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Collin County Jail — Ken Paxton mugshot
Collin County Jail — Ken Paxton mugshot
Ken Paxton is the first Texas attorney general to be indicted while in office in more than 30 years.

When former Governor Rick Perry was indicted last year on charges that he had overstepped his authority in vetoing funding for the Public Integrity Unit, he pushed back… hard. In a piece of peerless political theater, dozens of supporters appeared at the Travis County Courthouse while he took his booking photo. Proud and resolute, he took to a podium to slam the charges against him, as the crowd cheered and waved signs. Prominent Texas Democrats came too, to bathe in schadenfreude, but they saw a man unbowed. Then he went to get ice cream. That day set the tone for all that followed, and helped make it possible for Perry to run a credible campaign for president while facing jail time.

Compare that to developments in the ongoing travails of Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was indicted on three counts of securities fraud last Tuesday and got booked on Monday at the Collin County Courthouse. He missed a chance to set the tone for his defense, on home turf. He attempted a Tom DeLay-style smile in his mugshot, but it came off as a smirk. As the press waited in the front of the courthouse for a statement, Paxton slipped out the back, carried to safety in a black SUV. If Texas politicians are refining the art of how to get indicted, Paxton showed us what not to do. He communicated Monday that he was on the defensive.

He should be. Paxton’s case is fundamentally different than Perry’s, which seems to revolve around fairly arcane questions of the proper role of the governor in state government. The case against Paxton is startlingly simple. Where Perry has successfully sold a narrative that he is being prosecuted over a matter of principle, Paxton is being prosecuted for graft. While he was a state representative, he took commissions for putting his legal clients in the hands of a shady investor, and he failed to tell them or the state he was doing so. In other cases, this is where we’d put the word “allegedly,” but of course Paxton has already admitted to violating securities law. He admitted to it before he was elected.

Tom DeLay mugshot
harriscountytx.gov
Former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay wore a suit, tie and congressional lapel pin to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office where his mugshot was taken in 2005.

But the special prosecutors in the Paxton case have deepened his troubles considerably, by expanding the charges against him to matters concerning Servergy, Inc, based in McKinney. Servergy was, in essence, a fake tech company. The company promised a miraculous product and didn’t deliver. Executives with Servergy faked paperwork, according to the SEC, that showed pre-orders from companies like Amazon, and on the basis of their alleged fraud the company sold some $26 million in stock. The founder of the company, Bill Mapp, appeared at the courthouse on the day Paxton was indicted.

Paxton, the prosecutors charge, earned commissions from helping to sell some of that stock, without telling the investors he lured or the state he was taking a cut. He even sold stock to state Representative Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, according to the charges. For that, he faces two first-degree felony counts.

What next? Paxton’s plan, as seen in the public statements of his Parselmouthed spokesman Anthony Holm, is to convince his supporters these charges are part of a witch hunt, just like what happened to Perry. Some of his most fervent supporters will continue to believe this: Michael Quinn Sullivan’s propaganda network is in full swing, and some tea party leaders in the Metroplex have adopted Sullivan’s line of “thought.” But North Texas Tea Party leader Michael Openshaw, a prominent figure in these circles, has urged Paxton to “step aside” from his day-to-day duties as attorney general. As more conservatives realize that Paxton could be Hindenburg-ing in the coming weeks and months, there might be some more that step away.

And Paxton will need the support of his fellow statewide elected officials to survive this. So far they’ve been surprisingly quiet. There’s reason to believe that Governor Greg Abbott’s office has no great special love for Paxton. But even normally verbose Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who’s happy to pound his fist on the table about just about anything and should be one of Paxton’s best allies in state government, has been quiet. On Sunday, a spokesman told one NBC affiliate he was “unavailable for comment,” which might be a first. Finally Monday, he issued a two-sentence statement after Paxton was booked, complementing a one-sentence statement from Abbott. Both urged respect for the legal process.

The Republican Party of Texas also released a one-paragraph statement on Paxton’s case. It was both strongly worded and surprisingly weak. The strong part:

There’s a reason why Texans have warily observed this news. Some of the outrageous events surrounding this sloppy process certainly do not typify the level of quality that Texans expect from our judicial system.

This is, in the immortal words of California Governor Jerry Brown, barely a fart, though it’s understandable that Paxton’s supporters are raising process concerns rather than substantive concerns.

But here’s the weak part:

Ken Paxton, like all Americans, deserves to have his say in a court of law, rather than be judged in a court of public opinion that is presided over by liberal interest groups.

