Dallas County Fights Texas AG on Incident Reports

December 29, 2016
By David Lee

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Dallas County claims in court that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was wrong when he said the county’s sheriff must disclose death and accident reports about an unarmed man who died in the county jail’s lobby last year.

Dallas County sued Paxton in Travis County District Court on Tuesday, disputing his ruling on a Texas Public Information Act request filed by Dallas attorney Scott Palmer in September. Palmer represents the estate of Joseph Hutcheson.

Hutcheson, a white man from Arlington, allegedly parked his truck outside of the jail on the morning of Aug. 1, 2015, and ran inside, yelling that his wife was trying to kill him. Officials said he was handcuffed to calm him down and prevent him from being a threat to others or himself.

Hutcheson can be seen on video flailing his legs on the ground before going limp, resulting in deputies performing CPR. He died shortly thereafter.

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez placed at least six deputies on restricted duty after Hutcheson’s death. A grand jury declined in June to indict four of the deputies involved.

Dallas County asked Paxton to weigh in on Palmer’s open-records request that asks for the complete criminal investigation file, all video footage of the incident and all recorded statements or interviews, among other records. It says Palmer is seeking discovery for a possible civil-rights lawsuit against the county.

Paxton responded on Dec. 16 that certain information can be denied because a litigation exception under state law applies. He said Palmer had previously sent Valdez a letter stating he had been hired “to pursue a possible civil rights violation claim” for excessive force.

On the other hand, Paxton ruled the county must disclose the custodial death report, the accident report and completed investigations and evaluations relating to the incident.

The county argues in its Dec. 27 lawsuit that all of the records requested are protected by the litigation exception.

“It is undisputed that the requestor is seeking the Sheriff Department’s investigative files, personnel files, and standard operating procedures for the sole purpose of filing suit against Dallas County,” the 12-page complaint states. “The letter ruling accepts that the litigation exception applies yet ordered the Sheriff’s Department to turn over the entirety of their file to the requestor to prepare for filing suit against Dallas County.”

The county also argues that the information in the investigation file that did not result in a criminal conviction is confidential and cannot be disclosed under the law.

“Dallas County may at any time raise an exception based on a requirement of federal law or one involving the property or privacy interests of another person,” the complaint states.

Dallas County seeks a declaratory judgment that it does not have to comply with Palmer’s records request. It is represented by Assistant District Attorney Tammy J. Ardole.

From Courthouse News.

Oklahoma Attorney Gets 14 Years for Sex-Abuse Charges

December 21, 2016
By David Lee

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) – An Oklahoma City attorney was sentenced Wednesday to 14 years in federal prison for traveling to Peru to have sex with an underage girl.

Michael Dean Billings, 61, previously admitted to flying to Iquitos, Peru, from January 2011 to February 2013 to have sex with a Peruvian girl under the age of 18.

Billings was indicted in October 2014 on three charges: conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of children, conspiracy to travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual contact and conspiracy to engage in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places.

Prosecutors said Billings and others “conspired to commit sex trafficking of children by recruiting and obtaining children in Peru to engage in commercial sex acts,” and conspired to travel from Oklahoma City to Iquitos, Peru, for that purpose.

“Billings and others known and unknown to the grand jury, conspired and agreed with each other to knowingly, in and affecting interstate and foreign commerce, recruit, entice, harbor, transport, provide, obtain and maintain by any means [victims] knowing and in reckless disregard of the fact that force, threats of force, fraud and coercion … that the victims had not attained the age of 18 years and would be caused to engage in commercial sex acts,” the indictment stated.

Billings pleaded guilty in November 2015. He was sentenced Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange, according to Western Oklahoma U.S. Attorney Mark A. Yancey.

He had faced up to 30 years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine and registration as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

From Courthouse News.

Texas Says ABA Anti-Bias Rule Won’t Hold Up

December 21, 2016
By David Lee

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – A new American Bar Association rule that bars attorneys from committing gender discrimination will likely not survive a court challenge because it is overbroad, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Tuesday.

In a nonbinding advisory opinion, Paxton said the August changes to the ABA’s Model Ethics of Professional Conduct Rules infringe on the free speech rights of State Bar members.

The rule deems it professional misconduct for a lawyer to “engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of … sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or socioeconomic status in conduct” relating to practicing law.

“The Framers of the United States Constitution fashioned the constitutional safeguard of free speech to assure the ‘unfettered interchange of ideas’ for bringing about ‘political and social changes desired by the people,’” Paxton’s eight-page opinion states. “Contrary to these basic free speech principles, Model Rule 8.4(g) would severely restrict attorneys’ ability to engage in meaningful debate on a range of important social and political issues.”

State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, asked for Paxton’s opinion in September. Perry said the rule change “has caused fear in attorneys all over Texas who have faith in God.”

Perry asked whether lawyers could be disciplined or disbarred for “challenging the merits of same-sex marriage” during a legal education class, or for “being part of a legal association that holds religious beliefs that marriage is between one man and one woman and that a person’s gender is fixed at birth.”

