstacles throughout the voting system, and when you compare the comfort and convenience of voting in Texas with other states, Texas ends up at the bottom of the list.

Voting and election law is a persistent struggle in Texas between those who want to knock down impediments to voting and those who think more safeguards are needed to secure the process and the results — though the evidence for this is both anecdotal and thin.

That particular battlefield ranges from voter ID to current legal battles over how many drop-offs each county is allowed to provide for voters who would rather not put their absentee ballots in the mail, who's eligible to vote by mail and whether counties with curbside voting are making things too simple.

Here's how the researchers wrote up our state's position on the list: “Texas maintains an in-person voter registration deadline 30 days prior to Election Day, has reduced the number of polling stations in some parts of the state by more than 50% and has the most restrictive pre-registration law in the country, according to the analysis."

States at the top of the list — where it's easiest to vote — have voting conveniences that aren't available here, like online voter registration, automatic voter registration and allowing voters to register as late as Election Day. (The Texas deadline was Oct. 5.)

Some have universal mail-in voting, which the study considers a hallmark of a state where it's easy to vote. In Texas, voting by mail is only available to people ages 65 and older, to eligible voters confined to jail, for voters who are out of their county of residence during voting, and for voters who cite a disability that prevents them from safely going to the polls.

And higher-rated states require only a signature for in-person voting, instead of tight voter photo identification laws like the one in Texas.

Texas has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country, turning out 45.6% of its population of eligible voters in 2018, compared with a national average of 49.4%, according to the United States Election Project. In the last presidential race, in 2016, turnout was 51.4% of the state's eligible voters, a number that includes adults eligible to vote whether they registered or not. The national average was 60.1%.

The cost-of-voting index is an update of a study that includes indexes for elections back to 1996. In 2016, Texas was fifth from the bottom of the list, in company with Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia and Mississippi. This time around, Texas is behind every other state, in the bottom of the barrel with Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Maybe the low turnout in Texas is related to the state's restrictive voting laws. Maybe eligible adults in Texas are less interested in voting, and the state's voting laws are just an excuse for the low civic engagement.

There's a way to find out, if state lawmakers' goal is to get more Texans voting. If they wanted more people to vote, they'd make it easier.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/19/texas-voting-elections/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

One county tried to make voting easier during the pandemic. Texas Republicans fought every step of the way

"Harris County tried to make voting easier during the pandemic. Texas Republicans fought every step of the way." 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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A potential nightmare for Texas Republicans began to materialize early Tuesday, taking the form of tens of thousands of voters lined up at the polls in Harris County.

By day's end, the number of ballots cast on the first day of early voting in Houston and its suburbs had shattered all records.

The early numbers are almost certainly bad news for Texas Republicans. Control of the White House depends on Republican domination of Texas, which in turn relies on containing a voting surge in the nation's third most populous county, which is only solidifying as a Democratic stronghold.

Much of the Democrats' dream of turning Texas blue is pinned on ramping up turnout in Houston and other Texas cities where voters, many of whom are people of color, trend heavily their way.

In a bitterly contested election, overlaid with the fears and risks of an uncontrolled pandemic, Harris County has become a case study in raw politics and partisan efforts to manipulate voter turnout. Republican leaders and activists have furiously worked the levers of power, churning out lawsuits, unsubstantiated specters of voter fraud and official state orders in their bid to limit voters' options during the pandemic.

Their power hemmed in by state officials, Houston Democrats have launched a robust effort to make voting as easy as possible, tripling the number of early and Election Day polling locations and increasing the county's election budget from $4 million in 2016 to $33 million this fall. They reject GOP claims that making voting easier carries inherent risks of widespread voter fraud.

The battle lines were acknowledged in one of the many lawsuits Republican leaders and activists filed in the past few months attempting to rein in Harris County's efforts to expand voting access.

“As Texas goes, so too will the rest of the country. As Harris County goes, so too will Texas," the GOP lawsuit read. “If President Trump loses Texas, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for him to be reelected."

Local political observers agree the writing is on the wall: Most of Houston's residents are people of color, its local leaders are Democrats, and it is the fastest-growing county in the state, according to recent census data.

“This county looks like what Texas is going to look like in 10 years, and they know that if Harris County can become solidly entrenched in the Democratic Party, it's just going to disperse from there," said Melanye Price, endowed professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University and a Harris County voter. “I think in some ways they're going to have more of an influence, and the governor knows that, and the attorney general knows that, and that is why they've decided to hobble them at every turn."

It's no coincidence, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said, that GOP efforts to tightly enforce Texas voting laws — among the nation's most restrictive — target an important Democratic stronghold and one of the country's most diverse cities.

“If you look at [election results] for Harris County, you see a very clear trend," Hollins said. “If I were in the business of trying to suppress Democratic votes, I know where I would target."


Harris County going bluer

With Harris County slipping from its grasp, the GOP's road to political safety in Texas and beyond grows more perilous as Democratic candidates from the top to the bottom of the ballot siphon more and more votes from the county's 2.4 million registered voters.

In 2008, nearly 600,000 Democratic votes were cast in the presidential election in Harris County, edging out Republican votes for the first time in recent history. In 2016, the spread was even wider: Democrats cast more than 700,000 votes for president, while Republicans cast closer to 550,000.

In 2018, 17% of the state's Democratic votes for U.S. Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke were cast in Harris County alone.

“The number of Democratic votes that come out of Harris County is very important for who wins the state," said Austin attorney and public-interest advocate Fred Lewis, who helped organize voter drives in Harris County after President Barack Obama won the county in 2008. “It's no longer important for who wins Harris because that's over."

Jared Woodfill, a local attorney and former Harris County GOP chairman who has sued both Abbott and the county over the election, said conservatives aren't trying to thwart Democrats but are trying to enforce election laws.

“To the extent that the law is what it is, you've got to follow it," he said. “If the Democrats want to flaunt or violate the law, it's just illegal. The reason that these laws are in place is to protect the integrity of the ballot box. So it's interesting that the Democrats want to somehow unilaterally suspend the law and put provisions in place that will allow voter fraud to thrive."

