• Adrift: Hot-air balloon pilots face little scrutiny from FAA despite higher crash rates

    After a deadly balloon crash killed 16 people near Lockhart last summer, my boss, projects editor David Sheppard, asked me to look into the safety record of the hot-air balloon industry and find out how someone like Alfred “Skip” Nichols could be allowed to pilot balloons with a string of DWI convictions on his record.

    Here’s what we found out in a five-month project called “Adrift.”

    Hot-air balloon owned by Alfred "Skip" Nichols
    Hot-air balloon owned by Alfred “Skip” Nichols.
    If you had the idea that balloons are light as a feather and safer than other forms of air travel, it’s not your fault. I came across claims that balloons are safer on several ballooning websites that are simply incorrect.

    Despite the peaceful, romantic image of the sport, balloons suffer higher crash rates than other types of aircraft.

    While there’s no question most flights in the United States are carried out safely, the average accident rate for balloons was 15 crashes per 100,000 flight hours from 1993 to 2006. That’s twice as high as the average crash rate for other general aviation aircraft — seven crashes per 100,000 flight hours.

    The same pattern emerged in more recent federal data from 2012 to 2014 — the crash rates were nearly identical, and still twice as high for balloons.

    The NTSB also published a report that compared the crash rate of air-tour operations for balloons, airplanes and helicopters from 2004 to 2009. Balloons had “very high accident rates” during that period, the report noted, that were higher than fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

    But the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t require balloon pilots to take drug tests or undergo medical evaluations like other pilots. In fact, it rejected proposals from its own expert and the National Transportation Safety Board that would have mandated drug tests for commercial balloon pilots.

    On the day of the crash near Lockhart, Nichols had been on a “witches’ brew” of prescription medications in his system that included the painkiller oxycodone, the antidepressant Valium, and a muscle relaxant that’s prohibited by the FAA.

    We compiled all the documents released by the NTSB and our Freedom of Information Act requests into a vast, searchable library on DocumentCloud. Type in keywords for things like “DWI” or “Valium” to find official records that discuss those topics about the crash near Lockhart.

    There’s already been excellent reporting on this terrible story. Publishing a project like this helps tie everything together in a long narrative that helps drive home just how egregious this tragedy was — and how it could have been prevented.

  • How to transcribe with Trint: An interview with CEO Jeff Kofman

    Buried in my desk drawer is a scratched-up relic — a mini-cassette recorder that I used all the time as a young reporter to transcribe interviews. Now it looks like a discovery at an archaeological dig compared to my high-tech smart phone, which lets me record interviews for hours and share files instantly.

    Realistic Micro 27 Model Number 14-1044 mini cassette recorderBut even with this new technology, transcribing interviews from digital files hasn’t changed from the days of my ancient tape recorder. Even if I use my phone or a computer, I still have to hit play, type a snippet of what I hear, hit stop, rewind a little bit to my best guess of where I left off, and repeat the painful process all over again.

    A new, fee-based service called Trint is trying to drastically streamline transcribing. And if you have quality audio, it does a pretty slick job.

    “Getting the content out of recorded talk is still stuck in the 1960s or ’70s,” said Jeff Kofman, Trint’s CEO and co-founder who sat down for an interview with me via WebEx at Trint’s office in London.

    In his former life as an award-winning foreign correspondent, Kofman was intimately familiar with the archaic, time-consuming problem of transcription. Working in television, Kofman often needed to grab just a few key soundbites out of a long interview, but it took precious time tracking down those quotes in his audio.

    “In my 30-plus year career, all the technology has changed,” Kofman told me. “The whole workflow has been transformed in ways that we could never have dreamed in the 1980s — except this one part of the journalists’ workflow, which is how do we get the content out of our interviews?”

    Trint tries to solve that problem by automatically generating a transcript of your recording. The transcript syncs with your audio. When you play the recording in your browser, you can follow the transcript “like karaoke,” Kofman says, and edit any transcription errors directly in the browser. No more ping-ponging between your audio player and Word document.

    Here’s how it looks:

    GIF of Trint in Action

    Proofreading an existing transcript can be a lot faster than transcribing from scratch. I used Trint to quickly find and snag key quotes from my interview with Kofman. I read the transcript and highlighted quotes that stood out for me. I listened to the recording to make sure the quotes were accurate. From there it was a simple matter of copying and pasting them into WordPress.

    Trint — a combination of the words “transcription” and “interview” — offers various monthly plans but you can sign up for a free trial to test the techie waters. Plans start at $15 a month for an hour’s worth of recordings. If your files are longer you can continue to pay a quarter per minute as you go, and any unused minutes rollover to the next month. Kofman said this is a competitive price compared to professional transcription services.

