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A hydroponic garden growing medical marijuana.
A hydroponic garden growing medical marijuana.

If you’re going to host a conference at which entrepreneurs pitch marijuana-based products and services, you should definitely make sure your projection equipment is working. Otherwise, the young man describing his fast-acting, long-lasting, zero-calorie cannabis drink will lose legitimacy with every frustrated shake of the slide clicker. That would be true of any conference, but it’s especially pertinent at an event where everyone is acutely aware of the need not to seem stoned.

Fortunately, the Marijuana Investment Conference, held at the swank West Houston Westin Hotel in early October, had legitimacy to spare. About 20 presenters took 10 minutes each to describe their businesses to investors who’d paid $1,000 to attend. Ideas were divided into “touching the plant” and “not touching the plant,” with most business plans involving significant distance from the ganja itself. One young man (young men were abundant) introduced MassRoots, his “social network for the cannabis community” that already has 170,000 users, emphasizing its potential for harvesting profitable data. (It’s not paranoia if they’re really spying on you.) Another pitched an app that would let smokers order weed with the press of a button. Still others offered products meant for growers—greenhouse kits, lighting, fertilizer—or consulting services, promising to use insider knowledge of the industry to vet other investment opportunities as they arise. Obviously, these products are meant to be sold where marijuana is legal, but investors were urged to anticipate the eventual opening of market after market, state by state, at which point getting a financial foothold will be much harder.

The conference was originally scheduled for September but was postponed when its founder, Stuart Maudlin, a Houston entrepreneur who became interested in medical marijuana after being diagnosed with throat cancer, took a turn for the worse. Maudlin died before he could see his dream take place, and his protégé, Gold Darr Hood, a senior analyst at Codexx Capital, took over. Hood says Houston might seem like a strange fit for the conference, at least compared with liberal Austin, but it’s not. Investors here are used to the oil and biomedical industries, which are high-risk and take years to realize a return. But the legal marijuana industry is growing so fast, she says, “You can get a full return on capital in a year. … People are willing to accept a higher degree of risk on the regulatory front if they’re going to be able to have such expectations on capital and such very high returns.”

Houston is also home to the Baker Institute at Rice University, which has extensively researched marijuana policy, and to several pro-pot organizations including Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition. And in October, the Harris County District Attorney’s office started a new program of offering first-time nonviolent offenders caught with small amounts of weed a choice between community service and an eight-hour class, rather than jail. If the program is completed, the charge will be scrubbed.

Those steps toward legalization, tiny though they may seem, had Houston’s investors, well, buzzing.

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Ebola tweet
The satire Ebola tweet that landed Twitter user @colin_dime in hot water.

Is a silly Photoshop prank the equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater?

The Frisco Police Department seemed to think so when officers took a high school jokester into custody in early October.

The student’s crime? Trolling his fellow Friscoans for their gullibility, playing on their willingness to believe hyperbolic news reports generated by a 24-hour news cycle ravenous for speculation about Ebola’s recent arrival in nearby Dallas.

Punctuating an Oct. 1 tweet with just the right amount of bawling emoji, the student—whose name has not been released—posted a pretty good imitation of a Fox News screenshot broadcasting the sort of Ebola story that readers might fear to find splashed across the Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate’s website: “6 New Cases of Ebola Discovered Within Dallas Fort Worth Area, Specifically Frisco ISD.”

Even a cursory perusal of the student’s Twitter timeline would lead a thinking person to conclude that he was goofing, but that didn’t stop the image from spreading, and in what appears to have been a matter of hours the affluent exurb was all afroth.

Parents kept their kids home from school. The district issued a soothing email: “… there is currently no reason to believe that the situation [in Dallas] presents a health concern to Frisco ISD students or staff members.”

Police took the teenager into custody for making a “false alarm or report.” Law enforcement authorities tell me he was later transferred to the Collin County Juvenile Detention Center, and that as of mid-October the case was “still under investigation.”

Juvenile incarceration. Over a fake news story attributed to an “AP Medical Scriber.”

Give the kid credit—imitating the local Fox affiliate was a brilliant move. Average Joes and Janes will find the “source” just reputable enough to not immediately dismiss the “news” as a hoax, and “Obola”-fearing Fox loyalists will treat it as the word of God Hisownself.

In the tweet accompanying the photo, the student perfectly captured the fear and confusion that’s run beneath the surface of news reports since the Ebola diagnosis of a Liberian man in Dallas was announced Sept. 30.

“… [O]ut of everywhere in the USA [Ebola] is at my EXACT HIGH SCHOOL.” This followed an earlier panic-belying chastisement that “Y’all know its [sic] not an airborne disease? You’d have to share body fluids to get it.”