Requests for interviews with Harris County GOP officials, including Chairman Keith Nielsen and several precinct chairpersons, and the Republican Party of Texas were not answered. The offices of Abbott and Steven Hotze, a Houston conservative activist who has filed several lawsuits with Woodfill, did not respond to requests for interviews. A spokesperson at Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's office referred questions to his previous statements and court filings.


Expanding voter access

When Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman resigned in May, the commissioners on a party-line vote appointed Hollins, vice chairman of finance for the Texas Democratic Party and a local personal injury lawyer, to serve on an interim basis until her successor is elected in November. Hollins is not running for election.

Since Hollins' June appointment, he and Houston elections officials have launched a robust effort to expand voter access.

Hollins created a 23-point initiative this summer to turn around a decadeslong history of chronic election problems in the county of 4.8 million and avoid a drop in turnout due to the coronavirus, which disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic people.

But Republican activists, party officials and state leaders have voted against local initiatives, sought injunctions and filed multiple lawsuits to halt the unprecedented effort in Harris County.

Their resistance has almost uniformly advanced under the banner of guarding against "voter fraud."

"The State of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our elections," the state's top Republican, Gov. Greg Abbott, said after issuing a recent proclamation aimed at Harris and Travis counties that forced them to shut down multiple drop-off locations for absentee ballots. "As we work to preserve Texans' ability to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state."

Abbott's nod to "ballot security" is in line with efforts by Republicans nationally seeking to cast doubt on the security of mail-in ballots even as they encourage their own voters to use them.

There are documented cases of voter fraud in Texas, including recent highly publicized arrests in Gregg County and Carrollton, but they are rare and have been small-scale efforts to manipulate local elections.

“Election fraud, particularly an organized mail ballot fraud scheme orchestrated by political operatives, is an affront to democracy and results in voter disenfranchisement and corruption at the highest level," Paxton said in a statement about one case.

Fraudulent efforts on a scale large enough to affect the outcome of a statewide or national election have not been discovered, experts point out.

Beth Stevens, a former voting-rights activist who is now a senior adviser for voting rights for Harris County, said it has tried to place itself on the “cutting edge of voter access" in the months leading up to the November election.

“That has absolutely resulted in backlash from state leadership that wants to undo or prevent access that Harris County is trying to create for all eligible voters and, in the process, confusing voters and suppressing votes," said Stevens, an attorney who took a temporary leave from her job as voting rights director for the Texas Civil Rights Project in July to work on elections in Harris County this cycle.

Hollins' decision to hire Stevens was celebrated by Democrats, who view her as an ally in their efforts to increase voting accessibility and turnout.

“Hollins has shown that he really understands that anybody who can lawfully vote should be allowed to vote, and that voting should be easy and accessible, and I think that by appointing Beth, he showed a real commitment to that," said Nicole Pedersen, who spearheads the Harris County Democratic Party's voter protection efforts.

No. 3 on Hollins' list for improving access was to “promote and maximize vote-by-mail within the bounds of the law."

Commissioners had already approved $12 million — tripling the budget for the 2016 elections — in April to help with mail-in voting expansion as voters became increasingly concerned about catching the virus at the polls and large Texas counties joined the call to expand mail-in voting.

In Texas, absentee ballots are available only to people age 65 or older, those confined in jail but otherwise eligible, people who are out of the county for the election period, and voters who cite a disability or illness.

The all-Republican Texas Supreme Court scuttled that vote-by-mail expansion effort in June. The court said susceptibility to the coronavirus could not in itself constitute a disability that would make a voter eligible for a mail-in ballot.

But the court also said that voters could decide for themselves whether their personal health histories, along with susceptibility to COVID-19, qualified under the disability provision.

In August, Harris County commissioners, along party lines, approved another $17 million to expand access to voting, most of it funded by a federal coronavirus aid package.

The county moved its election headquarters to a 100,000-square-foot space in NRG Stadium, home to the rodeo and the Houston Texans football team, and secured the Toyota Center, home to the Houston Rockets, as a drive-thru voting location.

For the first time in Texas, drive-thru voting was implemented in 10 locations.

Officials also increased the hours of several early voting sites and announced that six locations would be open 24 hours a day in the final days of early voting.

Election machines were added in districts that expected heavy turnout, and changes in technology promised no more delayed results — an ongoing headache in Harris for decades — or false waiting times.

Officials authorized 12 locations for voters to hand-deliver their mail-in ballots. In previous elections, only one drop-off point had been used.

Then Hollins announced plans in September to send mail-in ballot applications to the county's 2.4 million registered voters.

Chris Davis, the elections administrator for Williamson County, called Hollins' innovations “very impressive" and said he thinks other elections administrators will look to Harris County as an example if all goes well this fall.

"Personally, I like what I'm seeing," said Davis, who has served in leadership for the Texas Association of Elections Administrators. “He's thinking outside the box, and maybe that's what this kind of work needed."

But by the time the county's effort began picking up steam, the political power struggle had already moved to the courts.


Fight from Republicans

For nearly every step it has taken, Harris County has faced opposition from state and Harris County Republicans. The most ground gained by the GOP has come in fighting efforts to expand access to mail-in voting.

With just three weeks to go before Election Day and early voting in Texas already underway, mail-in balloting remains the hottest flashpoint for the national GOP effort to raise concern over the integrity of the elections — and in Harris, the decisions and challenges mutate on a daily basis.

Paxton and others have insisted in court filings, as have GOP state lawmakers who have supported other measures limiting voters' options, that their efforts are not partisan but rather in the interest of election integrity.

Usually the target of criticism from Democrats, Abbott has also been sued by members of his own party over the steps he's taken to expand voting — an extra week of early voting and allowing early drop-off of absentee ballots — using his pandemic-era powers in the name of election integrity to tinker with election law in response to the tug-of-war in the courts.

In August, both the Harris County Republican Party and the Texas attorney general's office filed legal challenges to Hollins' plans to send mail-in ballot applications to every registered voter, arguing that it invited ballot harvesting and would encourage ineligible voters to put false information on their applications in order to qualify. Local officials had planned to include eligibility information with the mailers.