    “The whole point is to make it accessible,” Kofman said. “This is disruptive technology and it’s about making it easy to get a content and share.”

  • If you think newspapers are lame, here are big stories in San Antonio you missed in 2016

    Headquarters of the San Antonio Express-News
    Headquarters of the San Antonio Express-News

    The next time someone tells you newspapers are irrelevant, tell them to read this blog post.

    I get it. Newsrooms are shrinking, subscription are going up, and it feels like there’s not enough time in the day to read some dusty old newspaper — even if it comes in a slick digital version.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that major metropolitan newspapers still boast the largest newsrooms in their communities. By a mile. More than TV stations. More than radio stations. More than every local blog combined.

    Before you send me an example showing a newspaper didn’t live up to its potential, let me save you some time. I agree with you. Newspapers have many faults. But even with many faults, newspapers are still worth reading. No other local publication in your city invests the time and resources to tell readers something new and amazing about the world. Many days — not every day, but many — you’re simply missing out if you don’t read it.

    Let’s look at just one example, the San Antonio Express-News, where I work. If you didn’t read San Antonio’s daily newspaper in 2016, here’s a sampling of what you missed.

    (Full disclosure: These articles were written by my colleagues, many of whom are friends and, in one case, the mother of my children. All their stories still kick ass.)

    The Next Million: Did you know San Antonio will grow by a million people by the year 2040? Do you know what that means for you and what city officials plan on doing about it? Express-News Staff Writer Vianna Davila spent a year finding those answers. That’s right. She got paid to spend a whole year on this package of stories about an issue that directly affects you and your kids.

    For the past year, the San Antonio Express-News has interviewed scores of people — homeowners, renters, planners, experts and developers — to understand and examine past and present growth in San Antonio and Bexar County, as local officials begin to confront a startling possibility: Today, nearly 1.9 million people live in Bexar County, but the population is expected to grow by another 1.1 million people by the year 2040.

    With this increase will come unprecedented demand for more housing, jobs and seats in classrooms; it will put tens of thousands of new vehicles on the roads.

    How to accommodate so many new people is a staggering challenge, in a place where development already has spread in virtually any direction it wants, unconstrained by any natural barriers, in order to meet the needs of a city and a county that’s been steadily growing for decades.


  • Interactive map shows how Bexar County voted in the 2016 presidential election

    Voters head to Woodlawn Baptist Church in San Antonio to cast their ballots on Election Day
    Voters head to Woodlawn Baptist Church in San Antonio to cast their ballots

    Hillary Clinton lost the election — but not in Bexar County. We can see which parts of the county and San Antonio supported Clinton or GOP presidential winner Donald Trump thanks to the Bexar County Elections Department, which releases precinct-level voting results after every election.

    This interactive map we created from the data follows a familiar pattern. From our story that ran today:

    Voters in outlying areas of Bexar County turned out in strong numbers and overwhelmingly supported Republican presidential winner Donald Trump, especially on the far, suburban North Side.

    But Democrat Hillary Clinton, who lost the national election and Texas, still won the popular vote locally and seized more than twice as many voting precincts as Trump in other parts of Bexar County, according to an analysis of election data by the San Antonio Express-News.

    The analysis shows a county divided by geography and ideology. Some of the strongest turnout occurred in large precincts that ring Bexar County and lean conservative. Nestled in that sea of Trump supporters is an island of inner-city precincts that might be smaller in size, but collectively supported Clinton and other Democrats in high numbers.

    What explains the divide? Many of the precincts that favored Clinton were in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods such as Precinct 2045 near Woodlawn Lake, where 65 percent of the voters cast ballots. Most voters in that precinct preferred Clinton over Trump, 952 votes to 258.

    “It doesn’t help that we’re the most economically segregated community in the United States,” said Manuel Medina, chairman of the Bexar County Democratic Party, referring to past studies examining the economic divide in San Antonio.

    Click on any precinct to view voter turnout and the final results. Overall, Clinton won 474 voting precincts in Bexar County while Trump won 198. Out of 598,081 ballots cast in Bexar County, Clinton won 53.7 percent of the vote to Trump’s 40.3 percent.

