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Posted: Apr 15, 2014 11:01 AM

Updated: Apr 15, 2014 11:01 AM

The Dallas Morning News. April 12, 2014.

Good and bad news in effort to upgrade criminal justice

There's good news and bad news in the category of getting it right on Texas criminal justice.

Attorney General Greg Abbott has made a good call in upholding State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy's authority to take a retroactive look at suspect arson cases. The AG's opinion neutralizes a challenge from a West Texas district attorney who would have rolled back progress on rooting out junk science from criminal courts.

That progress goes back to the creation of the Texas Forensic Science Commission in 2005 the first of its kind in the nation and its message six years later, in the Cameron Todd Willingham case, that arson science in Texas needed an overhaul. The commission cited a "duty to correct" where investigators had reached the wrong conclusions based on outmoded or shoddy work.

Responding to that challenge, Connealy's office worked with the Innocence Project of Texas to identify suspect arson-murder cases, and he convened a special panel of experts to review them. The upshot was a series of nine reports to the district attorneys involved; in four, Connealy said original arson findings were unsupportable and should be changed to "undetermined."

One of those was the 1993 conviction of Sonia Cacy of Fort Stockton in the death of her uncle. Connealy informed DA Rod Ponton in August that there was no clear evidence of a set fire or death from smoke inhalation. More likely, he said, the uncle died of heart problems.

Ponton's response was to try to muzzle the messenger by challenging the legality of Connealy's initiative. It's a good thing his arguments fell short. Texas courts should represent a search for the truth, not a denial of information that's inconvenient to the prosecution theory.

The push to upgrade arson science traces back to Willingham's arson-murder conviction and his 2004 execution for the deaths of his three daughters in Corsicana. A complaint about the forensics used to prosecute him was the first case the Forensic Science Commission took up in its watchdog role.

Despite static kicked up by Gov. Rick Perry, the panel's review included scathing critiques of the arson work that put Willingham on death row. Did Texas execute an innocent man? That wasn't before the commission to address, and it remains an open question.

It was a question put to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles by the Innocence Project of New York last year, in a request for a posthumous pardon for Willingham. The board's recent rejection of the request was a blown opportunity.

Short of weighing the evidence anew, the board at least should examine its own conduct from 2004 as a court of last resort before Willingham died.

Did the governor's appointed board properly weigh experts' reports that arson work in the case reeked? Were there enough red flags to recommend a reprieve to the governor?

Too bad the board has ducked those questions. The governor may never know if he was well-served. And Texans may never be assured whether breakdowns might happen again.

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Houston Chronicle. April 12, 2014.

Step down, please: A report of Wallace Hall's actions as UT regent shows that it's time for him to go

Embattled University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall said early last week he had not had time to read the report prepared by the special counsel to the legislative committee that has been investigating whether his behavior represents grounds for impeachment. Although he's no doubt read the report by now, it's easy to understand any reluctance he might feel to plunge right in: The report is a searing indictment of an out-of-control appointee who not only behaved improperly but also may have violated the law.

Whether Hall's actions as regent constitute grounds for impeachment, the House of Representatives will have to decide, although we hope it doesn't come to that. In light of the report, we urge Gov. Rick Perry to demand Hall's resignation, thus saving the state the spectacle of impeachment. No gubernatorial appointee has ever been impeached in Texas history.

The report was compiled by a team led by Houston attorney Rusty Hardin, which reviewed more than 150,000 pages of documents and listened to dozens of hours of interviews and testimony before the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations. Hardin explained in a letter to co-chairs Dan Flynn, R-Van, and Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, that instead of dictating what the committee should do, he and his team "confined themselves to setting out what conduct we discovered and whether or not it would legally and factually support impeachment should the committee choose that as its recommendation to the full House of Representatives."

In its report, the Hardin group concluded that Hall could be impeached for actions that "violated, and continue to violate, the Texas Education Code, the Texas Penal Code, the Board of Regents Rules and Regulations and the best interests of the University of Texas System."

