• How shoe-leather reporting uncovered a bizarre bankruptcy tied to Senator Carlos Uresti

    Earlier this year, Express-News business writer Patrick Danner set out to write a story about the rising number of oil and gas companies going bust in South Texas.

    What he found instead was a a bizarre saga about a bankrupt company accused of fraud and its hidden ties to Texas state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.

    Danner’s tenacious digging offers a shining example of why traditional, shoe-leather reporting still matters in an age of Facebook feeds and Twitter handles. Thanks to the story, Express-News readers now know that the FBI is investigating the case, Uresti says he’s been interviewed as a witness, and the senator revised his state-mandated financial disclosure report.

    These are the kinds of details that can’t be found in a Google search — unless you Google Danner’s blockbuster article.

    Patrick Danner
    Patrick Danner
    I sat down with Danner to talk about how he got the story and the challenges he faced in reporting it.

    Q: I thought I’d first ask you to describe your beat, since that explains how you found the story.

    A: Sure. I cover civil courts, interesting civil litigation. Bankruptcy court, which is where I came across this. And banking. And that’s pretty much it.

    Is that a goldmine for stories? I mean, it seems like you find some pretty interesting things that get litigated.

    Yeah, I’m just attracted to conflict. And so I’m always going through cases just to see if there’s something there to chew on. In this particular instance, it was a bankruptcy filing that caught my eye. Because I was hearing about, you know, with the decline in oil prices, that there would be a lot of bankruptcy filings from companies operating in the Eagle Ford Shale. So I was keeping an eye out for those.

    Then, within the span of a week or so, it seemed like there were four (bankruptcies) that were filed. They weren’t big names. But I thought I could use that as a spring board to do a story on the wave of bankruptcies in the Eagle Ford.

    I’m just attracted to conflict. And so I’m always going through cases just to see if there’s something there to chew on”

    It actually didn’t really pan out that way. A lot of them were filed in other cities. Houston for instance. So we haven’t really had a big uptick in bankruptcy filings. But in this particular instance, I reached out to the attorney for FourWinds Logistics, which is a frac sand company that would buy and sell frac sand, and the attorney referenced a claim that FourWinds had against Halliburton, which was buying sand from FourWinds, reneging on a $7.5 million contract. For such a small company, that’s a pretty big contract. And from there I just started following the case.

    So at this point you don’t even know of Uresti’s involvement. How did you find out about it?

    I found out about Uresti’s involvement when I went to a creditors hearing in FourWinds’ bankruptcy.

    Can you quickly describe what that is?

    Sure. A creditors hearing is conducted by a bankruptcy trustee. The trustee asks the debtor certain questions. Tax returns, things like that. It’s fairly mundane stuff. But the interesting part of the creditors meeting is the creditors have an opportunity to ask questions. So there were attorneys there for different parties. And there was also an attorney on the phone who represented a woman who was suing FourWinds. And I knew nothing about this lawsuit. It was filed down in Cameron County. And apparently she was suing for fraud and I didn’t know any of this. But during the hearing, the attorney asked Stan Bates, the CEO of FourWinds, about his response to the lawsuit, which designated Carlos Uresti as a responsible third party. I had no idea what that meant, whether it was the state senator himself.

    It definitely perked your interest, though.

    Yeah, yeah, it got me certainly curious. So from there, the next thing I did was try to get a hold of that lawsuit down in Cameron County. I had to look up, what does that mean, a responsible third party? In essence, what it means is that Stan Bates was blaming the problems that FourWinds had on conflicts of interest that he alleged Uresti had.

    So what’d you do after that?

    Well, I was curious what exactly were those conflicts of interest. Well, I found out he represented a woman who invested in FourWinds. Her name was Denise Cantu. She invested $900,000. And it turns out that Uresti was her legal counsel in a wrongful death case where two of Denise Cantu’s children died.

    Patrick Danner story about Carlos Uresti

    That’s basically summed up in the lede of your story, which is a bombshell. I’ve never really considered what happens when somebody wins a lawsuit, and what do they do with that money? And it raises all kinds of questions about conflicts of interest when their lawyer gets involved. And oh, by the way, he’s making a commission off this.

    Right. In this particular case, lawyers have certain obligations, rules they’ve got to follow. Uresti makes the point he was no longer her lawyer at the time he suggested she go see Stan Bates. And Denise Cantu testified that he didn’t advise her to put her money in FourWinds — but he did get a commission from her investment in FourWinds.

    So at some point you have to interview Uresti. How did that go and do you have any tips about interviews that can get confrontational or can be difficult?

    This particular interview wasn’t confrontational. Clearly I had to ask some tough questions. What I had done was basically gone through and written all my questions down. I don’t usually do that. But in a case like this, I want to make sure that I didn’t overlook anything.

    This is pretty technical stuff, too.

    Yeah. The funny thing was I had to call him back because I forgot to ask him a simple question. He got a $40,000 loan from FourWinds. And I had been hearing rumblings about where the money went. Fortunately he called me back. The question I forgot to ask was, what did you do with the money you had gotten from the $40,000 loan from FourWinds? So he did call me back and he answered that question. But I was knocking myself for forgetting to ask.

    Can you describe how (Bexar County District Attorney) Nico Lahood got wrapped into this saga?

    Yeah, he represented a gentleman by the name of Gary Cain. And from that trial, back in 2014, Cain was charged with four felony counts in a land deal involving Rackspace Hosting. Rackspace claimed it was ripped off by Gary Cain. Cain was found not guilty by a jury in July of 2014. Within a couple of months, he was brought on as a sort of a financial consultant with FourWinds, where he said he was helping raise financing for FourWinds.

    Maybe I’m drawn to the dry stuff. I seem to find a lot of complicated stories. I just try to keep it simple as possible”

    Cain’s business is called Trinity Global. A document was presented in one of the court hearings that mentioned Nico LaHood was co-chairman of the company. And I thought, well, that’s kind of odd that LaHood the DA is in business with a former client. You don’t see that every day.

    So one of the investors, Richard Thum, who is president of SA Five Star Cleaners, he felt like he had been ripped off by FourWinds. He told me that it was Gary Cain that recommended that Richard go see Nico LaHood and tell them what was going on at FourWinds. And so Richard Thum went to the DA’s office and met with Nico LaHood and his head of the criminal division. And they basically, according to Richard, expressed interest in the case. But they said to me that they advised him to go to the FBI. Richard did go to the FBI but he said he did it on his own. So the FBI took interest in the case and they’re looking into all this.

    So now we have a couple politicians who are revising their financial statements.

    Yeah. Uresti did go back and correct his financial disclosure form. And LaHood went back and corrected his after (Express-News columnist) Brian Chasnoff called and asked him why didn’t he disclose his business with Gary Cain?

    You mentioned you’re drawn to conflict, and conflict makes for interesting stories. But there’s also a lot of legalese, a lot of dry information in these lawsuits. It’s complicated. How do you go about writing this and making this understandable?

    I don’t know. Maybe I’m drawn to the dry stuff. I seem to find a lot of complicated stories. I just try to keep it simple as possible — in this case, leading with the human element of a woman losing two of her kids, and using the proceeds from the court settlement from the loss of her two kids to invest in this company. So that was the advice of my editor to do it that way.

    Really, other than the top of the story, which got rewritten a few times, the rest of the story just kind of took it in a chronological order.

    That’s probably one of the more helpful ways to approach it, right? Just walk through everything that happened.

    Yeah, although we did put up high the stuff about not disclosing certain things in his financial disclosure forms. We wanted to get that high in the story to make it clear, you know, here are the issues. Then get into what went on.

    But as far as bankruptcies go, I thought this was one of the juicier ones. Because you had a CEO who’s accused of basically spending money, flying in women, Victoria’s Secret, exotic cars, things that you don’t normally run across. So to me, I just thought, we’ve got different elements here that you don’t normally run across. Politicians. CEO accused of living a wild lifestyle. Things you don’t come across every day.