That nugget—that Ebola is actually pretty difficult to contract and spread—has been notably missing from a great deal of the mainstream coverage so far, despite the fact that it’s arguably the most important information for reporters to relay to a jumpy public clearly ready to believe, and overreact to, just about anything.

The Dallas Morning News showed how CareFlite crews disinfect their helicopters. Television news broadcast a seemingly perpetual reel of hazmat-suited cleaners filing in and out of the Dallas apartment where patient Thomas Eric Duncan—who succumbed to the disease Oct. 8—stayed before his hospital admission. A WFAA-TV phone interview with Duncan’s wife used a spooky silhouette as a stand-in for the interviewee.

But this Frisco kid is thrown in the clink for pulling off a pretty solid Photoshop job? Even as the perpetrators of far more insidious Ebola-related fictions remain free to engage in racist right-wing agitation over what they claim is a very real possibility of the disease infiltrating the Texas-Mexico border?

Two days after the Frisco teen was taken into custody, Fox News Latino printed the headline “Border Patrol on alert after 71 people from hard-hit Ebola countries illegally enter U.S. this year,” building on Rand Paul-fueled fears of a “whole ship full” of American soldiers returning from Africa teeming with the virus. A week after the Frisco Fox hoax, Breitbart Texas didn’t hesitate to imply that the National Institute of Health’s infectious disease czar, Dr. Anthony Fauci, was either stupid or a liar when he called the Ebola-infiltration claims of Paul and others “far-fetched.”

These are real lies being spread by people with far more influence than a suburban Texas high schooler. This is real fearmongering, and it’s given morbidly gleeful credibility by people who get paid by the byline.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should imprison journalists, hucksters or hypesters. Freedom of speech and all that. But no more should the police be jailing a kid who used a computer to create a mirror that reflects our terrified faces right back at us.

Apparently it’s only OK to scare the shit out of people if that’s your main line of business.

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Ed Graf in 1988.
Waco Tribune-Herald
Ed Graf at his 1988 trial.

Update: Ed Graf struck a plea deal on Tuesday afternoon, taking the verdict out of the jury’s hands while it was still deliberating. Graf pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and received a 60-year sentence.

It was stunning to hear Graf admit guilt. He did so to maintain his eligibility for parole. Under the plea deal, Graf will be credited for the 25 years he served in prison, including his time for good behavior.

That means Graf will likely be paroled from prison in just a few months under a mandatory release policy that was in place at the time of his offense. Graf feared a guilty verdict that might have denied him a chance for parole or a hung jury that would leave him in county jail for perhaps a year or more awaiting a new trial. Instead, he agreed to plead guilty knowing he would be paroled in a few months. I’ll have a full story on the bizarre conclusion to the Graf case posted soon.

 

Original post: Ed Graf’s fate now lies with a Waco jury.

Testimony in Graf’s controversial re-trial concluded on Friday, and attorneys presented their closing arguments this morning. The six men and six women of the jury will now decide if they believe that Graf murdered his 8- and 9-year-old stepsons by starting a 1986 fire in a shed behind his house; or if Graf was wrongly convicted and spent decades in prison for what was actually an accidental fire.

Graf was originally convicted in 1988 and spent 25 years in prison. His conviction was overturned last year after advancements in the field of fire science disproved the physical evidence that convicted him. Yet McLennan County prosecutors chose to re-try him. (You can read the Observer’s 2009 investigation of Graf’s case here, our piece about the flaws in the evidence here, and my dispatches from earlier in the trial here and here.) Graf’s is the first case to reach re-trial since Texas began reviewing flawed arson cases following the Cameron Todd Willingham controversy.

As I noted at the beginning of the trial, prosecutors faced a difficult mission, trying to convict Graf with largely circumstantial evidence. Prosecutors couldn’t use any of the discredited arson evidence from the original trial. In fact, most of the physical evidence—analyzed using modern techniques and a modern understanding of fire—points to an accidental fire.

Science may not have been on their side, but prosecutors put on quite a case. They dredged up much of the circumstantial evidence from the first trial, the most damaging of which was the $50,000 insurance policy Graf took out on the boys the month before the fire, and a comment Graf allegedly made to a co-worker that his marriage would be better without the boys. The defense countered that the insurance coverage was a universal policy that’s commonly used as a good investment for kids and that Graf’s remark was simply an innocent complaint about his home life.

But the most stunning testimony came from a jailhouse informant.

