Abortion providers appeal to US Supreme Court in last-ditch effort to block new Texas law

Texas abortion providers made a last-minute plea to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to overturn the state's new abortion restrictions law, which is set to come into effect Wednesday and would ban the procedure as early as six weeks of pregnancy — a period when many women are unaware that they are pregnant.

Providers and abortion advocacy groups say this would affect at least 85% of the abortions taking place in the state. The law would allow members of the general public to sue those who might have violated the restrictions, which providers call a bounty hunting scheme. In the Supreme Court emergency filing, attorneys for providers said the law would likely close clinics across the state and "immediately and catastrophically reduce abortion access in Texas."

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on Sunday denied a request to block the bill and canceled a hearing scheduled for Monday where at least 20 abortion providers hoped to testify against the measures, which would be some of the strictest in the country. Many providers had sued in an attempt to overturn the law.

"In less than two days, Texas politicians will have effectively overturned Roe v. Wade," Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement Monday. "We have filed an emergency motion in the Supreme Court to block this law before clinics are forced to turn patients away. Patients will have to travel out of state – in the middle of a pandemic – to receive constitutionally guaranteed healthcare. And many will not have the means to do so. It's cruel, unconscionable, and unlawful."

Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, echoed Northup's statements and said her organization would exhaust every avenue to fight the law from coming into effect.

"The harm this law will cause will be insurmountable for far too many Texans, particularly Black, Latino, Indigenous people, those with low incomes, and Texans in rural areas who already face significant barriers to care," Johnson said in a statement. "We are asking the Supreme Court to uphold fifty years of precedent and ensure Texans won't be denied their constitutional right to abortion."

Kim Schwartz, media and communication director for the anti-abortion organization Texas Right to Life, said the providers' request to the Supreme Court is not surprising but her organization is confident that the law will be upheld. Her organization helped draft the abortion restrictions bill, dubbed by supporters the "Texas Heartbeat Act," and praised the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for denying the providers' request to block the law.

"The Texas Heartbeat Act is the strongest pro-life legislation to pass the Texas Legislature since Roe v. Wade," Schwartz said in an interview. "This is a huge victory and could save thousands upon thousands of preborn babies. We look forward to the day that it's going to be enforced — hopefully very soon."

Whole Woman's Health and Planned Parenthood said in statements they would continue offering all of its abortion services up until the moment that the law comes into effect.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton agrees to stop blocking people on Twitter, ending lawsuit over First Amendment

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton will no longer block users from his personal account for expressing "First Amendment-protected viewpoints" as part of an agreement to end a lawsuit where plaintiffs say they were unconstitutionally blocked for criticizing him or his policies on the platform, according to a filing late Friday in a federal court in Austin.

Paxton had already unblocked the named plaintiffs of the lawsuit in May, a month after the lawsuit was filed, but the latest filing confirmed he has now unblocked any other accounts. The ACLU of Texas, a freedom of speech organization that represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit along with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University called the agreement "an important victory for Texans' First Amendment rights."

"We're pleased that Attorney General Paxton has agreed to stop blocking people from his Twitter account simply because he doesn't like what they have to say," Katie Fallow, a senior staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute, said in a prepared statement. "Multiple courts have recognized that government officials who use their social media accounts for official purposes violate the First Amendment if they block people from those accounts on the basis of viewpoint. What Paxton was doing was unconstitutional."

Paxton's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Though Paxton blocked the plaintiffs on his personal account — not the official attorney general account — attorneys for the plaintiffs said he used the account to make official announcements, comment on local issues and defend his policies. The plaintiffs argued that being blocked from viewing Paxton's tweets from his @KenPaxtonTX account limited the rights of people to participate in a public forum and access statements made by the public official, therefore violating the First Amendment.

Biden administration threatens to sue after Texas officials say they’ll yank licenses from facilities housing unaccompanied migrant children

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The Biden administration is threatening to sue Texas over its plans to stop state-licensed facilities that are contracted with the federal government from housing migrant children, with a federal attorney calling the state's move a "direct attack" on federal refugee resettlement efforts.

The federal response comes after Gov. Greg Abbott ordered last week that Texas child care regulators revoke the licenses of state-licensed facilities that house migrant children. The move, the latest by the Republican governor as he spars with President Joe Biden over immigration policies, would force the facilities to stop serving unaccompanied minors or lose their license to serve any children.