In September, a cadre of statewide Republican politicians and party leaders sued to stop Abbott's order allowing early voting to start a week early, on Oct. 13, to combat long lines and crowds during the pandemic. That lawsuit failed.

Days later, Hotze, members of the Harris County Republican Party, and a number of Republican officials and candidates asked the Texas Supreme Court to strike the early-vote expansion in Harris and limit the county's mail-in drop-off locations to one spot. That lawsuit was dismissed after Abbott effectively made the change with an executive proclamation, citing his emergency powers during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Oct. 1, a few days after Harris County opened its 12 locations for hand-delivering mail-in ballots, Abbott issued his proclamation limiting counties to one location, causing some of the state's strongest Democratic counties to shutter multiple locations and triggering legal challenges.

Harris County has already received nearly a quarter of a million absentee ballot requests. In addition to the influx, there also are concerns about delays from the U.S. Postal Service.

Court rulings over the past week affirmed Abbott's decision to expand early voting and blocked Hollins from a plan to send some 1.9 million unrequested absentee ballot applications to registered Harris County voters under the age of 65.

The Texas GOP unsuccessfully sued Harris County on Monday, fighting Hollins' work to expand access to curbside and drive-thru voting so that locals can cast their ballots from the safety of their cars, the latest in a long list of challenges to the county's efforts this summer.

Also this week, after much back-and-forth in court, Abbott was allowed to limit mail-in drop-off points to one location per county in a federal appeals court ruling — a battle that followed Harris County election officials' decision earlier in the summer to allow 12 drop-off points to make voting more convenient for hundreds of thousands of voters casting mail-in ballots.

Woodfill has filed a dozen petitions and lawsuits related to government action on the pandemic and the elections since May.

He and his clients oppose all election-law changes — particularly those pushed by the Harris County Clerk's Office and ordered by Abbott — that fall outside the scope of the Texas Legislature, which is majority Republican.

“He [Hollins] is really changing the whole system up to make it a lot more conducive to voter fraud, and you have to ask yourself why," Woodfill said.

Stevens said the county's efforts, even though some have been thwarted, will make a difference in turnout for this year's election.

“Despite all of the attempts to walk back and suppress the efforts that Harris County has taken to make sure that all voters have access, this will be more access than voters have ever had in Harris County, because of the initiatives that the clerk's office has put forward and that have been supported by county leadership," Stevens said. “So we're excited to see that unfold."

Disclosure: Prairie View A&M 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/2020/10/15/harris-county-texas-voting/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

Texas' attempt to ban common abortion procedure blocked by appeals court

"Texas' attempt to ban common abortion procedure blocked by appeals court" 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.

Women in Texas can continue to access the most common procedure used to end a pregnancy in the second trimester, after a federal appeals court Tuesday struck down a state law that would have curtailed its use.

The law would have required doctors to stop the fetus's heart before performing a dilation and evacuation abortion — in which doctors use surgical instruments to remove pieces of fetal tissue — except in the case of a medical emergency. Those who violated the law could have faced prison time.

The measure — which never went into effect — has been tied up in litigation since the Texas Legislature passed it in 2017. It was struck down by a district judge in Austin, who said it substantially burdened a woman's right to an abortion, and was appealed before the politically conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The proceedings were stalled pending a Supreme Court case decided this summer.

Judge James Dennis, writing for the majority, said the law “forces abortion providers to act contrary to their medical judgment and the best interest of their patient" by first stopping the fetus's heart with procedures that are “unfeasible," “dangerous" and provide “no benefit to the woman."

The requirement could increase the duration of an otherwise one-day dilation and evacuation procedure, potentially burdening low-income women who “must wait until the second trimester to seek an abortion because of the time needed to obtain funds to pay for the procedure," he wrote.

The law's “burdens substantially outweigh its benefits," he wrote. The decision was 2-1, with two Democrat-appointed judges in the majority and Republican-appointed Judge Don Willett dissenting.

The state's lawyers have likened the method of a dilation and evacuation to “dismemberment," and Attorney General Ken Paxton has called it “barbaric."

Abortion providers who brought the lawsuit say dilation and evacuation is the safest way to end a second-trimester pregnancy and that an effective ban on it would subject women to medically unnecessary and untested procedures. The requirement to stop a fetus's heart could lead providers to “essentially experiment" on patients, one doctor said in a trial about the law in 2017.

Molly Duane, an attorney with the nonprofit Center for Reproductive Rights, said the alternative to a dilation and evacuation procedure is medical induction — “essentially giving birth."

“Labor induction, just practically speaking, isn't available in Texas, let alone logistically speaking. Asking a patient to exchange a simple outpatient, 10-minute procedure for hours if not days inpatient in the hospital — again in the middle of a pandemic — is unrealistic," she said in an Aug. 12 interview.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said the procedure is “evidence-based and medically preferred" because it results in the fewest complications for women in the second trimester.

Tuesday's decision comes after the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted a block on four Arkansas abortion restrictions in August, citing Chief Justice John Roberts' opinion in the recent Supreme Court case June Medical Services v. Russo. While Roberts' crucial vote in that case awarded a victory to advocates of abortion access then, he issued a narrow opinion that said lawmakers have wide discretion “in areas where there is medical and scientific uncertainty" and that weighing the “costs and benefits of an abortion regulation" was not necessarily a job for the courts.

Lawyers representing Texas argued this presents a different standard than was applied by the district court that struck down the dilation and evacuation restriction in 2017. In that ruling, the burdens of the law were weighed in relation to its benefits — a balancing test rejected by the June Medical decision, the state's lawyers wrote.

“The Chief Justice demonstrated that is it not enough to show merely that a law imposes some 'burden' on abortion access, or that a regulation makes abortion more difficult or expensive. … Rather, 'the only question for a court is whether a law has the 'effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a non viable fetus,'" the state's lawyers wrote, citing Roberts' opinion.

The court disagreed, with Dennis writing that the judges agreed the “balancing test still governs."

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood 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/2020/10/13/texas-abortion-ban/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

Federal appeals court upholds Gov. Abbott’s order — Texas counties can offer single drop-off ballot location

"Texas counties can offer only one drop-off ballot location, federal appeals court rules, upholding Gov. Greg Abbott's order" 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.

