State justice denies improper use of political funds

AUSTIN (AP) Texas Supreme Court Justice Paul Green has denied an accusation by a judicial watchdog group that he improperly used campaign funds to reimburse his mileage expenses.

Texas Watch, a group that monitors the Texas Supreme Court and civil justice issues, said Green has used political contributions to pay for commuting between San Antonio and the court in Austin.

Converting political contributions to personal use is against state law, and the Texas Ethics Commission has interpreted the law to ban appellate judges from using campaign donations to pay the costs of commuting between the judge's home city and the city where the court is located.

Alex Winslow, executive director of Texas Watch, said Green paid himself $16,761 for 272 separate trips between Austin and San Antonio over the past three years.

Green listed the destination of two of those trips as a court retreat in 2005, but the rest listed no specific purpose, Winslow said.

Green's most recent campaign finance report, filed Jan. 15 with the Texas Ethics Commission, listed his address as a post office box in San Antonio. Before joining the Supreme Court in January 2005, Green served on the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio.

Green said Monday that he has lived at an Austin apartment since March 2005, but he drives to San Antonio often on different types of business. He said he still owns a house in San Antonio. He said he was aware of the ban on using campaign funds for commuting.

"I'm invited, as we all are, to go to various places to speak at seminars," Green said. "Coming from San Antonio, I get lots of requests from the local bar, young lawyers, law school, any number of school groups to come in and visit."

Winslow said that explanation won't stop him from filing a complaint with the ethics commission.

"The volume of trips between Austin and San Antonio, literally several times a week, raises doubts in my mind that he's going to speak to the Rotary Club," Winslow said. "I find that very hard to believe."

Also Monday, Supreme Court Justice David Medina's lawyer said the judge will repay political funds that he used for commuting between Houston and Austin. Attorney Terry Yates said Medina had received incorrect advice from an accountant when he used the campaign funds.

"It turns out that is not permissive. He's in the process of paying the campaign back that amount of money that was improperly deducted," Yates said.

Raise approved for e-mail recipient

HOUSTON (AP) Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal recently approved an $11,000-a-year raise for his secretary to whom he had sent a series of romantic e-mails, according to a published report.

The raise for Kerry Stevens, the embattled prosecutor's executive assistant and former lover, took effect Saturday, according to county payroll records reviewed by the Houston Chronicle. The raise boosts Stevens' salary from about $78,000 per year to about $89,500, the newspaper reported in Thursday's editions.

A committee of top supervisors in the district attorney's office usually recommends merit raises to Rosenthal for approval or adjustment. However, Rosenthal was solely responsible for Stevens' raise, said Bert Graham, his first assistant district attorney.

Graham is one of the supervisors on the committee that recommends merit raises. He told the Chronicle that Rosenthal, alone, is responsible for the salaries of executive assistant and other top-echelon officials in his department.

"We left that to Chuck. She works for him," Graham told the Chronicle.

Rosenthal declined to comment, the Chronicle reported. A call to his office from The Associated Press on Thursday was not answered.

Payroll records show that many of Rosenthal's support staff saw salary ceilings increase 12 to 15 percent. Graham said the last increase in pay ceilings came about 10 years ago.

Harris County commissioners approved the salary increases on Dec. 18. Joe Stinebaker, spokesman for County Judge Ed Emmett, said commissioners usually follow recommendations of the county's elected officials.

The e-mails were among a batch of racially and sexually charged electronic messages sent or received with Rosenthal's county e-mail account. Those messages were briefly and mistakenly disclosed in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Harris County Sheriff's Department.

The messages led to Rosenthal's abandonment, under Republican Party pressure, of his GOP re-election campaign and brought calls for his resignation.

Rosenthal has said that he had an affair with Stevens in the 1980s when he was married to his first wife, but the relationship did not lead to his divorce. He has said he told his current wife about the affair before hiring Stevens when he took office in 2000.