    What’s next for Denise Cantu?

    That’s a really good question because she’s got her lawsuit down in Cameron County. I had set up an interview with her, and then, basically at the last minute, her lawyers put the kibosh on it. Because of the pending litigation they didn’t want her speaking with me. So I don’t know.

    Well, it was a great story man. Anything I didn’t ask that would be good to know?

    No, I don’t think so. I certainly appreciate it. We’ll be sure to keep an eye on things but as far as FourWinds goes that’s pretty much over and done with. There’s nothing left to pick over.

  • What’s Evernote for? How about making a vast, searchable archive of all your files

    Evernote turns eight years old this week. But even after all these years, some people have trouble grasping what, exactly, this mystical app is supposed to do. Is it for taking notes? Saving bookmarks? Taking photos? All of the above?

    EvernoteEveryone’s needs are different. But for me, Evernote really shines as a vast, searchable archive that allows you to comb the full-text of every web page, document, photo or note you’ve saved, and find what you need in seconds.

    Here’s how it works. When you type some words in Evernote’s search box, you’re not just searching the titles of your files. You’re not just searching the tags of your photos. You’re searching the entire contents of everything you saved in Evernote. This even applies to anything you take a picture of that has words, such as business cards, thanks to Evernote’s sweet optical character recognition capability.

    For people like journalists who work on deadline, this can be incredibly useful for quickly finding a needle in a haystack.

    Evernote isn’t perfect — its desktop app can get sluggish and I get frustrated with it sometimes. But I realized how powerful this tool could be when I worked on a story about the family history of Johnny Manziel several years ago. I used Evernote to save every article, court record and web page I came across during the course of my reporting. Then, when I was writing the story and had to look up something, I could use Evernote to instantly search the entire text of those files.

    An example: I came across several old news stories about the friendship between Manziel’s great-grandfather, a wildcatter and boxer named Bobby Joe Manziel, and heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey.

    Manziel retired from boxing and moved to East Texas in the 1930s to try his luck in the oil fields as a wildcatter. Almost broke, Manziel asked Dempsey for some money to drill for oil in Gladewater.

    The well was a gusher. Dempsey later said that gamble was the smartest investment he ever made.

    But there were discrepancies in the stories I found about how much Dempsey invested. Some said $400. Others said $700. Well, which was it?

    Enter Evernote. I searched for “Dempsey” and the varying dollar amounts in my Evernote files and all the relevant articles popped up. It didn’t take long to determine that the older, more contemporaneous stories claimed Dempsey invested $400. One article quoted Dempsey directly. Problem solved.

    Now imagine life without Evernote. I would have had to reread a pile of photocopied articles looking for any mention of that investment.

    Is it possible? Sure.

    Was Evernote a useful tool that totally sped up the process?


    I wouldn’t upload sensitive files to a cloud-based app like Evernote. But for the vast majority of information you rely upon in your day-to-day life, Evernote can transform those records into a vast archive that’s instantly searchable — and instantly more useful.

  • Insightful FOIA tips from ‘FOIA terrorist’ Jason Leopold at NICAR 2016

    Jason Leopold

    It’s impossible to say enough good things about NICAR 2016, a journalism conference in Denver where more than a thousand attendees honed their data-wrangling skills. NICAR is all about finding good stories in data.

    But what stood out for me was a talk by investigative reporter Jason Leopold of Vice News about using the Freedom of Information Act to get your hands on that data in the first place.

    “The Freedom of Information Act has become a very important tool for me,” said Leopold, who writes about the secretive world of national security where few people are willing to speak on the record.

    To bypass those road blocks, Leopold began relying on FOIA to dig up public records and unearth good stories. Over the years he’s learned about the intricacies and pitfalls of FOIA. He’s been so prolific, a federal bureaucrat referred to him in an email as a FOIA terrorist. Leopold liked it and the nickname stuck.

    “I file FOIA requests probably several times a week,” Leopold told several hundred journalists who packed a conference room at the Denver Marriott City Center on March 10.

    Here’s what Leopold learned about FOIA, a law written nearly a half century ago that has its flaws — but can still be a powerful tool:

    Speed up the FOIA process

    One downside of FOIA is the backlog of open records requests at many federal agencies. It can take months, even years, to get anything.

    It’s crucial for reporters to build a template — a template that describes exactly where you want these agencies to search.”

    To speed up the process, Leopold said it’s important to explicitly explain in your FOIA request not only what you’re looking for, but where it’s located at the agency.

    “It’s crucial for reporters to build a template — a template that describes exactly where you want these agencies to search,” Leopold said.

    Every federal agency has “systems of records” that are usually public and list where they are keeping certain databases and documents in their vast bureaucracy.

    Let’s say you’re looking for emails about the German auto manufacturer Volkswagen and how it rigged emissions tests. You send a FOIA request. “The EPA is a large organization, obviously,” Leopold said. “So just sending it to the EPA would not necessarily get you the info you’re seeking in a timely manner.” Leopold said you could speed up the process, potentially trimming off months of delays, if you tell the EPA where to search.

    This tip is also a bit empowering. Once the agency notices you know what you’re doing, it’s harder for it to blow you off.

    For the FOIA analysts handling your requests, “if you’re not telling them what to do, they have to figure it out,” Leopold said.

    Leopold also singled out the FBI.

    “The FBI is the worst agency in the government when it comes to responding to FOIA,” Leopold said. The FBI has a 100 million records, and how it searches those records matters.

    “Whenever you file a request with the FBI, you should always ask them to conduct a cross-reference search,” Leopold said. “That’s a separate filing system. And an ELSUR search — electronic surveillance database search. And oftentimes, the FBI will have documents in cross-reference files.”

    For example, after Maya Angelou died, Leopold filed a FOIA request to see what files the FBI had about her. “They responded by saying, ‘We didn’t find any records.'” Leopold said. “So I appealed and said, ‘You guys did not conduct a cross-reference search.’

    “And they went back, the did a cross-reference search, and the gave me these cross-reference files, which were actually really fascinating because these cross-reference files had to do with an investigation into communist activities in the ’60s. And there was Maya Angelou in this file.

    “So it really sort of helps to get those documents and get that type of material,” Leopold said. “It will really also help, if you’re reporting on a story, to gain a wider knowledge of how the FBI conducts its activities.”

    Appeal everything

    I cannot stress enough how important it is to appeal every response that you get.”

    FOIA has an appeals process, and Leopold uses it all the time.

    “I cannot stress enough how important it is to appeal every response that you get,” Leopold said. “Even if the agency turns over everything you want. There may actually be more. I appeal everything.”

    An example: For a story about the Obama administration scuttling FOIA, Leopold heard rumors about the Federal Trade Commission being involved. He filed a FOIA request and they sent about 30 pages.

    “I appealed it. They said, ‘Oh, we found 900 more pages.'”

    When you appeal, you don’t need to make a compelling legal argument. Simply write, “I appeal the integrity of the search.” It’s also very important to appeal any and all redactions. “You will really be surprised by some of these responses,” Leopold said.

    The meta FOIA

    File a FOIA request for the processing notes to see how the government agency is handling your initial FOIA request. It’s a way to gain a great understanding about how the FOIA process works.

    Leopold said there’s a paper trail from the moment your request lands on an analyst’s desk that shows how your request is being handled. Processing notes sometimes have names of databases that are undisclosed, which could be valuable to your reporting.

    “You get a good understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes,” Leopold said.

    Leopold advised to wait about three or four weeks after receiving your FOIA case number to file this “meta” FOIA request. “I think those processing notes are hugely valuable,” said Leopold, especially for reporters who cover national security where it’s so difficult to obtain information.

