AUSTIN (Nexstar) — On Wednesday in McAllen, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a new law that seeks to crack down on human smuggling.
SB 576 broadens the definition of a smuggler and increases the number of smuggling charges that constitute a second-degree felony.
“This all makes it easier to arrest and to prosecute human smugglers. This law also increases criminal penalties for human smuggling, especially when payment is involved in that process,” said Abbott at Wednesday’s press conference.
In the Rio Grande sector alone, border patrol agents have found a total of 425 migrant stash houses throughout the valley, which equates to a 250% increase since last year, according to border patrol agent Jesse Moreno. He said these stash houses, which can range from hotel rooms to trailers, are oftentimes found in dreadful conditions.
“We’ve seen instances where there have been 30 plus people in a small trailer home that’s meant for about a family of four or five people… the accumulated trash is built up for days on end without anyone taking it out,” said Moreno.
Earlier this month, border patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley found more than 10 migrants living in a single hotel room, some of whom had been staying there for more than 30 days.
“Somebody spotted suspicious activity and notified us, and our border patrol agents went out there, observed two individuals that were ultimately harboring additional subjects there,” Moreno explained.
However, according to Moreno, catching smugglers in the act is a much trickier operation.
“A lot of times the person that is harboring the individuals there will not be on location when law enforcement agents arrive at the location, because they know that there is consequences for their illicit activity,” Moreno explained.
While SB 576 increases law enforcement’s ability to prosecute smugglers and the severity of their punishment, it does not aid in catching them. However, Moreno hopes the law will serve as a warning for smugglers.
“Any operation that imposes stiffer fines or jail time for individuals is a deterrent, and we appreciate the assistance that we can get.”
The bill officially went into effect on Sept. 1.
Leaving the Legislature
In the days since the start of the third special session, two Texas House members announced they will not run for re-election next year. They join a growing list of members choosing to leave their seats in the legislature.
The departing members generally fall into two distinct camps — those leaving for family and other personal reasons, and those seeking higher office.
On Wednesday, Austin Democrat Celia Israel announced she’s forming an exploratory committee to run for Mayor of Austin. Israel currently represents Texas House District 50, which stretches from north Austin to Pflugerville and further east close to Elgin. She won that seat in 2014.
“I’ve proven I’m not afraid of hard work nor the technical challenges and coalition-building it takes to keep a city moving,” Israel said in a statement.
Israel is one of five House members leaving to launch campaigns for different elected offices. Fellow Democrat Michelle Beckley announced in July that she would run for Congress. Beckley is challenging Republican incumbent Beth Van Duyne for the seat in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Three House Republicans are also running for higher office. Tan Parker is running for State Senate in District 12. James White launched his campaign for Agriculture Commissioner. He’ll face incumbent Sid Miller in next year’s Republican primary.
State Rep. Matt Krause announced that he’s joining the hotly-contested race for Texas Attorney General. That puts him in a crowded field for the Republican primary, where he’ll face current Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and incumbent Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Krause has previously been an ally of Paxton. Krause said upheaval in Paxton’s office raises questions about his ability to focus on the job. “I’ve been a supporter in the past, but new information, new developments have caused me to even consider getting into this race,” Krause said.
Like Rep. Israel, Marshall Republican Chris Paddie also announced this week that he would not run for re-election. He released a statement Wednesday explaining his decision.
“I have decided that the timing is right to spend more time with my family and allow my East Texas colleagues to spend time fighting for our values instead of having to make some of the tough choices required in the redistricting process,” Paddie wrote in the statement.
Paddie’s announcement came two days after he posted about the death of his cousin due to COVID-19.
Paddie is one of four House members who cited family and personal responsibilities as the reason for choosing not to run for re-election. That list includes Dallas Democrat John Turner as well as Republicans Scott Sanford and Ben Leman.
Two state Senators have also announced plans to leave the legislature. Dallas-area Republican Jane Nelson announced her retirement in July. She’s served in the Senate since 1993. Austin-area Republican Dawn Buckingham is now running for Land Commissioner. She recently earned an endorsement from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Justice for Some investigation
Massive floods tore through Central Texas on Memorial Day weekend in 2015. Rivers spilled over their banks and ripped waterfront homes from their foundations. Towns were inundated.
