Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Knee deep in the schadenfreude.

Friday, April 28th, 2017

I should have worn waders today.

(Fun fact: “Knee Deep In the Schadenfreude” was Starship’s working title for “We Built This City”.)

Local elections are coming up. I’m not sure what’s on the ballot for Austin specifically and Travis County in general. But in Lakeway, where I’ve been spending a lot of my time, three city council seats are up. Also, the city is considering a proposition to issue $23 million worth of bonds so they can build a new police station.

The new cop shop is kind of a big deal. I haven’t heard a lot of opposition to it, but most of the people I’ve been around in Lakeway are police or police supporters. I’ve been down and toured the current police station, and it is small and cramped and crowded: there’s no room to grow. On the other hand, the figures I cam up with for a certain property owner I know came out to around %6 a month more in property taxes. This is someone who is on a fixed income: six dollars here, six collars there, pretty soon you’re talking about City of Austin property taxes.

Reasonable people can differ on the merits of the proposition and the candidates. But here’s the problem: Lakeway’s mayor, Joe Bain, who is active on NextDoor (and has a blog on the city website) decided he’d be smart.

“John Smart” on NextDoor, to be exact.

Posts made under the name “John Smart” included advocating that residents vote for incumbent City Council candidates Bridge Bertram and Ron Massa.

“Vote for Bridge Bertram and Ron Massa – they actually volunteered for the City and worked hard to make it better, unlike the other candidate that hasn’t attended a council meeting for a long time nor has every [sic] done any work to try to improve the city – no committees, commissions or any other volunteer work,” a post by John Smart reads.

The mayor has confessed and deleted the account.

Bain confirmed by phone Thursday evening that he was behind the “John Smart” account, adding, “The city really doesn’t have anything [to do] with this … there are reasons behind all this.”

I’m not currently on NextDoor, but looking over their rules, Mayor Bain’s behavior is a pretty clear violation. I had thought that NextDoor actually did some validation on signups to make sure you were a real person and lived in the place you signed up for. (I know, I know, silly me: expecting a website on the Internet to do validation.) The one person I’ve heard from so far who is on NextDoor says they didn’t go through any validation process, but they used an invite code provided by their local neighborhood association. Maybe that bypasses the validation?

The first question this leads to is: how did he get a fake NextDoor account? Was someone else…helping him out?

The second question: how is this going to impact the election? Early voting started Monday. I can’t vote in Lakeway, but if I could, I’d be looking cynically at Mayor Bain’s endorsed candidates. Perhaps it is time for some new leadership? (I’d also be thinking about my support for the new cop shop. But honestly, I’d probably end up voting for it anyway.)

You’re going down in flames, you tax-fattened hyena! (#39 in a series)

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

Sherry Cook is retiring May 23rd.

Ms. Cook, if you didn’t know, was the executive director of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the agency that enforces the state’s liquor laws. (And yes, I recognize the…irony?…in having someone named “Sherry” in that role. Onward!) She’s been in that post since 2012.

Why retire now?

The decision comes a month after the Texas Tribune reported that Cook and other agency employees spent thousands of dollars in taxpayer money for trips to resorts in Florida and Hawaii, among other places, for meetings hosted by the National Conference of State Liquor Administrators, an industry trade group.

But the thing that seems to have really upset people?

Cook was grilled last week during a House General Investigating and Ethics Committee hearing about, among other things, a flyer that depicted Cook and other top agency officials holding or drinking Lone Star Beer as they rode on a plane on their way to a liquor administrators conference.
According to the Tribune, Cook told lawmakers that the flyer was an “inappropriate use of our time” and agreed it was a misuse of state resources to exchange emails about creating it.

You get the feeling that this would have kept on, if she hadn’t rubbed her travel in the faces of her employees? Seems like an important safety tip or two: if you’ve got to go to conferences, make them someplace not exotic, like Buffalo in January. Or if you do have to go somewhere exotic, complain the whole time. Don’t make up a flyer with shiny happy beer drinking people on a plane to Cali.

Reacting to the announcement, Gov. Greg Abbott said in a tweet: “It’s time to clean house from regulators not spending taxpayer money wisely. This is a good start.”

Memo from the DA’s office.