    A great resource

    One thing that frustrates Leopold is that many reporters don’t know about a great resource: OGIS, the Office of Government Information Services.

    This office is the “federal FOIA ombudsman” that provides mediation services for citizens dealing with federal bureaucracies. They can help you if an agency is stonewalling.

    “They’re waiting for that phone call,” Leopold said of OGIS. But all too often, journalists aren’t picking up the phone.

    “It’s not used as often as it should be,” Leopold said. “It does not cost anything. I’ve used their services before suing. They’ve actually been able to get documents for me.”

    Expedited processing

    Under FOIA, the burden is on the requester to prove there is a need for the information to be released immediately.

    The easiest office to be granted expedited processing is the Justice Department, even though they suck at FOIA.”

    “Each agency is different with regard to expedited processing,” Leopold said. “The easiest office to be granted expedited processing is the Justice Department, even though they suck at FOIA,” Leopold said.

    It doesn’t always work out the way you want. For one request, Leopold was granted expedited processing but still had to wait two years to receive what he asked for.

    “So much for expedited processing,” Leopold joked. But he said it’s always a good idea to ask for expedited processing and figure out how to make that case. What is that pressing need? How would the public be harmed if that information was not out immediately?

    Do your homework

    FOIA logs: Read them regularly. Most agencies post their FOIA logs of past requests and responses on their website. You can actually see what other people are asking for, get ideas, and save yourself some time.

    You can also check a website called FOIA online, which allows you to conduct keyword searches of multiple agencies and read any documents that were released.

    It’s OK to sue

    Leopold said there’s a myth that it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to sue the government to resolve a FOIA dispute.

    “If you are looking for a highly classified document, yes, be prepared for a fight that’s going to take many years,” he said. But otherwise, it’s not so bad. You or your news organization file a suit, and then life gets better. The litigation helps speed up the FOIA process if the agency is dragging its feet.

    It’s a sad reality about FOIA. It remains broken. We’re left having to litigate for documents that belong to the public.”

    “Basically what happens after filing a lawsuit, you kind of go to the top of the pile,” Leopold said. “You end up working with a government attorney, and you come up with a production schedule.”

    Leopold said FOIA litigation doesn’t cost as much as some people might think.

    “The costs are really minimal,” he said. “I mean, four digits. It’s a sad reality about FOIA. It remains broken. We’re left having to litigate for documents that belong to the public.”

    Fee waivers

    To save money in open records costs, you need to ask for a fee waiver and make an argument as to why you’re entitled to it. You can write: “I’m a reporter. I publish regularly. I am going to use these documents to write a news story about this issue. I should be entitled to a fee waiver because it is in the public interest.”

    When writing your request, be sure to use the phrase “any and all records relating or referring to …” That’s very important language, Leopold said. Don’t say you want documents “about” something. Agencies can deny your request, claiming they don’t know what you mean.

    By law, every agency also has to provide you with an estimated date of completion. You can request that, and if they fail to provide it, that can help your cause if you need to later appeal or file a lawsuit.

    Keeping track of it all

    You know, I’m not patting myself on the back here. I’m really successful.”

    “I have more than a thousand outstanding (FOIA) requests,” Leopold said. He makes sense of the chaos by using a “very simple” spreadsheet that includes the date of the request and when responses are due.

    What’s Leopold’s success rate?

    “You know, I’m not patting myself on the back here,” Leopold said. “I’m really successful. I turn all of this into news.”

    What’s amazing about getting records through FOIA, Leopold said, is that sources are suddenly willing to talk once documents are unclassified and released publicly. It’s tedious work — but it pays off.

    “It has become a very important tool for me,” Leopold said. “But yeah, I have a very good success rate.”

  • Police reports about people who die in custody are late, missing in Texas

    With so many controversial deadly force incidents in the news that raise questions about police tactics, wouldn’t it be great to have a reliable system in place to keep track of lethal police encounters to get a handle on how often they happen?

    The good news is, there’s a statewide system in Texas to track how often people die in police custody. The bad news is, no one is taking responsibility to make sure the reports are accurate or even filed at all.

    When I started working at the Express-News eons ago in 1997, one thing I learned as a cops reporter is that Texas law requires police departments to file a report with the Attorney General’s office every time someone dies in police custody.

    The reports are available to anyone who asks, and under the law, the definition of “custody” includes police shootings.

    Gilbert Flores
    Those “custodial death” reports came to mind this summer after two Bexar County deputies fatally shot a combative suspect, Gilbert Flores, moments after he raised his hands above his head in an apparent attempt to surrender. A bystander, Michael Thomas, recorded the shooting on his cell phone, sold the video footage to KSAT-TV, and it became a national news story.

    The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office and the Bexar County district attorney refused to release any records about the shooting. Since custodial death reports are filed with the Attorney General’s office, I bypassed the sheriff’s office and filed an open records request with the AG for the custodial death report for the Flores shooting.

    Missing information

    When the AG’s office emailed me a copy of the report, there was a gaping hole. At no point did it mention that Flores had his hands raised when he was shot. The sparsely worded narrative stated:

    Officers were dispatched to 24414 Walnut Pass for a family violence call. Suspect attacked the officers with a knife and was shot by the officers after the suspect refused to drop the knife. Suspect resisted arrest.

    Maybe it’s not surprising the sheriff’s office didn’t include that pertinent fact. But the omission raised a basic question: What exactly is required of a law enforcement agency when it files a custodial death report, and is anyone making sure the information is accurate?

    Police accountability

    A few Google searches and phone calls taught me a lot more about the law and the history of custodial death reports. For example, Texas law requires a “good faith effort to obtain all facts relevant to the death and include those facts in the report.” It’s a misdemeanor if the agency files the report but fails to include “facts known or discovered in the investigation.”

    Using the eminently valuable website of the Texas Legislative Reference Library, I tracked down who wrote the law and learned it was a former Bexar County lawmaker named Walter Martinez, who filed his bill in 1983 to help the public learn more about custodial deaths.

    “At the time, a pretty energetic prison reform movement was going on in the state,” Martinez told me. “We really didn’t know what the record was with regard to deaths while in custody.”

    When Martinez’s bill became law, it set up a potentially useful resource for anyone researching police use of force in Texas. But how well did law enforcement agencies actually follow the statute, and did they ever face any repercussions for failing to follow it?

    Those questions led to this news story:

    The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office failed to file at least five state-mandated reports about people who died in police shootings since 2005, was late in filing a dozen more fatality reports and left out key details about two deadly shootings involving deputies.

    The missing details include how one suspect had his hands raised above his head when two deputies opened fire. In another case, a report didn’t quote a deputy who can be heard on dash-camera video saying, “He started attacking me and I shot him.” The deputy then swears, saying either “Fuck him” or “Fuck it.”

    Sheriff’s spokesman James Keith noted that the five missing reports of fatal shootings all occurred before Sheriff Susan Pamerleau took office Jan. 1, 2013. During her tenure, four custodial death reports were late. Keith blamed that on a misunderstanding that’s been cleared up.

    “The investigator didn’t have a clear understanding of the law and the requirement that these had to be submitted within 30 days,” Keith said.

    Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office doesn’t take any steps to make sure law enforcement agencies are being diligent in filing the reports.

    “We are simply a repository for this information,” spokeswoman Katherine Wise wrote in an email when asked if the attorney general’s office has any system in place to flag late reports.

    Texas Custodial Death Report for Police

    While the AG doesn’t check how often reports are filed past the 30-day deadline, there’s a simple way to find out by using the agency’s own data.