When Perry was indicted, party chair Steve Munisteri personally showed up outside the courthouse to yell at reporters that Perry would beat his dumb charges and be a strong contender for the presidency. Overnight, the GOP made Perry a hero, a modern-day Joan of Arc, who libs wanted to burn at the stake for his healthy head of hair and strong leadership skills. The assertion that Paxton deserves his day in court is not exactly the rousing call to arms that he might have hoped for. Good luck, Ken!

Carrol A. Thomas stadium in Beaumont
Patrick Michels
After playing a part in the scandal that enveloped Beaumont ISD, electrician Calvin Walker has filed a suit against 32 defendants.

Two figures at the heart of the recent scandal in Beaumont ISD, who were often presented as emblems of the district’s lax financial controls and toxic personal politics by reform activists, have fired back against dozens of officials and reporters they say targeted them out of racial bias.

The last four years have been a particularly intense and litigious time even by Beaumont standards. A group of mostly white community leaders accused BISD’s first two black superintendents of running the district into the ground. The schools have lately seen federal investigations, a state takeover, the replacement of a superintendent and an entire school board, and prison time for former officials.

The district’s former purchasing officer is in federal prison for transferring school money to himself. A former high school booster club president was sentenced in June to a year in federal prison for using the club’s money as his personal debit account. And Calvin Walker, a contract electrician accused of overbilling the school district by at least $2 million, is scheduled to stand trial in early August.

This latest chapter comes just as the district seemed to be settling down after years of turmoil. It’s been 15 months since the FBI raided an administrator’s home, for instance.

In May, a new superintendent took over for the interim leader brought in by the state, and the state-appointed board of managers will be gone by next May, ending the state’s takeover. Bit by bit, vestiges of the previous era in BISD are disappearing. New superintendent John Frossard has promised to improve the schools by fostering cooperation in the community. There is much talk, particularly from those who’ve come out on top in the recent shakeup, of healing and leaving the past behind.

And then, earlier this month, came Calvin Walker’s lawsuit against… well, pretty much everybody.

Just ahead of his scheduled criminal trial in Jefferson County on August 3, Walker filed a lengthy complaint against 32 defendants, whom he accuses of joining in a complex conspiracy to destroy his reputation and his business. Among those named in Walker’s suit: the local electricians’ union, a host of school officials from both before and after the state’s takeover, state and federal prosecutors, and four news outlets.

Walker alleges that leaders of the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers chapter sought vengeance because he refused to join the union, undercut union members on costs and started getting work from the school district. According to the complaint, former high-ranking school district officials Terry Ingram and Jane Kingsley parroted the union’s concerns about Walker at BISD meetings, drawing extra scrutiny to Walker’s work. The complaint alleges the school district maintained tougher standards for black contractors, but that Walker’s low bids made it impossible to award work contracts to anyone else without obviously discriminating — until, of course, his 37-count federal indictment on fraud charges.

Walker at one point faced the prospect of life in prison, but with help from Houston mega-attorney Dick DeGuerin (former clients include Tom DeLay, Robert Durst and David Koresh), his first trial ended in a mistrial. Walker later pleaded guilty to failing to pay income taxes. Now Walker faces state charges of fraud and money laundering related to his work for the school district, charges he’s currently fighting by claiming that yet another trial would amount to double jeopardy.

On Thursday, Walker was joined in the suit by Jessie Haynes, spokesperson and top adviser to former Superintendent Carrol Thomas. Haynes became a key player in the battle for BISD after tangling with a school board member as she tried to block him from a room in the district office. Haynes was convicted of “obstructing a public passageway,” while her defenders rallied for “Justice for Jessie.”

Giugi Carminati, the Houston attorney representing Haynes and Walker, said the common thread in their cases is that their success made them targets. She said Walker and Haynes are especially dramatic examples of a dynamic that’s harmed many other black residents in Beaumont over the years. “When they identify a black person that is in a position of power, or is being ‘uppity,’ or is being successful, they try and put them back in their place,” Carminati told the Observer. “You don’t have to scratch very deep to see that it’s a question of racial tension.”

Her clients’ reputations are so damaged now, she said, that Walker can’t find business — according to the suit, his company has gone from 15 employees to just two — and that Haynes can’t find work.

Prosecutors and school trustees were complicit in the conspiracy, and were driven more by personal vendettas than any actual wrongdoing, she claims. She says she has the emails and Facebook messages to prove it. The complaint quotes U.S. Attorney Malcolm Bales in an email to then-District Attorney Cory Crenshaw: “I have seen Calvin’s manifesto. His criminality is outstripped only by his hubris.”

In the complaint filed this week, Walker seeks at least $22 million for defamation, and he and Haynes are also asking for unspecified damages beyond that.

The complaint also claims that the Beaumont Enterprise, Beaumont Examiner, Watchdog.org and SETInvestigates.com, defamed Walker, particularly by reporting that Walker’s plea agreement included an admission that he over-billed the school district by millions of dollars.

