Scott Wizig's Shell Companies File for Bankruptcy in Baltimore

Categories: Courts

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Seven shell companies managed by Houston-based absentee landlord Scott Wizig, who was ordered to repair 49 dilapidated properties he owns in Baltimore, filed for bankruptcy Tuesday in an apparent bid to sidestep the circuit court judge's order. (Wizig is the subject of this week's cover story).

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Pamela J. White had given Wizig 90 days from July 31 to fix up the vacant properties that she said suffered from "unsafe and uninhabitable conditions." But attorneys for the Community Law Center, who sued Wizig on behalf of six non-profit neighborhood groups, discovered at a court hearing today that seven of the nine LLCs named in the lawsuit sought last-minute bankruptcy protection.


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Former Constable Victor Trevino Avoids Jail Time, Sentenced to 10 Years Probation

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Longtime Harris County Precinct 6 Constable Victor Trevino won't face jail time but will remain a convicted felon.

Trevino, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to misapplication of fiduciary duty, a felony that could have put him behind bars for 10 years, will instead face 10 years probation, along with a $1,000 fine and 150 hours of community service, a judge ruled at his sentencing hearing Monday.

Prosecutors had claimed that Trevino siphoned cash from his well-known charity, Constable's Athletic Recreational and Education Events Inc. (CARE), to buy Lotto tickets and fund gambling trips to Louisiana casinos. Early this year, the Harris County DA's Office had offered Trevino what, to the rest of us regular non-elected folk, seemed like the deal of a lifetime: avoid four felony indictments by simply resigning and copping to the equivalent of a traffic ticket (a class C misdemeanor). Trevino, for whatever reason, rejected the deal, but then pleaded guilty to one felony count early this month after only one day of trial.

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Two Companies Settle Over San Jacinto River Waste Pits, Jury Clears Lone Holdout of Liability

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Image by Andrew Nilsen
Harris County's years-long legal battle to wring billions of dollars out of companies the county says are responsible for the San Jacinto River's toxic legacy ended with whimper Thursday. Following a four-week trial, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan's office settled with two of three defendants just as the case was set to go to closing arguments. The two companies agreed to pay $29.2 million, which, after attorneys fees and expenses, amounts to just $20 million that will be split between the state and county -- a far cry from the $3.7 billion the county initially sought in its lawsuit.

Mix in the fact that after the settlement was reached a jury cleared the lone holdout company of any responsibility, and it's hard to chalk this up as a clear win for the county in its bold fight to make companies pay fouling the San Jacinto River.

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Is Scott Panetti Too Mentally Ill for Execution? Does Texas Care?

Categories: Courts

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Scott Panetti has been in that will-they-or-won't they execution limbo for about a decade.

However, by this time next month, Panetti will be dead, unless someone -- Gov. Rick Perry with a stay of execution or the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles with a commutation -- steps in. That's what a variety of people and organizations, including Christian evangelicals, the American Bar Association, the American Psychiatric Association and a whole bunch of legal experts and lawyers are requesting so that it can at least be determined whether Panetti, a diagnosed schizophrenic who has been documented with mental illness for more than 30 years, is mentally competent enough for execution. The clemency petition was filed Wednesday.

He's scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. on Dec. 3, 2014, the final punishment for the murders of Joe Alvarado and Amanda Alvarado, his parents-in-law on September 8, 1992 in Gillespie County. The thing is Panetti has suffered from mental illness for more than 30 years. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1978 and was in and out of mental hospitals years before he committed the murders, and he didn't exactly get less erratic after.

"I'm sure there are people that say, 'Why do we care about this?' But when you run a criminal justice system and you're punishing people, it's important for people to understand why they're being punished. That becomes particularly complicated with the mentally ill," Kathryn Kase, a lawyer representing Panetti through the Texas Defender Service, says.


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Judge Drops Charge Against Officer Who Kicked Man During Traffic Stop Gone Haywire

Categories: Courts

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See if you can follow this one.

A Harris County Precinct 4 deputy constable out on patrol says he saw a young man blow through a stop sign on September 10, 2011 near his far north-side home, so he pulled up behind the guy and flashed the lights when the man turned into his driveway. The man's mother walked outside, asked what was going on, and the deputy told her to get back inside the house or else he'd throw her in a squad car; she refused, arguing that she was on her property, so the deputy put her in cuffs.

The rest of the family then came out to investigate and, for some still-unclear reason, things quickly spun out of control. The deputy called for backup. The driver's father was slammed to the ground, cuffed, arrested, and later charged with assaulting a police officer. Deputies grabbed and arrested an aunt with enough force that she suffered a broken hand, according to a lawsuit that was later filed. The sister, who tried to record all of this on her cell phone, was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer; the sister says the cop tripped during the course of her arrest, while her criminal complaint says she pulled her arm while the officer was trying to detain her "causing him to hurt his foot."

As for the man who ran the stop sign, three deputies wrestled him to the ground, and he was later charged with criminal mischief.

After nearly two years and thousands of dollars in legal fees, prosecutors had dropped all charges against David Scherz, who was 25 at the time of his arrest, and his family members who came out to see why a deputy followed him into their driveway. The family filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging police brutality, and a dash-cam video soon surfaced showing then-deputy constable Jimmy Drummond kicking and kneeing Scherz while he was already cuffed and face-down on the ground. The video was enough to prompt the Harris County District Attorney's office to rush to charge Drummond with official oppression the day before the statute of limitations was set to lapse.

But this week, Drummond got off on an apparent technicality. State District Judge Denise Collins ruled that prosecutors didn't properly charge Drummond before the time limit, effectively ending the case just as it was set to go to trial.