    You can request a copy of a large spreadsheet the AG compiles from the custodial death reports submitted by law enforcement agencies. This is a lot more detailed than what the AG posts on its website. Out of 4,250 death reports filed in Texas since 2005, the records show that law enforcement agencies filed nearly 700 reports — 16 percent — after the 30-day deadline. Some reports were more than two years late:

    Late custodial death reports in Texas

    Report Date Days lateDepartment NameFirst NameLast NameAge
    1/25/2012 12:04 1,013Wichita Falls Police Dept.DanielSmith33
    1/10/2013 13:38 1,011Brazoria County Sheriff’s Dept.JesseWoodard27
    7/27/2015 0:00 826Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeNatalioChaparro65
    8/14/2007 9:25 810Harris County Constable Precinct 5RomonGiesburg15
    7/27/2015 0:00 807Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeMelvinBell27
    7/27/2015 0:00 805Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDonaldBryant84
    7/27/2015 0:00 804Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeAlvinWilson55
    7/27/2015 0:00 774Texas Department Of Criminal JusticePrudencioOrtiz78
    3/2/2015 13:05 719Bastrop County Sheriff’s Dept.JoseCantu78
    7/27/2015 0:00 627Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDavidGraham48
    2/26/2010 9:48 617Garland Police Dept.TroyPool32
    7/31/2008 7:57 570Potter County Sheriff’s Dept.RaymondMayburry61
    7/22/2014 13:42 543Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeIsidoroResendez32
    2/26/2010 9:57 527Garland Police Dept.DerrickWatson20
    7/20/2015 0:00 505Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeMichaelYates24
    3/2/2012 12:13 490Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeBobbyNeble39
    11/26/2013 13:10 408Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept.JoseGuerra20
    7/20/2015 0:00 392Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeBalkrishnaBooker33
    1/4/2007 13:42 381Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRonaldDelcamp47
    5/10/2006 16:26 380Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJeronimoRivera44
    2/25/2015 13:17 374Bastrop County Sheriff’s Dept.YvetteSmith47
    10/5/2007 14:45 367Abilene Police Dept.JefferyTrotter27
    5/9/2013 11:21 366White Oak Police Dept.JasonSlaughter36
    1/22/2007 8:24 366Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeCruzPerea54
    1/22/2007 8:18 366Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeCruzPerea54
    1/1/2007 14:52 365Austin Police Dept.FidelMacedo44
    6/19/2015 12:36 357Midland Police Dept.NyocomusGarnett35
    1/7/2008 10:30 352Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJanetteBlair51
    7/20/2015 0:00 351Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeVincentHeims49
    2/26/2010 10:04 344Garland Police Dept.RudyElizondo17
    7/20/2015 0:00 342Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeKellyHunckler24
    8/8/2006 14:13 338McAllen Police Dept.NelsonSaenz56
    2/26/2010 10:10 326Garland Police Dept.AbelQuinonez48
    6/26/2007 15:08 288Plainview Police Dept.JoseCeballos34
    6/29/2010 14:24 258Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeRobertBrock27
    7/20/2015 0:00 255Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeLarryJohnson51
    7/20/2015 0:00 245Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeThanhPham34
    11/8/2006 16:44 235Midland Police Dept.PatrickCalanchi28
    7/24/2015 0:00 231Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeMichaelHarrington45
    7/20/2015 0:00 231Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeFiyazHussain16
    6/27/2007 7:38 230Silsbee Police Dept.RobinLynn44
    1/31/2013 13:27 220Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeJohnPinkston53
    6/8/2009 19:54 214Austin Police Dept.AdanMondragon23
    1/31/2013 13:05 212Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeJesusRivera28
    2/18/2009 15:11 209Dallas Police Dept.RichardSmith46
    6/18/2015 15:20 199Midland Police Dept.RosendoRodriguez49
    5/22/2006 9:42 196Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeWesleyCreager43
    12/3/2013 13:40 193Austin Police Dept.JohnThomas56
    5/18/2010 0:00 190McKinney Police Dept.JeremyBates20
    3/29/2010 10:18 189Dallas Police Dept.JerryGray56
    7/20/2015 0:00 185Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeLaranthonyMoore23
    10/20/2005 14:42 184Bowie County Sheriff’s Dept.RobertWilliams54
    3/26/2010 10:03 181Dallas Police Dept.RobertTaylor44
    3/26/2010 11:00 180Dallas Police Dept.AbelMartinez36
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    5/13/2010 9:02 42Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeMiltonDixon60
    11/6/2009 8:41 42Upshur County Sheriff’s Dept.LindseyStevens24
    9/10/2009 9:52 42Howard County Sheriff’s Dept.RogerEdwards53
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    3/29/2006 10:40 41Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRoyMendoza40
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    10/6/2011 15:14 40Ellis County Sheriff’s Dept.BernardinoMoreno52
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    4/21/2006 14:27 40Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeHawthorneGary48
    9/15/2005 12:43 40Nueces County Sheriff’s Dept.MarkGolding49
    7/26/2005 14:51 40Taylor County Sheriff’s Dept.JasonSpencer20
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    7/26/2005 14:06 40Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept.JuanChavez49
    7/5/2005 9:15 40Houston Police Dept.KennethBanks22
    5/18/2005 10:07 40Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Dept.CurtisBishop28
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    3/9/2015 11:40 39Fort Worth Police Dept.GradyKing40
    12/18/2014 10:32 39Irving Police Dept.AshifAnwar34
    4/29/2013 16:53 39Gregg County Sheriff’s Dept.BobbyMadewell51
    1/6/2011 12:05 39Dallas Police Dept.KennethHorton31
    11/15/2010 12:06 39Rockwall County Sheriff’s Dept.KennethKimball67
    7/8/2008 16:05 39Fort Worth Police Dept.RicardoFerrera29
    8/16/2007 10:12 39San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Dept.dustinklander24
    4/30/2007 15:35 39Dallas Police Dept.BrandonWashington20
    1/4/2007 14:11 39Guadalupe County Sheriff’s Dept.LeandroMartinez34
    12/20/2006 10:15 39Webb County Sheriff’s Dept.ChristinaHernandez25
    11/16/2006 13:30 39Llano Police Dept.EliLewis22
    8/23/2006 12:59 39Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeReynaldoRobles63
    8/10/2006 13:56 39Dallas Police Dept.CarlKelley40
    8/3/2006 14:59 39Denton County Sheriff’s Dept.JoseTrevino39
    8/3/2006 13:13 39Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Dept.RobertTanner58
    3/28/2006 13:27 39Wood County Sheriff’s Dept.JamesTaylor57
    12/22/2005 10:29 39Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept.RosieSims60
    11/21/2005 16:15 39Port Arthur Police Dept.TyroneJones36
    7/26/2005 16:31 39Texas Department Of Public SafetyThomasFortner37
    6/17/2005 9:12 39Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDonaldSmith42
    5/17/2005 15:26 39Bee County Sheriff’s Dept.CodyMorgan25
    5/3/2005 9:44 39Dallas Police Dept.NeimanGibson19
    4/19/2005 9:57 39San Antonio Police Dept.MarkKarnuth38
    4/19/2005 8:56 39Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDanielGarza24
    3/24/2005 16:06 39Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDannyGarcia31
    3/24/2005 15:25 39Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeCharlesRussell48
    4/16/2015 8:39 38Laredo Police Dept.JuanTorres-Saldana67
    3/24/2015 9:54 38Laredo Police Dept.RoyDay51
    7/31/2013 16:10 38Montgomery County Sheriff’s Dept.JohnEbarb42
    5/23/2013 10:41 38Cass County Sheriff’s Dept.BeverlyDubal50
    2/21/2012 13:28 38Smith County Sheriff’s Dept.SonyaArmstron57
    12/10/2009 8:59 38Perryton Police Dept.WadeWilson46
    10/30/2007 10:50 38Dallas Police Dept.ShaunWatson17
    5/3/2007 15:35 38Dallas Police Dept.PaulRodriguez35
    2/13/2007 10:57 38El Paso County Sheriff’s Dept.JaimeMunoz30
    2/13/2007 8:25 38Texarkana Police Dept.CedricMercer24
    3/28/2006 13:47 38Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept.MarkWilson47
    3/1/2006 9:02 38Gregg County Sheriff’s Dept.TeresaJohnson36
    1/27/2006 9:32 38Midland County Sheriff’s Dept.WesleyThomas41
    12/22/2005 11:12 38Texas Department Of Public SafetyCharlesBoll32
    11/21/2005 15:17 38Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept.KennethDowning61
    5/30/2013 17:18 37Austin Police Dept.HerbertBabelay54
    7/15/2011 8:26 37Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeDarellTurner52
    7/27/2010 11:56 37Lancaster Police Dept.DavidBrown27
    1/14/2009 0:00 37Hays County Sheriff’s Dept.TorreySmith31
    4/25/2008 16:29 37Texas Department Of Public SafetyEricSmith40
    4/17/2007 9:23 37El Paso County Sheriff’s Dept.LorenzoMartinez34
    1/4/2007 13:05 37Tarrant County Sheriff’s Dept.RaleighKemp65
    11/6/2006 11:18 37Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJimmyHarris48
    10/4/2006 8:36 37La Porte Police Dept.ShannonSybert44
    11/21/2005 14:43 37Angelina County Sheriff’s Dept.SamuelDolese53
    8/11/2005 8:53 37Texas Department Of Public SafetyGeraldWade40
