School Says Texas A.G. Is Grandstanding on Muslims

March 20, 2017
By David Lee

FRISCO, Texas (CN) – A suburban Dallas school district slammed Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Friday, calling his warning about the legality of a high school prayer room used by Muslims a “publicity stunt” meant to “politicize a nonissue.”

Frisco Independent School District Superintendent Jeremy Lyon questioned the sincerity of a letter Paxton’s office sent him. It asks for information about a room mostly used by Muslim students at Liberty High School, and clarity “in the interest of protecting religious liberty” in Texas public schools.

“Reports from Liberty’s news site indicates that the prayer room is not available to students of all faiths,” Paxton’s letter states. “Instead, it appears that the prayer room is ‘dedicated to the religious needs of some students’ – namely, those who practice Islam. It is unclear whether students of other faiths may use the room at the same time or at other times during the week. Liberty High School’s policy should be neutral toward religion.”

In response, Lyon expressed confusion after Paxton’s acknowledgement that the school district is complying with state and federal laws and laws on freedom of religion.

“However, your letter to me begins by indicating it was written following an ‘initial inquiry’ that ‘left several questions unresolved.’ What initial inquiry are you referring to?” Lyon’s 2-page letter states. “To Frisco ISD’s knowledge, it has not received any inquiry from the OAG [Office of the Attorney General] on this issue. Frisco ISD requests documentation of any and all efforts by the OAG to contact the District prior to your office issuing its ‘Press Release’ to the media.”

Lyon said he learned about Paxton’s letter through the media on Friday. He told Paxton the district is in compliance with the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires it not to “substantially burden” a person’s free exercise of religion unless the burden is “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”

“Recent quotes from the OAG’s office indicate the OAG firmly supports the Act and its enforcement,” Lyon wrote. “The letter from your office ignores the District’s obligations in this regard. Confusingly, however, the OAG’s office applauds the Frisco ISD’s ‘willingness to guarantee the freedom of student-led religious groups’ which is exactly what is required under the Act.”

Lyon notes that an interview with Liberty High School Principal Scott Warstler that Paxton cites in his letter stated there have been no issues with the room for more than seven years.

“It is important to note Frisco ISD is greatly concerned that this type of inflammatory rhetoric in the current climate may place the District, its students, staff, parents and community in danger of unnecessary disruption,” Lyon wrote.

Paxton’s concerns also were disputed by Frisco ISD spokesman Chris Moore, who told The Dallas Morning News on Friday that the prayer room is open to all students and the district welcomes an open discussion about the room.

Liberty provided an empty classroom for Muslim students who previously had to miss hours of school each week and pray at the mosque several miles away.

Frisco is about 30 miles north of downtown Dallas.

From Courthouse News.

Marylander Arrested for Tweet That Caused Seizure

March 17, 2017
By David Lee

DALLAS (CN) – A Maryland man accused of tweeting an image of a strobe light to epileptic Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald and inducing a seizure was arrested Friday, Eichenwald’s lawyer said.

Attorney Steven Lieberman identified the man as John Rivello. Federal prosecutors confirmed several hours later that Rivello, 29, was arrested after being indicted on cyberstalking charges in Dallas federal court.

“What Mr. Rivello did with his Twitter message was no different from someone sending a bomb in the mail or sending an envelope filled with Anthrax spores,” Lieberman said in a statement. “It wasn’t the content of the communication that was intended to persuade somebody or make them feel badly about themselves; this was an electronic communication that was designed to have a physical effect.”

Eichenwald, 55, of Dallas, sought a presuit deposition of Twitter in Dallas County District Court in December, days after the online attack. He wanted to learn the identity of Twitter user @jew_goldstein, an account that has since been suspended.

“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 six-page petition stated. “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.”

A trial judge granted Eichewald’s request to depose Twitter within days.

Federal prosecutors say they executed a search warrant and found direct messages from Rivello’s alleged Twitter account that stated, “I hope this sends him into a seizure,” “Spammed this at [victim] let’s see if he dies,” and “I know he has epilepsy.”

“Additional evidence received pursuant to a search warrant showed Rivello’s iCloud account contained a screenshot of a Wikipedia page for the victim, which had been altered to show a fake obituary with the date of death listed as Dec. 16, 2016,” prosecutors said in a statement. “Rivello’s iCloud account also contained screen shots from epilepsy.com with a list of commonly reported epilepsy seizure triggers and from dallasobserver.com discussing the victim’s report to the Dallas Police Department and his attempt to identify the Twitter user.”

Eichenwald tweeted Friday his thanks to Dallas police, Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson, U.S. Attorney General for the Northern District of Texas John Parker, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security for their help in the three month investigation.

“Identifying information about every person who sent me strobes after finding out about the assault is currently in the hands of the FBI,” Eichenwald tweeted. “More than 40 ppl sent strobes once they found out they could trigger seizures … Stop sending them.”