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

For a long time now, the policy of the Travis County DA’s office has been to present all cases involving police shootings to a grand jury for review, no matter what the circumstances where.

That was the case, for instance, for Austin police officer Carlos Lopez, who a grand jury no-billed 11 months after he shot and killed a gunman who was randomly shooting inside the downtown Omni hotel. The gunman had already shot and killed taxi driver Conrado Contreras by the time Lopez arrived.
It also happened with Austin police Sgt. Adam Johnson, who a grand jury declined to indict in 2015 for shooting and killing a man in downtown Austin who was standing in the middle of Eighth Street firing a rifle at police headquarters, and had already sprayed several government buildings with gunfire.

Not any more. The new Travis County DA, Margaret Moore, has decided that her office is going to review officer-involved shootings, and only present the ones that they feel require review to a grand jury.

She will only take cases to grand jurors if she thinks the shooting was unlawful or if facts about what happened are in dispute.
Unlike predecessors, who have viewed grand juries as independent reviewers best equipped to determine whether to indict an officer, Moore said she also will issue an opinion, with help from the new Civil Rights Division she has established, and provide a recommendation “as to the legal sufficiency of a case.”

Bad idea, as I see it.

There are a lot of problems with the criminal justice system, including grand juries. Jurors sometimes aren’t much more than rubber stamps for the DA’s office. But at least they are independant. At least grand juries offer some kind of outside review, flawed though it may be. This is going to backfire badly on DA Moore the first time a shooting that didn’t get reviewed blows up.

I’m baffled by the NAACP’s support for this: you would think they’d want the additional scrutiny, but perhaps the DA was persuasive. The support of the police union makes a little more sense:

Moore said those cases often have taken months to present to a grand jury because of workload and a backlog of other cases, leaving officers in limbo and sometimes preventing police officials from closing administrative investigations.

The people who have spoken to our CPA classes and that have been involved in shootings have said that there is some stress involved in waiting on the grand jury verdict. But they downplayed that specific part of it. Yes, the aftermath is highly stressful (and the department has good programs in place to deal with it). But it seemed to me that they felt the grand jury verdict was just the end: by the time that came in, they’d already been cleared by Internal Affairs and the Special Investgaions Division, and had usually moved on to other assignments.

(I can’t recall a case in…well, ever, where APD ruled a shooting okay and a grand jury indicted. Maybe the Kleinert case mentioned in the article, but I’m not clear on what action APD took in that case. In the most recent case that I know of where there was any controversy – the naked 17-year-old – the grand jury no-billed but APD fired the officer anyway.)

You’re going down in flames, you tax-fattened hyena! (#38 in a series)

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

This broke kind of late in the day yesterday. I’m a little behind because of that, and because I was distracted by the situation I alluded to in a previous post. (They’re still doing well, but still in the hospital being observed. Thanks for asking.) Also, Alabama isn’t part of my usual beat, though I was sort of vaguely aware the governor was embroiled in a controversy.

He resigned yesterday.

Even better:

Before making his resignation speech in the Capitol, Bentley pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor violations of the campaign finance law under a deal with the attorney general’s office. He agreed not to seek public office again. He will serve one year’s probation, perform 100 hours of community service, repay $8,912 he used from his campaign account to pay legal fees for former advisor Rebekah Mason and forfeit the remaining $36,912 in his campaign account to the state treasury.

The NYT also has a summary of events. The whole thing seems to have started with former advisor Mason, who was also having an affair with Governor Bentley. Which, you know, consenting adults, their thing, not my place to pass judgement and all that. But former Governor Bentley apparently decided it was a good idea to use his office and state resources to try to cover up the affair, and to intimidate people who knew about it. Funny thing is, that didn’t work out too well for him: there are supposedly copies of text messages and recordings of phone calls between the two circulating on the Internet. (I haven’t gone looking for those. While I take pleasure in the downfall of a tax-fattened hyena, even I have my limits.)

When will people learn: the cover-up is almost always worse than what’s being covered up?

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives, and NASCAR.

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

Remember BATFE’s secret slush fund?

Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives used a secret, off-the-books bank account to rent a $21,000 suite at a Nascar race, take a trip to Las Vegas and donate money to the school of one of the agent’s children, according to records and interviews.

