American-Statesman investigations in 2016
exposed misconduct and government waste

Melissa Garcia, 20, works in a sorghum field in Plainview. A Statesman investigation uncovered a failure of state oversight of migrant farmworker housing. (Rodolfo Gonzalez / American-Statesman)

In 2016, American-Statesman investigations took aim at questionable spending by lawmakers, disparities within the Austin school district, poor housing inspections that put farmworkers’ health in danger, use-of-force procedures within the Austin Police Department, and more.

Those stories have resulted in new legislative efforts, new policies and practices by law enforcement agencies and more equitable treatment of Austin students.

What follows is a compilation of the Statesman’s most consequential watchdog reporting from the previous year. It’s just a sampling of the accountability journalism the newspaper practices on a daily basis.

Violent arrest, and lack of oversight, lead to police changes

In July, the Statesman revealed the violent arrest of an African-American elementary school teacher who was thrown to the ground twice after a traffic stop. The arresting Austin police officer said that 26-year-old Breaion King refused to comply with his commands and resisted him by pulling away and wrapping her hands around the steering wheel.

As she was being taken in a patrol car to jail, a video camera recorded another officer telling King that black people have “violent tendencies” that cause police to mistrust them.

The Travis County attorney dismissed the charges against King after watching video of the arrest. Police supervisors imposed the most minor discipline at the time — counseling and additional training for the arresting officer — and the case was never formally investigated by internal affairs. The officer who lectured King about violent tendencies wasn’t disciplined because the department only learned about his comments after the Statesman called attention to them a year later.

In the aftermath of the arrest video’s release, Austin police introduced a new level of oversight into use-of-force incidents, a “peer review” practice in which a commander outside an officer’s chain of command must sign off on encounters involving force.

Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said at the time that the changes would help build “transparency and trust in our community.”

A December Statesman investigation found two other cases in which supervisors found little or no fault with officers involved in encounters that later erupted into high-profile embarrassments and lawsuits against the city.

Gaps and poor enforcement plague farmworker housing program

Texas counts on tens of thousands of migratory farmworkers to pick its grapefruits, pack its watermelons and hoe its sorghum fields. While state law requires all housing meant to temporarily house farmworkers be inspected to ensure it meets rudimentary health and safety levels, a Statesman investigation in March found that state regulators have failed to uncover unregulated farmworker housing and haven’t levied a single enforcement action even after multiple failed inspections.

The investigation also found that Texas spends far less than many other states to inspect farmworker housing. At one unregulated housing facility in Van Horn, workers were forced to live in nearby shipping containers that lacked screens or ventilation, to shower with a bucket of cold water and to urinate and defecate in the brush. Despite the horrific conditions, owners weren’t sanctioned by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

A week after the story ran, a pair of state lawmakers pledged to push for more aggressive farmworker housing inspections. Advocates have convened a working group to study the issue, and a bill aimed at better farmworker housing conditions is expected to be filed in the upcoming legislative session.

As problems festered, CPS sought raises for bosses and source of leak

Child Protective Services continued to lurch from problem to problem in 2016: children forced to sleep in offices, failures to visit endangered kids, plummeting morale and high turnover among front-line caseworkers with huge caseloads and low pay.

As those issues raged, the Statesman obtained a confidential memo that outlined a plan in June to boost salaries — not for caseworkers, but for top managers, pushing their pay to at least $100,000 per year.

The revelation sparked outrage, and the day after the Statesman revealed the plan, CPS killed it. CPS then spent three months fruitlessly searching for the source of the memo leak. As the agency continued to reel from its well-documented problems, the state Health and Human Services Commission’s Office of Inspector General interviewed nearly two dozen Family and Protective Services employees who had access to the memo. The investigators set their sights on three people but couldn’t find evidence that anyone sent it to the Statesman.

Racial disparities in DPS traffic stops

After the controversial 2015 arrest of black motorist Sandra Bland by a Department of Public Safety trooper, and Bland’s jail suicide, the department’s stop and search patterns came under increased scrutiny. While the department’s annual reports indicated no evidence of racial profiling, multiple Statesman analyses revealed notable racial disparities within the DPS traffic stop statistics.

A September investigation found that 231 troopers between 2009 and 2015 searched black and Hispanic motorists at two times or more the rate at which they searched white drivers, but were less likely to find contraband while searching the minority drivers. A previous analysis of traffic stop data showed that Hispanic drivers were more likely to be searched than white drivers, but that those inspections were less likely to turn up drugs or weapons than searches of Anglo drivers.

After the Statesman analyses, DPS officials said they would begin to regularly review traffic stop data for individual troopers, rather than only for the agency as a whole. The department also said it would hire a contractor to review the way DPS officials collect and analyze traffic stop data.

And in the wake of the Statesman’s reporting, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he would push to overhaul the state’s racial profiling law, which requires departments to publicly report only a limited amount of traffic stop data, to make reporting more accurate.

Labor Department shields employers who violate rights of reservists called to duty

Texas leads the nation when it comes to the number of employers investigated by the U.S. Labor Department for violations of a landmark law meant to protect the jobs of reservists and National Guard troops when they are called to active duty. Government agencies are among the worst offenders of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, better known as USERRA, making up nearly 40 percent of the state’s multiple violators.

So who are these chronic offenders? The Labor Department refuses to say. Citing the privacy of the reservists who are fired or penalized by their bosses, federal officials refused to disclose the names of those Texas employers — even those with repeated complaints and findings of fault.

In response to the Statesman’s investigation, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, demanded the Labor Department change its practice of shielding employer names, and the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee launched an investigation.

The Labor Department is currently reviewing its interpretation of privacy rules.

