Texas Republicans Fail to Remove 82 Democrats from Ballot

April 24, 2018
By David Lee

DALLAS (CN) — A Texas judge Monday dismissed the Dallas County Republican Party’s attempt to remove 82 Democratic candidates from the general election ballot in a lawsuit Democrats denounced as frivolous and partisan.

State District Judge Eric Moye, a Democrat, granted the Dallas County Democratic Party’s motion to dismiss with prejudice and a plea to the jurisdiction. Moye did not elaborate in his two-page order, merely saying that the Democrats’ arguments were “well taken.”

Moye will award costs and attorneys’ fees to the Democrats after May 7.

The Dallas County Republican Party and its Chairwoman Missy Shorey, sued the Dallas County Democratic Party and its Chairwoman Carol Donovan in Dallas County District Court in January. The Republicans claimed the blanket removal of the candidates was justified because Donovan allegedly failed to sign their candidate applications, leaving them uncertified under state law. They originally sought removal of 127 Democratic candidates, which shrank to 82 after the March primaries.

The Democrats argued successfully that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. They cited a January ruling by the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas that the matter became moot when absentee balloting began on Jan. 20. They also said the Texas Election Code does not have a signature requirement that the Republicans seek to impose.

“It simply requires that ‘each county chair shall electronically submit’ specified candidate information,” the motion to dismiss states. “There is no reference to a signature by anyone.”

Democrats applauded the dismissal Monday evening, criticizing the lawsuit as “baseless” and a Republican attempt at suppressing voter rights.

“We are delighted to have this matter behind us,” Donovan said in a statement. “This decision insures that democracy has been protected; Democrats will not be divided or distracted.”

The Republicans’ attorney Elizabeth Alvarez Bingham, of Dallas, said: “We will review the decision and decide on our next step.”

She criticized the “underlying tone” of the ruling as claiming that the Republicans’ position is that “some people do not feel the election code applies to them.”

“Here in Dallas, for at least a decade there has been a double standard between the parties,” Bingham told The Dallas Morning News. “Why have an election code when it can just be bent to the will of an activist judiciary that is clearly not objective?”

From Courthouse News.

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Former Dallas Superintendent Admits to Taking Bribes

April 2, 2018
By David Lee

DALLAS (CN) – The former superintendent of the failed Dallas County Schools bus agency admitted Monday to taking $3 million in bribes in exchange for handing out $70 million in school bus stop-arm camera contracts.

Rick Sorrells will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, according to court filings.

He faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Prosecutors want to seize a Maserati GHI, a Porsche Cayenne, over $66,000 in jewelry and over $12,000 from Sorrells’ bank accounts.

Voters approved the dissolution of Dallas County Schools, or DSC, last year after accusations of corruption and financial mismanagement first surfaced. The agency was tasked with providing school bus services to independent school districts in the county.

Its largest customer, the Dallas Independent School District, has since purchased the agency’s administrative building and several hundred of its buses to transport its own students.

Prosecutors claim an unidentified head of a stop-arm camera system vendor created an account of a nonexistent company to hide payments he made towards Sorrells’ credit cards.

“To disguise the bribe and kickback payments made to Sorrells, Person A funneled a significant portion of the illicit payments through various pass-through companies created and operated by his business associate, Slater Washburn Swartwood Sr., as well as through a law firm,” the 10-page charging document states. “To further disguise the bribe and kickback payments, Sorrells received a portion of the payments through shell companies which he created in his and/or a family member’s name(s) at Person A’s behest.”

Prosecutors claim fake consulting agreements, loans and a real estate business were used to tie payments from Person A to Sorrells. They say the scheme left DCS “in severe debt and teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.”

Sorrells’ attorney, Cynthia Barbare of Dallas, did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment Monday afternoon.

Dallas-area drivers have long been critical of the stop-arm camera systems on school buses. Five drivers sued DCS in Dallas County District Court in October 2016, claiming they were illegally ticketed hundreds of dollars for alleged violations.

They argued the photographic enforcement and administrative adjudication of school bus stop-arm violations were never authorized by the Texas Legislature. They claimed bills that would have allowed the tickets failed in four successive legislative sessions.

From Courthouse News.