Texas counties may collect mail-in ballots at only one location, a federal appeals court ruled late Monday, once again upholding an order from Gov. Greg Abbott that restricts voting options.

Abbott in July acted to lengthen the early voting period and allow voters to deliver completed absentee ballots in person for longer than the normal period. But after large Democratic counties including Harris and Travis established several sites where voters could deliver their ballots, Abbott ordered Oct. 1 that they would be limited to one.

A number of civil rights groups sued in at least four lawsuits, calling the order an act of voter suppression that would disproportionately impact low-income voters, voters with disabilities, older voters and voters of color in Democratic counties. A federal judge on Friday sided with those groups, blocking Texas from enforcing the ruling.

But a three-judge panel on the conservative U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily halted that ruling on Saturday and on Monday gave a more formal word on the matter in a written opinion.

“Leaving the Governor's October 1 Proclamation in place still gives Texas absentee voters many ways to cast their ballots in the November 3 election. These methods for remote voting outstrip what Texas law previously permitted in a pre-COVID world," wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan for the panel of three judges all appointed by President Donald Trump. “The October 1 Proclamation abridges no one's right to vote."

Travis County had designated four locations and Harris County — home to 2.4 million registered voters and spanning a greater distance than the entire state of Rhode Island — had designated a dozen before Abbott's order forced them to close most sites. Fort Bend and Galveston counties also planned to use multiple locations, according to court documents.

Voting rights advocates and local election administrators said the extra sites were critical for helping voters cast their ballots safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Texas is set to receive an unprecedented number of absentee ballots this year, and amid concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays, advocates say, in-person drop-off locations are critical.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has not hesitated to say the governor's decision amounts to voter suppression.

“To force hundreds of thousands of seniors and voters with disabilities to use a single drop-off location in a county that stretches over nearly 2,000 square miles is prejudicial and dangerous," Hollins said earlier this month.

In some states, voters can simply leave their ballots in boxes outside town halls or local churches. Not in Texas, where voters must show an election worker an approved form of identification and can only bring their own ballot.

Abbott had argued that the measure was necessary to ensure election integrity, but he did not provide any evidence and his office did not answer questions about how limiting the highly regulated drop-off locations would do so. In court filings, lawyers for the Texas Attorney General's Office wrote that some counties wouldn't provide “adequate election security, including poll watchers" — “inconsistencies" that the state argued “introduced a risk to ballot integrity."

Abbott said that poll watchers must be allowed at the drop-off sites, as they are at in-person voting sites. Experts say voter fraud is rare, but Republican officials in Texas and nationally have sought to cast doubt on the security of absentee ballots even as their political party calls on its own voters to use them.

The appeals court ruled Monday that Texas did not need to show evidence of voter fraud to justify its decision to limit counties to one location.

“Such evidence has never been required to justify a state's prophylactic measures to decrease occasions for vote fraud or to increase the uniformity and predictability of election administration," Duncan wrote for the court.

One voter who sued the state over the order, 82-year-old Ralph Edelbach, said in court documents that closing the site nearest his Cypress home will mean he adds an extra 20 miles each way to his trip to deliver his ballot, forcing him to spend nearly 90 minutes round trip.

That inconvenience will only be greater, advocates say, for voters with disabilities or those without reliable access to transportation.

The groups that sued the governor include the Texas and National Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives and the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/13/texas-election-ballot-drop-off/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

Federal court blocks Trump's effort to use $3.6 billion in military funds for border wall construction

By Julián Aguilar, The Texas Tribune

Oct. 10, 2020

"President Trump can't use $3.6 billion in military funds for border wall construction, federal court 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.

A federal appeals court ruled late Friday that President Donald Trump's use of his emergency powers to build his long-promised border wall with military funds is illegal, striking a blow to one of his signature campaign promises just weeks before the November election.

The 2-1 decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals comes as $3.6 billion was slated for construction of about a dozen projects, including two projects in the Laredo and El Paso areas. The money was diverted from funds dedicated for military construction after the president declared a national emergency in February 2019 to tap the funds. The projects in Texas would have covered more than 60 miles, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The courts have once again confirmed what everyone knows: Trump's fake 'national emergency' was just another pretext for targeting immigrants and border communities," said Dror Ladin, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project. “It's past time for Trump to finally give up on trying to raid the federal budget for his wasteful and illegal project."

The lawsuit, Sierra Club v. Trump, was filed last year by the ACLU on behalf of the Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition. The ruling Friday upholds a 2019 decision that halted the construction. But that order was put on hold, said Gloria Smith, the managing attorney at the Sierra Club.

“The district court was very careful and went ahead and granted an injunction and then stayed his own injunction pending a full resolution of the case," she said. “So the stay is gone, the injunction is back in force, which means no construction."

Trump's emergency declaration came after the U.S. Congress allotted about $1.4 billion in a 2019 budget bill for wall construction. But Trump balked at the amount after he requested nearly $6 billion for the effort. Congress tried twice to stop the national emergency declaration, but the president vetoed both efforts.

Friday's decision comes as the Trump administration is in an 11th-hour push to speed up construction of barriers on the southern border before the Nov. 3 election. Construction has increased to about 2 miles per day, nearly twice the daily rate since the start of 2020, The Washington Post reported late last month.

But Texas has been a persistent wrench in the president's plans because, unlike in other border states, most of the land eyed for border barriers in Texas is on privately owned land. That means the Department of Homeland Security must secure some of that land through eminent domain, a process that can take long if landowners choose to file suit against the federal government.

Smith said the plaintiffs were celebrating Saturday but are prepared for future battles, including possible arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court because there are other aspects of the case that the administration can challenge.

“The administration, the Department of Homeland Security, needed to identify the provisions in the U.S. Code that it would rely on to take those monies," she said. “As we started to learn that, and as we started identifying specific project sites, we would amend our complaint with more specificity. So there are offshoots of the main lawsuit."

David Donatti, an attorney with the ACLU of Texas, said the Supreme Court could issue an emergency stay without making a final determination on the case before the Nov. 3 election.