While tragic deaths on the Blanco River and a ruptured dam in Bastrop State Park captured headlines, few noticed the damage to a low water crossing on Wilbarger Creek Drive — a private dead-end road south of Elgin.
Nobody knew then how that broken bridge would brew a political storm of its own. Two years later, Bastrop County Commissioner Gary “Bubba” Snowden would be charged with three counts of abuse of official capacity. Two of the charges were felonies for misusing public dollars and county resources to resurface part of the road without the approval of county commissioners.
Snowden’s case was investigated under the state’s redesigned Public Integrity Unit. The previous state-funded Public Integrity Unit housed in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office was dismantled in 2015, following allegations it was politicizing prosecutions. State lawmakers aimed to reform the system by moving state public corruption investigations to the Department of Public Safety’s Texas Rangers and prosecuting accused officials in their home counties rather than Travis County.
Though the sea change in Public Integrity Unit prosecutions didn’t fundamentally alter how Snowden’s case was handled, the former Bastrop County commissioner’s indictment and prosecution do exemplify most public corruption cases processed under the new system.
Now, six years later, an investigation by the Texas Observer and KXAN found prosecutions of statewide public officials for corruption are nearly non-existent. Since 2015, the Rangers investigated a handful of state-level elected leaders, but few faced charges.
From 2015 to 2020, the Texas Rangers completed more than 560 public corruption case investigations, but only 67 of those cases have been prosecuted, according to DPS data analyzed by the Observer. DPS said in an email to the Observer there were hundreds more inquiries and complaints beyond those investigated. No officials with DPS or the Texas Rangers would agree to speak with KXAN for this report.
The prosecutions that have taken place are mostly against lower-level local officials or government employees and typically end with light sentences. Several Central Texas cases followed that pattern.
In 2015, critics of reforming the Travis County Public Integrity Unit said a legislative overhaul would have the opposite effect of what reformers intended. They said prosecuting public officials in their home territory and giving local prosecutors the option to oversee cases — and drop charges — would invite a new type of corruption and reduce accountability.
House Bill 1690 was signed into law in September of that year, but not before a number of watchdog groups and a prosecution expert vented their concerns with the legislation.
“This seems to be an issue of home cooking, if you will,” said Sarah Smith, who represented Texas Public Interest Research Group. Smith testified at a March 26, 2015, hearing for the bill in the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee.
“You can go back to your district with the same DAs that you probably campaigned with on the election trail, the same judges that you’ve probably known all your life, and I think the biggest issue is the perception,” she said.
At the same hearing, Carol Birch with Public Citizen told lawmakers the bill would only enflame problems with cronyism and favoritism in politicians’ criminal cases.
“If the goal really is to take the politics out of this process, you need to minimize the potential for any potential bias, and we believe that this … does just the opposite,” Birch said.
Under the old system, prosecutions of state officials’ public corruption cases took place in Travis County, when those offenses happened in the course of their political or government work in Austin, or at the Capitol. The Public Integrity Unit was established in the 1970s, and the state began funding it in the 80s. Gregg Cox — former director of the Travis County DA’s Special Prosecutions Division, which included the Public Integrity Unit — told the committee, in that time, the unit indicted 21 elected officials — 15 Democrats and six Republicans.
Since he became director of the division in 2001, Cox said it had prosecuted four state officers: “a district court judge, a district attorney and two state legislators.” Two were Democrats and two were Republicans, he said.
“A lot of what people say about the partisanship and the aggressiveness is a myth,” said Cox, who could not be reached for comment on this story.
State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, authored HB 1690. The former law enforcement officer and justice of the peace told the committee Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit received just 33 complaints over a previous two-year period and investigated fewer than that. King described that caseload as “small.”
“What I’m trying to do is diffuse this out through the state, so you don’t have too much power invested in one person or one office,” King said at the 2015 hearing. “That’s why we push it out to the district attorneys and county attorneys around the state. If you take the power to investigate every public official in Texas and you invest it in one elected official … I think that just vests too much power in one individual.”
KXAN contacted and requested comment from King and the other authors of HB 1690 who remain in the legislature. None responded to requests for comment.
DPS Director Steve McCraw told the committee his Rangers would be capable of handling the public corruption cases on top of their other cases.