Democrats Jump on Record of Dallas County District Attorney

February 12, 2018
By David Lee

DALLAS (CN) — Democratic challengers to Dallas County’s Republican District Attorney Faith Johnson blasted her leadership during a candidates’ forum Saturday, criticizing her office’s lack of transparency and its treatment of crime victims.

Elizabeth Frizell and John Creuzot — both Democrats and former state district judges — largely agreed in their criticism of Johnson’s year-long tenure. They are running against each other in the March primary election. Johnson did not attend the forum at Paul Quinn College in South Dallas, sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

“Do you know that crime victims will find me on Instagram and Facebook and say they are trying to contact the DA and no one calls them back?” Frizell said. “They say the DA later calls back and says the case has already been pled. But they wanted to get on the stand and tell their story.”

Frizell said Johnson’s office should always consider what the victims want in a case.

“This is us interacting as human beings,” she said. “This is what I will do as DA.”

Creuzot shared a similar story about trying to contact the district attorney to say he believed a family member needed treatment instead of incarceration. He says he was told the office does not speak to family members.

“Did you know you cannot even go onto the Dallas County website and find out what a prosecutor’s email is?” Creuzot asked. “How about that for transparency? If you do not get a reasonable response, you should have that reported to victim advocacy. You deserve that respect.”

Both candidates supported comments from the audience urging treatment options for drug offenders rather than incarceration.

“Would you commit to finding another way of treatment instead of jail?” attendee Robbie Frazier asked. “It does not treat the problem, and incarceration just makes it worse.”

Frizell said that repeated incarceration is not drug rehabilitation, which “needs to be outside of the criminal justice system.”

She spoke of failures in rehabilitation programs that do not treat defendants’ drug addiction. Citing her experience as a judge, she said defendants often told her they would rather go back to prison then back to rehab because counselors “would talk to us like we are crazy.”

Creuzot said Johnson’s office has a choice on how to handle drug offenses, drawing a distinction between crimes and problems of public health.

“Where does a case come from? When the police file it,” he said. “Is the DA ethically or morally obligated to treat the case as a criminal justice case when it is a public health issue? We do not have to prosecute those cases.”

Creuzot blamed the Republican-controlled Legislature for excessive filing of criminal charges in drug cases, due to “poorly funded on-demand” drug-treatment programs.

Frizell said more than 50 percent of state prisoners have some kind of drug problem. She said there are no mandatory minimum sentences in state court, unlike federal court, so prisoners “do a little time, get out and do a little more time.”

“Do you want to really change this, or do you want to [pad] your resume?” she asked. “You need to have the mindset to change the system.”

Johnson was appointed district attorney by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott 14 months ago, three months after Susan Hawk stepped down to seek mental health treatment. In private practice at the time, Johnson is a former chief felony prosecutor at the district attorney’s office and state district judge. She is the first African-American woman appointed to the job.

Her office is conducting a high-profile investigation into alleged elderly voter fraud in West Dallas. An arrest was made in July after residents complained that they received absentee ballots they did not request, and then a man knocked on their door offering to deliver the ballots. Others complained they were unable to vote on Election Day as someone had mailed in absentee votes in their names. The uncertainty over fraudulent votes resulted in a state district judge sequestering several hundred absentee ballots during local runoff elections in June, a move that delayed election night results.

Frizell has been a consistent critic of Johnson as district attorney. She spoke on behalf of fired prosecutor Jody Warner in November, days after Warner was fired when an Uber driver released an embarrassing audio recording of Warner allegedly berating and belittling him while flaunting her prosecutorial powers.

Appearing alongside Warner at a press conference where Warner apologized for her behavior, Frizell called her an “excellent prosecutor.” Frizell questioned whether Johnson was too hasty in firing Warner.

Saturday’s forum was moderated by Anthony Graves, who was exonerated in 2010 after spending 18 years in state prison, 12 of them on death row. His prosecutor, former Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta, had his law license revoked in 2015 for what the State Bar of Texas concluded was prosecutorial misconduct: withholding evidence as lead prosecutor in Graves’ case. The Texas Supreme Court Board of Disciplinary Appeals upheld his disbarmentin 2016.

Graves now works as smart justice initiatives manager for the ACLU of Texas.

From Courthouse News.