Fernando Herrera, an inmate at the McLennan County jail who said he got to know Graf over the past few months, was likely the most controversial of the more than 30 prosecution witnesses. Herrera testified, as Tommy Witherspoon, the Waco Tribune-Herald’s long-time courthouse correspondent reported, that Graf confessed the crime to him in detail. He testified that Graf admitted to burning the children alive for the insurance money. Graf admitted, according to Herrera, that he had been struggling financially. Graf’s supposed confession went into surprising detail, including how he used ropes to tie the boys up and how he requested one casket at the funeral. He also supposedly told Herrera in jail that he had locked the boys in the shed, then opened the door just before neighbors saw what he was doing.

(Whether the door was open or closed is a key point. The door only locked from the outside, and Graf was the only adult in the house. So if the door was closed and locked, that would point toward Graf’s guilt. But witness testimony is mixed—some firefighters swear the door was closed and neighbors  swear the door was open. The fire scientists say the door had to be open or the fire would have died out from lack of oxygen.)

Herrera’s supposed confession just happens to match much of the prosecution’s theory of the case. In Herrera’s version, Graf locked the boys in the shed, then opened the door just in time to supply the fire with needed oxygen.

Defense lawyers sought to discredit Herrera, pointing out that he has at least six known aliases and more than a dozen convictions. They also noted that Herrera had asked for preferential treatment in jail multiple times before contacting prosecutors about the Graf case. Still, Herrera claimed prosecutors weren’t giving him anything in exchange for his testimony.

Defense attorneys also noted how unbelievable it seems that Graf would spend 25 years in prison, then, after his conviction was overturned, confess to a random jail inmate just before his retrial. Moreover, jailhouse informants don’t have the best track record, as the Innocence Project reports.

The defense team built its case on the scientific evidence. Doug Carpenter, a nationally renowned fire expert, was the key witness. He testified that the high carbon monoxide levels in the boys’ bodies point to an accidental fire (gasoline/arson fires typically result in low carbon monoxide levels. More on that here.) The defense also offered evidence that the boys had played with matches on several occasions and theorized that the boys had started the accidental fire themselves.

In his closing argument, prosecutor Michael Jarrett told the jury to ignore the scientific testimony and to go with their “heart,” as Witherspoon reported on Twitter.

That’s the essence of the case: Will the jury go with their heads or their hearts, with the scientific evidence or with their suspicions?

In many ways, the prosecutors’ case felt very familiar. They vilified the defendant, emphasized circumstantial evidence and offered fantastic testimony from a jailhouse snitch. Quite a few Texans have been wrongly convicted with this formula.

The difference this time is that the defense had modern fire science on its side. The jury will decide if the scientific testimony is enough to outweigh the considerable circumstantial evidence and the informant.

In that sense, the Graf case feels very much like a contrast between the old method that Texas prosecutors have used to convict people for years and the new approach to criminal cases based on more reliable, scientific evidence.

For Graf, 62, the stakes are high. If he’s found not guilty, he’ll be free for the first time in 26 years. If he’s convicted of capital murder, he may well die in prison.

Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott soaks up the applause after announcing he's running for governor.

If you’re a politician who has taken a public position against gay marriage, as Greg Abbott has, there’s a tricky thing you have to do to keep your position cogent. You need an argument for a same-sex marriage ban that doesn’t contradict or aim to invalidate the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, which struck prohibitions against interracial marriage, including in Texas, and established marriage as one of the core, basic rights enshrined in the Constitution.

That’s proven tough for many anti-gay marriage politicians. When the Supreme Court declined to consider lower court rulings earlier this month, effectively making same-sex marriage legal in a number of states, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who used to argue cases before the high court and so should know better, released a statement asserting that “marriage is a question for the States.”

Yet in Loving, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the court’s unanimous opinion that marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” and that the “freedom to marry … cannot be infringed by the State.” When the GOP candidate for attorney general in Wisconsin responded to a question about Loving by saying that he would have defended a ban on interracial marriage in court, too, he was at least being consistent.

When Abbott met with the San Antonio Express-News editorial board recently, reporter Peggy Fikac asked him about Loving. He had defended the state’s gay marriage ban in court recently—would he have defended a ban on interracial marriage? Abbott took a different tack:

“Right now, if there was a ban on interracial marriage, that’s already been ruled unconstitutional,” Abbott pointed out. “And all I can do is deal with the issues that are before me … The job of an attorney general is to represent and defend in court the laws of their client, which is the state Legislature, unless and until a court strikes it down.”

When I said I wasn’t clear if he was saying he would have defended a ban on interracial marriage, he said, “Actually, the reason why you’re uncertain about it is because I didn’t answer the question. And I can’t go back and answer some hypothetical question like that.”