I could see maybe, possibly, someone making an argument that the NASCAR suite and Vegas trip were for legitimate investigative purposes. I wouldn’t buy that without a lot of supporting documentation, but I can see someone thinking that.

Giving money to “the school of one of the agent’s children”, though? I think someone’s going to prison over this.

(Speaking of going to prison, flaming hyenas watch to come.)

(Also, I think I need a BATFE tag. Should it be a subset of “Guns” or “Law’?)

Administrative note.

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

My birthday is coming up soon. As always, I do not expect any of my loyal readers to get me presents.

However, if someone felt inclined: please do not buy this book for me. Thank you.

(Seriously. I have nothing against Jesse Sublett: he seems like a pretty cool guy. But I don’t care much for the food at either Threadgill’s location. And one of the worst aspects of Austin culture is the incessant nostalgia: or, as Lawrence likes to put it, “the burned-out old hippies who constantly talk about how they went to the Armadillo, dropped acid, and saw Shiva’s Headband.” Said it before, I’ll say it again: if the Austin Chronicle and other people had their way, this town would be a 1970s music theme park.)

Bagatelle (#4).

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

If you told me I could only take one Talking Heads album to the desert island with me…it would be Stop Making Sense.

If, however, you said that it had to be a studio album, Remain In Light would be a good choice.

The thing that sort of surprises me is: he was able to hit 92 on MoPac. Then again, I can’t really tell what time of day it was, and traffic does thin out a little around the Braker Lane exit…

Apropos of nothing in particular, this post from Tam, in particular the last paragraph.

Annals of law (#12 in a series)

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Section 29.03 of the Texas Penal Code defines “aggravated robbery”:

Sec. 29.03. AGGRAVATED ROBBERY. (a) A person commits an offense if he commits robbery as defined in Section 29.02, and he:
(1) causes serious bodily injury to another;
(2) uses or exhibits a deadly weapon; or
(3) causes bodily injury to another person or threatens or places another person in fear of imminent bodily injury or death, if the other person is:
(A) 65 years of age or older; or
(B) a disabled person.
(b) An offense under this section is a felony of the first degree.
(c) In this section, "disabled person" means an individual with a mental, physical, or developmental disability who is substantially unable to protect himself from harm.

Seems mostly clear, right? Except: what constitutes “a deadly weapon”?

Is “a pellet gun” a deadly weapon?

Dustin Clark and two other men are suspected in a string of convenience store robberies in Travis County. They were stopped by the Lakeway PD in December of 2015, shortly after allegedly robbing a store in Spicewood, holding “pellet guns” to the clerk’s head, and threatening to kill him. The police found the pellet guns, money, ski masks, other identifying clothing, and a pack of Starburst allegedly stolen by Clark in the car. (The police also found “two deer rifles” in the trunk. I have seen contradictory reports about whether these were airsoft guns or real rifles. However, the “deer rifles” were not used in the robbery, and were not part of the criminal case as best as I can tell.)

Mr. Clark went on trial this week. There seems to have been little doubt about his guilt: his own attorney conceded that it was his client on the surveillance video from the store. The main legal issue was is it plain old robbery, or aggravated robbery?

The pellet guns were found unloaded and not carrying a C02 cartridge that would have made them operable.

Mr. Clark was offered a plea deal of 40 years before trial. The maximum for plain old robbery is 20 years, and 99 years for aggravated robbery. I don’t know enough about Mr. Clark’s background to be able to estimate what the likely sentences would have been.

Mr. Clark turned down the 40-year deal and chose to go to trial. His attorney moved to include robbery as a lesser charge for the jury to to consider, but the Travis County DA successfully fought that motion. So the only charge the jury was allowed to consider against Mr. Clark was aggravated robbery.

And they acquitted him.

But the jury could consider only one charge — aggravated robbery — and after more than six hours of discussion they finally united and ruled that the pellet guns the men used to scare two employees are not deadly weapons. Therefore, several of them told the American-Statesman, they had to acquit Clark. About half of the 12-person jury granted an interview request saying they wish they had the option to convict Clark of the lesser charge.
They said there was no proof the guns contained pellets or the CO2 cartridges that power them at the time of the robbery.