Jerry Jordan, whose SETInvestigates.com was the first to report many of the twists in the unfolding BISD scandal, said he was in the awkward position earlier this month of breaking the story that he and 31 others had been sued. Jordan said that being a defendant in the suit also complicates his reporting on Walker’s upcoming criminal trial.

The details he reported on Walker’s plea deal came directly from a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he said. He was surprised by the suit, though, because Walker often returned his calls for comment on the stories he wrote. “I have no animosity toward Calvin, except damn dude, I just wish you wouldn’t have sued me,” Jordan said.

Other media outlets and other defendants contacted either declined to comment or have not yet responded to the Observer’s requests.

 

People gather to support Sulma Catarina Franco-Chamale
Lyanne Guarecuco
A group of people gathered Wednesday at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin to show support for Sulma Catarina Franco-Chamale, an undocumented immigrant seeking sanctuary at the church to avoid deportation.

 

Sulma Carina Franco-Chamale hasn’t left the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin in more than two months.

“I can’t even go out to the parking lot because immigration [agents] could come, park there and apprehend me. I could be detained,” said Franco in Spanish.

And even though the church walls don’t offer Franco, who is undocumented, any legal protection, she’s hopeful that the sanctuary will deter immigration authorities from apprehending and deporting her.

Franco is the first person in Texas to seek sanctuary in a church since a nationwide sanctuary movement was reignited last year in Arizona. On Wednesday morning, Franco’s supporters stood by her during a press conference at the Unitarian church, chanting “Let Sulma Stay!” and holding signs that said “Sulma is welcome here.”

Natalie Hansen, one of Franco’s attorneys, said that staying in the church isn’t a permanent solution. The point is to raise awareness and to signal to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that Franco has the support of a broad community, Hansen said.

Franco, who is gay, left Guatemala in 2009. She’s afraid that if she were forced to return, she would be persecuted because of her sexual orientation. A 2012 United Nations report highlighted human rights abuses suffered by the LGBT community in Guatemala, including widespread discrimination, a constant threat of violence and even killings.

“I really wouldn’t have any job opportunities; I’d be discriminated against; I’d be afraid because since I’ve already been in the news and spoken about my sexual orientation, I could be seen as a person who doesn’t deserve to be in that society,” Franco said.

For six years, Franco has been trying to get asylum in the U.S.

Sulma Catarina Franco-Chamale addresses a small crowd.
Lyanne Guarecuco
Sulma Catarina Franco-Chamale, an undocumented immigrant seeking sanctuary at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, addressed the small crowd during her press conference on Wednesday. She plans to remain a refugee at the church until she receives a positive response from ICE.

Franco was first detained in 2009 after she entered the U.S without authorization. After her release in 2010, she began to adapt to a place where she didn’t speak the language and lacked employment and documentation. Her first job in the U.S. was as a handywoman.

“We did construction work, we cleaned pools, trimmed trees. I don’t regret it nor am I embarrassed. I feel proud to be a hard-working, responsible woman,” Franco said.

Later, she opened a food truck with a partner.

“I pay taxes, I had my business. When we built our business together, we did everything legally because my documents were in order. All of the necessary inspections, the city permits, I didn’t have a problem with that,” Franco said.

On July 2, 2012, an immigration judge denied Franco’s asylum application. Her attorney at that time attempted to get the case reopened but filed in the wrong court. When Franco went in for a routine check-in, she was detained by ICE agents, who saw no progress in her case file because of the mistaken filing. Franco was in detention facilities in Texas and Arizona for eight months until her partner posted bond to get her released.

Now, Hansen is attempting to get her case heard again by presenting new documents, including some from Guatemala.

Fifty-six faith leaders have sent a letter to ICE, asking for Franco to be allowed to stay in the United States. “We will continue to stand by her until she is granted permission to remain in our country, in the community in which she has become a valued and integral member,” they wrote in the letter.

Marisol Caballero, assistant minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, spoke at the press conference Wednesday.

“As a queer, undocumented woman who’s an immigrant, who faces violence and even death if she returns to Guatemala, Sulma is particularly vulnerable to injustice. As a people of faith, we believe that we are called to stand with Sulma, who deserves the right to safety and happiness as much as I do, as much as all of you do,” Caballero said.

Franco plans to stay in sanctuary until she receives word from ICE that she can stay in the U.S.

“I’m trying to stay positive, and to think that a bad experience in my life lead me to very good people and organizations that have supported me,” Franco said.

IMG_3517
Planned Parenthood supporters rally at the Texas Capitol.