Some hypotheticals are difficult to answer. What if the South had won the Civil War? Is it nobler for a Danish prince to suffer the slings of outrageous fortune or take arms against them? How many roads must a man walk down? This one shouldn’t be particularly difficult. It’s especially odd because Abbott is himself married to a Hispanic woman—though the anti-miscegenation laws struck by Loving were particularly targeted to black-white relationships.

But perhaps Abbott was wise to have dodged the question, because he likely would have defended a ban on interracial marriage, according to his own principles and record. He wouldn’t have known how not to. Abbott hasn’t shown a whole lot of independent spirit during his tenure as AG—he’s bound, he says, to defend whatever the Legislature vomits up:

“Believe me, I would love it,” he added, “The state would look a whole lot more like me right now if I did abandon my role and exercised my magic wand and decided what cases I would defend and which I didn’t, and therefore allowed me to dictate policy in this state.

“But I think that by doing what I do, I am maintaining the policy that I think is appropriate, and that is for each elected official to fulfill their constitutional obligations,” he said.

But while the Attorney General may have to mount some kind of defense of the state, he has “a tremendous amount of discretion” over how aggressively to prosecute those cases, how “effectively” to prosecute cases, and which cases to bring to court. Abbott has been using his stint as AG to campaign for governor for years—he’s brought failed case after failed case against the federal government, costing Texas taxpayers millions. But his hands are tied when it comes to gay marriage and school finance, he insists. He has to aggressively defend bad laws to the last.

Abbott’s tenure has included a number of instances in which he pursued comically bizarre legal arguments in cases for which he could have no reasonable hope of victory—seemingly forfeiting his powers of discretion. In 2008, Abbott chose to defend the state’s ban on the sale of sex toys, a case that emerged from the fallout of Lawrence v. Texas. Over the years, Abbott has deployed novel legal arguments against gay marriage. But this wasn’t a case about gay marriage, a subject that still animates sincere moral disagreements. This was a case about every American’s god-given right to buy dildos.

At the time, anti-sex toy laws were widely understood to be unconstitutional, but Abbott suited up for battle. The state, his lieutenants argued with straight faces before the 5th Circuit, had an interest in “discouraging prurient interests in autonomous sex and the pursuit of sexual gratification unrelated to procreation.” The state of Texas has a pressing interest, Abbott said, in discouraging you from masturbating or blowing your boyfriend. That was just six years ago.

As The Dallas Morning News notes, several past attorneys general, including Abbott’s predecessor John Cornyn, have refused to take part in cases when they felt they’d be in the wrong. But it seems there’s no law so bad Abbott won’t defend it.

Here’s the thing: We’re just two weeks away from Election Day, and we still don’t know much about what kind of governor Greg Abbott would be. Apart from the fishing ads and vague policy proposals, and even given his lengthy record as attorney general, we don’t necessarily know much about what drives him, or his leadership style.

Next session, if the GOP sweeps important races, Abbott will face a divided Legislature, with House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick representing very different policy preferences and styles. Which will Abbott rely more on? How forceful will he be in asserting his own will over the Legislature? Perry used his longevity to turn a relatively weak office into a powerful one: Under Abbott, would the position revert to its former status, or would Abbott seize Perry’s reins?

From time to time, we get little glimpses of Abbott and how he thinks about government. At the second debate, we caught one when Abbott, flustered, said he wouldn’t prevent the Legislature from repealing the Texas DREAM Act. Miscegenation-gate is another interesting episode. Abbott seems more like a follower than a leader, which isn’t a very good sign when you consider the forceful personalities he’ll be clashing with next year.

Vote for me or the little guy gets it, see?
Vote for me or the little guy gets it, see?

Over the last few weeks, the editorial boards of the state’s newspapers have been rolling out their endorsements. On Thursday night, the first major newspaper endorsement in the governor’s race dropped—The Dallas Morning News is backing Greg Abbott.

That’s not particularly surprising. Unlike other statewide races, both Abbott and Wendy Davis are relatively serious, thoughtful people, capable of approximating the kind of serious, thoughtful figure editorial boards like. Texas newspapers have turned heavily against more tarnished GOP figures like Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, but Abbott’s not really one of them. There’s the added factor that newspapers may aspire to endorse candidates from both parties, and they frankly don’t have many Republican options who meet the low bar of being able to appear serious and thoughtful.

There are plenty of perfectly reasonable arguments in favor of Abbott, and the Morning News gives some of them. But one of their reasons for endorsing Abbott is fascinating. Here it is:

Where Davis would be likely to encounter ideological battles at every turn, Abbott has the best chance to inspire legislative progress.