    1/14/2015 9:19 36Montgomery County Sheriff’s Dept.MichaelLandes59
    1/8/2015 14:51 36Fort Worth Police Dept.GilbertReyna55
    2/5/2013 14:38 36Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeKemalYazar43
    9/12/2012 0:00 36Reagan County Sheriff’s Dept.MarcusMadison42
    11/5/2009 16:57 36Gregg County Sheriff’s Dept.BrettBirdwell45
    9/11/2009 13:56 36Texas Department Of Public SafetyGeorgeRosson57
    8/19/2009 16:18 36Houston Police Dept.TonyJohnson29
    10/31/2007 13:33 36Dallas Police Dept.DennisOatis49
    3/21/2007 8:01 36Wharton Police Dept.DannyCastillo17
    3/20/2007 14:48 36Bowie County Sheriff’s Dept.LouisPavey87
    12/21/2006 16:12 36Galveston County Sheriff’s Dept.DanielWhitaker49
    8/22/2006 16:23 36Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeJamesBaker42
    8/8/2006 11:09 36Cherokee County Sheriff’s Dept.JerryTatum57
    4/20/2006 10:42 36Harris County Sheriff’s Dept.RonaldWilliams57
    1/27/2006 8:11 36Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept.DavidRodriguez38
    12/22/2005 10:08 36Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept.ReginaldRobles46
    12/22/2005 9:17 36San Antonio I.S.D. Police DepartmentEricZapata-Colin18
    12/6/2005 10:57 36Jersey Village Police Dept.DustinWright21
    11/22/2005 15:44 36Dewitt County Sheriff’s Dept.ThomasSanchez53
    8/11/2005 9:24 36Garland Police Dept.LeoJunce18
    6/16/2005 11:42 36Cedar Hill Police Dept.JefferySpradling44
    5/17/2005 15:53 36Brown County Sheriff’s Dept.ChristopherJames38
    5/3/2005 7:55 36Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRoyOudems68
    5/3/2005 7:42 36Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJeraldBrown22
    5/2/2005 16:47 36Wise County Sheriff’s Dept.JohnMorris34
    4/19/2005 8:29 36Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeElmerWalker45
    3/24/2015 9:25 35Del Rio Police Dept.PedroSaldivar50
    2/3/2014 0:00 35San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Dept.ErnestClark58
    4/30/2013 12:47 35Balch Springs Police Dept.NoahTimmons26
    3/19/2012 14:15 35Dallas Police Dept.WilliamBanks26
    12/16/2008 9:31 35Ector County Sheriff’s Dept.JessieBass41
    5/25/2006 15:08 35Orange County Sheriff’s Dept.AnthonyStepney42
    5/10/2006 14:35 35Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeWillieModdon57
    5/4/2006 11:01 35Dickinson Police Dept.CurtisCamille46
    3/29/2006 11:00 35Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeLorenzoEasly44
    3/1/2006 10:34 35Reeves County Sheriff’s Dept.LuisSustayta-Villa42
    12/21/2005 16:03 35Texas Department Of Public SafetyEmilioSanchez18
    8/11/2005 9:08 35Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept.SandraGonzales45
    7/26/2005 15:55 35Savoy Police Dept.DavidWilhelm44
    7/24/2014 14:22 34Garland Police Dept.SadiqIsmail30
    5/17/2012 11:44 34Dallas Police Dept.EfrainZarzoza20
    3/12/2012 19:24 34Dallas Area Rapid TransitCoreyJones27
    5/16/2007 9:50 34Dallas Police Dept.RobertWoods33
    4/17/2007 14:30 34Hartley County Sheriff’s Dept.CoryLucero43
    10/4/2006 10:26 34Coryell County Sheriff’s Dept.JamesGilmore47
    5/25/2006 15:22 34Lamar County Sheriff’s Dept.HunterNorwood22
    3/31/2006 12:48 34San Antonio Police Dept.MichaelPais30
    2/28/2006 14:36 34Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept.SusieHarris53
    1/27/2006 8:55 34Kinney County Sheriff’s Dept.JoseAguilar-Flores31
    12/1/2005 8:29 34Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeWalterRobinson38
    6/8/2005 10:27 34Universal City Police Dept.WilliamLary47
    4/19/2005 9:41 34Midland Police Dept.DavidCalvillo22
    4/19/2005 9:15 34Haskell County Sheriff’s Dept.BobbyPryor42
    3/24/2005 15:11 34Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeMelvinNeal65
    7/2/2014 15:35 33Montgomery County Sheriff’s Dept.RandallJohnston55
    7/2/2014 0:00 33Comal County Sheriff’s Dept.HumbertoPlacencia42
    10/7/2013 15:48 33Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDewayneBennett57
    9/16/2013 9:17 33McCulloch County Sheriff’s Dept.JohnShelton32
    12/3/2012 12:07 33Ector County Sheriff’s Dept.MarvinWilkerson66
    8/29/2012 8:16 33San Antonio Police Dept.AlfredoAragon35
    9/7/2011 14:55 33Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeMargaritoBrito33
    9/7/2010 11:13 33Edinburg Police Dept.Joelde la Rosa18
    3/2/2007 14:59 33Houston Police Dept.FrancineSonnier34
    12/21/2006 15:19 33Cochran County Sheriff’s Dept.RaymondBrown54
    10/2/2006 11:57 33Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJosephSepeda34
    9/5/2006 10:55 33Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDorisDancer55
    8/23/2006 13:13 33Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeHunterEarl50
    8/14/2006 10:07 33Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJoeDaniel46
    8/10/2006 13:45 33Dallas Police Dept.JohnnyRobles31
    6/16/2006 15:45 33Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept.NeabLlahsram62
    5/31/2006 14:56 33Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRicoKing61
    4/28/2006 12:38 33Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeEdmundoVillanueva49
    2/28/2006 14:45 33Travis County Sheriff’s Dept.JohnFrench36
    2/21/2006 15:44 33Harlingen Police Dept.DanielTamez21
    8/11/2005 14:44 33Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept.JesseSolis56
    7/5/2005 9:38 33El Paso County Sheriff’s Dept.WalterRojas41
    6/16/2005 11:36 33Harris County Constable Precinct 5KevinHafstienn34
    6/9/2005 10:44 33San Antonio Police Dept.HectorRodriguez26
    5/17/2005 14:04 33Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJamesBrown47
    5/3/2005 8:10 33Houston Police Dept.CarlosMejia36
    5/11/2015 10:27 32Tarrant County Sheriff’s Dept.JosephWilson41
    1/14/2015 9:36 32Harris County Constable Precinct 4AidanHickman21
    10/1/2014 16:45 32Laredo Police Dept.JoseGarza30
    3/12/2014 16:31 32Aldine I.S.D. Police DepartmentStevenAllen24
    7/27/2012 14:52 32Tarrant County Sheriff’s Dept.IrvinDorsey53
    2/17/2012 16:35 32Texas Department Of Public SafetyEzequielSerna14
    9/3/2011 0:39 32Metro Dept. of Public SafetyNoltonLaFleur29
    5/3/2010 16:03 32Texas Department Of Public SafetyZackeryWelch22
    11/19/2009 13:06 32Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept.BernardoPena44
    9/24/2009 17:14 32Texas Department Of Public SafetyMichaelBradshaw54
    3/20/2007 15:14 32Laredo Police Dept.MichaelVillareal33
    2/13/2007 9:08 32Waco Police Dept.FranciscoOlivarez33
    10/4/2006 10:04 32Payne Springs Police DepartmentMichaelRecio19
    9/7/2006 11:22 32Wichita Falls Police Dept.JoseRamirez24
    8/23/2006 9:21 32Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeShaneMorris35
    8/14/2006 11:32 32Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeGuadalupeRosales67
    8/14/2006 11:19 32Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeMichaelWalker20
    1/27/2006 9:22 32Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept.LarryGurst53
    1/27/2006 9:11 32Texas Department Of Public SafetyJacobThompson18
    1/27/2006 8:24 32Taylor County Sheriff’s Dept.DominicPizotti60
    12/1/2005 9:29 32Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeCharlieLong51
    10/28/2005 8:01 32Austin Police Dept.MichaelClark33
    8/11/2005 15:26 32Dimmit County Sheriff’s Dept.MichaelCerna26
    7/26/2005 14:59 32Fort Worth Police Dept.CarolynDaniels35
    5/17/2005 14:11 32Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept.EdwardSauceda46
    4/19/2005 10:40 32Harris County Sheriff’s Dept.RalphMontez44
    11/12/2013 15:45 31Tarrant County Sheriff’s Dept.TimothyGhormley64
    1/23/2013 7:17 31Fort Worth Police Dept.DerrickBurleson33
    4/16/2012 17:27 31Tarrant County Sheriff’s Dept.WillieSmith65
    2/21/2012 9:21 31Texas Department Of Public SafetyMichaelBarnes45
    2/15/2012 7:04 31Fort Worth Police Dept.DanielGuerra24
    11/16/2011 11:09 31Granbury Regional Juvenile Justice CenterJordanAdams14
    11/2/2011 16:46 31Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept.JasonBiesenbach40
    10/20/2011 9:21 31Amarillo Police Dept.LeonStephens72
    1/5/2010 9:10 31Houston Police Dept.StuartProulx49
    9/22/2009 16:49 31Gregg County Sheriff’s Dept.RobertFoster57
    8/4/2008 11:06 31Fort Worth Police Dept.GeneKetner38
    2/4/2008 9:18 31San Angelo Police Dept.GregCranfill42
    8/28/2007 11:55 31Val Verde County Sheriff’s Dept.AlbertoREYES-Alvarez25
    6/13/2007 8:15 31Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDavidMorris55
    2/7/2007 13:01 31Houston Police Dept.OmarEsparza21
    9/5/2006 11:04 31Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeTerrethWhite21
    4/28/2006 13:02 31Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeErnestSims68
    3/31/2006 12:58 31San Antonio Police Dept.SteveJohnson43
    3/28/2006 14:01 31Harris County Sheriff’s Dept.ThomasJohnson59
    3/28/2006 11:07 31Brownsville Police Dept.EdgarLopez17
    12/22/2005 13:43 31Pasadena Police Dept.BarneyGreen38
    10/20/2005 15:29 31Corpus Christi Police Dept.GilbertoLimon42
    7/26/2005 13:54 31Montague County Sheriff’s Dept.RandallWiggins46
    5/18/2005 10:23 31Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeAnthonyEvans25
    3/24/2005 14:57 31Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeGonzaloGarcia55