  • 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 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 late Department Name First Name Last Name Age
    1/25/2012 12:04 1,013 Wichita Falls Police Dept. Daniel Smith 33
    1/10/2013 13:38 1,011 Brazoria County Sheriff’s Dept. Jesse Woodard 27
    7/27/2015 0:00 826 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Natalio Chaparro 65
    8/14/2007 9:25 810 Harris County Constable Precinct 5 Romon Giesburg 15
    7/27/2015 0:00 807 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Melvin Bell 27
    7/27/2015 0:00 805 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Donald Bryant 84
    7/27/2015 0:00 804 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Alvin Wilson 55
    7/27/2015 0:00 774 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Prudencio Ortiz 78
    3/2/2015 13:05 719 Bastrop County Sheriff’s Dept. Jose Cantu 78
    7/27/2015 0:00 627 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice David Graham 48
    2/26/2010 9:48 617 Garland Police Dept. Troy Pool 32
    7/31/2008 7:57 570 Potter County Sheriff’s Dept. Raymond Mayburry 61
    7/22/2014 13:42 543 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Isidoro Resendez 32
    2/26/2010 9:57 527 Garland Police Dept. Derrick Watson 20
    7/20/2015 0:00 505 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Michael Yates 24
    3/2/2012 12:13 490 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Bobby Neble 39
    11/26/2013 13:10 408 Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept. Jose Guerra 20
    7/20/2015 0:00 392 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Balkrishna Booker 33
    1/4/2007 13:42 381 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Ronald Delcamp 47
    5/10/2006 16:26 380 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Jeronimo Rivera 44
    2/25/2015 13:17 374 Bastrop County Sheriff’s Dept. Yvette Smith 47
    10/5/2007 14:45 367 Abilene Police Dept. Jeffery Trotter 27
    5/9/2013 11:21 366 White Oak Police Dept. Jason Slaughter 36
    1/22/2007 8:24 366 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Cruz Perea 54
    1/22/2007 8:18 366 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Cruz Perea 54
    1/1/2007 14:52 365 Austin Police Dept. Fidel Macedo 44
    6/19/2015 12:36 357 Midland Police Dept. Nyocomus Garnett 35
    1/7/2008 10:30 352 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Janette Blair 51
    7/20/2015 0:00 351 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Vincent Heims 49
    2/26/2010 10:04 344 Garland Police Dept. Rudy Elizondo 17
    7/20/2015 0:00 342 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Kelly Hunckler 24
    8/8/2006 14:13 338 McAllen Police Dept. Nelson Saenz 56
    2/26/2010 10:10 326 Garland Police Dept. Abel Quinonez 48
    6/26/2007 15:08 288 Plainview Police Dept. Jose Ceballos 34
    6/29/2010 14:24 258 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Robert Brock 27
    7/20/2015 0:00 255 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Larry Johnson 51
    7/20/2015 0:00 245 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Thanh Pham 34
    11/8/2006 16:44 235 Midland Police Dept. Patrick Calanchi 28
    7/24/2015 0:00 231 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Michael Harrington 45
    7/20/2015 0:00 231 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Fiyaz Hussain 16
    6/27/2007 7:38 230 Silsbee Police Dept. Robin Lynn 44
    1/31/2013 13:27 220 Harris County Sheriff’s Office John Pinkston 53
    6/8/2009 19:54 214 Austin Police Dept. Adan Mondragon 23
    1/31/2013 13:05 212 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Jesus Rivera 28
    2/18/2009 15:11 209 Dallas Police Dept. Richard Smith 46
    6/18/2015 15:20 199 Midland Police Dept. Rosendo Rodriguez 49
    5/22/2006 9:42 196 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Wesley Creager 43
    12/3/2013 13:40 193 Austin Police Dept. John Thomas 56
    5/18/2010 0:00 190 McKinney Police Dept. Jeremy Bates 20
    3/29/2010 10:18 189 Dallas Police Dept. Jerry Gray 56
    7/20/2015 0:00 185 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Laranthony Moore 23
    10/20/2005 14:42 184 Bowie County Sheriff’s Dept. Robert Williams 54