Davis has fought valiantly. But for all her progressive promise, and alignment with this newspaper on many issues, Texas cannot afford to provoke the kind of partisan stalemate her victory would probably bring, much like the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington. As much as Texas needs to counterbalance its GOP hard-liners, we fear Davis would only invigorate them.

Elect Davis, and GOPers will be so mad they won’t cooperate on anything, just like what happened when Barack Obama took office. This is a really beautiful encapsulation of some of the most depressing features of American politics right now—a reminder that we do government primarily these days by hostage-taking, in contravention of the ostensible norms of representative government. It’s also an assertion that the hostage-takers should win, and a demonstration of why they will keep winning. It’s monumentally demoralizing. But applied to the Texas context, is it right?

What would a Gov. Davis look like? Well, she would probably have little influence over the Legislature. Assume Davis wins and so does Patrick—Davis would be able to get hardly any of her legislative priorities through. Patrick would be preparing to run against her in 2018, and his Senate would kill or mangle almost anything that bore her personal stamp. But Davis would have a veto which would prevent Patrick’s worst bills and initiatives from getting through.

But the Morning News endorsement anticipates something worse—that the conservative Legislature seizes the levers of state government and goes to war against Davis, refuses to budge on any issue, refuses to put together a budget, refuses to consider new and important legislation, until its demands are met and Davis effectively surrenders. In effect, if the people of the state elect Davis to lead them, conservatives in the Legislature—probably led by Patrick—will take Texas hostage.

So the Morning News’ instinct is to reward the hostage-taker, pay the ransom, and keep the state safely gripped by one-party rule. On the one hand, it feels like a pretty bleak misperception of how small-r republican government is supposed to work. It’s especially odd because the endorsement urges Abbott to be “a moderating influence” for his party—a bit like a liberal urging his radical-left friends to “work inside the system.”

It seems probable that Patrick will be the dominant figure of the 2015 legislative session, not Abbott. It would be very difficult to make the case that a Gov. Abbott will be better at containing Patrick than a Gov. Davis, with a veto stamp and a reason to oppose him openly. It seems like extraordinarily wishful thinking to hope Abbott will turn out to be the state’s version of a Rockefeller Republican. On Friday, the Houston Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman issued strong endorsements for Davis, in part because of the belief that putting Davis in the governor’s mansion would provide a check on the state GOP’s worst impulses.

But on the other hand, the Morning News might just be conceding to reality. Certain features of the American system of government simply aren’t working as well as they used to. One fundamental cause of that is that the two parties have become ideologically purified—no longer is there much overlap between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and they have little reason to work together. But the way that problem manifests itself most severely is within the Republican Party, and its willingness to throw gum in the system’s gears.

Consider Texas’ extraordinarily polarized politics. As the state inevitably moves toward a two-party system, it’s easy to anticipate Texas GOPers picking up the tactics of John Boehner and Ted Cruz. Patrick’s probable victory may be one sign that’s already happening.

That’s also a pretty big problem for Democrats. As long as the economy is going OK here—without a prolonged drop in oil prices, or the bursting of a regional real estate bubble—a lot of people will be a little frightened of the implications of a competitive two-party system. It’s not unlike the way a lot of people feel in a truly one-party system—be it the PRI in Mexico, Augusto Pinochet’s Chile during the 1988 plebiscite, or China today. Why mess with (relative) success? Why leave the devil you know for the devil you don’t?

In Texas that feeling is shared, apparently, by the editorial board of the state’s second-largest newspaper.

gloves_Fotor
Jonathan Kole
Prepared ladies at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport sport the latest accessory: surgical gloves.

Heeeey there, buddy! How you doin’? Doin’ good? Good week? This weather is just really nice, right? You can tell it’s fall. In the morning, you might actually need a sweater. Good cuddlin’ weather. Isn’t that wonderful?

Okay, so while we’re in a good mood, and also talking about closeness and cuddling and human contact, this might be an okay time to segue into mentioning that we’re all going to die, soon, in isolation, bleeding from our eyeballs.

Wait—what’s that I hear? Suddenly, there’s calm man with a reassuring voice telling me not to be afraid. “You should have no concerns about Ebola at all. None. I promise,” he says. “Do not listen to the hysterical voices on the radio and the television or read the fear-provoking words online. The people who say and write hysterical things are being very irresponsible.”

Yeah… Yeah, you’re probably right, nice man. Now he’s also calling out the partisan gamesmanship that can influence coverage of these events. “With midterm elections coming, the party in charge needs to appear to be effectively leading,” he says. “The party out of power needs to show that there is a lack of leadership.” Wow. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

And what if something does go wrong? “Someday there may be a real panic,” he acknowledges. “Someday, something may start spreading that they can’t control. And then, do you know what we’re gonna have to do? We’re gonna have to relax and listen to leaders. We’re not gonna panic when we’re supposed to and we’re certainly not gonna panic now. We have to stop it.”

