When El Paso decided to open a toll road this year, drivers were told they could pay tolls or purchase toll tags online, over the phone, or by mail. Convenient, right? But drivers who want to make payments in person would have to visit ACE Cash Express, a payday lender that charges up to $5 in fees for the service. While some states strictly regulate or ban payday lending, Texas is happy to deliver its economically vulnerable citizens directly to the doors of these questionable institutions. It’s what Texas government does best—look out for big business at the cost of its citizens.
Linda Martinez, a manager at ACE Cash Express in El Paso, told the El Paso Times recently that the arrangement was an opportunity for her company to get new customers in the door and “offer them a lot of the services that we provide.” Services like payday loans, installment loans, car-title loans and prepaid debit cards—products that often carry outrageous interest rates and sink desperate people deeper into debt. ACE, for example, offers a two-week payday loan at an APR of 792 percent. The El Paso toll authority recently canceled the arrangement, though the North Texas Toll Authority still has a similar deal with ACE Cash Express.
It’s a systemic problem we’ve seen before, this fox-in-the-henhouse kind of governing. The chair of the Texas Finance Commission—the agency that’s supposed to regulate the payday loan industry—is Bill White, vice president of Fort Worth-based Cash America. Yes, the commission that’s supposed to protect you from predatory lenders is led by a predatory lender.
The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently fined Cash America $19 million in consumer refunds and fines for, among other things, “unfair and deceptive practices,” failing to maintain and provide records, violating the Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010, and violating the Military Lending Act.
Meanwhile, White told the El Paso Times that borrowers who find themselves in worse debt after doing business with his company should take responsibility for their actions. Of course, when people in power talk about taking responsibility, it usually means regular people get screwed.
Take, for example, the innocuous-sounding Driver Responsibility Program, created by the Texas Legislature in 2003. The law allows the Texas Department of Public Safety to extort surcharges ranging from $100 to $2,000 from traffic violators, on top of traffic violation fines. Drivers who don’t pay the added fines can lose their licenses.
DPS contracts with a private company to collect the surcharges. And, of course, the private contractor has its own fees. Municipal Services Bureau, according to DPS’ website, is “legally authorized to charge individuals service fees in addition to the surcharge.” Those fees include a service fee of 4 percent of the original surcharge amount; an installment-plan fee of $2.50 for each partial payment; a credit or debit card fee of 2.25 percent of the payment; and an electronic check fee of $2 for each payment. And guess where you can pay your traffic violation surcharge in cash? ACE Cash Express.
By 2010, more than 60 percent of those surcharges, according to The Texas Tribune, had gone unpaid. An estimated 1.3 million Texas drivers lost their licenses, and sometimes their jobs because of lack of transportation. Some legislators have fought to repeal the program, admitting the law is a failure, but so far, they’ve only succeeded in reducing surcharges for drivers with low incomes.
The deregulated electricity market is another example of the state looking out for big business instead of for working Texans. Stories abound of hidden fees, disconnections without notification, rip-off prepaid electricity cards, and multi-level marketing companies peddling power (read: pyramid schemes). Some of those practices are illegal and policed by the state. But the biggest rip-off of all is perfectly legal: deregulation itself.
The Texas Coalition for Affordable Power calculates that Texans living in deregulated areas paid $22 billion more from 2002 to 2012 than they would have if they had paid the rates enjoyed by people living in regulated areas like Austin and San Antonio.
This is what happens when government serves business at all costs. We pay the price, little by little. It really adds up.
Updated with a response from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
A new study of sexual violence in U.S. correctional facilities supports earlier findings that Harris County has a serious problem with inmate sexual abuse. Can Sheriff Adrian Garcia fix it without admitting it exists?
Last July, Dateline Houston reported on a related Justice Department study that quantified sexual violence by directly surveying inmates about their experiences. The Harris County Jail came out looking pretty bad by that method. At the largest of the jail’s four locations, the reported rate of sexual mistreatment was twice the national average. Harris had the third highest rate of the more than 350 jails surveyed.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office took exception to the study, calling it “flawed and misleading” in a letter to the Justice Department. The main objection was that the allegations were unofficial, unverifiable and anonymous. But a new study aggregating official allegations of sexual abuse doesn’t look much better.