    Late report

    In Bexar County, a report that was more than a year late was filed with the attorney general’s office Nov. 26, 2013. It described how Sgt. Frank Bellino had responded to a call Oct. 14, 2012, for a possibly intoxicated man who was walking along Culebra Road and creating a hazard for passing drivers.

    Joe Guerra
    The report says the unarmed man, Joe Guerra, 19, became aggravated and refused to obey instructions. “He charged at me,” Bellino was quoted as saying, and Bellino opened fire. Guerra later died at a hospital.

    I learned a lot about this case from a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against Bellino and the sheriff’s office by Guerra’s family. Their lawyers unearthed dash-camera footage from a patrol car that recorded Bellino moments after the shooting explaining what happened.

    “He just went fucking nuts on me,” Bellino told a fellow deputy. “He started attacking me and I shot him.” Bellino then can be heard swearing, saying either “Fuck him” or “Fuck it.”

    Sean Lyons, a lawyer representing the Guerra family, told me there’s no question that Guerra was inebriated, but he disputed claims that Guerra was in any condition to fight. The custodial death report in Guerra’s case was not only a year late, he said, but paints an inaccurate picture of what happened.

    “You’re basically learning the opposite of what went wrong,” Lyons said of the report. “Because the report goes out of its way to make it sound like Bellino did all he could to de-escalate the situation and that Guerra was the aggressor, when in fact, Bellino immediately threatened Guerra’s life, threatened to fucking shoot his ass, and used escalating language.”

    Keith declined to answer most questions about the case, citing the litigation against the sheriff’s office. But he did say the office believes that the custodial death reports are supposed to be a general account of what happened.

    “The thought is, the investigation is still ongoing, you’re not going to know every single answer, every specific detail within that 30-day time period,” Keith said.

    Martinez, who served as a state representative from 1983 to 1985, said the law governing custodial death reports might need to be revised and strengthened to clearly show who’s responsible for making sure the records are accurate and filed on time for the public to review.

    “If no one’s following up or taking responsibility for ensuring that it’s done, then there’s a break in the chain,” Martinez said.

  • How to check safety inspections for any elevator or escalator in Texas

    The view from the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio
    The view from the top of the Tower of the Americas, the tallest structure in San Antonio.

    The elevators at the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio look like something out of the Jetsons. Yet every once in a while, the futuristic contraptions get stuck, stranding people hundreds of feet in the air.

    Last week it happened again. Firefighters rescued 14 people, including two children, who were trapped inside a stalled elevator. This time they were only 50 feet high. But on a hot summer day they had no air conditioning for part of their two-hour ordeal.

    Tower of the Americas in San Antonio
    The Tower of the Americas and a stalled elevator, Dec. 28, 2012
    If all these incidents are making you wonder about the safety record of elevators at the tower or your office building, there’s a quick way to find answers in Texas.

    An obscure state agency, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, oversees a hodgepodge of industries such as barbers, boilermakers and tow-truck companies to name a few.

    Elevators and escalators are also under TDLR’s purview. State law requires elevator and escalator owners to hire a licensed inspector annually to check the machinery. Many owners also hire contractors to conduct routine maintenance and repairs.

    The results of the annual inspections are sent to TDLR, which has been posting them all online since 2001. The first time I worked on a story about a stuck elevator at the Tower of the Americas in 2006, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that TDLR offered a quick way access those annual inspection reports and other documents online.

    Not every agency makes this kind of thing so easy, even in 2015.

    Searching for records

    On the search page, you can type parameters such as owner name or building address:

    TDLR's elevator inspection search page

    Click on the search result you want — in this case, the Tower of the Americas — and the next page shows how many elevators and escalators are in the building. Clicking on the “show documents” button takes you to a list of downloadable inspection reports and correspondence.