Hall's blunderbuss approach to oversight, as the Hardin report documents, included his "unreasonable and burdensome requests for records and information from UT-Austin," requests that continued even after committee hearings explored whether they were appropriate. The committee also expressed concern about Hall's treatment of UT-Austin President William Powers, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and UT-Austin chief financial officer Kevin Hegarty.

The report compares Hall, appointed by Perry in 2011, to "a roving inspector general in search of a problem rather than a solution."

Although Hardin described the findings as "extremely troubling," he noted that it was up to the House committee to decide how to proceed. "It is our view that we hope the committee does something to try to curb this conduct," he told the Texas Tribune.

(We should note that impeachment is not synonymous with removal from office; it's more akin to a trial. If a majority of the members of the House of Representatives approve impeachment, then the Senate would convene as a court to pass judgment.)

Meanwhile, the UT Board of Regents faces an immediate and extremely important task: choosing a successor to Chancellor Cigarroa (whose decision to leave was no doubt influenced by Hall's actions.) It's hard to imagine this regent playing a constructive role in that process. That's reason enough for him to leave.

The Hardin committee has laid out plenty of other reasons for Hall's immediate departure. If Wallace Hall truly has the interests of UT-Austin and the UT System at heart, he won't wait for impeachment.

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San Antonio Express-News. April 14, 2014.

A trumped up controversy

The State Board of Education ducked a vote to adopt a stand-alone Mexican-American studies course for high school students. It opted on a call to publishers for instructional materials on other groups as well.

This has merit, but the issue of a stand-alone course shouldn't have been even a bit controversial. The board should have asked itself three questions.

Does the existing curriculum for high school students give proper attention to the contributions of Mexican-Americans in Texas and the United States? No.

In the realm of electives that also includes floral design, is an elective Mexican-American studies course unreasonable. No.

Is there value with lower academic achievement and other challenges present for Latino students and others to learn with some depth about this culture? Yes.

The real fear here is that these courses will radicalize Texas students.

No, done properly, these courses will simply give an unvarnished view of history and the roots of contemporary dilemma. It would, in other words, be educational, telling people things they didn't know things that might even inspire.

And let's get rid of the trope that says one can't have pride in specific culture and not be American.

Texas should have long ago been teaching about all major groups. But learning about the soon-to-be majority in Texas should've been a no-brainer.

Districts have had the option of teaching this but generally haven't. Board action would have provided incentive.

But, then, a board that manufactures controversy where there should be none is an old story.

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Austin American-Statesman. April 10, 2014.

Investigation into Perry veto is on the right track

Back in June 2013, we objected to Gov. Rick Perry's threat to bar funds for the Public Integrity Unit from the state budget unless Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg resigned. At the time, we called his threat political blackmail.

After months of looking into the matter, it appears investigators may not think too differently. At least, they have signaled significant apprehension about the case.

In a recent joint interview with the American-Statesman and Austin television station KVUE, the special prosecutor assigned to the investigation, Michael McCrum, stopped short of saying he thinks a crime was committed but made it very clear that Perry's actions in the case give reason to doubt.

"I cannot elaborate on what exactly is concerning me, but I can tell you I am very concerned about certain aspects of what happened here," said McCrum, a San Antonio attorney. He confirmed that the investigation was taking a close look at both Perry's threat and the veto he carried out.

Asked if his concerns pointed specifically at Perry or his staff, McCrum said, "Yes."

We support the seriousness with which McCrum appears to have taken the investigation.

In April 2013, Lehmberg was arrested by Travis County sheriff's deputies responding to a report of a Lexus sedan driving dangerously and crossing into the opposite lane of traffic. Deputies reported finding an open bottle of vodka on the passenger seat of the vehicle, which was Lehmberg's car. Her blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit for driving. Footage from dashboard cameras and jailhouse video showed Lehmberg acting inappropriately.

After the incident, Lehmberg quickly held herself accountable and apologized for her behavior. She then pleaded guilty to drunken driving and was sentenced to 45 days in jail, fined $4,000 and had her license revoked for 180 days. After being released from jail, she entered a treatment program.

After the arrest, we asked that Lehmberg's step down. That would have been the right thing to do.