It was billed as a fact-finding hearing by Texas lawmakers, a closer look at state law prompted by the recent release of undercover, edited videos purportedly showing Planned Parenthood illegally profiting from fetal remains.

But on Wednesday, a panel of Texas senators spent almost five hours denouncing abortion, grilling state health officials on an issue they don’t have authority over, and discussing fetal tissue donation practices at Planned Parenthood, although Texas affiliates have repeatedly said they don’t currently participate in such a program.

Federal law permits the utilization of fetal tissue and organs for medical research, and organizations that donate the remains may charge a small fee for overhead costs, such as shipping, but cannot make a profit. The videos were released by the Center for Medical Progress, which has ties to major anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which convened Wednesday as part of a statewide investigation, heard mostly from anti-abortion organizations and state officials, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, a strident opponent of abortion. Both Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas were invited to the hearing, but declined to testify in person. An attorney for Planned Parenthood did submit written testimony on the group’s behalf.

The hearing opened with questions for Paxton, who told lawmakers that his office is conducting civil and criminal investigations into Planned Parenthood.

“Our goal is to find out if anyone, anywhere in Texas, has violated the law, and if so, to seek legal redress,” Paxton said.

He offered few details, but said his staff visited Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast in Houston as part of its probe. The organization acknowledged this week that it donated fetal tissue remains to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston in 2010 for research purposes, but hasn’t done so since.

Paxton told the committee his office received an undercover video taped at the Houston-based Planned Parenthood but has no plans to release it to the public. Legislators have copies of the footage as part of the investigation, he said. Paxton wouldn’t elaborate on the video’s contents but said the footage is “consistent” with those released in the last few weeks.

While expressing horror at the videos, Paxton had a broader message.

“More than any misdeeds involving the sale of aborted baby parts is a fundamental truth: the true abomination of all of this is the institution of abortion,” he said. “At a minimum, the people involved [in the videos] project a cold, calculating, almost inhumane indifference to the lives they treat as a product they are attempting to sell. At worst, they may represent a violation of state or federal laws. But we should ever lose sight of the fact that as long as abortion is legal in the United States, these types of horrors will continue.”

Absent from the list of invited witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing were representatives from the University of Texas Medical Branch and Texas Tech University, the only two Texas entities that receive federal funding to utilize fetal tissue for research. Their absence, however, was not lost on Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, who pressed Paxton about whether he intends to include the institutions in his investigation.

“We do need to hear from the universities that are doing the research with fetal tissue that’s permitted under state and federal law so that all of us have a full picture of what this entails,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez also encouraged Paxton to investigate the secret taping at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and whether any federal or state laws — such as patient privacy — were broken.

No state agency has the authority to regulate fetal tissue donation, state health officials told the committee.

Kathy Perkins, an assistant commissioner with the Department of State Health Services who oversees regulatory programs, said her staff conducts unannounced inspections of licensed abortion clinics every 12 to 14 months. The agency lacks the authority to inspect a facility’s fetal tissue and organ donation practices but does oversee the storage and disposal of fetal remains.

So far, she said, of the complaints she has received in recent years over the handling of remains, her agency hasn’t found evidence to “substantiate” them.

Abby Johnson, the darling of the anti-abortion movement in Texas, said that when she was the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, she witnessed a physician alter the abortion procedure for the purpose of selling certain body parts for profit. Several lawmakers noted that she quit Planned Parenthood six years ago.

Johnson went as far as to allege that Perkins, who has worked at the state health department for eight years, lied when she testified that her agency conducts “unannounced” inspections of abortion facilities. Johnson told the committee that as a Planned Parenthood employee, she knew when the state inspectors would be visiting the clinic ahead of time. Perkins told the committee she did not lie in her testimony.

In many ways, the hearing provided a preview of the anti-abortion legislation that could come up in the 2017 legislative session.

Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, hinted that lawmakers may file bills in 2017 giving state agencies more authority to inspect donation protocol.

Texas Right to Life called on the Texas Legislature to “defund Planned Parenthood,” echoing the cries of anti-abortion activists who rallied at the Capitol this week. This year, lawmakers kicked the health care provider out of the state Breast and Cervical Cancer Program, which provides cancer screenings to poor women. Planned Parenthood is also prohibited from participating in state-funded family planning and preventive care programs for poor women.

Texas Right to Life also urged the Legislature to pass a “Dismemberment Abortion Ban,” which would prohibit the surgical abortion procedure known as dilation and evacuation. Oklahoma and Kansas have similar laws on the books.

Planned Parenthood has vehemently denied that the organization is illegally profiting from fetal tissue donation. Since the first video was released, the organization has called the Center for Medical Progress “extreme,” hell-bent on perpetuating lies about Planned Parenthood.

