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Gregg County faces rising indigent defense costs

The cost of providing adequate legal representation for Gregg County’s indigent defendants continues to rise.

Several years ago, jurists led by retired Court-at-Law No. 1 Judge Becky Simpson instituted a system for appointed contracted indigent defense attorneys.

Those changes slowed the growth of overall costs to the county, but a rising number of misdemeanor cases has caught the attention of the Gregg County Commissioners Court, or at least one commissioner in particular.

Commissioners recently amended the contract Gregg County has with four indigent defense attorneys: Barrett Hunt, Edward Choy, Zachary Austin and Molly Larison.

The change allows each attorney to work a maximum 450 cases a year for a total of $72,000 annually — an increase of 25-to-50 cases and $6,000 compared with this past year.

The amendment, along with other costs, will push attorney fees in the misdemeanor courtroom higher than the $342,000 projected in fiscal year 2018-19 that recently ended, but still far below the $520,000 spent for those same fees in 2013 and 2014.

Kent Phillips, now the presiding Court-at-Law No. 1 judge, said he’s less concerned about the money than he is about good representation.

“And I think they’re getting good representation,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything to indicate otherwise.”

Pct. 2 Commissioner Darryl Primo has his doubts.

He questions whether indigent defendants are getting a fair shake after providing data he says show that, in a three-month period ending Aug. 31, defendants are overwhelmingly entering pleas but not going to trial.

The four contracted attorneys had 383 cases disposed in June, July and August, and not one went to trial or resulted in an acquittal, according to Primo’s data, which he said was compiled from County Clerk’s Office records.

“We have $63 million in cash in the bank,” Primo said of the county’s savings. “We all want to be careful with the taxpayers’ money, but at the same time, we don’t want the taxpayers ripped off. The taxpayers are paying for a service, and if we’re going to pay for a service, then I think it should be about fairness and justice.”

In reality, Phillips said, most cases don’t go to trial, whether the defendant is represented by indigent defense lawyers or private counsel. Also, some defendants have multiple cases, oftentimes a mix of misdemeanors and felonies.

“Although the number of trials have been up this year, and we have had several trials involving indigent defense lawyers — one of which resulted in an acquittal — so we have trials, cases result in dismissals, cases that get worked out,” the judge said, “so I think they’re doing a great job. I really do.”

In 2008, Gregg County paid $744,888 for court-appointed attorneys for indigent defense. By 2012, that amount reached $1.07 million, which was a 43% increase in four years.

In 2018, the county’s total costs for contract and individually appointed indigent defense attorneys reached $1.32 million.

County Auditor Laurie Woloszyn, who was “very involved” with Simpson in instituting the current system, said the county would have spent about $1.5 million more over the past several years if it hadn’t began contracting with attorneys for indigent defense, but, “The cost was never the goal of the program but a beneficial outcome of organization and streamlining the appointment process but never the defense.

“I distinctly recall the main issue was having an organized, clear system to get the defendant an attorney appointed quickly without mass confusion and delay,” Woloszyn said. “We followed the guidelines set up by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission in every way I can recall.”

State law requires an indigent defense lawyer must be appointed within 72 hours, though “I believe now it may be 24 hours,” she said. “That would be almost impossible, and a judge would not have the assurance (that) whoever they are appointing even received a message within the short window of time to get someone legal counsel.”

The misdemeanor court system has a high volume of cases, so the program was implemented to assure quick legal defense, Woloszyn said.

Said Phillips, “(Attorneys have) to be appointed fairly quick, and they’ve got to see (the defendant) within one working day once they’re appointed.”

When asked what the county should do differently about indigent defense, Primo answered, “First of all, I don’t know if that’s the question, ‘What we should do differently?’ The county’s report suggests that there are few trials.”

He later said that the reports he procured from the County Clerk’s Office “are problematic in that it suggests it’s a no-trial county or a meet-‘em-and-plead-‘em system. If that’s what the commissioners want, then that’s what we’re getting …

“I think the goal for all of us, lawyers, judges, commissioners, defenders, taxpayers,” Primo said, are “better outcomes for defendants and taxpayers than the system that we have.”