Lehmberg's decision to drive drunk tarnished her credibility and the credibility of her office. With a resignation, Perry would have had the power to appoint a replacement, a move that would not have been permanent. Travis County voters, who have historically backed Democratic candidates, would have had their say on Perry's appointment in a short 18 months. But that's not how things played out.

Instead, Lehmberg refused to step down, leaving Perry to play a much heavier hand with a very questionable ultimatum. The governor took it upon himself to handicap Lehmberg's agency, which is charged with the important task of pursuing state ethics violations.

Perry insisted that the people of Texas could no longer trust Lehmberg.

He is entitled to his opinion, but two wrongs don't make it right.

His decision to withhold funds was troublesome for a couple of reasons. For starters, though a Perry veto would not take away the unit's authority to investigate official wrongdoing, it would cripple it.

The Travis County district attorney's office is the most powerful in the state because the Public Integrity Unit is charged with policing the ethics of legislators and other state officeholders. The unit had 35 employees, and the state funding paid their salaries. It was scheduled to receive $7.5 million from the state during the 2014-15 fiscal years.

Perry's veto changed all that.

Without the scheduled money, Travis County had to step up to help fund the unit. County commissioners voted in August to give about $1.7 million to the office, allowing Lehmberg to keep 15 employees. It is also reported that Lehmberg used $730,000 in money from forfeited property to keep about eight employees. Others sought jobs outside the agency, retired or were transferred within the district attorney's office. Two employees were laid off.

The governor's decision is also troubling because of what preceded the veto: a direct threat to veto funds.

It was this decision by Perry that led Texans for Public Justice, a government watchdog group, to file a complaint that helped launched the investigation. Fortunately, it is because of the investigation that a specially appointed judge seated a new grand jury Monday.

What remains to be seen is how deep the investigation will be taken.

"My responsibility is to the citizens of Travis County, to the citizens of the state of Texas and to the people who lost their jobs at the Travis County district attorney's office as a result of this veto," McCrum said.

We couldn't agree more.

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Waco Tribune-Herald. April 10, 2014.

Old idea of gutting property taxes sounds terrific but would create new problems

One lesson immediately suggests itself in the ongoing dust-up between Republican and Democratic candidates for state comptroller: You should exercise care about rhetoric geared to gain applause or approval from a select group of voters; it may come back to haunt you. That situation has been dogging Republican state comptroller candidate Glenn Hegar ever since he told a tea party audience that he favors elimination of property taxes and simply hiking the sales tax.

Result: Democratic opponent Mike Collier has been getting unexpected traction by demonstrating that, to replace the nearly $45 billion raised for cities, counties and schools through property taxes, you'd have to raise the common state and local sales tax of 8.25 percent (which produces about $28 billion statewide) to somewhere between 20 and 25 percent. That means if you buy a $100 suit, you could pay $25 in taxes. Ouch!

This proposal also has the potential of usurping the once-cherished concept of local control, since property taxes are set and collected locally. Even if structured to retain local control, a small town out in dusty West Texas likely would not raise enough in sales taxes to sufficiently pay for law enforcement or to fix roads or to run the community college. And how would a hefty sales tax impact consumerism, a delicate component in this anemic economy?

We understand why Hegar raised the idea. Besides the fact such rhetoric is a surefire crowd-pleaser for politicians, most of us hate property taxes. Even when cities, counties and school districts keep tax rates steady, we can still pay more because a property's value may increase if, say, you live in a particularly coveted neighborhood (or even if you don't). And the idea of a sales tax is appealing because most of us assume we can control the amount we pay by controlling our spending.

Then again, given the complications that phasing out property taxes would create for local governmental entities, the solution might be worse than the problem. Considering that state lawmakers have been unable to come up with an adequate way to fund public schools, one wonders if they'd really be foolish enough to further complicate matters for city councils, school and community college boards, commissioners courts and themselves.

Yes, talk of gutting property taxes and hiking sales taxes offers a good applause line (and Hegar is hardly the only candidate to raise this musty idea). But at this point, Texans should content themselves with the fact they pay no state income tax and instead press local government to cut spending when possible. Meanwhile, state officials should butt out of local government's business. Leave that pickle to the local voters.

Topics: Texas Editorial Roundup

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