“They could do that, but they would need a majority of the court to do it. But because at the moment we only have eight justices, we have to see how that would shake out," he said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/10/texas-border-wall-lawsuit/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

Biden to spend $6 million on massive Texas ad buy — more than any Democratic presidential nominee in decades

By Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune

Oct. 6, 2020

"Biden campaign to spend $6 million on Texas campaign ads, more than any Democratic presidential nominee in decades" 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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Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's campaign is set to spend millions of dollars on TV ads in Texas as polls continue to show a close race in the state.

The former vice president's campaign announced earlier this year that it would make TV reservations this fall in Texas, and as of Tuesday, it had booked more than $6 million through Election Day, according to the media-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

“This is historic. That shows you just how important Texas is to them and it shows that Texas is in play," said Abhi Rahman, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party. “It shows you their investment in Texas is real." Rahman noted that Biden's spending is the biggest investment from a Democratic presidential nominee in the last 25 years and is a drastic change from 2016, when then-nominee Hillary Clinton didn't spend seriously in the state.

Though Biden and Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris have yet to visit Texas in the run-up to Election Day, Democrats have called for the duo to invest heavily in Texas. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who endorsed Biden after dropping his own presidential bid, and Tory Gavito, the president and cofounder of the progressive donor network Way to Win, urged the Biden campaign to steer serious money to the state to ensure President Donald Trump doesn't win a second term.

“Biden, his campaign and Democrats in general need to make it clear: We are competing in Texas, and we'll invest whatever it takes to turn out the state's true electoral majority and flip Texas once and for all," they wrote. “Democrats have historically failed to invest in Texas, despite the size of this prize, because they believed the door is closed to Democratic presidential candidates. But, like many things in 2020, this year is different — Biden has his foot in the door and needs to kick it open for a quick end to the election."

Biden expanded his on-the-ground presence in Texas in September, hiring 13 more staff members — following an initial hiring announcement in early August — to his team as polls continue to pit a close race between him and Trump.

On Monday, Biden's team deployed Douglas Emhoff, a lawyer who is married to Harris, to Edinburg and San Antonio. He will visit Dallas on Tuesday afternoon, Biden's campaign announced Tuesday morning.

News of the campaign's spending through Election Day comes as The Lincoln Project, the group led by former Republican strategists working to defeat Trump, launched a $1 million digital ad campaign in the state. A spokesperson says the group is targeting over 600,000 “suburban and rural Republican women" and tailoring the campaign to Hispanic voters.

The Lincoln Project's effort will feature a number of different ads, including previously released spots criticizing Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his responses to racism and extremism throughout the country. There will be Texas-specific ads, as well as Spanish-language spots, according to the spokesperson, Nate Nesbitt.

As speculation has swirled about the extent of Biden's investment in the state, the Texas Democratic Party has been ramping up its advertising. On Tuesday, the party announced a digital, print and radio campaign aimed at Black voters in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and East Texas. The party described the size of the effort as “high six figure(s)."

Trump won Texas by 9 points in 2016, but recent statewide polls have painted a rosier picture for Biden in the state as surveys continue to show Trump essentially tied with, or barely ahead of, the former vice president.

Still, Trump's campaign has long dismissed the notion that the state is in play. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who chairs Trump's reelection effort in Texas, led a bus tour through the state last month, while Texas GOP Chair Allen West expressed hope that the president would visit North Texas before Election Day.

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/06/texas-biden-presidential-campaign/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s top aides want him investigated for bribery and other alleged crimes: report

By Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune

Oct. 3, 2020

"Gov. Greg Abbott says accusations against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton "raise serious concerns" 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.

Senior officials in the Texas Attorney General's Office have asked federal law enforcement to "investigate allegations of improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential crimes" by their boss, the Austin-American Statesman and KVUE-TV first reported Saturday.

The senior staff members, including Jeff Mateer, who resigned from his post as Paxton's top aide this week after several years leading the agency, notified the agency's human resources director that they sought the investigation.

“We have a good faith belief that the attorney general is violating federal and/or state law including prohibitions related to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses," seven agency leaders wrote in a one-page letter obtained by the Statesman.

The brief letter, dated Oct. 1, says the officials notified law enforcement of a potential crime on Sept. 30, but does not provide detailed accusations. The officials also say they notified Paxton himself of the accusation via text message on Oct. 1.

Paxton, a second-term state official and former state legislator who serves as co-chair of the Lawyers for Trump coalition, has been under indictment for more than five years on felony charges of securities fraud. Paxton has yet to go to trial on the charges amid side battles over where the case will be heard and how much the special prosecutors appointed to take the case to trial will be paid.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said in a statement that "the complaint filed against Attorney General Paxton was done to impede an ongoing investigation into criminal wrongdoing by public officials including employees of this office. Making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law."

She declined to comment further, citing an open investigation.

"These allegations raise serious concerns," Gov. Greg Abbott said Sunday in a prepared statement. "I will withhold further comment until the results of any investigation are complete." The offices of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen did not immediately return requests for comment.

An attorney with Paxton's defense team in the securities fraud case, Philip Hilder, as well as one of the special prosecutors, Brian Wice, declined to comment on the latest allegations.

Jordan Berry, a political adviser to Paxton, confirmed Sunday that he had resigned in the wake of the allegations.

Michelle Lee, a public affairs officer for the FBI, declined to comment on the matter, citing internal policy within the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice not to comment on the existence of pending or potential investigations. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the region said "we have no comment." Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said Saturday evening "we do not have an investigation."

Paxton has faced numerous questions over his ethics over his more than a decade in public life. To help pay for his stacked team of defense attorneys, he has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts for his legal defense fund, claiming the contributions came from “family friends" and are exempt from a state bribery law that bars elected officials from receiving gifts from people who are subject to their authority.

In the securities fraud charges that are still pending, Paxton is accused of convincing investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing that he would be compensated for it. He has maintained his innocence and criticized the prosecution as politically motivated. In 2014, the Texas State Securities Board fined Paxton $1,000 for soliciting investment clients without being registered, and he signed a disciplinary order without disputing its findings.

Last year, his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, filed a bill that would have expanded her husband's power as attorney general, giving him the power to exempt individuals from state regulations like the one he has been charged with violating.

