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Court chases $500K; judge calls probe 'bill of goods'

GALVESTON

Galveston County commissioners voted Monday to file claims against three county departments over the loss of more than $500,000 to a computer scammer earlier this year.

The county also released a report by a private forensic group that determined, to the disappointment of County Judge Mark Henry, that the blame for the loss of didn’t rest on a “single department or a single individual associated with Galveston County.”

Henry had hoped the company would be more specific about which people within the county were to blame for the loss of funds, he said.

“They sold us a bill of goods and didn’t deliver on it,” Henry said. “I think they intentionally avoided assigning blame. That is not what they told us they’d do.”

A scammer posing as a county contractor in May tricked an employee in the county’s purchasing department into changing how and where a $525,282 payment for road work would be made. The scammer has not been caught and the money has not been recovered.

On Monday, after meeting in private with the county’s legal department, commissioners unanimously voted to pursue claims against the surety bonds held by the county auditor, county treasurer and county purchasing agent over the lost funds.

It’s not clear whether the claim will be successful, but Precinct 1 Commissioner Darrell Apffel said the county had a “duty and obligation” to try to recover the money in whatever ways are possible.

“Don’t take this personal or as a fault,” Apffel said to County Auditor Randall Rice during the meeting. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got do to get this money.”

Public officials in Texas are required to procure bonds before taking office. The premium of the bonds are paid for by the county. If the claims are accepted by the bonding company, it’s possible that future premiums will increase, Henry said.

The vote authorized the legal department to research the issues around making the bond claims, Henry said.

“None of us are 100 percent familiar with the mechanics of it,” Henry said.

Less than an hour after voting to move forward on the claims, the county released the report from the Dawson Forensic Group it commissioned in July.

The report confirmed the description of the scam county officials related just after the event.

The scammer used a form obtained through the county’s website to request a change on the bank account information for the road contractor — requesting that instead of paying with a paper check, the county send funds to an account through an electronic transfer.

The scammer created fake email addresses to pose as both a county employee and the contractor, essentially becoming a middleman for communications between the two sides.

The scammer used email addresses that were “close to, but not identical to” the real email addresses used by the county and the contractor, according to the report.

When the scammer submitted the form to the county purchasing department, no one checked that the new bank account was valid, according to the report.

“Believing that the treasurer’s office employee had validated the vendor information provided in the request,” the purchasing department changed the payment information in its system, the report stated.

Previously, county officials said the attack happened over the course of months, and that the scammers presented forged signatures to help them convince the county that the change in accounts was authentic.

County employees failed to recognize the attack as it was happening, the report stated. The county also lacked validation processes and county departments didn’t have a clear understanding about who was responsible for validating the accounts, according to the report.

The report does not place blame on a single office for the mishap.

“A department or individual cannot be held accountable for noncompliance with processes that may not have been properly designed or that did not exist,” the report stated.

The report also lauded the changes that the auditor, purchasing department and treasurer had made since the scam was revealed. That work was done so thoroughly that the forensic group said its costs were lower than the $14,900 it had originally quoted the county.

The company has not yet submitted a final invoice for its investigation, a county spokesman said.


News
editor's pickcenterpiece
Sale of Daro farm marks end of era, family says

LEAGUE CITY

The way sisters Catherine Daro Palermo and Margaret Daro Bilotta see it, the era of agriculture has officially ended in north Galveston County.

The two stood Monday outside Palermo’s house off state Highway 3, not far from Ralph Parr Elementary and near a large field, which, just months ago, was one of the county’s last vegetable farms, the sisters said.

“It’s the end of the farming era in League City,” Palermo, 85, said. “It’s been here since the beginning.”

Palermo and Bilotta, 83, recently sold the family farm to Clear Creek Independent School District. Had they held out until 2020, the farm would have been in operation for 100 years, the sisters said.

“The mind was willing to get to that milestone, but the body just couldn’t make it happen,” Bilotta said.