Paxton notes the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that attorneys’ free speech rights are somewhat restricted in the courtroom and outside the courtroom when speaking about a pending case. But the rule change “extends far beyond the context of a judicial proceeding to restrict speech or conduct in any instance when it is ‘related to the practice of law,’” he writes.

The new rule could also restrict an attorney’s religious liberty and prevent him or her from zealously representing faith-based groups, Paxton said.

“If an individual takes an action based on a sincerely-held religious belief and is sued for doing so, an attorney may be unwilling to represent that client in court for fear of being accused of discrimination under the rule,” the opinion states.

Linda A. Klein, president of the ABA, said Paxton misinterpreted the new anti-discrimination rule.

“This proposed rule expressly states that it in no way infringes on free speech or the ability of an attorney to zealously defend any client (or choose not to defend a client) based on the client’s beliefs,” Klein said in a statement. “This proposed rule exemplifies the ABA’s strong policy that there is no place in the practice of law for discrimination or harassment.” (Parentheses in original.)

From Courthouse News.

Judge Helps Reporter in Twitter Assault Case

December 21, 2016
By David Lee

DALLAS (CN) — A Texas judge has ordered Twitter to cooperate with an epileptic Newsweek reporter who’s trying to identify an online troll who sent him a strobe light image that induced a seizure.

Dallas County Judge Bonnie Goldstein on Monday ruled that Newsweek senior writer Kurt Eichenwald, 55, of Dallas, can serve a deposition of written questions on Twitter, seeking the identity of @jew_goldstein or anyone else who may be responsible for assault. The order came hours after Eichenwald filed a petition for presuit deposition of the social media company.

“Doe sent this image with the intent of causing a seizure, as evidences by the words Doe typed onto the strobe, ‘You deserve a seizure for your posts,’” the petition states. “Doe succeeded in his efforts to use Twitter as a means of committing assault, causing petitioner to have a seizure which led to personal injury.”

Eichenwald tweeted on Tuesday that he has filed a criminal complaint on Monday with Dallas police. He said other Twitter users are sending him strobe images, and he intends to get their accounts canceled.

“How have so many ppl become such sociopaths that they think it is ok to assault someone if they write political stories they don’t like?” Eichenwald tweeted.

“Look at how many Trump followers seem to think its funny or deserved that someone used my disability as a weapon. Whats wrong with them?”

From Courthouse News.

‘Wealth Manager’ Arrested in Texas

December 21, 2016
By David Lee

DALLAS (CN) — Former radio talk show host and wealth manager Bobby Guess was arrested Monday on charges he raised $6 million in a Ponzi scheme behind an online advertising company, the Texas State Securities Board said.

Guess, 65, of Frisco, was in Collin County jail Tuesday afternoon, on $500,000 bond. He formerly hosted the “Dollars & Sense” radio show in Dallas.

He was indicted on Dec. 15 by a Collin County grand jury, charged with securities fraud, theft, money laundering and engaging in organized criminal activity in raising money for StaMedia.

More than 60 investors gave money to Guess beginning in November 2014, the indictment states. The Securities Board says he failed to disclose federal investigations into his business and failed to disclose that StaMedia had negligible revenue and net income since it was founded in 2013.

The indictment lists 61 “appropriations,” from November 2014 until August this year, in amounts ranging from $24,500 to $567,000. Only 11 of the appropriations were less than $50,000. The appropriations were made “without the effective consent” of the investors, or were “induced by deception,” the indictment states.

“The indictments allege Guess perpetuated a Ponzi scheme in raising money for investments in two separate companies,” the Securities Board said in a statement Tuesday.

“Investor funds raised through Guess were allegedly used to repay previous investors in StaMedia the returns they were promised. Guess also failed to disclose that funds raised from investors in StaMedia were used to repay investors in TenList Inc., a Frisco-based company owned by two Guess associates, Timothy Booth and Shawn Sandifer,” the Securities Board said.

The Securities Board in August ordered Guess and his company, Texas First Financial, to cease and desist selling unregistered securities, and said Guess was an unregistered securities dealer.

Guess wrote the 2014 book, “Robbed with a Pen Again: a Guide to Protecting Your Assets.”  The Texas First Financial website, checked Monday, was still touting the book.

“I will show you how you can keep yourself from being scammed by financial predators and reveal some of the latest ways the industry and agents attempt to deceive you with high commission products,” the website stated. “Just pay shipping and handling.”

Guess has had a rough week. One day after his indictment, the SEC filed for a Rule 45 subpoena of Guess in Fort Worth Federal Court, relating to a civil lawsuit in the Northern District of Georgia.

The SEC said he was an owner and vice president of Georgia-based Credit Nation when the agency sued it in 2015 on similar Ponzi allegations.

The SEC said that “Guess represented the investment [in Credit Nation Capital] was ‘backed by hard assets dollar for dollar’ when in truth and fact the company’s liabilities dwarfed its assets and the company sustained multimillion-dollar per year operating losses,” according to the Securities Board order.