I personally wonder how the clerk was supposed to know that. I’d also really like to see photos of the pellet guns. And I wonder what else this means, legally? Not that I would, but if take the firing pin and cartridges out of a Smith and go hold up a Stop’N’Rob, is it just robbery? The gun can’t fire, right? So it’s not a deadly weapon, at least if I understand the logic here correctly.

[Travis County Assistant DA Amy] Meredith added she still believes aggravated robbery “was the appropriate charge.” State district Judge David Crain denied the defense’s motion to include the robbery charge after taking a break in chambers to research the law. Prosecutors had made Crain aware of a ruling from a case 11 years ago in which pellet guns had been found to be deadly.

I don’t feel too bad for ADA Meredith. Even though she didn’t get a conviction in this case, she did make an interesting legal point. I don’t think this rises to the level of precedent because Judge Crain’s ruling hasn’t been reviewed by a higher court, but perhaps this is something the Texas legislature could offer some additional guidance on. Also, Mr. Clark is still facing charges in six other robberies, so it isn’t like the TCDA whiffed on their only chance to convict him.

I thought about blogging this when the first story appeared Tuesday, but didn’t get to it (this is a busy week). But RoadRich emailed the print version of the story yesterday, which led to a lively discussion between him, myself, Mike the Musicologist, and Lawrence.

MtM observed that he recalls one of the northern states changing the law some years back so that if you brandish a fake weapon with the intent of making your victims think it is real, you get treated like it was real. Spray paint the end of that airsoft gun black and use it to hold up a liquor store? Big boy rules apply.

I think both MtM and I are on the same side of the divide when it comes to the increased tendency to criminalize everything and sweep up more people in the web. But I also think we’re both in agreement that this is the kind of “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” law that we could get behind.

(On a related side note, I’m halfway tempted to start a podcast with the four of us sitting around eating dinner and talking about legal issues. I even have a name for it: “I’m Not A Lawyer, But…”. I figure it should be easy to get sponsorship from SquareSpace, at least. If it proves popular enough, I might even offer to fly Ken and/or Patrick in as special guests for barbecue. That is, if their heads haven’t already exploded. Episode 1 is going to called “Rule of Parties be damned”.)

Quick update.

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

The guy who killed two people and injured a third near Lakeway?

Randall Burrows, 54, shot himself in the head just outside of Summit, Miss., after a short chase with Mississippi highway patrol, Travis County sheriff’s officials said. He was taken to a hospital, and he was pronounced dead soon after 5 p.m., roughly 15 minutes after the U.S. Marshals had found him and the chase began, Travis County sheriff’s Capt. Craig Smith said.

Memo from the police beat.

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

The past few days have been busy ones for law enforcement in and around Austin, and not just because of South By So What. Here’s a quick survey of some things that I’ve found interesting.

There’s a new plan for the APD DNA lab: get Texas DPS to run it.

Under a proposed contract, the city of Austin will pay the Texas Department of Public Safety $800,000 a year to manage all aspects of the lab, including procedures for analyzing forensic evidence and the oversight of employees hired by the DPS to work there.
The newly named Department of Public Safety Capital Area Regional Lab will focus exclusively on Austin police cases, Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said.

I suppose this is better than nothing, or the current state of affairs. And $800,000 sounds like a reasonable amount of money if the new management from DPS is going to fix all the problems and claw through the backlog. But I still think we’d be better off with an independent lab like Houston’s, or making the existing lab am arm of the courts.

Speaking of the DNA lab, here’s a story I haven’t seen reported anywhere else:

In the first legislation of its kind, the lawmaker, State Representative Victoria Neave, a Democrat from Dallas, introduced the bill in February to solicit donations of $1 or more from people when they renew or apply for driver’s licenses. The money would underwrite a grant for the Department of Public Safety to test what are commonly called “rape kits,” which consist of evidence samples including hair, semen, fabric fibers and skin cells.

(Note that the paper of record characterizes this as “crowdfunding”, which I find a bit misleading.)

If adopted, it could generate an estimated $1 million a year, based on similar donations collected for veterans from driver’s license applications, according to a legislative budget document. When administrative costs are deducted, that would leave more than $800,000 every fiscal year that local governments could tap to push through testing of evidence collected from the victims of sexual assault during a physical examination that can take four to six hours.

Where have I heard $800,000 recently? Oh, yeah.