County Judge Bill Stoudt called the system “a home run.” He compared it to mental health commitments, which he adjudicates for the county, saying that the system allows defendants to be seen faster, get representation more quickly and their cases processed faster “pure and simple, and they have their rights protected at the same time.”

Stoudt also said, “This whole program was created by a judge, Becky Simpson, who proudly served this courthouse for over 30 years (and was) a well-respected jurist in this state. And one of her concerns in creating the program was to make sure we had timely and effective appointment of counsel to the indigent defense.

“Money wasn’t the issue,” Stoudt continued, “but in her mind, she thought for sure that if you did it right you could save money, because … in our budgeting now, our indigent defense costs for felonies and other courts is way up.”

It also helps that the contracted attorneys are in court for arraignment dockets on Fridays when they are appointed to cases so that they can meet with their indigent clients that same day.

“So, things are moving quickly and efficiently, and I think the indigent counsel is doing a great job,” Phillips said. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t go forward with it.”

Touch a Truck in Longview draws small children with big vehicles

Small children climbed into a medical helicopter, a backhoe, a cement mixer and other big vehicles and equipment Saturday during the 11th annual Touch a Truck — Feed a Family fundraiser.

The children posed for photos inside the vehicles while their operators stood nearby in the north parking lot of the Longview Mall. Longview Community Ministries, which conducts the event, moved it from the Gregg County Fairgrounds.

A Flight for Life medical transport belonging to Christus Trinity Mother Frances Health System arrived from its base at the East Texas Regional Airport to take part in the fundraiser.

The helicopter carries a three-person medical crew, flight nurse Chad Solomon said.

“We can take a patient, and sometimes we can take a parent,” he said.

Solomon said the helicopter has a radius of 150 nautical miles. It takes patients from ambulances and flies them to hospitals, as well as inter-facility transfers to larger hospitals for trauma care and pediatrics.

Several children lined up to sit inside the helicopter.

“It has way too many buttons,” said Guinevere Burns, 8, who came with siblings Augustus and Bohannon and their mother, Chelsa Connolly of Longview. “I think it should have at least three big buttons and have some voice controls.”

Guinevere, a third-grader at Bramlette Elementary School, was fortunate that she did not need emergency medical attention.

“You don’t want to ride in this helicopter,” pilot Jake Moser said. “We’ll take good care of you. We transport pretty sick people.”

The helicopter was among 38 vehicles registered for Touch a Truck, said Robin Fruia, executive director for Longview Community Ministries. The nonprofit entity provides assistance with food, rent and utility bill payments and other services. Touch a Truck attendees were asked to make monetary donations and donations of peanut butter jars for its food pantry.

Fruia said she believed turnout was higher than in previous years and cited the presence of food trucks for the first time as a factor.

“We are getting people who never came to Touch a Truck before,” Fruia said.

She said she believes cash donations also would be higher than the past but speculated donations of peanut butter jars would drop.

“I think people are coming to the mall to shop,” Fruia said. “It’s easier to make a cash donation while shopping at the mall rather than carrying a jar of peanut butter.”

Riley Wyers of Longview said he showed up for the second year and brought his 4-year-old daughter, Aubrey.

“It’s good to see all the different trucks, a lot of activities for the kids,” he said while he and Aubrey ate snow cones.

Aubrey said she wants to fly a helicopter when she grows up, inspired by the “PAW Patrol” animated series.

Unlike the helicopter, other vehicles stayed grounded. They included fire engines, backhoes and a cement mixer.

Emma Mogavero, 5, of Longview sipped a soft drink after climbing a John Deere backhoe courtesy of Doggett Machinery Services of Longview.

“What do you like about this?” her mother, Katie Mogavero, asked.

“It is big,” said Emma, a kindergarten student at East Texas Montessori Prep Academy.

Touch a Truck also featured a booth from the Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative, which set up displays.

One display demonstrated that spray-on foam provides better insulation in a home than fiberglass and cellulose. Another display showed how much electricity light bulbs consumed.

