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Texas grandmother thrown in jail after criticizing local government. Now her case heads to the Supreme Court

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Texas grandmother thrown in jail after criticizing local government. Now her case heads to the Supreme Court


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A small town political feud that wound up with a Texas city council member behind bars is headed to the Supreme Court this week, where justices will consider whether the councilwoman can sue city leaders for politically motivated retaliation.

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“I would never believe that I would be going to the Supreme Court,” Sylvia Gonzalez told Fox News. “I would never believe that I was in jail, either.” 

Castle Hills police arrested Sylvia Gonzalez in July 2019 on a charge of tampering with a public document. Now, the Supreme Court will decide whether the grandmother and former city councilwoman can sue city officials for politically-motivated retaliation. (Courtesy Institute for Justice)

CANCER SURVIVOR DEALT NEW BLOW AFTER TEXAS POLICE DESTROYED HER HOUSE, BUT LAWYERS SAY CITY STILL HAS TO PAY

Gonzalez and her attorneys at the nonprofit Institute for Justice are suing Castle Hills Mayor JR Trevino and other officials, alleging they plotted to remove her from office as retaliation for criticizing the city manager, thereby violating her First Amendment rights.

“In America, we don’t arrest our critics,” IJ attorney Anya Bidwell said.

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Gonzalez’s story began in 2019, when the then-72-year-old retiree won a seat on the Castle Hills City Council. She said constituents had complained extensively that city manager Ryan Rapelye was unresponsive, particularly to their concerns over the condition of their streets.

In America, we don’t arrest our critics.

— Anya Bidwell, Institute for Justice attorney

As soon as she was elected, Gonzalez championed a non-binding petition calling for the city manager to be replaced with a previous manager citizens felt had done a better job. Another resident introduced the petition at Gonzalez’s first city council meeting. Discussion of the manager’s job performance “grew contentious,” according to court records, and the meeting was extended through the following day.

At the end of the meeting, Gonzalez said she straightened up the papers strewn across her dais and put them in her binder before going to talk to a constituent.

A police officer interrupted the conversation, telling Gonzalez that Trevino wanted to speak with her, according to court documents. Gonzalez went back to the dais and Trevino asked where the petition was. Gonzalez said she didn’t know. Trevino allegedly asked her to look in her binder, saying he could see a clip inside.

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Security video of city council dais, Mayor Trevino, Gonzalez, and police officer

Security video from May 22, 2019, shows then-Councilwoman Sylvia Gonzalez pulling the petition out of her binder at the request of Mayor JR Trevino and a police officer. The non-binding petition called for the reinstatement of a former city manager, who Gonzalez and supporters said was more reliable and dedicated to completing street repairs than her successors. (Screenshot via City of Castle Hills Texas/YouTube)

MOMS SUE STATE OVER ‘CREEPY’ BABY BLOOD DATABASE, PRIVACY CONCERNS

Indeed, the petition was in the binder, so Gonzalez handed it over and thought nothing of it. But two months later, she learned from a neighbor that there was a warrant out for her arrest.

“I didn’t even know what I was accused of,” Gonzalez told Fox News. “I’d never been in jail … and it was very scary to an old lady like me.”

Trevino and police chief John Siemens used the briefly displaced petition to launch a criminal investigation into Gonzalez, her lawsuit claims. Three weeks into the investigation, the police chief assigned a “trusted friend and local attorney” to take over as a “special detective,” according to Gonzalez’s complaint.

The special detective produced an arrest affidavit alleging Gonzalez had “been openly antagonistic” toward the city manager from her first meeting, “wanting desperately to get him fired.” The affidavit also accused Gonzalez of misleading a woman by “telling her several fabrications” about Rapelye in order to get her signature, according to court documents.

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‘THEY WANTED TO PUNISH ME’: FORMER CITY COUNCILWOMAN’S RETALIATION CASE GOES TO SUPREME COURT:

WATCH MORE FOX NEWS DIGITAL ORIGINALS HERE

Detectives found probable cause to believe Gonzalez intentionally stole the petitions, violating a Texas ban on intentionally removing or destroying government records, according to court documents from the defendants.