Gosh. Thank you. I feel better—really. Who was that grounding, informed, caring authority figure?

Oh yeah, it was Shepherd Smith, of FOX News.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is definitely WTF Friday.

So if FOX News is holding it together, how is everybody else doing?

Okay, not great.

On Thursday, the crew of an American Airlines flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Chicago locked a woman in the plane bathroom after she vomited in the aisle, according to another passenger. The crew suspected her of having the Ebola virus. The trapped woman spent 45 minutes there before landing.

That’s definitely non-optimal.

As every zombie-film aficionado knows, the genre isn’t actually about the shuffling brain-munchers that drive the plot. The true horror in zombie flicks is how the un-infected act when faced with terror and unbound by social norms. Faced with a scary disease just in time for Halloween, some people are responding as if scripted.

You got your better-safe-than-sorry types:

You got your end-timers:

That’s the San Antonio-based pastor and founder of Christians United for Israel positing, “There are grounds to say that judgment has already begun, because he, the president, has been fighting to divide Jerusalem for years now.”

Okay, buddy.

And then there’s Louie Gohmert.

“You know, it’s a shame that the [Centers for Disease Control] head, [Tom] Frieden, is apparently the commander of the Democrats’ new war on women nurses,” Gohmert told Glenn Beck on Beck’s radio program Thursday. “Because, goodnight, they set them up, and then they throw them under the bus.” Gohmert was referring to Frieden’s report that the two nurses infected with Ebola by one of their patients had violated protocol.

While rest of the country is just over here like:

Other zany, non-infectious things happened this week too, though. Word broke that attorneys for the city of Houston subpoenaed the sermons and presentations of pastors who vocally opposed the recently-passed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which extended protections to gay and transgender people. Specifically, the subpoena asked for “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”

It’s hard to imagine in what universe this seemed like a good idea. Yes, some Houston churches featured sermons against HERO and even collected signatures for the petition to have it put on the November ballot for potential repeal, an effort which failed because the city says too many of the petition pages were disqualified—hence the lawsuit—but still…

Mayor Parker says she didn’t know about the subpoena until this week and that now it’s been amended to pertain only to HERO-specific sermons—but still… Let’s just say Texas Monthly ran a piece about it with a (presumably) Photoshopped picture of Mayor Parker flanked by storm troopers.

But then there’s Jim Hogan. A correspondent from Capital Tonight visited the Democratic nominee for ag commissioner at his farm in Cleburne. Amid explaining why he’s running (he promised he would) and saying that on election night he’ll be home making stew, Hogan broke open a watermelon for his guest to try. Then he asked, “You ever see a goat eat a watermelon?” Then he fed his goats some watermelon.

Asked if he’ll run again if he loses, Hogan said no. “That’s it. I’ll be here at the farm if you wanna come see me.“

Personally, if Ebola or its long shadow of panic spread to my neck of the woods, I think I will go see him. Even if the bogeymen get me, at least I will have seen a goat eat a watermelon.

Fuentes
An image of Fuentes posted from her Twitter account early Thursday

A well-known citizen journalist who used the Twitter handle @Miut3 was reportedly kidnapped and killed Wednesday in the border city of Reynosa.

Early Thursday morning, a string of threats were tweeted on the #reynosafollow hashtag from the @Miut3 account, along with what appeared to be pictures of her before and after her murder.

“Friends and family, my real name is Maria Del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, I’m a doctor and today, my life has come to an end.”

Another tweet read:

“I can only tell you to not make the same mistake I did, it doesn’t benefit you, quite the opposite as I realize today.”

Mexico has become one of the deadliest countries for journalists in recent years. The state of Tamaulipas is infamous now as a place where almost total censorship reigns under organized crime and reporters risk kidnapping and death.

Since 2010, ordinary citizens using Twitter, Facebook and other social media have tried to fill the vacuum left by traditional media. Many Reynosa residents rely on #reynosafollow to warn others of gun battles, narco blockades and other dangers in their city. They take great pains to hide their identities online. Defying the censorship can mean being killed or kidnapped.

@Miut3 was well known among #reynosafollow users and posted on a daily basis, says Sergio Chapa, interactive manager with the Harlingen TV station KGBT, who was one of the first to write about Fuentes’ alleged murder.