Texas officials have already begun instructing the 52 state-licensed facilities serving migrant children to wind down operations by Aug. 30, following Abbott's order, according to a notice sent to shelters by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

In a letter sent Monday to Abbott and other Texas officials, Paul Rodriguez, a top attorney for the federal Department of Health and Human Services, said Texas' move violates the U.S. Constitution's Supremacy Clause, which says federal law supersedes state laws. He asked the recipients to clarify whether they intended that the order be applied to those shelters, which are overseen by HHS and its refugee resettlement branch, the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

He wrote that the federally contracted shelters "comprise a significant portion of ORR's total operational footprint, and represent an indispensable component of the Federal immigration system."

If Abbott's May 31 order includes those ORR facilities, it "would be a direct attack on this system," Rodriguez said in the letter. He gave the state until Friday to clarify whether the order will affect those facilities.

If so, he said legal action could follow.

"Although we prefer to resolve this matter amicably, in light of the legal issues outlined above, HHS is consulting the U.S. Department of Justice and intends to pursue whatever appropriate legal action is necessary to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the vulnerable youth that Congress entrusted to ORR," he said.

Abbott's order affects only the state-licensed shelters — which collectively house around 8,600 children, according to state data. Federal emergency intake centers — which aren't licensed by the state — house the majority of immigrant children in the state and have seen the largest population growth in recent months. State data shows that the population in Texas-licensed agencies has remained relatively static.

A snapshot of federal data shows that 8,700 children were moved through the federal emergency intake shelters in Texas on May 10 — more than 10 times the number of children recorded in a previous snapshot on March 15, according to data obtained and cross-checked by the Associated Press. State-licensed facilities have reported monthly headcount snapshots of around 4,200 to 4,400 over the last three months, hovering near half of their combined capacity.

Federal law requires that U.S. border officials move unaccompanied immigrant children to an HHS facility within three days of taking them into custody, except under extraordinary circumstances.

A statement from Abbott's office Tuesday echoed claims from his executive order that the federal government is commandeering state resources.

"The Biden Administration is yet again pressuring Texas to aid its illegal immigration program and force our state to do its job. Commandeering state resources to fulfill the federal government's responsibility is a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Here in Texas, we will follow that law," Abbott said in the statement.

"The federal government caused this problem and should be solely responsible for the care of these children. No child will be uncared for. Texas will remain focused on doing our job — protecting Texans," the statement concluded.

The governor's office did not respond to questions about the potential relocation of children who are housed in the state-licensed shelters or whether the state was considering backing down on its order in light of the HHS letter.

Abbott pointed to the state's foster care capacity woes as one of the reasons for his order. Hundreds of foster children have spent nights in hotels, community organizations or Child Protective Services offices because there weren't enough suitable placements as dozens of foster care providers relinquished their contracts with the state due largely to higher scrutiny on the system.

"The unabated influx of individuals resulting from federal government policies threatens to negatively impact state-licensed residential facilities, including those that serve Texas children in foster care," Abbott wrote in the order.

Only 134 migrant children were housed in federally contracted Texas facilities that also serve foster children as of May 10, according to the data gathered by the Associated Press.

Patrick Crimmins, a Texas Department of Family and Protective Services spokesperson, said unaccompanied immigrant children don't enter the state's foster care system directly. They would only be in the system if they had to be removed from family members with whom federal employees placed them.

"There are no children in foster care simply because they are an unaccompanied minor. Children are only in foster care because of abuse or neglect that is reported to us and investigated by us," Crimmins said.

Asked how Abbott's order might affect the foster system's placement shortages, Crimmins replied, "We don't know that yet."

Abbott's executive order also instructed the Texas Department of Public Safety to enforce all state and federal laws on trespassing, smuggling and human trafficking and ordered two state criminal justice commissions to provide guidance and request "any necessary" waivers to give counties "the flexibility needed to establish adequate alternative detention facilities."

Border apprehensions continue to soar in the state, continuing a sharp uptick that began in 2020. Abbott blames Biden for the increases, and for an increase in fentanyl seizures on the Texas-Mexico border, and has deployed more than 1,000 DPS troopers and hundreds of Texas National Guard soldiers to the border this year.

Jennifer Nagda, policy director for the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights, called Abbott's order an attempt to score political points in the ongoing feud.

"Children should never be made pawns in political fights. And there should be no debate about guaranteeing that every child who arrives at our border is recognized and treated as a child," Nagda said in a written statement. "That means access to safe care, to family reunification, and to a fair legal process."

Mandi Cai contributed to this report.

State lawmakers urge federal government to remove the term 'Negro' from Texas place names

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Texas lawmakers are asking the federal government to remove the term "Negro" from dozens of places across the state where the word appears in the location's name.