Melanie Linton, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, called Wednesday’s Senate hearing “a forum to air anti-abortion views and further a political agenda to end access to safe, legal abortion,” she said in a statement. “This was a sham hearing and had nothing to do with women’s health care.”

There is no clear timeline for Texas’ investigation of Planned Parenthood, and more hearings may be scheduled, senators said.

Immigrants marching for immigration reform in Austin.
Priscila Mosqueda
An Austin rally for immigration reform.

A national bipartisan movement to reduce the United States’ outsized prison population is gaining momentum, but immigration reform advocates say an important piece is still missing from the reform conversation: Thousands of men and women are being incarcerated every year because they entered the U.S. without documents.

Illegal entry and re-entry — essentially, the crimes of crossing the border without authorization — are now the most-prosecuted federal crimes. Overloaded judges struggle to make time for other cases, including violent crime and financial fraud. Thanks to the surge in illegal entry prosecutions, Latinos now make up the majority of the federal prison population.

On Tuesday, more than 170 organizations representing criminal justice, immigration reform and faith-based groups sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, urging the Department of Justice to end prosecutions for illegal entry and re-entry.

Bob Libal, director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin immigrant advocacy group, said it’s time for the DOJ to reconsider its overzealous prosecution of undocumented immigrants. “There’s a conversation going on about how to reduce mass incarceration, but at the same time you have leaders talking about mandatory minimums for people coming back into the country for basically petty immigration offenses,” he told the Observer.

Libal said that many people caught at the border are trying to reunite with family members in the United States. “We shouldn’t be throwing immigrants en masse into the prison system,” he said. “We have tens of thousands of people languishing in prison, their only violation being a re-entry offense.”

A broad spectrum of organizations, including the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild and the Jesuit Conference, signed the letter. Libal said he hopes the move will bring immigrant detention into the broader reform movement around mass incarceration.

“We want to urge the administration to de-prioritize these immigration prosecutions,” Libal said. “If they do, it will have all kinds of positive impact.”

A Hint of What’s to Come in the Ken Paxton Grand Jury

Founder of SEC-probed company linked to Paxton appears at Collin County courthouse
Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIP's: From left to right, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Governor Rick Perry.
Christopher Hooks
Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIP's: From left to right, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Governor Rick Perry.

Is this the beginning of the end for Attorney General Ken Paxton? Today’s confirmation by Dallas local news station WFAA that a grand jury was meeting at the Collin County Courthouse to hear evidence related to Paxton’s alleged violations of securities law marks a milestone in his legal troubles. The development has been anticipated by Paxton-watchers for nearly a year and a half, ever since Paxton admitted in writing to violating the state securities code by failing to disclose that he was being paid to route his legal clients into the hands of an investment manager with a troubled track record.

It’s unclear whether this was the first day the jury heard the Paxton case, or how long they’ll continue to meet. But the stakes are high for Paxton. Special prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer recently won an order expanding their case from already-disclosed improprieties to a first-degree felony case. That means the amount of money involved exceeds $100,000, and it makes the episode that Paxton already disclosed look like peanuts.

There’s been a good deal of speculation among Paxton-watchers about what the expanded case could entail, and today, we got a clue.

William Mapp, the disgraced founder of Servergy, Inc., was identified at the courthouse by WFAA reporter Tanya Eiserer. Servergy, based in McKinney, claimed to produce energy-efficient servers for corporate clients. The company made extraordinary claims about its core product, the Cleantech-1000, claiming it consumed “80% less power, cooling, and space in comparison to other servers currently available.” But there was a problem: The federal Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) alleges that Servergy’s claims about its product were false. And the company, the SEC says, produced fraudulent pre-orders from tech companies like Amazon and Freescale to sell itself to investors.

The hallway outside the room where Collin County grand jurors are considering a first degree felony indictment for Ken Paxton.
Christopher Hooks
The hallway outside the room where Collin County grand jurors are considering a first degree felony indictment for Ken Paxton.

Servergy raised some $26 million from selling stock between 2009 and 2013, as detailed by information released by the SEC. And it profited from grants from the McKinney Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a local fund that reinvests money collected by local sales taxes. Servergy continued to receive money from MEDC even after a formal SEC investigation began in 2013. Servergy is also connected to a wide variety of other improprieties and shady activities.

Paxton was a prominent Servergy shareholder, owning at least 10,000 shares. But while other investors simply lost their shirts, Paxton’s role in the Servergy case has generated lingering interest from authorities. In 2014, Paxton’s name was included in a list of search terms used by the SEC to subpoena the company, along with several other prominent figures in McKinney. Mapp’s presence at the courthouse today suggests that Servergy’s case is connected to evidence special prosecutors are presenting against Paxton.