Rosenthal also used his county e-mail account to plan his now-aborted re-election campaign. Such messages may violate Texas laws barring the use government property for political activity, and the Texas Attorney General's Office has begun investigating.

Shortage of corrections officers cited

AUSTIN (AP) The executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said Wednesday he anticipated no need to immediately close more areas of prisons or adjust inmate populations to address the continued shortage of corrections officers.

"We have no planned moves at this time," Brad Livingston said. "Obviously, we have an ongoing process."

A 300-inmate wing of the 1,300-bed Dalhart Unit was closed in October because of a shortage of guards.

Also in October, prison officials transferred 282 high-security inmates from the Beto Unit near Palestine to other prisons. They were replaced with inmates who require the supervision of fewer guards.

At a Texas Board of Criminal Justice meeting Wednesday, Livingston said the agency had 3,750 officer vacancies, or about 15 percent of the force, and that the vacancy rate had "worsened slightly."

Immigration agency says Farmers Branch needs OK to access records

FARMERS BRANCH, Texas (AP) This Dallas suburb could face a major hurdle in its latest effort to keep illegal immigrants from renting in the city: no access to a database that would help determine whether applicants are in the country legally.

Farmers Branch wants U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Homeland Security Department, to check the immigration status of thousands of renters for a new ordinance passed Tuesday night that requires prospective tenants of homes or apartments to get licenses.

The ordinance says the city building inspector would verify the information of people who say they are not U.S. citizens with the federal government, who would then report back on their immigration status.

But officials with Citizenship and Immigration Services said Wednesday the city first must seek an agreement with the agency for Farmers Branch workers to access the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements database.

High court justice use campaign funds questioned

AUSTIN (AP) Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht said Wednesday he used campaign cash to pay for dozens of flights to his hometown last year because he was campaigning, even though he's not up for re-election until 2012.

Hecht, who is elected statewide, is the third of nine Supreme Court justices to face similar campaign finance questions recently, in addition to Justices Paul Green and David Medina.

According to campaign finance reports, Hecht reported 42 payments to airlines for in-state trips last year and acknowledged that "a good bit" of them were for travel to his hometown of Carrollton, where he still owns a home and attends church. There were also six other payments to airlines for trips outside the state, primarily to Washington, D.C.

Using political contributions for personal use is against state law, and the Texas Ethics Commission has interpreted the law to ban appellate judges from using campaign donations to pay the costs of commuting between the judge's home city and the city where the court is located.

Hecht said his homestead has been in Travis County for 20 years, but he has a lot of friends in Carrollton.

Harris County prosecutors grappling with invalidated indictments

HOUSTON (AP) Harris County prosecutors grappled Wednesday with fallout from invalidated indictments handed up by a grand jury against a Texas Supreme Court justice and more than 30 others in an unrelated mortgage fraud case.

State District Judge Jim Wallace on Tuesday wiped out the indictments against Supreme Court Justice David Medina and his wife, Francisca, and against three dozen defendants in a mortgage fraud case because he said the paperwork extending the grand jury's term was improperly drafted.

Even before Wallace's action, the Harris County District Attorney's Office had already dismissed the indictments last week, claiming it did not have enough evidence against the justice to go to trial, infuriating grand jurors.

"Why did they bring the case to the grand jury if they didn't want the grand jury to do its job?" the Houston Chronicle quoted Wallace as saying. "At that point in time, you ought to stand by, and abide by, what the grand jury wishes to do."

A second grand jury on Wednesday began hearing evidence in the mortgage fraud case involving $5.6 million and 20 properties.

Lance Armstrong completes cleaning of clouded swimming hole near his Texas ranch

DRIPPING SPRINGS, Texas (AP) Cycling champ Lance Armstrong has finished cleaning up a prized swimming hole that became polluted after he began building a dam on his ranch.

Armstrong said he spent about $850,000 on the cleanup of Dead Man's Hole, which the cyclist shares with 17 neighboring landowners and is fed by a creek running through Armstrong's 450-acre ranch west of Austin.