The move by the Legislature comes three decades after Texas passed a law that was supposed to rename the places after Black Americans who made a "significant contribution" to Texas. But the U.S. Board for Geographic Names, the federal entity with the final say over any natural place name in the country, blocked the changes, saying there was a lack of demonstrated local support for the proposed new names or opposition to current ones.

The proposals were dismissed and the issue remained dormant — with the bill's strongest supporters not realizing the legislation had no effect.

Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis — a former Texas lawmaker who sponsored the bill in 1991 — said he was not aware the name changes hadn't been made until he was contacted by NPR for a story last year.

After he found out, he began writing letters and reaching out to state agencies to take action. His efforts prompted lawmakers to draft Senate Concurrent Resolution 29 — a formal display of the unified will of the Texas Legislature to urge the federal board to take action. The resolution passed the House on Monday 146-0. The Senate unanimously passed the resolution last month, with all state senators of both parties signed on as coauthors.

"The perpetuation of racially offensive language is a stain on the Lone Star State, and it is vital that the names of these geographic features be changed in order to reflect and honor the diversity of the population," Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, wrote in the resolution.

Miles said he was first made aware of the issue by Ellis and immediately wanted to get the Legislature to take action.

"The word Negro is derivative of [the N word], which is a very offensive word to people of color," he said.

There are at least 25 place names in the state that contain the term "Negro," according to the geographic board's database — not counting names that appear to be referencing the Spanish word for the color black.

The natural features — such as lakes, summits and valleys — are scattered across the state with names including "Negrohead," "Negro Hollow" and "Negro Creek," among others. The 1991 bill identified 19 Texas sites containing the word but called for all instances to be removed.

Many of the locations in Texas referencing the racial slur were once the pejorative N-word but were changed to "Negro" in 1963 by the federal board.

The resolution, if signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, will be forwarded to the geographic names board. It doesn't have legal force, but rather is urging the board to approve requests in accordance with the 1991 bill.

"It sends a message to other stakeholders involved in the process, that the state Legislature, along with our governor — we're engaged in this, we're supporting this. And we want to work constructively with all the stakeholders to get to the place we need," Rep. James White, R-Hillister, said, who filed the House's version of the resolution.

As a part of the renewed effort to rename these places, 16 proposals for places detailed in the 1991 bill have been resubmitted to the federal board and are set to be voted on at its June 10 meeting.

All these years later, Ellis is hopeful that these names will finally be changed.

"I'm very pleased," he said of the resolution. "After the George Floyd killing, people are looking at and finding opportunities to go and right past wrongs."

Outside of the state, there are still hundreds of places across the U.S. with the term in their names. Ellis hopes Texas can lead the charge on changing these names.

"I'm hopeful that on the federal level, they will simply pass legislation to change all of these racially insensitive and offensive names," Ellis said.

In the meantime, Ellis suggested to the board that it take all instances where "Negro" appears in a name to replace it "with 'Black' or another term that is not racially offensive," while a new name can be selected by the local community.

"Despite efforts to change these names, our processes and systems have failed," Ellis told the geographic board during a virtual meeting on May 13. "These names have stood, even as the times have changed… We cannot take a passive approach and let the localities wait until they can find a replacement name, [it] is unacceptable."

"During this moment of racial reckoning in our nation," he added, "we must take concrete action to ensure that these offensive, racist names are finally erased from the public domain."

Texas officials knew foster children were illegally placed in an unsafe shelter. It didn't end until a whistleblower came forward.

Texas state officials, including those in Gov. Greg Abbott's office, knew for months that foster children were being illegally housed in an emergency shelter cited hundreds of times for dangerous conditions — but failed to report the violation to court-appointed watchdogs tasked with monitoring the state's foster care system, according to court records.

The Whataburger Center, a shelter for foster children in San Antonio named after the restaurant chain because of a one-time donation, was cited 239 times for not meeting state minimum standards between 2016 and 2020. Some of the reports identified abuse or neglect. In September, the shelter was put on probation by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and placed on an admissions hold — blocking children from being housed there — after the department said it found "a continued pattern of deficiencies in the area of supervision, medication, and reports/record keeping."

After being placed on probation, shelter officials told the state it would move the children to other placements and surrendered its license in January, according to court records. However, Family Tapestry, the state-appointed provider for the region which also runs the center, continued to illegally place children in the Whataburger Center and its own office — which is only separated from the shelter by a door — until ordered to vacate children in March.