That would be a significant escalation in the case against the state’s AG. A large part of the public defense laid out by Paxton’s spokesman Anthony Holm revolves around the assertion that Paxton’s original violation of securities law, regarding his legal clients, was a simple mistake and civil matter that he corrected when it was brought to his attention. The Servergy episode is a whole different kettle of fish, and while it remains to be seen what the prosecutors have against Paxton in connection to this particular episode, it should be a source of significant concern in the AG’s office.

Anti-abortion supporters at the Texas Capitol for the #WomenBetrayed rally.
Allison Rubenak
Anti-abortion supporters gathered Tuesday on the south steps of the Texas Capitol for the #WomenBetrayed rally.

Buoyed by the release of undercover Planned Parenthood videos, a few dozen anti-abortion activists gathered Tuesday at the Texas Capitol called on Texas lawmakers to defund Planned Parenthood.

Dubbed the #WomenBetrayed rally, supporters cheered as Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, read statements from Texas officials, including Governor Greg Abbott and Senator Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who have called for an investigation into Planned Parenthood. The rally preceded a Senate Health and Human Services Committee meeting on Wednesday, which Republican lawmakers called to investigate the fetal donation practices of the group’s Texas abortion facilities.

“We want to know what’s going on,” Pojman told the Observer. “If Planned Parenthood is breaking the law, I think people of the state of Texas need to know. If they are not breaking the law in any of their five, very large abortion facilities, then people need to know that too.”

It is legal for women to donate fetal tissue for medical research and abortion facilities may charge a fee to cover their overhead. The heavily edited videos, released by The Center for Medical Progress, a group that Planned Parenthood has labeled “extremist,” purport to show illegal activity, something Planned Parenthood says is preposterous.

But zealous anti-abortion legislators see the videos as proof of a great evil.

“This is no different than what happened in Nazi Germany, no different than during the experiments,” said Representative Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, the author of House Bill 2, the sweeping anti-abortion law that has shuttered more than half the abortion clinics in Texas.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America has defended its fetal-tissues program as legal and part of an effort to find cures for diseases. The videos, the group has said, amount to crude propaganda.

“A well funded group established for the purpose of damaging Planned Parenthood’s mission and services has promoted a heavily edited, secretly recorded videotape that falsely portrays Planned Parenthood’s participation in tissue donation programs that support lifesaving scientific research,” said Eric Ferrero, a Planned Parenthood spokesman, in a statement.

At the rally, anti-abortion leaders sought to put the videos in the larger context of the so-called pro-life movement.

“Abortion is a very grave harm, it is a harm in society, we don’t think it should be going on, especially with all the alternatives available to abortion in the state of Texas,” Pojman told the Observer. “But [the videos], I think add further insult to those innocent unborn children.”

Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood director in Bryan who is now an anti-abortion activist, acknowledged that donating fetal tissue is legal, but called it a “loophole in the law.”

“They are getting profit from it,” she said. “I’ve seen that first-hand and that’s something that really needs to be exposed and needs to be understood and needs to be addressed in our current law.”

The Fischer Store Bridge
The Fischer Store Bridge near Wimberley was toppled by the Blanco River floodwaters. A new report shows that the economic damage of climate change in Texas could be in the tens of billions of dollars.

Without action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the ravages of climate change could cost Texas tens of billions in the coming decades, according to a new report by the Risky Business Project, an initiative co-founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The report, released today, focuses on the economic risks of climate change for 11 southeastern states and Texas, estimating losses from climate-related extreme weather events, increases in heat-related deaths, rising energy costs and other troubling effects.

“Texas is particularly vulnerable to these impacts because it’s a state where the economy is based on a lot of physical infrastructure,” said Kate Gordon, the author of the report. “Texas has a lot of really valuable energy and manufacturing infrastructure — and that is the kind of infrastructure that is very, very vulnerable to climate change because it can flood, it’s more expensive to cool [during extreme heat],” and it’s expensive to replace if damaged or lost, she said.

Founded in 2013 by Bloomberg, hedge fund billionaire and environmentalist Tom Steyer and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Risky Business takes a business-minded approach to calculating the bottom-line of climate change. The group’s reports don’t focus on climate science or make policy recommendations. Instead, they employ a quantitative risk assessment for climate change, assuming we continue along our current emissions trajectory. Before tackling Texas and the southeast, the group released similar reports about California and the Midwest.

The latest report, “Come Heat and High Water: Climate Risk in the Southeast and Texas,” focuses on the states most vulnerable to climate change, said Gordon, vice chair of climate and sustainable urbanization at the Paulson Institute.