“We try to educate the community on energy savings,” said Lynn Gray, who works in member relations for the 43,000-member cooperative.

Texas considers changes to sex ed curriculum in public schools

Sex education in Texas has not changed in 21 years, but the State Board of Education has appointed a work group to begin drafting new health standards.

The board is set to vote on the drafts next year, according to a report in the Dallas Morning News.

Keven Ellis of Lufkin, chair of the Texas State Board of Education and East Texas’ representative, said in an email that curriculum for each subject is typically revised every 10 years, but the board chose not to revise health curriculum the last time it was scheduled to be addressed.

“The first step in the process included having seven content advisers meet to provide feedback to the (board),” he said. “Multiple work groups will now begin drafting the new standards. The initial draft will likely come to the SBOE for discussion during our June 2020 meeting. We will likely have our first reading in September of 2020 and likely our second reading and final adoption in November of 2020.”

Health is not a graduation requirement in Texas. According to the Texas Campaign to to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, if sex education is taught in schools, it is required to emphasize abstinence until marriage.

“During this process, we will review the current standards and determine if any additional changes are necessary,” Ellis said. “Any changes that we make will be researched based and medically accurate.”

Longview-area schools have varying classroom programs that touch on sex education.

Longview ISD

Longview ISD spokeswoman Elizabeth Ross said students in fourth and fifth grades are taught a “changing bodies” course, which is essentially a talk about puberty.

Every campus separates the boys and girls into different rooms, and students watch a district-approved video, Ross said. The girls are with school nurses and the boys with coaches.

At Ware East Texas Montessori Prep Academy, the Junior League has a “Girl Talk” program where women in the organization talk with girls about puberty. Students can write down questions for members to answer, Ross said. The girls also get a bag of toiletries.

Aside from learning about puberty, the district does not offer other sex education, Ross said.

“We encourage (students) to make sure they’re talking to someone they trust and can help answer questions,” she said. “If they are not comfortable with a parent or family member, then talk to a teacher or school nurse.”

Pine Tree ISD

Students at Pine Tree are introduced to the ESTEEM curriculum in fifth grade, and it continues through high school, said Eric Cederstrom, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

According to a handout from Cederstrom, ESTEEM is a risk-avoidance curriculum that focuses on character development and adolescent safety risk avoidance.

The curriculum covers topics including puberty, the cost of teen pregnancy, fatherhood, sexually transmitted diseases, abstinence and dating standards. It also addresses other social and developmental issues such as bullying, healthy relationships and communication.

“We’re sticking with the health standards of the state curriculum to look at the overall health of our kids,” he said. “I think currently focusing on just looking at the overall health of our kids has been very helpful.”

The district is committed to teaching students to avoid situations where they are not prepared to deal with the outcome, Cedesrstrom said, along with situations that may cause them harm.

If the standards for sex education are changed, Cederstrom said Pine Tree will comply with what the state board mandates. The district will seek community input and be transparent in the process.

“We care deeply for our kids, and we continue to try to educate them to be young adults in ways that they can carry forward,” he said. “Even if we teach something in the classroom to them, if it doesn’t translate once they leave our walls — either for the day or the weekend or for their academic or professional career — It doesn’t matter if we can’t teach them to be able to take responsibility for themselves and be able to translate that to life.”

Spring Hill ISD

ESTEEM also is used at Spring Hill ISD, Superintendent Wayne Guidry said. But outside of the school’s walls, it is important for families to speak with students when it comes to sex education.

“These conversations are tough, but these conversations are critical,” he said. “Ultimately, I want our kids to be prepared to make the right decisions.”

As far as changes to the curriculum, Guidry said abstinence education should be included, but when it comes to teen pregnancy in Texas, the data does not lie.

According to the Texas Campaign Against Teen Pregnancy, in 2017, Texas had the seventh-highest rate of teen birth in the nation and the fourth-highest rate of repeat teen births. About 15% of Texas girls give birth before age 20.