The statute is usually used in cases involving fake Social Security numbers, forgeries of official checks and counterfeit green cards, Bidwell said. IJ looked at 10 years of Bexar County data and couldn’t find “anything even remotely similar” to Gonzalez’s case, she added.

Rather than seek a summons for the nonviolent misdemeanor, the special detective took the unusual step of asking for an arrest warrant, the lawsuit contends. The special detective also went straight to a district court judge, circumventing the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office.

“They wanted to punish me, and they wanted to make sure I went to jail. And they did a good job,” Gonzalez said.

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Gonzalez turned herself in, was handcuffed, spent the day sitting in jail and had her mugshot splashed across the evening news. Even though the DA’s office dropped the charge, her brief political career was over.

Castle Hills Mayor JR Trevino and former police chief John Siemens

Gonzalez’s lawsuit accuses Mayor JR Trevino and former Castle Hills Police Chief John Siemens of launching a bogus investigation after she says she accidentally placed a petition she spearheaded into her binder. She was arrested for tampering with a public document, but the DA’s office later dismissed the charge. (Courtesy City of Castle Hills)

RANCHERS SAY THE STATE FLOODED THEIR LANDS, KILLING ANIMALS. THE SUPREME COURT WILL DECIDE IF TEXAS HAS TO PAY

Gonzalez sued Trevino, Siemens, special detective Alexander Wright and the city in 2020, alleging they deprived her of her rights under the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Attorneys for Trevino and the other defendants did not return a request for comment.

The city officials invoked qualified immunity, a defense commonly used to shield government officials from liability unless it can be proven that they violated a clearly established constitutional right.

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They wanted to punish me, and they wanted to make sure I went to jail. And they did a good job.

— Sylvia Gonzalez, Former Castle Hills city councilwoman

A district court judge initially denied the defendants’ immunity, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling. In a 2-1 decision, the court determined Gonzalez failed to prove her arrest was retaliatory because she could not cite cases in which other individuals had not been arrested for actions similar to hers.

The 5th Circuit cited Nieves v. Bartlett, which involved police officers making “split-second decisions,” Bidwell said. IJ hopes the Supreme Court will decide that this special protection from First Amendment lawsuits should not be extended to other government officials.

“When it comes to mayors, when it comes to other desk-bound bureaucrats who want to throw their critics in jail, First Amendment comes first, and they should be held accountable for violations of people’s constitutional rights,” Bidwell said.

Sylvia Gonzalez stands in front of Supreme Court of the United States

Gonzalez’s lawsuit alleges Trevino and his political allies tried to have her removed from the city council in a variety of ways, including declaring that she had been improperly sworn in by the county sheriff. The 72-year-old retiree eventually resigned from the council. The city manager whose performance she criticized kept his job. (Courtesy Institute for Justice)

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Gonzalez will have her case heard Wednesday.

Bidwell said Gonzalez’s case could have wide-reaching implications, including in the 2023 police raid of a local newspaper office in Marion County, Kansas. The police chief was allegedly “infuriated” the newspaper was investigating his background, according to a federal lawsuit recently filed in the case.

To hear more from Gonzalez and Bidwell, click here.

Ramiro Vargas contributed to the accompanying video.



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Texas Rep. John Carter's office vandalized with 'Free Gaza,' red liquid

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Texas Rep. John Carter's office vandalized with 'Free Gaza,' red liquid


Photo courtesy: Rep. John Carter on X

U.S. Rep John Carter (R-Texas) says his Georgetown office was vandalized recently.

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Carter posted a photo of the vandalism to his X (formerly Twitter) account. The front door of his office had been splashed with a red liquid, and on the floor in front, the words “Free Gaza” were spray-painted in red. 

In his post, Carter says the vandalism was perpetrated by “[u]nhinged anti-Israel activists.”