ITALIAN ROOTS

The Daro family arrived in the League City area in 1906 and the sisters’ father, Pete Daro, eventually purchased the vegetable farm along what is now state Highway 3 in 1920, she said.

They were among about 35 Italian families from a town in northern Italy called Cercenasco who migrated to Galveston County and began farms, Palermo said.

“The reason they came to this area is that the Italian consulate was in Dickinson at the time,” Bilotta said.

That, and opportunity for farmers was greater in America than it was in Italy, they said.

League City of the 1920s was far different from the one today, said Catharin Lewis, the museum director and curator for the League City Historical Society.

“In the 1920s, there were about 300 people living in here,” she said. “Now, it’s over 100,000 — that’s a big difference. And it wasn’t just the population.”

The area that is now League City was originally mostly grassland and prairie before a few houses and businesses popped up, Lewis said. Then residents started several cattle ranches and, by the 1920s, the region was home to several Italian and Japanese farms, she said.

THE DARO FARM

For the first years of its existence, Daro family members working on the farm sold a wide variety of fruits and vegetables — from strawberries and collard greens to beets, carrots, eggplants and cantaloupes, among others — and were dependent on mules to transport the produce to market in Galveston, Palermo said.

The family by 1922 had also started taking the farm’s bounty into Houston as well and, shortly after the end of World War II, purchased a tractor, Palermo said.

“We thought that was some piece of technology,” Palermo said.

Eventually, the sisters’ brother, Johnnie Pete Daro, took on a larger role in running the farm’s operations and would continue the family business until his death in 2015, they said.

Over the years, Johnnie Daro introduced herbs into the farm’s offerings and, as he aged, began specializing in cantaloupe and watermelon in the summer and mustard greens and collard greens in the fall, Palermo said.

The cantaloupe in particular was a local favorite because Johnnie Daro grew it using a special seed and so he eventually became known as the “Cantaloupe Man,” Palermo said.

TODAY’S LEAGUE CITY

While some longtime residents lament that League City has become a city, in fact as well as name, the Daro sisters are more optimistic about the direction it’s going.

“Some people wish it would have stayed the same, but no,” Palermo said. “It’s wonderful to see the progress.”

League City is now Galveston County’s biggest city and officials anticipate it will continue to grow. The city’s population in January was just shy of 105,000, up from about 102,634 at the same time in 2017, officials said.

But, only about 52 percent of League City is developed and projections show the population could rise above 200,000, officials said.

Over the years, the Daro family has personally witnessed tremendous change — watching the highway their farm straddles evolve from U.S. Route 75 to its current state Highway 3 designation, Palermo said.

“When we started school, there was just one school with all 12 grades,” Bilotta said.

As Johnnie Daro aged and had trouble maintaining all of the farm’s 36 acres, he sold 14 acres to Clear Creek Independent School District in the mid-2000s, Palermo said.

“My brother never had any children, so it made him happy knowing that it was going toward education,” Palermo said.

The district eventually used that land to build Ralph Parr Elementary, which opened in 2009.

END OF AN ERA

After Johnnie Daro died in 2015, the two sisters and Bilotta’s son tried to keep the farm in business, but time eventually caught up with them, they said.

“We cried when we sold the farm equipment, especially,” Palermo said. “For my brother, it was his toy. But that was just the legacy we had — farming. We had wanted to farm until January of 2020 to make it to 100 years, but we didn’t make it.”

The two sisters in September reached an agreement with the school district to sell the remaining 22 acres, Palermo said.

District officials will use the land to improve parking at Ralph Parr Elementary and move the playgrounds there, said Paul Miller, the district’s director of facilities.

“A lot of people just don’t want to do this kind of work anymore,” Bilotta said of farming.

While the sale of the Daro family farm is, in some ways, the end of an era, it was time to take a step back, Palermo said.

And, in some ways, the legacy of Johnnie Daro and the family farm will continue.

Educators at Ralph Parr Elementary recently named a student garden on campus after their brother, the sisters said.