    3/26/2010 10:03 181 Dallas Police Dept. Robert Taylor 44
    3/26/2010 11:00 180 Dallas Police Dept. Abel Martinez 36
    11/8/2006 14:43 173 San Antonio Police Dept. Kevin MaGirl 52
    11/8/2006 10:08 172 San Antonio Police Dept. Brounxsye Barber 17
    2/26/2010 10:16 171 Garland Police Dept. Ronald Chester 37
    7/17/2015 0:00 168 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Pedro Hernandez 38
    4/29/2013 15:40 168 Franklin County Sheriff’s Dept. Jonathan Love 29
    6/28/2012 12:49 166 Smith County Sheriff’s Dept. Isachar Guerrero 47
    3/2/2009 15:49 166 Dallas Police Dept. Derrick Jones 31
    8/9/2011 14:59 164 Garland Police Dept. James Kincaid 66
    11/17/2008 14:50 164 Dallas Police Dept. Dale Lemoine 53
    9/12/2011 0:00 163 Conroe Police Dept. James Hill 54
    7/1/2008 8:42 160 Beaumont Police Dept. Michael Mitchell 22
    12/15/2008 14:43 159 Dallas Police Dept. Rodrigo Aguirre 25
    4/26/2013 8:37 156 Wise County Sheriff’s Dept. David Malone 29
    11/28/2005 9:15 153 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Edwin Kelley 81
    10/29/2008 15:00 152 Dallas Police Dept. Daniel Ross 42
    6/26/2007 14:59 152 Plainview Police Dept. Clara Morris 54
    11/17/2005 15:28 149 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Julie Martinez 29
    7/17/2015 0:00 148 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Antonio Williams 34
    6/29/2010 10:48 145 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Jose De La Rosa 18
    10/4/2006 8:23 144 Richardson Police Dept. Kevin Nelson 37
    7/30/2009 15:15 143 Dallas Police Dept. Shirley South 41
    8/1/2007 10:46 142 Texas Department Of Public Safety Michael Steggall 35
    7/24/2015 0:00 139 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Jose Alvarado 47
    7/24/2015 0:00 138 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Larry Shears 63
    7/24/2015 0:00 137 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Clarence Petry 50
    7/24/2015 0:00 137 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Marty Robinson 47
    1/20/2010 0:00 135 Mission Police Dept. Adan Olvera 39
    7/24/2015 0:00 134 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Kwabina Wilson 34
    7/24/2015 0:00 134 Tarrant County Sheriff’s Dept. Larry Crowley 52
    11/9/2006 14:57 134 Texas Department Of Public Safety Thomas Strong 42
    7/24/2015 0:00 132 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Timothy White 60
    7/24/2015 0:00 132 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Charles Womack 55
    6/16/2006 15:39 132 San Marcos Police Dept. Leslie Whited 35
    8/17/2011 8:31 131 Grand Prairie Police Dept. Thahn Nguyen 34
    7/24/2015 0:00 130 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Cubia Collins 70
    7/24/2015 0:00 129 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Gary Miller 45
    11/17/2005 15:54 129 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Paul Hensley 44
    9/15/2005 8:38 129 Llano County Sheriff’s Dept. Eric Wolfe 29
    8/4/2009 13:32 128 Dallas Police Dept. Rosendo Navareno 24
    7/24/2015 0:00 125 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Phillip Allen 64
    7/5/2011 14:41 123 Taylor County Sheriff’s Dept. Ernest Baca 49
    7/31/2013 14:07 120 Nueces County Sheriff’s Dept. John Wallace 58
    4/24/2008 9:33 120 Reeves County Sheriff’s Dept. Francisco Cancino-Rodriguez 33
    4/20/2006 13:05 120 Baytown Police Dept. James Potts 51
    7/24/2015 0:00 119 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Terry Phillips 54
    11/17/2005 16:25 119 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Harry Clark 56
    1/4/2007 13:52 117 Desoto Police Dept. Antonie Bell 31
    7/24/2015 0:00 115 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Thomas Jemmerison 58
    7/24/2015 0:00 114 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Matthew Nelson 37
    7/17/2015 0:00 114 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Teleforo Jimenez 83
    8/3/2012 16:24 114 San Antonio Police Dept. mario soto 41
    7/24/2015 0:00 113 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Blaine Devillier 57
    11/22/2005 9:52 113 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Kendrick McGahee 24
    7/24/2015 0:00 111 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Manuel Arzola 46
