The DA's hot-check fund, more sad jail tales

Slush fund

Bexar County DA Susan Reed has been in office for a decade now, and she’s seeking another four-year term next November. While the public might be most concerned with criminal-conviction and crime rates, nothing riles up fellow politicians like a pot of few-strings-attached money, and Reed has access to at least two.

Under state law, DAs and law-enforcement agencies can use a portion of proceeds from asset forfeitures — property seized related to criminal charges — to supplement their department budgets with, say, drug-interdiction helicopters, overtime pay for officers, and investigative equipment (buying or leasing a juvenile-detention center, though, is a no-no). Although officials who make use of the funds are supposed to submit budgets ahead of time to their commissioners courts, Reed was criticized by the Bexar County Auditor in 2007 for asking forgiveness rather than permission. (The Bexar County Constable and Sheriff’s offices also take a share of the state asset-forfeiture funds.)

Lax regulation of the collection and spending of these funds across the state has led to international headlines and a major lawsuit out of Tenaha, Texas, where DA Lynda Russell has asked the Texas Attorney General if she may use asset-forfeiture funds to defend herself from the claim that she abused the assets-forfeiture law and discriminated against African Americans, to boot. The Tenaha case provided a compelling backdrop for last session’s attempt to tighten up the law’s loopholes. Senate Bill 1529 would have expanded the list of items that can’t be bought with asset-forfeiture funds (alcohol, politicians ... ) and required more detailed accounting reports, while giving the AG authority to fine agencies that misuse the funds and funnel those fines to drug-court programs. Alas, it died in the great Voter ID attrition of 2009 (look for it to reappear, pretty much intact, in 2011).

SB 1529 does not address the Hot Check Fund, another source of ready cash for Reed that has even fewer restrictions attached to it. Bexar County check bouncers currently add around $650,000 to the pot each year in $10- $75 increments (down $100,000 since 2006, a sign, says Reed, that her office’s aggressive hot-check roundups are a deterrent, as well as a side effect of the growing use of debit cards). Reed spends roughly the same amount on “Personnel Services” — primarily for her hot-check staff, she says: 15 full-time peeps, plus half an attorney and half an investigator. Reed has also used the fund to kickstart her No Refusal DWI holiday weekends `see the QueQue, November 4`. The sometimes hefty line items for travel ($34,000 in 2008, for instance) Reed attributes to required Continuing Legal Education for her 170-strong staff. She does not pay for her personal security detail out of the Hot Check Fund, she said.

In the decade she’s been in office, Reed built up a Hot Check “rainy-day fund” that hit a high of $792,000 in 2006, but as fee collections have declined in the past few years, she has dipped into it to meet her budget, and as of fiscal year 2009, it was at $587,000. Critics suggest she could put that money to better use — implementing 24/7 forced blood draws or paying for the testing of that rape-kit backlog at SAPD, for instance — but Reed says she needs the cushion as we head into our new recession budget (her budget is 99 percent people, she says, and cash shortages mean layoffs), and in the case of the rape kits, it’s bad policy to take on financial responsibility that belongs elsewhere. “When you start saying you’re going to start bearing a cost born through an investigative agency, you’re setting a precedent,” she said.

The QueQue would like to submit a request for payment to the fund: We’ve requested detailed itemizations for e.g. “Personnel Services” and “Travel & remunerations,” but the initial response from the DA’s office is that that will take a lot of “man hours” — a euphemism, we’re afraid, for “expensive.” Rather than make the public pay to know how she spends that cash, perhaps the DA could underwrite the cost of transparent accounting for Bexar County’s Hot Check Fund? We wouldn’t ask for much else for Christmas.

Slammer jammer

The damage done when the City Manager’s Municipal Integrity Committee (accidentally?) deep-sixed a handful of complaints about prisoner abuse at the Frank D. Wing detention facility may be contained — when the police department’s Internal Affairs began looking into the two-year-old files last winter, most of the complainants had disappeared or didn’t want to dig up the past — but key structural problems remain in place at the jail.