In each year addressed—2009 through 2011—Harris County had by far the most allegations of “nonconsensual sexual acts” by inmates of any jail in the state. That’s perhaps to be expected since Harris County has Texas’ largest jail by far. But over the three years, it also had more official allegations than all of Texas’s other public local jails combined. This is despite housing about half as many inmates as the sum of all other such jails.
Earlier this month, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia was called to testify at a Justice Department hearing on the first study’s results. It didn’t go great. The Houston Chroniclereported, “After several minutes of reading an opening statement describing the jail system he commands…Garcia was cut off by a panelist and urged to get to the point of the sexual assault statistics.”
In short, he didn’t. His testimony could be summarized as, “There isn’t a problem because there shouldn’t be a problem.” The jail is designed for direct observation by guards. It has extensive surveillance cameras and more will soon be installed at a cost of $800,000 or more. Inmates are evaluated upon intake for whether they need special protection or pose a threat to others and housed appropriately. There is a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse and allegations are taken seriously. Staffers watch a video, sign a form and take training about preventing and handling sexual abuse. Posters and flyers inform inmates of the zero-tolerance policy and a toll-free phone line to report abuse. More guards have been hired and security rounds made more frequent. A committee has been established. The jail passes regular inspections and evaluations.
Many of these safeguards have been instituted since 2011, when the reporting period for the studies ended, so they may well be working but stats wouldn’t show it yet. And whether or not the jail’s abuse rate has dropped in the last two years, all these efforts are unquestionably to the good. They show the sheriff’s office is serious about preventing abuse.
One might even say it’s doing all it can—except for one thing. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office refuses to admit it has a problem with sexual assault. In November, Sheriff Garcia responded to a letter from the Justice Department asking for an explanation of the study’s findings. The first question was, “What are the factors that lead to the high incidence of sexual victimization at the HCJ during the time of the BJS report?” Garcia called that a “false premise” and responded, “There was and is no high incidence of sexual victimization in the Harris County Jail facilities.”
Garcia’s objections to the study vary in their ability to hold water. He rightly observes that the question lumps all four jail locations into one question although three had sexual abuse rates lower than the national average. But his point carries the seed of its own illegitimacy. First and foremost Garcia finds the anonymous reports unreliable. Fair enough. But another Harris County Jail location housing almost as many prisoners reports a rate of 0.9 percent, versus the worst facility’s 6.3 percent. Why would inmates at one jail, taking the same anonymous survey, falsely report abuse seven times more often? Is it likelier that there are seven times more liars in one spot than another or that one jail has a problem and the other three don’t?
Garcia also notes that the (“flawed and misleading”) survey finds higher rates of victimization among women, inmates with mental illness and non-heterosexual inmates, which the high-rate facility houses most of. So which is it? Are the higher rates non-existent, a product of false reporting and bad statistics, or is the rate legitimate and caused by a concentration of more-victimized groups?
The frustration in Garcia’s letter is palpable. His answer to this first, contentious question concludes with a paragraph describing how his office tried to investigate the findings and “without access to all of the underlying data” was simply “unable.”
But “we cannot tell if there’s a problem” is very different from “there is definitively no problem.” The first indicates concern and a willingness to try, which the rest of the county’s preventative measures suggest is Garcia’s true position. But the latter is his official stance. Having to preserve it may, tragically, keep the county from fixing what the best information available says is broken.
From Alan Bernstein, Director of Public Affairs for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office:
“The Harris County Sheriff’s Office appreciates the chance to provide information and perspective for this article. Better late than never.
Sexual victimization of inmates in America’s jails and prisons continues, much to the frustration of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies undertaking sophisticated, aggressive, progressive and inventive ways to stop it. The traits of those efforts reflect every aspect of Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s reform administration, as shown in other Texas Observer articles.
The fact that such alleged incidents are relatively infrequent – coming from 1.6 percent of all U.S. inmates, if one of the studies referred to in the article are to be believed – is of no comfort. Although not mentioned by Texas Observer, the key point of the other study cited is that U.S. prison and jail commanders have been able to substantiate only 10 percent of inmate sexual victimization allegations, meaning the other 90 percent unfortunately lacked conclusive evidence, were the subject of shoddy investigations or were false.
As Texas Observer well knows, an allegation is not proof of guilt. Just ask Michael Morton. However the studies and the TO article confuse allegations with proven incidents of sexual victimization (which the study says ranges from forced sex acts to uninvited touching of an inmate’s clothed thigh).