    2/5/2013 11:17 110 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Gerrit Perkins 37
    6/16/2006 14:15 110 San Antonio Police Dept. Nugent Raspberry 44
    7/24/2015 0:00 109 Mansfield Police Dept. Wendale Webb 44
    2/16/2006 16:45 109 San Antonio Police Dept. Gerald Salazar 49
    11/18/2005 14:45 109 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Brandi Marsh 25
    11/19/2008 14:53 108 Dallas Police Dept. Gregory Carter 51
    8/21/2008 12:49 108 Dallas Police Dept. Reginald Starling 30
    3/8/2006 8:21 107 Van Zandt County Sheriff’s Dept. Daniell Bundrick 46
    10/13/2009 14:42 106 Dallas Police Dept. Stacey Paris 38
    5/25/2006 14:37 106 Nueces County Sheriff’s Dept. Santos Guajardo 25
    7/27/2015 0:00 104 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Manuel Garcia 70
    7/24/2015 0:00 104 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Matthew Espinoza 29
    11/18/2005 15:07 104 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Michael Gladney 27
    5/10/2006 7:55 103 Cameron County Sheriff’s Dept. Joe Ramos 37
    11/18/2005 15:13 103 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Fulton Carter 54
    7/24/2015 0:00 100 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Lloyd Gore 56
    8/8/2006 13:04 100 McAllen Police Dept. Arthur Ramirez 34
    8/2/2006 16:14 100 Frio County Sheriff’s Dept. Jesus Benavides 55
    11/18/2005 15:27 99 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Earl Guyton 74
    7/17/2015 0:00 98 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Sean Flanders 31
    1/24/2012 11:09 98 Dallas Police Dept. Jacob Ford 23
    2/16/2006 16:31 98 San Antonio Police Dept. Carl O’Neill 40
    4/18/2005 13:59 98 Temple Police Dept. Curtis Lewis 56
    7/24/2015 0:00 97 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Tracy McNulty 53
    2/16/2006 8:40 97 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Ray Grimes 28
    10/1/2009 15:32 95 Dallas Police Dept. Johnny Rose 49
    7/21/2009 13:09 95 Wichita Falls Police Dept. Daniel Smith 33
    5/18/2005 15:41 95 Comanche County Sheriff’s Dept. Adrian Muniz 19
    4/9/2007 14:41 94 Mansfield Police Dept. Diane McIntyre 45
    2/16/2006 9:23 94 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Jose Peralta 47
    7/28/2010 10:54 93 Hood County Sheriff’s Dept. Michael Pollard 29
    3/9/2009 10:33 93 Houston Police Dept. Peter Ioannidis 50
    8/2/2006 16:26 93 Milam County Sheriff’s Dept. Ricky Shaw 46
    11/21/2005 8:00 93 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice George Rodriguez 39
    7/28/2010 12:29 92 Hunt County Sheriff’s Dept. Randy Wallick 54
    2/1/2006 10:39 92 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Joe Martinez 33
    2/26/2010 9:59 91 Garland Police Dept. Antonio Alonzo 27
    2/16/2006 8:26 91 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Ruben Ramirez 45
    7/24/2015 0:00 90 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Jose Pizano 48
    11/16/2006 11:09 90 Hudson Oaks Police Dept. Billy Weckar 53
    2/1/2006 10:29 90 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Richard Goree 54
    11/18/2005 15:41 90 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice James Holland 60
    7/27/2015 0:00 89 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Charles Lockhart 60
    8/23/2013 13:51 89 Texas Department Of Public Safety Esteban Smith 23
    2/16/2006 8:55 89 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Dion Jamerson 28
    11/22/2005 14:09 89 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Billy Down 54
    8/2/2006 16:44 88 El Paso Police Dept. Alfonso DeAnda 35
    2/16/2006 15:47 88 Frio County Sheriff’s Dept. Robert Hernandez 36
    6/3/2015 11:17 87 Wise County Sheriff’s Dept. Leslie Burnham 49
    11/26/2013 15:44 87 Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept. Mathew Jackson 30
    2/1/2006 9:31 87 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Edward Alcazar 62
    2/3/2011 11:48 86 Cameron County Sheriff’s Dept. Jose Guerrero 51
    3/23/2010 17:39 86 Dallas Police Dept. Dontell Terrell 19
    2/16/2006 11:15 86 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Christopher Fant 20
    6/26/2007 14:50 85 Grimes County Sheriff’s Dept. Larry Key 38