“When you look at the number of 33 investigations across the entire state, if you will, considering the number of resources … 33 cases is chump change by Rangers standards,” McCraw said at the hearing.
State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said Travis County’s prosecutors had been the “most offensive in the state” in regards to prosecutions of politicians.
“There’s a small percentage of cases that come through that have profound impacts on the politics that prevail in that time,” Larson said. “Who gets elected as the DA in Travis County, and if they have a partisan perspective that they want to go after somebody of the opposing party, they have a venue that’s set up for that and it can damage careers. It can alter the course of elections.”
Larson didn’t reference the case explicitly, but a dustup between former Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, and former Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, was top of mind at the time.
Problems with the funding of the Travis County Public Integrity Unit began with a budget veto by Perry.
The origin of that move traces back to the evening of April 12, 2013 — the night Lehmberg was arrested and accused of driving drunk. Lehmberg soon pleaded guilty to that charge, but it would haunt her office. Later that year, Perry threatened to cut $7.5 million for Lehmberg’s Public Integrity Unit if she didn’t resign her post.
Lehmberg refused to step down, and Perry followed through with the veto. Perry was later indicted by a Travis County grand jury for abuse of power. Although he was ultimately cleared of the charges, the case hung over Perry during a second presidential campaign.
Perry was the first Texas governor to be charged with a felony in 100 years, but he wasn’t the first high-profile Texas politician to face prosecution by Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit.
Former Texas Congressman Tom DeLay and U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, both Republicans, were indicted by a Travis County Public Integrity Unit.
Both DeLay and Hutchison — and Perry years later — said the charges against them were spurious and politically-motivated, having been brought by prosecutors working under a Democrat district attorney. Hutchison was cleared of her charges in 1994. DeLay’s conviction for money-laundering was overturned by an appeals court in 2013.
Despite a track record of prosecuting more Republicans than Democrats, according to Cox, accusations of politically-motivated indictments ultimately doomed the office.
The lack of prosecutions of higher-level officials in Austin is what’s largely worried corruption watchdog groups.
Craig McDonald, director of the nonprofit Texans for Public Justice, said his organization and others saw problems with the legislation and feared the changes in corruption prosecutions would shield public employees and elected individuals rather than punish them.
“The so-called reforms, which didn’t reform the system at all, have failed, and we predicted that would happen,” McDonald told KXAN in an August interview. “Again, it was designed to do that. I think it was designed to lessen accountability for public officials.”
McDonald pointed to the drawn-out prosecution of current Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton as a prime example of how the Public Integrity Unit’s restructuring is not holding statewide officials accountable.
Texans for Public Justice, which tilts liberal, filed the complaint in 2014 that led to Paxton’s first-degree felony indictment in 2015 on securities fraud. Paxton’s case sputtered along with protracted fights over the court venue and attorney billing. An appeals court ruled in May the case should be handled in Collin County, which is Paxton’s home county where his wife is currently a state senator.
Now Paxton could get favorable treatment there, suggested McDonald, who also noted the Collin County district attorney already had to recuse himself because of close ties to Paxton.
“The complaint against Paxton was real. It was solid. It has been lost in the partisan court system of Texas,” McDonald said. “That’s the danger we have in sending cases back to your hometown.”
Paxton’s office did not respond to requests for comment. He has not been convicted and has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Only a handful of other statewide investigations have made headlines since the law change, including those against Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, former State Rep. Dawnna Dukes and former State House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. Miller was not prosecuted, and his office did not respond to requests for comment.
Dukes was charged with multiple felonies and misdemeanors. After all her charges were dropped, Dukes said in a 2017 Facebook post the allegations against her were “malicious rumors” and it had “been a long battle, but one in which I never doubted the outcome.” She then ran for reelection and was defeated in the Democratic primary the following year. KXAN spoke with Dukes this month over the phone, but she did not comment on the record for this story.
In 2019, a spokesperson for Bonnen said the former speaker fully cooperated with the probe and despite “the DA’s confirmation of no wrongdoing, unfortunately, the damage has been done.” He did not run for reelection. When reached by phone by KXAN this month, Bonnen would not speak on the record.