In 2018, Paxton's office filed — and then abruptly recalled — a formal court brief in a lawsuit over Plano's zoning policies, in a move that his supporters attributed to political influence from conservatives in his home county.

Paxton, a conservative who has often elbowed for airtime as the state's top culture warrior, has kept up a busy and high-profile role during the coronavirus pandemic.

This spring, he declared that Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on elective medical procedures, an effort to conserve hospital resources for coronavirus patients, also barred abortions in the state, sparking a lawsuit that would drag on for weeks and force hundreds of women to cancel appointments to terminate their pregnancies. His office threatened to sue the state's biggest cities if they did not roll back coronavirus-related safety precautions, including mask mandates, and told local officials they could not keep landlords from evicting their tenants during the pandemic.

Paxton used the power of his office to lean on a Colorado county after it shut its doors to vacation home owners — including a top donor.

Paxton has led major multi-state lawsuits to overturn laws like the Affordable Care Act and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, often landing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He's made equally political choices in the cases he chooses not to take. His office refused to defend a state agency, as it typically would, when it was sued for disciplining a state judge who refused to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. And it declined to defend the Texas Ethics Commission in a lawsuit brought by the hardline conservative group Empower Texans, a political donor.

Last year, he was a major player in Texas' botched effort to review its voter rolls.

Paxton often boasts of his close relationship with the president, frequently greeting him on the tarmac when Air Force One touches down in Texas, and sharing stories during public appearances about their communication on major Texas-led litigation — the time Trump called while Paxton was in the shower is a favorite.

In 2018, Paxton narrowly bested his Democratic opponent, Justin Nelson, to win reelection in an unexpectedly tight race. Nelson had made Paxton's indictments the centerpiece of his campaign.

“Ken Paxton is the top law enforcement official in the state," Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement Saturday. “Yet, he has proven for years that he cannot follow the law himself."

Patrick Svitek and Abby Livingston contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/03/texas-ken-paxton-bribery-investigation/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

War hero turned troll: Man who raised millions for border wall uses social media to attack his detractors

Sept. 29, 2020

"Veteran, war hero, defendant, troll: Man who raised millions for border wall uses social media to attack his detractors" 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 with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica's Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

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War hero. Veterans advocate. Family man.

It was an image years in the making. Brian Kolfage had lost three limbs in an Iraq bomb blast in 2004, making him the most badly wounded airman to survive the war. He had become a motivational speaker, was the subject of sympathetic news profiles and was even a guest at former President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in 2012.

More recently, 38-year-old Kolfage had positioned himself as a border security visionary after raising $25 million to construct privately funded fences in an effort to help President Donald Trump keep undocumented immigrants from crossing the southern border.

On social media and in the lucrative industry of online news sites dedicated to far-right politics, there's a very different Kolfage, though. One who, over the last decade, has sharpened a strategy of retribution and retaliation against his online critics, asking his legion of followers to “expose" perceived enemies and “make (them) famous," according to numerous interviews, hundreds of screenshots of since-deleted social media posts and court records from two defamation lawsuits to which he was a party.

Kolfage's actions online have spawned an informal support group of individuals who have felt his wrath, including fellow veterans and progressives, as well as some of Kolfage's former conservative allies. His social media activity has forced him to formally apologize to a perceived online critic as part of a court settlement and prompted a judge to issue a warning following his recent indictment on fraud charges.

Facebook has barred Kolfage from its platform for his online behavior, which includes creating multiple fake accounts and linking to “ad farms," a company spokeswoman said, adding that his actions violated “our rules against spam and inauthentic behavior."

Neither Kolfage nor his attorney responded to requests for comment. He's previously said his social media approach is in response to negative comments that others publish about him, such as allegations of fraud.

Kolfage, along with three others, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, are charged with defrauding thousands of donors to Kolfage's nonprofit, We Build the Wall. Prosecutors allege the men deceived donors by using Kolfage's public persona and his pledge not to take a dime in salary. Instead, Kolfage pocketed more than $350,000, according to the indictment. The men have pleaded not guilty.

So far, the nonprofit has helped build two private wall projects, including one in the Rio Grande Valley that a ProPublica/Texas Tribune investigation found could topple into the river if not properly fixed and maintained.

Kolfage has unleashed his growing army of followers on critics and opponents of those projects, including local elected and wildlife refuge officials and a priest. Death threats followed.

The National Butterfly Center, next door to the border fence built in the Rio Grande Valley, “openly supports illegal immigration and sex trafficking of women and children," Kolfage tweeted last year. Facebook and Twitter messages calling staffers “pigs," “pathetic filth" and “traitors" poured in. “You will be made to pay," one Facebook follower declared in a message.

To those who know him, Kolfage's online attacks reflect a pattern.

“His whole identity is wrapped up in people rolling out the red carpet for him, in being this war hero," said Lindsay Lowery, who worked for Kolfage for about a year at his Freedom Daily website in 2017. “If anyone challenges that, he gets very nasty and vindictive. Facebook is his echo chamber." Lowery said she left after she grew frustrated with what she called “clickbait" peddled by the right-wing site.

Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami and an expert on the intersection of civil rights and technology, said: “One of the disturbing trends in online harassment is that when you have enough followers or you are notorious enough, you don't actually have to do the dirty work yourself." She added, “All you have to do is throw out some inflammatory comments about a particular person and your followers are going to do the rest."

Courtesy of Louis Caponecchia Courtesy of Louis Caponecchia

Though Kolfage is technically barred from Facebook, the world's largest social media platform continues to allow him to reach his 683,000 followers with antagonistic posts because it says a fan page bearing his name is operated by seven individuals across the country and, thus, “he is not posting personally," the Facebook spokeswoman said.

A scroll through Kolfage's fan page shows many of the posts are written in the first person, which Facebook said is allowed since he is not a designated hate figure. As of Sept. 23, the name of the principal page owner was similar to that of Kolfage's wife, Ashley — the same person listed as running Bannon's fan page. But the owner of Kolfage's page was changed to Brian Kolfage after ProPublica and the Tribune asked the Kolfages about it.