Financial questions surround state Rep. Dawnna Dukes

Throughout 2016, the Statesman uncovered questionable campaign expenses, chronic absences and potentially false billings by embattled state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, who ultimately announced her retirement after a Texas Rangers ethics investigation of her in September.

In April, the Statesman reported that Dukes gave a $268 per month raise to a legislative aide to pay for gas so the employee could drive Dukes’ daughter to and from school and do other personal errands, in apparent violation of Texas law.

A month later, the Statesman reported that Dukes in 2014 billed the state for working on days she didn’t go to her Capitol office, as required by Texas House rules, and for other days she appeared to do no legislative work at all.

In June, the Statesman reported that, over the past 15 years, Dukes filed tens of thousands of dollars in unusual expenses in campaign finance reports. Some — such as $2,700 to a seamstress — seemingly conflict with state ethics rules.

In August, the Statesman reported that, even as Dukes missed 84 percent of House votesin the 2015 legislative session for medical reasons, her social posts chronicled an active life outside the Capitol, including attending a Stevie Wonder concert and taking a trip to East Texas.

In September, she announced her retirement, days after the Texas Rangers delivered the findings of their investigation to the Travis County district attorney’s office, which is reviewing the file. Dukes says she is stepping down for medical reasons.

Fort Hood seeks way to prosecute juveniles who commit sexual assault

While the issue of sexual assault among its ranks has roiled the U.S. military and led to numerous reforms, relatively little attention has been paid to the issue of sexual assault among juveniles on military installations.

A 2015 Statesman investigation found a gaping blind spot in the federal government’s prosecution of juveniles who assault, molest or rape other children on military installations.

An internal legal memo obtained by the Statesman detailed 39 juvenile sexual assaults at Fort Hood between 2006 and 2012, resulting in no federal prosecutions and just a handful of referrals to local prosecutors. It’s an issue that exists at numerous other military installations as well, where there is no clear authority for prosecuting juvenile crime.

But after the Statesman’s investigation ran, military, county and federal officials in January began taking steps to plug the jurisdictional gap, at least at Fort Hood. Meetings between military and county prosecutors have continued throughout the year in hopes of setting up a formal system to handle juvenile prosecutions on the massive post.

One potential sticking point: Bell County officials have expressed concern about assuming the cost of prosecuting Fort Hood juveniles in county courts.

Caldwell County subdivision where “everything is illegal”

Juan Alvarado moved to the Century Oak Estates subdivision in Caldwell County in 2014 with plans to build his dream home. But after signing a nearly $100,000 owner-financed contract for nine acres, Alvarado was stunned when county officials refused to issue him a building permit.

The reason? “Everything that is out there is illegal — everything,” Kasi Miles, who manages subdivision permitting for Caldwell County, told the Statesman. The subdivision’s owner had been selling portions of the property without having it platted or surveyed, and had never sought or received septic permits.

In May, a Statesman investigation revealed that residents of the subdivision grappled with a litany of problems, including the inability to sell or even build on their properties.

The report also found that many of the properties — mobile homes, primarily — were tied into a single untreated and unlicensed well.

County officials acknowledged they had known about the off-the-books development for years, but had done nothing about it, saying they lacked the staff to handle the growing county’s many requests for building permits and inspections.

Three weeks after the Statesman report, state regulators launched investigations into the subdivision, about 50 miles southeast of Austin. In requesting that the Texas attorney general’s office open an investigation into Century Oak Estates, state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, wrote: “I write to you with a sense of urgency to protect the elderly, veterans and retirees, as well as other unsuspecting consumers, who are being victimized out of their life savings.”

Austin’s magnet schools lack diversity

In the Austin school district, 60 percent of students are low income and nearly two-thirds are Latino or black. Yet the district’s prized magnet schools, which offer the city’s most rigorous academics and clearest path to college, are mostly filled with white students from more affluent families, a 2015 Statesman investigation found.

One glaring example of the disparity is the nationally recognized Liberal Arts and Science Academy, housed at LBJ High School, where less than 2 percent of the students were black, 21 percent Hispanic and less than 12 percent came from low-income families in 2015. Some community members called the underrepresentation a constant blemish.

After taking note of the disparities, Austin district officials in November took steps to overhaul their admissions processes to increase diversity in all of the district’s magnet schools. The programs — which previously based admission only on academic performance, test scores, essays and teacher recommendations — for the first time will consider factors such as race, socioeconomic status or the neighborhood where a student lives.

Investigators label VA brain scan program a “waste of taxpayers’ funds”

Two years ago, a Statesman investigation revealed that, despite much fanfare, a Department of Veterans Affairs research center in Waco had failed to use a cutting-edge $3.6 million MRI brain scanner to conduct badly needed research on Fort Hood combat veterans.

In June, the VA’s Office of Inspector General confirmed the Statesman’s findings, concluding the research project was “a waste of taxpayers’ funds” and an example of “poor stewardship.” The inspector general’s office detailed years of research inactivity at the Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans in Waco, where officials spent more than $200,000 in annual maintenance while the MRI machine sat largely unused.

The report, however, didn’t assign blame to any specific VA employees for the debacle. The VA has since hired new leadership at the center and restarted brain scanning research with the machine.

Low-income students get less recess time

A Statesman report in October revealed that students at a majority of the schools in Austin’s low-income neighborhoods get little to no recess time, while the children at more than 80 percent of the district’s more affluent elementary campuses get unstructured play time daily. Research shows that recess improves focus and academic performance.

Some school board members said they didn’t realize they had campuses where free play time wasn’t offered at all and urged administrators to work with schools in adding the time. The trustees passed a policy requiring 30 minutes of daily recess.

Since then, nearly all of the elementary schools have begun offering 30 minutes of daily recess, and all campuses are expected to implement recess periods when students return from winter break Jan. 3.