“It’s created a great amount of fear,” Chapa says. Reynosa’s online users worry that if the killers have Fuentes’ cell phone they’ll have their contact information as well. “Reynosafollow users are ditching their phones, changing phone numbers and doing other things to try and protect themselves.”

After the threatening posts, the @Miut3 account was deactivated by Twitter. On Thursday afternoon, the Tamaulipas attorney general’s office opened an investigation into Fuentes’ kidnapping and murder. But in a country where 98 percent of murders remain unsolved, the motives behind her killing may never be revealed and her killers never brought to justice. Because of the anonymity of the online community in Reynosa and extreme distrust of corrupt authorities in Tamaulipas, it’s difficult even to verify the simplest details of the case—like whether @Miut3 really was a doctor named Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio.

Chapa says one of the original leaders of the #reynosafollow hashtag who has been investigating the death is reasonably confident that @Miut3 was a doctor, but that her death had more to do with her day job than her online reporting. Chapa says his #reynosafollow source was told that Fuentes had been unable to save a young boy who’d been brought into her clinic. After that, a member of the child’s family sent men to kidnap her.

Later, according to Chapa’s source, the cartel members discovered Fuentes’ online identity and took the opportunity to intimidate other users online.

This isn’t the first time that social media users in Tamaulipas have been threatened or killed. Last year, a video on YouTube showed what appeared to be the execution of a contributor to the Valor Por Tamaulipas Facebook page, a popular place for residents to report crimes and corruption. In 2011, four social media users were murdered in Nuevo Laredo. Messages were left with their bodies threatening to kill others who reported crimes over social media.

One of the last messages from the @Miut3 account sent a chilling message to other well known online users in the #reynosafollow community:

“I found death and got nothing out of it. @Bandolera7, @civilarmado_mx and @ValorTamaulipas, death is closer to us than you think.”

Mr. and Mrs. Tony Tinderholt
tonytinderholt.com
Mr. and Mrs. Tony Tinderholt

Here’s a hypothetical on a lot of people’s minds during election season: Exactly how fringe, how whacked-out, how seemingly unbalanced does a Republican candidate in Texas have to be to risk losing a GOP-leaning district to a presentable, modest Democrat? A lot of Dems, aghast at how far right the state GOP has moved, go into their campaigns thinking they’re going to come out on the fortunate side of that divide. But they’re usually disappointed.

But after Nov. 4, there’s a small chance that we might be able to call that fulcrum the “Tinderholt point.” Up in Arlington’s House District 94, a conservative activist named Tony Tinderholt is helping us put the proposition to the test once again. The district is currently represented by Diane Patrick, a moderate-ish GOPer who earned the ire of conservative purity groups like Empower Texans before losing her primary to Tinderholt, a virtually unknown conservative activist.

His Democratic opponent in the general election is a fellow named Cole Ballweg, a friendly guy who exemplifies the kind of moderate Democrat who runs in Texas suburbs these days. He emphasizes his history as a small business owner, preaches moderation on guns, health care, abortion, and other issues, and wants to help make “smart investments” in Texas’ future.

House District 94 is pretty conservative—Diane Patrick was mostly unopposed through her four-term tenure, and in 2012 Barack Obama won only 38 percent of the district’s votes—so normally this would be pretty easy. The guy with the ‘R’ next to his name wins, and it barely matters what the Democrat says. Except: Tinderholt might be the weirdest GOP state House candidate this cycle. He’s one of the most off-the-rails politicians you’ll find in the country right now. He’s the closest Texas voters are going to get to achieving their long-held dream of electing a gun.

In September, a video of Tinderholt addressing a 9/12 group in the Metroplex emerged. It featured a lengthy, hallucinogenic screed from Tinderholt about this summer’s border crisis, in which Tinderholt, seeming to channel Travis Bickle, wandered in and out of lucidity as he prophesied that “people were going to die” on the border and that’s “the only thing that’s going to stop the invasion of our country.” He called for sending American troops into Mexico to stop border-crossers.

He told the crowd: “Our border will be secure when we arm it and stop the people from coming across.” The whole speech, including a disturbing section in which Tinderholt mentions the “disgusting” and “gross” things the “cute children” coming across the border are going to be forced to do, lasts some 20 minutes, and it never really gets any better.

It was the first of many pieces of Tinderholt-related weirdness to come down the pipeline. Recently, Ballweg’s campaign released more footage of the GOP candidate addressing members of Open Carry Tarrant County, the fringe gun group that has been terrifying random groups of people around Fort Worth and has been repudiated by both its ostensible parent group, Open Carry Texas, and the NRA.