The Department of Family and Protective Services and HHSC were aware of the situation for months, but did not notify the court, despite a federal judge mandating that the court monitors be updated daily by the state on these types of placements as part of a decade-long class action lawsuit against the state on the behalf of foster children.

Elizabeth Farley, a policy adviser for Abbott, said under oath last month during a court hearing that the governor's office was first notified in October about the allegations that children were illegally sleeping in the offices connected to the Whataburger Center, according to court records.

But it wasn't until a whistleblower notified the court monitors in March that the federal court became aware of the situation at Family Tapestry and the Whataburger Center — nearly five months after the HHSC first became aware of the illegal placements, according to court records. Five days after the monitors became aware of the situation and contacted DFPS, the department told Family Tapestry to vacate all children the center and its office by March 25, which they did, according to DFPS.

"We were shocked when we learned what the whistleblower revealed to the monitors. The state, including top officials at DFPS, HHSC and even the governor's office, was aware of children being placed in illegal operations for months," said Paul Yetter, the attorney representing foster children in the lawsuit against the state. "Keeping secrets is not how this broken system is going to get fixed. It puts children at risk."

U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled in 2015 that Texas was violating foster children's constitutional rights to be free from an unreasonable risk of harm, saying that children "often age out of care more damaged than when they entered." Jack has issued several orders aiming at widespread reform. Abbott's office, HHSC and DFPS are all named in the court order.

The judge appointed two monitors who serve as watchdogs to observe the state's compliance to the court orders. The court mandated that the monitors be updated with daily reports on children placed in unlicensed facilities, including the Whataburger Center or in case workers' offices.

"The Court ordered the State to provide daily reports to the Monitors regarding information on the number of children without placements, the identity of these children, and the location of the children, effective April 2, 2020," according to court documents.

Abbott's office declined to provide a statement or interview, and HHSC declined to comment due to "pending litigation."

Patrick Crimmins, Texas DFPS spokesperson, said no placements of foster care children in unlicensed facilities managed by the state's five community-based care providers were reported to the monitors for months because of an "oversight" by the department, because it did not track that data for those contractors. But the issue was corrected in March and DFPS staff began tracking those numbers as well, he said.

Crimmins said the blame for not informing the court of the violations lies within DFPS — not the governor's office.

But Yetter thinks it's the responsibility of all those named in the lawsuit — including the governor's office — to notify the monitors.

"The state made repeated visits to Family Tapestry into the Whataburger Center and found children sleeping overnight at a facility that was not supposed to have these children — so, the state knew about this on an ongoing basis," he said. "There's no reason why they hadn't shared the information with the monitors."

Crimmins said while the Whataburger Center was unlicensed, it's not unusual for children without placements to spend time in places like CPS offices and motels, which are also unlicensed. It's an ongoing problem all over the state, he said.

"Unlicensed placements, also known as Children Without Placements (CWOP), unfortunately have become very common for a variety of reasons. We have been under orders from the Governor's office for several years to eliminate CWOP, particularly kids staying in CPS offices, but have been unable to do so," he said.

The number of children without placements has surged to the highest point in at least four years.

Last month, 282 children spent at least two consecutive nights in unlicensed placements last month, usually sleeping in offices, hotels or community organizations, because no beds were available in licensed facilities, according to DFPS data.

"The Texas foster care system is privatized and the State cannot increase or generate new capacity – it is the function of the private sector to do that, with help and incentives of course from the State, including higher foster care rates, which has happened regularly," Crimmins said.

Yetter said reporting the children housed at the Whataburger Center was urgent, compared to other children in unlicensed placements, given the "history of serious reports of abuse and neglect that raised real risk to these children."

"The situation was chaotic," Yetter said. "Family Tapestry also knew and had been told by DFPS more than once that they were not to place children there, and yet they did... And then everyone kept the secret from the monitors in the judge."

The court monitors noted that the situation at the Whataburger Center was especially disturbing, saying their concerns "are magnified by the [Whataburger Center's] history of confirmed findings of abuse, neglect or exploitation and safety violations during the time that it was licensed."

Annette Rodriguez, chief executive officer of Family Tapestry, said last week in court the center was "overwhelmed and inundated with more youth than what we originally planned."

Court documents detail "substantiated" findings including at least one of physical abuse, one for sexual abuse, 10 for neglectful supervision and three for medical neglect.

Children at the Whataburger Center often ran away, staff inconsistently gave children their prescribed medicine — even in the case of serious, life-threatening medical conditions — and the facility suffered from poor cleanliness in areas, the report said. Some of the foster children with a history of self-harm got access to sharp objects or cords while under supervision.