    2/16/2006 12:52 85 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice John Garrett 34
    10/20/2005 9:21 85 Lipscomb County Sheriff’s Dept. Emily Corbin 20
    12/2/2011 10:03 84 South Houston Police Dept. Daniel Cisneros 23
    11/15/2006 12:33 84 Fort Worth Police Dept. Noah Lopez 25
    11/21/2005 8:15 84 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Jorge Rodriguez 27
    9/2/2014 10:33 83 Amarillo Police Dept. Jeremiah Farris 36
    7/30/2013 11:04 83 Deaf Smith County Sheriff’s Dept. Gary McQuigg 43
    10/6/2010 8:57 83 Dallas Police Dept. Cedric Hill 57
    2/16/2006 10:56 83 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Nelson Escolero 45
    2/1/2006 10:09 83 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Tean Bowens 53
    6/29/2010 13:45 81 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Christopher Brooks 26
    8/3/2006 9:26 81 Travis County Sheriff’s Dept. Mark Larkins 49
    7/28/2010 13:26 80 Bell County Sheriff’s Dept. Lincoln Kephart 46
    10/14/2009 13:11 80 Dallas Police Dept. Juan Reyes-Gallardo 27
    2/1/2006 9:55 80 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Robert Anderson 50
    7/24/2015 0:00 79 Travis County Sheriff’s Office Corey Carlson 50
    7/17/2015 0:00 79 El Paso Police Dept. Erik Salas 22
    5/26/2015 10:15 79 Travis County Sheriff’s Office Challase Jennings 47
    5/11/2007 8:24 79 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Gerardo Villarreal 42
    3/2/2006 10:39 79 Cameron County Sheriff’s Dept. Santiago Maldonado 25
    2/21/2006 8:57 79 Bell County Sheriff’s Dept. Marvin Carter 70
    2/16/2006 12:58 79 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Ralph Jackson 50
    1/26/2006 9:54 79 Dallas Police Dept. Rodricus Causey 20
    6/8/2005 10:58 79 Garland Police Dept. Kevin Garland 35
    4/18/2005 10:30 79 Pasadena Police Dept. Vicente Desena 27
    4/18/2005 8:24 79 Harris County Sheriff’s Dept. Ronnie Howard 42
    8/2/2007 15:58 78 Dallas Police Dept. Tommy Smith 39
    9/15/2005 9:23 78 Hewitt Police Dept. Travis Collins 34
    9/7/2010 11:30 77 San Patricio County Sheriff’s Dept. Charles Huett 38
    12/19/2007 16:24 77 Lufkin Police Dept. Brandon Kort 29
    11/15/2006 10:43 77 San Marcos Police Dept. Christopher Gonzales 19
    8/8/2006 14:57 77 Wichita Falls Police Dept. Timothy Alfaro 26
    11/21/2005 8:25 77 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Leonard Price 40
    9/16/2013 10:35 76 Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept. Fredy Suazo-Perez 28
    7/28/2010 13:12 76 Coleman County Sheriff’s Dept. John Dobbins 24
    8/3/2006 10:29 76 Dallas Police Dept. Ben Miller 36
    12/22/2005 10:15 76 Mission Police Dept. Jose Lopez 40
    11/8/2006 15:07 75 Corpus Christi Police Dept. Elcide Sylve 48
    8/3/2006 10:12 75 Corpus Christi Police Dept. Madeline Garcia 34
    2/7/2006 10:53 74 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice David Magnusson 33
    7/31/2013 15:31 73 Concho County Sheriff’s Dept. Ernesto Gonzalez 29
    12/17/2007 15:05 73 Dallas Police Dept. Juan Robles 54
    2/9/2007 10:21 73 Hopkins County Sheriff’s Dept. Terri Minty 36
    8/8/2006 13:12 73 Dallas Police Dept. Gregory Steward 32
    8/1/2013 11:10 72 Bosque County Sheriff’s Dept. Alan Stokes 22
    1/20/2011 15:04 72 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Phillp Speckter 58
    10/29/2008 14:19 72 Littlefield Police Dept. RANDALL McCULLOUGH 38
    2/9/2007 13:00 72 San Patricio County Sheriff’s Dept. Simon Diaz 49
    11/8/2006 14:53 72 El Paso Police Dept. William Ecker 58
    2/16/2006 16:13 72 Montgomery County Sheriff’s Dept. Daniel Beasley 45
    2/16/2006 14:09 72 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Andrew Cervantes 59
    11/22/2005 14:27 72 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Raymond Gonzales 59
    5/18/2012 10:20 71 Dallas Police Dept. Luis Escalante 23
    11/21/2005 7:56 71 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Robert Gomez 31
    10/20/2005 11:01 71 Denton County Sheriff’s Dept. Brian Savage 37
    10/20/2005 10:34 71 Houston Police Dept. Ronald Newman 52
    4/18/2005 10:14 71 San Antonio Police Dept. Doroteo Torres 22
    3/15/2005 16:47 71 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Rodger Jenkins, Jr. 25