Washington
AP
At Capitol, Bush saluted as 'gentle soul,' 'great man'

WASHINGTON

The nation’s capital embraced George H.W. Bush in death Monday with solemn ceremony and high tributes to his service and decency, as the remains of the 41st president took their place in the Capitol rotunda for three days of mourning and praise by the political elite and everyday citizens alike.

With Bush’s casket atop the Lincoln Catafalque, first used for Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 funeral, dignitaries came forward to honor the Texan whose efforts for his country extended three quarters of a century from World War II through his final years as an advocate for volunteerism and relief for people displaced by natural disaster.

President from 1989 to 1993, Bush died Friday at age 94.

In an invocation opening Monday evening’s ceremony, the U.S. House chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J Conroy, praised Bush’s commitment to public service, from Navy pilot to congressman, U.N. ambassador, envoy to China and then CIA director before being elected vice president and then president.

“Here lies a great man,” said Rep. Paul Ryan, the House speaker, and “a gentle soul. ... His legacy is grace perfected.”

Vice President Mike Pence and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell also spoke. President Donald Trump did not attend, but he and first lady Melania Trump came to the Capitol later Monday to pay tribute. They stood in front of the casket with their eyes closed for a few moments, before Trump saluted the casket.

Political combatants set aside their fights to honor a Republican who led in a less toxic era and at times found commonality with Democrats despite sharp policy disagreements. Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, past and incoming House speaker, exchanged a warm hug with George W. Bush and came away dabbing her face. Bush himself seemed to be holding back tears.

Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, placed wreaths in the short ceremony before the rotunda was to be opened to the public. It was to remain open overnight.

Sent off from Texas with a 21-gun salute, Bush’s casket was carried to Joint Base Andrews outside the capital city aboard an aircraft that often serves as Air Force One and designated “Special Air Mission 41” in honor of Bush’s place on the chronological list of presidents.

Cannon roared again outside the Capitol as the sun sank and his eldest son, former President George W. Bush, stood with his hand over his heart, watching the casket’s procession up the steps.

Bush was remembered just feet away from what he called “Democracy’s front porch,” the west-facing steps of the Capitol where he was sworn in as president.

He will lie in state in the Capitol for public visitation through Wednesday. An invitation-only funeral service, which the Trumps will attend, is set for Wednesday at Washington National Cathedral. Although Bush’s funeral services are suffused with the flourishes accorded presidents, by his choice they will not include a formal funeral procession through downtown Washington. The younger President Bush, his wife, Laura, and others from the family traveled on the flight from Houston.

On Sunday, students, staff and visitors had flocked to Bush’s presidential library on the campus of Texas A&M University, with thousands of mourners paying their respects at a weekend candlelight vigil at a nearby pond and others contributing to growing flower memorials at Bush statues at both the library and a park in downtown Houston.

“I think he was one of the kindest, most generous men,” said Marge Frazier, who visited the downtown statue on Sunday while showing friends from California around.

After services in Washington, Bush will be returned to Houston to lie in repose at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church before burial Thursday at his family plot on the library grounds. His final resting place will be alongside Barbara Bush, his wife of 73 years who died in April, and Robin Bush, the daughter they lost to leukemia in 1953 at age 3.

Trump has ordered the federal government closed Wednesday for a national day of mourning. Flags on public buildings are flying at half-staff for 30 days out of respect for Bush.

Trump, who has not always uttered kind words about the Bush family, offered nothing but praise in the hours after the former president’s death was announced.

“He was just a high-quality man who truly loved his family,” Trump said Saturday while in Argentina. “One thing that came through loud and clear, he was very proud of his family and very much loved his family. So he was a terrific guy and he’ll be missed.”

