Democrats enter Bonnghazi debacle via lawsuit

The Dennis Bonnen drama with Empower Texans’ Michael Quinn Sullivan has escalated from scandal to full-fledged lawsuit, as the Texas Democratic Party sues House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and hardline conservative Michael Quinn Sullivan for allegedly violating numerous state election laws.

The civil suit, filed in Travis County by the Texas Democratic Party and Representative Ana-Maria Ramos (D-Richardson), seeks damages and materials from defendants Michael Quinn Sullivan and an Unknown Named Political Committee, which includes the Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) and representative Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock). 

These are the highlights from the filed lawsuit

  1. This document cites articles and quotes as proof of wrongdoing, as well as direct accounts from individuals who heard the recording. 
  2. The June 12 meeting between Sullivan and Rep. Bonnen—and any agreements reached during that time—demonstrates a coordinated effort intended to influence the election or defeat of specific candidates. Therefore, the meeting resulted in the formation of an unregistered political committee, as defined by state law. 
  3. Political action committees are required to be registered with a treasurer and report certain financial and campaign action, which Bonnen and Sullivan did not do.
  4. Hosting a meeting with this type of agenda is not permitted by state law in the capitol.
  5. Political spending and contributions directed by one party but carried out by another is illegal in Texas.
  6. Trading, offering, or granting benefits in the support of the election or defeat of a candidate is illegal in Texas. 
  7. The discovered conversations leads the plaintiffs to believe that they are the target of this and other similar conversations/plans.
  8. There are several realms of the Texas Election Code that were violated. 
  9. The plaintiffs request the production of:

The lawsuit, combined with the House General Investigating Committee’s investigation scheduled to begin Monday, shows that things have gone a little off course from the usual after-session slump.

According to reporter Phil Prazan, a spokesperson from the Travis County DA’s office stated that no criminal complaint has been filed, but in the event that happens, by statute the complaint will need to be filed in Brazoria County.

Following years of legal troubles, District 27’s Rep. Ron Reynolds is disbarred

The conclusion of a four-month stint at the Montgomery County Jail in January of this year wasn’t the end of Missouri City Democrat and attorney Rep. Ron Reynolds’ long-standing legal troubles. 

Following a disbarment hearing on July 26, a disbarment order was signed July 29, 2019, effectively stripping Reynolds of his license to practice law in the state of Texas. The State Bar of Texas’ Board of Disciplinary Appeals cites Reynolds as “having been found guilty and convicted of Intentional and Serious Crimes” in its order.

What began as a barratry conviction against Reynolds in what prosecutors called an “ambulance chasing for profit” scheme” became a multi-year legal battle for Reynolds, who eventually ran out of appeals in 2018 and turned himself in to serve what became a shortened one-year jail sentence. 

This disbarment follows a litany of ethically questionable offenses, including a history of flaunting the state’s campaign ethics rules when he “failed to file a campaign finance report for more than two years…and racked up more than $52,000 in fines from the Texas Ethics Commission,” as Reform Austin previously reported.

Additionally, in 2016 “Reynolds was ordered to pay more than half a million dollars to a former client whose share of a settlement he kept without her knowledge.”

Because the Texas Election Code does not require state legislators to resign over misdemeanor convictions, Reynolds was able to stay in his elected position when he won reelection from jail in 2018.

Republican Manish Seth has filed to run against Reynolds in 2020. So far, a Democratic primary challenger has not come forward.

Harris County approves bail reform to end poverty in jail 

Harris County officials have reached a historic agreement in a federal lawsuit over the county’s bail practices, which were deemed unconstitutional. The settlement, ending years-long negotiations, will adopt the judge’s findings to reform a system that has kept poor defendants behind bars. 

U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal paved the way with her 2017 ruling, deeming the Harris County bail system unconstitutional and a violation of equal protection and due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. Rosenthal called the system a “wealth-based detention” that only allows people who can afford bail to await trial at home. 

Chief Justice Nathan Hect also warned against Harris County bail practices in 2017. Hect criticized the system for forcing defendants unable to meet bail requirements to remain in jail until trial, even if they are not a flight risk and pose no threat to the community.

The settlement, estimated to cost up to $97 million, will adopt a policy that automatically qualifies 85 percent of low-level defendants for no-cash pretrial release. The county will also provide poor defendants with resources and social services to assist in getting them to court. One service will be a text message system that sends reminders and court hours to defendants.     

Cash bail is a security payment defendants make to the court in exchange for their temporary release prior to trial. Judges set the bail amount for defendants based on a variety of factors. The purpose of bail is to ensure defendants appear at their court hearings.

Recently, criminal justice reform advocates and civil rights lawyers have focused on eliminating the cash bail system. Many counties and states are now releasing defendants using a risk-assessment tool. Under the agreement, Harris County will implement a risk tool that will measure the likelihood of the defendant committing another crime or skipping court if released from jail prior to their trial. 

Harris County’s lawsuit is only one of a wave of litigation across Texas aimed at reforming the cash bail system. Dallas County and Galveston County have taken cues from Harris County and have filed their own lawsuits regarding bail practices. Harris County officials are hoping their landmark settlement will influence other ongoing bail lawsuits in Texas. 

This settlement is a momentous step in correcting a pretrial system that discriminates against poor low-level defendants. In 2018, more than 46,000 people in Harris County were arrested on misdemeanor charges. The lawsuit was initially filed in 2016 by plaintiffs arrested for low-level crimes, such as shoplifting or driving with an invalid license. These defendants were jailed for days, despite being unlikely to avoid court and posing no danger to society, solely because they could not afford to pay bail. Similar defendants and higher-risk defendants who could pay their bail were allowed to walk free. 

Poor defendants that get stuck in jail, even if their innocence is ultimately proven, often lose their jobs and their homes, which can make them more likely to commit another crime. 

Case Commissioner Rodney Ellis said Harris County’s bail practices lawsuit was “as big as Brown v. Board of Education.” The proposal was approved on a 3-2 party-line vote.

Bail reform advocate and County Judge Lina Hidalgo said, “It’s an incredibly significant day to make a decision on one of the key civil rights issues of our time.”