    5/9/2006 9:34 70 Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept. Robert Aleman 62
    11/22/2005 14:22 70 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Heilry Atkins 65
    5/18/2005 15:51 70 Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept. Charles Townsend 58
    4/18/2005 9:15 70 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Pedro Rodriguez 54
    2/18/2014 13:08 69 Malakoff Police Dept. William Livezy 70
    2/13/2014 9:02 69 University of Incarnate Word Cameron Redus 23
    11/8/2006 16:16 69 Hunt County Sheriff’s Dept. Glenda Jackson 42
    8/3/2006 9:04 69 Gregg County Sheriff’s Dept. Adolphus Randall 51
    2/16/2006 13:41 69 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Shan Woods 31
    3/15/2005 16:53 69 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Sam Salas 45
    5/21/2015 13:48 68 Austin Police Dept. James Sizer 62
    8/3/2006 16:24 68 Dallas Police Dept. Jason Pabis 31
    11/21/2005 8:43 68 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Carolyn Wells 41
    10/21/2005 8:39 68 Kinney County Sheriff’s Dept. Eulalio Garza 21
    3/18/2005 14:12 68 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Frank James 74
    3/16/2005 7:41 68 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Bernard Brown 49
    7/30/2013 15:17 67 Guadalupe County Sheriff’s Dept. Donald Adams 49
    5/31/2011 15:10 67 Ector County Sheriff’s Dept. Juan Carrasco 33
    2/22/2010 11:38 67 Dumas Police Dept. John Ward 38
    11/5/2009 16:44 67 Kaufman County Sheriff’s Dept. Jerome Nicholson 81
    12/19/2007 15:54 67 Collin County Sheriff’s Dept. Bok Park 44
    8/3/2006 8:50 67 Aransas County Sheriff’s Dept. Michael Solis 28
    2/16/2006 13:30 67 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Ennis Johnson 33
    4/18/2005 14:43 67 Plano Police Dept. Anthony Sanders 30
    4/27/2012 8:34 66 Randall County Sheriff’s Dept. Tara Miller 46
    2/2/2011 13:57 66 Parker County Sheriff’s Dept. Darryl Brady 46
    5/17/2010 8:54 66 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Antonio Hicks 33
    2/22/2008 11:27 66 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Arthur Duku 24
    9/17/2007 14:13 66 Dallas Police Dept. Matthew Layton 25
    3/18/2005 14:27 66 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Thomas Self 23
    3/18/2005 14:20 66 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Bennie Gonzalez 60
    11/5/2009 16:31 65 Collin County Sheriff’s Dept. Christopher Schell 29
    8/3/2006 12:58 65 Denison Police Dept. Bobby Wadford 55
    2/16/2006 13:25 65 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Howard Ellis 33
    10/20/2005 9:35 65 Tarrant County Sheriff’s Dept. Christopher Waller 46
    3/18/2005 14:34 65 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Michael Bennett 75
    2/10/2015 12:32 64 Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept. Christopher Doss 41
    2/10/2014 0:00 64 Denton County Sheriff’s Dept. Michael Stolz 77
    8/22/2008 16:17 64 San Patricio County Sheriff’s Dept. Raul Gomez 46
    6/26/2007 16:29 64 Midland Police Dept. Chad Sanchez 20
    11/15/2006 15:45 64 Texas Department Of Public Safety Kevin Vickers 48
    9/14/2005 16:42 64 Euless Police Dept. Kevin Omas 17
    4/18/2005 9:09 64 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Nathaniel Watts 50
    11/25/2008 9:06 63 Longview Police Dept. Kevin Williams 32
    6/29/2007 9:45 63 Rockwall County Sheriff’s Dept. James Hetchler 45
    11/16/2006 10:27 63 Garland Police Dept. Curtis Harwell 39
    2/16/2006 14:21 63 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Norman Colburn 55
    1/26/2006 9:41 63 Comal County Sheriff’s Dept. Irving West 48
    4/19/2005 8:11 63 Fort Worth Police Dept. John Morrison 59
    4/18/2005 8:58 63 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Darrell Gilbert 36
    3/18/2005 14:40 63 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Juan Cantu 54
    4/5/2013 15:04 62 Copperas Cove Police Dept. Kristofer Gagliardi 24
    12/10/2012 14:25 62 Dallas Police Dept. Marshall Moreno 43
    11/22/2005 14:39 62 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Robert Hathaway 74
    10/20/2005 13:13 62 Allen Police Dept. Edgar Vera 45
    10/20/2005 9:59 62 Dallas Police Dept. Douglas Blackstone 24
    4/18/2005 11:04 62 Lubbock Police Dept. Pedro Alcorte 43