Recent news media reporting on sexual victimization claims in the Harris County Jail, by far the state’s most populous, stems from a 2011 anonymous survey of less than a tenth of the 9,000 or so inmates. At three connected jail buildings that hold the majority of inmates, the allegation rate was below the national average. At one connected jail building, called 1200 Baker St., the allegation rate was 6.3 percent. The study says it was designed to get a 65 percent response rate from inmates, but at that building, the threshold was not reached. This is one of many reasons why the study is deeply flawed; by its own admission, it forfeited statistical reliability and also was unable to determine the frequency of false claims.
Also, that building houses the jail system’s inmates with acute mental illness. In fact the statistician who worked on the 2011 study tells us that two-thirds of the surveyed inmates in the so-called “high” rate building had “psychological stress disorders.” We don’t know how that was determined, and we would never allege that people with mental illness fabricate allegations more often than anyone else. But in his testimony in Washington, Sheriff Garcia described the day-old case of an inmate outcry of sexual victimization and in the process showed how many claims are elusive.
Texas Observer claims the sheriff never got around to such a discussion. Oh well! The case involved a man housed in the mental health unit. Deputies interviewed him as part of the full investigation they conduct on every such allegation. He said he awoke and found his trousers pulled down; he believed he had been sexually assaulted; and did not know by whom, or how, or where or how often. No doubt that is the kind of claim that led to one of four jail buildings having a so-called “high” rate of allegations (not assaults).
As for which prisons and jails rank among the worst, the study points out that about 20 agencies refused to cooperate with the 2011 anonymous survey. One was in Texas. One was the New Orleans Parish Jail. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office allowed the surveyors access to inmates, and Sheriff Garcia accepted the invitation to testify in Washington, because of his commitment to transparency and accountability in the cause of restoring the public’s faith in the operations of the jail.
In sum, Sheriff’s Garcia’s statements still stand: The biggest jail system in Texas does not have a “high rate” of sexual victimization of inmates, but that does not excuse us from trying to eradicate any such incident. All Harris County jail inmates , including the two-thirds who are awaiting trial and therefore have not been found guilty, deserve respectful treatment. We are striving to be a national leader in how we deal with sexual abuse and allegations thereof.”
One of the afflictions of the politics beat is that conflict is coveted and covered, even when the story is about consensus. Reporters naturally gravitate toward (and try to create) disagreements among candidates and parties. “Fight! Fight! Fight” is the mantra. That’s not a bad instinct, but what happens when all the candidates agree on something—and that something is extreme?
We have a lieutenant governor’s race on the GOP side in which the four candidates agree on certain things that not so long ago were confined to the political fringe. They are even now not mainstream beliefs (defined roughly as beliefs held by a majority or large plurality of the public) but have become rapidly de rigueur in Republican primaries. To wit:
At a televised debate this week, all four candidates (David Dewhurst, Dan Patrick, Jerry Patterson and Todd Staples) agreed that abortions should be banned even in cases of rape or incest. It was not clear if any of them would make exceptions even for the life of the mother.
Journalist Peggy Fikac asked each of them, “Do you believe that a woman should be able to choose abortion in cases of rape and incest?” and then later followed up to make sure she had a clear answer.
TODD STAPLES: “I believe that abortion should never be used as a form of birth control.”
“In extreme cases where a mother’s life is in danger then you can have a conversation about that circumstance. But as a matter of law we need to promote life.”
DAVID DEWHURST: “I believe strongly that the life of the mother has to be protected. That’s why if there’s a question about the life of the mother, I’m supportive.”
(He later made clear that he opposes exceptions for rape and incest.)
JERRY PATTERSON: “My answer is that either it is life or it’s not. To say that we have an unborn child that is the result of a rape and somehow that’s less life-y, life-like or inferior to the life that was through a natural, non-catastrophic event like that doesn’t make any sense… I do not support exceptions for rape or incest.”
DAN PATRICK: “The only exception—the only exception—would be if the life of the mother is truly endangered for that doctor and that family to make that decision of the mother and the baby. … In those rare circumstances where the life of the mother is on the line, most mothers say let my baby live.”