“Unhinged anti-Israel activists vandalized my Georgetown office. Let me make 2 things clear, my support for Israel is unwavering & your intimidation won’t work. Secondly, the parties responsible will be found & will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. #StandWithIsrael,” reads the entire post.

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The post comes two days after Carter was one of 366 U.S. House members to vote yes on H. R. 8034, or the Israel Security Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2024. Fifty-eight people voted no and seven chose not to vote.

The bill has passed the House and now heads to the Senate.

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H.R. 8034 would provide $26.38 billion in aid to Israel. It also includes provisions that would expand the authority of the President to transfer defense articles and services from DOD to foreign countries or international organizations, and prohibit funds from being used for payments to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.





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Texas Hail(ed) 2023 a Record-Breaking Year for Insured Losses

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Texas Hail(ed) 2023 a Record-Breaking Year for Insured Losses


How severe storms in Texas and population growth are driving hail damage

Severe convective storms — also known as severe thunderstorms — caused tens of billions of dollars of insured losses across the U.S. in 2023.

Tornadoes, straight-line winds (including derechos) and hail are the damage-causing agents of severe thunderstorms, but it was the latter that dominated the loss landscape in 2023.

Hail of at least one inch in diameter battered more than 10 million homes across the U.S. Two million of those homes were in Texas alone.

Historically, risk managers have considered severe thunderstorms a secondary peril given the high-frequency but low-severity nature of these events. However, hail is quickly becoming an expensive peril that should be modeled with the same scrutiny as the “big ones” like hurricanes and earthquakes.

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In 2023 there were 141 days with large hail (greater than two inches), which is more days than any year since 2003. Insured loss figures have also been increasing. This significant increase is the result of two interrelated factors: climate patterns and the increasing scale of homes.

Understand 2024 Severe Convective Storm Season Risk

2024 SCS Risk Report

Does Changing Weather Lead to Texas-Sized Hail?

There is a direct link between a warming atmosphere and weather pattern volatility. Annual or multiannual climate phenomena, such as the shift to El Niño during the spring of 2023 following multiple years of La Niña, likely influenced last year’s severe convective storm activity. This influence was compounded by record-breaking sea-surface temperatures and the subtropical jet stream, a belt of winds located within the tropics.

While the evidence to connect weather patterns and the number of intense storms is compelling, it is difficult to determine if long-term atmospheric changes are the primary driver of increased severe thunderstorm activity without a more extensive historical record.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that evolving climate risk is changing historical patterns, and as a result, has the potential to influence the impacts that severe convective storms can have on properties in future climate scenarios. 

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Affordability Means Texas Weather and Hailstorms

In conjunction with the volatile climate, more people are moving to hail-prone areas like Texas due to the allure of more affordable homes.

“Given how expansive Texas is, it is way more likely hail falls on the ground avoiding homes, office buildings or farms,” said CoreLogic’s Director of Catastrophe Response Jon Schneyer. “But in 2023, many of the largest hailstorms happened to hit major cities in Texas like the Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin areas. When that happens, losses can add up quickly.”

Texas has been attracting newcomers due to its low cost of living, strong economy, and job opportunities. Historically, substantial portions of Texas were sparsely populated, especially in the rural areas where hail is more frequent and severe. However, in recent years, the urban and suburban areas of Texas have been expanding rapidly, creating more demand for housing and infrastructure.

According to a CoreLogic economic analysis, Texas has been home to some of the fastest-growing cities over the past five years. In 2019, and again in 2020, more people moved to Austin than left the metro area. While this trend flipped from 2021 to 2023, there was a strong inter-metro migration pattern from Austin to San Antonio, which saw the fourth-largest influx of residents in 2023. Similarly, Houston grew rapidly and had the third-highest rate of in-migration in the U.S.

Everything Is Bigger in Texas — Including Costs

Despite the increasing number of migrants to this low-cost state, both construction and labor costs are going up. This means that even in Texas, houses are getting pricier. They are also bigger.

