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Latest Investigations

Feds go quiet on push to protect rights of citizen-soldiers

Feds go quiet on push to protect rights of citizen-soldiers

Six months ago, members of Congress asked the Department of Labor to change rules that were shielding the identity of employers who routinely run afoul of a landmark law meant to protect the jobs of U.S. service members and reservists when they are called to duty. The House Veterans Affairs Committee opened an inquiry into the matter last year after an American-Statesman investigation into violations...
In fatal struggles with police, a controversial killer is often blamed

In fatal struggles with police, a controversial killer is often blamed

Juan Lozano’s death in South Texas during the summer of 2006 was a mystery. Dimmit County Sheriff’s deputies came upon the 26-year-old Crystal City man around midnight after a call about a man behaving bizarrely: screaming, running in the street and hiding in the bushes. A struggle broke out — officers say they pushed him to the ground after he tried to flee — and Lozano was...
‘48 marks on his back’ — How Tasers figure into deaths in police custody

‘48 marks on his back’ — How Tasers figure into deaths in police custody

The Rockdale police summary of how Rosendo Gaytan died on Halloween night 2006 during his arrest for public intoxication is clinical and brief: “While in the booking area of the Milam County Jail the subject continued to be uncompliant and assaultive. Taser was utilized in an attempt to gain subject’s compliance. While subject was being restrained he became unresponsive.” Gaytan...
A 3-minute Taser jolt, a quick settlement: Was justice served in Burnet man’s death?

A 3-minute Taser jolt, a quick settlement: Was justice served in Burnet man’s death?

When a Granite Shoals resident called 911 to report his Churchill Drive neighbor was acting crazy, police had an idea what to expect. Burnet County authorities had arrested Willie Ray Banks several times for drugs and resisting or evading arrest. In the early morning of Dec. 29, 2011, Banks was speaking nonsense, but was calm and polite, reports and video of the incident show. After several minutes...
'48 marks on his back' — How Tasers figure into deaths in police custody

'48 marks on his back' — How Tasers figure into deaths in police custody

The Rockdale police summary of how Rosendo Gaytan died on Halloween night 2006 during his arrest for public intoxication is clinical and brief: “While in the booking area of the Milam County Jail the subject continued to be uncompliant and assaultive. Taser was utilized in an attempt to gain subject’s compliance. While subject was being restrained he became unresponsive.” Gaytan...
Bills to strengthen farmworker housing inspections die in Legislature

Bills to strengthen farmworker housing inspections die in Legislature

A bill that would have given teeth to the state’s anemic inspection system for farmworker housing died in the Texas House on Thursday, never reaching the floor for a vote before a midnight deadline. House Bill 2365, authored by Rep. Ramon Romero, Jr., D-Fort Worth, unanimously passed the House Urban Affairs Committee in April, but could not clear the House Calendars Committee. A Senate version...
Police reform bills stuck in limbo as Texas Legislature winds down

Police reform bills stuck in limbo as Texas Legislature winds down

A bill that would have let a North Texas family more easily obtain police records detailing their son’s final hours is facing an uphill battle in the frantic waning weeks of the legislative session. Thanks to a 1997 statute, law enforcement agencies currently don’t have to share their investigative records if a suspect isn’t convicted. House Bill 3234 would compel police to release...
A midnight stroll, a grab and a push: When policing the mentally ill turns deadly

A midnight stroll, a grab and a push: When policing the mentally ill turns deadly

Sometime around midnight on Sept. 23, 2014, Tom Klessig left his stately home in the heart of the affluent Dallas suburb of University Park to go on one of his late-night walks around the neighborhood. Klessig, a 23-year-old former wrestling champion, was back in his childhood home, living with his parents after years of struggle with schizoaffective disorder, which left him hearing voices and...
Dallas district attorney to undertake ‘full review’ of Dyer case

Dallas district attorney to undertake ‘full review’ of Dyer case

The Dallas County district attorney’s office announced Wednesday that it would undertake a full review of the events surrounding the death of Graham Dyer, an 18-year-old who died nearly four years ago in the custody of Mesquite police officers. The development comes less than a week after an American-Statesman article described how his parents fought for more than two years to get police...
Lawmaker on farmworker housing bill: Inaction is ‘inexcusable’

Lawmaker on farmworker housing bill: Inaction is ‘inexcusable’

In emotional testimony Tuesday, Texas farmworkers and advocates urged a House committee to pass a bill that would strengthen inspections of housing for agricultural workers, increase penalties on violators and require state regulators to look for unlicensed facilities. Justino De Leon, a longtime farmworker from Pharr, told members of the House Committee on Urban Affairs that he often was forced to...
Parents of teen who died in police custody testify for change in law

Parents of teen who died in police custody testify for change in law

The parents of a teen who died while in custody of the Mesquite Police Department stayed up late Monday night to share their son’s story with legislators in an effort to persuade them that a law allowing police departments to withhold investigative records from the public needs to be changed. Kathy and Robert Dyers’ appearance before the Texas House Committee on Government Transparency...
Even before Trump threat, mothers and children separated at the border

Even before Trump threat, mothers and children separated at the border

Ana Mendoza, a 29-year-old Honduran immigrant, can’t erase the image from her mind: With her 10-year-old son and 12-year-old cousin in tow, she had arrived at the International Bridge in Hidalgo on Jan. 19, the day before President Donald Trump was to be inaugurated. Mendoza, fleeing gang violence in her homeland, believed the family would be released by immigration authorities with a notice...
Texas police withheld records of their son’s death. Now they know why.