Lieberman declined to say how he learned of Rivello’s identity.

“We’re very gratified that the government has worked hard and promptly to make sure that the person who was responsible for this attack is held to account,” Lieberman told Newsweek. “It sends an important message that there is no free shot against journalists in the country.”

From Courthouse News.

Texas AG Warns School About Muslim Prayer Room

March 17, 2017
By David Lee

FRISCO, Texas (CN) – Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton warned a suburban Dallas school district Friday that its prayer room for Muslim students may violate other students’ religious liberty.

Paxton wrote a letter to Frisco Independent School District Superintendent Jeremy Lyon, seeking more information on the room at Liberty High School and clarity “in the interest of protecting religious liberty” in Texas public schools. Frisco is located about 30 miles north of downtown Dallas.

“Reports from Liberty’s news site indicates that the prayer room is not available to students of all faiths,” Paxton’s two-page letter states. “Instead, it appears that the prayer room is ‘dedicated to the religious needs of some students’ – namely, those who practice Islam. It is unclear whether students of other faiths may use the room at the same time or at other times during the week. Liberty High School’s policy should be neutral toward religion.” (Emphasis in original.)

Paxton said the practice of treating students of different religious beliefs differently is “irreconcilable” with the country’s “enduring commitment” to religious liberty, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent under the Establishment Clause that no religion can be officially preferred over another.

School district spokesman Chris Moore told The Dallas Morning News the prayer room is open to all students and the district welcomes an open discussion about the room. Moore said his call to Paxton’s office had yet to be returned.

Liberty provided an empty classroom for Muslim students who previously had to miss hours of school each week to pray at a mosque several miles away.

On the school’s news site cited by Paxton, Liberty High School Principal Scott Warstler explains he allotted the room after meeting with affected students and their parents so they would not miss several hours of class on Fridays, the most important day of the week for Muslims.

“The trademark of what makes Liberty High so great is our diversity and how our students respond to the different cultures and the diversity on campus,” he said in a video posted on YouTube. “This is the seventh year we have been doing this and we have never had one issue. We have other religious groups that meet before or after school. As long as it is student-led, the school stays out of it.”

From Courthouse News.

Oklahoma Senator Surrenders on Child Sex Charges

March 16, 2017
By David Lee

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) – A suspended Republican Oklahoma state senator turned himself in Thursday after being indicted on felony child prostitution charges and stripped of his authority.

State Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City, has been out of the public eye since he was found by police on March 9 in the suburb of Moore with a 17-year-old boy at a hotel.

Dressed in a black suit and light blue tie, Shortey surrendered at the Cleveland County Jail in Norman, one day after being charged with one count of engaging in child prostitution, one count of engaging in prostitution within 1,000 feet of a church, and one count of transporting a minor for prostitution. All three charges are felonies. His bail was set at $100,000.

Shorty offered teenager J.M. “money in exchange for sexual contact” within 1,000 feet of First Christian Church, the criminal information charging document states.

Police say the encounter was preceded by the boy sending Shortey an online message stating he needed money for spring break.

“The defendant replied, ‘I don’t really have any legitimate things I need help with right now. Would you be interested in ‘sexual’ stuff?’” a sworn affidavit states. “JM responded ‘Yes.’ The conversation goes on with both discussing logistics and how and where JM and the defendant are going to meet. JM tells the defendant ‘Hey keep updated cause I want you bad daddy.’ The defendant responds, ‘I’m gonna fuck you like a good little boy if you keep calling me daddy.’ The message included a smiley face emoji after boy.”

Police say they found a box of condoms on Shortey’s backpack and a bottle of lotion in the teenager’s backpack.

The boy allegedly said he had met Shortey on a Craigslist personal encounter listing and that they have known each other for one year. Police say a “strong odor of marijuana” came from the hotel room and they found a green plastic container labeled “Colorado Retail Marijuana.”

Shortey could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Fellow Oklahoma lawmakers swiftly condemned Shortey after the charges were announced. Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb said Shortey needed to resign “so the good people of southwest Oklahoma can move forward” with electing a replacement.

“Oklahomans deserve to be represented by those above reproach,” Lamb said in a statement. “Ralph Shortey has clearly failed to achieve this minimum standard and had rightfully lost his Senate privileges.”

Shortey was charged hours after he was stripped of his powers by the Oklahoma Senate on Wednesday. In a 43-0 vote, senators approved a resolution accusing Shortey of “disorderly behavior.”

The resolution removed Shortey from committees and kicked him out of his Capitol office and parking space. He will continue to receive his $38,400 annual salary, but his executive assistant was reassigned. His expense allowances were also revoked and he is blocked from authoring new bills.