In other words, the likely next lieutenant governor of Texas has staked out the most extreme position possible on abortion. And notably, it’s not one shared by very many people, including Republicans. As Jim Henson and Joshua Blank with the Texas Tribunenoted yesterday, “only 16 percent of Republicans (compared to 12 percent of Texans overall) said that abortion should never be permitted.”
In that Texas Tribune/UT poll, 37 percent of Texas Republicans thought abortion should either be “generally legal” or “always legal”—a group twice the size that of the absolutist position. And 41 percent took the position that abortion should be banned except in cases of rape, incest or when pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. Any way you slice the data, the Republican candidates for lieutenant governor are a minority of a minority of a minority.
To prove their bona fides, all four men also took the position that Marlise Muñoz—the brain-dead pregnant Fort Worth woman who was kept on life support against her family’s wishes—should’ve been kept alive as an incubator for her 14-week-old fetus.
And their extreme positions weren’t limited to abortion. All four men have said that creationism, which has been thoroughly discredited in the courts and certainly in the sciences, should be taught in school. Their only point of disagreement was how it should be taught.
TODD STAPLES: “I believe that creationism can be taught in our public schools in social studies if it violates what the courts have said as a science because it is something that most Texans believe in.”
DAVID DEWHURST: “I am fine with teaching creationism, intelligent design and evolution. And then let the students… decide for themselves which one of the three they believe in.”
Dewhurst apparently makes a distinction between creationism and intelligent design, though the courts have seen through that ruse, agreeing that intelligent design is little more than creationism by another name.
Dan Patrick went even further, inveighing against the separation of church and state and leaving out altogether the usual canards about teaching creationism alongside evolution.
PATRICK: “Our children must really be confused. We want them to go to school on Sunday and we teach them about Jesus Christ and then they go to school on Monday—they can’t pray they can’t learn about creationism. They must really be confused.”
“When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed, it should be heralded.”
Jerry Patterson was the least retrograde, holding open the possibility that creationism should perhaps be taught in a comparative religion class. But he balanced that out by staking out the most far-right position possible on guns. Asked if there should be any restrictions of any kind, Patterson said, “The one venue that I believe maybe handguns shouldn’t be there—although it kinda enhances the quality of the service—is a bar.”
After the warmest year on record for Texas, 2012, and the third-warmest year, 2011, last year provided a brief respite from the heat. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Texas saw near-normal temperatures in 2013. The average temperature for the year was 65.1 Fahrenheit, or 0.1 F warmer than normal.
So has global warming stopped? Not at all. Year-to-year fluctuations in temperature are expected due to natural variability in the climate system, especially at a regional level, said Andrew Dressler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M.
“One year (or even a decade) doesn’t tell you much,” he wrote in an email. “Look at the last 30 years and it’s pretty clear what’s happening.”
The period from 2009 to 2013 was the warmest five-year stretch ever on record for Texas, according to Victor Murphy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
And of course it’s called *global* warming, not what happened at my house last week, as Ted Cruz and Barry Smitherman seem to believe.
And 2013 was hardly a cool year overall for the United States and the planet.
In the continental U.S., the average temperature of 52.4 F was 0.3 F above the 20th century average and was tied with 1980 as the 37th warmest year, out of a 119-year record.
Globally, 2013 tied with 2003 as the 4th warmest year, according to NOAA. (Seventh according to NASA, which takes a slightly different approach.) It was the 37th consecutive year with temperatures above the 20th century average.
Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
Recommended by Steven G. Kellman
A few months before celebrating his 80th birthday last March, Philip Roth, the most decorated living American novelist, announced that, after publishing almost a book a year since 1959, he had ceased writing. Goodbye, Columbus, the collection that launched his career of brilliant literary provocations, is still astonishingly fresh. Consisting of the title novella and five short stories, the volume explores love, faith, and assimilation with both wit and compassion. In particular, “Defender of the Faith,” the story of a war-hardened drill sergeant who responds in complex ways to a cunning Jewish recruit who tries to exploit their common background to extract special treatment, shows no signs of aging.
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
Recommended by Emily DePrang Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, is messed up. Not the execution of the book itself—it’s crushingly beautiful and stylistically perfect; I mean perfect—but the content: drugs, crime, car accidents, drugs again. It makes you feel deeply with and for people you would never want to meet and live moments you’d never want to live through, except that because Johnson is such an excruciatingly good writer, you’ll read on anyway. And if you’re me, you’ll read on again and again and again, just to get that feeling.