As the Current reported December 2 in “The story that didn’t run,” in 2006 City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Municipal Court Presiding Judge John Bull commissioned a review of the Court by Judge B. Robert Dorfman, a former presiding judge from Phoenix, Sculley’s last post. Even in the dry and straightforward words of Dorfman’s report, a sense of alarm comes through: The first finding reads “The existing organizational structure infringes on the constitutional concept of the judiciary as an independent branch of government.” That’s because the City Manager appoints the Municipal Court Clerk, who does not report directly to the Presiding Judge, and the Court is responsible for managing the detention center, even though the jail’s staff are City employees. As Dorfman wrote, “Detention facilities are more properly an executive (enforcement) branch responsibility most commonly operated by a police department or other enforcement agency.”

Since then, the City has taken some steps to improve the situation. Court Clerk Fred Garcia, whom Sculley appointed in 2006 in consultation with Judge Bull, credits Sculley with recognizing the Court’s need for independence. “Before the current City Manager, the Court was not looked at as a separate body,” Garcia said. Council also created the Municipal Court Advisory Committee in response to Dorfman’s recommendations. Its six members, which include Mayor Julián Castro, review and recommend judicial applicants to Council, and can also advise on other issues related to the Court.

But the jail remains under the Court’s authority, despite an early 2007 followup report by Dorfman, which reminded the City that the situation creates a “significant potential for liability on the part of the City.” The County has since assumed magistration responsibilities at Frank D. Wing, and Dorfman’s report indicated that it might be willing to take up the detention facility as well once Haven for Hope, which handles public-intoxication cases, is fully

But Garcia says he hasn’t heard any talk of addressing the issue, and former Council member Chip Haass, who was in office when the Dorfman report was commissioned and sits on the Municipal Court Oversight Committee, says the initial momentum has slowed considerably. “Unfortunately,” he said, “we get awfully caught up in the judicial hiring process.” Although the committee is only a recommending body, Haass says they share responsibility for moving the issue forward. Even if City management or the Court doesn’t take the initiative to sit down with the County or another entity to hammer out a solution, the committee could prepare a recommendation and forward it to Council. “That’s the way we could force the issue.”

The City Manager and the Mayor did not return calls seeking comment.

Gang plank

When 54-year-old Bexar County jail guard Daniel Melgoza was indicted last month on charges of depriving inmates of their civil rights and obstruction of justice — indictments rooted in allegations he beat and kicked two inmates at the jail five years ago — San Antonians weren’t shocked.

“This confirms abuse,” Antonio Diaz of the Texas Indigenous Council said, standing outside the Bexar County Courthouse late last month. “There’s a lot of allegations of more abuse.”

Though he’s jumping ahead of the legal process — Melgoza has yet to see his day in court, after all — Diaz’s account of multiple allegations is accurate. According to Mary Jane Martinez, the mistreatment of her son, Jimmy Aldana III, being held in the County lockup on burglary charges until a January trial date — began when he was first processed into the facility. Although her son is not a gang member, Martinez says jail administrators forced the 21-year-old to choose a gang affiliation for his cell assignment. Since then, he’s been warehoused for several months on the second floor with members of a prominent international drug gang.

The arrangement hasn’t been without incident. On October 29, a prison guard opened Aldana’s cell door, allowing several inmates to swarm in and beat Aldana and his cellmate Joshua Martinez so severely they were both sent to the jail’s infirmary, Mary Jane Martinez said. The cell was later set on fire.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards investigated and found that the jailer was at fault for opening the cell door, but TCOJS director Adan Munoz Jr. blamed Aldana and Martinez for the fire. Mary Jane Martinez denies the allegation, citing a conversation she had with a jail staffer who confirmed her son was in the infirmary at the time of the fire. She says that Aldana’s refusal to join the gang, and consistent attempts to file grievances with the jail administration threaten his safety.