Facebook said that is also allowed, even for a barred figure, as fan pages have the option of listing their public figure as owner. A spokeswoman reiterated that Kolfage himself is not the actual administrator since “he does not have access to Facebook because he cannot have a Profile." Facebook did not say how it would prevent Kolfage from accessing the site through the account of someone close to him such as his wife.

Regardless of who is posting, since his indictment, Kolfage has found a new target: the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.

His Facebook fan page has repeatedly blasted prosecutors as “corrupt" and motivated by politics. A recent Facebook post garnered more than 1,500 angry comments supporting him.

“I see public hangings on the White house lawn," one person commented on a recent post about why the indictment was a political hit job, adding, “Obama should be 1st."

When prosecutors complained that the posts on Kolfage's Facebook page could taint a potential jury pool, his attorney, Harvey Steinberg, argued in a hearing that the First Amendment gave his client the right to comment on the case. Though she did not issue a gag order, U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres said she may do so if the behavior continues.

And it has. Since the ruling, a steady stream of posts on Kolfage's fan page have labeled prosecutors a “wing of Antifa" acting with “malicious" intentions.

Some of those on the receiving end of Kolfage's previous online behavior say they have forever been changed.

Jackie Millinor, 64, a Massachusetts Air Force veteran and executive assistant, found herself in the middle of a social media showdown with Kolfage and his Facebook followers seven years ago. She came onto Kolfage's radar after trying to end the harassment of a 61-year-old woman she had never met. Kolfage claimed the retired union representative had made a disparaging comment against him and veterans in general.

In response to her advocacy for the woman, Millinor said, Kolfage's followers published her address and phone number on Facebook, which was shared widely. She said Kolfage contacted her employer through since-deleted tweets, asking that she be fired for harassing a wounded warrior. She said the attempt didn't work, but the stress landed her in the hospital with gastrointestinal issues that required a blood transfusion.

Millinor is the founder of the informal Facebook support group of those who say they were targeted by Kolfage.

“It broke a piece of me," Millinor said recently. “I'm not the same person now as before, after what Brian Kolfage did to me. My own family members thought I was crazy."

• • •

Massachusetts resident Jan Vrotsos would get on Facebook to play games, wish friends happy birthday and keep up with their lives, she said.

But a 2013 post offering a family her condolences for losing their little girl to cancer — an illness she said she was then battling herself — placed her in the middle of an internet rabbit hole of fake pages, trolls and cyberbullies she knew nothing about.

It turns out Vrotsos had commented on a fake page Kolfage and others had set up to catch the administrator of a satirical liberal page called Republican Family Values that had used a picture with Kolfage's baby as part of a meme making fun of his family.

Someone, it's unclear who, then posted a fabricated comment to Kolfage from Vrotsos calling disabled veterans worthless. “I hope you die a miserable death you worthless fake hero. You and your family will be a burden on tax payers your entire life," the fake message read, accompanied by Vrotsos' profile picture of her standing in front of a sunflower field with her cocker spaniel, Buddy.

The post went viral. It was shared by Kolfage and his followers, along with Vrotsos' picture, email and home address, as well as the phone numbers of her and her mother.

“This lady is enjoying her freedom at the expense of my legs and hand and enjoys bashing wounded warriors," Kolfage wrote on social media. “EXPOSE HER." It was liked by nearly 1,300 people and shared more than 12,000 times.

Courtesy of Louis Caponecchia Courtesy of Louis Caponecchia

Almost immediately, Vrotsos' then 81-year-old mother started getting calls to tell her daughter to get her affairs in order. Vrotsos received hundreds of threats, including one that said that they hoped she got “mugged and raped at gunpoint by a aids ridden piece of filth."

Vrotsos filed a police report with the Medford Police Department on Dec. 30, 2013, detailing the harassment. But police told her there was little they could do to help. One officer told her that because of the “1st Amendment and free speech" most of her complaints “except real threats and intentional ID theft" were civil in nature and that she should get an attorney.

“The Medford Police Department simply does not have the resources to investigate all the Internet threats and harassments coming to Jan Vrotsos from around the country and from many different sources," the report concluded.

But what bothered her the most, she said in a recent phone interview, is that the harassers found out where her dad was buried, and that they threatened to dig up the World War II veteran and “piss on his grave."

“I was petrified," she said. She didn't leave her house for weeks. It would be years before she stopped looking over her shoulder, afraid people would recognize her.

Before all of this, she said she had no idea who Brian Kolfage was.

• • •

Born in Michigan and raised in Hawaii, Kolfage joined the Air Force and at one point was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, where he met his wife, Ashley. 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, enrolled in architecture school and often spoke publicly about his experience, becoming the face of resilience and perseverance.

In addition to being former Democratic Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' special guest to the State of the Union address, Kolfage served on her veteran's advisory council.

“We were just absolutely astounded when we met him," Giffords' then-district director Ron Barber told Cronkite News in January 2012. “His attitude, his positive view of the world despite the fact that he's lost three limbs. It was just extraordinary and inspiring."

A year later, however, Kolfage was sharing conspiracy theories and calling Obama “a halfbreed" on Facebook.

He would soon begin 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.

“It got really crazy by the end with photoshopped images all the time," said Lowery, Kolfage's former Freedom Daily employee. “I said I'm not going to profit off of lies."

A text exchange between Lowery and Kolfage viewed by ProPublica and the Tribune shows one example: a fake picture of Hillary Clinton being led away in handcuffs with the headline: “TRUMP'S DOJ JUST DID IT!!! It's FINALLY happening!!!" Questioned about the photo, Kolfage tells Lowery: “it's just a graphic. Best story of the day."

After Lowery quit, Kolfage accused her of trying to lure his employees away to another site, Lowery said. She believes that in retaliation he made false reports to the FBI and her husband's employer that she was a security threat, a claim previously reported by BuzzFeed.

Lowery said that she shared threatening texts from Kolfage, which included the warning to “start hiding your tracks," with the FBI and her husband's employer, and that their inquiries ceased soon after.

Online, Kolfage continued to leave a trail of bullying and personal attacks. While Kolfage has deactivated many of his previous social media accounts, including Twitter, which he closed soon after the indictment, court documents and more recent, undeleted social media activity indicate similar behavior. This week he rebooted his Twitter account to post about the “politically corrupt" case against him.