Dallas Commissioner Acquitted on Most Corruption Charges

April 28, 2017
By David Lee

DALLAS (CN) – A Dallas federal jury punished federal prosecutors Friday for repeated mistakes at trial when it acquitted Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price on seven corruption counts while remaining hung on four others.

After eight days of deliberations, the jury acquitted Price, 66, on bribery, mail fraud and conspiracy charges while failing to reach a verdict on tax fraud charges.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn declared a mistrial on the tax fraud charges and gave prosecutors one month to decide whether to retry Price.

Price is likely the most well-known politician to ever be prosecuted by the federal government in Dallas. His confrontational style and focus on the issues of race and economic equality have made him a controversial figure, but his constituents in south Dallas have comfortably re-elected him for three decades.

His acquittal is a stunning defeat for the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI, who have spent a decade investigating and prosecuting Price.

Judge Lynn urged jurors to “rest with your verdict” and resist talking to reporters about the verdict, but that it was their right to do so if they choose.

The jury also acquitted Price’s assistant, Dapheny Fain, 55, on a lying to federal agents count and conspiracy count.

Prosecutors failed to convince the jury that Price pocketed more than $950,000 in cash, cars and real estate from political consultant Kathy Nealy in exchange for her clients’ bids for county contracts, and more than $200,000 in cash from a clothing store operated by Fain and an art gallery operated by his friend Karen Manning. Nealy will be tried separately from Price and Fain.

Price has insisted the money was from loans he made to Nealy, a close friend, and that large amounts of cash seized by the FBI at his home belonged to Fain, who purportedly kept it there to prevent her from spending it on shopping.

Dressed in a brown suit and bowtie, Price smiled broadly Friday as the verdict was read and hugged his defense team. Surrounded by a large scrum of reporters, Price and Fain proceeded to walk back to work at the Dallas County Administration Building.

Price’s attorney, Shirley Baccus-Lobel of Dallas, told reporters she expected the acquittal.

“That does not mean my heart was not beating 100 miles per hour,” she said.

John Parker, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, thanked jurors for their “extraordinary service” during eight weeks of trial and two weeks of deliberations.

“I will be convening with the prosecution team over the next several days regarding where we go from here, consistent with the court’s timeline,” he said in a statement.

Prosecutors stumbled in the final weeks of trial, admitting to several failures to turn over evidence to the defense.

Judge Lynn called the failures “terribly inappropriate and very disappointing.”

She also warned prosecutors before closing arguments she was probably going to throw out the mail fraud charges even if the jury found Price guilty, saying it was “virtually impossible” for the jury to convict based on the poor connection prosecutors made with the alleged crimes and the U.S. Postal Service.

The defense capitalized on the mistakes, accusing federal prosecutors and investigators of incompetence and dishonesty. They argued the prosecution’s parade of testimony and evidence lacked a “smoking gun” showing a conspiracy to bribe, and that the case is built largely on circumstantial financial records.

The defense also attacked the prosecution’s star witness, consultant Christian Campbell, who took a plea deal in exchange for his testimony. They told jurors that Campbell admitted to being a liar while on the stand.

From Courthouse News.

Texas AG Wants in on Immigration Lawsuit

March 9, 2017
By David Lee

DALLAS (CN) – Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked a federal judge Wednesday to let him intervene on the Dallas County sheriff’s behalf in a closely followed case over whether she can keep undocumented inmates under federal immigration holds.

Paxton said Texas has a duty under state law and cooperative agreements with federal officials to hold inmates under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers.

“This is a public safety issue,” he said in a statement Thursday. “If a Texas sheriff cannot lawfully honor an ICE detainer, dangerous people may slip through the cracks of the justice system and back into the community.”

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez was sued twice in 2015, accused of violating undocumented immigrants’ constitutional rights by holding them for months after having already bonding out due to ICE detainers.

The plaintiffs claim they should have only been held for 48 hours under a detainer. They say a detainer is a civil matter rather than criminal and that Valdez lacks probable cause to hold an inmate based on a detainer alone. The two lawsuits have since been consolidated.

The case has nationwide implications, as it was cited by Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone in Arizona last month when he decided to no longer hold inmates with ICE detainers.