Fights broke out among the children and there are allegations that some were instigated by a staff member, who reportedly kicked a child in the back while they were fighting another child. One staff member allegedly carried a taser and threatened children with it — later claiming he was kidding.

There were also several reports of foster children having sex with each other on shelter grounds or instances where one foster child inappropriately touched another child. One report alleged that a 16-year-old male foster child was having a sexual relationship with a female staff member at the shelter.

"The situation there was complete chaos for months — frankly, for almost two years. And no one knew about it, other than state officials. Not the monitors and not the court," said Ketter, the attorney representing foster children. "Children were not safe there. And the facility was not prepared to take care of them… the state is in charge of keeping these children safe and should never allow them to be put in unlicensed facilities."

Disclosure: Effectiv has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Army report finds murdered Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillén reported being sexually harassed twice

A U.S. Army investigation found that Spc. Vanessa Guillén reported being sexually harassed two times by a fellow soldier at Fort Hood before she was killed, a finding that contradicts the Army's previous claims that there was no evidence Guillén experienced harassment.

Guillén's supervisor and other officials failed to report the harassment up the chain, according to a report released Friday which provided new details about the investigation following Guillén's disappearance on April 22, 2020.

Investigators did not find "credible evidence" that Spc. Aaron Robinson, the man accused of killing Guillén, sexually harassed her or that they had a relationship outside of their professional one, the report said. However, Robinson was reported for sexually harassing another female soldier. Robinson shot and killed himself after being confronted by the police.

As a result of the investigation, Army officials removed five current or former leaders in the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, where Guillén also worked, from their leadership positions. Three of those officers will also be reprimanded. Garrett also referred disciplinary action against eight other officers — all of whom will receive reprimands and one who will be relieved.

As of Friday, 21 officers in total have been suspended, relieved of their positions or given official reprimands following Guillén's murder.

REFERENCE

Read the full redacted investigation The Army released on Friday.(10.2 MB) DOWNLOAD

Guillén was found in a shallow grave outside Fort Hood after being bludgeoned to death last year. She was 20 years old. Her killing sparked national outrage and calls for reform in the military against sexual harassment and violence.

"I have a daughter who is 23 — the same age as Vanessa, if she was here with us today," Maj. Gen. Gene LeBoeuf said in a press call with reporters Friday. "I keep a picture of my daughter on my desk. When I speak with the Guillén family I can see my daughter there. And each time I imagine the grief of the entire Guillén family."

The secretary of the army said in August that Fort Hood had "the most cases for sexual assault and harassment and murders for our entire formation of the U.S. Army." At least 159 Fort Hood soldiers died out of combat between 2016 and last year, including seven homicides and 71 suicides, according to an analysis by The New York Times.But advocates for military sexual assault victims say the problem is bigger than just Fort Hood. They say the military creates a siloed environment allowing sexual harassment and sexual violence to occur, many times unnoticed and unreported. And when there are reports, the military handles the investigation itself. Her family continues to call for widespread reform.A Pentagon panel recently recommended that decisions to prosecute service members for sexual assault be made by independent authorities, instead of military officials — a reversal of the longstanding practice of handling these cases internally.The report released Friday is separate from the investigation overseen by the U.S. Attorney's Office and in collaboration with FBI and did not consider criminal allegations.

According to the report, Guillén told a supervisor that another supervisor had made sexual comments toward her in the summer of 2019, according to the report. That supervisor made comments in Spanish suggesting they wanted to have "a threesome" with her, Guillén said. Two other soldiers also reported the incident to supervisors, who failed to initiate an investigation.

Another time, Guillén said the same soldier approached her while she was washing herself in the field and said they tried to "watch her wash up." The Army investigator discovered a pattern of mistreatment from the supervisor but said it did not appear related to her killing.

The Army has not released the name of the individual accused of sexually harassing Guillén, which LeBoeuf said was because they were not a high-ranking officer and to allow for "due process."

"We found many inconsistencies in this report. Vanessa's case was severely mishandled, and therefore this report reflects a lot of damage control," Guillén family attorney Natalie Khawam said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. "We are troubled that the names of the soldiers that sexually harassed Vanessa are being omitted. It's heart breaking and frustrating for all of us."

Khawam said the report shows why reform from the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act is necessary. The act, introduced last year, would create a confidential reporting system for sexual harassment in the military and explicitly list sexual harassment as a crime in the military law constitution. Lawmakers plan on reintroducing the bill this year.