”I’m not sure what (teen pregnancy rates are) from, honestly I don’t know what the answer is,” Guidry said. “But I think our kids deserve the best information.”

As a father of a seventh-grade girl, Guidry said he is thankful his wife is able to have those conversations with their daughter, and he wants to be able to provide the best education possible for all his students so they can make good decisions.

Hallsville ISD

Hallsville ISD does not offer any type of sex education, Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Amber Daub said in an email.

The topic is briefly covered in an eight-grade health course, and that course supports abstinence education, she said.

Mounting evidence supports facts laid out in whistleblower complaint

Since the revelation of a whistleblower complaint that sparked an impeachment crisis for President Donald Trump, he and his Republican allies have coalesced around a central defense: The document was based on secondhand information, mere hearsay riddled with inaccuracies.

But over the past two weeks, documents, firsthand witness accounts and even statements by Trump himself have emerged that bolster the facts outlined in the abuse-of-power complaint.

The description of a July 25 phone call between Trump and the president of Ukraine, which formed the heart of the complaint and was still secret at the time the claim was filed in mid-August, matches a rough transcript of the call that the White House released a day before the complaint was made public.

The whistleblower’s assertion that records related to the phone call were transferred to a separate electronic system intended for highly classified material has since been confirmed by White House officials.

And the whistleblower’s narrative of the events that led up to the call — including a shadow campaign undertaken by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and the attempts of U.S. State Department officials to navigate his activities- have been largely confirmed by the text messages of three diplomats released Friday, as well as Giuliani himself in media interviews.

Independent evidence now supports the central elements laid out in the seven-page document. Even if they disregarded the complaint, legal experts said lawmakers have obtained dramatic testimony and documents that provide ammunition for the whistleblower’s core assertion: that the president of the United States used “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”

“Everything we’ve found to date validates the information. . . . It’s brilliantly effective. It really does function almost as a one-stop shop, investigative road map,” said Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania who has represented other government whistleblowers.

“It’s a success story, as whistleblower complaints go,” said Litman, also a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.

Trump and his supporters have denied that he abused his office and said there is no evidence that the president engaged in a quid pro quo in which U.S. support for Ukraine was withheld in exchange for Ukrainian officials investigating his political rivals.

Despite the growing body of evidence supporting the whistleblower’s factual narration, Trump has continued to maintain that the description in the complaint is false or unsubstantiated.

“The so-called Whistleblower’s account of my perfect phone call is ‘way off,’ not even close,” Trump tweeted Saturday morning, adding that Democratic leaders “never thought I would release the transcript of the call. Got them by surprise, they got caught. This is a fraud against the American people!”

Earlier this past week, he tweeted, “The Whistleblower knew almost nothing, its 2ND HAND description of the call is a fraud!”

In fact, specific details the whistleblower provided about Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky can be found in the rough transcript of the conversation released by the White House.

Among them: that Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, and that the only specific instance of alleged corruption that Trump referenced on the call was the one pertaining to Biden.

The whistleblower also accurately described how Trump had asked the Ukrainians to pursue allegations that Russian interference in the 2016 election originated in Ukraine and to “turn over servers used by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and examined by the U.S. cyber security firm CrowdStrike.”

According to the White House, Trump told Zelensky, “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike . . .,” adding, “The server, they say Ukraine has it.”

The whistleblower also said that Trump had explicitly asked the Ukrainians to meet or speak with Giuliani and Barr on these matters, referring to them “multiple times in tandem.”

“I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it,” Trump told Zelensky, according to the White House readout. “I’m sure you will figure it out.”

Mark Zaid, a lawyer for the whistleblower, said that the complaint itself noted that it was based both on the whistleblower’s personal knowledge and on information gathered from other officials.

Despite some Republican claims to the contrary, the law that protects government officials who step forward with knowledge of wrongdoing has never required their information be firsthand, he said.

“It’s always gratifying when the veracity of a client’s concerns are proven to be true,” he said. “It is obviously disappointing at times to see that something improper might have happened in the government, but there’s a sense of pride in seeing someone stand up for truth and integrity and in seeing the process work to address it.”