Recommended by James McWilliams
“Jack liked his office and it was alright to like your office.” This is the opening line of Norman Rush’s classic short story, “Lying Presences,” originally published in The Paris Review in 1982. Rush’s story is one of 20 published Paris Review pieces now compiled in a book called Object Lessons. It goes without saying that the stories themselves are, in various ways, masterful (if largely dark) expressions of what many prematurely lament as a dying genre. But what’s especially valuable about this anthology is that leading contemporary writers—including Dave Eggers, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Lethem and Lorrie Moore—chose the stories and, albeit too briefly, introduced them. Unexpected insights emerge from this arrangement. Who would have guessed—as Mona Simpson, who introduces Rush’s story, reveals—that the opening line about Jack liking his office had, on its own, convinced The Paris Review (where Simpson once worked) to publish the story before even finishing it? As Simpson notes, “Editors, like curators, develop refined intuition.” It shows throughout this volume.
Hide Island: A Novella and Nine Stories by Richard Burgin
Recommended by Anis Shivani
Burgin writes some of the most dangerous short fiction being published today, as Hide Island: A Novella and Nine Stories—his newest collection, and ninth overall—demonstrates. These stories are dangerous because they force readers to question ordinary ethical behavior and the boundaries between transgressors and victims. While his previous collections have also been dark—involving every variety of sadomasochistic behavior imaginable—the new book seems to be his darkest yet, compounded by an intensified concern with mortality in addition to Burgin’s usual preoccupation with sexual “deviancy.” In all these stories, Burgin puts the darkest possible spin on our private lives, exposing the baleful mendacity and self-deception whereby we operate day to day. There is an undertone of a radical political critique here, an ardent nihilism that is all the more lovely for its ring of unshakeable truth.
The Barnum Museum by Steven Millhauser
Recommended by Elizabeth Stewart
This book is usually remembered for the story at the end, “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” because it inspired the movie starring Edward Norton and Jessica Biel, but for me, Millhauser’s magic lies in his shorter stories. The one I can’t forget is titled “Rain,” and follows a man caught in a downpour after coming out of a movie theater. City lights and storefront signs swim around him, and eventually everything—even the protagonist—dissolves. The premise is straightforward, and the story is approximately eight pages long, but in those eight pages Millhauser manages to explicate the futility of an unremarkable life, while deliberately, and beautifully, washing it away. The Barnum Museum is a series of age-yellowed, water-damaged images—long-forgotten artifacts and mementos both magical and achingly sad.
A supporter of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kesha Rogers, before the Martin Luther King Day parade in Houston.
As we do every year at this time, we once again join together to remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to try and forget all the creepy, obnoxious things that people and corporation-people had to say about his holiday.
Monday was all a little more SMH than WTF, so for the week’s strangest remarks we turn to a few regulars. We begin with lieutenant governor hopeful Dan Patrick, who asks if you know where your children are, and if they know how to count, because, as he said in a candidate forum last weekend reported in the Houston Chronicle, a great many immigrants are probably coming for them:
“[H]ardened criminals we arrested from 2008 to 2012 – not illegals who were here for a job, who got four speeding tickets, but hardened criminals – 141,000 we put in our jails just in four years in Texas.”
“They threaten your family. They threaten your life. They threaten your business. They threaten our state,” he said, adding that they were charged with 447,000 crimes including 2,000 murders and 5,000 rapes.
Those are some pretty dramatic numbers! And as Charles Kuffner has noted, they’re pretty ludicrous, too. Over that five-year stretch, Kuffner says, Texas saw just over 6,000 murders in Texas, meaning that “they” committed one third of the murders in Texas. Couple that with a congressional report which says that from 2008 to 2011, there were 219 murders committed by undocumented immigrants nationwide, and it’s a wonder any of us made it out of 2012 alive.
Enough of this scaremongering, and on to some smart border policy… Go, go, Gohmert!
“Israel has shown you can have a fence, even if it is a wire fence.”
That, of course, is the esteemed Congressman from deepest East Texas, Louie Gohmert, in the midst of an unfortunate civics lesson at Carlisle High School in Price. As the Longview News-Journalreported, government teacher David Minnix’s class invited Gohmert to speak, no doubt as some sort of “scared straight” program for aspiring politicians.