Texas police withheld records of their son’s death. Now they know why.

Kathy and Robert Dyer received the phone call out of every parent’s nightmares at 3 a.m. on Aug. 14, 2013. A Mesquite police officer was telling them their 18-year-old son, Graham, was in the hospital with a serious head injury. They should come as quickly as possible. They sped in the dark south to Dallas from their home on a dirt road outside of Paris, in Northeast Texas, arriving at Baylor...
Extra pay for Texas county judges could take big jump

Extra pay for Texas county judges could take big jump

Two bills being considered by state lawmakers have the potential to boost by 60 percent a controversial salary supplement offered to constitutional county judges — the biggest pay rate jump being proposed for any of the state’s judges. An American-Statesman investigation in 2016 found that some county judges exploited a little-known law that allows them to enhance their salaries by more...
‘Easiest’ parts of Texas border wall already built, emails show

‘Easiest’ parts of Texas border wall already built, emails show

Internal Border Patrol communications, obtained by University of Texas law school professor Denise Gilman after a lengthy Freedom of Information battle and shared with the American-Statesman, reveal some of the political realities that drove construction of the $2.4 billion wall/fence authorized by the 2006 Secure Fence Act. In a March 2007 email, a Border Patrol commander complained when he learned...
How the Texas border wall is creating an expanding no man’s land

How the Texas border wall is creating an expanding no man’s land

Most mornings, 19-year-old Greg Garcia passes through an opening in the rusting, 18-foot-high steel fence on his way to classes at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, where he studies the air conditioning sciences. On his way home, he drives south past the border wall. More often than not he is waved through by Border Patrol agents who have come to recognize his truck. If there’s a new agent...
Bill seeks to strengthen Texas farmworker housing inspections

Bill seeks to strengthen Texas farmworker housing inspections

A bill filed Wednesday by state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, would overhaul the oversight of farmworker housing in Texas, calling for stricter housing inspections, tougher penalties for violators and enhanced community outreach. The bill, co-authored by Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, comes after a 2016 American-Statesman investigation found numerous deficiencies in Texas&rsquo...
FAA missed chance to ground balloon pilot before deadly Lockhart crash

FAA missed chance to ground balloon pilot before deadly Lockhart crash

Alfred “Skip” Nichols, the chief pilot and owner of the Heart of Texas Balloon Rides, shouldn’t have been flying on the morning of July 30, 2016, when he crashed and died along with 15 passengers. Two years earlier, the Federal Aviation Administration had learned of his lengthy criminal record of alcohol-related driving offenses. Nichols had violated FAA rules by not voluntarily...
Why so many Texas teachers accused of improprieties are never charged

Why so many Texas teachers accused of improprieties are never charged

Hundreds of Texas primary and secondary teachers lost or surrendered their teaching licenses since 2010 after being investigated for improper relationships with a student. More than half were never criminally charged. In all of those cases, information about the alleged misconduct isn’t easily accessible from the Texas Education Agency and in many instances is kept secret by school districts...
Texas A-F grades make low-income schools look worse, analysis shows

Texas A-F grades make low-income schools look worse, analysis shows

Arguably the biggest complaint about the new A-F school accountability system in Texas is that it unfairly penalizes campuses with high numbers of low-income students. An American-Statesman analysis of preliminary A-F grades issued last month shows that the schools with the poorest student populations in Texas were up to 30 percent more likely than their wealthier peers to earn a failing letter grade...
Austin crime lab bucked DNA standard for years, yet got passing grades

Austin crime lab bucked DNA standard for years, yet got passing grades

In 2010, an influential national organization of scientists devoted to ensuring that forensic labs employ only the latest and best methods of analyzing DNA evidence published a new set of guidelines. In essence, the Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods concluded that analysts should use the quality of genetic samples, rather than the quantity of evidence gathered at a crime scene, to decide...
Federal ruling points to low levels of Latino representation in Texas

Federal ruling points to low levels of Latino representation in Texas

A federal judge’s ruling last week that the city of Pasadena tried to dilute the voting power of its fast-growing Latino population through the use of at-large council districts could change how Texas officials enforce voting rights laws in the state, though the case is likely to be appealed. What’s more certain is that the decision serves as another reminder of the barriers to political...