    Elevator inspection page on TDLR's website

    It’s a timely, useful resource. But it’s not perfect.

    Past tragedy

    While TDLR offers easy access to individual inspection reports, the agency doesn’t plug in the results of those inspections into any kind of database that could be analyzed and show just how often major problems are found.

    And a tragedy at the Crockett Hotel in San Antonio revealed weaknesses in Texas’ regulatory system on Dec. 28, 2011, when a 65-year-old housekeeper named Gloria Rodriguez fell six stories to her death down an elevator shaft.

    Past inspections for the elevator looked relatively benign. But after the fatal accident, TDLR’s chief inspector, Lawrence Taylor, scrutinized the elevator and found a litany of problems. In tests, Taylor saw the elevator car stop at a landing, then move upward of its own accord with no signal to run.

    Taylor called that a “matter of grave concern.”

    No one actually did anything meaningful or effective to uncover the real problem”

    “Someone with special knowledge of the elevator control system knew that there was a problem with the brake and intentionally installed a jumper and moved wires in an attempt to overcome the problem(s),” Taylor wrote in his report. “However, no one actually did anything meaningful or effective to uncover the real problem(s) and embark on a course of action that would have solved the problem and prevented this tragic event.

    “This tragedy was preventable,” Taylor wrote, “and was a direct result of the failure to have the elevator inspected as required and inadequate maintenance.”

    TDLR fined the owner of the Crockett Hotel and its contractor, Otis Elevator Co., nearly $86,000 for Rodriguez’s death.

    Over the years I’ve spoken with TDLR employees about the valuable service the agency provides by making so much information available on its website for so many years. But given the tragedy at the Crockett Hotel, just how reliable are the state-mandated annual inspections?

    “When you consider how many elevators there are in the state and that they’re working every day, I think overall they are effective,” said Susan Stanford, a spokeswoman for TDLR.

    Customers can help keep each other safe by checking certificates that are supposed to be posted near every elevator and see whether it’s overdue for an annual inspection, Stanford said. And she emphasized that elevator accidents are rare. Even at the Tower of the Americas, where elevators routinely get stuck, the incidents are usually a sign that safety mechanisms worked.

    “Instances involving a major violation don’t happen often, but they do happen,” Stanford added in an email she sent me today. “Inspectors identifying ‘reportable conditions’ are required to notify TDLR and must request the owner’s cooperation in shutting down the equipment until it is repaired or brought into compliance.”

    Escalator danger

    While it’s unnerving to be trapped inside an elevator at the 622-foot-tall tower, mundane escalators harm more people. Escalator and elevator owners have to report injuries to TDLR, and in San Antonio the injuries usually stem from escalator accidents. In 2010, a 3-year-old child trying to go up an escalator at Rolling Oaks Mall fell and got two fingers stuck. They were amputated.

    I didn’t find much fodder in the most recent elevator inspection records posted for the Tower of the Americas. But after an earlier incident at the tower on Dec. 28, 2012, the search was more productive and led to this news story:

    All three elevators at the Tower of the Americas, where several employees were trapped early Friday in one of the cars about 400 feet in the air, were behind schedule on state-mandated annual inspections, records show.

    The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation sent notices in May to Landry’s Inc., the company that operates the city-owned landmark, warning that inspections due in April were late. The licensing department oversees elevator safety.

    Landry’s later told the agency it completed the inspections in September and October. But the company hasn’t yet filed the results of the inspections for at least one of the elevators, according to a Dec. 27 notice the agency sent to Landry’s.

    Past inspections at the Tower of the Americas uncovered rusted brackets that came loose from the tower structure. Inspectors also recommended adjusting safety mechanisms for all three elevators. The mechanisms, called “governors,” control speed. One of the elevators flunked a safety test for its governor.

    So these inspection reports can be interesting reading. Just remember the Crockett Hotel and keep in mind you might not be seeing a complete picture of an elevator’s safety record.

  • Check out the sponsorship agreements that raise millions for UT Austin athletics

    Corporate sponsors at the University of Texas at Austin
    Photo by Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News

    It’s no secret that corporate sponsors help fund the richest collegiate athletics program in the country at the University of Texas at Austin. After all, company logos are plastered everywhere at games.

    But what are the details of those sponsorship agreements? How much does each company spend? And what do they get in return?

    Thanks to the Texas Public Information Act and some persistent digging, UT Sports Writer Mike Finger obtained copies of 19 major sponsorship agreements that answer those questions. UT fought the release of the contracts but the Texas attorney general ruled they’re generally subject to open records laws.

    You can check out our story and view an interactive table with links to the actual agreements (I helped make requests to other schools such as Texas Tech and Texas A&M).

    The records show companies such as Nike, MillerCoors and AT&T have pledged to pay $98 million through 2021 as UT tries to return to on-field glory.

  • Review: Go back in time with Cogi to record fleeting moments

    When we watched the State of the Union address with our kids a few weeks ago, 3-year-old Sophie Sue was amazed at how members of Congress were sitting still and listening. They weren’t fidgeting, looking around or running off to play with Legos.

    “Wow, they’re doing a good job, right?” said the little Tedesco munchkin.

    It was one of those cute family moments when I wished I could go back in time and hit the record button.

    So I did.

    I tapped the screen of my smartphone and the Cogi Android app captured the last 15 seconds of our conversation. Cogi kept on recording until I tapped the screen again. And I repeated the process through the whole speech, capturing only the highlights of what our kids said.

    This is the genius behind Cogi — you only record what you want. And Cogi lets you jump back in time to capture that fleeting moment. Because by the time you realize you want to record something, it’s usually too late.

    “I don’t want to record everything,” said Mark Cromack, president and chief technology officer of Santa Barbara-based Cogi Inc. “But by the time I realize I do want to record something, I do need to back up a bit. That’s the cool part.”

    The app’s name is about capturing the “cogent idea” and it’s like a DVR for your life. Cogi could help anyone who attends long meetings, school lectures or court hearings. You can also get creative with it. I’ve started to use Cogi during car rides with the kids when they’re being funny. Cromack said bird watchers use it to record bird calls. Lifehacker called it one of the best recording apps for Android.

    Mark Cromack
    I interviewed Cromack last week to ask how the company came up with the clever idea for Cogi, discuss a couple things I see as limitations, and learn what new features are on the horizon. Cromack is an avid Cogi evangelist who said he, his co-founder and his son thought of the idea years ago before anyone knew how useful smartphones would become.

    “Imagine a world where you got, let’s say, a lapel pin,” Cromack said. “You could just tap it that moment when something interesting happens. Or better yet, it just magically knew that something was cogent to you.

    “Well, that’s an interesting dream. Roll that back to some degree of reality. What could we achieve nowadays?”

    Then smartphones became a thing. Today, the Cogi app is available on iTunes and Google Play. Here’s how the app works:

    You open Cogi and a button on the screen says “start session.”

    Cogi Start Session Screen

    Tap on that and start a new session. A session is when Cogi is listening but not actively recording. The button now says “tap to highlight.”

    Cogi Tap to Highlight Screen

    When you hear something you want to keep, tap the highlight button. Cogi then starts to actively record, and it goes back in time to record the previous audio it was listening to before you hit the button. You have the option to go back five, 15, 30 or 45 seconds in time.

    Cogi Capturing Screen

    You can repeat this process as often as you like. When you’re done with the session, hold down the button. Cogi lets you add notes, tags and photos to each session. You can upload sessions or audio clips to services such as Evernote.

    That’s all free. Cogi makes money by offering a monthly membership service that allows you to record phone calls and receive transcripts of recordings for a fee.

    While you could use it to record an entire interview and soak up every word, Cogi really shines when you only want to capture the highlights of long conversations or events.

    One problem with Cogi is that it only records in Windows .wav files. The quality is great but the large files hog memory. Cromack said Cogi will soon add options to record in other formats.