Gohmert took student questions and ran with them to some strange places, predicting “a massive rush” of 40 million people crossing the border from Mexico—”I think we’re wasting time talking about immigration reform”—and explaining why he blames Obamacare for forcing him to cite a litany of bogus costs and cancel his health insurance this week.
“I’m not homophobic,” he said, noting his gay friends say they should be able to be with whomever they want. “I agree, but if we’re going to continue society, it’s between a man and a woman. … I still want someone to explain to me how sexual relations between two men helps our species evolve forward.”
Zedler is a sort of Zen master on Twitter—he’s rarely the most offensive or sanctimonious voice in Texas politics, but there’s a bare-faced simplicity to his account that seems to perfectly distill the conservative outrage du jour. (But never actually in French!)
After the people’s filibuster ended last summer, it was Zedler who spread the word that “we had terrorist in the Texas State Senate.” During the government shutdown last fall, Zedler astutely noted, “Obama is closing down memorials, the ocean, etc, THAT HAVE NEVER BEEN SHUT DOWN BEFORE IN PREVIOUS SHUT DOWNS.”
Texas songwriter and wordsmith Steven Fromholz died in a hunting accident this past Sunday, Jan. 19, at age 68, when a rifle he was handling on a feral hog hunt near Eldorado, south of San Angelo, fell and discharged. According to legacy.com, Fromholz’ funeral will be held at 2 p.m. this Friday at the Ft. McKavett Cemetery near San Angelo.
Born in Temple and educated at the University of North Texas in Denton, Fromholz became one of the founding fathers of Texas folk and country, performing everywhere from Houston’s Anderson Fair to Terlingua’s Starlight Theater in Big Bend, where he periodically worked as a raft guide on the Rio Grande. His long-out-of-print debut From Here to There, with Dan McCrimmon, laid the groundwork for a sound that would be built on by a subsequent generation of Texas songwriters including Lyle Lovett, who covered Fromholz’ “Bears” and “Texas Trilogy”—a three-part ode to the tiny town of Kopperl, Texas, in Bosque County, comprising “Daybreak,” “Train Ride” and “Bosque County Romance”—on 1998′s Step Inside This House album. Willie Nelson, John Denver, Hoyt Axton and Jerry Jeff Walker have also covered Fromholz’ songs.
“Texas Trilogy” was also the inspiration for a book, Texas Trilogy: Life in a Small Texas Town, by writer Craig D. Hillis and photographer Bruce F. Jordan, published by University of Texas Press in 2002 and excerpted in the Observer.
The songs alone are legacy enough to install him in the Texas canon, but Fromholz was an accomplished storyteller in multiple modes. He was named Texas’ Poet Laureate in 2007, the same year TCU Press published his New and Selected Poems.
2013 Texas Poet Laureate Rosemary Catacalos, a longtime San Antonio resident of Mexican and Greek heritage, makes frequent use of the Ariadne myth in her 1984 book, Again for the First Time, originally published in 1984 and recently reissued by San Antonio’s Wings Press in a 30th-anniversary edition.
Early voting for the March primaries will begin in just a month and, as usual, all eyes will be on top-ballot races with multiple viable candidates. But one far less noticeable Harris County vote may help answer a perennial political question: Does bad press make a difference in down-ballot races?
At issue is Denise Pratt, the judge for the 311th Family District Court. She faces four Republican challengers in the primary. And with good reason: She’s been mired in scandal since last October and a fresh round of allegations has just emerged. But unlike so many scandals, the accusations against Pratt have nothing to do with slush funds, tax fraud, or “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Rather, they’re about how she does her job, if she’s negligent, whether she broke the law to cover it up.
The Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, and even local conservative bloggers have reported the debacle diligently. Defenses and explanations offered by Pratt’s lawyer have ranged from weak to nonsensical. But should Pratt win the primary, she’s likely to keep her judgeship thanks to straight-ticket voting. So if persistent, apparently well earned bad press is going to make a difference, it’ll be on March 4th.
Here’s the Denise Pratt story, also known as How to Lose Friends and Alienate Lawyers.