State spent three months trying to find CPS memo leak to Statesman

Child Protective Services is under siege. The agency is failing to see thousands of endangered children. Underappreciated and underpaid caseworkers are fleeing in droves. State lawmakers are demanding immediate action. Amid such urgent problems, state investigators recently spent three months trying to ferret out an employee who complained to the media about a plan to give top-level bosses $268,000...

Interactive: Travis County gun deaths

The Austin American-Statesman analyzed more than 250 gun deaths investigated by the Travis County Medical Examiner's Office from 2010 to 2012, examining type of death, weapon used and age of the victim.
Congress pushes for disclosure of employers who violate veterans law

Congress pushes for disclosure of employers who violate veterans law

The U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee has begun an investigation after revelations that the Labor Department is shielding the identity of employers who violate a landmark service members’ employment law, a committee official said this week. This month, an American-Statesman investigation revealed that the Labor Department is refusing to disclose the identities of thousands of employers who...
Federal agency shields employers that violate the rights of veterans

Federal agency shields employers that violate the rights of veterans

As waves of National Guard reservists answered the call to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, they were protected by a 1994 law that required their employers to hold their jobs until they returned. But records show that hundreds of employers have been found to have violated the rights of veterans by firing them because of their military responsibilities, failing to hire them back...
State leaders to CPS: Get your act together

State leaders to CPS: Get your act together

One week after news reports that Child Protective Services isn’t promptly seeing thousands of endangered children, Texas’ three top elected leaders issued an edict to the agency Wednesday: Get your act together. In a letter to Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Hank Whitman — whose agency runs Child Protective Services — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov...
Statesman wins national award for digital journalism

Statesman wins national award for digital journalism

An American-Statesman investigative project into the deaths of homeless people in Austin received a national journalism award late Saturday. At its annual conference in Denver, the Online News Association announced that a team of Statesman journalists had won its award for Excellence and Innovation in Visual Digital Storytelling. The other finalist in the medium circulation division was the PBS investigative...

With stops and searches, numbers don’t add up for some DPS troopers

Between 2009 and mid-2014, a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper patrolled a three-county area between San Antonio and Houston, stopping 6,500 motorists. The officer, a 30-year veteran of the agency, was more than seven times more likely to search African-American and Hispanic drivers than white motorists — yet he was only half as likely to find contraband on the minority drivers. The...

TOP LOCAL STORIES OF THE WEEK

MONDAY Council OKs plan to cut all electric rates: The Austin City Council unanimously approved Austin Energy’s bid to reset its residential electric rates Monday, after the city-owned utility dropped its controversial proposal to increase its base electric rate. Under the revised rate structure, all of Austin Energy’s 400,000 residential customers would see their electric bills cut &mdash...
Four CPS leaders lose jobs amid agency shakeup

Four CPS leaders lose jobs amid agency shakeup

Child Protective Services officials fired four high-ranking managers this week, saying the changes are part of a strategy to reform an agency under fire for failing to protect the state’s most vulnerable children from being abused or killed. Officials at CPS said they decided not to rehire four of the 10 regional directors, all of whom were recently forced to reapply for their jobs. A fifth...
Statesman analysis: Pilot error cited in 70 percent of balloon crashes

Statesman analysis: Pilot error cited in 70 percent of balloon crashes

An American-Statesman analysis of every fatal hot air balloon crash investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board since 1964 shows that officials found numerous safety issues, ranging from improperly modified equipment to lack of helmets for passengers, among the 71 flights that ended in 135 deaths. Pilot error of some sort was cited by the safety board in nearly 70 percent of the fatal...

Deadly crash comes months after FAA rejected safety recommendations

In April 2014, the National Transportation and Safety Board warned of the potential for a “high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident” if federal officials did not adopt stricter regulations of hot air balloon tour operators. The recommendations, which the safety board said would bring balloon operators in line with the kind of oversight received by airplane and helicopter...
How a Plano legislator’s remarks bred strict sex offender laws

How a Plano legislator’s remarks bred strict sex offender laws

Recent research has challenged long-held assumptions that convicted sex offenders are very likely to commit new sex crimes and questioned how those assumptions were reached in the first place. Prior to that, though, one Texas legislator’s words were particularly influential on sex offender laws across the country. (Italics added for clarity.) July 1997: State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano,...
Program to corral ballooning sex offender registry failing

Program to corral ballooning sex offender registry failing

Mark Lay had been a registered sex offender for more than five years before he heard there might be a way to erase his name from the public Texas list. Convicted in 2008 of a single count of possessing child pornography, he was released early from a two-year sentence, classified by the state as a low-risk re-offender. But he’d been told the rest of his sentence — lifetime inclusion on...

