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County won't demand Cox pay $1.2M in attorney fees

GALVESTON

Galveston County Commissioners Court on Monday declined County Judge Mark Henry’s request to demand Judge Lonnie Cox pay more than $1.2 million in Henry’s attorney fees stemming from a lawsuit Cox filed against Henry.

In a 2-3 vote, the court rejected a resolution demanding Cox “reimburse the citizens of Galveston County for attorney fees.” County taxpayers have spent more than $1.2 million to pay Houston attorneys representing Henry against a lawsuit originating from the challenge of the court’s firing of a former justice administrator.

Commissioners Ken Clark and Henry voted for the resolution. Commissioners Joe Giusti, Darrell Apffel and Stephen Holmes voted against the resolution.

Cox sued Henry in 2014, arguing he had overstepped his authority and was undermining the independence of the county’s judicial branch by firing Justice Administrator Bonnie Quiroga because many of her duties served the trial judges. Henry had argued he had the right to fire her because the position is a county employee position.

The nearly three-year legal battle ended in May when the Texas Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that the county had the ability to set the salary range for the position.

Over the course of the legal battle, the county’s attorney fees reached more than $1.2 million, according to earlier reports from the county auditor’s office. Cox paid his own legal fees, and estimated in May the total to be about $30,000.

Henry and Cox are now political opponents in the race for the county judge seat.

Apffel pulled the item from the consent agenda to vote against it. Henry shot back that Apffel had supported an agenda item in January calling for the county to reimburse Cox’s legal fees.

“You placed an item on the agenda for Jan. 31 to negotiate a settlement of this case and in that settlement you wanted the county to reimburse his attorney fees,” Henry said to Apffel.

“Interestingly, his attorney fees were like $23,000 and yours were like $1.3 million, but I wasn’t going to go there,” Apffel said.

“The theory is that if we’re paying his attorney fees, he can pay our attorney fees, right?” Henry said.

As of January, the court of appeals had sided with Cox, then the county appealed the decision to the supreme court, Apffel said.

“I wasn’t going to go there, I’m just not sure what a resolution does other than political gain,” Apffel said.

“It asks the citizens to be reimbursed for the money he wasted, that’s what it does,” Henry said.

Cox, judge for the 56th District Court, said Henry was using the commissioners court for politics.

“It’s political pandering at the highest level,” Cox said. “He’s using county taxpayers’ money and time to play politics.

“Everybody knows that this is beating a dead horse. There’s no legal substance to me paying his fees, there’s no practical substance for me paying his fees.”


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'Someone out there knows this child’s family'

Investigators are expanding efforts to identify a young boy found dead on a Galveston beach last month, officials said Monday.

The FBI also is offering a $10,000 reward for information about the death of “Little Jacob,” the name investigators have given the child who a passer-by found Oct. 20 on a seawall beach near Eighth Street on the island’s East End.

Police had received “hundreds and hundreds of leads” over the past two weeks, but none had been fruitful, Galveston Police spokesman Capt. Joshua Schirard said.

A news conference held Monday was meant to generate even more leads, he said.

“My hope is that is that we don’t have to call him ‘Little Jacob’ for long,” Schirard said.

“Someone out there knows this child’s family and someone out there can help us identify this family and identify Little Jacob.”

Officials released few new material details during the morning news conference.

The boy’s death is still being treated as a homicide, and police suspect there are adults somewhere that know more details about how he ended up dead on the beach.

“It’s heartbreaking that no one has come forward to help us identify clues as to who this person was,” FBI Special Agent Ed Michel said.

The FBI has created a “seeking information” poster, which it has made available on social media and its website.

In coming days, the FBI posters will be published on roadside billboards across Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and Tennessee, Michel said.

The FBI is working with Clear Channel Outdoor, a media company, to place the billboards.

Little Jacob was 3 feet tall and weighed about 30 pounds, police said. He was estimated to have been between 3 and 5 years old. He had dark hair and brown eyes and was possibly Hispanic. He was not wearing any clothes when he was found.

Police are using all avenues to investigate the case, Schirard said.

Some normal avenues to identify a found body, such as DNA and dental records, are not as useful in the case of a young child, because there are generally fewer records available to investigators, he said.

Police have not yet received a toxicology or full autopsy report from the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office, Schirard said.

Other details about the boy’s death are being withheld to preserve the integrity of the investigation, Schirard said.

“At some point, we will be releasing that information,” Schirard said.

Police urged people to consider circumstances they know about that might be connected to Little Jacob.

A neighbor or relative might have made up an excuse about a missing child; might have commented on a child’s health or behavioral issues; and might have started missing work or other routine activities.

Police gave a name to the boy to help simplify communication between the various agencies now involved in the investigation, including the FBI and the U.S. Customs Service and Border Patrol, Schirard said.


News
Superintendents testify on Harvey's lingering damage

Galveston County school district officials told state lawmakers Monday they are worried about Hurricane Harvey’s lingering effects on district finances and accountability ratings.

Meanwhile, the state’s top education official told the Senate Education Committee during the same hearing in Houston that Harvey had been a $400 million setback for school districts in the disaster area.

Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25 in Rockport, about 200 miles south of Galveston County. It dumped more than 50 inches of rain in some parts of this county, swelling creeks and bayous and flooding an estimated 20,000 homes in the county and devastating parts of Houston.

Education officials described issues with everything from Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements to upcoming state finance funding problems as they recover from the damage wrought by the storm.

The storm displaced as many as 40,000 county residents, many of who are still living in places other than their homes. School officials told lawmakers the storm was complicating the statistical reporting school districts are required to do and are judged upon.

“We believe 3,000 students’ homes were damaged by the flooding, but we aren’t sure,” Dickinson Superintendent Vicki Mims said. “About 1,100 students were made homeless by the storm.”

Mims joined representatives for Clear Creek and Galveston school districts, in addition to districts around the region, in testifying to the committee about Harvey recovery efforts.

Dickinson’s enrollment was down 146 students since the storm, and district officials have had difficulty accounting for 29 of them, which could undermine district accountability scores, Mims said.

The district is busy rebuilding and can’t dedicate resources to finding the 29 students, Mims said.

About 350 employees’ homes flooded during Harvey, Mims said.

“When you’re a district in a small town, people are going to turn to you in moments like this,” Mims said.

Clear Creek Independent School District, meanwhile, anticipates between $18.9 million and $19.4 million in damage to facilities because of the storm, Superintendent Greg Smith said.

“Harvey also left 2,700 students homeless,” Smith said. “That number will probably increase.”

Clear Creek has spent about $54,000 on substitute teachers while its employees try to rebuild, Smith said.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Morath also testified, outlining problems Harvey-affected districts faced, including the potential loss of funding because of declining student populations or property values.

Morath estimated it would cost Texas about $400 million to help the districts with recapture.

The storm displaced families, who have sought temporary residence in hotels, shelters and housing in the county and elsewhere, disrupting the start of school and shaking up enrollment.

Student population is particularly critical to school districts because it’s one of the primary ways the Texas Education Agency determines their funding.

The possibility of losing more funding comes at a time when school boards across Galveston County are forced to adopt deficit budgets as they struggle with myriad issues. Those include a state system that funnels local tax money to districts with small tax bases, less state funding and the loss of other funding avenues.

Because property values — another critical factor determining district funding — are already calculated for the current year, districts would experience a loss of funding a year in the future, Morath said.

Galveston ISD Trustee Anthony Brown also testified before the committee, discussing potential issues related to FEMA funding districts might encounter.

“The only thing that’s certain about being ready for the next storm is that there won’t be another storm like this,” Brown said.

Galveston ISD is still seeking about $17 million in reimbursement money from Hurricane Ike-related damages, Brown said. Hurricane Ike struck in 2008.

“Generations of auditors have seen us through this process,” Brown said. “Our people have retired who understood it. They told us it takes an average of eight years.”

Aransas Pass Superintendent Mark Kemp told the committee his district was already on its second FEMA auditor.

Almost half of Galveston’s fund balance is tied up in the reimbursements it is still expecting from FEMA, Brown said.

“This is ridiculous,” Sen. Paul Bettencourt said.

Education officials also requested special consideration when it comes to state accountability standards, but Sen. Larry Taylor said that needed to be balanced to make sure districts are still maintaining high standards.


Mark Henry


Darrell Apffel


Lonnie Cox


News
Coming Wednesday

Galveston County is exploring legal options for recovering tax dollars spent battling opioid abuse.


News
Lawyers: Police didn't let accused killer make call

GALVESTON

Lawyers for a League City man accused of murdering his former wife want a Galveston County judge to suppress two recorded statements their client gave to police.

Shaun Philip Hardy is charged with the murder of Anne-Christine Johnson, his former wife. League City Police arrested Hardy Dec. 30, 2016, after finding Johnson’s body in his garage. He was charged with murder and with tampering with her body.

Police questioned Hardy after his arrest and recorded two statements from him, one in his backyard and another at the League City Police Department, according to a motion to suppress filed in the Galveston County 212th District Court.

Defense attorneys Dick DeGuerin and Todd Ward want those statements kept out of Hardy’s trial scheduled to start in February. The lawyers claim that Hardy asked several times if he could call his lawyer, but police did not allow him to use his cellphone, which investigators had seized, according to the motion to suppress.

An arrest affidavit from Dec. 31, 2016, stated that Hardy admitted killing Johnson and gave some details to police about how it happened.

The motion to suppress, which was filed Oct. 23, includes some excerpted comments that Hardy made to police asking to have his lawyer present and responses from police.

The excerpted police comments acknowledged that Hardy had a right to have his attorney present, according to the motion.

The motion does not include the full transcription of either interrogation, but it does describe the first interrogation as lasting 41 minutes.

DeGuerin and Ward said the police’s mental badgering led to Hardy breaking down and answering questions, according to the motion.

The attorney that Hardy was asking to call Dec. 30, 2016, was Dan Krieger, according to the motion.

Judge Patricia Grady of the 212th District Court will hear arguments on the motion to suppress the recorded statements Jan. 24.

Hardy’s trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 26, 2018, according to court records. He is free on bond, and the court requires that he wear an ankle monitor.


Shaun Philip Hardy


Anne- Christine Johnson