The pool became cloudy after construction on the dam began in 2005. Armstrong said the project could serve as a lesson to others who have accidentally polluted streams or pools.

The cleanup "sets a good example for if somebody muddies up a creek," Armstrong said. "Here's how you fix it."

Armstrong said he had the silty water vacuumed out, filtered and returned.

Neighboring landowner Beryl Armstrong, who is not related to the cyclist, said neighbors were pleased with the resolution.

"The community is calm and happy," he said. "Those of us out here are content with the solution."

In "Every Second Counts," Armstrong's 2003 memoir about beating cancer, the cyclist said he bought the ranch because he was so drawn to Dead Man's Hole. Jumping off the 45-foot waterfall that feeds the pool is his "own personal way of checking for vital signs," he said in the book.

Intoxication manslaughter charge for Texas City police officer

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) Authorities issued an arrest warrant Thursday for a Texas City police officer accused of being drunk when he caused a fatal accident.

Officer John L. White, 36, was expected to surrender to the Galveston County Sheriff's Office on Friday, District Attorney Kurt Sistrunk said.

Police say White had a blood alcohol content of 0.17 when his pickup truck struck a parked car on the shoulder of a farm-to-market road at 1:20 a.m. Jan. 18. The legal limit for driving is .08.

The driver of the parked car, La Marque resident Leticia L. Ortiz, 26, died in the crash.

White, who was off-duty when the accident occurred, will be placed on administrative leave, Sistrunk said.

White's bail has been set at $40,000, the Houston Chronicle reported on its Web site Thursday.

White's attorney, Mohamed Ibrahim, could not be reached for comment.

Intoxication manslaughter is punishable by a sentence ranging from two to 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000.

A grand jury is scheduled to consider the case on Feb. 5, Sistrunk said.

3 officers killed in standoff last year remembered as heroes

ODESSA, Texas (AP) The families of three Odessa police officers killed last year received awards at a memorial service Thursday in which Police Chief Chris Pipes remembered the men for their "gallantry and extraordinary heroism."

The families of Cpls. Arlie Jones, John "Scott" Gardner and Abel Marquez received Medals of Honor, the highest honor awarded by the Odessa Police Department. They also each received a Police Cross, an award given to next of kin "when an officer makes the ultimate sacrifice while on duty."

The officers were shot to death after responding to a domestic disturbance call on Sept. 8. Larry Neil White is charged with three counts of capital murder and three counts of attempted capital murder.

Marquez's best friend on the force, Cpl. Gary Potter, said Marquez was a hero.

Gardner's father, Jack, said in a story posted on the Odessa American's Web site that his son "loved being a policeman."

Jones' wife, Rhonda, said her husband "died the way he wanted to die protecting."

"It'll never be OK," Arlie Jones Sr. said. "But at least things will slowly get better, and things like this help the healing process."

Carrollton couple appeal silence ruling

CARROLLTON, Texas (AP) A Carrollton couple has appealed a federal judge's decision upholding the constitutionality of a state law requiring school children to observe a daily moment of silence to pray or meditate.

David and Shannon Croft filed their initial lawsuit after they said one of their children was told by an elementary schoolteacher to keep quiet because the minute is a "time for prayer." The complaint, filed in 2006, named Gov. Rick Perry and the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District, which the Crofts' three children attended in the suburbs of Dallas.

District Judge Barbara Lynn upheld the constitutionality of the law earlier this month, concluding that "the primary effect of the statute is to institute a moment of silence, not to advance or inhibit religion."

The Crofts' attorney appealed the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, The Dallas Morning News reported in its online edition Thursday.

Fewer children spending nights in CPS offices

AUSTIN (AP) The number of abused or neglected children forced to spend the night in Texas Child Protective Services offices has decreased since reaching more than 100 in May, the agency said.

For each of the past three months, the number of children who slept in a CPS office because there was nowhere else to go was in the single digits.

Agency officials told the House Human Services Committee they can't fully explain why the number has dropped after rising a year ago.