Bush’s passing puts him back in the Washington spotlight after more than two decades living the relatively low-key life of a former president. His death also reduces membership in the ex-presidents’ club to four: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

One of Bush’s major achievements was assembling the international military coalition that liberated the tiny, oil-rich nation of Kuwait from invading neighbor Iraq in 1991. The war lasted just 100 hours. He also presided over the end of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

A humble hero of World War II, Bush was just 20 when he survived being shot down during a bombing run over a Japanese island. He had joined the Navy when he turned 18.

Shortly before leaving the service, he married his 19-year-old sweetheart, Barbara Pierce, and forged the longest presidential marriage in U.S. history. Bush enrolled at Yale University after military service, becoming a scholar-athlete and captaining the baseball team to two College World Series before graduating Phi Beta Kappa after just 2½ years.

After moving to Texas to work in the oil business, Bush turned his attention to politics in the 1960s. He was elected to the first of two terms in Congress in 1967. He would go on to serve as ambassador to the United Nations and China, head of the CIA and chairman of the Republican National Committee before being elected to two terms as Ronald Reagan’s vice president.

Soon after he reached the height of his political popularity following the liberation of Kuwait, with public approval ratings that are the envy of today’s politicians, the U.S. economy began to sour and voters began to believe that Bush, never a great communicator — something even he acknowledged — was out of touch with ordinary people.

He was denied a second term by Arkansas Gov. Clinton, who would later become a close friend. The pair worked together to raise tens of millions of dollars for victims of a 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and of Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005.

“Who would have thought that I would be working with Bill Clinton of all people?” he joked in 2005.

In a recent essay, Clinton declared of Bush: “I just loved him.”

———

Associated Press writers Juan A. Lozano and Nomaan Marchant reported from Houston.


Coming Wednesday

A surge of interest, and questions, surround start of Hurricane Harvey housing program.


News
Groups say maps show corps' true plans for coastal barrier

GALVESTON

Three environmental groups say documents obtained through an open records request to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reveal the agency’s true intentions for the placement of a storm-surge barrier along the Texas coast.

The records, mapping shapefiles used to draw lines on graphics modeling the coastal barrier, show a barrier that would run down local highways and potentially leave hundreds of homes between the barrier and the Gulf of Mexico.

The groups are urging area residents to use the maps to find their own addresses, and use that information to develop public comments about the barrier plan to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But an Army Corps official in charge of the coastal barrier study said the files don’t represent the corps’ final plans and that the technical design of the barrier is only about 10 percent complete.

The three environmental groups — the Galveston Bay Foundation, Bayou City Waterkeeper and the Turtle Island Restoration Network — held an informational meeting at Galveston’s Rosenberg Library last Wednesday evening. The meeting focused largely on the groups’ concern about the ecological effects the barrier would have on Galveston Bay, and on how people with similar concerns can submit public comments to the Texas General Land Office.

But the meeting also included a presentation of what the groups say is the clearest picture available of where the corps would build levees and seawalls along Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island.

The groups filed a public information request for shapefiles the Army Corps used to draw maps showing barrier concepts. Those maps have been widely shared, but only in ways that show the barriers from high above, they said.

A closer inspection of the files showed the corps drew its lines with some degree of intention, the groups said. The shapefiles show a barrier built along state Highway 87 on Bolivar Peninsula and along FM 3005 on Galveston Island.

“This is going to be the footprint,” said Joanie Steinhaus, the Gulf Program Director for the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “This is their selected project.”

In that scenario, thousands of homes in both places would be left outside the barrier — most of them on the south sides of the highways.

Hundreds of other properties would be in the direct path of the wall, and could be targeted for eminent domain, the groups said.

“Our argument is, based on what we’ve seen with the environmental impact and the feasibility study, as well as through conversations with them, that this is probably a pretty close, if not exact alignment of what they are going to be proposing in their final study,” said Jordan Macha, executive director of Bayou City Waterkeeper, which states its mission is to protect and restore the integrity of bayous, rivers, streams and bays through advocacy and education.

Specifics about the alignment of the barrier cannot be found in the report released on Oct. 26 by the corps. While the report describes the alignment generally, officials said that a final alignment wouldn’t be decided until the report is finalized in 2021.