If Shortey refuses to resign, it is likely the Senate will move for his removal from office, which requires a minimum of 32 votes.

From Courthouse News.

Oklahoma Senate Strips Member of His Powers

March 16, 2017
By David Lee

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) – The Oklahoma Senate stripped a state senator of his powers Wednesday as police investigate why he was found in a hotel room with a teenage boy last week.

By 43-0 vote, senators approved a resolution accusing Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City, of “disorderly behavior.” No charges have been filed against Shortey.

Co-sponsored by 44 of the Senate’s 48 members, the resolution removes Shortey from Senate committees and kicks him out of his Capitol office and parking space. He will continue to receive his $38,400 annual salary, but will no longer have an executive assistant or any expense allowances. He is also blocked from writing new bills.

Shortey could not be reached for comment Wednesday. He was not present for the vote. Police in the suburb of Moore are investigating the March 9 incident, in which they say they responded to a welfare check request at a hotel when they found Shortley with the boy.

Senate President Pro Tem Mike Schulz, R-Altus, who wrote the resolution, said it was not intended to be a “presumption of guilt or innocence.”

“The Oklahoma Senate has full faith that the judicial system will play out appropriately and bring this matter to a lawful conclusion,” Schulz said in a statement in lieu of his weekly meeting with reporters. “This resolution reserves the right of the Oklahoma Senate to pursue further action if more facts come to light.”

If charged or convicted, the Senate could move to remove Shortey from office with a minimum of 32 votes.

The Oklahoma Republican Party distanced itself from Shortey.

“No person, particularly a child, should be subjected to sex crimes,” party Chairwoman Pam Pollard said in a statement. “While we believe in the right to a fair trial and that all people deserve their day in court, the accusations against Ralph Shortey are in no way in line with the principles of the Oklahoma Republican Party.”

According to the police report from the officers who went to the hotel, the boy’s father told them his son “has a history of soliciting himself on Craigslist for sexual conduct.” The author of the police report, M. Sgt. J White, wrote that he and the two officers who accompanied him “could smell a strong odor of raw marijuana emitting from the hotel room.” Searching the room with permission, White wrote, the officers found a bottle of lotion and an open box of condoms.

Shortey was re-elected in November to his fourth term. His Senate website states: “Senator Shortey’s priorities in the Legislature include personal liberty, fighting illegal immigration and strengthening public safety in Oklahoma.”

From Courthouse News.

Texas A.G. Ken Paxton Demands a Speedy Trial

March 14, 2017
By David Lee

McKINNEY, Texas (CN) – Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Monday dared special prosecutors to drop their criminal case against him, saying their request to delay his May 1 trial until they are paid violates his right to a speedy trial.

Special prosecutors Brian Wice, Kent Schaffer and Nicole DeBorde, all of Houston, filed a motion for continuance in Collin County Court on March 9, saying they have been working on the case for more than 14 months without pay.

They have been paid roughly half of the $500,000 they requested. Paxton’s filing compares their requests to the shouts of actor Cuba Gooding Jr. of “show me the money” in his is Academy Award-winning role in “Jerry Maguire.”

“Their request for continuance on the sole basis that they, as state employees, have not been paid their asking price of thirty pieces of silver is as offensive to the conscience as it is irrelevant to our proceedings,” Paxton’s response to the motion states.

“Never before has a Texas prosecutor submitted a bill to the county he or she serves for over $500,000 for a single case. Never before has a Texas prosecutor’s payment for a single case been so outrageous as to be stayed by the Court of Appeals.”

The prosecutors said “it would be manifestly unfair, unjust, and unconscionable” for the court to expect them to work for free.

Their pay became an issue when Paxton supporter Jeff Blackard sued Collin County for the second time in January, calling their bill for pretrial work an “illegal expenditure” of taxpayer money.

The 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas temporarily blocked payments pending its final ruling. Blackard’s first lawsuit on the matter was tossed in December.

The prosecutors are asking the trial court to reset the May 1 trial, to begin 60 days after the 5th Court issues its ruling. They blame Blackard for trying to kill the criminal case against Paxton by defunding it.

“Blackard is now one appellate court ruling away from doing what the state believes no one before him has ever done: shutting down a lawfully constituted criminal prosecution by cutting off funding to the special prosecutors,” their motion states.

Paxton was charged by a Collin County grand jury in 2015 with a third-degree felony count of failing to register with the Texas Securities Board and two first-degree felony counts of securities fraud. He faces up to 99 years in state prison.

He is accused of failing to tell investors in McKinney-based technology firm Servergy that he would earn commissions on their money, and of lying to them that he was investing in the company, while he was in the Texas House of Representatives.

Paxton will first go to trial on the failure to register charge on May 1. He will be tried later on the securities fraud charges. He says the request for delay should be rejected because he is entitled to his “prompt day” in court, even as a holder of political office.

