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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.

Bob Ray Sanders — Greater State
Courtesy Bob Ray Sanders

It has been 150 years since the institution of slavery officially ended in the Lone Star State. Yet, the vestiges from that evil period remain, and are revealed almost daily.

That monster known as racism has been roaming the land from this nation’s beginning. It has never gone away — nor will it. Oh, occasionally it appears to be dormant, only to rear its ugly head and remind us that it was simply lurking in some dark corner, awaiting another opportunity to strike — as it did in Texas in 1998 with the brutal dragging death of James Byrd Jr.; in 2010 with a series of church burnings in East Texas; and this year in McKinney when a veteran white police officer manhandled a 15-year-old black girl at a pool party.

I know racism well. I’ve seen it, heard it, felt it. You might say I even know its taste. In the ’50s, as a boy, I used to pick up meals from the back door of East Texas restaurants that didn’t allow “colored” customers inside. I definitely felt racism’s sting when, as an adolescent, I had to be escorted to the “colored” waiting room at the T&P train station in downtown Fort Worth.

I’ve been acquainted with discrimination and racial prejudice from birth. I came into this world at a time when the two white hospitals in Fort Worth that accepted black patients had separate wards in their basements for blacks. As a child I spent 12 years in segregated public school. I had to ride in the back of the bus. I was barred, like all black people, from Fort Worth’s Forest Park — with its zoo and swimming pool — except for one day each year. I was subjected to constant name-calling and random acts of violence whenever some white males decided to drive through our black neighborhood and go “nigger-knocking,” which included hitting us with sticks or throwing bottles at us.

In recent months, it has become obvious that racism has an unshakeable hold on this country, unequivocally revealing that there is no such thing as a post-racial America.

Olympia, Cleveland, Staten Island, Ferguson, Baltimore and McKinney: These are just a few of the places where overzealous law enforcement officers used excessive force against black people in the last year.

Too many young black men have been shot down by those wearing a badge that gives them power over life and death. And they choose death far too often.

Many Anglos, including some liberals, feign disbelief that the police could be so violent. Have they not been paying attention?

Think of all the inmates who have been exonerated, having finally proved that they were wrongfully convicted. The majority is black. You think that’s coincidence?

Take a look at Texas’ death row. Of the 262 people who were there at the beginning of July, 70 percent were black or Hispanic. Happenstance?

In June the unthinkable happened, leading Americans to take another look at themselves, forcing them to rethink their views on race and racism.

A 21-year-old white man was welcomed into one of the most historic black churches in the country, spent an hour in Bible study, and then shot nine people to death. Suddenly some of the most divisive leaders in the country — including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Lindsey Graham — were searching for words of comfort and reconciliation.

Those who had embraced the Confederate battle flag began to see it for what it truly represents.

Meanwhile, in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott, Sen.Ted Cruz and other Republican leaders have been unrelenting in trying to turn back the clock with their voter suppression laws and open defiance of our president.

Their proclamations of “states’ rights” in fighting everything from Obama’s health care law to EPA regulations to even military exercises are reminiscent of Southern governors in the 1960s who stood in the doorways of public universities, vowing to keep black people out.

They’ve been eerily silent on the issue of the Confederate symbols that adorn our statehouse, courthouses and public institutions, almost as though Charleston never happened.

But it did.

Nine innocent lives were taken: Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney; Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd; Susie Jackson; Ethel Lee Lance; Depayne Middleton-Doctor; Tywanza Sanders; Daniel Simmons; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton; and Myra Thompson.

Remember them, and perhaps we can start that real discussion on race — one that is forthright, honest and without pretense; one that changes more than the location of the Confederate battle flag; one that changes the content of our hearts.

Christopher Duntsch
Dallas County Sheriff's Office
Plano neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch faces criminal charges in Dallas County related to surgeries that left patients dead or injured.
Christopher Duntsch mugshot
Dallas County Sheriff's Office
Plano neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch faces criminal charges in Dallas County related to surgeries that that patients dead or injured.

Christopher Duntsch, the Plano neurosurgeon whose deadly surgical mishaps became a case study in how Texas law allows even the most dangerous doctors to keep practicing, is facing criminal charges—and this time it’s for more than stolen pants.

On Tuesday a Dallas County grand jury indicted Duntsch on six counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The victims: his patients. The weapons: “hands and surgical tools,” according to the indictments.

Five patients are named in the indictments, including three—Jeff Glidewell, Mary Efurd and Floella Brown—who were featured in Saul Elbein’s 2013 report for the Observer. Elbein’s piece detailed how Duntsch left some of his patients injured, paralyzed or dead, sometimes for minor procedures.

As the tragedies mounted, Duntsch’s peers tried unsuccessfully to prevent his return to the operating room. Duntsch easily moved from hospital to hospital. The Texas Medical Board took nearly a year to suspend his license after receiving the first complaint against Duntsch.

A handful of Duntsch’s patients turned to the courts to hold Duntsch and the hospitals accountable. In legal filings, they allege Duntsch was erratic, and even under the influence of drugs and alcohol while performing surgery. But his patients faced a roadblock: the decade-old tort reforms that raised the burden of proof and reduced the potential payout for medical malpractice cases. Duntsch made a cameo appearance in last year’s governor’s race, as the star of an attack ad against Gov. Greg Abbott, who, as attorney general, sought to intervene on the hospitals’ behalf, against Duntsch’s injured patients.

Some of those lawsuits are still ongoing, though Duntsch has been removed from some of the cases, and until today, the chances seemed slim that he would be held to account for more than the shoplifting charge we detailed here in May.

