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2 More Houston-Area Men Arrested For Joining Capitol Insurrection

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The two men allegedly drove a rental car to D.C. to attend a march and entered the Capitol building during the attack.

Two more Houston-area residents have been accused of participating in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, bringing the total number of locals arrested to six.

Authorities say Christian Cortez and Benjamin Larocca, both of Seabrook, drove a rental car to Washington, D.C. to attend the march, and entered the Capitol building during the attack. The two men were identified using footage recorded throughout the day, according to court documents.

In one video, Cortez appears on Capitol grounds near a line of officers, alongside other pro-Trump extremists.

Christian Cortez and Benjamin Larocca allegedly entered the Capitol building during the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

“Oath breakers! Oath breakers!,” he yells toward a line of officers, according to court documents.

As the video continues, court documents say Cortez could be seen continuing to yell at the officers while moving closer to the line. Cortez then appears to be sprayed with pepper spray by one of the officers, according to a sworn affidavit.

The FBI said another video was found on Benjamin Larocca’s Instagram that appears to be shot from inside the Capitol building, with a caption on the screen reading, “We got in.” An individual who appears to be Cortez can be seen in the video, before the camera flips to show Larocca himself, according to court documents.

“Our house!,” he repeatedly chanted, according to court documents.

In an interview with authorities, Larocca said that he and Cortez were “chilling” in the “tour area” of the Capitol building, and acknowledged that neither he or Cortez had signed up for a tour, according to the affidavit.

Authorities say both Cortez and Larocca were arrested at a residence in Seabrook Friday.

Cortez is charged with assaulting a federal officer, civil disorder, obstructing an official proceeding, unlawfully entering a restricted building to disrupt government, and disorderly conduct on restricted grounds. Larocca is charged with obstructing an official proceeding, unlawfully entering a restricted building to disrupt government, and disorderly conduct on restricted grounds.

The two men join four other Houston-area residents who’ve since been arrested, including: former HPD officer Tam Dinh Pham, Joshua Lollar, Wilmar Alvarado, and Shane Jenkins.

Culled from the NPR

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Governor Abbott versus Texas Parole Board: Playing Politics with George Floyd

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Texas board withdraws pardon recommendation for George Floyd and Governor Greg Abbott loved it

A Texas board that had unanimously supported a posthumous pardon for George Floyd over a 2004 drug arrest in Houston backpedaled in an announcement Thursday, saying “procedural errors” were found in their recommendation months after leaving the decision to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

The unusual reversal was announced by Abbott’s office two days before Christmas, around the time he typically doles out his annual pardons.

The withdrawn endorsement was met with outrage from a public defender who submitted the pardon application for Floyd, who spent much of his life in Houston before his death in 2020 under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer. Allison Mathis, an attorney in Houston, accused the two-term governor of playing politics ahead of Texas’ March GOP primary elections as he faces challengers from the far right.

Floyd’s name was withdrawn along with two dozen other clemency recommendations that had been submitted by the Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles. In a letter dated Dec. 16 but not released publicly until now, the board told Abbott that it had identified “unexplained departures” from its process of issuing pardons and needed to reconsider more than a third of the 67 clemency recommendations it sent to Abbott this year, including the one for Floyd.

In October, the board had unanimously recommended that Floyd become just the second person in Texas since 2010 to receive a posthumous pardon from the governor.

“As a result of the Board’s withdrawal of the recommendation concerning George Floyd, Governor Abbott did not have the opportunity to consider it,” Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said in a statement.

Mathis called the last-minute reversal a “ridiculous farce.” She said the board — which is stocked with Abbott appointees — did not make her aware of any issues prior to the announcement from the governor’s office.

“It really strains credibility for them to say now that it’s out of compliance, after the board has already voted on it,” she said.

Floyd grew up and was laid to rest in Houston. In June, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison for Floyd’s murder, which led to a national reckoning in the U.S. over race and policing.

Pardons restore the rights of the convicted and forgive them in the eyes of the law. But in Floyd’s case, his family and supporters said a posthumous pardon in Texas would show a commitment to accountability.

In February 2004, Floyd was arrested in Houston for selling $10 worth of crack in a police sting, and later pleaded guilty to a drug charge and served 10 months in prison. But the global spotlight on the death of Floyd in police custody 16 years later is not why prosecutors revisited his Houston case. Instead, it was prompted by a deadly Houston drug raid in 2019 that involved the same officer who arrested Floyd.