Valdez incensed state lawmakers in October 2015 after she announced she would no longer comply with immigration hold requests for inmates accused of minor offenses. Gov. Greg Abbott said the decision “poses a serious danger to Texans” and that the detainers give ICE “critical notice and time” to take inmates into federal custody.

Valdez has declined to comment on the case, citing ongoing litigation. She has argued in court the case should be tossed because she has qualified immunity. She also disputes the due process claim, stating it fails to meet the standard of “shocking the conscience” to where it “violates the decencies of civilized conduct.”

Paxton’s motion to intervene in the case comes three months after he assured voters that state lawmakers would end sanctuary city policies during the current legislative session.

He cited several filed bills, including Senate Bill 4, that would require police officers to provide notice to a judge or magistrate that an arrested person is illegally in the country if he or she cannot prove their legality within 48 hours.

From Courthouse News.

Damning Testimony in Political Corruption Trial

March 9, 2017
By David Lee

DALLAS (CN) – The prosecution’s star witness testified Wednesday how indicted Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price would nudge companies who wanted his support on lucrative county contracts to hire political consultant and co-defendant Kathy Nealy, who allegedly passed on bribes to Price.

Christian Campbell, a political consultant, was indicted in 2014 with Price, Nealy and Price’s chief of staff Dapheny Fain in a massive federal bribery case.

Prosecutors accuse Price of taking more than $1 million in cash, cars and real estate from Nealy and others for his influence, inside information and votes on the Commissioners Court, then failing to report the bribes on state-mandated financial disclosure statements and his federal tax returns.

Price is being tried with Fain; Nealy will be tried separately.

Campbell told federal jurors during direct examination Wednesday that Price gave him and Nealy confidential bid information that helped his client, oil services firm Schlumberger, outbid other companies for a $40 million information technology contract in 2002. He said Schlumberger’s original bid was as high as $70 million before Price gave him information on where the bid ranked.

He testified that Nealy became confrontational if she believed Campbell’s clients were dragging their feet on paying her, often unleashing expletive-filled threats that she “could make things bad for them.” He said he believed Nealy was paying Price for influence, based on “the way she acted,” and the “comments, threats and suggestions” she made, and that she had the power to cancel contracts if she was not happy.

Campbell testified that Price urged him to hire his friends, and that Price wanted Campbell to hire one of his friends to help consult on Schlumberger’s bid. He said Price also wanted Schlumberger give a job to the daughter of state Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas.

Campbell said Price complained to Schlumberger for not paying Nealy after he wrote a recommendation letter to officials in Lee County, Florida, in support of the company’s bid on a contract there.

Prosecutors read to jurors letters written by Price that complained about her not being paid a success fee on the contract and her contract not being renewed.

Price’s attorney, Christopher Knox, of Dallas, disputed how much influence Nealy had on Price, getting Campbell to acknowledge during cross-examination that companies that hired Nealy did not always have the winning bid on county contracts.

Knox said that Price’s complaints to Schlumberger were more about holding the company accountable on promises to hire certain minority subcontractors.

Regarding one alleged bribe payment in particular, Knox said it was for an unrelated art sale, and that “art” was written in the memo section of the check.

Campbell pleaded guilty in 2015 to one count of bribery concerning a local government receiving federal benefits. He will receive a lighter sentence in exchange for testifying against the remaining defendants. Under the deal, Campbell admits that he willfully joined a conspiracy to bribe Price and that “paying Nealy and acceding to her demands literally bought” Price’s influence.

Campbell also testified in 2016 against former BearingPoint executive Helene Tantillo, who was sentenced to six months in federal prison.

His testimony helped convict her on two counts of making false statements to law enforcement. An Austin federal jury concluded she falsely told FBI agents that a temporary $10,000 increase in consulting fees paid to Campbell was going to a charity. Prosecutors in that case said the increase went to Nealy, regarding BearingPoint’s bid on a county records digitization contract in 2004.

Campbell gave more details about BearingPoint’s bid on Wednesday, testifying that Tantillo told him she wanted to hide the extra payments. He said that the day after he paid Nealy $7,500, she passed $2,500 to Price, who then got involved in the bid. Prosecutors in Tantillo’s case said that by this point BearingPoint had been rejected by a county selection committee as a bidder, but Price persuaded it otherwise and voted for the bid.