The donations are intended to supplement rather than replace a budget for the testing, which can cost $1,000 to $1,500 for each kit. The Legislature, which is now in budget talks, is also considering allocating $4 million to fund the process, said Rebecca Acuna, Ms. Neave’s chief of staff.

You know what I’d really like to see? A breakdown of where that “$1,000 to $1,500 for each kit” goes. I’m not against rape kit testing – quite the opposite – but I’m curious why it costs that much. I’m also curious if this cost has increased or decreased over time, with improved technology. And are there possibly better, faster, and cheaper ways of testing rape kits without sacrificing accuracy?

Two people shot and killed last night, and a third airlifted with “critical, life-threatening” injuries.

If you look at the Stateman‘s handy Google map, you’ll see this took place not terribly far from the Lake Travis High School/Education Center complex. My mother and I were down there last night with a bunch of other people….attending the Lakeway Police Department’s Citzens Police Academy class. As a matter of fact, right around the time of the shooting, we were out in the parking lot looking at the Lakeway PD patrol cars (Chevy Tahoes. This led someone to ask, “Why the switch to SUVs?” I suspect most of my readers know the answer already, but in case you don’t: “Because Ford stopped making the Crown Vic, the greatest patrol car ever given to us by God.”) and the Lakeway PD police motorcycles (Harley Davidsons). I don’t recall hearing any shots or even the Starflight helicopter.

Even better, we had just finished listening to a presentation from one of the people who does the Lakeway PD statistical analysis about how safe Lakeway was, how many calls for service/stops/arrests there were year to year, and what the major categories were. “Homicide” didn’t even register. (Technically, it’s probably still true that Lakeway is relatively safe, even though the shooter is at large: I believe the shooting happened near, but outside of, the Lakeway city limits, so it would be chalked up as “unincorporated Travis County”.)

The first we knew about it was when we were breaking up for the night: the second in command of the department (who also runs the classes, and who usually jokes around a lot) came in and said “I want everyone to listen to me very closely. Two people have been shot near here and the shooter is still at large. We are going to walk everyone to the parking lot and make sure you all get into your cars safely. I need for you to leave the area as quickly as you possibly can.” That will put some spring in your step.

Reports are that this was “an isolated incident”, possibly a “disgruntled contractor” who shot these people because he didn’t get paid. Which is just stupid: if you shoot people, they can’t pay you.

And speaking of the Lakeway CPA, for reasons: a interesting and contrarian point of view from Grits For Breakfast in opposition to a statewide ban on “texting and driving”.

gonzaga

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Once again, I’ve bet Lawrence $5 that Gonzaga will win the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

This year, though, I did it grudgingly.

It isn’t that I don’t think Gonzaga has a chance: they probably have their best chance in years. It isn’t that I didn’t want to take Lawrence’s money again, after already taking $5 from him when the Cubs won. After all, I should give Lawrence a fair chance to win his money back. And I would feel stupid if Gonzaga did win this year, and I didn’t bet.

So what’s my grudge?

Last fall, Gonzaga hired Melissa Click. Yes, that Melissa Click.

I’d be willing to agree that everyone deserves a shot at redemption. But not on my dime, and not necessarily with my active support. Also, I think part of deserving a shot at redemption involves atonement for your actions, and I haven’t seen any evidence of that from Ms. Click.

On the other hand, it wasn’t the basketball team that hired her, and should I punish them (and Lawrence) for the actions of Gonzaga’s administration? That seems unfair.

So, grudgingly, I am preparing myself to lose $5 betting on a team I can’t quite bring myself to cheer for. Life is suffering.

You’re going down in flames, you tax-fattened hyena! (#36 in a series)

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Jose Torres, the mayor of Patterson, New Jersey, has been indicted on corruption charges.

Three public works supervisors have also been indicted with Mayor Torres. Allegedly, the mayor “asked public employees to work on personal projects while they were being paid by the city”.

Worthy of note 1: various online sources show that Mayor Torres is a member of Criminal Mayors Against Lawful Gun Ownership.

Worthy of note 2: Mayor Torres is the second criminal mayor to face charges this week. SayUncle linked to a report that Mayor Anthony Silva of the (formerly) bankrupt city of Stockton has been arrested again: this time, he’s charged with “money laundering, embezzlement by a public officer, grand theft and embezzlement worth more than $400”.