    “That’s coming out within probably the next public release,” he said. “It has to.” Cromack said the company knows users want that option but it’s one item on a long list of improvements the company is working on.

    “We’ve known about it,” he said. “The issue was just one of, ‘Let’s get something out there that works and it’s solid and has that cool experience.’”

    Another quibble: When the screen is off or when you’re using other apps, Cogi no longer passively listens during a session. (If you’re actively recording, Cogi will still capture audio.) The screen dims after awhile to save battery life. But if I’m taking notes or something I don’t want to accidentally brush the screen and screw something up. Or maybe I’ll need to use another app during a session.

    By the time I realize I do want to record something, I do need to back up a bit. That’s the cool part.”

    Cromack sounded receptive to that critique but declined to discuss details about whether it will be addressed in upcoming updates, or whether Cogi will branch out beyond audio into the world of video. He later sent me an email saying the company is developing a version of the app that lets users record sessions even when the screen is off.

    “Based on your input and questions, we already have implemented a private version of the app that continues to record/monitor when the screen is off,” he wrote. “Control is passed to the volume keys and feedback to the LEDs (on Android). This not only provides a more subtle way of triggering Cogi, but it dramatically improves power savings achieved as compared to the current dim screen feature. As such, we’ll be delivering this ‘power user feature,’ no pun intended, in a future release (soon). We still have some things to work out with this feature, as this proof of concept version was to just see how it *might* work.”

    Cromack said that later this year Cogi will offer cloud services to members. This would enable users to share highlights, notes and photos with others who could view that material in a web browser.

    “All of that is part of Cogi cloud services,” Cromack said. “It’s not available today but it’s going to be out.”

    If demand increases for Cogi’s transcription services for members, Cromack said the company plans to include other languages and translation services. Cogi is also going to be updated to support enhancements for larger devices, such as tablets and iPads. “There’s a long laundry list of really exciting capabilities,” he said.

    For me, Cogi offers a way to capture fleeting moments not only for news stories, but for the times with my kids when they say something funny or insightful. Parents think they’ll remember every moment of their children growing up. Cogi can help make that happen — even for the moments we miss. Just hit that highlight button, upload your session, and make a family journal.

    Now you’ll never forget that time your daughter watched the State of the Union address.

  • Up in Flames: Flares wasting natural gas in the Eagle Ford Shale

    If you drive through the bustling oil patch of the Eagle Ford Shale near San Antonio, it won’t take long to find the surreal sight of flares burning natural gas like perpetual bonfires.

    Natural gas is cheap. Pipelines are expensive. So instead of collecting the fossil fuel, many oil and gas operators build tall, metallic spires called flare stacks to burn the gas and release it into the Texas sky.

    Natural gas flareFor years, no one could say with any certainty how much natural gas was going to waste. Everyone knew flaring in shale country was a problem. But officials at the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state agency that oversees the oil and gas industry, had never released figures showing how much was being burned in the Eagle Ford.

    Instead, the agency released only statewide figures showing the overall volume of flaring was low compared to overall production — about one percent.

    Whenever a government agency touts rosy statistics, there’s probably a database behind those numbers. And if you obtain that raw data, you might be able to figure out what’s really going on.

    Today’s Express-News story about flares burning 20 billion cubic feet of natural gas so far in 2014 is a good reminder of the value of public databases — and why journalists need to get their hands on them to analyze the records for themselves.

    There’s no question analyzing data can be a lot of work. We filed an open records request with the Railroad Commission for a copy of the flaring data in the spring of 2013. It’s a huge database of monthly reports showing how much oil and gas is produced in Texas and where those hydrocarbons go. Flaring and venting are one of the “disposition” categories in the data.

    I drove to the agency’s Austin headquarters with a flash drive that could handle the enormous database. It was a beast — more than 25 gigabytes of 85 million records. All that summer we used software to convert the Railroad Commission’s archaic data to CSV files, a format we could use in the newsroom. After that, it took weeks to crunch the numbers and uncover the hidden pitfalls.

    Why go through the hassle? Why should frazzled journalists take the time to learn how to analyze data? Don’t we have enough to do?

    The answers is, journalists need to know a lot of skills — how to interview people, how to write clearly, how to find information. Analyzing public data should be a part of that skill set. It opens doors to stories that couldn’t otherwise be told. This is what journalism is all about.

    When we were finished reviewing the flaring data, our analysis showed that the volume of flared gas in Texas had increased by 400 percent since 2009. And most of that gas came from the Eagle Ford Shale near San Antonio. This chart essentially told the story of flaring in the shale that no one had figured out — not even state officials:

    Quantifying the volume of flared gas opened up new questions and possibilities. When Projects Editor David Sheppard asked how much air pollution was created by all this flaring, we found out there was a way to calculate an estimate. We obtained emails from the state’s environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, that showed how to estimate levels of air pollution created by gas flares. Those formulas were based on the volume of flared gas – which we had. So we plugged those numbers into Excel spreadsheets to come up with the amounts of sulfur, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants that came from flaring in the region.

    In August, the Express-News published the results of our investigation, Up in Flames. The total volume of wasted gas in the shale from 2009 to 2012 was almost 39 billion cubic feet — enough to meet the annual heating and cooking needs for all 335,700 residential customers who relied on gas last year in CPS Energy’s service area, which includes San Antonio.

    Sunday’s story is based on a fresh batch of flaring figures obtained by Express-News Data Editor Joseph Kokenge, who scraped the data directly from the Railroad Commission’s website.

    The new numbers for 2013 and 2014 show that flares burned and wasted even more of the fossil fuel. In the first seven months of 2014, more than 20 billion cubic feet of gas went up in smoke — enough to fuel CPS Energy’s 800 megawatt Rio Nogales power plant during the same time frame.

  • Have you been asked to donate to Shop with a Sheriff? Call me.

    If you live in Bexar County, someone claiming to be with the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County might have called you recently, asking for money.

    The caller probably promised that every penny of your donation stays in Bexar County. You were probably told that it all goes to a worthy cause.

    Like most sales pitches, it wasn’t entirely true.

    Offices of the Deputy Sheriff's Association of Bexar County
    The Deputy Sheriff s Association of Bexar County has offices in this building near the San Antonio International Airport.
    Last year the union representing Bexar County sheriff’s deputies hired a telemarketing firm called PFR Promotions to raise money for a charitable program called “Shop with a Sheriff.” Also called “Shop with a Cop” in other cities, it’s a holiday shopping spree for poor kids.

    The event is real. But most of the money from donations goes to PFR Promotions, not the kids.

    I started looking into Shop with a Sheriff after receiving a tip from someone who read our stories about the Texas Highway Patrol Museum, another telemarketing entity that relied on the credibility of law enforcement officers to raise money. The small San Antonio museum actually employed hundreds of telemarketers across Texas who raised millions. Yet only a fraction was spent on charity. Executives squandered donations on luxury vehicles and junkets. In December 2011, the Texas Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit and successfully shut down the operation.

    Shop with a Sheriff is a real event that helps children. But most of the money raised — 67 percent — goes to PFR Promotions, a telemarketing firm based in Arizona. Only a third trickles down to the charitable cause.

    Donors aren’t being told that vital information. In Texas, the law requires telemarketers who are raising money for law enforcement organizations to disclose their overhead before any donation is made. The law applies to companies located outside Texas. Organizations are also required to report that information to the Texas attorney general, which the union had failed to do.

    Union President Juan Contreras acknowledged that he wasn’t aware of that legal requirement and pledged to take care of the problem immediately. He said the union might sever its relationship with PFR Promotions.

    But in the meantime, I’d love to hear from potential donors whether PFR’s telemarketers are complying with the law.

    If you’ve received a phone call, feel free to contact me and let me know if the caller is disclosing who he works for — and where your money is really going.

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