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Across the U.S., the size of single-family homes has increased in the decades following 1980. In 1985, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data showed that the median square footage for single-family homes was 1,610. By 2022, the median size of a new, single-family home was 2,383 square feet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This means that more roof area, windows, and siding are exposed to hail impacts. And the materials for these repairs are increasing in price.

“Areas where people are building bigger, more expensive homes were hit hard,” Schneyer said. “On top of that, inflationary pressures on materials and labor are really driving up individual claims. What might’ve been a $2,000 to $4,000 roof repair 10 years ago could be twice that or more now. So that will really inflate insured losses.”

Inflation has also played a role in driving up the costs of reconstruction, although it has stabilized in recent months. However, asphalt shingles, one of the most common roof-type materials used throughout the U.S., experienced a 40% cost increase over the past five years. Similarly, the cost of ceramic tiles increased by 26% since 2018.

Compounding the increasing square footage that is exposed to Texas weather hailstorms is the challenge associated with finding skilled labor to make the necessary repairs. Since the Great Recession of 2006 – 2010, there has been a persistent reduction in employees entering the construction trades. The result is that the pace of labor attempts to match demand but is perpetually racing to catch up, allowing for premium prices to dominate the market.

Texas Hail Is a Year-Round Peril

Further straining the equation for insurers is the fact that hail is a year-round risk. In May, Texas faced a slew of storms in the lead up to June when CoreLogic estimated that in one week alone, straight-line winds and hail generated between $7 billion and $10 billion in insured losses. Then in September, a hailstorm hit the greater Austin metro with hail stones the size of softballs barreling down on the highly populated area. October then brought large hail to the Lubbock area.

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The unprecedented scale of insured losses has insurers and homeowners across the U.S. reconsidering the risk associated with these seasonal storms.

One opportunity to help reduce the vulnerability of its homes to hail damage and lower the costs of reconstruction associated with severe convective storms is the implementation of building codes.

By implementing and enforcing stricter building codes, insurers writing in Texas can gain assurance that mitigating measures — such as using impact-resistant roofing materials, reinforced windows, and durable siding — are routinely recognized.

Research, property data, stringent building codes, and a commitment to preparedness are all lessons that insurers and homeowners can glean from 2023 to get ready to mitigate property risk for the 2024 season.

Understand 2024 Severe Convective Storm Season Risk

2024 SCS Risk Report

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The CoreLogic statements and information in this blog post may not be reproduced or used in any form without express written permission. While all the CoreLogic statements and information are believed to be accurate, CoreLogic makes no representation or warranty as to the completeness or accuracy of the statements and information and assumes no responsibility whatsoever for the information and statements or any reliance thereon. CoreLogic® and Marshall & Swift® are the registered trademarks of CoreLogic, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.



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Tiny Texas City Repels Russia-Tied Hackers Eyeing Water System

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Tiny Texas City Repels Russia-Tied Hackers Eyeing Water System


When Mike Cypert got the call that utilities in remote Texas communities were being hacked, he raced across his office to unplug the computer that ran his city’s water system.

Hale Center is a dusty, cotton-growing burg of 2,000 about five hours drive northwest of Dallas. After the alert from a software vendor in January, Cypert, the city manager, said he found thousands of attempts to breach Hale Center’s firewall, some coming from an internet address that traced back to St. Petersburg, Russia.

Within minutes of the discovery, Cypert said he reported the episode to agents from the FBI and US Department of Homeland Security, who were already looking into related incidents in nearby Texas towns. One of the hacks caused a water tank in another city to overflow.

The attacks in Texas are the latest example of hackers — some of them tied to US adversaries — targeting America’s sprawling network of water utilities. In November, an Iranian-backed group attacked Israeli-made digital controls commonly used in the water and wastewater industries in the US, affecting organizations across several states. That same month, the North Texas Municipal Water District, which supplies water to more than 2 million customers, was the victim of a ransomware attacks.

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Chinese state-sponsored hackers also attacked a water utility in Hawaii, the Washington Post reported in December.

“The water sector is poorly resourced and is under siege from three fronts. This is now Iran, China and Russia,” said John Hultquist, chief analyst at Mandiant Intelligence.