Prosecutors say that officer, Gerald Goines, lied to obtain the search warrant for the raid that killed a husband and wife. Goines, who is no longer on the Houston force and faces murder charges, has denied wrongdoing. More than 160 drug convictions tied to him over the years have since been dismissed by prosecutors due to concerns about his casework.

David Gutierrez, chairman of Texas’ parole board, said in the letter to Abbott that he ordered a review after the board had recommended more clemency recommendations this year than at any point in two decades. He did not specify how Floyd’s recommendation skirted the usual procedures, instead only broadly pointing to several sets of rules that Gutierrez said the board did not follow.

A number listed for Gutierrez was not answered Thursday.

For months, Abbott gave no indication whether he would grant the pardon in the months since the parole board put the recommendation on his desk. The prolonged silence raised questions by Mathis and others over whether political calculations were at play in Abbott’s decision. His office has not respond to those charges.

Abbott attended Floyd’s memorial service last year in Houston, where he met with the family and floated the idea of a “George Floyd Act” that would take aim at police brutality. But when the Texas Legislature convened months later, Abbott was silent over policing reforms pushed by Democrats and made police funding a priority.

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Texas silently begins massive voter-purge through controversial suppressive program

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Program asks people on voter rolls to prove citizenship, sparking concern that eligible voters could be wrongfully targeted, Guardian Reports

Texas officials have quietly restarted a controversial program to ask people on the voter rolls to prove their citizenship, sparking alarm that thousands of eligible voters could be wrongfully targeted.

The Texas secretary of state’s office has identified just under 12,000 people it suspects of being non-citizens since September, when the program restarted (there are more than 17 million registered voters in Texas). About 2,327 voter registrations have been cancelled so far. The vast majority of cancellations were because voters failed to respond to a notice giving them 30 days to prove their citizenship.

The secretary of state flags anyone as a suspected non-citizen if they register to vote and then subsequently visit the Texas department of public safety (DPS), the state’s driver’s license agency, and indicate they are not a citizen.

Local election officials in Texas’ 254 counties are then asked to review the names. If those officials cannot verify citizenship, they are required to send them a letter asking them to prove their citizenship within 30 days or else their voter registration gets cancelled.

After the county mailed proof of citizenship requests to 2,796 people, 167 voters – nearly 6% of those contacted – responded with proof of citizenship. The state removed an additional 161 people from the list of people whose citizenship needed to be verified, according to a county official.

“We are not confident in the quality of the information we are being mandated to act upon,” Isabel Longoria, the county’s election administrator, said in an email.

In Fort Bend county, just outside of Houston, officials mailed notices to 515 people in October. About 20% responded with proof of citizenship and the rest were removed from the rolls, according to John Oldham, the county’s election administrator. Many of the people who responded said they had accidentally checked a box during their DPS transaction indicating they were not citizens, Oldham said.

In Cameron county, along the US-Mexico border, election officials have sent out 246 letter since September, almost all to people with Hispanic surnames, according to the Texas Monthly, which first reported the program restarted. About 60 people have been cancelled so far.

After the notices went out, a married couple who had heard about the notices came into the elections office to provide their naturalization papers, even though the couple’s citizenship wasn’t challenged, said Remi Garza, the county elections administrator.

“It saddened me too,” Garza said. “People who shouldn’t have to be concerned about this type of proving citizenship felt that they had to do that.”

Voting rights groups say they are trying to better understand the process the state is using, but are concerned eligible voters are getting targeted.

“​​A US citizen voter who gets a challenge letter is understandably intimidated. And especially for naturalized US citizens, who went through an entire bureaucratic process to be able to vote, getting a letter that accuses them of being an ineligible voter is particularly intimidating,” said Nina Perales, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “People will naturally assume, based on this official correspondence, that they might have made some kind of mistake, or that they are not proper voters.”

The program had been on hold since 2019, when a federal judge ordered Texas to stop a similar, error-filled, effort that he described as “ham-handed”. As part of a settlement in that case, Texas agreed to only flag people if they registered to vote prior to the DPS visit in which they indicated they weren’t a citizen. It also agreed to reinstate and challenge voters who provided proof of citizenship, even if it was outside the 30-day window.

The citizenship check comes as Republicans have moved to blunt the rapidly growing political power of Texas’ non-white population. Texas prosecutors have sought criminal punishments for people, including non-citizens, who make voting mistakes and the attorney general, Ken Paxton, has zealously pursued claims of voter fraud, which is exceedingly rare in Texas and elsewhere.