Frisco is part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, directly north of Dallas.

From Courthouse News.

Energy Firm Settles Whistleblower Case for $1.4M

December 20, 2016
By David Lee

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) – SandRidge Energy settled claims it used illegal separation agreements and retaliated against a whistleblower who shared worries about how publicly reported oil reserves were being calculated, the government said Tuesday.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission says the Oklahoma City-based oil and gas firm agreed to pay $1.4 million in penalties, subject to the company’s bankruptcy plans. SandRidge does not admit or deny the agency’s findings under the terms of the settlement.

The SEC says SandRidge used “overly prohibitive provisions” in separation agreements while under active commission investigation. It alleges the company conducted several reviews of separation agreements after a new whistleblower protection rule became effective in August 2011.

“While, as a general matter, the commission is unable to determine if former officers or employees did not report to or communicate with the commission because of the violative provisions, these provisions expressly limited an employee’s ability to communicate possible securities law violations with any government agency,” according to an eight-page order instituting cease-and desist proceedings.

The SEC claims the unnamed whistleblower expressed concern in December 2014 that a draft report describing an internal audit had “missed the primary risks and problems associated with the entire reserves process.” The agency says the whistleblower was fired in retaliation.

“The employee had been offered a promotion, which was turned down,” the SEC said in a press release Tuesday. “Just months later, senior management concluded the employee was disruptive and could be replaced with someone ‘who could do the work without creating all the internal strife.’ The company had conducted no substantial investigation of the whistleblower’s concerns and only initiated an internal audit that was never completed. The employee’s separation agreement also contained the company’s prohibitive language that violated the whistleblower protection rule.”

SandRidge spokesman David A. Kimmel said the company has cooperated with the SEC during the investigation and is “pleased” to resolve the case.

“While the company will not comment on the underlying facts of the investigation, we note that, under the company’s plan of reorganization, the fine will be satisfied by a payment to the SEC of approximately $100,000,” he said Tuesday.

From Courthouse News.

Baylor Employee Blames Law Firm for His Firing

December 20, 2016
By David Lee

WACO, Texas (CN) — A former Baylor University athletics employee sued the Pepper Hamilton law firm, claiming he was fired as “collateral damage” after the firm’s nine-month investigation of school leaders’ bungled handling of reports of sexual assaults.

Tom Hill sued the Philadelphia-based law firm and its partners Gina Maisto Smith and Leslie M. Gomez in McLennan County Court on Dec. 13, alleging defamation and negligence.

Baylor’s Board of Regents ordered the external review last year as rape accusations mounted against football players. In May this year, the regents said the review revealed a “fundamental failure” to comply with Title IX.

The regents said Pepper Hamilton found “specific failings within both the football program and Athletics Department leadership,” including that they failed to respond to one football player’s “pattern of sexual violence” and dating violence.

“There are significant concerns about the tone and culture within Baylor’s football program as it relates to accountability for all forms of student athlete misconduct,” the Board of Regents said at the time.

As a result of the findings, Ken Starr was quickly removed as school president. He later resigned as school chancellor and from the law school faculty. Head football coach Art Briles was suspended with intent to terminate. Athletic Director Ian McCaw was sanctioned and placed on probation. He later resigned, as well.

Hill claims Pepper Hamilton failed to interview or interrogate several important witnesses during the investigation, and that it failed to perform its duties “objectively” or with “an open mind.”

“Defendants did not give an appropriate, accurate, complete, and unbiased report of all facts necessary for the university to properly understand the true nature of any potentially inappropriate culture or social environment at the university,” the 3-page complaint states. “As a direct result of the negligence of the defendants in carrying out their contractual obligations, serious collateral damage was done to several university employees, including plaintiff.”

He claims he was “slandered and libeled by [the] defendants.”

Hill worked at the athletics department for 28 years and says he was an “effective, loyal and crucially important” employee, with an “impeccable performance record.”

According to his profile, still on the Baylor Bears website, Hill worked as a graduate assistant, compliance director, assistant track coach and assistant athletic director.

Pepper Hamilton said in a statement that the lawsuit “has no merit” and that it “will vigorously defend” itself.

Hill is seeking actual damages of $60,000 in lost wages. He is represented by Don Riddle in Houston.

After facing harsh criticism for not releasing all of Pepper Hamilton’s findings or a final report, regents in November disclosed a report of “horrifying and painful” gang rapes allegedly committed by football players.

The gang rape report involved Trevon Armstead and Shamycheal Chatman, according to “60 Minutes Sports.” Neither football player has faced criminal charges. Armstead went on to play the 2014 season before being kicked off the team. Chatman later transferred to Sam Houston State University.

Only two Baylor football players have been convicted of sexual assault. Tevin Elliott was sentenced in January 2014 to 20 years in state prison on each of two counts of sexual assault. Sam Ukwuashu was sentenced in August 2015 to 180 days in county jail, 10 years of probation and 400 hours of community service on one count of sexual assault.

From Courthouse News.