The QueQue was unable to reach Roger Dovalina, deputy chief over detention, and Deputy Chief Dale Bennett, the department’s spokesperson, for comment.

At the heart of the dispute is the lack of transparency at the facility, says Diana Ibanez, vice president of the local Judicial, Criminal & Social Justice Coalition, whose son is also incarcerated. The Coalition filed a complaint about this incident, and others like it, last month with the U.S. Department of Justice, FBI, Texas Rangers, ACLU, Texas Civil Rights Project and a range of political leaders. “We have tried to meet with Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz, who is responsible for the overall operation of the Bexar County facility, as well as Chief Deputy Mr. Roland Tafolla in an effort to address the serious violations of civil rights that are being perpetrated, on a daily basis, at the Bexar County Detention Center,” the group wrote.

The group specifically accuses a jailer of beating up Aldana and pre-trial detainee Alfred Bela. “The beating was so bad that it caused Mr. Bela to lose his hearing,” the letter states. Families of the detainees are routinely denied requested records, said Ibanez. “There’s no way for anyone to get any proof of what’s going on in there,” she complained.

To rectify that failure, Diaz would like to see the Bexar County Commissioners approve funding to install more complete surveillance cameras throughout the facility. “There’s no way to verify without video, because all we have to rely on is his testimony … It’s time to move into the 21st century,” Diaz said.

Martinez said that despite her many complaints “he’s still on that same floor, my son, and he’s still in danger.”

Borrowed time

After months of overbearing and manipulative treatment by CPS Energy officials attempting to lease our mental real estate out to their nuclear overlords, Chief Sustainability Officer Chris Eugster dropped some new numbers Monday that suggest we can all finally go back to sleep. The sales job that had sought to bring San Antonio’s merry billions into the expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear complex is winding down and very near dead.

In the first redraft of the publicy owned utility’s Strategic Energy Plan since the spring, Eugster told the CPS Board of Trustees that a new source of power generation wouldn’t be needed until 2023 — that the amount of energy needed has dropped roughly by half.

“It’s really has given us another three years to make that decision,” he said. “We are going to seriously have to rethink our generation capacity over the long run.”

The power required in the 2020s won’t be “baseload” power that runs all the time, like nuclear or coal. Instead, gas-fired peaking units that can be cut on and off will be better-suited. Natural gas is a great complement to renewables like wind and solar, says the current cover story in Solar Today, “Texas: The Next Solar Superpower?”

CPS’s reassessment suggests nuclear expansion is still a better investment than natural gas, by a hair. Eugster said the City would still be able to afford the STP expansion even if the overnight costs were as high as $13.9 billion. (That’s without financing. Previous estimates have suggested financing would tack another $3 billion on the total figure.)

However, Eugster told the Current on Tuesday that the cents-per-killowatt-hour difference between natural gas and nuclear boiled down to the difference between the “lower eights” and the “higher eights.” “It’s pretty close,” he said, while stressing again that both nuclear and natural gas are shifting, volatile energy sources.

His key message to the Board, however, was that beyond the pennies-per-electron gap, nuclear has serious drawbacks.

“One is the uncertainty of cost and the future escalation. I mean, what will the final cost of the nuclear plant be? There’s no way for us to model that. … The plant comes online before our projected need. And increasingly, it looks like the lock-in to the long lead-time for the nuclear expansion may prevent capitalizing on new technology or pricing breakthroughs in renewables or energy storage.”

Truly priceless: the value of the time the new analysis gives the city before any major construction decision must be made. “The fact that we can wait five-plus years before a next-
generation plant is required would allow us to evaluate developments of the renewables, the energy storage, and evaluate the performance of `efficiency programs`,” Eugster said. “And the gas option, it’s not a decision we have to make today, it would be a good back-up if renewables or energy efficiency or energy storage don’t play out as quickly as people are saying.”

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