Extreme heat and sea-level rise are expected to have the biggest impacts on Texas, the report finds. The agriculture and construction sectors face crippling losses from rising temperatures, and sea-level rise will lead to significant property loss. The number of days with temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit will likely nearly double by mid-century, from an average of 43 days to 80 days by 2050, prompting a sharp increase in energy costs and heat-related deaths.

Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, is part of the group’s risk-assessment committee. “We’re going to watch trends, which are now alarming, become truly tragic,” said Cisneros. “Trends that now deal in the realm of the uncomfortable … will spin out of control into an environment where they are unhealthy and economically disastrous.”

The report estimates that annual storm-related losses along the Gulf Coast attributable to climate change — particularly sea-level rise — could increase by up to $222 million in 2030, and as much as $650 million in 2050. Over the next 15 years, an additional $20.9 billion in coastal property would likely be flooded at high tide.

Under a business-as-usual emissions scenario, heat could take the lives of between 136 and 2,578 more Texans each year between 2020 and 2039. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were an average of 658 heat-related deaths each year in the U.S. between 1999 and 2009. (Texas, Arizona and California accounted for 40 percent of those deaths).

Extreme heat, which the report defines as days with temperatures above 95 degrees, is expected to affect labor productivity as workers experience increasing incidences of heat stroke, heat exhaustion and their performance suffers. The decrease in productivity — especially in the agriculture, construction, utility and manufacturing sectors — could cost the Texas economy $12.5 billion each year by mid-century, according to the report. Demand for electricity on the hottest days could also overwhelm the electric grid, leading to a rise in electricity prices for consumers. As a result, by 2050, Texans could spend $3.7 billion more on energy annually.

Increasingly long droughts and rising temperatures will put additional pressure on livestock and could also drive down some crop yields, particularly corn, cotton and soybeans. But there’s one bit of good news among the gloomy predictions: Wheat would thrive in a much hotter Texas. Wheat is expected to withstand higher temperatures and benefit from the “carbon fertilization effect” of increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

So… bread, anyone?

Wild Horses
Courtesy of Patriot Pictures
Josh Hartnett and James Franco in Wild Horses.
Josh Harnett and James Franco — Wild Horses
Courtesy of Patriot Pictures
Josh Hartnett and James Franco in Wild Horses.

Twenty minutes into Wild Horses, the new Western from writer/director/star Robert Duvall, a grizzled Texas rancher named Scott Briggs hides with his son behind some brush, watching a small group of Mexican men fill a Jeep with drugs they’ve just smuggled over the border. The border butts up against Briggs’ property and, being a grizzled Texas rancher, he figures it’s his responsibility (Hell, if the federal government won’t do it…) to patrol it — just him, his son and a couple of rifles against a rising tide of lawlessness. A short firefight ends with the Jeep in flames, the Mexicans dashing off into the night, and Briggs and his son heading home to await their inevitable reckoning at the hands of some very disgruntled drug lords.

And then… nothing. No reckoning, no revenge, no betrayals, no climactic confrontations, no drug lords, no murder, no fun at all. It’s as if the showdown in the desert never happened. Briggs and his son (Josh Hartnett) turn their attention to other concerns, and a storyline most filmmakers would take an entire movie to unpack and television showrunners whole multi-season arcs to develop just disappears into the desert air like the smoke from a burning Jeep. America’s drug crisis — solved in a single night.

That sequence and its lack of aftermath tell you everything you need to know about Wild Horses, which had its world premiere earlier this year at the SXSW Film Festival and was released in June on DVD. Everything about the film, from the dialogue to the casting to the directing, feels incomplete and unexamined, as if Duvall (who is now 84) had a thousand ideas but a sense that his time for exploring them was slipping away, so he decided to tackle them all in one movie. The drug war, illegal immigration, gay rights, family feuds, spousal abuse, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, sexism, racism, border wars, corrupt cops, Mexican street gangs: Duvall gives them all the courtesy of a quick glance.

It’s a shame, too, because the movie’s premise had so much potential. One night, Briggs comes upon his other son, Ben (played by James Franco), having an intimate moment with Jimmy, one of the ranch hands, and goes all Yosemite Sam on them, hooting and hollering and (literally) firing his pistol into the ceiling before chasing Ben off, shouting Bible passages after him. As for Jimmy, he’s never seen or heard from again. Flash forward 15 years and Jimmy’s mother is asking the Texas Rangers to reopen the cold case on her missing son. A female ranger (played by Duvall’s real-life wife, Luciana Pedraza) agrees and starts digging around in their community’s past, discovering all kinds of nastiness and lies and corruption.