"This all should have never happened and our soldiers deserve to be treated like human beings," Khawam said.

The report also detailed a timeline of when Guillén went missing and of attempts to locate her. Robinson was put under observation but was able to slip away on June 30. LeBoeuf said no additional details could be released because of the criminal investigation that is ongoing.

Investigators concluded that Army officials failed to effectively communicate with the community, the media and Guillén's family — but said officials appropriately jumped into action when she went missing. The Army also needed a better way to classify her disappearance, the report said. Army officials temporarily labeled her as AWOL — absent without official leave — because "they lacked sufficient evidence to support a missing status determination," according to the report, even though officials knew the circumstances of her disappearance were suspicious.

"However, the Army's policy requiring an AWOL duty status sent the wrong message, creating an inaccurate perception that she had voluntarily abandoned her unit and limiting the command's access to certain resources, such as casualty assistance officer to liaise with the family," a statement accompanying Friday's report said. "The Army has since published a new policy on duty status of missing Soldiers to correct these gaps and ambiguities."

The Army previously announced it is restructuring its criminal investigation command, as well as redesigning its sexual harassment and assault response and prevention program as part of an initial swath of adopted changes.

Officials have updated policies to require full investigations of off-post soldier drug overdoses, including of the source of the drugs, and investigations of all suspected solider deaths by suicide. Last year, the Army updated guidance on how to respond when a soldier goes missing. Officials also are requiring changes to improve the climate and requiring regular welfare checks at Fort Hood.

More changes are to come as investigations continue, LeBoeuf said.

"None of this will bring Spc. Guillen back," LeBoeuf said. "[But] her memory drives us to be better."

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network's 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673. You can also visit their online hotline here.


Texas Republican alleges aid to farmers of color discriminates against white farmers: report

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is suing the federal government claiming that the Biden administration's COVID-19 relief plan passed last month discriminates against white farmers and ranchers.

Miller, a conservative Republican and rancher, states in the lawsuit filed Monday in Fort Worth federal court that he is suing in his capacity as a private citizen — not on behalf of the state.

Among several other major provisions, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 offers relief to "socially disadvantaged" farmers and ranchers, which the plan defines as people of color. Miller's complaint against the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the definition in the program fails to include "white ethnic groups that have unquestionably suffered" because of their ethnicity, such as those of Irish, Italian, German, Jewish and eastern European heritage.

Attorneys are seeking class-action status for the suit on behalf of white farmers and ranchers.

The lawsuit is sponsored by America First Legal — a group founded by Stephen Miller, Donald Trump's former senior adviser, along with other Trump officials to be a conservative response to the ACLU.

"America First Legal opposes discrimination in all forms," AFL President Stephen Miller said in a statement.

Black farmers in America make up about a quarter of disadvantaged farmers targeted in the relief bill and have lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the past century, according to the Washington Post. Agricultural experts and advocates for Black farmers say this stems from systemic racism, biased government policy and social and business practices that have denied African Americans equitable access to markets.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 is a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill signed by President Joe Biden last month, which would provide an estimated $10.4 billion for agricultural and food supply-chain programs. Nearly half would go to relief for farmers of color. While Congress passed last year's $2.2 trillion CARES Act with significant buy-in from both political parties while Donald Trump was in the White House, the American Rescue Plan passed solely with Democratic votes in both the House and Senate this year, after Biden was elected.

The lawsuit says that the exclusion of white ranchers and farmers in the program is unfair and asks the court to declare benefits targeting only people of color unconstitutional.

"Doing so will promote equal rights under the law for all American citizens and promote efforts to stop racial discrimination, because the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," the lawsuit states, saying the program "lurches America dangerously backward."

The lawsuit was assigned to U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor, whose court became a favorite for the conservative Texas Attorney General's Office for federal lawsuits fought during the Obama administration. A 2007 appointee of President George W. Bush, O'Connor handed Texas several major wins over the federal government opposing Democratic policies, including gutting Obamacare, ruling against family leave benefits for gay or lesbian couples and blocking guidelines to allow transgender students to use bathrooms aligning with their gender identity.

Miller has repeatedly been criticized in the past for sharing or amplifying racist memes, as well as misinformation and unfounded conspiracy theories on his social media accounts.

Spokespeople for Miller, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Farm Bureau Federation did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The complaint asks the court that if it doesn't rule the definition unconstitutional to "at least" expand it to include those of Anglo Saxon heritage that have experienced historical discrimination or include those with "any discernible trace of minority ancestry."