• • •

That vitriol toward Vrotsos is what caught the attention of others, including vets like Millinor, who went on social media to confront Kolfage in her defense.

It also brought out the worst in people. Some went after Kolfage, leading to mutual online attacks, fake social media pages from both sides, the release of personal information of members of the informal support group and calls from Kolfage to his followers to report them to their employers. Kolfage launched a defamation lawsuit against half a dozen online opponents.

Kolfage and his wife demanded the removal of social media posts calling him names such as Nazi and “pill-addled junky" as part of their defamation lawsuit.

Back then, Kolfage told Fox 10 Phoenix that he felt he needed to take legal action after adversaries started going after his family and tried to ruin the career of his wife, who was a teacher and a model.

“They would say they wished I had died, they said I was a drain on the government system, just really nasty stuff. I started sharing the comments, and it went viral," he said. “Because I was just fed up with it."

The judge ruled in favor of several of the defendants and dismissed the case in 2015. Some defendants reached a settlement with Kolfage that included an agreement to not publish anything about the other and to remove disparaging statements where possible.

As part of the settlement, Kolfage also apologized to Vrotsos for sharing her public information.

“I published Jan's information on my public Facebook page and I regret anything that transpired to Jan as a result of that," Kolfage wrote in a signed statement submitted to the U.S. District Court of Arizona on June 30, 2015.

via U.S. District Court of Arizona via U.S. District Court of Arizona

On Facebook, Kolfage said he didn't believe Vrotsos had authored the post and blamed trolls whose goal was to cause as much misery as possible. “I want to apologize on behalf of my supporters to Jan, who were sucked into this whirlwind and participated in any malevolent behavior," he wrote. “It is my sincere hope that this can be a learning experience for everyone (including the people who are attacking my family wrongfully) and that we can all put this behind us."

After that experience, Vrotsos says she now tries to be more careful online. “I don't want anything to start up again," she said.

Louis Caponecchia, a Navy veteran who was among those who prevailed after being sued by Kolfage, said many people who tangled with Kolfage have gone into hiding online.

“These are regular people, they've never had 10 angry messages on Facebook before and then to get dozens, your average person has no idea how to deal with all that stuff," he said. “It's pretty easy to scare and intimidate people. Me, I have a big mouth and nothing to lose. I fought back and that really enraged him."

Caponecchia has traded online barbs with Kolfage and his supporters and been temporarily barred from Facebook, which he blamed on Kolfage directing his followers to flag his posts. He also operates a blog aimed at uncovering what he says are Kolfage's misdeeds.

Last year, as Kolfage led his nonprofit's private border wall projects, his social media attacks would escalate even more.

• • •

We Build the Wall's first project was a half mile of fencing in Sunland Park, New Mexico, just outside El Paso, where Kolfage grew furious when local officials halted construction because of a lack of building permits.

“Burn up the phone lines and email guys!" reads a post on Kolfage's Facebook fan page, which also included the address and phone number of Sunland Park City Hall and direct contact information for the mayor and city manager. “Ask them who was paid off by the cartels! WE WON'T STOP! YOU DON'T STOP!"

In response, Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea said he received several death threats and thousands of messages, some telling him to watch his back or that they were going to release his personal information. “You are one major piece of un American piece of crap," one email read.

He told ProPublica and the Tribune that more than a year later he still had thousands of emails he hadn't gone through.

“Their intention was to bring attention to the issue and fundraising," Perea said, “because shortly thereafter, they were able to fundraise millions of dollars for their project."

The International Boundary and Water Commission, headquartered in El Paso, was also on the receiving end of harassment after agency officials opened a gate We Build the Wall constructed on federal property without permission.

In response, Kolfage encouraged his fan page followers on Facebook and Twitter to call the binational government agency and demand they “#CloseTheGate." He also accused its commissioner, Jayne Harkins, a Trump appointee, of letting unauthorized immigrants into the country and undermining the president.

The commission received hundreds of calls from his supporters.

“The typical message would be somebody would call and say 'open the gate' and hang up," said Sally Spener, a spokeswoman for the commission. “It made it difficult for us to receive other business-related calls and our job."

More than a year after construction of the half-mile stretch of fence, Spener said, We Build the Wall hasn't fulfilled all of the requirements set out by the agency, including an operation and maintenance plan and evidence of financial responsibility for damage or injuries that can be caused by the gate.

In response to questions about his allegations and social media claims, Kolfage told ProPublica and the Tribune in July that the border is loaded with corruption. “It was border patrol agents who alerted us that the very first people to come out strong against our wall were the ones paid off," he wrote in an email.

In the Rio Grande Valley, Kolfage accused the National Butterfly Center of enabling sex trafficking and sent what executive director Marianna Treviño-Wright considered a threatening tweet claiming that there were “snipers in your bushes doing security for our team."

Treviño-Wright, who has filed a defamation lawsuit against Kolfage, said she was unprepared for being publicly labeled a human trafficker. “Once there was blood in the water, his buddies and bots and We Build the Wall donors were sharks."

But she said Caponecchia, a onetime target of Kolfage's, reached out during the social media assault, offering advice and guidance. “I could ask Louis questions and bounce things off of him, what we might anticipate."

A longtime opponent of the border wall, Treviño-Wright said she was forced to take security precautions at her home and office and reported what she considered suspicious activity near the butterfly center to local and federal authorities.

“There is no way to insulate yourself and family from the online attacks or from those people showing up like … militia people," she said. “I think the prosecutors and judges (involved in the Kolfage criminal case) need to understand they now have targets on their backs."

The criminal indictment has brought relief to some of Kolfage's past targets, who say they are looking forward to his trial in May 2021.

“All the fear I've been holding all these years just went away," said Millinor, the Air Force veteran. “I said: 'You know what, I'm not going to hide anymore. Come hell or high water I will be in that courtroom.'"

Disclosure: Facebook 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/2020/09/29/brian-kolfage-we-build-wall/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

Ted Cruz blocks a US Senate resolution to honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg

"Ted Cruz blocks a U.S. Senate resolution to honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, citing a “partisan” amendment" 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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