Duntsch faces two felony counts related to surgery performed on Mary Efurd, who appeared on the cover of the September 2013 Observer.
Duntsch faces two felony counts related to surgery performed on Mary Efurd, who appeared on the cover of the September 2013 Observer.

Tuesday’s indictments change all that.

“It was a very long investigation,” said Kevin Brooks, felony trial bureau chief in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, who declined to comment further.

Asked about precedent for a case like this, Brooks noted the recent conviction of a Michigan cancer doctor, who was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison for prescribing chemotherapy treatments to people without cancer.

Texas legal experts told the Observer that it’s exceptional for a doctor to face criminal charges related to delivery of care — and not, say, for drug, billing fraud, or sex crimes.

“It’s rather uncommon as you might assume,” Texas Medical Board spokesman Jarrett Schneider told the Observer. The board’s records of disciplinary actions, dating back to 1997, list only one doctor who lost his license following a conviction for criminal negligence: Michael Jackson’s doctor Conrad Murray.

Duntsch’s attorney didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but in the comments section of our May story, Duntsch offered the most detailed defense of his actions he’s provided anywhere—30,000 words’ worth of rebuttal to his critics, or anyone who would suggest his care was anything other than excellent. “I am ranked in the top 2% in the world against 4 million scientists and higher than the last 10 nobel prize winners,” Duntsch wrote. To news outlets like the Observer, The Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle, which repeated Dr. Randall Kirby’s estimation that Duntsch is a dangerous “sociopath,” Duntsch promised “100000 law suits [sic].”

In his comments, Duntsch did admit to shoplifting, which he explained as a simple mistake. “I do not see any approach to defending these actions other than explaining context, and I cannot imagine I would not simply be honest with the facts and the plea, your honor, I am indeed culpable for this misdemenor [sic],” he wrote.

Duntsch now must turn his legal efforts to the six new felonies he faces today.

 

 

Reintroducing Myself

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Tess Bonn

Dear Reader,

It must’ve been around 2002 when I first discovered the Texas Observer. I was a student at UT-Austin with a work-study (emphasis on the latter) job in the periodicals department at the Perry-Castañeda Library. This was around the time when the Internet was starting to strangle newspapers and magazines, but I loved (still do) the look and feel of ink on paper. The job introduced me to obscure academic journals, twee literary publications and political standard-bearers such as The Nation, the New Republic and National Review.

But it was the Observer that changed my life.

The Observer back then was a biweekly, mostly black and white and printed on some kind of unglossy stock. The Observer was a revelation: a bullshit-free zone of unadulterated ass-kicking journalism and unapologetic leftwing politics. If the prose was at times a bit shaggy and the tone occasionally strident, no matter. The truth-telling was the thing. This little rag, as it’s often been called, drew the curtain back on the way Texas really worked. It named names. Still does.

Not long after graduating from college, I landed an internship at the Observer—and that led to a part-time reporting gig, which led to a full-time one, which led to a job editing the website. Now, 10 years later, I’m pleased as punch (and a little astonished) to find myself the editor of the Observer.

Readers, my decade at the Observer has taught me a lot of lessons, and chief among them is this: To survive is good, but to thrive is great. For most of our 60 years—even as these pages featured the likes of Ronnie Dugger, Willie Morris, Molly Ivins and Nate Blakeslee—we’ve been a dicey proposition: a left-leaning magazine in the king of red states, a nonprofit (since the ’90s) that relies on the generosity of readers and liberal-minded Texans. As we wrote in the introduction to our 60th-anniversary issue in December, “We are the underdog’s underdog. We’ve often had money enough only for the next few issues—yet they came out on time, and so did the next one and the next. That’s victory.”

Surviving is a victory. But we can also thrive. In the last few years, we’ve overhauled our website three times, transformed the magazine into a full-color, professionally designed, monthly glossy, grown our staff to its largest size ever, made our website a daily must-read, and built a fundraising apparatus that has made us, perhaps for the first time, financially stable. This remarkable transformation is the work of a dedicated and hard-working staff, forward-thinking editors and the sustained support of our board and readers. I pledge to continue this trajectory.

My commitment is to build on the Observer’s strengths—investigative reporting, fearless truth-telling and sophisticated cultural coverage—while investing more in digital journalism.

Fact is, we have more readers than ever because of the growth in our online readership, which is younger and more diverse than our print audience. Since 2011, we have more than tripled the number of unique visitors to our site. In the last year, seven of our 10 most-read stories were published exclusively on the web.

I believe we are positioned to become a national standard for hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners reporting and commentary that bridges traditional magazine journalism and a digital-first approach.

We can be even more dogged at doing what our peers in the media can’t and won’t do: chasing stories that expose the corruption of our institutions, the pervasive racial problems in our communities and the extremism of the GOP, while calling attention to the promise of a new Texas that values social justice and equality. And we can do this with the voice and verve that crusading journalism requires. The media environment is rapidly changing, but I believe it is tilting toward journalism that values subjective and truthful storytelling that seeks to change the world.

I have but one sacred cow. We will stay true to Ronnie Dugger’s original promise when he became the magazine’s first editor:

We will serve no group or party but will hew hard to the truth as we find it and the right as we see it. We are dedicated to the whole truth, to human values above all interests, to the rights of humankind as the foundation of democracy. We will take orders from none but our own conscience, and never will we overlook or misrepresent the truth to serve the interests of the powerful or cater to the ignoble in the human spirit.

Ronnie set a very high standard. I challenge myself to live up to it each and every day.

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