“Paxton has endured eighteen months of public attacks, political backlash, and cries for blood from those politically opposed to him,” his response states. “He has been forced to attend meetings with counsel, pretrial hearings, and countless phone conferences, all while doing his duty representing the citizens of Texas as their attorney general.”

Paxton claims that even if the 5th Court rules in the prosecutors’ favor in the spring, the parties could appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, which might “take an unpredictable amount of time” to rule.

“In sum, the fee litigation could go on for months while Paxton’s criminal case remains stagnant,” the response states. “Whether the attorneys pro tem will prepare for trial during the interim or withdraw in the face of an adverse ruling remains unanswered.”

Paxton says the prosecutors’ request for a delay contradicts statements they made that Blackard’s lawsuit would not stop the criminal case. He also cited an earlier case that Schaffer and DeBorde were appointed to prosecute in Harris County, where they purportedly submitted their bill after the conclusion of the case.

The prosecutors said Monday they accepted Collin County’s offer to be special prosecutors in the case.

“But the defense argues that Collin County should not have to honor its agreement by paying us for the work we’ve performed,” they said in a statement. “It speaks volumes that not one of the ten high-priced lawyers Mr. Paxton has hired can remember what they learned the first semester of law school in contracts.”

Paxton is represented by Dan Cogdell, of Houston, and William Mateja, with Polsinelli in Dallas.

From Courthouse News.

AdvoCare Supplements Called a Pyramid Scheme

March 14, 2017
By David Lee

DALLAS (CN) – A federal class action accuses multi-level marketing giant AdvoCare of securities fraud and racketeering: running a pyramid scheme that sells “overpriced” nutritional supplements through plaintiff distributors.

Lead plaintiffs Lisa Ranieri and Megan Cornelius sued the Plano, Texas-based company and six individual AdvoCare promoters on March 9.

They say AdvoCare’s $719 million in annual revenue is “primarily derived from bilking hundreds of thousands” of participants knows as distributors, and that the defendants “have formed a fraudulent, criminal enterprise” to defraud them.

“In a classic pyramid scheme, participants pay money into the scheme for the right to receive compensation from the scheme based, in large part, on bringing new participants into the scheme,” the 79-page complaint states. “Each participant’s money is used to pay others in the scheme, as well as the scheme promoter. The more recruits a participant has under him, and the closer to the top of the pyramid he is, the more money he might make. … Because there is little to no money flowing into the scheme from non-participants, and since payments are shared with the promoter and disproportionately with the persons closer to the top of the pyramid, the vast majority of participants are doomed to lose most or all of their money.”

They claim AdvoCare operates as a pyramid scheme “with a twist:” it sells participants a product in addition to the right to share in the money paid by other participants. Distributors are required to buy start-up packages and pay annual dues to receive compensation based on recruiting new distributors.

“Just like a classic pyramid scheme, the more recruits a distributor brings into the AdvoCare program (and the more money those recruits pay AdvoCare), the more money that distributor can make,” the complaint states. “Unlike participants in a classic pyramid scheme, the AdvoCare distributors receive products – nutritional supplements – in return for the money they pay into the scheme, which the distributors can theoretically consume or sell. But that fact makes AdvoCare no less a pyramid scheme.”

Ranieri says she has paid AdvoCare up to $25,000 in fees and product purchases since 2007, while receiving only $5,000 in payments. She says she was terminated for failure to pay annual fees in January 2016.

Cornelius says she “lost thousands of dollars trying to be a successful distributor” since February 2014 and that she was terminated in August 2016.

They says distributors cannot sell AdvoCare product for profit because competing products are available cheaper online and at nutrition supplement stores.

“AdvoCare prohibits distributors from selling goods on e-commerce platforms and in almost all brick-and-mortar businesses, so there is no realistic way for distributors to sell the overprice products,” the complaint states. “Moreover, because the distributors get stuck with AdvoCare products they cannot sell for a profit, some distributors ignore AdvoCare’s prohibition on e-commerce sales and sell the products on the internet for the wholesale price or less, further frustrating other distributors’ efforts at selling for a profit.”

Advocare spokeswoman Lindsay Bomar denied that the company is a pyramid scheme. She said AdvoCare offers to buy back at full price products that a distributor is unable to sell.

“We vehemently dispute all of the claims,” she told The Dallas Morning News on Friday.
Bomar said distributors’ compensation is based wholly on the amount of products they sell, and that bringing in a new recruit does not change a distributor’s compensation.

The plaintiffs seek actual and punitive damages for racketeering, securities fraud and unjust enrichment. They also seek a declaration that the parties’ arbitration provision is unenforceable due to AdvoCare’s power to unilaterally modify the terms of the distributor contract. They are represented by J. Benjamin King with Reid Collins in Dallas.

From Courthouse News.