The overwhelming majority of Ranger investigations since 2015 focused on accusations against lower-level leaders and government employees. Most cases that resulted in prosecutions followed a similar pattern: officials receiving small sentences in small towns — including several rural counties just beyond the capital.
The Rangers investigated former Bertram Police Chief James “JJ” Wilson after he was accused of threatening to tow one man’s truck and potentially strip another’s commercial driver’s license if they didn’t give hay bales to the officer’s former girlfriend in 2017, according to a Rangers investigative report.
Wilson was ultimately charged with three counts of Class A misdemeanor official oppression, one count of felony aggravated perjury, one count of felony misuse of official information and one felony count of abuse of official capacity. He pleaded guilty and received five years deferred adjudication for the felony abuse of official capacity charge. He also was convicted of the two misdemeanor official oppression charges and served one day in jail. The remaining three charges were dropped, according to Burnet County court records.
As part of his prosecution, Wilson was also stripped of his police officer license and will never be allowed to serve as a peace officer in Texas again.
According to court records, local district attorney Wiley “Sonny” McAfee’s office handled the case. McAfee did not respond to KXAN’s questions about Wilson’s sentencing. Reached by phone, Wilson said he could not comment because he is still on probation.
In another Central Texas case in 2016, Richard Kovar, a Fayette County Sheriff’s Office communications operator, was accused of looking up warrants and leaking information that helped suspects avoid arrest. Kovar was indicted for hindering apprehension or prosecution of a known felon — a third-degree felony.
The operator pleaded guilty to a lesser Class A misdemeanor charge of official oppression, was ordered to surrender his certification to use the Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunication System (TLETS) and served no jail time, according to court records.
Fayette County District Attorney Peggy Supak is listed on court records as the state’s attorney in the case. Supak said the plea was based on the evidence, credibility of the witnesses and the defendant’s criminal history. The information and evidence in the case was “sketchy at best,” she said.
“My main concern and focus was to not have a dispatcher that we felt might be leaking information,” Supak said. “The plea agreement effectively did that by convicting Kovar and having him forfeit his TLETS license.”
Back in Bastrop County, Commissioner Snowden was charged in December 2017 with three counts of abuse of official capacity. The two felony counts were dismissed. Snowden pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge. He was sentenced to one day in the local jail and was ordered to pay a $2,000 fine and $2,500 in restitution, according to court records.
Nick Moutos, an appointed prosecutor from the Office of the Attorney General, handled Snowden’s case. Moutos has since left the Attorney General’s office and could not be reached for comment. Local DAs can appoint a special prosecutor to avoid a conflict, according to the law, but that isn’t required. Snowden died in January 2019.
The 2015 law changes did not drastically alter the handling of these smaller cases, but they do illustrate what could happen without an independent prosecutor.
McDonald said a better alternative than sending Capitol corruption cases to politicians’ home counties would be to establish a similar office to the former Public Integrity Unit. But the office should be totally separate and non-partisan.
“I know it’s hard to do in a state that is totally partisan from the top to the bottom,” McDonald said. “But it needs to be built more like an independent prosecutor office with the power to subpoena the power to investigate, and a good budget so can so it can dig into these cases of public corruption.”
Problems with prosecutions of public officials
Years ago, state lawmakers tried to take the politics out of prosecuting Texas leaders accused of things like public corruption or bribery. The result has been a system with fewer investigations and convictions are rare.
Lise Olsen, a senior reporter and editor with the Texas Observer worked on the Justice for Some investigation. “The case that most often get investigated are the ones that are referred directly by a law enforcement official or a DA,” Olsen explained. “A public integrity investigation under the law can’t actually go forward until the DA signs off on it.”
Olsen said she found people who tried to bring forward complaints about public officials accused of fraud or theft, but it was difficult to get anyone to investigate.
“In cases that were investigated, often you had a public official who belonged to the same party as the DA, went to the same fundraising events as the DA and maybe was the DA’s friend,” Olsen said. “So, you just had to trust that the DA was going to do the right thing. And that didn’t always happen.”
Olsen points out that many laws in Texas treat crimes by public officials, like official oppression, like misdemeanors. That can be another obstacle to moving toward prosecution.
“So, even when there is a crime proven, a DA doesn’t want to spend the time that it takes to get what is a misdemeanor conviction,” Olsen added.