Before an Open Carry Tarrant County demonstration, Tinderholt speaks to the group, promising that his election to the House will get them what they want and warning them about police interference. “I will author legislation that’s what you want, that’s what you want passed,” Tinderholt says. “If they act foolish, smile and come find Kory [Watkins, Tinderholt’s friend and an Open Carry activist]. If I’m not here, he’ll call me.” In another video, an open carry protester tells another about the hopeful state rep: “This guy’s got our back 100 percent,” he says. “Tony Tinderholt has said, if the police ever harass you, call me immediately.”

After another demonstration, Tinderholt again urges protesters not to get too riled, because “Konni Burton, myself and a whole bunch of other people in the Senate and in the House plan on offering open carry legislation,” Tinderholt says, “that is gonna do away with restrictions like in hospitals and churches, all these places that are just like military bases,” presumably in that they currently ban personal firearms.

Tinderholt remains the probable victor, and he’s been personally backed by figures like Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick. But there’s been backlash against Tinderholt in the last couple of months. Ballweg has been endorsed by a number of Republicans, including two Arlington City Council members that Tinderholt has fought with in the past, and Dr. Ned Patrick, Diane Patrick’s husband. The Arlington police and firefighters associations have endorsed Ballweg, along with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, which predominantly endorses Republicans. Ballweg’s campaign has publicized an internal poll that puts him two points behind Tinderholt.

In a strongly-worded editorial—headline: “Invading Mexico is Not a Good Plan”—the Fort Worth Star-Telegram endorsed Ballweg and urged Arlington voters to reject Tony Tinderholt’s views, for what it’s worth. Though it acknowledged that the Republican was favored to take the district, “just as it has for at least three decades,” the paper’s editorial board expressed a small glimmer of hope that he wouldn’t. “Maybe not this year—or at least, it shouldn’t.”

One potentially discouraging sign for Democrats is that no one really seems to be investing in the race right now. Ballweg only has about $12,000 in the bank as of late September—and Tinderholt only has $5,000. But who knows, maybe the “moderate Republicans” people talk so much about will finally make themselves manifest. Can you be this nutty and win? Let’s see.

John Specia
>a href="http://www.hhsc.state.tx.us/" target="_blank">www.hhsc.state.tx.us/
Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia.

Texas is pushing ahead with controversial reforms to the scandal-plagued foster care system despite a recent report that the overhaul is over budget.

A recent cost evaluation by state consultant reported that Texas hasn’t put enough funding toward the system and, as the Observer reported in May,  more funding will be necessary to keep the new system sustainable.

The Texas Legislature passed the foster care reform in 2011. It allowed the Department of Family and Protective Services, responsible for foster care regulation and administration, to shift some duties to private companies. These so-called lead companies would oversee privately contracted child-placing agencies responsible for recruiting and monitoring foster homes. Each lead company would oversee placing agencies in a certain part of the state. One main goal of the overhaul is to keep children closer to their homes.

But the Legislature had one caveat: the new system couldn’t cost any additional money, meaning lead companies must provide more services for the same amount of money that the state was spending on the old system. One company has already pulled out of its contract with the state, in part due to funding issues.

The Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the department, contracted in July with the Boston-based Public Consulting Group to do a two-month study of “Foster Care Redesign,” as the overhaul is officially called. The report concluded that the system needs more money. “Additional resources are necessary to build an infrastructure to support and maintain a successful [lead company],” the recently-released report stated, adding that funds could come from alternative sources, like outside fundraising. The report recommended that Texas amend the 2011 reform legislation to require the new system to spend the same amount of money over the span of two years, instead of one year, to give the department more flexibility. The report also noted Texas is the only state attempting a foster care system overhaul without expecting to add funding.

The consulting group presented the study’s results at a Friday meeting of stakeholders who advise the state on how to implement, regulate and track the progress of the overhaul.

“We seem to have a very firm understanding that this isn’t a cost-neutral model. That to achieve what we want takes more money,” said Judge Scott McCown, director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin. “So I’m confused, when are we gonna tell people that this isn’t cost-neutral? When are we gonna fashion a plan for more money? … I just don’t know what we’re doing, it seems like a march of folly for me.”

Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia said later during the meeting that his staff is figuring out how best to ask the Legislature for more money during the upcoming 2015 session. At a recent legislative budget hearing, Specia included a one-time request for $1.6 million in funding for the overhaul. But that amount is just a placeholder, Specia said Friday. Nothing is final yet.

“I’m being pretty frank with the Legislature,” he said. “There are clearly issues related to funding. Cost neutrality, I think, is very difficult. Unfortunately we don’t have the hard numbers to say what does that mean,” Specia said. “I’ve got to be able to articulate what we get for the extra dollars they give us and we’re working on that.”

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