    8/16/2006 14:08 61 Williamson County Sheriff’s Dept. Joe Thornton 29
    8/3/2006 8:22 61 Randall County Sheriff’s Dept. Matthew Griffin 46
    7/20/2006 10:04 61 Dallas Police Dept. Dashaun Pearson 27
    2/28/2006 15:50 61 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Nicholas Ortiz 22
    2/16/2006 15:13 61 Brazos County Sheriff’s Dept Kendra Willliams 29
    4/18/2005 12:43 61 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Raymond Tristan 65
    3/18/2005 14:51 61 El Paso County Sheriff’s Dept. Roberto Diaz 55
    3/3/2005 14:07 61 Travis County Sheriff’s Dept. Michael Dickson 51
    11/14/2013 7:47 60 Johnson County Sheriff’s Dept. Gregory McElvy 35
    7/31/2013 16:43 60 Corsicana Police Dept. Eliseo Mercado-Resendiz 23
    7/31/2013 11:46 60 Ferris Police Dept. Angel (aka Oscar) Lopez (aka Martinez) 29
    2/3/2011 13:41 60 Robertson County Sheriff’s Dept. Diane Higgins 55
    12/11/2009 12:40 60 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Theodore Nelson 55
    11/17/2008 15:15 60 Dallas Police Dept. Eric Parenzan 22
    3/1/2006 7:28 60 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Kenneth Themis 45
    2/21/2006 9:28 60 Houston Police Dept. Ritchie Brown 22
    4/18/2005 15:44 60 Travis County Sheriff’s Dept. Ricky Herron 51
    3/24/2005 13:24 60 Texas Department Of Public Safety Samuel Strange, Jr. 58
    3/3/2005 14:16 60 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Darryl Wallace 44
    3/2/2005 14:48 60 Fort Worth Police Dept. Dino Gomez 40
    2/4/2013 10:22 59 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Shelly Frey 27
    6/1/2011 10:21 59 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice David Barrandey 41
    2/2/2011 13:04 59 Harris County Sheriff’s Office Namaan Pierce 22
    8/3/2006 9:41 59 Texas Department Of Public Safety Harold Gray 61
    2/16/2006 14:16 59 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Kenneth Yancey 55
    11/22/2005 14:44 59 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Rafael Trujillo 46
    9/15/2005 8:23 59 Silsbee Police Dept. Clifton Young 23
    3/3/2005 14:51 59 Houston Police Dept. Alex Mendez 26
    3/3/2005 14:40 59 San Antonio Police Dept. Albert Enriquez 21
    9/12/2013 13:05 58 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice James Vaughan 44
    2/13/2007 14:13 58 San Patricio County Sheriff’s Dept. Glen Sanderson 67
    5/18/2006 14:03 58 Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept. Shawn Leflore 33
    5/9/2006 9:27 58 Houston Police Dept. William Petty 29
    2/28/2006 16:36 58 Smith County Sheriff’s Dept. Carl Bussey 56
    11/21/2005 15:39 58 Houston Police Dept. Jose Cantu 25
    8/11/2005 10:10 58 Waco Police Dept. Robert Williams 62
    3/9/2005 9:06 58 Temple Police Dept. Curtis Lewis 56
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    10/20/2011 9:21 31 Amarillo Police Dept. Leon Stephens 72
    1/5/2010 9:10 31 Houston Police Dept. Stuart Proulx 49
    9/22/2009 16:49 31 Gregg County Sheriff’s Dept. Robert Foster 57
    8/4/2008 11:06 31 Fort Worth Police Dept. Gene Ketner 38
    2/4/2008 9:18 31 San Angelo Police Dept. Greg Cranfill 42
    8/28/2007 11:55 31 Val Verde County Sheriff’s Dept. Alberto REYES-Alvarez 25
    6/13/2007 8:15 31 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice David Morris 55
    2/7/2007 13:01 31 Houston Police Dept. Omar Esparza 21
    9/5/2006 11:04 31 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Terreth White 21
    4/28/2006 13:02 31 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Ernest Sims 68
    3/31/2006 12:58 31 San Antonio Police Dept. Steve Johnson 43
    3/28/2006 14:01 31 Harris County Sheriff’s Dept. Thomas Johnson 59
    3/28/2006 11:07 31 Brownsville Police Dept. Edgar Lopez 17
    12/22/2005 13:43 31 Pasadena Police Dept. Barney Green 38
    10/20/2005 15:29 31 Corpus Christi Police Dept. Gilberto Limon 42
    7/26/2005 13:54 31 Montague County Sheriff’s Dept. Randall Wiggins 46
    5/18/2005 10:23 31 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Anthony Evans 25
    3/24/2005 14:57 31 Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Gonzalo Garcia 55

    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.

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