In the complaint, the whistleblower described other internal government deliberations that were not public at the time the document was filed.

For instance, he wrote that he had learned from other officials that Trump instructed Vice President Mike Pence to not attend Zelensky’s inauguration in May. Current and former U.S. officials confirmed the president’s directive to The Post earlier this week.

In addition, the whistleblower asserted that in the weeks before Trump and Zelensky spoke, the Ukrainians were told that a phone call or meeting with the U.S. president — a highly sought-after mark of respect for the newly elected Ukrainian president — would depend on whether Zelensky was willing to “play ball” with Giuliani. And the whistleblower said that he had learned that Giuliani was engaging with Ukrainian officials and relaying messages between Trump and Kiev.

Giuliani has acknowledged that he conveyed Trump’s desire for Ukraine to investigate Biden to Ukrainian officials close to Zelensky.

“Your country owes it to us and to your country to find out what really happened,” Giuliani told a top aide to the Ukrainian president, according to an interview he gave The Post last month.

Late Thursday night, House investigators released a batch of text messages that buttressed in stark detail the whistleblower’s allegation that the administration was pressuring Ukraine to pursue the political investigations to get a White House meeting and foreign aid.

One message sent from Kurt Volker, then the special U.S. envoy to Ukraine, to an aide to Zelensky on July 25, hours before Trump and the Ukrainian president spoke, made the terms crystal clear.

“Heard from White House — assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate/ ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington,” Volker wrote.

In August, the Ukrainian aide Andrey Yermak told Volker in a text that the Ukrainians would make the public announcements Trump and Giuliani sought in exchange for a meeting date with the U.S. president.

“Once we have a date, will call for a press briefing, announcing upcoming visit and outlining vision for the reboot of US-UKRAINE relationship, including among other things Burisma and election meddling in investigations,” Yermak wrote, making areference to the Ukrainian gas company whose board included Hunter Biden.

Volker told House investigators in closed-door testimony Thursday that he was attempting to repair a relationship between Ukraine and the Trump administration that had been poisoned by unfounded claims Giuliani was feeding Trump.

After the whistleblower filed the complaintin August, the inspector general of the intelligence community assessed that its contents were “urgent” and “credible.”

Behind closed doors, inspector general Michael Atkinson has told House lawmakers that he made that assessment after interviewing other witnesses to events that the whistleblower described, according to people familiar with his testimony.

Part of the strength of the whistleblower complaint is that the document carefully flags when its author was sharing information provided by others, as well as instances in which the whistleblower was sharing his suspicions rather than what he knew to be true, said David Colapinto, co-founder of the National Whistleblower Center.

“I think whoever the whistleblower is understood the seriousness of the allegations, understood that it involved the White House, understood that it would get a lot of attention and prepared it carefully with that in mind,” he said.

For instance, the whistleblower wrote that he learned all U.S. security assistance to Ukraine was suspended in July. The Washington Post reported last month that the unusual directive to hold back the $400 million in money appropriated by Congress came from Trump himself.

The whistleblower wrote that the delay in the foreign aid”might have a connection with the overall effort to pressure the Ukrainian leadership.”

But, he added carefully, “I do not know definitively.”

The text messages released Thursday showed that other government officials believed there was a direct link.

“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” wrote Bill Taylor, chargé d’affaires to Ukraine, in September to U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland.

Sondland responded that he thought Taylor was “incorrect about President Trump’s intentions” and that Trump had been “clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind” — before suggesting the two speak by phone instead of in writing.

But Colapinto noted that it is not the job of the whistleblower to investigate or prove his own complaint. Under the law, a whistleblower need only be able to show he had a “reasonable belief” that a violation of law or regulation took place to receive protections from retaliation.

He said that training material about the whistleblower law for members of the intelligence community specifically includes examples where employees are told of wrongdoing by their a colleague. Employees are told they should flag the wrongdoing in such instances so it can be properly investigated.

“That’s how this is supposed to work,” he said. “The rules are supposed to encourage reporting.”