From Courthouse News.

Political Corruption Trial Kicks off in Dallas

February 28, 2017
By David Lee

DALLAS (CN) – Federal jurors heard sharply different portrayals of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price on Monday during opening statements in his highly anticipated government corruption trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Bunch portrayed Price, 66, as a self-interested crook who took more than $1 million in bribes for his influence and votes on the powerful Commissioners Court. He accused Price of hiding the bribes and failing to report them on state-mandated financial disclosure statements or in his federal tax returns.

Prosecutors say Price took more than $950,000 in cash, cars and real estate from political consultant Kathy Nealy in exchange for support for her clients, and more than $200,000 in cash from a clothing store operated by Price’s assistant Dapheny Fain and an art gallery operated by his friend Karen Manning.

Price was charged in July 2014 with conspiracy to commit bribery concerning a local government receiving federal benefits, conspiracy to defraud the IRS, six counts of deprivation of honest services by mail fraud, and three counts of subscribing to a false and fraudulent income tax return.

Manning and political consultant Christian Campbell pleaded guilty in 2015 and will testify against Price. Nealy will be tried separately. Fain is being tried alongside Price. Her attorneys elected to give an opening statement later in the trial.

Prosecutor Bunch repeatedly told the jury to “follow the money,” accusing Price of feeling “entitled to something more” than his $100,000 annual salary.

“When you strip away the details, the evidence is simple,” Bunch said. “Follow the money – all of it points to greed, corruption and lies.”

Defense attorney Shirley Baccus-Lobel, of Dallas, rejected the bribery accusations as “ludicrous” and “preposterous,” describing Price as fiscally conservative in spending public money.

She said Price has made many political enemies during his 30 years in office and is being targeted for that. Price is well known for leading protests against Parkland Hospital and the Dallas Police Department regarding dissatisfaction with minority hiring. He made headlines last year for a shoving match at a gospel radio station during a debate with other Democratic nominees for his job that devolved into personal attacks.

“He is not extravagant … he is flamboyant. That is his schtick,” Baccus-Lobel told the jury. “Behind that persona is the most diligent, devoted public servant you will ever see in your life.”

She downplayed the alleged exchanges of money with the three women, acknowledging that the unmarried Price “has a fondness” for women, with whom he acts much like a husband.

“We are not going to hide that,” she said.

Baccus-Lobel denied that Price “belongs to anyone,” describing his relationship with Nealy as the same as any other between a lobbyist and elected official.

“Whether you like it or not, lobbying and political consulting are legitimate businesses in the United States,” Baccus-Lobel said.

She described Price as a loyal friend who accepted calls for help from many people, not just Nealy.

Baccus-Lobel criticized the years-long gap between the alleged crimes and the prosecution,  saying it makes presenting a defense harder due to passage of time. She said many of the alleged crimes in the indictment are “old stuff” that are excluded by statutes of limitations.

Prosecutors called their first witness after opening statements.

County Administrator Darryl Martin testified that Price is one of the “hardest working” people on the five-member administrative body. He described the county’s process for soliciting and selecting outside bids for contracts, saying that no county official is to give information to a bidder about a competitor’s bid. Prosecutors say Price fed such restricted bid information to Nealy for her clients’ benefit.

The lone Republican member of the Commissioners Court tried to have Price suspended immediately after his indictment, but the measure died for lack of a second. Price was reelected comfortably in 2012 after the FBI investigation became public, and was reelected again in 2016 as he awaited trial.

Former BearingPoint executive Helen Tantillo, of Austin, was sentenced to six months in federal prison in April 2016 for lying to federal officials in the Price investigation.

A federal jury in Austin concluded that Tantillo falsely told FBI agents that a temporary $10,000 increase in consulting fees paid to Campbell “was to make a charitable donation to the favorite charity” of an unidentified Dallas County commissioner. Prosecutors said Tantillo knew the money was, in part, to pay Nealy.

Opening statements in Price’s trial were originally set to begin last Thursday, but were delayed several hours due to a juror becoming ill and needing hospitalization. A second juror requested Friday off to care for an ill relative.

The trial is expected to last for more than four months.

From Courthouse News.