A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment. The Department of Homeland Security didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Read More: Iranian-Linked Hacks Expose Failure to Safeguard US Water System

Researchers at Mandiant, a unit of Google Cloud, found potential connections between the attacks on water utilities in Texas and one of Russia’s most notorious hacking groups, known as Sandworm. The group has been accused of repeatedly turning out the lights in Ukraine and hacking the 2018 Olympics Opening Games in South Korea. The US government says it is part of Russia’s military spy agency, but the ties between Sandworm and the Texas attacks are less than certain. “We’ve never seen them cross the line in the US like this before,” Hultquist said.

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Among the other victims of the recent hacks was the city of Muleshoe, a 5,000-person community in northwest Texas. A resident called the city on January 18 to report a water tank overflowing. City staff found that they’d largely lost control of the system, took it offline and called the company that provides Muleshoe’s industrial control software, City Manager Ramon Sanchez said at a public meeting the next month that was covered by the Plainview Herald. The vendor told city officials that other area communities were seeing similar problems, Sanchez said at the meeting.

Sanchez didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

That same day, a social media account called “CyberArmyofRussia_Reborn” posted a video that appears to show hackers manipulating Muleshoe’s industrial control system. Mandiant and other cybersecurity researchers believe Sandworm created and control CyberArmyofRussia_Reborn, which Hultquist described as a hacktivist persona. It’s possible that other cyber attackers are using its platforms, he said.

Andy Bennett, the chief technology officer of cybersecurity firm Apollo Information Systems, said there are various reasons why hackers might target small-town water systems. They could provide a “testing ground” for hacking tools intended for bigger targets, he said, or give foreign countries a way to scare Americans.

“Small-town America feels safe,” said Bennett, a former cybersecurity official for the state of Texas,”and if the water supply is in jeopardy, it undoes that.”

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US intelligence officials are still debating whether Sandworm was involved in the Texas water utility breaches, according to people familiar with the situation who didn’t want to be named due to the sensitivities.

The Russian Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

US officials are especially worried about attacks by nation-state hackers on critical sectors of the US economy, like defense, dams, energy, financial services and water systems. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency dropped plans to require states to assess water facilities’ cyber defenses. Republican lawmakers in three states called the oversight illegal, accusing the EPA of overreach. The White House said it would work with Congress to beef up the environmental watchdog’s authority.

The attacks on Texas utilities targeted at least two other communities. In Abernathy, hackers entered through a virtual network connection, but city staff caught them within 30 seconds and cut off the attackers as they were trying to change passwords, City Manager Donald Provost told Bloomberg News. Lockney’s city manager, Buster Poling, Jr., said his staff also caught the attack early and that it “really did not affect the city.”

Hale Center’s Cypert said he learned that other towns had been attacked when the city’s industrial control software vendor called telling them to “lock down.” Hale Center uses the same vendor as Muleshoe and a handful of other area communities, he said.

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When the warning came in, Cypert said he rushed to unplug the ethernet cable from the computer that operates the water system. Hale Center wasn’t breached, but Cypert said in reviewing its security, the city’s IT contractor found what appeared to be a brute force attempt to crack Hale Center’s firewall — 37,000 tries in four days.

The attempts on Hale Center’s firewall came from IP addresses around the world but one was repeated over and over, Cypert said. The investigation traced it back to St. Petersburg and the city’s industrial control vendor, Morgeson Consulting in Lubbock, quickly got Cypert on a conference call with FBI agents already investigating the Muleshoe attack, he said.

Morgeson Consulting’s owner didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Cypert said he later sent the FBI data from the attempts on its firewall. The city’s IT contractor, Ben Warren, also walked the investigators through some of the technical details, he said. The agents were impressed by Warren’s technical acumen and offered the city manager a piece of advice, Cypert recalled.

“Hang on to him,” they said, referring to Warren.

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Copyright 2024 Bloomberg.

Topics
Cyber
Texas
Russia



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