Bruce Elfant, whose office oversees voter registration in Travis county, said his office so far has internally been able to confirm that less than 100 of the 300 to 400 people flagged by the secretary of state’s office were citizens. Most in the group had been flagged because of clerical errors, he said. His office has not yet sent out any challenge notices and is waiting for more information before it does so.

In El Paso county, state officials referred 4,000 suspected non-citizens for review, and around 300 had already offered proof of citizenship, said Lisa Wise, the county’s election administrator. The county isn’t currently cancelling the registration of any voter who doesn’t respond, she said.

Federal law prohibits officials from conducting mass voter cancellations within 90 days of a primary election. Texas’ primary is on 1 March, so the state can’t remove anyone who doesn’t respond to a proof of citizenship letter until later this spring.

Thomas Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney with the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his organization was trying to understand why eligible voters were being flagged, but it was clear “something is not going right”.

“Even if your system flags one eligible voter and threatens to remove them, that’s a problem,” he said. “If you have hundreds, and if you add it up across counties, you’re probably getting to thousands of eligible voters, being threatened with removal.”

Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state’s office said he was confident in the data.

“We’re following the settlement agreement exactly as we’re supposed to. If the counties have additional information where they’re able to cross people off the list who have in fact become citizens and they’re lawfully registered to vote, that’s great. That’s how the process is supposed to work.”

But Buser-Clancy noted that those who were able to affirm their citizenship likely only represented a fraction of the eligible voters who were probably affected.

“Those people are the lucky ones that both received the notice, like actually went through their mail, looked it up, and had the documentation on hand to send in,” he added. “What that tells you is that there’s some other percentage of people who are going to be removed from the rolls even though they’re eligible voters.”

♦Culled from The Guardian

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Money Found in Walls of Joel Osteen’s Church May Be Linked to 2014 Robbery Case

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“A large amount of money” — which included “cash, checks, and money orders” — was discovered inside a wall within the Lakewood Church amid a renovation project, according to Houston Police

A large sum of money that was recently found inside the walls of Joel Osteen‘s church is said to be linked to a 2014 robbery case, according to the Houston Police Department.

On Friday, authorities in Texas released a social media statement that police were summoned to the celebrity televangelist’s Lakewood Church on Nov. 10 around 2:30 p.m. local time.

There, police said that members of the church stated that “a large amount of money” — which included “cash, checks, and money orders” — was discovered inside a wall within the establishment amid a renovation project.

Per the Houston Police Department, burglary and theft officers responded and found “an undisclosed amount of money” upon their investigation. The funds, authorities noted, were “inventoried, documented, and left in the custody of Lakewood Church” as the money was “property found on its premises.”

JOEL OSTEEN: In a statement years ago, the Lakewood Church said that the “funds were fully insured, and we are working with our insurance company to restore the stolen funds to the church,”

Police added that evidence from the discovered checks suggests that the money could be connected to a theft report that was previously placed in March 2014. That amount was undisclosed at the time, authorities said.

In a statement, which was obtained by The New York Times, a representative for the Lakewood Church acknowledged the discovery of the money.

“Recently, while repair work was being done at Lakewood Church, an undisclosed amount of cash and checks were found. Lakewood immediately notified the Houston Police Department and is assisting them with their investigation,” read the statement. “Lakewood has no further comment at this time.”

Previously, when the initial theft took place in 2014, a church employee discovered funds were stolen from the church’s safe, a Houston Police spokesman explained to The Houston Chronicle at the time.

In a statement years ago, the Lakewood Church said that the “funds were fully insured, and we are working with our insurance company to restore the stolen funds to the church,” the publication reported.

According to local media outlets, the money was discovered by a plumber who was working on renovating the church in November.

The worker — only identified as Justin, per ABC 13 and KHOU 11 — revealed that he was the one who found the money when he called into The Morning Bullpen with George Mo and Erik.

“There was a loose toilet in the wall, and we removed the tile,” the caller said, according to KPRC-TV. “We went to go remove the toilet, and I moved some insulation away and about 500 envelopes fell out of the wall, and I was like, ‘Oh wow!’ ”

“I went ahead and contacted the maintenance supervisor that was there, and I turned it all in,” he added.

The investigation currently remains ongoing, with the Houston Police Department noting: “No other information is being released at this time.”

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