"We still can't explain why this suddenly appeared on the radar in January of 2007 and reached its peak in May and has been decreasing ever since," spokesman Patrick Crimmins said. "We just don't know, although we do think or would like to believe that it's in large part due to our hard work and efforts with (foster care) providers."

They agency said it noticed about a year ago that it was having more trouble placing children in foster care.

Officials have said that most of the children who spent the night in offices had severe emotional or medical problems and were the toughest to find places for. Private organizations can refuse to provide a bed for a child for any reason.

Carey Cockerell, state protective services commissioner, said isolated instances of children sleeping at state offices in the past typically occurred after CPS workers removed children from abusive homes in the middle of the night.

Private child-placing agencies and treatment centers said the state's tighter standards and tougher enforcement have made it harder for foster homes to take in children.

"There is no forgiveness if something goes wrong," said Nancy Holman, executive director of the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services.

She said child-placing agencies and treatment centers can lose their licenses if a placement fails. Most of the children not accepted are very troubled, she said.

Army sergeant faces military trial

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) An Army sergeant accused of shooting a wounded and unarmed al-Qaida insurgent, ordering a medic to suffocate him and then fatally shooting him is headed for a military trial, his attorney said.

The decision to try Sgt. Leonardo Trevino on murder and other charges comes a month after his Article 32 hearing, which is similar to a civilian grand jury.

"What was seen at the Article 32 hearing is just a fraction of information in this case," his attorney Richard V. Stevens told The Associated Press on Thursday. "The issues are far from over."

Stevens said the case was referred to a court-martial on Jan. 10, although Fort Hood officials the past two weeks said no decision had been made about whether Trevino would go to trial.

Officials at the central Texas Army post, about 150 miles south of Fort Worth, did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

Senate panel looks into death of inmate untreated for 2 days

AUSTIN (AP) A key senator said Thursday that staff shortages led to conditions that allowed a Texas prison inmate to lay for two days with a broken back in his own filth on the floor of his cell and then die.

"I think there's enough blame to go around," Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, said after a hearing on the death. "The Legislature passes the budget and makes policy. I think the shortage of personnel played a critical role."

Larry Louis Cox, 48, died last Feb. 6, two weeks after a scuffle with guards at the high-security section within the Estelle Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The Galveston County Medical Examiner's Office ruled his death a homicide caused by medical neglect after he suffered blunt force trauma.

No one was prosecuted in the case and officials still disagree over who to blame.

The prison system's inspector general said the guards were not responsible, but blamed prison medical staff.

State raises bar for incoming college students

AUSTIN (AP) The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has signed off on new college-readiness standards in an effort to reduce the number of students who arrive on campus needing remedial work.

Teams of high school teachers, university professors and education experts have been working on the plan since the Texas Legislature ordered new standards in 2006.

The 104-page packet approved by the coordinating board on Thursday defines the necessary skills to do college-level work in English, math, science and the social sciences.

Education officials hope the plan will help more students get bachelor's degrees, and do so more efficiently. Currently, more than half the entering freshmen at Texas colleges and universities need remedial classes.

The new standards are not high school graduation requirements.

Hospital locked down as wounded Mexican police official treated

EL PASO, Texas (AP) A Mexican police commander who was shot several times in an ambush is under heavy police protection in an El Paso hospital, a precaution local officials are taking because of the recent wave of violence in neighboring Ciudad Juarez.

Cmdr. Fernando Lozano Sandoval, of the Chihuahua State Investigations Agency, was shot Monday night in the Mexican city just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. He was one of three police officials shot in Juarez over two days, and the only one to survive.

Lozano, identified by the El Paso County Sheriff's Office as a U.S. citizen, was taken Tuesday to El Paso County's Thomason Hospital, the only Level 1 trauma center within 280 miles. Details of his condition were not available Thursday.

El Paso police spokesman Officer Chris Mears said officers from his department are working with El Paso County deputy sheriffs and federal authorities to protect Lozano.