"An interpretation of the underlying statutes that excludes plaintiffs like Miller because he is not 'black enough' would raise grave constitutional concerns under Bolling v. Sharpe and it should be rejected for that reason alone," the complaint states, referencing a lawsuit where the U.S. Supreme Court case held that the Constitution prohibited segregated public schools in Washington, D.C. "The statutes should not be construed to empower the Department of Agriculture to choose a minimum threshold of minority ancestry when determining eligibility for benefits."

Texas is facing a wave of event cancellations after GOP governor ended mask mandate

At least four organizations canceled conferences or conventions in Austin, citing health concerns after Texas ended its statewide mask mandate earlier this month. The cancellations cost the Hilton Austin hotel $350,000 in revenue, according to Austin Convention Enterprises, a city-created corporation that owns and manages the hotel.

"These were rooms that were already on the books, and largely what we saw was fallout, ironically, from the governor opening the economy," said Joe Bolash, Hilton Austin general manager, during a March 16 Austin Convention Enterprises board meeting. "It was groups that were not comfortable returning to a fully opened economy where there was no mask mandate in place."

Gov. Greg Abbott ended the statewide mask mandate and capacity limits on businesses on March 10, pointing to fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases in the state. Public health experts and political opponents lamented the move, saying it was too soon before the majority of the state was vaccinated against the virus or even eligible for a shot.

Jimmy Flannigan, ACE president and former Austin City Council member, said these cancellations are the latest blow to the hospitality industry in Austin, which has already suffered severe losses due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Flannigan declined to share the names of the organizations that canceled the events. However, he said three of them "had relationships in the medical field" and were concerned with "the message that medical groups might be sending" if they hosted events in Texas.

"This is the worst possible time for any part of the hotel industry to be [losing] business," Flannigan said. "We're at the very first few upticks of the recovery of the hotel industry and tourism, which is both important to the hotels themselves, and to the many, many, many jobs that those hotels create in Central Texas."

Flannigan said consumer sentiment and confidence in their safety heavily impacts business.

"Nothing will help the return of the economy more than the prevention and the public health requirements to arrest the spread of this virus," he said. "And I hope that the governor lifting the mass mandate ends up not being a horrible decision as it relates to the health of Texas."

Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Thursday, the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology announced it was canceling the in-person portion of its annual conference that was to be held in Austin due to the end of Texas' COVID-19-related precautions.

Conference organizers were working with Hilton Austin, the JW Marriott Austin and Fairmont Austin, but it's unclear if it is one of the four events that ACE said were canceled.

Devin Jopp, CEO of the organization, said in an interview that it's already a challenge planning safe events during the pandemic, but the masking mandate ending "felt like the rug being pulled out from underneath us." He said there was no way an organization dedicated to preventing the spread of infectious diseases could risk bringing its members to a state without a mask mandate.

"The policies that Gov. Abbott moved the state into just created a condition we couldn't work around," he said. "We think it was premature, and I would say that goes with a lot of other sentiment out there."

The event was to be held partially online and scaled back from its usual projected attendance of 6,000 to 1,000 due to the pandemic.

Greg Casar, an Austin City Council member, said the lack of a mask mandate isn't just driving business from the state, but it is putting pressure on public-facing workers, including those in the hospitality industry, to enforce mask-wearing in businesses.

"Greg Abbott didn't help the economy when he lifted the mask rule, he only helped the virus," he said. "That's clearly bad for workers, but it's bad for business, too. And you can see that clearly with the cancellation of these conferences."

Even after Texas ended its mask mandate, Austin and Travis County have continued to require masks. In response, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a suit demanding that local officials end the mandate. A final hearing to decide the case will be Friday.

Both Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown have said even if the mask orders are shot down in court this week, they are glad they were able to keep the mask mandate in the meantime, allowing more residents to get vaccinated.

Casar says the city will continue pursuing ways to keep masks on Austin residents.

"We will not stop doing everything we can to protect health and safety. So even if our mask rules get taken down, we will continue to try to find other ways to require masks," he said. "We will continue to work to make sure that everybody wears a mask or that every business requires masks."

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chair, and Fairmont Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton warns Austin to drop mask mandate by 6 p.m. or be sued

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is threatening to sue Travis County and the City of Austin if officials don't back down on local orders that continue to require masks despite Gov. Greg Abbott ending the statewide mask mandate on Wednesday.

Austin and Travis County public health leaders recently announced they would continue to require masks, even though Abbott forbade local authorities from superseding his order. Only county judges can order COVID-19 restrictions if hospitalizations from the virus rise above 15% of the bed capacity in that hospital region for seven straight days.