But the next two months are the only time in the development of that final study during which people will be able to submit their thoughts on the proposal, said Kelly Burks-Copes, the project director for the corps’ coastal barrier study.

The shapefiles don’t represent a final plan for barrier placement, and the corps’ recommendation could change to move the barrier nearer to the Gulf of Mexico, or closer to Galveston Bay, as economic and environmental impact studies continue, she said.

“This is an evolving process, we’re only two and half years in and we have two to go,” Burks-Copes said. “We’re only at 10 percent design at this point.”

The study was still in its first phase: where the corps was trying to decide whether a barrier at the coast or a barrier along the rim of Galveston Bay was more effective, Burks-Copes said. The corps decided to focus on the coastal barrier and is now studying what the best placement on the island and the peninsula would be, Burks-Copes said.

“That line is very conceptual,” Burks-Copes said. “It could very well move to the front of the island. There’s several things that could happen and we’re not saying anything is going to happen yet.”

Still, people who are concerned about what the shapefiles show should say so in their public comments, she said

For the environmental groups, alignment and the effect on personal property is just one of the issues being raised as an objection to the coastal barrier project, said Scott Jones, the director of advocacy for the Galveston Bay Foundation

The groups are calling for more environmental analyses of the issue, to answer questions about how the corps’ proposal and other alternatives could affect Galveston Bay and its fisheries, Jones said.

The corps will host a public meeting about the coastal barrier plan in Galveston from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Dec. 12 at the Galveston Island Convention Center, 5600 Seawall Blvd. People can submit written and verbal comments about the barrier plan at the meeting.


News
Galveston plans to revamp sister city program

GALVESTON

The city hopes to clean up a program that promotes cultural exchange and partnership by formalizing standards for an unofficial sister city committee.

The 15-member volunteer group has seen several iterations over the years, but a more formalized version will help solidify programs, city spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.

The sister cities program partners two communities in different countries for cultural exchange.

The city council will eventually discuss empaneling a group to manage the relationship formally, Barnett said.

“We’ve discussed three-year terms, without term limits, and allow non-Galveston residents on the committee,” Barnett said.

The city council may also cut ties with three of Galveston’s five partners, she said.

Relationships with Armavir, Armenia; Trivandrum, India; and Veracruz, Mexico are inactive, so the council will discuss ending them to focus on the other two, Barnett said.

The city is active with two of the five current partnerships with Niigata, Japan and Stravanger, Norway, Barnett said.

“The city council will consider changes to our sister city programs to dissolve our formal sister city relationships with the three inactive communities,” Barnett said.

Besides the symbolic significance, the partnership has created concrete programs in Galveston schools.

Galveston Independent School District students exchange regularly with students in Niigata, district Director of Fine Arts Stephen Duncan said. He helped coordinate an anniversary celebration with Niigata officials in 2015 and is still active in promoting the partnership among students, he said.

“There’s just something right about being multicultural and multinational and folks having direct contact with people from around the world,” Duncan said.

Students have gone to both Niigata and Stravanger to study on a short-term basis, he said.

He pointed to a video exchange program managed by Ball High School Hospitality Program Director Sherry Rooks as an example of this program’s concrete benefit.

“The best way for a teenager to learn something a lot of times is from another teenager,” Rooks said.

Right now, her students are learning about Japanese recycling programs, Rooks said.

Duncan also sees the exchange as a chance to coordinate on problems facing both cities, he said.

Niigata officials have been interested in learning about Galveston’s beach reclamation projects and both have assisted the other in times of emergency, he said. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in 2008, Niigata sent $35,000 to Galveston to save or replant trees, Assistant City Secretary Nellie De La Fuente said. President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded nonprofit Sister Cities International in 1956 to connection American cities with other communities around the world.

More than 60 years later, the nonprofit has 500 member communities with 2,000 partnerships in more than 140 countries, according to its website.