Pratt started strong. An experienced family law attorney, she garnered a Chronicleendorsement and beat four other candidates in the 2010 primary without a runoff. Then she won election by 10 points. But for reasons unknown, Judge Pratt fell behind. She started issuing rulings long after their hearings and letting cases pile up that needed only a signature. In May of last year, the 14th Court of Appeals reprimanded Pratt for “unreasonable” delays and ordered her to rule on a case she’d heard 10 months before, which she did.
Then the intrigue began. In June 2013, just after the appeals court slapped Pratt’s wrist, a man whose divorce case Pratt heard three months earlier finally got his ruling. His hearing had been March 25th. The ruling was dated March 25th. But the man didn’t receive notice until June. This was, he said, despite contacting Pratt’s office repeatedly and being told he’d get the ruling as soon as it was ready.
Greg Enos, a local family law attorney, was suspicious. Enos suspected Pratt had gotten in trouble, fished out an overdue case and backdated the ruling. He wrote as much in his watchdog blog, “The Mongoose,” and asked other lawyers who suspected judicial shenanigans to contact him.
They did. When Enos filed a criminal complaint against Pratt in October, he cited six cases and alleged rampant backdating. In November, 32 Houston-area family law attorneys signed a letter calling for Pratt to step down. Then the Houston Bar Association’s biennial judicial evaluations savaged her. Seventy six percent of respondents said Pratt was “poor” at following the law; 81 percent said she was bad at issuing timely rulings; 83 percent reporting she wasted attorney time; and 79 percent rating her poor at working hard and being prepared. In all, 57 percent of respondents gave her the lowest of five possible overall ranks.
But Pratt wasn’t merely unpopular. Enos’ complaint sparked an investigation by the Harris County district clerk, during which Pratt’s lead clerk, a 25-year veteran, pleaded the Fifth and resigned. Pratt heard one case in January, issued a ruling in May, and dated the ruling a day before the two-day trial actually ended.
The district attorney empaneled a grand jury to investigate whether the judge tampered with court records. Though in December the grand jury declined to indict Pratt, visiting judges did grant eight lawyers’ requests to have her removed from their cases.
And her time on the un-fun side of the bench may not be over. On Thursday, Enos filed another complaint against Pratt, this time citing what the Chronicle adorably calls a “surprise docket purge” of more than 700 cases in a month.
For obvious reasons, if a judge schedules a hearing he or she has to give the affected lawyers notice. Failure to appear can be grounds for dismissal. But according to Enos and several other lawyers, Judge Pratt dismissed hundreds of cases without warning attorneys to show up. Most of the purged cases were signed on Dec. 30 and 31, when the district clerk’s office told the Chronicle no dismissal dockets were scheduled.
It’s hard to see how Pratt thought this would go well. Her lawyer, Terry Yates, has yet to pitch a convincing explanation for any apparent improprieties, though he’s made up for in quantity what his explanations lack in quality. Among the justifications offered are:
Lawyers didn’t receive notice because of the new electronic filing system in the District Clerk’s office, which that office’s spokesperson told the Chronicle “has nothing to do with the mailing of notices.”
Lawyers with dismissed cases have “just got to file a motion to reinstate…so it’s really no big deal,” Yates said to the Chronicle.
Purging cases at the end of the year is normal, though in December Pratt dismissed at least 561 and the eight other family court judges dismissed between 28 and 121.
Pratt has the most pending cases of any family court—more than 3,000—which Yates told the Chronicle is “really a legislative issue to get more family courts here so the dockets are manageable.”
And of course, no litany of excuses would be complete without this old chestnut: The accusations against Pratt are, according to her email to GOP precinct chairs, all “rumors that are being spread by the Democrats and the liberal media.”
Even if all the criminal and more moustache-twirling allegations against Pratt are untrue, there’s no question that she issues tardy rulings, lets cases pile up, and is held in abysmal esteem by the lawyers with whom she works. All indicators suggest, in short, that she does a bad job. She’s also not a seasoned incumbent letting things slide; this is her first term. And she’s drawn four challengers in the primary.
One would think all this would doom her, but besides incumbency she has one advantage: While the local conservative press has turned against her, the Republican Party hasn’t withdrawn its endorsement. Thus, Pratt’s primary pits the media against the establishment.
It’s not Chris Christie-level drama, but for the hundreds of Houstonians whose divorces and child visitation rights hang in the balance, the quality of a single judge matters very much indeed. The question is, come March 4th, will that matter to the voters?