The Scherz family, meanwhile, hasn't had such luck over at the courthouse. Scherz's mother and father are again fighting criminal charges that prosecutors dismissed two years ago but then refiled after the family sued in federal court last year (so no statute-of-limitations problem there).

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Convicted Riverside CEO Tells His Side of the Story

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Photo by Susan Du
Earnest Gibson III, former CEO of Riverside General Hospital, is in the process of appealing his conviction.

It's been two years since FBI agents burst into the Third Ward office of Riverside General Hospital's longtime CEO, Earnest Gibson III, and accused him conspiring to scam Medicare and Medicaid out of $158 million. Judge Lee Rosenthal ordered Gibson not to discuss Riverside business or speak to Riverside colleagues, so his side of the story went unheard. But since a jury convicted him on October 20, he's now filing a motion for a new trial and firmly maintaining his innocence as he awaits sentencing.

Federal prosecutors accused Gibson and others of paying illegal kickbacks to group homes owners to send their patients to Riverside so Riverside could then bill the government for medical services they it never intended to deliver. The hospital claimed to employ marketers who were really acting as patient bounty hunters, prosecutors said.

"The former president of Riverside Hospital, his son, and their co-conspirators systematically defrauded Medicare, treating mentally ill and disabled Americans like chits to be traded and cashed out to pad their own pockets," said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell in a statement. "For over six years, the Gibsons and their co-conspirator stuck taxpayers with millions in hospital bills, purportedly for intensive psychiatric treatment. But the 'treatment' was a sham - some patients just watched television all day."

Gibson, speaking out against his conviction, claims prosecutors and their witnesses took the jury for a ride. He says the government's witnesses were all confirmed criminals who stood to gain from falsely accusing him.

Gibson says he's rather "go down to Guantanamo Bay and be waterboarded to the point of death" than claim that Riverside ever paid for patients. "I want the jury to remember that, that one day I may be dead and gone, but it's gonna come up. Somebody will come out and tell the truth."

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Backstory: The Fifth Circuit Wasn't Always the Most Conservative Court Around

Categories: Courts

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These days the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals can generally be counted on for issuing decisions that are so far right they're practically left. They've made headlines numerous times in the last three months for their decisions on abortion law alone. There are conservative courts in the United States, but the calling the Fifth Circuit conservative is like calling a unicorn a pony: it's kind of accurate but it couldn't possibly cover the horned grandeur that is the Fifth. It wasn't always thus.

So what is the Fifth Circuit anyway? The Fifth Circuit is a court comprised of 15 active judges based in New Orleans with a jurisdiction covering Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Most of the judges are Southern Republicans, which is a key point here.

Come January, the Fifth Circuit is slated to ramp it up and finally hear cases on Texas court decisions regarding gay marriage and House Bill 2, the law that has forced most of the abortion clinics in the state to close, and with the current court makeup, only the most quixotic of gamblers would try and bet on the Fifth ruling against either. The court has been dragging its feet on actually hearing both of these cases, despite the fact that the odds are good that the Southern Republican block will come down against both issues with the force of the hand of God.

This isn't the first time that a bunch of Southern Republicans made sweeping decisions on this circuit court. The court has been around for a while. It was created by the Evarts Act in 1891 (the act both created the appeals courts and allowed Supreme Court judges to stop actually riding the circuit to hear cases across the country.) The appeals court deals with the appealed cases that have bounced up through the court system. But things didn't really get interesting until a crew of Southern (mostly) Republicans landed on the court.


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UPDATED Constable Victor Trevino Rejects Sweetheart Deal, Then Pleads Guilty to Felony After One Day of Trial

Categories: Courts, Crime

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Harris County Precinct 6 Constable Victor Trevino could've skated by four felony indictments by simply resigning, accepting a slap on the wrist, and copping to the equivalent of a traffic violation. But Trevino rejected the deal offered by the Harris County District Attorney's Office early this year, opting instead to go to trial late last week on corruption charges.

Well, that gamble backfired. Following opening arguments in his trial Friday, Trevino on Monday pleaded guilty to misapplication of fiduciary duty, a felony that could put him in prison for up to 10 years. Prosecutors alleged Trevino siphoned cash from his charity, the Constable's Athletic Recreational and Education Events Inc., to buy Lotto tickets and fund gambling trips to Louisiana. Prosecutors also accused Trevino of failing to report campaign cash contributions and for letting his on-the-clock deputies serve eviction notices for landlords.

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Mom Sentenced for Stowing Gun in Boy's Backpack Because He Was Mean To Her Kids

Categories: Courts, Crime

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Heather Hodges
A Conroe mom who attempted to get her boyfriend's middle school son in trouble at school by stowing a gun in his backpack has been sentenced to prison for the crime.

A judge sentenced 28-year-old Heather Hodges Thursday to three years in prison following her guilty plea on charges of unlawful carrying of a weapon on restricted premises. Hodges was arrested and charged in 2012 after planting a gun in the 13-year-old boy's backpack and then calling the school to get him caught.

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Attorney Says Judge Denise Collins Unlawfully Detained Her

Categories: Courts

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Courtesy Cheryl Irvin
"OK everyone, say 'unlawful imprisonment'!" A gaggle of attorneys conferred with the detained Irvin (seated) in September.
A Houston criminal defense lawyer says she's filed a complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct alleging that Judge Denise Collins unlawfully detained her as she tried to speak with her client.

Cheryl Irvin says Collins shouted at her after she walked into the 208th District Court to speak with a client who was in the inmate holding area that's accessible from the courtroom. In a statement, Irvin alleges that Collins ordered her "in a [condescending] tone and loud voice" to speak with lawyers representing Irvin's client's co-defendants before speaking with her client.

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