Texas CPS kills plan to give hefty raises to top managers

State leaders have killed a plan to give $268,000 in raises to 10 top managers at Child Protective Services, saying none of them will get a pay boost until the flailing agency improves. And that, legislators say, is a very good idea. “The top people getting raises, that’s not the way to go,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. “They always get raises.” On Thursday...
$3.6 million VA brain research program wasted money, investigators say

$3.6 million VA brain research program wasted money, investigators say

The $3.6 million machine was supposed to revolutionize our understanding of traumatic brain injury and other war injuries by studying the brains of Fort Hood troops before and after deployments to Iraq. But that never happened. Nearly a decade after the Department of Veterans Affairs bought the once cutting-edge, mobile MRI system, internal investigators have concluded that research efforts at the...
Lawmakers blast VA wait time investigations as agency defends itself

Lawmakers blast VA wait time investigations as agency defends itself

Breaking months of silence, the Department of Veterans Affairs office of inspector general is defending its handling of investigations into claims of falsifying data on patient wait times in Central Texas. The internal investigators have come under criticism for confirming a whistleblower’s allegation that data manipulation was “systemic” in Austin and San Antonio but not assigning...
Federal funding resumes for troubled technology project T2

Federal funding resumes for troubled technology project T2

Six months after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton promised to clean up a flailing technology project $100 million over budget and years behind schedule, federal officials have agreed to resume funding for the 9-year-old effort. News of Washington’s stamp of approval on T2 — a massive system upgrade intended to process child support payments and investigations at the attorney general&rsquo...
Arson blamed by investigators for West Fertilizer Co. explosion

Arson blamed by investigators for West Fertilizer Co. explosion

Three years after an earthshaking explosion at a fertilizer plant north of Waco left 15 people dead and crumpled scores of nearby buildings, federal investigators on Wednesday labeled the fire that led to the blast a “criminal act.” No suspects have been named and no motive has been determined, but investigators say arson was the cause of the initial fire at the West Fertilizer Co. on...
These deported veterans served the U.S. during wartime; now they can never return

These deported veterans served the U.S. during wartime; now they can never return

There's an untold number of U.S. military veterans who’ve been deported to Mexico over the past decade after arrests or prison sentences. In cities and towns up and down the Mexico-Texas border, former soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines, who fought in conflicts from Southeast Asia to Iraq, try to make a living in the midst of a grinding drug war. Nearly all the deported veterans in Mexico...
Federal investigation finds faults in VA’s wait times probe

Federal investigation finds faults in VA’s wait times probe

Federal investigators have rebuked the Department of Veterans Affairs for inadequately investigating allegations that several Central Texas clinics tried to make veterans’ wait times for health care appear shorter than they were. In a news release Wednesday, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel stated that, in three whistleblower investigations, the VA’s “disclosures of scheduling...

More money, agency coordination among proposed fixes for foster care

Texas cannot reduce the number of abused children in foster care — or provide for those with medical and psychiatric needs — without better pay for caseworkers, improved data on how abuse cases are handled and coordinated health care, state officials told Texas senators Wednesday. John Specia, outgoing commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, said his agency is...
Five leave Texas child protection agency in rare regime change

Five leave Texas child protection agency in rare regime change

For years, when something went wrong at the state’s child welfare agency, it was the low-level employees who took the fall. Child abuse investigators, foster care workers, their immediate supervisors and, occasionally, their bosses resigned, were fired or suddenly retired. But this time — as the agency is being pummeled by profound problems with child abuse deaths, foster care, backlogged...
Despite reforms, Texas child abuse deaths rise, investigations lagging

Despite reforms, Texas child abuse deaths rise, investigations lagging

Last March, Gov. Greg Abbott told Child Protective Services to mend its ways and gave the agency an extra $38 million to do it. But one year later, the agency, by most measures, is doing even worse. The number of child deaths has increased. So has the number of abused and neglected kids. Investigations are dragging on, which means more children are being left in potentially dangerous situations. More...
Seeking to prove Medicaid fraud, state regulators lose again

Seeking to prove Medicaid fraud, state regulators lose again

State Medicaid regulators pursuing orthodontists who they claim bilked Texas out of tens of millions of dollars suffered another decisive setback Thursday, when an appeals court ruled investigators hadn’t proven any fraud had occurred in one of the state’s largest cases. Unless the state appeals the decision to the Texas Supreme Court, it means Texas must return millions of dollars in...
Lawmakers push for more aggressive farmworker housing inspections

Lawmakers push for more aggressive farmworker housing inspections

A pair of border-area state lawmakers say they will push for more aggressive enforcement of the state’s housing inspection law for migratory farmworkers in the wake of an American-Statesman investigation that found numerous deficiencies in Texas’ unfunded inspection program. “The state has fallen in its responsibility to care for farmworkers,” said state Sen. José Rodriguez...
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