"The decision to require masks or otherwise impose COVID-19-related operating limits is expressly reserved to private businesses on their own premises. It does not rest with jurisdictions like the city of Austin or Travis County or their local health authorities," Paxton wrote in a statement Wednesday. "We have already taken you to court under similar circumstances. You lost. If you continue to flout the law in this manner, we'll take you to court again and you will lose again."

Paxton gave local authorities until 6 p.m. to come into compliance with the governor's order, rescind local COVID-19 mandates and retract related public statements.

"Otherwise, on behalf of the state of Texas," Paxton wrote, "I will sue you."

Paxton's office successfully challenged Austin and Travis officials' attempts to restrict holiday restaurant operations around New Year's.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sues electricity retailer Griddy over exorbitant bills

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit Monday against electricity retailer Griddy, claiming it misled customers using deceptive business practices after some customers reported bills costing tens of thousands of dollars.

These charges were incurred during Texas' devastating winter storm that nearly shut down Texas' electrical grid and sent energy demand skyrocketing. The lawsuit targets Griddy's auto-billing system, which began drafting money out of customer's accounts as the bills rolled in.

"Griddy misled Texans and signed them up for services which, in a time of crisis, resulted in individual Texans each losing thousands of dollars," Paxton said in a statement. "As Texans struggled to survive this winter storm, Griddy made the suffering even worse as it debited outrageous amounts each day."

Paxton noted this is the first lawsuit his office has filed against power companies after the widespread outages two weeks ago. A Houston-based law firm accused the company of price gouging and filed a separate class-action lawsuit last week.

"We are aware of the lawsuit filed by the Texas Attorney General against Griddy," company spokesperson Lauren Valdes said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. "We do not agree with the claims alleged in the complaint, and plan to vigorously defend against it."

Griddy was effectively shut down by Texas' electrical grid operator because it missed required payments. The retailer said last week the Electric Reliability Council of Texas ignored requests for emergency help. An ERCOT spokesperson said payment breach information is confidential and declined to offer specifics.

ERCOT is $2.5 billion short in payments from retail power providers and others, Bloomberg reported Monday. It has covered some debt with revenues from another market, but remains $1.7 billion short.

If ERCOT can't finance the underpayments, those could eventually have to be covered by market participants, including consumers, Bloomberg reported.

If Ercot cannot come up with financing to cover the underpayments, the debt could end up being shared by everyone in the Texas market, including consumers. Amid the fallout, seven of Ercot's board members have resigned. The head of the Public Utility Commission of Texas resigned Monday.

Griddy customers will be absorbed by other electrical providers that are contracted with the PUC. But it's unclear if Griddy customers will still be required to pay their bills. Gov. Greg Abbott promised relief on Feb. 22 but hasn't provided details. Griddy declined to answer questions about what responsibilities their customers hold.

Griddy customers paid a $10 monthly membership and in turn were passed wholesale power prices. These prices fluctuate but usually are cheaper than retail prices. However, unlike fixed-rate electricity plan users, Griddy customers are susceptible to market changes due to increased demand or reduced supply.

Paxton's lawsuit claims the company understood the risk this posed to customers but misled them through its marketing.

Some customers have reported bills costing thousands of dollars, some surpassing $15,000. The retailer places the blame for the exorbitant prices on Texas' Public Utility Commission, saying they were due to the commission jacking up wholesale prices.

The PUC raised the wholesale market price of electricity to $9,000 per megawatt hour for days during the height of the winter storm in an attempt to entice power generators to produce more electricity. The average cost per megawatt hour is $35.

The PUC did not respond to a request for an interview by publication time.

Brazos Electric Power Cooperative Inc., Texas' largest power cooperative, filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday after incurring $2.1 billion in combined charges owed to ERCOT, according to court documents filed on Monday. Those charges were due in days.

"The consequences of these prices were devastating," the Waco-based company wrote in court filings.

The company, which lists its assets and liabilities as between $1 billion to $10 billion, said it was doing strong financially at the start of February. The notion that it'd be filing for bankruptcy weeks later would have been "unfathomable," it stated in court documents.

Clifton Karnei, executive vice president of Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, signed the bankruptcy submissions. He sat on ERCOT's board of directors until he resigned last week.

Brazos Electric is owned and made up by 16 member cooperatives, which each have their own members.

Brazos Electric officials decided to declare bankruptcy rather than "foist this catastrophic 'black swan' financial event" onto its members and their customers.

Erin Douglas contributed to this story.

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