So the stage has been set for a dark, twisting narrative about buried secrets and deep family divisions, a bloodstained domestic drama disguised as a police procedural. Unfortunately, what Duvall gives us instead is a soap-opera morass of lifeless exposition and meandering distractions. Subplots, including the one involving the drug smugglers, appear just long enough to steal viewers’ attention from the movie’s main thread, and then vanish. As a consequence, redemption and forgiveness aren’t really earned; they’re just passed out to the characters at the end of the movie like elementary school participation ribbons.

Robert Duvall and Luciana Pedraza
Courtesy of Patriot Pictures
Robert Duvall, who also directed, and Luciana Pedraza in Wild Horses.

Duvall doesn’t make things easy on himself, steering a largely nonprofessional cast of actors through the emotional and aesthetic minefield that is making a movie. Among that cast are several actual Texas Rangers (who have considered Duvall an honorary colleague ever since Lonesome Dove) and his talent-free wife, who, as the obsessed detective, responds to enjoying a barbecue and surviving a gang hit with the exact same look of bland indifference. Not that it’s entirely the actors’ fault. John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier together wouldn’t have been able to find the humanity, or even the sense, in a line such as “Hate can bring confusion to a man who wants to control everything and everyone around him.” Some tasks are beyond even the masters.

Maybe Duvall just didn’t have enough time or money to settle in and make the movie that Wild Horses wanted to be. Or maybe when you’re a Hollywood legend no one complains when your plot points make no sense or your dialogue sounds like something rescued from George Lucas’ trash bin. Or maybe Wild Horses was just born under a bad star, a well-meaning misfire that was doomed to become a cautionary tale for filmmakers with too much to say and not enough art to say it.

matricula consular
AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato
A Mexican immigrant displays his matricula consular card in Ohio. Texas is rejecting the card as an acceptable ID when issuing birth certificates to U.S. born children.

Efren Olivares, one of the attorneys representing families whose American-born children have been denied birth certificates, called Texas’ motion to dismiss the case this week “outrageous.” On Wednesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman to dismiss the lawsuit. Paxton claims that Texas has sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment, and therefore cannot be sued unless it waives that right.

Olivares said if the case is dismissed, hundreds or possibly thousands of U.S. citizen children will be denied the benefits of citizenship. “It’s outrageous that the bottom line for them is that this case should be dismissed and these U.S. citizen children should remain without a birth certificate,” said Olivares. “I think that’s remarkable — in a bad way.”

State Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, issued a written statement Thursday criticizing Paxton for defending the Texas Department of State Health Services’ “unconstitutional acts.”

“The Department’s ID policy is a violation of the 14th Amendment, and punishes American-born children,” Hernandez said. “Any legal argument defending this practice or seeking the dismissal of a lawsuit resulting from it cannot possibly pass muster in court. The state is simply wasting taxpayer money on frivolous litigation.”

In the last few weeks, at least eight more families have contacted Olivares and his associates to join the lawsuit, which was filed in May. The suit now includes 17 families. Olivares said he expects there will be more. So far, all of the families in the lawsuit live in Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr counties along the border. Citing state policy, local registrars denied the families birth certificates for their U.S.-born children because the parents only had a matricula consular — an official photo ID issued by the Mexican Consulate to Mexican nationals living in the U.S. — or a foreign passport without a current U.S. visa.

Attorney General Ken Paxton
On Wednesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman to dismiss the lawsuit undocumented immigrants have brought against the state for withholding birth certificates from their U.S.-born kids.

The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit is Maria Isabel Perales Serna, who as a youth immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico without authorization. Perales was able to obtain a birth certificate 14 years ago for her daughter born in Texas. On November 24, 2014, she gave birth in a McAllen hospital to her second child. She went to the vital statistics office in McAllen with her matricula consular card, her Mexican passport and the baby’s hospital records, thinking that would be more than enough to get a birth certificate for her child, as she had with her first child. But the office told Perales they no longer accepted the matricula consular or her foreign passport unless it had a current U.S. visa.

Olivares said that whether a foreign passport has a U.S. visa is irrelevant — it’s a question for federal immigration officials, he said, and not under the state’s jurisdiction. He also noted that Texas law considers an official foreign ID with a photo to be an acceptable form of identification. “The law would have to say, ‘with the exception of the matricula consular,’ but it doesn’t,” Olivares said.

California accepts the matricula consular as a valid form of identification and New Mexico, unlike Texas, allows undocumented residents to obtain a driver’s license, which can be used to get a birth certificate, said Olivares. If Texas’ current policy holds, the state faces the prospect of thousands of U.S.-born children being unable to get a birth certificate. That would make it difficult for them to enroll in school, sign up for critical programs such as Head Start, or get a U.S. passport.

Olivares said his legal team plans to file its response to the state within 14 days. They also plan to amend the lawsuit, adding plaintiffs as they come forward with their stories. “We’re hearing from more people every week,” he said.

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